Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tradition

This weekend, I went to a good friend from high school's Arangetram. The Arangetram is the solo debut of a dancer of the Bharatanatyam form of Indian dance, one of the most ancient dance forms. It goes back to around 1700 BCE, and used to be performed only in temples.

The performance was absolutely beautiful. I cried every other dance*. The music (live violin, drum, singers) opened a portal so that we sat in the auditorium and looked into another world, one richer and fuller and more colorful, in which an 18 year old senior in high school became gods and goddesses and the universe.

*I cry frequently at moving or emotionally charged performances. If you know me IRL and this seems weird to you, well, it seems weird to me also, especially since I don't think I cry more easily at sad things.

After the performance, my friend took the mic. "Dance is my passion," she said, "and it is also a deep way for me to connect with my heritage." She spoke about the struggle of being first-gen, about the difficulties in not being able to speak her "mother" tongue fluently, about what it meant to be able to keep in touch with her roots. Many members of her extended family were there as well and spoke about what she means to them, and what it means that she is genuinely passionate about such a traditional dance form.

It was all extremely beautiful and extremely touching. And, being on occasion a small-souled person, I found my thoughts turning to myself, and how of all that--extensive family connection, deep-seated tradition, genuine love of heritage--I have none.

-

I will know that I have attained maturity when I can speak to my parents and not feel as though I have to fight. I do not believe that they believe that I am capable of doing anything worthwhile on my own. I also believe that I internalized that view the eighteen years I lived at home, and that one of the reasons I love college is that I am on my own and they need an excuse if they want to interfere.

Undoubtedly, they support me and I would not be here without that support. But that scaffolding can get in the way, and I need to prove that I can do things on my own. The job of becoming a real person becomes far more difficult when they are ever asserting their help in ways such that I cannot refuse without being rude. I will hit a point, I know, when I do be rude and refuse unasked-for help. I will hit a point when I will argue with them. But I am too complacent, too comfortable, and I'm working toward that point but slowly.

Chinese tradition emphasizes subservience and obedience. The parents have the absolute right, and the disobedient child always comes back to the fold, repentant and reformed. Am I being immature now, for daring to criticize the people who gave me life? Am I emotionally bankrupt, for not wanting to call home? Am I ungrateful, for being angry at gestures of support?

Perhaps I am all three; but this blog is meant as an honest record of who I am and what I am thinking, and if I look back on this post later with chagrin, then I will do that.

-

For one reason or another I have never embraced my heritage. Internalized racism and a desire to distance myself from the thing that othered me. Rebellion. Apathy. Inertia. I never tried in Chinese school, took a perverse pride in my inability to conform and speak my "mother" tongue fluently. At this point, I can write Italian at a much, much higher level than I can write in Chinese. I never played a Chinese instrument, took part only reluctantly and briefly in Chinese dance at the despised weekly Chinese school lessons, stopped doing martial arts after a mediocre two years.

I have never had a deep, strong, personal connection to my heritage. Certainly I have no passion for any tradition reaching back thousands of years. I do not know many of the stories, myths, whatever. At this point in my life, I don't feel as though that is a huge loss, though I may change my mind later. I certainly felt a tug of envy as I watched my friend float across the stage, her face exultant, playing a young Krishna chased by his mother, who was about to find out that her son was an incarnation of Vishnu. And after the performance as she embraced her aunts, whose faces shone with pride and the awareness that we all shared of having witnessed something holy.

I am first-generation American, distanced from my ethnic heritage but just un-assimilated enough not to belong to wider American culture. I am atheist, and have no holy books or religious communities that connect me with a larger past. I will never have children and have a difficult time imagining myself loving someone enough to get married and join another family. Friends and mentors and companions have I in abundance, but this is lateral connection. What goes deep? What goes far? What connects deeply and purely to tradition?

Let me tell you: not my roots.

--

I've been angsting about this for a long time: here is Heritage, a poem I posted over four years ago.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Gray Days

The weather has been distinctly unlike a typical California May the past week. Overcast days, even some rain. It feels like a piece of Winter Quarter got lost and wandered into spring. Honestly, I don't mind all that much. Gray weather is enough of a novelty that I'm not sick of it, and the overcast sky matches my low energy levels. (It's that time of the quarter.)

I've been thinking about the end of the year and about the summer work that I will be doing. The university has been very good about making sure students think up-front about their summer experiences, including doing the unusual and talking about mental health. "Make sure you have a way to stay in touch with people." "Write things down." "Do your research before going."

What I wonder is what of these things would have been useful to implement or consider prior to coming to college. I am bad at keeping in touch with people and it would probably have been good for me to establish that I'd send weekly updates to my family or friends. Things get busy and anything for which time is not explicitly made falls through the cracks.

I think I underestimated what a singularity college would be. It's something I've been thinking about, on and off, for the past couple of weeks--how unrecognizable the me is that walked onto campus in September 2014, how different my life is, how differently I think about things, how the people I've met here and the experiences I've had have changed me. When I came here I thought I wanted to do civil engineering wet track (hydrology) with a minor in CS. Now I'm declared as civil engineering dry track (structures) and, if I thought I could swing it without dying, I'd go for a EE minor.

When I came here, I did not know that I was ace, I did not dance or see dancing as something in which I'd have any interest. I was in a relationship that I cannot understand, in hindsight. I could go on. I feel as though I am a different person; but am I?

In my German culture class, we're on the topic Vergangenheitsbewältigung and were talking today about the question of whether or not post-war Germany is different from the Third Reich or if there is continuity. I realize that it is somewhat silly to keep comparing myself to Germany, but I do think that as a human in possession of an overactive pattern-making device (my brain) I can be excused for finding metaphors in all places.

Then, what am I now and am I different from who I was at the beginning of the year?

Sometimes I get deja vu as I bike across campus, because I remember going here for math competitions in high school and being overwhelmed at how large the campus is, getting lost, not knowing how to get from CoHo to the Main Quad. But now I'm familiar with campus, having been here for eight months, and I'm used to it and that sometimes surprises me. What is surprising about college is how easily it swallows you, turns everything that got you here irrelevant, how quickly it becomes normal, how easy and simple it is to get lost in the bubble.

I spoke a couple of weeks ago with a former Haas summer fellow who spoke of her difficulty in reintegrating after returning from her summer work. She spoke of constantly needing to tell herself "this is no less real than that." I think I might have some problems with that, if my experience of going back to my high school two weeks ago is any indication. That was no less real than this...? But the thing is, I do think that high school is less real than college, and that college is less real than the world after graduation.

Everyone is telling me that my summer work experience will change me and I need to prepare mentally as well as logistically. People probably told me that about college too, but I didn't really internalize it, I don't think. I think I thought that going to school close to home would cheat me of character development, and perhaps it has, but I definitely have changed more, and in different ways, than I expected to.

Yet many things still have not changed. I still find angry music soothing (yesterday I presented "Rosenrot" to my German class and they liked it!). I still disappoint myself with how little I can do. I still love cats. I still find introverts easier to talk to than extraverts. I'm still self-absorbed and find that writing about my experience is the best way for me to process it. And I still think that gray days are an excellent excuse to indulge that need.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fun and Games

I'm feeling a little lost. This quarter is not as academically intensive as last quarter, and while I like not staying up until ungodly hours of the night finishing assignments, it does mean that I am on occasion confronted with an hour or two or /three/ in which I can choose what to do because I'm not scrambling to do everything right before it's due. (Not that that was me last quarter, either, but the work stream was somewhat faster.)

It's getting to that point in the quarter when I could be working on final presentations. Writing and reading are always good options.

Then there are productive-unproductive things I could do. Here is a short list:

Or talking to people. I think that after last quarter, I am much better able to appreciate now what a simple delight it is to be able to sit down to eat lunch/dinner with friends. Beyond that, I've been having a lot of scheduled conversations with people talking about the summer fellowship I have, and while some conversations are definitely more insightful than others, all are useful.

I'm trying to figure out why I feel lost. Maybe because Seismic is not active this quarter and so there's nothing that consumes my evenings. I don't know. I haven't had to write papers that require lots of research. No big projects aside from final presentations.

I still have three and a half weeks left in the quarter, almost a full month, but everyone else who is on the semester system is taking or done with finals. My high school just finished AP testing. Everything is sort of shutting down, but here I am. I feel as though I've experienced a singularity of identity somewhere along the way, because I don't really recognize the person I was one year ago or even the person I was when I got here at the beginning of the year.

Because of my fellowship, I've been thinking a lot about what I will do to reflect and process my experiences at the end of the summer, because one of my fears, shared by other fellows to whom I have spoken, is that I won't learn from the fellowship. Events tend to pass through me, as if they are or I am mist. That doesn't seem a good way to live. I've talked about this with my roommate, a girl who thinks deeply about basically everything and definitely does not go through life thoughtlessly.

Why should I wait until the summer? Something momentous has occurred to me, is occurring to me right now: my first year of college. What am I doing here? Why am I feeling lost, why do I feel empty without assignments and stress and competition hanging over me?

I worry sometimes that I'm not being serious enough, hardcore enough. People joked back in high school that Stanford was hard to get into and then easy once you were in, and then turned right around and put people who got into Stanford on pedestals. My experience has been that I probably do have it easier than friends at notoriously tough schools like Berkeley or Carnegie Mellon. My classes have not all been inspiring, and I do see people who coast and don't take things seriously.

The impression I get sometimes is that we're all still kids, without substance, not serious enough. One of the admitted students that my quad hosted said that she was concerned because Stanford students didn't seem to get a lot of big-name prestigious internships, whereas at other schools she was considering everyone got those experiences after their freshman years.

I think that what I'm doing is going to be more beneficial for me, since I'm getting to implement an engineering project in the field, but then again, if I'd seriously tried to go after the big name internships I don't think I would have succeeded. We have opportunities, we have support systems, but a lot of people choose not to go after the conventional internships and instead go on fellowships or do research or something like that.

Stanford spoils us. I worry that the ambition and arrogance that we are taught here, the sense of invulnerability, is a lie. Of course it is and the world is outside of the Stanford bubble.

In high school I thought I succeeded because I did well in the context of high school. I worry that I am making the same mistake here, that by doing okay in the context of college will make me complacent to the ways in which I am deficient as a human being. I am worried, and feeling lost, and anxiously waiting for the time when it is no longer all fun and games.

--

EDIT 05/17/2015

On My Way - Off By One

Thematically appropriate, especially because it's a song I know from being in the LSJUMB, which is seen as the epitome of Stanford frivolousness and craziness.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Going Back

On Friday, I went to my high school's spring band concert. College decisions and selections are in, everyone knows what they will be doing for the summer, and life is going on. It has been almost a year since I graduated high school.

This quarter I am taking a German culture class called Germany in Five Words. The current word is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means "working through the past." In the class it refers, of course, to the process of coming to terms with the fact that Nazism happened. But I take my coincidences where they come.

I want to investigate what it means to work through the past for me, individually, because I'm self-centered like that and I think that the narrative we tell ourselves about the past might reveal interesting things.

At the end of high school, I saw the end of sophomore year through junior year as my "turning point." I became first chair euphonium, joined band staff, took on AP Physics without the prerequisite, took on Calc BC, wrote Orsolya. I became a net exporter of mentorship.

Nowadays, unsurprisingly, I see college as the turning point, and have a difficult time, normally, remembering why anyone held me in high regard when I was in high school. What life skills did I have? The first load of laundry I ran all by myself was in the first week of fall quarter here. The first meal in which I had a more than trivial hand of preparation happened last month. Coming to college, I felt as though all my life I've been hiding deficiencies in my character and that they are coming to light one by one. Among my friends I am no longer "the smart one," I'm the one who listens well (which will no doubt shock people who knew me when), fawns over cats, and tells awful puns (that hasn't changed).

This leads to some cognitive dissonance when I come back to high school. There, I get sophomores telling me about how their AP Euro teacher is saying that no one has ever beaten my score on the final for that class, as if it is something that I should brag about. I get people asking "how's *Stanford*?" in tones for which I can see the sparkles around the name of my university.

And I cannot judge them, because in high school, was I really any different? I cared a lot about my grades. I stressed a lot over college and viewed people who went to prestigious universities with awestruck eyes. I couldn't really imagine another arc to the story; getting into a good college would be "making it." When I chose Stanford, a little over a year ago, I thought that my life was basically set.

A few weeks ago, Admit Weekend happened and campus was flooded with admitted students who were where I was a year ago. What struck me was how impressive they seemed--more impressive than most of my classmates, actually. I'm pretty sure my class didn't seem that way--but maybe we did. Maybe the reason the class of 2019 seemed more impressive was because they were more impressed with themselves, the way that the class of 2018 was impressed with itself before actually hitting campus. I've learned more humility here than I ever did in high school, and while I know that I'm capable of doing good in the world I measure myself not against the artificially low bar of high school achievement but against the impossibly high bar of what I want to do in my life.

My Admit Weekend was a fairy tale. Getting to the alumni center in the morning and finding that they had nametags for my bags. Eating lunch at Arrillaga with other admitted students, one of whom now lives on the same hall as me. Walking out of MemAud to the band playing "All Right Now." Receiving a flower from a tuba player. Eating my first dinner at Ricker dining on Thursday with Death by Chocolate. Going to a lecture on water infrastructure and walking out with my nerves dancing, knowing that I wanted to come here. Sitting in Green library and writing longhand in Ubermadchen. Waking up on the last day and seeing the flower that I had stuck in my backpack blooming. Going up Hoover Tower and looking out over the quad. Buying a jacket with the logo from the student store in Old Union. A dream. A perfect fairy-tale dream.

I love Stanford. I am happier with the person I am becoming than I am with the person I was. And I have also been more stressed, more tired, gotten less sleep, gotten injured more frequently, and felt more emotional distress here than I had before coming to college. I am ignorant and awkward and unskilled. I have not yet "made it."

I have more of a growth mindset now than I used to. I know I am not the smartest person on campus, and I'm fine with that because I know that if I work hard then I can do well. I am no one's idea of a natural people person, and I recognize that and am trying (and on occasion succeeding) to be kinder.

When I go back, I go back to a chapter that has ended. But it has just ended for me: for people still there, high school is ongoing. Many of them are, like I was, too caught up in the current arc to see the next one. I cannot say that I do not suffer from the exact same short-sightedness now. I see over high school because I am past high school. As for the rest, I am yet a work in progress. Some day, I will have done something of which to be proud.

--

Apologies for not posting at the end of last week. Lots of stuff going on.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Mid-Quarter Update

At the beginning of the quarter, I listed some topics I wanted to make sure I learned about:
  • Bahasa Indonesia
  • history and culture of Indonesia at large with a focus on West Java
  • our code for the Arduino
  • our code for the web interface
  • Raspberry Pi
  • renewable energy in ASEAN countries
  • structures/structural analysis
  • stress, strain, etc.
  • modeling software such as SketchUp, ETABS
  • Proctor compaction test
  • environmental issues
  • German Energy Transition
  • Muslims in Germany

How am I doing so far? I've barely started learning Indonesian. I've read one political history book about it and am reading another, and check the Jakarta Globe frequently. My subteam partner for the Arduino is letting me write most of the new code so that I am familiar with how it works. We're putting off the web interface stuff because it depends on the rest of the system working. The Raspberry Pi guy is working away on his own so I need to get on that. I need to read more about renewable energy in ASEAN countries.

I'm getting better at ETABS but have not touched SketchUp or done outside reading on structures and structural analysis.

The grad student in whose lab I'm working is good about explaining what we're doing to me but to be honest I don't 100% grok all of it.

I'm not doing so great at reading up about environmental issues or the Energiewende. We talked a lot about Muslims in Germany in my German culture class and I may go deeper with that for the final presentation.

-

On the whole, I do not seem to be doing great. But what I have going for me is that learning about some of this stuff will be enforced.

For my public service class, I will need to put together a final presentation that goes in depth into the history and culture of Indonesia, and, because my project involves it, renewable energy and rural electrification in Indonesia (with other ASEAN countries as context).

Each of my two German classes (language and culture) requires a final presentation. I'll pitch both to my partner for the culture class, and whichever one we don't pick can go for the language presentation. If she doesn't like either, then I'll do a coin flip and pick whichever one I hope the coin lands as. And for the other one there are plenty of articles that I can read, if I make the time. I've added the Jakarta Globe and Der Spiegel to my bookmarks on my phone, which I think will help even though it is kind of sad that that is what I see as being potentially effective.

I am currently writing most of the Arduino code, and will work on the web interface code once that is done. I foresee a steep learning curve but my partner on the transmitter team is a very effective teacher and a true bro. The Pi stuff might be trickier to get any experience with since the guy who's working on it has been working on it since the beginning of the year and me trying to insert myself would 1) decrease the time I have available for nailing transmitter stuff and 2) slow him down. I can offer my help with documentation, however, and since I'm going to be the only one of the team in Indonesia for the first seven weeks we all know that I have to know how to do things.

The structures-related stuff--structural analysis, ETABS, SketchUp--fit most naturally into our work sessions for Seismic. Unfortunately, we're not meeting as much this quarter since we don't have the pressure of an upcoming competition, and I often find myself unwilling to carve out time to work on that. So I'll have to capitalize on the meeting time we do have. I've modeled several towers in ETABS by now such that I think tonight I will ask for a lesson on SketchUp. Reading up about what makes a good structure is important; on the other hand, it is not a top priority at this moment.

A solid strategy, I think, is, later this quarter, to make a list of topics I want to read more about, get a bunch of books, and bring them with me to Indonesia.

The Proctor compaction test stuff and other things I need to know for my research comprise another knowledge area on which I will have to present. I will ask my grad student questions, parrot back the things he explains until I grok them, and articulate why we are running the tests that we are running.

That leaves Bahasa Indonesian and environmental issues as two things that are not going to be enforced by the classes and activities in which I participate. I'm going to use this site, Learning Indonesian, and hopefully since I have also bookmarked that on my phone I'll be encouraged to use it. I'll just also have to carry around my headphones more often since I don't like my phone to emit noise that others can hear.

As for environmental issues...my interest in renewable energy relates to that, and I'm starting to think that that will be my "thing"--energy infrastructure. I don't know yet. I don't think it is feasible for me to minor in EE, which would be very useful if that does become my thing, but there are quite a few cross-listed CEE/EE classes that I would like to take. I'm also going to live in a dorm next year in which many people are in the group Students for a Sustainable Stanford, and I might allow peer pressure to take me in.

There's a lot I need to learn and I haven't been doing much as I should, but I'm going to have to learn it for final presentations and project implementations. So it's going to happen; I should just get on it more than I have so that I'm not utterly miserable in the last few weeks of the quarter.