Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year in Review: 2015

2015 is the first year the entire duration of which I was in college. I'd say I feel old but that's a lie.

What's this year been? Winter and Spring Quarters of freshman year. Indonesia for the summer. Autumn Quarter of sophomore year. A few indolent weeks of break (got back from vacation this morning, which is why there have been no posts the past week). Lots and lots of stuff.

I talked about race with white people. I came out as asexual and nonbinary and so began thinking more about LGBT+ issues. I continued working on Ubermadchen and am getting closer and closer to the end--although I need to step up my game if I'm going to finish before going to Berlin. I'd like to think that I grew a lot this year, and am less afraid now than I was at the beginning.

This is a self-centered post, as I'm going to talk about my own experience of the year.


Winter Quarter was probably the most difficult quarter of the year, or so my health at the time would suggest. I took a life-changing class on environmental literacy, having a lot of great conversations about environmentalism and sustainability and meeting people whose love of nature inspires me.

At the end of January I broke up with my then-kinda-boyfriend, which is something I haven't really discussed here because it involves feelings and how they just disappeared. It's not a good story. The relationship wasn't really anything--we did not so much as hold hands--but the ending of it was important because failure to do so would be gross cowardice and representative of an inability to let go of the past.

I started contra dancing and learned some swing and waltz as well, figured out that I way prefer to lead, and am working through the ramifications of that.


Spring Quarter was also very busy and yet I think I did a much better job of taking care of myself. Having determined to go to Indonesia, preparing for the summer took a lot of time and energy, and although I definitely could have handled the process better I did handle it. For me, confidence comes from a track record of doing things.

I started learning German this quarter! Which means I've been learning German for about nine months. It is a really fun language. My professor has been/will be the same for all three classes in the first-year sequence, which is nice.

Declared my major, too. Civil engineering = <3. We're going to build a better world.

Summer: I went to Indonesia for two months to work on the project that I'd been a part of for both winter and spring quarters, and I certainly learned a lot. I was not as adventurous as I could have been, and didn't really see a lot of the country. But I did gain my first work experience, met some amazing people, and saw and learned a lot.

I also realized, belatedly (as in, I should have figured this out in third grade at the latest), that I am nonbinary. In terms of what I "feel", agender is probably the most accurate, but I'm still trying to figure out the border between gender identity and presentation, and if gender is anything but performative, so for now let's just say nonbinary.

The summer also alerted me to the fact that I need to open my eyes and learn more about issues in the world. In particular, living for two months in a Muslim country has made me more aware of the need to fight against Islamophobia.


Autumn Quarter was the quarter this year where I took the fewest number of units, although I did also TA a class and work as a peer advisor for the public service center on campus re: summer fellowships. I started in on real engineering classes, and did all right, but have lost illusions of brilliance. If I've ever going to be worth anything I need to work hard.

I love my dorm. I also love being in positions of authority and think that when I have power I become kinder. I'm trying to hold on to both kindness and critical thinking at the same time. Being out in my dorm and certain other places as nonbinary and figuring out the repercussions of that, especially with my rise in aggression and the coming to light of dysphoria. Talking to more people about more real-world problems.

Writing poetry, and not as much UM as I should. Switching over to keeping my journal auf Deutsch.


The past year, I've only been home for a couple of weeks at a time, and it's somewhat more difficult than I expected. I am bad at keeping in contact with people when I don't see them in person, so I am mostly responsible for the disconnect between how people see me and how I am, and the corresponding treatment. I'm on a trajectory toward greater competence and I want to control as many aspects of my life as I can--while still facing uncertainty and the ever-present fear that I can't in fact handle things.

Being in the closet with people who knew me before college is something that I haven't properly thought of a strategy for. There are people who know I'm ace but not that I'm nonbinary, people who know I'm nonbinary but not ace, and people who know both. It is still embarrassing that it took me almost 19 years to become one of the latter.



I did not write all that much in UM this year. Finished the Innsbruck section, got them from Innsbruck to Salzburg, wrote Salzburg, got them from Salzburg to Graz, began writing Graz. 2014 took them from the Dutch Republic to England to Scotland to France to Switzerland to Austria, and this year they've just been in Austria. I was without my computer for about two months, but I also have not been good about writing during the school year.

I need to be smarter about my writing during the school year and set aside unimpeachable time to do it. Consistency matters. My Monday/Wednesday/Friday mornings are free for the first time next quarter (that's another thing--in all of the 2015 academic quarters, I had straight 0900/0930s), and I will try to get up at consistent times. So there's hope.

Representation in media has been only infrequently on my radar since my consumption of books/films has been very low. But I have friends who do think about it a lot and have got me inspecting my own works more for representation. The UM main five were pulled together with an eye to diversity, and coincidentally follow the demographics of my group of five that I've lived with both years of college--2 ace (of which 1 nonbinary) 1 bi 1 gay 1 straight, 2 (different) minorities 3 white. This probably seems like I'm trying too hard.

What did I write besides UM? I've done some thinking about other stories that are on the back burner, especially Shadow Fissure. I also know that I need to do a major overhaul of Orsolya, because the ending doesn't actually work for me at all and the plot has all sorts of holes and I don't understand politics very well but the events that occur would definitely have a wider effect than they are shown to.

Lesson: Work smarter/harder, be diligent, be ambitious, be aware.


Some lists.

Best posts:

  • Uptown Funk - Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars //Don't believe me just watch.
  • The Good in Me - Outline in Color //It's raining bricks all over this glass metropolis.
  • Squid - InnerPartySystem //Don't worry now.
  • Laughter Lines - Bastille //I'll see you in the future when we're older, when we are full of stories to be told.
  • Can't Go On - Evans Blue //I can't go on forgetting what I'm made of.
  • Fairly Local - twenty one pilots //It's the few, the proud, the emotional.
  • I've Been Thinking - The Narrative //Baby you've got faith in a smile I think others would kill for.
  • The Real You - Three Days Grace //If you're the one to run (to run) I'll be the one you run (you run) to.
  • Anna Sun - Walk the Moon //This house is falling apart.
  • BLKKK SKKKN HEAD - Kanye West //Middle America packed in, come to see me in my black skin.
  • Doubt - twenty one pilots //Don't forget about me.
  • Volle Kraft Voraus - Eisbrecher //Volle Kraft voraus!
  • La Differenza Tra Me e Te - Tiziano Ferro //La mia vita mi fa perdere il sonno sempre.
  • Burning Out - Thomston //I'm really new to this, I realize that I'm fortunate.
  • Ohne Dich - Eisbrecher //Was ist die Sonne, ohne dein Licht?

I haven't used my Goodreads account at all this year, which means 1) my control freak self is irked 2) I may be missing good things.
  • Kabu Kabu (Nnedi Okorafor) - Nnedi is amazing and the stories were mind-blowing. Loved it.
  • The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years (Chingiz Aitmatov) - very well paced, masterfully combining a lot of disparate threads.
  • Godel Escher Bach (Douglas Hofstadter) - a huge book full of interesting ideas.
  • The Iliad (Homer) - I slogged through it in freshman year but rereading it astonished me by its power and depth. Patroklos is the best.
  • The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Heinrich Boll) - read it for Deutsch Zwei and really, really liked it. Such a well-structured book.
  • Sherlock Holmes stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) - during break I reread a lot of the stories. Hound of the Baskervilles is incredible.
Closing out the year with All That is Solid Melts Into Air, by Marshall Berman. I want to get back into reading and thinking about what I read. Senior year I read a lot of short, dense, masterfully-crafted books (Frankenstein, Steppenwolf, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and I want to get back into that. So help me, I want to get back into literature.


2015 was pretty good. Let 2016 be even better.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Black Hermione

If you, like me, are a Harry Potter fan, you've probably heard that black actor* Noma Dumezwemi was cast to play Hermione in the upcoming play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. You've probably also heard that people have Opinions about it.

*My policy is to avoid using gendered terms where possible. If you think it's sketchy that the male-coded term is also the neutral/default, we can talk about that too.

JKR herself is in favor:

...and I am inclined to be, as well. But I ran into an objection put forth by the indomitable Nnedi Okorafor, writer of books such as Who Fears Death, Kabu-Kabu, and Lagoon (which is very high on my to-read list), and since her thoughts about race and representation are consistently mind-opening, I want to think about them as well.

Here are a series of her tweets criticizing JKR's response:

Here, also, is a Huffington Post article about the phenomenon of race-bending HP characters, including very good fanart.


As the HuffPo article points out, white is taken as default and reinterpreting characters as POC is a way of challenging that assumption. Fans of any race put forth versions contrary to the canon whiteness, and that's powerful. I am not alone in being a minority kid who really enjoyed HP and seeing these already-beloved characters as POC increases the resonance that they have. Representation matters--it says, you exist and your story is worth telling.

One of Okorafor's points, though, is that the story of Harry Potter did not involve a black Hermione, and that writers are doing something wrong by embracing the retroactive "brownwashing" of their initially white casts. I have no doubt that JKR's initial Hermione was intended to be white.

I vaguely recall seeing one of the black Hermione fanarts linked in the HuffPo article somewhere (probably deviantArt or Tumblr) and reading a comment that criticized the racebending phenomenon on the grounds that this was "brownwashing" and not real representation, because Hermione is never depicted as having race be an issue in the canon.

For the Potter books, I don't see this as a strong criticism, because Dean Thomas, the Patil twins, Cho Chang, etc. also don't seem to run into any trouble relating to race. At a higher level, however, this is a stronger criticism against JKR's way of dealing with race, i.e. making it a nonissue/creating an unrealistically colorblind wizarding world.

The "diversity points" that JKR has gained by saying that Dumbledore is gay and that she loves black Hermione are worth less than they would be if these characters' marginalized identities were explicitly referenced in the books. Okorafor's point that the series owes its popularity to JKR not having written and stuck by minority characters from the beginning rings fairly true.

So it is a bone, and only a bone--but what harm is being done? Themes of discrimination run everywhere in HP and seeing Hermione, or Harry, or any number of other characters as minorities ties in well with the theme.

I don't know how much weight to put into the suggestion that JKR is being disingenuous in saying that she loves black Hermione. Maybe because if she really loved black Hermione then she would have written black Hermione more clearly? I don't think, though, that JKR is claiming that Hermione was black all along, just that, given what is in the books, interpreting Hermione as black is valid.

A quick aside on authorial authority (i.e. the authority of the author). I'm dubious of its power, because once a work is out there, readers will interact with it differently, interpret it differently from how the author imagined. The boundaries of canon are also murky--is "canon" just the books, the books + the movies, the books + JKR's subsequent interviews and statements? I tend to think that only the published books are canon, and even then flexible (we see everything filtered through Harry's perspective; who knows what else might have been going on in the background?).

For me, then, JKR's approval is not necessary for black Hermione's existence. Seeing Hermione as a POC clearly resonates with a lot of people, including me, and fans don't need permission or approval from the author in order to interpret their characters in ways that diverge from canon.

However, a lot of people probably do put more weight into JKR's support of black Hermione than any other person's. So what are we to make of that?

Another prominent theme in the series is remorse, repentance, making up for past mistakes. JKR probably had a white Hermione in mind when she wrote the books. It would have been awesome if she hadn't, but that's not how it turned out. Having written and become famous/wealthy because of a series whose three principal characters are white, and seeing fan interpretations of those characters as minorities, what is the best thing that JKR could do?

A) "Stand by her white world" and say no, Harry is white, Hermione is white, go home? Or B) say yeah, I hadn't thought of them that way but it definitely could be a thing, go forth and prosper?

Absolutely, Okorafor is right that neither option is ideal. But C) say "what do you mean, Hermione has always been black, look at how she's explicitly said to be so in the books and movies" is not an option because that wasn't how the books were written

I hope to see more books coming out with explicitly minority characters. Writers standing by their nonwhite worlds > writers not standing by their white worlds. Retroactive representation < upfront representation. But still--I'm glad JKR chose option B.

Long live black Hermione!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Winter Break Week One

Apparently I have two modes of being: 1) workaholic and 2) lazy layabout who quits the nest of their blankets only with the greatest reluctance, and frequently after midday. Long live Winter Break.

I've been keeping my waking hours occupied: books, a few meetings, writing, and a great deal of wood-cutting for the competition team I'm on. With hundreds of notches to cut out of balsa wood, I've gone through several videos--including a couple of panels about climate action and a suite of videos on engineering ethics put together by ASCE--and audiobooks (first, The Hound of the Baskervilles; now I'm slicing my way through Pride and Prejudice).

Yesterday was actually a fairly active day, starting with a meeting in a relatively low-key SoMa startup hub, then working my leisurely way down the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building to the Caltrain station. I always seem to cover the same stretch when I'm in SF, and really need to expand my repertoire. On the train ride down I got it into my head to amuse myself by listing things I like that start with vowels, which range from "Architecture" and "Infrastructure" to "Eating Good Food" and "Open-minded People" and "Underwater Ruins."

I cooked dinner for my parents on Tuesday. Very simple: cut up a broccoli and one entire onion, put in a pan with oil and some salt, dump atop spaghetti along with sauce. Voila.


In the middle of high school I remember feeling incapable of making solid plans for the future because I thought that the university I chose would change my life so irrevocably that none of my plans would matter anyway. That, I think, was missing the point. The point isn't the plan, it's making the plan.

I've been thinking again about life after college. Last year I was very into this whole college business and disowned the person I was before college, and thought of little else but the monumental changes that were set into motion when I arrived on campus for orientation. I think I needed that at the time, but there will come other thresholds and I need to think of them too, and how the person I am can become the person I need to be.

Listening to the videos on engineering ethics is probably the catalyst for these thoughts. Whatever specialization I choose, I need to become a competent engineer. That means being diligent with my studies now (junior year especially, when I take almost all civil engineering core classes) and in the future (going to grad school, possibly after an interval working [?] and finding a fellowship for such so that I'm not burdened by student debt). Choosing work experiences that make me grow.

(If I'm going to grad school I should probably do research, but when? This summer will be in an internship, if all goes well. Next summer I will be even better equipped for professional work, having taken the majority of the core. Perhaps during junior year? Seems I'm in for a rough haul, but even if I am not equal to the task now, better to suffer in pursuit of something worthy.)

My ambition has almost always been to work internationally. I'm looking into minoring in German, because it looks like I should be able to do so without too many additional classes, and this summer I intend to make the most of my introduction to the German engineering industry. But I should probably also pick up a few more languages, to make my global ambitions more feasible. Improving my Mandarin is advantageous, but since I'm focusing on Deutsch right now that will probably have to come in on my own time, after I get back from Germany. Learning Spanish would also help a lot, and since my Italian is still pretty good I don't anticipate a whole lot of trouble--but again, that must happen on my own time.

I came in expecting to major in CS and that's shot. My first CS class will probably be senior year. But since when have I depended upon formal classroom instruction to learn programming? I have a mind to learn Javascript and Ruby, although again--when? If I do research I'll probably have to brush up on Matlab, and I want to keep extending my Python capabilities. More important than the specific languages is the base of knowledge that will make programming a viable tool I can deploy to solve problems. I've not yet built up that base.

What other skills am I lacking that I should build up sooner rather than later? Public speaking. I hate raising my voice but that's a psychological block that I should do away with. Leading. Staying on top of the news.

The world is going to look significantly different when I enter the workforce from what it looks like now. Here I am, complacently chopping wood and listening to the tale of English ladies with nothing but marriage in their minds, and making grand plans all the while. I'm going to enjoy this break, as much as I can; because when it ends I know I have a lot of work to do.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


As I mentioned last week, I had a rather heated discussion involving race on Monday last. One of the other participants brought it up to me on Thursday night, and I have been turning over both conversations in my head in an attempt to sort myself out on a variety of issues that have been swirling around in my head this quarter.

The main takeaway for me was a reminder to be careful when talking about race-related anything with white people, especially if I'm the only minority in the conversation. That's a position with a lot of stress and pressure attached to it (and that's unsurprising, as stress and pressure have the same units) because--well, if you're part of any minority group, racial or otherwise, you know: if you're surrounded by the majority, you don't get the luxury of being an individual. You are speaking for *the collective*.

Be aware, too, of how the stress affects you. You're probably a better person than me; when I am in a position like that, unless I absolutely trust all the people involved (and I didn't, and more on that in a moment), I don't feel safe. Vulnerable + safe = openness and deep communication. Vulnerable + unsafe = aggression. All the aggression.

I've heard and am sympathetic to arguments condemning the practice of tone-policing. Certainly injustice merits anger. But the first philosophy to touch me was Stoicism and I got it into my head somehow or another that crying is weak, that emotions are weak. It's something to unlearn, certainly, but feigning a thick skin and an imperturbable nature might help with discussions conducted "out of house." The people with whom I was speaking were all allies--even if they didn't make me feel as though they were, I know that at their core they are in favor of racial equality--and I should be able to have a discussion with them.

Unfortunately the main other participant was an intellectual devil's-advocate-playing white boy. We actually are friends, but one of the traits for which I have the least tolerance is glibness. That glibness is universally applied, but when done so towards an issue that he could plausibly not care about, the effect is to trivialize. That could be an effective rhetorical device--ironic trivialization--but my patience for white people ironically saying racist things is zero.

Am I being oversensitive? Is my friend being undersensitive? We both furnished half an apology to one another for our conduct. What I apologized for: giving no benefit of the doubt and therefore jumping straight to aggression. What he apologized for: using a method of conversation that he knew was inflammatory when doing so not only did not add to the conversation but in fact made it more difficult for other participants (i.e. me) to carry it on.

Maybe we'll take another shot at it after break.


There are some white people that I can talk to about race comfortably, and there are some--like my glib friend--for whom the task is more difficult. Girls are easier to talk to than boys, in my experience. But I did have a very productive conversation about race with no less than two straight cis white male friends in the spring, and in that conversation I felt safe enough that I started crying in the middle of it. It was exhausting, yes, but very worth it.


To go on another track--my aggression. Apparently it wasn't noticeable to anyone but me and my roommate, so I'm not letting Marcus down entirely. But it came on very quickly and very strongly and while my friends weren't being particularly fantastic allies, for a few minutes there I actually saw them as enemies, which is wrong.

I'm concerned because I've been feeling a lot more aggressive this quarter than previously, and although this is not the first sophomore year in which that has been the case (2011-2012 me had a lot of anger) I am concerned because this is also the quarter in which I am growing more into my nonbinary gender identity--which, for someone raised as a girl, means becoming more masculine. Coincidence? I wish I could say so.

I suppose the theme of this post is allyship, because my gender identity moves me into an ally position on the feminist issues that are specifically upholding femininity || feminine/female-identifying people.* And I want to be supportive, want to do no harm, present no threat, etc.

*Yeah, I and other less-feminine people do benefit from these issues, but that's not the point. We're not the point in these cases.

But I wonder sometimes if the very act of disowning my female-ness and femininity plays into misogyny. I used to be very proud to be a girl in engineering--psych, I'm not actually a girl. What does that say? I used to be a tomboy who would look down on girly things, like pink and ruffles and princesses that weren't dragons, and that came out of internalized misogyny. What I'm doing now--getting sweaters from the men's section, speaking in a deeper voice, loathing my female body (validating my dysphoria instead of brushing it off)--does not come from that core of misogyny, but the actions are the same.

And if I'm getting more aggressive at the same time that I'm getting more masculine, what message does that send about what masculinity is?

I think there is another way, and I thought about it a lot in a previous post, but I also wrote that previous post before going back to school and being in contact with a lot of people and having to interact with a lot of people who either know or do not know my gender identity. The best laid plans...

I revert to a slightly higher voice and slightly more feminine mannerisms when around certain girls. This is kind of problematic, because I think the reason behind it is because I know that a lot of girls have been hurt by males, so I want to avoid giving any threatening vibes. Is this coddling, is this misogyny masked as chivalry? I don't know. I'm somewhat harsher and more bro-like to men who are friendly acquaintances, which is an improvement on being the shy girl. I don't know many other nonbinary people but I trust them implicitly.

The same questions again. What does a good ally do? Who can you trust? How does what you say and what you do change depending on with whom you interact? Minorities--how can we engage in productive conversations on race with white people? Transmasculine people--how can we do justice to feminism and our identities simultaneously?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


Done with finals and other academic obligations for the quarter. I still have a lot to do--internship applications, putting together an information packet for my project team--but it'll go by much faster now that I can devote my time to it. Also looking forward to writing and reading more, because I've definitely been missing that.

Monday evening, I had a conversation about sensitivity in conversations that got kind of heated, because it spun off into a discussion of discourse on race. I certainly got way more aggressive than the situation merited, but I think that's worth examining rather than dismissing.

Sensitivity has two main meanings, which are related but distinct. (At least it had two in the situation.) One is awareness of things that other people may not notice. The other is the capacity to get hurt by these things that may not seem serious to other people. In conversations, the first kind of sensitivity is seen as valuable, while the second typically is not--as if having an emotional response to something hinders the conversation and is something to be dealt with on your own time.

I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about that. On the one hand, some conversations are not about feelings, and expressing feelings does not add to the conversation. I don't believe in censorship on principle, so I would not--on principle--shut down someone who was saying 1) something to which another person would have an adverse reaction or 2) someone having an adverse emotional reaction. At the same time, people are responsible for the effect their words have on others and making a deliberately inflammatory comment that is known to cause a reaction, when the same idea could be expressed more moderately and in a way that does not disrupt the conversation's progress, is a choice.

What about the person having the adverse emotional reaction? How much of the burden of civil conversation lies on them? This is another question I have a tough time with. I know I get too aggressive sometimes, and that also turns conversations that could be more open into confrontations. But when the topic is about race and I'm talking to white friends, why should I be expected to maintain the same level of emotional equanimity, when the topic is far more personal for me? Racism isn't theoretical.

I try not to be the "oversensitive minority kid," meaning I try not to rely too much on pathos when talking about race. I can construct arguments about the ills of racism that go beyond "it hurts that I'll always be seen as foreign in my country of birth because I'm not white."

Also, what is this "over"sensitivity if not a symptom of the first, more acceptable, more "valid" kind of sensitivity? When a problem affects you more directly, you will be more aware of how it plays out in more situations, including those where it doesn't seem to be an issue for other people. Usually. I internalized a whole lot of racism as a kid and consequently ignored a lot of cases of subtle racism that I now see as real issues. Being more aware of them has led to a stronger emotional reaction to them.

I don't think that people should be penalized for having an emotional reaction to injustice, or even for expressing that reaction. Certainly people are responsible for the consequences of their words and actions. But what of provocation? My aggression is problematic, but it stemmed from frustration caused by white people being flippant about racism, acting as if my anger at racist deeds I have seen hinders me from contributing logically to a discussion about racism.

In hindsight, being the only minority in a conversation discussing a conversation that happened "in-house" with white people probably wasn't a winning situation. There are conversations I will never have with a white person about race; perhaps it's an unfair double standard that everything that a white person would say to another white person should be fit for my ears as well.

I'm wondering now when I've been on the other side of the issue--recently, that is, because I know I was often insensitive in high school. What are topics that get other people more personally than they get me? Class/SES; experiences of racism that are not through the East Asian lens; family, particularly people planning to have them in the future; experience of being female/feminine-identifying; experiences of overt homophobia/transphobia/etc.; religion; culture shock; education. Basically, in what ways am I privileged? There's a whole lot of ways.

The use of the word "privileged" is often mocked. To be clear, what it means to me is the ability to choose whether or not to think about or otherwise engage with a topic. I don't have the option not to think about race, but I do have the option not to think about how differing levels of familial support and economic capability affect access to education and opportunities. That means, I suppose, that it's my responsibility to become more sensitive (definition 1) to these topics, and to respond with compassion rather than impatience when people who are affected by the topic appear sensitive (definition 2) to their discussion.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Autumn 2015 Reflections

Three finals on Monday and Tuesday, so this weekend is all studying. But I just finished making my note sheet for solid mechanics, after getting the practice final mostly correct, so I'd better write a post for the week.

I haven't been quite as self-reflective this quarter as I was freshman year, when I could feel myself changing, but I know that the way I behave at school is very different from the way I behaved in high school, or even last year. I think I am becoming kinder, and a little more relaxed, and certainly less self-conscious.

The intellectual defensiveness that I had at the beginning of freshman year is slowly being worn down, and although I still assume I will perform above average, academically, I also acknowledge that my friends are smarter than me and do not get upset when I have to ask them for help on homework. I am somewhat less disciplined, or at least proactive, about studying as I used to be--partially because I'm running harder in the day-to-day and don't have as much time to get ahead on my work as I did in high school.

The politics of my thinking are getting more and more liberal. I still think that Communism is a bad idea and that no political system that depends on changing human nature is worth considering, but I support the idea that if there is a societal shortfall somewhere--public health, for example--the government does have the responsibility to step in, or at least to provide incentives for private organizations to step in. This goes especially for cases where the system as it currently operates causes negative externalities.

(I wonder how COP21 is going to turn out.)

I've also felt more and more confirmed in my choice of major, because civil engineers can do a lot to help ease the world's problems. Building needed infrastructure, energy efficient buildings and cities, sustainable energy systems, resilient structures. My management class has also highlighted ways that the construction industry as it exists now is screwed up and inefficient and unproductive, and how that is changing. I'm eager to get started on the work and be part of the progress.

The world is not yet optimized, so build useful things.

Thinking more and more about the future, about life after I graduate. I need a Masters to do anything, so that's step one. What will I do? What will my life be like? Who will I be?

(I'm not aromantic but for some reason it's very difficult to imagine myself in a relationship. If love is a choice, and I believe that to endure it must be, why would I choose that?)

Who am I now, even? This quarter I came out as nonbinary to my friends and have been working through that. It all seemed much clearer over the summer when I took on the term agender--but I don't think I merit the term because I am playing the gender game. There is nothing inherently masculine about shirts that button left over right, and yet I feel more secure in my identity when I wear a "male" shirt.

That's an issue, I know. At the end of last year I was proud of the fact that I was comfortable in a dress because it was a sign that I was unlearning misogyny. What does it signal, then, that I can no longer touch any of the dresses in my closet? I'm starting to flinch when people who know I'm nonbinary use "she" even though I said at the beginning of the year that "she" is fine. But "they" still sounds strange--not uncomfortable strange, just unfamiliar strange.

I'm starting to uncover some patterns in my personal philosophy/the values underlying it, one of which is a preference of the mind over the body. I am no dualist, but bodies just disgust me. A philosophy that values mind over life could tread into very questionable territory, so I'm trying to define system boundaries such that I avoid being a monster.

Noblesse oblige is a central component of my philosophy of conduct--that is, power creates responsibility. I think that's one reason I'm a better human being now than I was last year: now that I have a little more power than I used to, I have greater responsibility. Power lets me be kinder--or at least, it gives kindness more meaning because there is less that I could gain from it. Or maybe I just think that power should be used to help people.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Insufficiently Hardcore

Forgoing the usual Thanksgiving post, although I have much to be grateful for, because I'm thinking about other things.

WARNING: Self-centered post ahead.


Burning Out - Thomston
I'm coming up, don't worry now
I'm too young, to worry about
Burning out, burning out

Lieutenant Sarcasm introduced me to this artist a few weeks ago, and I've been listening to this song on repeat. I identify with it quite a lot.


On Thanksgiving, as we do every year, my family went to a party with a lot of other Chinese ex-pat family friends. The food grew steadily more Western for a while in middle and high school, but has since turned a corner. Turkey is dry, and much inferior to the three kinds of fried noodles on offer.

By this time, most of us kids are in college. Some have already graduated and are working real jobs in the real world; my own sister is a senior. We spent a long time talking about college, about classes, about dorms, about the experiences we've had.

Whenever I talk to people at other schools I become more and more convinced that Stanford is easy compared to other schools. Not just because we have grade inflation--legitimately easier. I complain about school frequently and don't get enough sleep, but I'm definitely not suffering as hard as some of my friends at other schools. Of course I work hard--but if I work hard, then I will get the grades I deserve. That's not something that would be true at all other schools. I'm not sure if my brain is working as hard as other students' brains are, at other schools.

Are we as technically rigorous? I don't know. My friends at other schools seem to be doing harder math than me.

Berkeley Civil Engineering is hardcore. Berkeley civil engineers built California--and yeah, they've got numbers over us, but practically every other industry talk I've heard has had a Berkeley alum presenting. That says something.

Before long, I'm going to have to start thinking about grad school. Most of my upperclassman friends in civil are coterming, meaning they're staying an extra year at Stanford to get their Masters' degree. I think that, at this point, that's probably the default option. But I don't know if it's the best option, or the right option, and I know that since I'm a low-energy person I need to be extra vigilant about not just picking the default.

What if I applied to Berkeley for grad school? Their Energy, Civil Infrastructure, and Climate grad program fits well into my interests. What if I applied to CMU? They have a Sustainability and Green Design concentration too.

I'm happy at Stanford; happier, I think, than I would be at any of the other universities I got into. But is it worth it? Am I going to be a subpar engineer?

This break, my main task has been to prepare documents for the study abroad internship program, and I'm asking myself throughout the process, where could I possibly be useful? What skills do I have? Yeah, I can program, but I've never taken a single CS class. Yeah, I can do math, but so can a computer. Yeah, I can file papers, but so could a trained monkey. I suppose that it's valuable that I can learn quickly and that I'm not intimidated by unfamiliar software. But I do not know any kind of CAD, I have never worked in a machine shop, and I don't know BIM. These are skills that I could have learned by now that would make me useful, and I'm going to keep putting off learning them because "I don't have time."

The thing that makes me a good fit for Stanford is that I am an ambitious idealist. I'd like to think that I'd do great in a strategic or steering position, because I like finding patterns/"the big picture" and I like thinking big. But I need to be a competent engineer first.

I think a large part of my current frustration stems from my situation, now, as a sophomore who doesn't know enough. I am one-third of the way through college and I don't feel as though I know anything yet--but I have learned things, and I shouldn't forget that even though the bulk of my learning still lies ahead of me. Things kick into high academic gear for me in junior year (hello to all CEE classes). Stanford is a shiny name but it's not only a name, and it's frustrating not knowing things and feeling as though other people at different colleges are racing ahead of me--but I'll get there. Just because I'm not hardcore now doesn't mean I won't get hardcore.

The foundation is important. I'm not even close to done. I'm building.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


I'm home for Thanksgiving break, and thinking about what "home" means and how to create it under conditions of impermanence.

My family moved to this current house only about a month after I left for college last year, and the way things are panning out I won't be living in it for more than a few weeks at a time until the summer after my junior year, if then. It is on a hill, and it gets much colder than I, a creature used to living in flat places, am used to. My main sensory memory of last Thanksgiving break is being cold and feeling distant and numb and grappling with the new person I seemed to be becoming and how she (I was still a she, back then) fit into the old patterns of family and hometown.

I put up some decorations before leaving at the beginning of this year, and my cat knows to come in my room for refuge, and all my books are here. But I haven't mapped the neighborhood with my feet, I don't know how to get to the closest library or grocery store, and I don't know if this counts as home.

Of course the family members are the same--but we are all different people, even if the change is easier to see in myself than in the comparatively more stable personalities of my parents and sister. That doesn't make it less valid as a home, but it does make home a moving target.


I love my dorm. Last year I loved my hall; this year my entire dorm has entered my circle of compassion. It's a smaller dorm, with about 60% of the people in my freshman year dorm. I am close to more people in terms of both percentage and absolute numbers. It's not as white (the staff is over half black. I remember getting really excited about the diversity at in house draw).

Two months here is enough to strip me of any allegiance to my previous dorm. I seriously want to staff here when I'm a senior, because I'm going abroad in the spring so that makes for only two quarters and that just is not enough.

How can a dorm, especially one that houses only two classes of students, create such a consistent culture, such that I know that if I come back in two years it will still be a place I can call home?


Right before coming home for break, I read Neil Gaiman's Ocean at the End of the Lane. Although I didn't really appreciate it as much as I've appreciated other Gaiman books (I kept comparing it, unfavorably, to Coraline--which is one of my favorite books), something about the description of the Hempstock family home resonated with me. Home is having what you need and a little extra, in case. Home is being able to provide for yourself and also others. Home is sanctuary.


For my German final, I will be presenting on die Fl├╝chtlingskrise--the refugee crisis. I look at graphs of the numbers, read articles, become more and more afraid.

Paris may end up being the volta in public opinion. But the numbers aren't going to come down, and the world doesn't stop going, and if even Sweden is closing its borders--if only temporarily--what does that mean?

People are leaving their homes, or their homes are being removed from them--because if home is sanctuary, can an unsafe place be home? They are trying to find new homes, but along with opportunity there is fear and discrimination. Islamophobia. Distinct but related issue: Muslims in Europe. I'm terrified for them, for all of them. As a first gen kid there's particular empathy for those who were born in Europe but are from non-European extraction. They may consider it home but what if others disagree?

Who was I reading, last quarter in my German culture class? Amery. Jean Amery, with "How Much Home Does a Person Need?" I believe this was the text that talked about how identity is socially granted. Do you count as belonging to a group if members of that group do not accept you? If you are not recognized as something, does that affect whether you are in fact that thing or not?

Is home a place where you are physically and psychologically secure, where the identity you have and the identity you are recognized as are the same? I wonder if this definition is asking too much or too little. I'm not out to my parents--does that make my family not a home? I'm Asian and therefore will be seen as more foreign than a white person--does that make America not my home? But at the same time, is recognition enough? What about being a place from which you draw strength, where you can go to rest? A place can do this even if your walls are not all down.

What can one do, to create a home? Maybe actions are easier to assess than outcomes. Welcome, accept, protect, provide...and then what?

What are we building, and why, and how?

Friday, November 20, 2015


It's Friday night before Big Game and Thanksgiving break, and if I stay at this computer any longer I might succumb to my workaholic tendencies and get things done. Which wouldn't be bad except it would mean that I can't hang out with people who are leaving tomorrow.

So. That's all from my corner of the universe this week. Will hopefully have some more thought-shaped posts next week.

Go Cardinal!

Saturday, November 14, 2015


The world is feeling particularly unsafe this week. I haven't yet had the chance to process in writing everything that's been going on, so this is going to be unorganized and I'm going to say ignorant things and perhaps contradict myself. Fair warning.


Where to begin?


Fruhling in Paris - Rammstein


When people ask how week eight is/was going, I say, "Well, I had three midterms this week." And they groan in sympathy, and say "poor you," and commiserate, because we are at school and having three midterms in one week, even if one is just a take-home, is a struggle to which others can relate.

I can hardly imagine what it is like elsewhere. Three midterms? What about not feeling safe enough to go to class because other students have said they will shoot people of your race? What about shooters, and hostages in a concert hall, and a funeral bomb that barely received any coverage or compassion from the world? What about refugees who are being blamed for crimes committed by the very people who drove them from their homes?

Some of my friends have posted extensively on Facebook about the tragedies all around the world and the country, and some that have emerged in the past day have been meta-commentary about how the coverage of the Paris attacks shows the media's prioritization of white tragedy. I hadn't even heard about the bombings in Baghdad and Beirut until I heard them mentioned in connection with the Paris attacks.

A few weeks ago the sustainability community was focusing a lot on the fires in Indonesia. I was in Indonesia this summer, I know people who might have been affected, and yet I had heard nothing before and have heard nothing since about the matter, and these destructive fires have been going on for years.

Honestly--it's Paris that has me the most shaken up. Because I've grown up in America and am conditioned to feel the hurts of Europe more than the hurts of the Middle East, and I haven't unlearned that, and no matter which way you slice it, is it tragic and it is frightening. Over 100 people died while doing ordinary things in a set of organized, planned, coordinated attacks, and it has been described as the worst violence in France since WWII, and I'm terrified.

I have friends studying in Paris right now. I have friends who were going to attend COP21 in Paris at the end of the month. I'm going to be in Berlin, another major European capital, in the spring.

The attacks happened yesterday. Who knows yet how things will change?


I am scared for Muslims in Europe right now. As John Metta said in I, Racist, white people are seen as individuals but minorities are seen as a group, as a collective, and only a tiny proportion of Muslims are terrorists but fear, suspicion, and retaliation are going to fall upon a whole lot more.

(Imagine if the same reaction occurred whenever another white murderer shot up a school.)


The questions I want to spend my life answering are: how can people achieve a higher quality of life while also reining in human impact on the environment to sustainable levels? How can renewable energy and efficiency and other technologies that support this goal be brought up to scale?

The questions I have been thinking about most often this quarter are: How can I better contribute to solidarity with other people of color and other people in the LGBT+ community? How can I be a better ally and a better friend?

But not all problems are structural and not all problems are technical and not all questions can be answered by being a better person. There are not only inadequate allies, but also enemies.

I am an idealist and I want to change the world for the better and I want to do that through using technology to improve people's lives. But that's not enough, and how could that ever be enough, when people still hate and people still hurt one another and people still think other people deserve to be murdered?

I don't understand, and I don't understand, and I don't understand.


Ultimately I think that climate disruption is the biggest and most existential threat to the planet at the moment. Its trickle-down effect on geopolitical tensions and its disproportionate impact on low-income and otherwise marginalized groups also make it one of the most far-reaching problems. Normally I feel comfortable saying that but today it's difficult because there are urgent problems in the world where people have died and some people dying now has a harsher emotional impact than many people dying in the future.

What can we do?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Future Dreams

After I published my last post, I had some doubts. Is that something I want on the internet? Is that something I'm okay having people read? Part of my hesitation is that when I talk about what a freak I am, it's easy to get into a self-pitying mindset. Oh poor me. Look how oppressed I am.

Screw that. Talking about negative experiences and feelings is important, but I can't let myself get used to having that be the message I send out. Solidarity shouldn't mean that we all suffer together; it should mean that we all move forward together, so as to suffer less.

After the angsty start to the week, my mental state has improved. It's starting to sink in that I'm going to be in Berlin in the spring, and that makes me want to take a positive view of the future.


Ozean - Eisbrecher

Not particularly related to the theme but I've been listening to this song a lot recently.


But a question remaining from last time: how out am I going to be when I'm in the real world? At work? In ordinary life, I think I can get by reading as a masculine career-oriented woman. That's something that people will not challenge as much as they would challenge an ace nonbinary person.

I haven't decided this yet, and I lack information about my future bravery levels. To be reevaluated.


While in college it's easy to forget that there is life after college. All the problem sets and exams and meetings tend to inspire tunnel vision: with all these short term things demanding attention Right Now, how am I supposed to take the long view?

But I want to think about the future, because I want to be a better person in the future than I am now, and how am I going to get there if I don't know where I want to go?

This is a game of sorts: optimize future you.


Future me is working as a civil engineer somewhere in the world where infrastructure improvements are badly needed. They are young and ambitious and willing to listen and willing to learn. They are living in a city that is full of life and energy, but also has quiet places, parks and libraries and museums and public spaces, where one can walk and bike. They are working on projects that genuinely help people.

They are still moderately workaholic but are able to separate work time and relaxation time better than present me can. They read more, they write more. They talk to the people that are important to them, whether through phone or letters or emails or whatever, with greater regularity than I keep in touch with people now. They are not afraid to talk about issues of race, gender, other social issues; moreover, they are actually informed about issues that do not directly pertain to them.

They cook. (I'm hungry right now so I'm going to describe some specifics.) They always make sure to have supplies to make ramen or udon: the noodles, soy sauce, bok choy, nori, corn, an egg, chicken if I ever get brave enough to cook meat, green onions. Spaghetti: noodles again, a choice of pesto or tomato sauce, onions, broccoli, mozzarella, perhaps mushrooms. Fried rice: rice, eggs, green onions, various green vegetables, carrots, corn, soy sauce. Fake pizza: tortillas or some kind of flat bread-shaped thing, tomato sauce, cheese, onions, spinach. Caesar salad: lettuce, onions, Caesar dressing, perhaps chicken. Bok choy just by itself. Boy choy soup with egg. Scrambled eggs with either soy sauce or pepper. (I'm making myself even more hungry.) They will have an impressive tea collection.

They exercise regularly, and do it in such a way that it does not seem like a chore. Running in beautiful parts of the city. Working out while listening to aggressive music. I'm not sure, because I know what I like for food but I don't know what exercise I'd actually like. Biking everywhere sounds fun. Dancing lead at swing and contra.

They dress in a way that does not induce dysphoria. The clothes I have right now just about pass muster, but I need more masculine sweaters and I need more real person clothing.

They live in a small apartment that has everything they need, and they keep it clean and organized such that waste does not happen. Their place feels more home-like and permanent than the dorms, but still leaves open the possibility of moving at short notice to accommodate work.

They have a pet. Perhaps a dog, perhaps a cat. Rescued from a shelter, obviously, unless there are retired police dogs who need to spend their later years adored and doted upon. Why not both? The animals are well taken care of and shown all due love.

They are very likely single, and that's just how it is (empirical evidence says I'm not aromantic but I haven't ever been able to envision myself with a life partner). They will not have children, ever, but at some point they will become an aunt (? the language is really not built for people like me).

They write fantasy stories that span a wide range of settings and themes, and hopefully those stories help someone somewhere.

They read fiction, nonfiction, everything in between. History and social science, the kind of philosophy that is actually useful, ecology, physics, and so on. They have a favorite place in the library and they have a dedicated reading chair where they can curl up with aforementioned pets and relax.

They speak German, Mandarin, and Italian at a high level of fluency, and are able to communicate in Spanish and Arabic.

They get enough sleep. They remember their dreams.


A note on language: after I came out as nonbinary (and thus using "they/them") one of my friends noted that while he was happy to switch pronouns, in the first few weeks of doing so he found that "they/them" felt more distant and impersonal than "she/her." It is always a little startling when someone uses "they/them" (and I'm lucky enough to have friends who do that consistently) and not in an 100% positive way--on the one hand, "they/them" feels more right than "she/her," but on the other hand, I worry that I'm coming off as wanting to be special.

That's also an issue that crops up when I'm in a group that's doing introductions and includes preferred gender pronouns as part of the intro. In all but one case (when I was at a panel for LGBT+ students to share their stories) I've been the only nonbinary person. The nervousness and near-fear I feel when hearing that endless march of "he/him" "she/her" is not enough to make me dislike the practice--I think it's good and should be more widespread--but making the choice to come out to a large group of people who have all just been affirming that the binary works for them is uncomfortable. But that's okay. I can deal with that.

Monday, November 2, 2015


I should not have skipped both posts last week. There's been a lot on my mind, all going off at different angles and yet I think I can feel the thread pulling them together--but the thread gets caught, has knots, and sometimes, I lose track of it. It is already 0035 as I begin this post, 0035 on a Monday morning, and I should be preparing a fake cost estimate for a fake project but I need to process the past week.

Here we go. Things may get real.


I've found myself referring to myself since coming to college, rather frequently, as "freak." As in, "wow, what a freak move" when I have a particularly awkward social encounter, or, "god, I'm a freak" when listening to a group talk about something and realizing how wildly different my perspective is.

The societal default is a straight cis extroverted rich white man. I am almost none of the above (except reasonably affluent). Throw in the non-drinking aspect, too, which is one of my most unusual traits at college.

As I type this, my gut reaction is to pull back and laugh it off. Look how melodramatic I am. I know what an extreme word that is, "freak," I know I probably can't responsibly lay claim to it as a neurotypical and able-bodied person (my roommate is in femgen 101 and she's teaching me all sorts of words that I haven't considered before) when it has been used, in the past, to refer to people with unusual bodily characteristics.

But when a word has stayed with me for over a year and doesn't feel as though it's going to go away, I should probably pay attention. You are welcome not to.


At a panel of LGBT students sharing their stories, one panelist said: "I self-identify with the word 'queer' before other terms, like LGBT, because I think that it best captures my experience of otherness."

(Out of respect for other people's stories, of their other demographic traits I will only say that they are also far off the default, in similar ways to me.)

That resonated.

As a first-generation American of Chinese extraction, my upbringing was way different from a lot of my white friends'. I don't know how much of the freakishness I feel is because of my demographics and how much is just me not being normal, because certainly there are socially-adept people who have my demographic breakdown. But they certainly are related, the weirdness I am and the weirdness I feel.

One of my RAs hosted a discussion on cultural appropriation last week, and somehow the topic got onto Disney movies. I said that I don't care how inaccurate and simplified it is, Mulan is and will always be one of my favorite movies because of how it affected me as a kid, to see a positive portrayal of a intelligent Chinese girl (who pretended to be a man. Hm. Hindsight is not 20/20 but I think I'm seeing something here) who got to be way more badass than any of the white princesses.

Feeling positive about my race was not something that happened a lot. I learned, as a lot of minority kids do, to poke fun. To mock the accent, to throw my parents' culture under the bus, to make the FOB jokes before anyone else could. Don't be the oversensitive minority kid. Don't be oversensitive. Don't be sensitive. Don't.

When I figured out that I was asexual last year, I had very little angst about it. It was something that made me feel strong, superior even, special. Asian girls are sexualized horrendously and being ace, while not something that I chose or can claim any moral high ground for, feels like sticking up a middle finger to society's script for what a person who looks like me and has my DNA should be.

Figuring out that I'm not cis has been a weirder journey. I haven't claimed the term agender publicly, even to the people I'm out to at school, because...well. I'm not sure. I don't think I have a gender identity but the way I'm changing my gender presentation is moving toward the masculine end of the spectrum, and since I haven't figured out if gender can be non-performative, in general and in my case specifically, I don't know if a term as neutral as agender really works.

In the post I made about it in the summer, I used it as a declaration of "I'm not playing your stupid gender game." But I think I am playing it, now, and I have to think about how I am playing it. Because I've gotten more stereotypically masculine, in ways that are not exactly new but that haven't been relevant in a while, and I don't know how much of it is me being me and how much of it is me wanting to be perceived as more masculine and therefore adopting characteristics that are coded as masculine.

This is the same process in reverse as my reclaiming of feminine things that started the summer before college. In fact, it is undoing some of that work, and I'm trying to figure out what is right.

While I lived at home I often felt a freak because of the way I dressed. My aesthetic sense in middle school and high school was very skewed by what I saw other people wearing, and the messages were conflicting enough that I always seemed to be a little out of step with what was normal. It's kind of pathetic how much I angsted over my clothing, which I suppose means that it's kind of pathetic now as well.

Take socks, for example. In freshman year of high school I wore the long socks that I always had, except now it felt uncool because everyone else had ankle socks. So I got ankle socks, and lo and behold, by the end of sophomore year long socks had become fashionable again. Stupid, right? Except now I reserve my black socks for days when I need to kill it, because black socks feel more professional somehow, and black is a powerful color, and...I don't know. I also don't associate black socks with being in high school, which helps with the "not feeling weak" thing.

My roommate and I were looking at old high school pictures and she commented on how much more feminine I looked back then. That felt good, because it means that I'm more masculine now. But it's not enough. I feel apologetic when I go into a women's restroom because I don't want to belong and I feel like I'm intruding. But I'm not because I don't pass as anything but female. My fear is coming true: hearing "she/her" applied to me is starting to make my skin crawl.

I'm not a woman. I'm not a woman. I am not a woman.

(Does the fact that I have to say it again and again make me a freak?)


For Halloween, I dressed as Harry James Potter. I hadn't been this excited about a costume for at least six years. I stole a red and gold tie from band and tied it myself over a white dress shirt whose buttons were going the wrong way (i.e. it was a woman's dress shirt). Over it I put the gray men's sweater that I got at the thrift store two weekends ago, and over that I wore my unisex jacket with a hastily-drawn Gryffindor patch pinned over the S.

On my forehead I drew a lightning scar and on the back of my right hand I wrote "I must not tell lies."

In Hogwarts terms, I would probably best fit into Hufflepuff. Loyalty, hard work, black and gold, being forgettable. But dressing as one of my favorite male characters of all time, a Gryffindor, a hero, the Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One, of whom it is written "Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways," an exception, a half-blood, a wizard, a freak--I wanted Halloween to go on forever. I wanted to keep being Harry Potter, keep being someone whose freakishness leads to greatness.

Keep being brave. Keep telling the truth.

I must not tell lies.


It's raining now and I've been writing this for almost an hour. I am probably going to get fewer than six hours of sleep tonight. I don't care.

Over the past year I've come to several uncomfortable conclusions about myself, one being that part of my ignorance is motivated by cowardice. I'm afraid to learn about important issues because then I'll care too much and if I care, then I'll have to choose between doing nothing and doing something. Doing nothing is safe. Doing something is not. That's why I haven't engaged as much with feminism, with Black Lives Matter, with the Israel-Palestine question, etc., as someone of my education level should be obligated to.

When I realized that I was ace (last winter) I wondered if I might also not be cis, and then tabled the question until the summer. I tell people "they/them is the most accurate but she/her is okay" because I'm afraid that if I get out of the habit of being okay with she/her, then I won't be able to hide it.

I'm a goddamn coward. I have the option--for now--of staying in the closet as nonbinary and asexual. But other people get pushed out of the closet. And do I try, also, to look white to cause less trouble? No, because I don't have the option, and the dozens of people assaulted or arrested or killed for no other crime than being the wrong race at the wrong place don't have that option either. And could those performers put in cages at "freak shows" hide the ways in which they were different, out of the ordinary, unsettling?

Maybe I sound too melodramatic again--but I am scared. I am scared that I will have to care, that I will not be able to help myself from caring.

I am afraid that I will talk myself into coming out to my parents and the thought makes me sick to my stomach because they have always been the loudest voices saying "be more normal." I'm already something of a disappointment, despite going to Stanford ("and isn't that all that Asian parents care about?" hiss the voices of racist high school memories), because I've made it clear that I will never have children and will probably end up in the construction industry. If they find out that I'm not straight, that I'm not even a girl, how will they react?

I must not tell lies. But must I always tell the truth?


Happy Halloween. If only I could always dress like Harry Potter. If only it were always okay to be a freak.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Good Things

It's actually been a very good week, with far less work than usual, but I've still been feeling a lot of stress and the weekend is going to be very busy. Here, then, is a list of good things in no particular order.

1. Berlin

I got into the study abroad program for spring! This was probably the biggest source of anxiety for me this week, since all the engineers want Berlin in the spring. I have a strong interest in Germany and have been loving my German language classes, and I'm feeling lucky that this came through. The excitement has not hit me yet; but it will.

2. Writing cards

Some friends had birthdays this week so I got to write cards. I miss yearbooks, because I am much more honest and open in writing than in speech, and yearbooks provided a perfect excuse to be real with your friends about how much they mean to you, without being seen as overly sentimental. The time delay also provides distance which decreases perceived vulnerability with increases honesty. 

Tldr writing is safer than speech.

3. Tea

Starting to feel sick; tea keeps it at bay. Giving tea to ill friends is also a good thing, because actions, like the written word, are more comfortable media of love than speech.

4. Engineering paper

I like writing out my solid mechanics psets on engineering paper. It's just so clean.

5. Aggressive music

Medicine for the soul. It's been a good week, for sure, but I've needed a substantial amount of rage input.

6. Good frosh

The freshmen in my dorm are great. They are studious and calm, but also enthusiastic about a wide range of things, friendly, open to philosophical discussions, and all sorts of other fine traits. I am strongly considering trying to staff for this dorm next year.

7. Halloween

I'm actually looking forward to Halloween a lot this year, mostly because I'm dressing up as Harry Potter (which I must have done at some point in elementary school). Like most nerds I saw myself in Hermione first, but upon more recent rereadings I'm identifying strongly with HJP himself.

8. Sleep

On that note, I bid you farewell.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Autumn Awakening

On Sunday, walking around Lagunita after dinner, I felt awake.

I had a good weekend. On Saturday I finally went thrift shopping with a friend. Going off campus was excellent. Though I love my university and I love my dorm, I need to get away sometimes. I need to remember that I'm not defined by college and the person I've become since coming to college.

I made a big deal last year about my transformation, about how I didn't recognize myself after a year of college. This summer, I think I rolled back some of the changes, and this oscillation is bringing me back to who I really am.

Autumn has arrived, though my east coast friends would and do scoff at what passes for autumn in California. Overcast skies and leaves beginning to fall. Halloween. This season used to seem utterly magical to me, because of the cooler weather and the magic of a night where you could be anything, anyone else. 

Magic and sorcery and doors to other worlds. Things that have been missing from my life. Classical over romantic, Roman over medieval, but we all need some mystery in our lives. Man muss noch Chaos in sich haben.

I'm here to learn how to be a good engineer, how to solve problems that are important in the world and communicate effectively with others. I have felt my respect for the fantasy authors I used to read decrease as I realize how consistently and overwhelmingly white and straight they all are. What I've been fighting with and for since coming to college is my identity: no longer seeing myself as smart, realizing my race is actually a big deal, awakening to the reality of being asexual and agender.

Halloween lets you escape your identity. Halloween also says that it is not bad, that it is even okay, to be a freak.

I am quieter and calmer and more disciplined than I was at the end of freshman year. I no longer wear dresses or bandanas or flats on a regular basis. In these ways I am more similar to the person I was in high school.

The Peninsula is suburban sprawl from the City down. Biking to the thrift store, I could have been biking through my hometown. The air tasted the way it did in elementary school. The leaves crunched under my bike wheels the way I remembered.

I felt the way I did the summer before college: as if I could, under my own power, go someplace different.

At the thrift store, I got myself a sweater from the men's section. I put it on over a men's shirt I got in Indonesia, and felt, for perhaps the first time since I found out the term exists, gender euphoria.

In elementary school, whenever we played we made up characters for ourselves. I was always a male big cat: Tom the Tiger, John the Jaguar, etc. 

I put on the sweater and felt: this is not pretend, this is not a costume, this is who I am.

I biked back, feeling campus slowly close its arms around me, as the leaves fell and everything, liminal, changed back, transformed.

The wind was cold. I was awake.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


What is right? A friend recently challenged me on some of my moral positions, so I'm going to outline my thoughts here and try to weed out inconsistencies. 


Climate disruption threatens quality and quantity of life on earth. 

Sentience is a key criterion for determining rights, although it is not the only one. 

Noblesse oblige. 


Some results of this are that I no longer eat mammals, I care more about racism than about the poultry industry, I see zero moral wrongs associated with aborting a fetus whose brain has not yet developed, and I believe in sustainable development more than I believe in conservation. 


Known biases:

I am a secular and neurotypical human. I live and was raised in the Bay Area, which is notorious for (often blind) liberalism and technology worship. I'm training to be a civil engineer. I experience gender dysphoria. 


I rank species' importance by the maximum achievable sentience. Within species? I am trying to find a line that is not arbitrary (with scientific defensibility as a bonus) while also consistent with my moral intuition. For example: I don't believe that every organism of a species is made equal. I would rather deprive a fetus of life than an unwilling pregnant person of freedom. On the other hand, I don't believe intelligence is a valid measure of worth. 

Past a certain point of complexity, then, perhaps life has a set value. But that value can be forfeited by acts of evil. I took a class on evil last year and am still somewhat uncertain about what does and does not count. Slavery and genocide are unambiguously evil in my worldview; but what about complicity? What about ordinary murder? How much allowance can be made for circumstance?

The world has limited resources. That means that there is an optimal level of consumption that we probably have already passed. Is it moral for me to enjoy a lifestyle with adequate lighting and running water and food that is not all locally sourced and a university that holds investments in fossil fuels?

Is it moral for me to work on development projects that increase the quality of life and therefore the level of consumption in less developed regions of the world? I believe so. As I said above, sustainable development over conservation. I am probably too anthropocentric. 

All living things are important and valuable, but the highest priority for quality of life should be given to more sentient beings. Humans and other intelligent animals are capable of a larger magnitude of subjective, experienced suffering than less-sentient beings. Maybe I prioritize the mind over the body too much. (This is where my ace/nb bias comes in: I have no affection for bodies.) But our minds allow us to construct experiences, and we live not in reality but in the world our mind creates given inputs from the outside. 

Therefore, improving the lot of a human being is more valuable than improving the lot of an animal by the same amount. Getting killed for being the wrong species in the wrong situation is not, to me, of equal moral weight to getting killed for being the wrong nationality in the wrong situation--because to have a nationality that you can be killed over, you need to be part of a sentient enough species to come up with and ascribe importance to abstract concepts such as "nationality."

The numbers game makes a mockery of my ideals. Fewer humans are suffering than are individuals of all the other animals, and although I wouldn't call myself utilitarian, numbers do matter. This is a flaw in my reasoning that I cannot responsibly make an exception for, off the cuff. 


Criticism and discussion are very much welcome. Have a good weekend. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Week Three Adventures

Friends, Romans, countrypeople, it has been a week. My average sleep since Sunday has been less than six hours a night, because the work is starting up and I lost all of Saturday to football. I'm going to try to get more done this weekend, though--and I'd better, because next week I have two midterms, am presenting the project I worked on this summer at an engineering fair, and start my peer advising hours.

Freshman year was a whole lot less work.

My mind's been going all over the place this week. The angst from Tuesday is still here, but I don't really have time to angst. Just do the work, don't shirk, go all in.

Earlier in the week I was thinking a lot about dysphoria, and at some point I do want to collect my thoughts on that into a separate post. But, since I submitted my application for study abroad last night, I'm thinking about Germany and German a lot now. I need to listen to more German language media--listening to real Germans talking at speed still intimidates me and I need to get better at it. 

Then, tonight I helped moderate a philosophical discussion night with my dorm. It was great fun. I was moderating a question about obligations and what goes into determining our obligations, and the conversation ranged all over the place from noblesse oblige to biological altruism to environmentalism to family to Sirius Black to activism to Germany's push for renewable energy to...

I love my dorm and I love that we do events like this. The event was four hours of prime homework time but I don't regret signing up to moderate, not in the least. Exploration of philosophical space is exciting when it relates to real actions and situations.

Sometimes I angst about college and self esteem, and I am kind of uneasy looking at the huge pile of homework that I need to work through this weekend. But I am lucky to be here. This is worth it. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


When I was in high school, my band director's constant battle was to get us to practice more. I've been thinking recently about one particular spiel.


Doubt - twenty one pilots


The spiel:

You're all smarter than me in this room. I could never have gotten the grades you get in your classes. You're so academically gifted that in class, most of the time, you don't need to work too hard before you get it. You can probably teach the material to other students by the end of the class period.

That's great. But it's entirely neglecting the skills you need for playing music well.

Playing music is hard, and you need to practice, but that's hard too--not because it's complicated, but because it's uncomfortable. When you practice, you are faced with your weaknesses. Learning to play an instrument means committing yourself to hours and hours of mediocrity. You've got to be okay with struggling, with not being good for a while--maybe a long while.

And that's hard, because you're used to things coming easily. You wrestle with a topic for an hour and then you get it, you do some problems and you master it. But practicing isn't like that and improving is never over. If you stick with it you'll pass from bad to okay to good, even beyond. You'll like how you sound again. But you'll never be satisfied, no matter how good you get. And getting good is a hard process in the first place.

So you've got to practice. You have to learn to put in the hours, even with your weakness, your inadequacy, sitting at your side.


I'm taking more technical classes than I have previously this quarter, as part of the new normal that comes with being an upperclassman in an engineering major. It's not going as well as I had hoped.

Not that I'm doing poorly; I'm just not good yet. I'm ignorant and unobservant and lack the boundless curiosity and sharp intuition of my friends. All I have is hard work and writing skills, and I'm increasingly insecure about the depth of my knowledge. Impostor syndrome is real: I'm convinced I'm just not as smart as my friends are, that I am below average.

But so what?

Carol Dweck has done a lot of research on attitudes toward intelligence, and on the difference between a growth mindset and an aptitude mindset. Aptitude means you think intelligence is a fixed quantity; growth that, predictably enough, you can improve yourself. People who were often told as children that they were smart tend to adopt an aptitude mindset and get defensive about their intelligence. I'm one of those people and I'm trying to break that mindset.

I don't want to get comfortable with my inadequacy; complacency is always my worst enemy. But I want to be able to work in spite of, because of it. I want my inadequacy to be a thorn in my side that pushes me to action and improvement and growth, instead of paralyzing me.

As I currently am I will never achieve greatness. I will be too comfortable, too afraid of responsibility, too easy to throw off guard with a criticism. But it's not where I am that matters so much as my trajectory, and what I need to ask myself is, am I improving? Am I less of a coward, less of a layabout, less of an ignoramus, less of a fool? Am I working hard on something worthwhile? Am I learning? Am I doing what I ought to do and am I giving it the attention it deserves?

Honestly, I wanted to be brilliant. I wanted to stroll into my engineering classes and unleash heretofore unknown reserves of intellect and insight, casually to exceed all expectations and stun my peers. I want to be good, but I must become good.

I'm struggling, not terribly, but struggling. I can't back away. I can't give up. What would that do to my confidence, if I caved under at age nineteen? I need to think of future me and give them reason to be proud. I need to give future me precedent, such that when the going gets rough for them, they can point back and say, "I learned a lot then. I was a useless lump but I became steadily less useless. I proved to myself, for then and for now and for the future, that I can transcend myself, that I can improve, that I can always do better."


Sophomore year of high school I got serious about euphonium. I practiced almost every day, got shouted at in class almost every day, dug my way out of mediocrity. Dug. I have no wings, no latent flight; I have to get my hands dirty.

I'm not smart enough, now. But I can't abide this inadequacy, and I need to step up my goddamn game.

Friday, October 2, 2015

To Care or Not to Care

Somehow it is already October. That seems too fast--I just finished week two of classes. How is it October?

There are a lot of things on my mind, but none that feels fleshed out enough for its own post. I started writing something for Tuesday about attention and FOMO but then got distracted and didn't finish it. Ironic, I suppose.


Music for today:

Con Artist Culture vs. Pax Americana - Outline in Color


Attention and FOMO: trying to recruit people for my competition team. It's weird because I didn't need a lot of recruiting. Build things, learn about design, meet upperclassmen in my major. Sold. But I'm not the typical case and a team full of people like me might not be optimal. Empathy. What are my reasons for doing things, how might someone else's reasons lead them to the same thing?

FOMO for me isn't a fear of missing out on everything so much as a fear of settling for something suboptimal. I'm okay not doing stuff; I just want to avoid doing the wrong stuff. Various friends have suggested that I take a social dance class but I would have to make damn sure that I would be leading. Ten weeks of dancing as follow sounds horrible.


Why? Dysphoria. We went contra dancing on Saturday and even though the physical act of dancing follow is not unpleasant, I did not enjoy myself nearly as much as I normally did, to the point that I took the long way home and sat up in my dorm's library listening to aggressive music afterwards.

I don't enjoy negative feelings and I try to brush things off, which makes me confident that my dysphoria is actually existent. I'm angry at it, about it, in a way, because I had just started wearing dresses and skirts again, had just become more comfortable with femininity. And I don't think my problem is with femininity, but rather with things coded societally as female.

Take shirts, for example. My high school band teacher, repository of random facts, pointed out once that men's shirts have the buttons on the right side and women's shirts on the left because most people are right-handed and women were dressed by maids. Now, when I put on one of my woman-intended shirts, I feel a brief flash of discomfort. Sometimes anger. Sometimes repulsion.

What affects me? That the convention stems from women being weak and needing assistance? That I am not, am not, am not a woman? I resent my dysphoria. I used to like those shirts unreservedly. But I can't, now, not when they signal: this is a girl. This is a woman. Because those are lies.

I had my first experience of being creepily hit on yesterday and what bothers me the most is that it happened because I am perceived as a girl. Along with the usual disgust (at least I'm assuming usual? I have no experience with this) of unwanted attention, of course, but mostly, I'm angry because if I was a guy that would not have happened.

Luckily, though, I have good friends who are willing to listen and talk to me and who make me feel safe. Friends who use "they" and accept my gender confusion without dispute. Friends who make me laugh and offer advice and say to me "no, you're not overreacting, you're not crazy, you are allowed to be upset." I haven't told them about the dysphoria I've been experiencing, not yet, but I know if I want to talk about it then they will listen.


I wrote the above before heading to volunteer at a huge climate rally on campus. Al Gore spoke, and since I'm unlikely to get around to writing about it unless I do it now, here are two highlights from his speech:

In many places, electricity from solar is cheaper than electricity from coal. "That's like the difference between 32 degrees [Fahrenheit] and 33 degrees. It's not just a difference of one degree--it's the difference between ice and water."

When Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon, the average age of the people behind the mission was 26 years old. That means that when JFK first issued the challenge to America to put a person on the moon, the average age of those individuals had been 18. "They changed their lives so that they could do something incredible."

Bonus: he called the Koch brothers "knaves."

Non-Al Gore-related bonus: I had a brief conversation in Italian with some international grad students and they complimented me. I've been trying hard to do all my foreign-language-thinking/speaking/writing in German because I really want to go to Berlin in the spring, but Italian is definitely more comfortable for me and it's nice to know I've still got it.


I like finding patterns so I'm trying to find a common thread connecting the above pieces. Recruitment/FOMO, gender dysphoria, efforts to rally action on climate change. The first and last have the common thread of trying to get people to care about something--which involves pointing out why they should care and what they can do, if they care.

My gender dysphoria is more of a personal problem, one that I wish I didn't have to care about. But I do care, and pretending not to
care is dishonest. And is it really a personal problem? If I try to downplay my own dysphoria and pretend it doesn't matter, is that trivializing it for the people for whom ignoring it is legitimately not an option? Likewise, I could comfortably live in ignorance of environmental issues, but for other people, particularly those in developing countries and marginalized communities in developed countries, those problems are too obvious to be ignored.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Fighting Complacency

It's been a good first week back. Quiet...too quiet. I love my dorm, my classes are going well thus far, I've gotten to meet a lot of cool people, and I am not used to having this little Sturm und Drang. Of course, it is early days yet, and I'll probably look back nostalgically at this time when the psets start getting difficult and the midterms and projects pile on.

I don't know. I feel a lot more secure than I did last year, a lot more confident in myself and my ability to get things done. Somehow I've landed myself multiple positions of authority, which I love because my unfolded self is an authority who embodies noblesse oblige. That creates some pressure to get it together and keep it together, because I'm not a freshman anymore, there are people who should be able to come to me for advice, and I don't have any excuses for letting things get out of hand.

What I want is to be strong and reliable and there for people, which means I have to be there for myself, which means I have to get more comfortable leaning on other people too. Secrecy and bottling things up has lost the allure. I want to be able to be honest and open with my friends, and indeed they know things about me that I used to hold close to the chest.

But strong and reliable and authoritative says nothing about growth and change and progress. I'm comfortable, and that's partly a good thing and partly a bad thing. It's a sign of character development that I am capable of relaxing and that I trust my friends with sensitive information, yet too much comfort leads to complacency. Last year as a freshman I had the searching anxious restlessness built in. Yet now, major declared, four-year plan neatly laid out with contingencies for if I do/don't get into the study abroad program, I am not really in search mode anymore.

That's a problem. I don't really have space on my plate to start up something entirely new, but I need to keep off-balance somehow. I'm going dancing this weekend for the first time since June, and dancing was a way of shaking things up last year, but now I know that I want to lead and that feels more like consolidation than discovery. Maybe working out more at the gym could function as a "something new"?

Confront your weaknesses. That's what I have to do. My physical weakness, my emotional weakness, my mental weakness. I suppose that if I go all out on my classes and projects, that will count as confronting my weaknesses because honestly I haven't gotten slammed academically yet and the class load I'm taking, even though it's only seventeen units, should pose a challenge. The need to stay one step ahead of and one level deeper than the students in the class I'm TAing is also a challenge. My apathy is the enemy inside, and I need to keep on pushing myself to care more, to learn more. I have brilliant friends who are amazingly knowledgeable about their fields because they have a genuine and wondrous curiosity that I am afraid I lack.

What do I avoid? Confrontation. Conversations about topics about which I have decided my opinion (e.g. abortion). Conversations about sex. Things at which I could fail. Topics where the depth of information is immense. Difficult things. Time pressure. Physical exertion. Parties. Which of these do I avoid because of legitimate reasons, and which do I avoid because I'm afraid that I won't be enough? The answer is basically all of them, which means I should stop avoiding all of them (though not all at once--I don't want to scare myself off my plan of self-growth).

Well, I will keep avoiding conversations about sex because they legitimately do not interest me and occasionally disgust me. But I might go to some parties in order to be wingman for a friend who avoids parties not because they aren't interested (my case) but because they are nervous.

As a civil engineer, I find my imagination caught by the eternal. I'm a low energy, set-it-and-forget-it sort of person. But change is important, especially the kind of change that is progress, and I am too young to be complacent.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Starting Sophomore Year

Apologies for missing a post last Friday. I moved back onto campus on Thursday and have been keeping busy, more or less, since then. This is shaping up to be a busy quarter, so this post is going to be mostly me setting my thoughts in order and compromising my quasi-anonymity.

I'm in 17 units of classes this quarter, which is lower than my average. But the classes themselves are more difficult, probably: physics of light and heat, managing sustainable building projects, solid mechanics, and second quarter German. I'm also the course assistant for a seminar class I took last fall about modern energy resources, and will be a peer advisor at the public service center on campus. For extracurriculars, I'm still on my competition team (probably going to be co-heading construction) and in band, and will be joining the biggest student sustainability group. It is unclear, as of right now, whether or not I will return to the project team I've been on since January (the one that brought me to Indonesia this summer), since I'm trying to go abroad to Berlin in the spring and would therefore not be around for the main work quarter.

My big goals at this point are 1) become a competent and responsible civil engineer 2) finish Ubermadchen. The way my classes are set up will support goal #1 (I include environmental awareness as a subset of being a responsible engineer). I will need to carve out more time to complete goal #2. Right now I am still in the planning stage for Graz, which is behind where I wanted to be when I set out my revised schedule at the beginning of the summer. But the flow of events needs to be at least somewhat sensible, and I'm juggling a lot of different groups of people who could be causing unrest in the city. I'll need to do a lot more research to get it right, but I'm okay pushing that duty off to second draft.

More about goal #1: this is my goal, and will probably remain one of my two Big Goals until, well, I stop practicing (so in several decades). But what are my objectives for this term and year?

Term: give my classes my best effort. I trust the professors; they've been doing this a long time, and have turned out classes and classes of competent engineers. This objective is simple, though perhaps not easy, and I've got the whole "be academically diligent" thing more or less sorted by now (at least, I know how to motivate myself). Going for mastery of material instead of focusing on grades and getting assignments done is the key here, since the stakes are higher than in my high school classes. This is material I'll actually use, so I need to learn it well.

Year: the worst part of being a freshman was not being an upperclassman. I am far happier now that I can give advice and be useful to people. I'm moderately power-hungry, but I don't see this as a bad thing necessarily because I am kinder when I am in a position of authority than when I am in a position of dependence. I'm in a lot more such authority positions than last year and I'm trying to be as approachable and benevolent as possible, becoming the kind of mentor I'm lucky enough to have had and better. Unfortunately this also takes more energy than my refresh rate so I'll need to be careful not to get too drained. 

What other resolutions do I have this quarter and year? I've started being more open and want to continue being so. At a sophomore welcome for my dorm I outed myself as not cis by saying that they/them are among my preferred pronouns. I'm more comfortable with myself than I was a year ago, though I hope never to be complacent. 

This is going to be a good year. I have the power to make that happen. Full steam ahead. 


Volle Kraft Voraus - Eisbrecher


Happy birthday, Augustus!