Friday, November 7, 2014

The Completely Normal Week

Is it really the end of week seven of the quarter? Yes, it is. I am astounded: that time has passed so quickly, and that I haven't always lived here. My routine has become familiar, comfortable even, despite the fact that no two weeks are exactly the same. I'm actually well caught up on my work, and I know that I'll have plenty of time over the weekend to square away the rest.

This was a completely normal week. I know, I just said that there are no normal weeks, but this was one of the calmest and least eventful weeks I have ever had. I've also been unusually exhausted all the time, and I don't know what's up with that.

Since this week there aren't any big events to report on, I might as well take the opportunity to model self-reflection (and -absorption) as I ruminate upon what I have learned about the world and myself this week.

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I am fascinated by the built environment, energy/water/transportation systems, and, er, management. I've been going to the Construction Seminar for the past few weeks and I am always utterly attentive to the speakers and their experiences. Could this be what I want to do? Manage projects, oversee people, integrate diverse specialists in order to bring a project to life?

What do I want? I want to be a brilliant, ambitious, empathetic professional who leverages her own and others' talents in service of real needs in the world. A few weeks ago I was talking about how much I want to be a young professional living in a city, but I'm also looking forward to being in the prime of my career and mentoring younger employees and having a voice in the industry and sharing best practices with other firms and...

Civil engineering makes me happy. I still haven't taken any classes in my major (hurrah for a university that will make you well-rounded whether you want to or not) and I am not going to deny that I may reevaluate my path later, but what else gets me this happy?

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Number of female, Asian, STEM friends I have here: zero.

This is weird. This is unsettling. In high school most of my closest friends were Asian girls interested in STEM (if I may say so, we formed the cultural core of our robotics team). And, come on--this is Stanford. We are in Palo Alto. Where are the other people like me?

The fact that I have no female Asian STEM friends in college may be more of a statement about me than about the university/field/departments. I have not participated in any Asian community events, and when ranking dorms I think I put Okada dead last. Why do I consistently distance myself from my race?

It might be for the same reason that I distance myself from my gender: it's not a big part of my identity. Asian, female--that's "what" I am, not "who" I am. At least, that's what I've always told myself, but I remember that when I first realized my dearth of friends like me I wandered about in a daze for a few hours, and it's still bothering me now.

My realization came after reading The Other Side of Diversity, an article by Erica Joy on her experiences as a black woman in tech. Somewhere in the article she writes, or I read, something about not realizing how much tension you're holding as a result of being a minority until you are no longer the minority--i.e. you find yourself in a community of people like you.

I had a realization like this over the summer in China, but I didn't realize until this week that it actually might be affecting me to be the only Asian STEM girl in a room. I'm not sure how, exactly, but I'm going to start paying more attention to it from now on.

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I don't know how to take praise. Specifically, it weirds me out that even now there are still people who tell me "you're so smart!" and brush off my whining about how my course load next quarter will be more difficult than for this quarter, saying, "of course you'll be fine!" I'm not complaining about the fact that I'm getting compliments, but there's always a part of me that thinks, do I deserve this?

Going into college I expected to experience cognitive dissonance and to be taken down a peg. And I definitely cannot afford the casual sense of superiority I had in high school that I'm sure was obnoxious to anyone who had to interact with me. And, of course, this is fall quarter freshman year and I'm not taking hard classes.

But I'm doing fine so far. The social worries of the first few weeks have mostly dissipated (though there will always be moments where I'll say something and then immediately think, oh my goodness I'm a freak) and there isn't so much to do that I can't compensate for the difficulty by working harder.

My job is probably easier than that of most freshman because I don't party or drink or anything. That's not to say I am a shut-in; I definitely need socialization. But my preferred kind of socialization is hanging out in the hall or lingering an hour over meals, just talking to friends.

Talking, I've realized, is my preferred mode of socialization, over "doing things." Which is weird because if you asked me I'd probably say that I don't like to talk. But I'm interested in minds and I like sharing ideas and thoughts with interesting people--and I am fortunate that I live among many of those.

I didn't realize my own need for socialization in high school. I think that was because it was built in--I saw my friends in class, ate lunch with them, did robotics and band and other activities with them. But with how many did I really talk? Four friends come immediately to mind--and lo and behold, those are the only ones with whom still I communicate regularly.

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College admissions material, especially those shiny pamphlets that flood juniors' and seniors' mailboxes, talk a lot about "fit." Which makes me a little uncomfortable because I am about to say this--that Stanford is a stupendously good fit for me.

I'm not sure if this was always that way or if I am remaking myself in the image of my school. I've talked in previous posts about the Silicon Valley ambition and arrogance and idealism. I think I was always these things, but they just feel more prominent now because they are echoed everywhere around me.

(I wonder, also: are there aspects of me that are being pushed underground because they realize they're not valued here?)

If I had to name the "buzz" on campus, I'd call it: "We're gonna make the world better." Yes, "gonna," because lack of formality seems to be a value here.

I'm not sure if I can point to any specific examples of this casualness: I've grown up in the Bay Area and have stopped noticing most of its eccentricities (though out of state friends, more perceptive, have brought regional quirks of language to my attention). I think being in-state has also helped me in my transition to college, because adjusting my mentality requires fewer steps.

Thinking about college admissions seems strange to me because I know that only a year ago, they were all that I thought about. But the whole process becomes irrelevant the instant you commit to one school. I thought I'd regret giving up Caltech but I just don't have the space in my mind to regret opportunities given up when there are so many opportunities right in front of me.

A cultural note: most of my East Coast friends applied to multiple Ivies, and that was apparently the norm. Of course geography plays a huge role, but I never felt the same expectation of "thou shalt apply to Ivy League schools" and in fact did not apply to any. In California, if someone asks you "are you applying to Harvard?" it is perfectly acceptable to laugh at them. "Harvard? No way--I'm going to be an engineer!"

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Which reminds me of an incident from Monday. We'd toured the Cantor Art Center's exhibit titled Sympathy for the Devil (okay, so I guess it wasn't a completely normal week) and I was sitting outside doing homework when a group of Chinese people in business attire arrived at the front of the museum. Two gentlemen sat on the other end of my bench and we began conversing in Mandarin.

"Are you a student?"

"Yes, a first year."

"What are you studying?"

"Civil engineering."

"Are you from China?"

"No, I'm an American."

"Your accent is very good." //this was a blatant lie but as it was told out of politeness I let it slide

"Thank you."

"So, you are going to Stanford...did you apply to Harvard?"

Okay, maybe it is not appropriate in every situation to laugh at the person asking you that question. "...no."

This is not considered rude in China, but this kind of attitude is very, very typical of Chinese parent-aged individuals and I find it tolerable at best. My parents' circle of friends is full of Chinese ex-pats who are the more sophisticated type of tiger parent (i.e. they instill values of education and learning and discipline into their kids when they're young so that we offspring become self-regulating as young adults) and college admissions has been at the forefront of their conversations the past few years as the cohort begins to go to university.

What kills me is how much pressure the parents put on their kids to get into a good school--as if that's their reason for existing. My parents are less tiger than most, and even they wanted me to apply to two extra schools last December after I found out I'd gotten deferred by Caltech and MIT (with the implication that they had expected me to get into one of those schools early). And don't get me wrong, I love my parents and I owe any success I have to their efforts, but I know that my sister's and my academic successes are not only a personal point of pride for them but also a status symbol in their circle of peers.

I am less charitable to tiger parents who did not raise me, and I have to say that all the parents who suddenly acted as if I was a real person after they found out I got into good schools did not impress me. I'm quiet and I don't have any particularly amusing anecdotes attached to me, and so they had to wait to form an opinion about me after I had been externally validated by a university's admissions office.

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College admissions results are not an indicator of your worth as a person. I have brilliant friends going to community college and I have met people here about whom I have thought, Come on, Stanford, you rejected [insert names of friends who didn't get accepted here] for THIS person?

Mostly, and this will sound awful, the people about whom I have thought this are football players. Before anyone gets mad: yes, I know there are smart athletes who would have gotten in even if they hadn't been recruited for sports. One of my neighbors is one. But Stanford does admit on athletics and on legacy, and that's a value judgment the university makes that I do not happen to share.

The other person from my school who is going here has legacy, and I think he deserves to be here. But I remember in April once people started comparing notes on who had gotten in where, there were some people who were dissatisfied about the fact that he'd gotten in. "It's because he's legacy," was the unspoken accusation. Well, I employed the services of a college counselor--does that invalidate my right to be here? Honestly, I don't know if I'd have gotten in without that help, but now that I'm here I know this school is where I belong.

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It's been a completely normal week. It is also a week that I would have dreamed about in seventh grade: me, at Stanford, having interesting conversations with interesting friends, going to art museums as a part of my class, researching fascinating topics, listening to speakers who are not inspirational speakers but inspire me with visions of my future career, questioning my path here and my upbringing and my racial identity all the rest. It is week seven of the quarter, and I am still afloat, and now I should really go to bed.

Have a good weekend.

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