Identity is a practice.

And so it goes, I’m done with my second last semester of college.

I really dove in, you know? I did. I pulled all the stops. I think I really managed my time well; I did my readings on time, exercised somewhat regularly, didn’t have too many late nights… and this is going to sound a little weird but I almost don’t want to go on a break even though I’m exhausted because I don’t want to lose that rhythm. I would hate to lose this work ethic because I think a large part of a sense of accomplishment really comes from the work ethic, more so than the work itself. Like, the only reason I’m anxiously awaiting my grades is because I’m hoping to see that work ethic validated and reflected in something. Jamie and I were talking a few days ago about what we’re proudest of this semester and for me, it’s really my discipline.

Part of me is worried about losing that after I leave college, when my life no longer is revolved around it so directly. I want to continue reading hundreds of pages of interesting scholarly work and beautiful literature every week, continue pushing the boundaries of what I can do with my time and energy and be held accountable for it. I am so fearful that I won’t.

“What horrifies me most is the idea of being useless: well-educated, brilliantly promising, and fading out into an indifferent middle age.”

— Sylvia Plath

I’ve been having dreams lately of me, sitting alone in an busy, nondescript workplace cafeteria, with a nondescript plate of food, taking notes from a book I’m reading and it makes me happy. That’s kind of always been who I am. I remember being 15 in school, sitting in the library reading during recess. I carried that through to A-Levels, and even here at Penn. Good work ethic and hunger for learning, for doing better, being better… I’m worried I will lose that part of who I am in the 9-to-5 life. At that thought, part of me wonders how anyone can “lose who they are” but part of me also knows identity is a practice and not a static condition. And so that’s what I want for my life, what I want to commit to. I want to never stop learning voraciously. I want that to forevermore be who I am, as a practice. This semester made that clearer for me.

May May and I were talking a few days ago about this. It sounds silly to say, but we want to be renaissance women. We want to read broadly and think deeply and be well-spoken. We talked about how we can feel this anxiety about drifting into mediocrity and how we can feel ourselves defending against it. We make lists of books to read and documentaries to watch and sometimes it gets tiring but it’s always good.

Some days when I’m stressed, I stop myself and stare at my desk with my pages of notes and books and I think about how almost all my life, it’s been my job to just, learn. And I am deeply struck by the realisation that this is my life, and it’s a freakin’ good one.

Almost There…

I missed a week of posting, but you’ll forgive me, yes? And I will have to learn to forgive myself as well, because this past week was brutal. I don’t like being lenient on myself, but this week was so rough that I just can’t consider missing a blog post as being lenient. I had a 5-page paper due on Monday, a 7-page paper due on Tuesday, a 10-page paper due on Thursday morning and an exam on Thursday afternoon… on top of regular classes, meetings, readings and homework.

As I write this, I have only one day left of class, only one exam left to take and am just a few days away from my holiday. And as always, when it gets to this point in the semester and classes are wrapping up, everyone seems to talk about how quickly time passed by… but I really don’t feel like it did. I’m not saying that it was such an awful semester that time moved so slowly for me—it was challenging as always, but definitely still a good one—but as my friend Hui Jie reminds me, you’re not the same person as you were when the semester started. Which is to say that if I observe myself closely and keep track of the things I pull myself through, I personally have found that my life doesn’t fly by me, but rather, passes at the right pace. So it’s hard to look at who I was when I started and how much less experienced I was at the time and feel like time just flew because I think we really go through so much more than we remember. I don’t know, I could be wrong, but I tend to think saying “time flew by” means you’re not giving yourself enough credit.

I think we quietly grow in the moments we make little decisions. This semester, I’ve been rejected by a company I wanted to work for, lost my cat and spent a lot fewer hours in bed than I wanted to, but can I just say, nothing was as sobering as my most recent birthday. The clock struck midnight on 3rd December and I was propped up in bed with a slight headache and menstrual pain, working on my laptop making a study guide for my Communications exam. I wanted to go out and have fun and celebrate or at least just sleep in but I knew I couldn’t and I didn’t. I’m not saying that growing up means giving up merriment or not caring about my wants and feelings, I just think it means being able to say “yes, that’s how I feel, but I can’t give in to that right now—maybe another time” and then actually remembering to attend to it some other time. It’s small, but I don’t know that I would have been able to really do that 1-2 years ago.

With that said though, it’s not like I miraculously turned into a super mature adult overnight. At some point this week, I was so tired and couldn’t bring myself to go out to get food and I hadn’t had time to do groceries so my fridge was empty and had to just resort to making maggi for lunch. When I opened my packet, it bursted open and lots of tiny pieces flew across the kitchen counter. Have you ever felt like you were going to burst into tears but were just too tired to express any emotion? That’s exactly how I felt. I stared at the mess for like a solid 10 seconds, took this picture, then curled up on my couch, and fell into a 20 minute nap. It sucked. But I mean, progress isn’t always linear, right? Haha.

I’m having so much trouble concentrating while typing right now because I’m having difficulties breathing through my awfully stuffy nose and I’m coughing like mad. I can’t believe I’m sick around finals again, for the second semester in a row, but I also can’t say I’m surprised. I don’t want to glorify working hard at the expense of our health and stuff but this week was such a whirlwind that I just totally failed to be good to myself. I have never been one to skip meals, but even though I could feel myself getting sick (my body was quietly revolting against how much I was pushing it) some days I just forgot to eat. I haven’t exercised in over two weeks. Up until this morning, I was in the same outfit for 3 days straight because I needed to do laundry but had no time. Now, I feel so gross and I’m so sick I can’t properly hear myself speak, I’m having difficulty sleeping through the night and my body aches.

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Yes, I carried around that whole box of tissues in my bag all day.

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I just can’t help realising the culture I am complicit in creating that we criticise so often at Penn. I love that everyone here works really hard—I love that—but we also normalise such an awful lifestyle. It’s so common for people to pull all-nighters, to be sick but refuse to go to see a doctor because they “don’t have time” and to lie in bed unable to fall asleep because they feel guilty for not doing work. It’s exactly the thing about Penn that I kind of can’t wait to get a break from, really. This is going to sound super pretentious, but I think when you lump a bunch of high-achievers together in this little academic village and, in a sense, pit them against each other, you really send them into overdrive. Or at least, that’s how it feels sometimes. Which is why I’m so so so looking forward to break right now oh my god.

Honestly, it feels a little weird saying I’m looking forward to break because when I come back it will be my final—FINAL—semester here and I feel like I should be soaking everything in and relishing it because as crazy as things get, this life is a pretty darn good one and I don’t want to lose sight of that. There are a lot of things about here and now to miss when it’s over. Like, this week alone, I got two free books—because, you know, education!!! The English department has a Winter Reading Project program where they give out free books before winter break and have a discussion about it in January. This year, they gave out Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me about America’s racial history and I’m so excited to read it. I also got to attend another Authors@Wharton event today. They invited Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, The Blind Side and The Big Short for a talk moderated by the wonderful Adam Grant (another brilliant author himself). They gave out copies of Lewis’ most recent book, The Undoing Project about two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky whose behavioural economics research has kind of catapulted the field to where it is today, I feel like.

So, yes, life is good and I’m grateful for everything this semester has brought (but I think I will still need that break before I can take on the final semester).

I finally had some fun.

Blogging this semester felt a lot harder for me and one of the reasons for that is I feel like every time I open a blank page to write, the first thing that comes out of my mouth is “I’m so tired” and I hate that. But I honestly have been so tired and I haven’t done anything fun at all, really (or, ok fine, very very minimal fun). I can even prove it because I put everything in my calendar, colour-coded. Classes are in peach, personal obligations like gym/errands/appointments are in purple, club events are in blue, meetings are in green. Social events are in pink and before this weekend, I had only 2 pink entries in my iCal. Both were on 6th Oct, during fall break hahaha.

So, I’m sorry to myself for saying this, but wow I’m tired. A good tired, but tired nonetheless. I’ve definitely mentioned this before, but I’ve had something due from week 1 to week 12. Tomorrow is week 13 and it’s technically the one week this semester I don’t have a paper due or an exam, but I do have 3 papers due and one exam on week 13 so I’m spacing out my work and writing my history paper this weekend.

With that said, I did manage to have some fun on Friday. I was honestly so happy about it. I don’t have classes on Friday, but usually I go to the lab to work on my independent research. This week, my supervisor/professor told us to take the week off partly because she was going to be out of town. That was the first plus.

I spent most of the afternoon doing readings and writing responses to readings as usual but then!!!! In the evening!!!! I got to see Anna Kendrick speak live at my school!!!! Ahhhh it was so much fun! She was here as part of her book tour for her memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody and we all got the book for free 😀 If you know me, you know that I love love love her movie The Last Five Years and of course, the Pitch Perfect series. She talked about how difficult the writing process was (she called it a “fool’s errand”), what she felt her most rewarding roles were (The Last Five Years and Into the Woods), a bit about her family etc. She was sooo funny and it was just a really good time, it felt like going to see a stand up show. I’m really going to miss opportunities like these when I graduate.

After seeing Anna Kendrick, I went to see Fantastic Beasts with May May! Oh my god, it was so good! I was a huge Potter fan growing up, like read all the books at least twice, seen all the movies countless times, so it was really cool to see the movie screen open up to that world again. I won’t spoil anything, but it was nice to hear Dumbledore’s name, hear Hogwarts being mentioned again after so many years telling myself we’ll never experience anything like that again. Because this is somewhat an epilogue to the Harry Potter series, it was also really cool to hear more about the backstory, stuff I’ve only read about in JK Rowling’s interviews, online fan forums etc hahaha. So thank god for profit-thirsty film conglomerates, I guess???

Then, after the movie, my friends and I went to midnight free ice skating at the Penn Ice Rink. The Muslim Student Association hosts one every year, and it’s my favourite event. I was very excited about it this year because I missed it last year due to paper-writing. It’s so much fun because usually in Malaysia, when you go skating at Pyramid or whatever, it’s just you and a few of your friends. But when the MSA hosts an ice skating event, I know so many people and it’s so much more fun because it feels so communal. Plus, it’s always really fun to see how good some people are and how not-so-good other people are. I usually suck at it, but somehow this year I did so much better! Like, I didn’t stick to the wall after the first round around the rink which is like a huge record for me. In past years, I’d be screaaaming at clutching onto the wall, which is fun in it’s own right, but I’m glad I did a lot better this time haha.

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With my Day Ones.

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Busra ❤

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(Our freshman year version LOL)

One with Sha, of course.

I was really sore when I woke up Saturday morning, but I had so much work to do I had to get out of bed even though I wanted to lie in all day. I went to South Street yesterday to do work at Ultimo with Hanna who I feel like I haven’t seen in ages. Ultimo has really good coffee and is such a cute spot to do work so that was nice. It was so nice just to catch up and do work together. I probably have mentioned this before, but Hanna comes pretty darn close to the older sister I never had. She’s so supportive and is always there for me.  After doing work, we hung out at her apartment which is honestly just the cutest place and it’s in such a nice neighbourhood, too. She provided me with a pesto and cheese sandwich, which obviously filled me to the brim with joy because hello, pesto and cheese!!! Ugh, love it love it love it.

Hanna!!

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Ultimo

So I guess that concludes my fun weekend 😦 I’m about to go back to paper-writing… oh! Actually, tonight, we’re having a ClubSG/Malaysians at Penn potluck for thanksgiving which should be fun! But I’ll write about that next week when I get a proper ~break~ haha. See you next weeeeek.

On writing

As I run the tail end of my college career, I’ve been spending so much of my time mulling over my relationship with writing. How much I love it, how much it stresses me out, how much it helps me relax, how I don’t feel like I’m good at it or have what it takes to be good at it, how much I absolutely hate it when I know people are reading what I write but also how much I love it when people tell me they relate to something I say. I am not trying to sound like a moody tormented artist here because I’m so not the type but I do genuinely love writing for pleasure in a way I don’t love anything or anyone else because nothing else is as “mine” as writing is to me.

I was talking to my friend Clare on Friday and at one point of the conversation, we talked about Marina Keegan’s posthumously published book, The Opposite of Loneliness (we’re both a huge fan of the book—I highly recommend it). As we spoke, I realise a lot of what makes a good writer lies outside of the act of writing itself, and more in thinking and observations of daily life.

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Joan Didion

This brings me to Joan Didion. I’ve read a couple of Didion’s pieces for my non-fiction writing class and I’m quite enamoured by her. Most recently, I read her piece, On Keeping a Notebook and she talks about something I absolutely love doing: taking notes about random thoughts and observations. I have always asked myself why I do that, because what usually happens is I think of something and I say “oh that’s a good one” and I quickly type it into my Notes app but rarely ever do I go back to my notes and compile them and turn them into anything. They don’t amount to anything, they don’t get read by me or anyone else, and I almost just write them down just to keep them. But why? Why do I do that? In her aforementioned piece, Didion kind of weighs in on that:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.

Basically, she’s also saying that she isn’t quite sure why she does it and that it’s an explicable compulsion she has. Then a few paragraphs later, she says:

We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing. […] The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful [reflections]; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

I know our generation is probably a lot more narcissistic than Didion’s probably was. We are now taught to believe we’re unique and important. But still, I think, there’s a sense that our public lives aren’t meant to feel interesting and special but in private writing, it really can be. And all these random scribbles don’t need to amount to something huge, they don’t need to be a means to an end but an end in itself.

This reminded me of Marina Keegan. Marina was a very recent Yale graduate at the time of her death in 2012. She was poised for a job at The New Yorker. She was and always will be an amazing writer. When she died, I think her parents and one of her professors (I might be wrong about this) got together to compile some of her best pieces which is what became The Opposite of Loneliness, titled after the very popular last piece she wrote for the Yale Daily News (read it here). Anne Fadiman, her first-person writing professor wrote the introduction to her book and in it, Fadiman says Marina applied to her class with this:

About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That’s what I call it. I’ll admit it’s become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter’s hand gestures, to my cab driver’s eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.

It just comforts me so much to think that I sorta kinda share something with these very established writers. I mean, obviously, I’m no where near there but it’s nice to know that even though I sometimes don’t feel good enough, I have an intention and an inclination that is good and reflective and creative. Of course, I think writers don’t become great writers because they just have talent or creativity. I totally believe the creative life involves as much discipline as anything else does—it also means sitting down at your desk with your laptop or your paper day in, day out—but that much I feel have control over.


More Joan Didion: Here’s What Joan Didion Can Teach You About LifeJoan Didion on Keeping a Notebook.

More Marina Keegan: Remembering Marina KeeganThe Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan.

Post-Election Post

Hi, everyone.

So, some things have changed since the last time we spoke. But I just wanted to say that I’m okay. I’ve felt better of course, but I’m okay. I woke up on Wednesday morning a little unsure of what to expect, but I received an outpour of support from my friends, Muslims and non-Muslims. My peers, professors and university staff have been so great at making sure everyone gets any support they need. We all wish we didn’t feel like we needed so much support, but God, I wish you could see, hear, feel the sense of community I saw, heard and felt on Wednesday. I suppose I regret the circumstances, but I have never felt any less alone or any more inspired. And, wow, on days I don’t feel like getting out of bed, these communities always give me reason.

It was surely not an easy task to grapple with the results of the US Elections on Tuesday, but first of all, I trust in God’s plans and secondly, I believe in continuing to do good work, and I believe in the people around me who believe the same. I have never known what the future holds. I have been afraid before and I am sure I will be afraid again; that much has always been certain. But someone reminded me that often we don’t see the effects of our hard work and it’s tempting to say that nothing we do counts, that our voices just don’t matter. However, we also don’t know what things would be like if we don’t continue to put our good energy out there. So with a greater resolve, I will continue to do good work in different shapes and forms, to fight for what I believe in, have conversations, read, tell stories and listen, one day at a time.

With that said, I know some people walk around with very real worries and I don’t wish to minimise any of that. Obviously, I have my share of concerns and I don’t mean to always paint an overly rosy picture of my life but I am choosing to keep the faith and keep going. I just want everyone to know they’re not alone. I am determined to remain proud to be a young muslim asian woman and I remain committed to kindness and equality for all.

Love always,
Dayana

Impostor Syndrome Part II

Last Thursday, I went to Professor Feros’ office hours to catch up on what I missed in class the Thursday prior. He told me not to worry about it because it was an insignificant lecture, and that he thinks I’m doing very well. In fact, he urged that I stop worrying so much. I pushed back, “how do you know I’m doing well?” He insists that I am, that he just knows, while also citing my good grade on his last exam. I told him I actually thought I did really badly on it as I walked out of the exam that day and that I was very surprised and confused (albeit very grateful and relieved) when I saw my grade. He assured me he wasn’t doing me any favours. I was a little taken aback when he said that, and was going to say “I didn’t say you were” but at that point I realised I was asking him that, even if that wasn’t what I said out loud.

After I got my grade, I did think about how Professor Feros and I have a good student-professor relationship. Sometimes in the morning we’d bump into each other on our way to his class and we’d talk about things like my visit to Spain in 2014 and Alfonso de Albuquerque’s arrival in Melaka. It struck me how lowly I think about myself—to the extent that I’d think a professor I respect so much would do something quite unspeakable.

I’m thinking now about last spring, when Professor Pollack handed me my paper on the politics of rhetoric about trade in the current election cycle. It was a tough paper to write. I struggled with it a lot. He pulled my paper out of the pile, leaned in slightly, looked at me with a smile and said in hushed tones, “this was the best paper in the whole class.” I immediately laughed and said “you’ve got to be lying.” Another professor I respect, another baseless accusation with the aim of protecting my self-deprecating view of myself.

I don’t really want to live like this, looking down on myself all the time, but I also don’t know how not to. Rather, I’ve been doing it for so long—pushing myself with so much aggression (for better and for worse)—that I don’t know anything else. My professors keep telling me not to worry, but I worry that my worry is what has gotten me by. I worry that I’ve been riding on luck for so long, and I’ve been using some combination of anxiety to propel myself such that the minute I loosen up even a little, I will lose it all.

(I know I’ve written about this before but the situation presents itself again and again. A testament to how self-improvement can be such a piecemeal process.)

Five

One.

Sometimes life slows down for you for a quick second and you just feel content. Lying in bed on a Friday night with Cristina, cup of mint tea in hand, watching Rent for the first time together. I felt the buzz in my head take it down a notch. I’m trying to get better at soaking in those quiet, restful moments. I feel like I’ve been saying that for 3 years and I almost feel irritated but I let it go. It feels nice.

Two.

I’m on an aeroplane. It’s Wednesday. I am staring at the in-flight entertainment screen in front of my face—some lady on Vice is explaining how to make kombucha. I am not entertained. I am sipping Diet Coke. I’m listening to NPR’s How I Built This. Sara Blakely is talking about how she founded Spanx.

I think, I am not meant for more, not meant for less, just meant for different.

Three.

Pop culture time. My favourite albums of the semester so far have been BADLANDS by Halsey and The Altar by Banks. I resumed watching Parks and Rec after stopping just about 3 years ago. I forgot how much I love Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari’s characters. My favourite podcasts currently are NPR’s Code Switch (about race in America), Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson’s 2 Dope Queens (stand up comedy) and Gimlet Media’s Reply All (a “show about the internet”). Current favourite app is Couch to 5K because it’s helping me pick up running without feeling like throwing a tantrum about shin splints. My class on Critical Approach to Pop Culture is a strong contender for Top 5 Classes I’ve Taken at Penn and I’m thankful for Dr. Felicity Paxton’s presence in my life.


Four.

Perspective is powerful.

Five.

A lot of people have the success story that goes something like “I had no idea what I was doing but I believed in this idea and I just went for it.” That has always scared me. I could not picture doing something without having the correct, necessary set of skills for it. I could not picture leading something without detailed plans. The idea of figuring it out as I go and just. making it. work. terrified me. I always had so many questions for people like that. For example: um, how?

And then suddenly none of it mattered anymore. Have you ever felt so convicted by an idea or a project that you will do whatever it takes to see it to fruition? Miru calls it invigorating. I guess… yeah, I guess it is. It makes you feel like there could be no other option for you but to be brave, to be persistent and to be patient. I like the feeling—your tired muscles stop complaining, the finish line almost stops mattering, and you just like running.



(Ashley Ford, writer and wonderful tweeter, used to do this thing where she writes about 5 Things every Sunday on her Tumblr so I thought I’d try it today.)