Friday, January 23, 2015

Job Anxiety

What am I going to do this summer?

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I have never been professionally employed, and I think this reflects poorly on me. I get into a lot of opportunities when the application is written, but I interview poorly and I am sure that I come across as a robot or with an off-putting blend of entitlement and self-pity. I am not a particularly considerate person, and I follow up slowly, and I forget to email people after they interview me, and in general I am often unaware and foolish.

Despite this, people who work with me on projects generally seem to get a favorable impression of me, and I am capable of working hard and being dedicated. Sometimes, I feel as though I am getting mixed messages from the world: you're awesome! You suck! You're a good person! You are a selfish louse!

On Tuesday, one of my sophomore friends was telling me how he got his summer-after-freshman-year internship, and it was basically the same way that I got my first summer-after-freshman-year-internship rejection, except he did things right and I did not. As he spoke, I noted the things we did differently when approaching this company, and fell into a funk when I realized that the differences formed a pattern of behavior, and that that means that I have been going about this wrong.

For most of the things I have applied for--college, namely--the application focuses on what you have done, on your past record. Why are you awesome? is the question these kinds of applications ask. This has not apparently worked well in finding an internship in a field about which I know nothing. The approach to take there seems to be to acknowledge that you do not know much, but to let them know about your honest passion and desire to learn.

Am I qualified to do everything an intern must do? No. But I do know, or at least strongly believe, that I can grow into it--and that I will want to.

I have gotten two internship rejections thus far. One was from the construction company that hired my friend last summer (and wants him back this summer), and I think I approached it all wrong, with the mentality that this would be my break, this would be my chance to get something squared away early on, to check the box "job offer within the first two months of school." A stupid, entitled, short-sighted mindset; and even though I wish they had said yes to me, I cannot deny that I did not deserve to get anything handed to me with those sorts of thoughts running around in my head.

The other rejection came from a startup where I had a mediocre technical interview. I think this rejection came more from a lack of skills than a personal defect on my part, because the non-technical portion of the interview went well. Though the thought also arose "ah, yes, this is my chance to work at a startup," which is still dubious.

I've applied to a few fellowships and will apply for a few more in the coming weeks. Do I expect something to come of this? Honestly, yes. I write my way into opportunities. But that's still an entitled and foolish way to think, when there are many qualified applicants competing for a few spaces, and I cannot operate under the assumption that I'll get chosen.

I need to ask myself why. Why do you want to do something over the summer? Why do you want an internship over a fellowship over research?

Because I want to prove myself. I want to learn how to operate in the real world, I want to grow, I want to become a real human being and hold real responsibilities and be held accountable. I have never been employed, can't even get hired at a flower shop, and I know that I pull back. I don't do things that could fail--sports, card games, board games, etc. I have held back from confronting my weaknesses and this will not do. Do I deserve this education if I am not going to do anything with it? Do I deserve all these opportunities if I do not take them?

When I got elected to band staff my first reaction was delight and my second reaction was panic. I did not know if I could handle it. But then, I told myself, whatever you can't do now you will figure out how to do. Damned if I am going to let my high point be sophomore year. I am better at eighteen than at fifteen, and if that statement is wrong then I had better fix it.

One time in junior year we were having a class discussion about colleges and people started saying "some people think that just because they have Stanford on their resume that they will get the job" and I do not want to be that person. I said this at the start of the year: by the time I graduate, Stanford will no longer be the most impressive thing on my resume. I will have done things, by then. I have to start now. I do not want to waste time.

We are constantly told that we have to be leaders, that we will be leaders. But I am not there yet. I am at the bottom of the heap again and I have been fighting with that fact for the past four months. Thinking of myself as a leader may keep me blind, keep me from realizing that I have to learn and grow and change. I am not a worm, but I am not optimized yet. I have to work on it. What else can you do?

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Have a good weekend.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Asians and Race Relations

Quiet long weekend. We had no classes on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

There are two things that have been on my mind: 1) the way race and racial issues are presented to elementary school children/being Asian and 2) job anxiety. I think I will talk about the first one today and the second on Friday.

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1) The way race and racial issues are presented to elementary school children, and Asians + race relations.

I am Asian, so I never feel completely sure of whether or not I should speak about racial issues. After the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, my sister posted this article, "Why Asian Americans Might Not Talk About Ferguson", which I thought well explained the weird position that Asians occupy in racial relations in the US.

I've been thinking about this problem in reference to elementary school because I have corresponded a few times by email with my fifth grade teacher, whose class I enjoyed immensely, and she mentioned that the students are going to write their MLK speeches this week; that is, speeches pertaining to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his ideas. That reminded me of how those speeches and presentations went down when I was in elementary school.

Caveat: Dr. King was incredible and amazing, and in no way do I want to discount the importance of the experiences of African Americans.

That said, it always struck me as strange that, in a town where the two biggest minorities were Latinos and Asians, whenever we learned about race it was in terms of black and white--or, often, black v. white. I remember one year, a class sang a song that went something like "everyone is black or white" and I just looked at my other Chinese friend. Where did we fit in that picture?

We are taught in elementary school, over and over, that Racism is Bad. That slavery was a massive crime and a disgusting shame, that voting rights are important, that calling people racial slurs is worse than saying "hell" or "damn." And then in middle school I get friends asking me to "do a Chinese accent" or random kids yelling "Konnichiwa" at me.

In high school I never considered going to Asian club, even laughed at the idea of having a club for Asians. We all made the same jokes--dating an Asian guy would be like selling out to your parents, band and AP classes are just Asians and whites, sushi/noodles/pot stickers/boba. My closest friends were pretty much all Asian girls, like me.

College has made me think about race to a greater extent than I have before. Race is scientifically baseless, but has such strong cultural legacy that it is still useful as a way to group together experiences.

I've encountered several comments about Asians that may or may not be Racist. "Let's not be like those Asian girls who just drink boba and eat sushi all the time." "The Koreans are the most exclusionary ethnic group on campus." "People in Okada don't mix with people outside of Okada." "Why are all the grad students from China?" "Do Asians fight over the bill so they'll be able to call in favors later, like getting into music conservatories or something?" "Are you insane or just really Asian?" "Goddamn Asian tourists."

My initial reaction is defensiveness, a desire to pull back, to play down my own Asianness. Which shows that the perception is that being Asian is an undesirable trait. If you "own being Asian," then there must be something the matter with you. You're exclusionary, stuck up, awkward and creepy if you're a guy, airheaded and cutesy if you're a girl.

Hm. As I type this post, I find myself getting angry. That's because I do not want to be thought of as exclusionary, silly, and cutesy. I want to be thought of as someone substantial and reliable and level-headed. Maybe it is only idiots and bigots who subscribe to these stereotypes of Asians, but it certainly feels as though I have to disown my race (and gender) in order to be taken seriously.

Which is ridiculous--or should be ridiculous, anyway. And yet--even in my beloved hall, watching "Avatar the Last Airbender" is cool but watching anime is freakish, and "Asian tourists are the worst."

I read a study that says that on the warmth-competence matrix, Asians fall under the category of "competent" but "cold" along with rich people, Jewish people, and female professionals. These are groups that are perceived as untrustworthy, to be envied, to be harmed under societal breakdown (see: the Holocaust).

Perhaps, then, my attempts to distance myself from my race and gender are valid as a survival strategy. That does not mean that they are not also cowardly and entirely too influenced by societal pressures.

That still does not address why issues of race at my elementary school were framed in ways that alienated the two largest minority groups or why issues of race basically never came up in middle school (except one drama teacher calling me out for acting out the stereotypical Asian parent for a skit). Or why I have thought so little about this until now.

Some questions, then:
  1. How can race relations be framed in a way that more accurately reflects local demographics?
  2. More broadly, how can we ensure that everyone's voice is represented?
  3. Do people in groups with bad reputations owe it to the group to embrace their identity and make it a thing of pride, or are we allowed to save our own skins?
  4. Is it time to dismantle race as a social marker? Is that even possible?
  5. Can I punch the next person who assumes I can't speak English?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Value of College

Today, in the bookstore, I began to read William Deresiewicz's book Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite. I did not actually finish reading, so this is not a book review, but I want to explore some thoughts the book sparked, as well as some reflections on my college experience thus far (all four months of it).

First, I should note that a lot of people at school have panned the book and Deresiewicz, saying, "Oh, isn't he that guy that got fired from Yale and is now complaining about higher education?" That sounds a lot like an ad hominem attack to me. When my classmates mock the book, I get the sense that there's some insecurity or defensiveness lying behind it, which makes me think that some of his arguments feel threatening. Therefore, I want to take the book seriously and consider Deresiewicz's arguments with an open mind.

I should note some of my potential biases beforehand, which means that this section will sound self-centered. I'm a freshman at Stanford and most of the people I know are in engineering or earth systems or another "techie" field. What this means is that 1) the idealism has not been stamped out of me 2) I'm still very close to the high school experience he describes in the first couple of chapters 3) very, very few people I know personally will (in all likelihood) go into finance or business 4) I have no idea how things work at the Ivies and globally 5) my school is one of the ones he calls out by name at times, which means I have to watch out for the defensiveness I've seen in others talking about the book.

Deresiewicz's history of the growth of the American university system interested me because of the two opposing strands of elitism he saw: the aristocratic origins, the technocratic backlash born of the Industrial Revolution. What is the purpose of college? That question, he suggests, is getting only a garbled and confused answer from the prestigious universities.

It is also a question that I want to consider in terms of my own experience (remember: if you are a self-centered person, you are allowed to use everything as a chance to learn more about your own mind). Why am I at college?

One explanation, a strong one, is that if I did not go to college my parents would disown/kill me. I'm a first generation child of Chinese expats, which tells you a whole lot about the values with which I was inculcated. (Later, when I am a little farther away from childhood, I may tackle that topic as well.) The "model minority" story does not apply to all Asians, but the contours of it sure apply to me. Education is paramount. If you don't make good grades you are a disappointment. Be smart, keep your head down, work hard.

Deresiewicz spends a lot of time criticizing Amy Chua and the style of parenting she puts forth in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I have not read that book, but I think I should at some point because I think I'd recognize some themes from my upbringing in there. (Probably to a lesser extent; my parents are way better than some others at letting me and my sister make our own decisions about what we do. Alternately, they just taught us their values so well early on that they don't have to be tough on us now.) His basic criticism is that not letting your children have minds and lives of their own stunts them emotionally and makes them neurotic and dependent.

So maybe one reason I am at college is because I have never been brave/foolhardy enough to consider not going to college. But there's more to it than that.

I have eminently practical reasons for going to college: I want to be a civil engineer and that requires a lot of high-level technical training. Why Stanford over a public school, then, given that schools like Berkeley and Urbana-Champaign have incredibly top-notch CEE departments?

One explanation: brand name appeal. After I got into my first reach school, all other possibilities collapsed. When a big-name private university is in the picture, even a great public university like UIUC gets taken off the table. After all, isn't that what we spend all of high school working towards? The best, most prestigious university? And to have that in your hand and turn it down for something that carries less status, even if the education you'd get there would still be good enough to make you eminently competent in your profession...unthinkable.

I have to admit that my internal monologue through April 2014 was "Caltech or Stanford?" with absolutely no other schools that I got into considered. I danced around my room when I got into Caltech not just out of happiness but from relief--relief that I could go to a "ranked" school, that I would not be a disappointment, that I could walk around in the last few months of high school with the "halo effect" of a good university around me. This is true despite the fact that I have brilliant friends going to community college and I know that college admissions are a game of chance and your worth is not determined by your alma mater. My choice of school was based on prestige, to some extent.

But there's more to it than that. When I visited for Admit Weekend I fell in love with Stanford, and even though I haven't felt precisely the same way since, I know I am getting things here that I probably wouldn't get at another school. And of course, most people fall in love with their university once they are there, because every university does provide something special: the chance to be independent, to take greater control over your life choices, to meet new people and discover sides of yourself that you didn't get a chance to explore in high school.

I'm getting away from the original question: what do I want to get out of college? Status, technical competence...what else?

The chance to explore different fields, to meet people who don't come from the same background as me, to be challenged on all levels, to get knocked down a peg and fight my way back up, to figure out how to direct my own day-to-day life, to be responsible and ambitious and professional, to learn about things I did not even know existed. I think I have gotten more open-minded, more willing to admit my own areas of ignorance. In college, people are a lot more open about their passions, and being around people who are in love with their field of choice and love learning more about it is inspiring.

I read a Paul Graham essay today that asks What seems like work to other people that doesn't seem like work to you? Use it as a way to figure out what work you are well suited for. I've kind of been doing that implicitly, mostly through noting when I bite my tongue when other people complain about something that I don't mind. Staying late for Seismic, organizing my schedule, doing psets early, rehearsing field shows. If you're reading that list you may be thinking, "Wow, what a nerd," and that's fine. You probably have your own list of things you enjoy that would make people look at you strangely if you admitted it. And that's fine.

I want to discover more of those things here. I want to find out the questions that will drive me through my life. My intuition says that those questions are ones about infrastructure systems and how other issues--environmental, economic, political, cultural--connect to them.

What about ideas? Deresiewicz seems--though I cannot be sure, having only read a few chapters--to think that everyone should go back to a liberal arts education and read the classics and damn the money. Honestly, I think I could make it as a humanities major, but I don't want to leave numbers and formulae behind. On the other hand, I do think that the problem with being future-oriented is neglecting the valuable parts of the past. Startup culture is strong here and a lot of my friends are critical of it: what are you really disrupting? Who benefits from this? Is this important? And yes, my life would be impoverished if I had never read The Iliad.

I like a point that Deresiewicz made, about how the activities that are highly valued in admissions used to mean something more and are now a "rain dance." Take athletics--I've made more than my fair share of potshots at the stereotype of the hulking, dumb, party animal jock who only got in because of sports. But Deresiewicz points out that athletics used to be a way to build character and courage, and I do think it reflects poorly on me that I am unwilling to get involved in any sports or games, that I avoid places of weakness, areas where I will for sure fail before getting better (if I am patient enough to make it that far).

Likewise with "service." I love Stanford but I must never lose the ability to criticize it where it needs criticizing, and I think that a lot of the "service" organizations here take a paternalistic and, in some senses, outright disrespectful attitude toward the communities or groups they are meant to serve. As far as I can tell, it was even worse in high school; but things are not necessarily that much better here.

My goal in college is to become a competent and thoughtful and well-informed person, someone with massive gravitas, who will make the world better. What am I getting from college that I could not get elsewhere? The social-intellectual community of my hall and the various extracurrics in which I take part is, I think, the most irreplaceable. Responsibility and self-management I could have gotten by moving out to do anything; chance for intellectual fulfillment could be had at home; I don't know if I could have them both, to as great an extent, anywhere but at college.

Of course, college will not be the end of my character development. But I do know that I want to get something out of this place, that I am getting something out of this place, and maybe college isn't the right path for everyone but it is the right path for me.

(The critical thoughts will, of course, continue.)

Have a good weekend.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Contra

Dawn Dancing (Sarah Davis)
I did something unusual this weekend: I went dancing.

My roommate dances a lot, and she rallied together several of us from the hall to go contra dancing with her. The contra dance is based on Irish folk dancing, I think, and mostly involves lines of dancers weaving in and out in geometric patterns.

I am not particularly coordinated, but after four years of marching band I'm fairly competent at moving in rhythm to form a larger pattern. There was a half-hour beginner lesson before the dance proper, and the band Maivish played live. I got lucky in having competent dance partners for the first few rounds, though I often made missteps. All in all, it was tremendously fun.

The people at the dance were an interesting, varied bunch. Lots of people dressed in special dancing clothes; at one point, I was dancing with a girl who had a really spinny layered skirt and when she twirled the layers made a cool visual effect. I might wear my (one) non-formal dress the next time we go; I think that would be fun.

Of course, because I am me, I cannot simply relate a fun experience and leave it at that. There must be psychoanalysis!

The biggest idea that was raised for me was that of control. Since I'm a girl I usually danced the following part, which involves getting spun around and letting someone else help you with redirecting your momentum in a lot of situations. Multiple times, I'd be dancing and my partner would try to twirl me and it just would not work because when a motion starts that I did not expect, then of course I resist. Even though being twirled is kind of fun, the way that ziplining is fun or roller coasters are fun for people who like roller coasters.

It is hard to let go, to relax, to let someone else direct which way you move. One of my dance partners said, "It might be easier if you let me carry more of your weight," because in the move called the swing the lead's hand is on the follow's back. I said, "Yeah, okay" and then continued not to lean back. Perhaps (definitely) I am more uptight than most people, but there's just something weird about not having full control over how you are moving.

Something else that was disconcerting was looking directly into people's eyes at close distance. The urge is to flinch, to look away. It's uncomfortable; it seems like something that you do only with those who are closest to you. So the other urge is to laugh and be happy and flippant and not let any of the discomfort matter.

Dancing contra involved a lot of being uncomfortably close to people, a lot of depending on people, a lot of maintained eye contact. I am bad at all three things. Most people are bad at those three things, though my perspective of myself is that I am worse than average at relating to people anyway. The dance took a lot of energy, and required about half of the recharge time as a football game. But I had a lot of fun at the dance anyway, and I intend to go back with my roommate and friends at some point this quarter, just because it was fun.

People say "do things that make you scared" or "do things that make you uncomfortable" and usually, I don't buy that. But maybe an amendment is: try things that 1) are not dangerous 2) sound awkward or uncomfortable and see if you actually enjoy them. Against all odds.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Character Profile: Louis-Auguste

It has been a long first week of the quarter, and my brain is a little bit exhausted. I had my first "technical interview" today and it was pretty informal, but still kind of nerve wracking. Lots of stuff to do at the beginning of quarter, getting back into the swing of things. My point in this spiel is that I have not had much time to iron out my thoughts, though thoughts I have had--so this post I'm going to do a character profile. That is all I have the energy left for.

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To make this more fun, I'm going to pick a random song and write about the character that most reminds me of that song.

Song:

Yellow - Coldplay

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Honestly, the character this reminds me of the most is Louis-Auguste, also the historical Louis XVI, as I portray him in Ubermadchen. I suppose I cannot shirk the responsibility that the randomization algorithms put on me, so here goes. Also, there are spoilers for parts that I have not even written, but Louis-Auguste's involvement in the main plot is circumscribed so I do not particularly mind.

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Louis-Auguste de France, Duc de Berry, Prince of France


Born 23 August 1754, died 21 January 1793 sometime in the 1800s

Louis-Auguste, the Duc de Berry, is the second son of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Princess Maria Josepha of Saxony. His siblings include his older brother Louis Xavier, King of France; his younger brothers Louis Stanislas (Comte de Provence) and Charles Philippe (Comte d'Artois); and his younger sisters Marie Clothilde and Elisabeth Helene. He is married to Princess Federique of Saxony, a second cousin, with no issue as of spring 1777.

Louis-Auguste has been overshadowed by his other brothers his entire life. He is regarded in public as an incompetent and bumbling, if kindly fool, and many of the more vicious rumors insinuate that he is impotent given that he and his wife have no children despite having been married for nearly five years.

In person, Louis-Auguste is kind, timid, and almost painfully unconfident. An intellectual, he spends much of his time in his workshop running amateur experiments and working with metal. Despite having had numerous court magician and officer magician tutors from childhood to his mid-teens, Louis-Auguste has never developed his magic very far, always failing at the simplest plant-based magics. Consequently, most regard him as a disappointment, and in fact Louis-Auguste has internalized this view.

Louis-Auguste's biggest secret is that he is deeply in love with his brother's wife, Queen Maria Antonia of France. She, however, seems not to notice his existence, and he has never been in her inner circle the way that his extraverted younger brother Charles Philippe is. In fact, among those in Maria Antonia's inner circle, Louis-Auguste is often referred to as le pauvre homme, or that poor man.

Despite his unrequited feelings toward Maria Antonia, Louis-Auguste is kind and considerate toward his wife. They often speak of philosophical ideas, and, if the rumors about their relationship did not hang over them, would be great friends. As matters stand, Louis-Auguste's closest friend at court is Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, the minister of finance, who recently implemented a number of reforms abolishing the guilds, the corvees (the practice of conscripting peasants to unpaid labor on roads), and restrictions on the grain trade between provinces.

After Emperor Joseph II of Austria visited Versailles in secret in the spring of 1777, people began to notice several changes in Louis-Auguste. After years of magical failure, Louis-Auguste presented Maria Antonia with a bouquet of magically-grown flowers to commemorate the anniversary of her marriage to King Louis Xavier. He also began to present metal-magic automaton birds for use in delivering messages around the palace and grounds of Versailles, which shocked all those who had found him insular and disconnected; while maintaining his personal workshop, he also began to sponsor more applied research for court magicians to undertake, and shocked many by attending classes at the Royal Academie of magic. Moreover, he began to take more of an interest in the affairs of state, and discussed potential reforms extensively with Turgot and with the King.

Louis-Auguste began to wear spectacles, despite objections from his brother's ministers of public opinion that he would thus be demonstrating his own imperfections and damaging the reputation of the royal family. He and Princess Federique had their first child in 1778, and by all accounts he is a devoted father, showing his daughter the affection and consideration that he was not, himself, shown.

Though years of a negative public image presented high barriers for Louis-Auguste, he was instrumental in introducing and sponsoring legislature to legalize the training of non-noble magicians, a move generally regarded as one of the most Enlightened policies of King Louis XVI's reign. His was also a strong voice in calling for increasing levels of French support for the States of North America in their war for independence from Great Britain. Furthermore, during the debt crisis of 1789, Louis-Auguste and Turgot's policies helped keep the country from falling into chaos.

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So that is my version of Louis-Auguste for you. He is actually one of my favorite characters out of the main cast of five, and I really liked writing the section in Versailles. But this Innsbruck section is not so bad.

Have a good weekend, all!