An infinite set of Russian nesting dolls | Summer 2016

If you follow this space closely (and I don’t know how many actually do, but if lah kan) you would know that I’ve been writing short posts everyday for the past month, about something that makes me happy on each day. It has been an interesting experiment/challenge so far because first and foremost, it is a level up for my discipline muscles—sometimes I’ll be half asleep and remember I haven’t written anything and then I scramble for my phone in the dark to (admittedly, hastily) publish 100 words or so.

Second, it makes me realise that I need public exposure to remain accountable… which I don’t really like about myself. I want to be able to do things I say I will do just because I say I will do them. I know if I told myself to write in my journal once a day, I wouldn’t be as good at keeping it up as I have been on this site because I know no one will see it other than me. Then again, maybe I should be easier on myself and think of this as training wheels, and perhaps I should phrase my earlier statement differently: I have learnt that making things public helps me maintain accountability, as opposed to it being something I depend on. Wah, look at that positive spin. Proud of myself. Tepuk tangan. Hair flip. Ok, enough.

Third is something I’ve realised over the past year since I started this blog: I have been writing in my personal journal less and less because I write so much here and that’s a little annoying because I write so much more personally and honestly in private. But on the flip side, I linger over each word and sentence much less (if at all) when I write in private, which means I don’t confront my writing as much as I do when I write on my blog. Each post on here takes me up to 2 hours to write because I fuss over things and re-read and abuse the “edit” button and re-write until I’m happy. I guess those are just the expected pros and cons, but attempting to balance writing in public and in private has been an interesting thing to work on and I enjoy feeling as though I’m developing myself in a very personal capacity as opposed to only at school/work.

Fourth, doing the 100 Happy Days challenge really has pushed me to see more of the upsides in things which isn’t always easy because our brains tend to bend towards whining and sighing. A girl who reads my blog, Lu (hey, am I saying your name correctly? let me know hehe) told me she heard that completing the 100 Happy Days challenge makes you a happier person and I guess I can see how it helps. It consistently and patiently lays a new brick for building good habits bit by bit everyday. I make a conscious effort to take more pictures of little happy things throughout the day to help me document and remember.

Fifth, it has forced me to confront the fact that I love writing for pleasure and could do it everyday. I previously didn’t really like saying that because I personally feel like writing comes with a responsibility to write well and… well, that’s pressure and who likes pressure? But writing everyday means that these days, I’m always “writing” on some level—most times in my head. I’m always scribbling one liners and stand-alone paragraphs which read out like they were plucked out from a longer piece in my head waiting to be birthed.

Which brings me to what I think I want to say, which is… lately (and when I say lately, I mean for the past 8 months or so) I have this constant craving for creating content. I feel like there is a book in my head, a talk show in my mouth, I feel like I see photographs waiting to be taken whenever I look around. I don’t want to sound like Kanye West on a Twitter spree claiming he’s a genius who Mark Zuckerberg should start investing in; God knows I do not share his hubris. I just can’t help but to marvel at everything: every story, every conversation, every view, every person and then feel compelled to reach for a pen, a camera and turn it into something….

…And right there’s my problem. I want to turn the things I see into something else except, what is that something? And how do I do it? How do you live in the suffocating space between feeling so inspired and so unskilled? And more importantly… why do I feel like I should/could do something, anything? Like, who do I think I am anyway, right? But then again, why not me? Isn’t that the beauty of it all; that anyone can do it? Questions reveal themselves like an infinite set of Russian nesting dolls.

For now, all I can say is that I crave creating things pretty much the same way I crave buttercream frosting on cake when I’m on a diet and the same way I pine for a cold bowl of cendol on a hot sunny Philadelphia day. I think about it when I wake up and sometimes it keeps me up at night because it feels like a sum of all the times I’m thinking of a word that’s at the tip of my tongue but can’t quite put my finger on it. To somewhat satisfy my cravings, I’ve been scouring the internet for blogs, photo essays, vlogs. It helps keep me inspired, I think. It makes me so happy to see other people creating things, materialising ideas and making (what I consider) art*. Accessible, relevant, meaningful art.

I’m sorry this post was so boring. I’m just thinking out loud and didn’t even know this post would end up here… I didn’t really think it through. Actually, I’m not sorry. Why should I be sorry? This is my site, I can do whatever I want. Wait no, actually, I am sorry, I took on the responsibility to make this site something I and other people will find meaningful and I don’t think I’m living up to that.. and now I’m doubly sorry for over-thinking out loud and for being annoying. Or maybe I’m not sorry, because everyone goes back and forth like this too and maybe you relate? I DON’T KNOW. BYE.

(I’m okay, I promise. Haha.)


*A side note: I think it’s possible that everyone creates “art” in one form or another and you may disagree, but I urge you to realise the complexity that lies in everything we externalise: from professional portraits to Instagram selfies, from poetry to Facebook statuses. I mean, let’s not get too philosophical here, but whether you realise it or not, each of those things and everything in between comprises of like a gazillion choices made either consciously or subconsciously. I am always so amazed by how a bunch of ideas and choices (lighting, composition, word choice, tone, length, size etc) make up a whole greater than a sum of its parts.

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Meh. | Summer 2016

Every morning, I take the LRT to work. It’s been a few weeks now and I’m starting to recognise some faces. The train platform is too warm, the LRT is too cold. I get to KL Sentral. I see the same shops and the same things everyday. This includes Vivy Yusof’s reality TV show advert… “Hi, saya Kim Kardashian” she jokes.  I walk to the office. It’s more or less a 5-minute walk and I pretty much take the same route every day. I fumble for my access card. I tap myself in and get to the office. Then I do random things, wait patiently for 5 p.m. and repeat all the steps in reverse order.

And let me tell you… IT IS SO EXCRUCIATINGLY BORING.

Sorry, I don’t mean to be whiny. I know last Spring I went on and on about how much I wanted/needed an internship. But it’s just like… why are the things I work for so boring? Is this what I am busting my ass at Penn for? A routine morning commute and a mundane desk job?

Yes, I know it’s such a ~Gen Y~ thing to feel this way… feeling like you’re meant for something “more” than the conventional, boring old route. People tell us this all the time in the same dismissive tone. As if to say, yeah, yeah, yeah, too bad, welcome to reality. But I, and I’m sure many of my fellow Generation Snapchat peers, just honestly find this a littttle difficult to accept. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I don’t really know.

Sometimes I look around the office thinking about all the other people who work here. I look around the train and think about all the other people commuting to work everyday. I am only interning for a few months. They all do this everyday indefinitely. They go to work, they come home and maybe spend some time with their family, go to sleep and repeat. And we all know most people aren’t like, in love with what they do. It’s just something they’ve found to pay the bills.

So while I don’t know what I want to do after I graduate, I know for a fact that I cannot spend years sitting on swivel chairs in heavily air-conditioned, white-lit rooms with the sound of clinking heels from 9-5 everyday. Um, yeah. No. Just, no. Ok? No.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to sound all entitled. I don’t believe that I intrinsically deserve to be spared of this mundane 9-5 life because I am just more special or some nonsense like that. I just know that if I really don’t want to do this, I have to figure out a brilliant plan to get myself out of it… or suck it up. Meh.

Writing on a balcony | Summer 2016

You should see this view.

I’m sitting on the balcony at work while I write this because the office is freezing and I have a bit of a cold. Ok, a lot of a cold. But it’s so nice and warm out here. There’s natural light and I can play music out loud on my laptop.

It’s Friday and I’m done with my third week of this year’s internship! Although, honestly, because they were a little… disorganised, this felt more like my first week. I haven’t been doing that much but at least I finally feel like I’m learning. Most importantly, I’m learning about being more assertive. If I don’t know how to do something, I know I can approach someone and ask them. If I disagree with something, I’m practicing raising my hand and kindly pushing back. I like feeling like I’m growing a backbone.

I haven’t done too much other than go to work and come back, but as you might have seen from my 100 Happy Days post, yesterday was Ayden’s birthday! Ayden is my cousin’s son, and currently the only member of the next generation in our family so he gets a lot of attention. We were all at my cousin’s house yesterday to celebrate his turning 2 🙂 he’s obsessed with Toy Story right now I think, so there were Toy Story-themed decorations. And he got his own little car as a surprise present! I wish you would have seen his reaction when his parents revealed the present. He was so clearly moved. I would’ve thought most children would just run towards the car screaming, but Ayden had to kinda like take a moment to process it and he walked towards the toy car slowly, but beaming, with his hands on his mouth. It was the cutest thing!

There are so many people I want to meet now that I’m home but since I’m working for the bulk of the time I’m back, it’s actually quite difficult because I find myself just wanting to spend time with my parents and sisters at night. Going out for buka puasa is kinda leceh (troublesome) and to be honest, I’m quite malas (lazy) to do that. And I always like to sleep early on week nights so going out after Isya’ is also a meh for me. So I’m a little overwhelmed because I do want to see my friends but plans to meet up tend to come all at once and I don’t know how to spread them out. I feel bad but obvs my family is priority plus I also want to maintain a certain rhythm and normalcy to being home. That is, feeling like I’m just home as opposed to home for a while. I don’t know if that makes sense.

This past week has been turbulent, hasn’t it? I don’t want to talk about it too much because I know we’re all saturated with bad news, but I just want to remind people to have faith in each other. Reach out to people you think may be affected by the news. This means muslims, people of colour, the LGBTQ community. Someone recently said to me that it’s scary to be a muslim in America, but the truth is it’s scary to be a lot of things in America and all over the world. Even here in Malaysia, it can be scary to be so many things. So if you see something, say something. If you see someone speaking with hatred against someone else because of their identity, you could say something. And it’s not just speech. Sometimes people don’t realise they discriminate against others. We can all find ways to be gentle and informed while pushing back against things like that because it really is a form of oppression.

Anyway… thanks for reading, as usual! If there are other blogs you read and really like OR if you write a blog yourself, please send me links to them! I’m really enjoying reading other people’s stuff because it inspires me to keep on writing so I’d love it if you shared some of your favourites with me 🙂  see you next week!

(By the way, since I started writing, it has gotten gloomy, started raining and I’ve had to move inside. Typical Malaysian weather.)

Oscillating | Summer 2016

I don’t really know what to write about this week, honestly! I’ve been doing the 100 Happy Days challenge, writing about one thing a day, and I feel like it’s now a little more challenging to find things to write about but I guess that makes things a little more interesting.

I’m at the office as I’m writing this because I think I have like a free hour or so… (although chances are, I probably have more than that). I just experienced something insanely odd. Okay, maybe not that odd but it felt really weird still. All of last week, I was working on a slide deck for someone here and I thought it was crap. I would literally hover over my laptop so that no one would see just what crap I was up to. Like, no joke, my back hurts. But today, I went over my work with her and she told me it was “excellent” and that I had “flare” and trusttttt me, I was so confused. I am half expecting her to come back to me changing her mind, and half hoping she doesn’t.

This is such a classic impostor syndrome situation, which I wrote about in length last week… feeling like you’re doing an awful job but you have to conceal it because if anyone finds out, you’ll be outed as a fraud. It’s also annoying, I guess. I really don’t like feeling like I’m not assessing myself accurately and being unsure about whether or not that is true.

But I’m working on it, right. Learning to just take it all in stride. I’m learning that nothing SO BAD can happen to me here at work or in school by doing a “crappy job.” And like all of us, I’m definitely also learning about myself, about playing by my strengths and managing my weaknesses. Yeah, cheesy stuff, I know. Whatever. This might be common knowledge but for example, I’ve learned that I can really only work with people once I’ve established a connection with them on some level… whether it’s by asking them about their weekend, or cracking a joke, I kinda need to feel like they’re my friend before I can really feel comfortable working with them. Some people are easier to get on with than others, but I think, or I want to believe, there’s always a way to like make things work with anyone.

It’s kinda funny to think about how stark the difference in my tone is between this week and the last but I wouldn’t be doing myself justice if I didn’t showcase how my emotional state oscillates all the time. In part, I’m feeling a little bit more on the up side of the curve because I’ve spent a lot of  time on my recent commutes reading #Girlboss, by Sophia Amoruso. It’s been in like all the MPHs I’ve been to this summer. Then, I came across a quote by her on Forbes. I also stumbled upon her podcast because she interviewed Grace Helbig (who I also love and have been a fan of for a few years!). She was everywhere and I felt like the ~universe~ was bugging me to read it, so I bought it despite being severely unamused by the hashtag in the title. Not only has it been a super easy read, it’s a really fun one too. She talks a lot about how she built up NastyGal.com by playing to her strengths and (cue some very Disney background music) believing in herself. It’s trite. Sure, I’ll give you that. But it was still really helpful and more importantly, assuring. And I know it’s a good book when I furiously reach for my journal to scribble down some of my favourite excerpts.

“I often wondered, Was this a choice? Because it sure as hell doesn’t always feel like it. But I did choose it—even if growing a huge business was never my singular goal, every small choice that I made along the way was something that contributed to where I am now. Every time I got up in the morning instead of saying “screw it” and sleeping in, every time I spent a few extra minutes on a product description to make it perfect, I was choosing my fate and sowing the seeds of my future.”

Sophia Amoruso, #Girlboss

And it’s the little (trite) things like this that chips away at my “impostor syndrome.” That is progress, however small. It’s worth mentioning that this progress can always be undone, and so many times it has been. Sometimes I take one step forward and then take three steps back, but sometimes I’d take a couple of steps back and then ten strides ahead. That’s just all part of the process, and remembering that makes the lows not feel so bad and the highs not get to my head.

Impostor | Summer 2016

There is a specific part of my Penn interview I can recall very clearly, and that is because I think about it all the time. My interviewer was a Penn alum, an American living in Malaysia. He worked at the U.S. Embassy in KL. We sat across each other by the window of Starbucks in Great Eastern Mall. I wore a yellow cardigan from Primark, and I had an iced green tea latte.

I can’t remember much. It was a decent, relaxed conversation. Nothing too exciting or stressful. I don’t know if this was usual of Penn admission interviews, but I would compare it to small talk at a family gathering. We talked about what I did in the time between completing my A Levels and getting into college. We talked about what I did for fun. We talked about why I wanted to go to Penn and what my parents do for a living.

This, I remember so clearly.

I told him my dad does corporate training and consulting–or something like that. He asked who my dad does training for. Among others, I mentioned Bank Negara. Now, looking back, I question the validity of this memory a little, but as I remember it, his expression kind of changed. He said, “Oh! The governor, Zeti Aziz, went to Wharton, didn’t she?”

And then I feel like the conversation got a lot better. It wasn’t necessarily bad before, but I just feel like it got better. So, when I found out I got into Penn, I attributed it to the fact that a) MARA was paying full tuition for me, b) I had a good interview and c) diversity.

I know this is a long-winded story, but bear with me. The thing about those facts is that I know I could get a MARA convertible loan because I have bumiputera status and I felt I had a good interview because I have an insanely loose association with Zeti Aziz, Wharton-grad and Bank Negara Governor extraordinaire. So I always felt like I got into Penn by slipping through some crack. I honestly still do, all the time. I feel like I’m an impostor. A fraud.

I think some people name drop Penn often, because it’s like spraying perfume in public, hoping everyone gets a whiff of the prestige that comes with an Ivy League institution. But while I am definitely proud of it, I feel like I don’t deserve it at all and am just free riding on the positive connotations that come with it.

Today at work, my supervisor introduced me to another guy who had spent a significant amount of time in North America, and is familiar with Penn and its reputation. My boss said, “Nur Dayana goes to UPenn” and the other guy turns immediately, saying “oh, so you’re really smart!”

Me, in my head: ughhh craaapppp.

I do not like it when people expect me to be smart because I really don’t think I am, and I haven’t thought of myself as smart in ages. I think of myself as lucky. Just extraordinarily lucky for a prolonged period of time.

I got through secondary school with good grades because the Malaysian education has an oversimplified syllabus. I made it through A Levels because my teachers spoon-fed me and held my hand through it all. I got into Penn because of all of these reasons and I mentioned the governor in my interview. I got my positions in clubs and organisations on campus because those interviews and applications are kind of a joke. I got all my internships because my dad knew someone who knew someone. Stroke after stroke of luck.

The thing about this is that I’ve spent years watching my back, hoping no one realizes I have made it this far by a little act of miracle. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that God is the best of planners and I’m not really questioning my fate, if that makes sense. I just sometimes feel I am in places far, far, far beyond where I think I deserve to be and I’m scared people will find out and be frustrated with or angry at me. What’s more, I even feel guilty for “taking” this opportunity from someone who might have deserved it more and then not making the most of my chance.

When I wasn’t sure if I could handle an intro level literature class in sophomore spring, I spoke to Professor Esty about it and he quickly dismissed my fears saying that if I got into Penn, I could surely handle the class… but I thought, “ok, clearly he doesn’t know that in school we read a less-than-a-hundred page version of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ with large font and pictures.” If someone compliments me for doing a good job, I sometimes think “someone could have sneezed and accidentally done a better job than I did.” When someone uses an acronym I don’t know, I take a mental note of it and Google it later instead of just coming straight out and asking them what the hell they are talking about. I try to only make phone calls in private, because I am scared that someone will notice how inarticulate and incoherent I am when I speak. I also go to the bathroom or walk past someone’s desk or office 5 times before I have the guts to go in because I am scared they’ll get annoyed that I have a question to ask. I have pretty much stopped putting myself out there and volunteering myself for tasks because I think even my offer to try would be an over-promise preceding an under-delivery. When someone complains about how badly they’re doing in a class I just sigh and go like “oh yeah I know how that feels” but in my mind, I am one-upping them going, “wow if you knew how dumb am…”

So I feel like I’m hiding so much all the time. I’ve spent way too much time with a racing heart, sweaty palms and a straight face to keep the anxiety undercover. Because I go to Penn. I’m supposed to know all of this and I’m supposed to act like it. And if I don’t, I know (I just know) they’ll be thinking “wow how did she get into Penn?”

Anyway, I’ve just been thinking about all of this lately because I’m at my third internship this summer and every year, I have to deal with this “impostor syndrome” all over again. This happens all the time. In every internship. In every class. Someone gives me instructions and I think I understand until I try to do it and realise I have no clue. So after some convincing myself, I go and ask for clarification and when they seem remotely annoyed or disappointed, I immediately retract and abort mission, thinking “Oh no. They’re onto me. They’re going to find out I’m a fraud. Run.

“[The impostor syndrome is] always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You feel as if you’ve flown under the radar, been lucky or that they just like you. If you dismiss your accomplishments and abilities, you’re left with one conclusion: That you’ve fooled them.”

Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women

Because I’ve dealt with this for so long, I have gotten so used to the impulse to run away (side note: this is one of the reasons why Princess Diaries is like, my all time favourite movie). I have gotten so used to wanting to run away from things that make me anxious that over time, I’ve stopped even approaching big things. “What’s the point?” I would think, “why try?”

I don’t know if I’ve written about this, but last December, I was at Heathrow Airport, queueing in line at immigration. If you’ve never been to Heathrow, the immigration queue is usually super long so they need a lot of immigration counters. They have so many counters that you might not be able to see which ones are free even from the front of the line. When I was there, it was fairly busy, so one lady stood at the front of the queue. Her job was to monitor the counters and direct people to the open ones. I saw her and I was like “now that’s a job I can do.”

You see, during this time, I was applying for a consulting internship and I felt super intimidated and discouraged by it. I didn’t really know how to do case interviews, I didn’t think I had what it would take. And as I so often have, I just craved to do something I already knew how to do.

Somehow, over time, I’ve begun to raise my hand less, retreating further into my comfort zone. People always ask me what I’ve gotten out of Penn and I don’t really know yet, but I think I’ve lost barrels of confidence. And it’s not just confidence. Lack of confidence was when I was in school and maybe I knew the answer but might not have wanted to say it. This is… I know that I don’t know anything. Or at least I think I know that I don’t know? I am never sure.

The other distressing thing is feeling like I’ve lost the ability to accurately assess myself and getting used to staying silent, so much so that I don’t like the sound of my voice in open spaces, the sound of my footsteps in quiet places… almost like I’m trying so hard to hide that I am aspiring to be invisible.

Recently, I took a test of the Impostor Syndrome and scored 83% which “means the respondent often has intense [Impostor Phenomenon] experiences” and I was just like “hahahaha yep pretty much.” But I myself will be the first to recognise how that is so deeply problematic. Trust me, I know, I truly know, that I can’t always just do things I already know how to do. I mean, I totally could. That’s easy. But I guess I’d never learn anything new, which I shouldn’t be and am not okay with. All of this just means I need to reconcile my fear and my ambition, and not run even when I am scared (unless there’s a cat, in which case, I will always run by all means).

And I don’t mean to scare anyone going abroad to study, starting a new job, trying new things or anything like that. Because I think if we know we think these things and feel this way, we can at least do something about it. It’s hard, of course. But I am a firm believer of consistently taking baby steps. With that said, I think I’ve gotten a little better at managing this feeling. And if you’ve felt this way, maybe you could tell me how you deal with it (or we could just talk about how much it sucks together) but I’ve done some of these things:

  1. I ask myself, “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” and I would sometimes go so far as to imagine that someone gets so mad at me for being so incompetent that they shout at me until I cry, and I don’t know, let’s say they’ll slap me (worst case scenario! Not that I know anyone who is actually that mean-spirited). And then maybe things will be awkward for a while. My face would hurt, I guess. But I will, ultimately, live through it, eventually gain distance from it and inevitably learn from it or laugh about it.
  2. I notice that I don’t pay much attention to other people talking on the phone, to their footsteps, or what they’re working on on their computers and I remind myself that unless I’m working directly for someone, most other people do not pay attention to anything I’m doing.
  3. I write down any thought that helps me. For example, this morning I read: “Half of getting there is having the confidence to show up and keep showing up.” It was one of those cheesy quotes on the advert page that shows up for 5 seconds when you get to Forbes.com, haha.
  4. I talk to friends about it! I usually talk about these things to friends who I know would understand how I feel and would just let me talk, listen to me without necessarily trying to meddle and fix things because that’s the kind of environment I need. Knowing what kind of support you like is good.

I mean, these are just things at the top of my head. I’m sure there are many ways to deal with it, to tackle the problem on a more fundamental level. I feel like I’ll regret talking about this so openly because I think people are not going to believe me, think I’m exaggerating (*rolls eyes*) or try to help me in ways I don’t want but I also think many other people feel this way and this could make you feel less alone, just like many other women, for example, Sheryl Sandberg and Julie Zhuo have for me. When, almost two years ago, I first heard Sheryl Sandberg talk about the impostor syndrome in her book, Lean In, I honestly could not believe I wasn’t alone. So even though there are a billion articles about this, I insist on writing another.

I don’t want to ramble on for much longer, but I want to add just one more thing to that list above. The most important thing I do for myself is to, by my own volition, recognise and celebrate small victories. It doesn’t really help when someone says “Hey look! You did that thing well!” because I find it so difficult to believe them. I have to practice spotting them myself, no matter how small.

During my first internship, I was so timid and afraid that I made minimal trips to the bathroom and never went to the pantry to even get myself a cup of water. But today, I got up, went to the pantry and made myself a cup of tea. That involves boiling water, getting a mug (this is usually nerve-wracking because I don’t want to be judged by my choice of mug, or take someone’s usual mug. It sounds crazy, but I kid you not), getting a tea bag, ripping a packet of sugar, stirring and then carry it back to my desk. Do you know how much sound that involves? For someone who kinda enjoys being invisible, I felt like this was a feat and I am so happy about it.

Consistently taking baby steps.