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.)

Fall not-quite-Break

Hello! We’re at week 7 now!

I’ve just finished Fall Break which was Thurs-Sun, but if I’m honest, it really didn’t feel like a break at all. Three of the four days, I had a 9 a.m. start to my day. Friday, particularly was packed with gym class, career services appointment, office hours, working at the lab… it felt like just any other weekday. And because I had SO MUCH homework, the break felt even busier than some weekends.

Recently, I’ve been really enjoying working at the Psycholinguistics lab. First of all, it’s in the new Neurobehavioural Sciences building on campus so the facilities are like, top notch and it’s super clean and pretty. The lab I’m working in isn’t a lab you’d normally think of: no chemicals or frogs or rat or anything like that. I’m currently analysing speech and coding for certain dimensions of conversations. It’s funny to take something I do everyday (converse) and dissect it into snippets and label it etc. But yeah, the room the lab is in is really nice. It’s so nice that I’ve been spending a lot of time there because there’s a lot of privacy and a reclining chair (I was too cheap to spend an extra $20 on a reclining chair for my own room two years ago, sigh).

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I did manage to have some fun during break, though. On Saturday, I went to brunch with Lanee and Shahirah at Sabrina’s. I hadn’t been there since like the spring of my Sophomore year so I was very excited to go back. Lanee and I went half-half with a savoury dish and a sweet one and I was so thankful because I love love love eggs but really wanted some of the maple-syrup-coated stuffed french toast. Back home with my family, I’d usually get one of my sisters to split two things with me, but I try my best to refrain from asking anyone else to do that with me. However! That day, Lanee was the one who brought it up and that just made my day, haha.

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Oh! I have to say, my favourite part of fall break was binge-reading The Girl on the Train on Wednesday. I was really tired because on Wednesday night, I had just submitted my 2nd paper within one week (that’s about 4500 words combined, which is a feat for me; I hate academic writing) but I had been so excited to start reading the book that I just went for it anyway. It was so good. I’m not about to do a whole book review here, but Hawkins made it so easy to look at each character complexly and see the story through multiple lenses which is what I absolutely loved about it. I read the book in preparation for watching the movie on Saturday night and I almost maybe kinda wish I hadn’t? Because the movie version never compares to the book version. I left the theatre wishing I could see it fresh. But with that said, the movie was still good although definitely not for the faint-hearted. Clare and I watched it on Saturday night and we had a great time 🙂

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Anyway, in general, things are going ok. I know I haven’t really been writing about my regular weeks and what’s been going on, but that’s because I feel like nothing super interesting has happened? I haven’t gone out to do anything fun, I see the same 5 people always and on average I have like 200 pages of compulsory reading every week so I spend most of my time on my laptop doing that…

I guess there have been some fun things. Yuna came to campus for  a little forum slash discussion thing but I only took one picture with her and no one told me my shirt was super wrinkled so I’m not posting that LOL. Hubbub also hosted a little Gilmore Girls promo thing last Wednesday and I queued for an hour to get a cup of coffee in the Gilmore Girls promo cup with the Luke’s Diner sleeve hahaha.

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I’m actually at Hubbub again right now as I’m writing this, waiting for my meeting with my research advisor to start while tidying up my History notes because I have my first exam in that class next week! I have something major due/an exam every week starting from week 3 to week 13 before I get a one and a half week “break” and then it’s finals. So I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t get a break these past few days?? So that I don’t risk losing momentum?? Haha I don’t know. Pray I don’t burnout guys THANKS. Byeeeeee.

My Most Unlikely Love

I remember walking out of my bedroom before going to school. It was 2009 and I was in Form 4. It was a Monday in March and it must have been about 7 AM in the morning. My house smelled newly strange but I knew exactly what it was. I walked slowly down the stairs in my blue and white school baju kurung and at the bottom of the stairs in a metal cage, I see a black furry cat staring at me. I remember thinking “Oh my god, this is not what I wanted. What have I gotten myself into?

***

I have been afraid of cats for as long as I can remember. When I was really young, my sisters and I would stay at my grandparents’ house in Klang every weekend. One weekend, a cat wandered into the Klang house, leading me to quickly run onto and climb the dark blue worn-out leather couches. Nothing has really changed since. When I was 14, my family and I went to Kuantan for a beach holiday. We were eating lunch at a small kedai tepi jalan—the kind always host to stray cats. When one stopped next to my seat, I climbed the table, quickly but careful not to step on any plates of food. My fear of cats (and dogs, and rabbits, and hamsters, etc…) have since encouraged me to embarrass myself on countless more occasions. All my friends have seen me not-so-subtly move over to the side when I am about to cross paths with someone walking their dog on the streets.

Naturally, they always find it surprising when they eventually figure out I lived with a cat at home. “Well,” I always try to explain as briefly as possible, “I thought getting a kitten would help me get over my fear but Katy was already quite big when we got him so that never happened and I just learned to live with my fears.”

That, I really did. My bedroom door is always closed so Katy, our cat, could never come in. (I made the mistake of leaving it open once in the early days and when Katy glued himself to the floor beneath my bed, I could not step into my room for the entire day.) I sit cross-legged at the dining table so his fur never touches my legs. I examine the staircase from the top floor before I go down it so I never encounter him by surprise as I’m walking. My dad or one of my sisters usually holds him down if he’s in my way so that he doesn’t come at me. That was just my life since 2009.

It’s strange to think it will never be like that ever again.

***

It was late Saturday night, or if you want to be technical, really early Sunday morning. I was about to go to sleep but I was hungry. I pick up my phone and send my sisters a picture on Snapchat with a grouchy face. The caption was: tfw you’re hungry but you’re not supposed to eat because it’s so late—or something along those lines. I sit down on my bed a couple of minutes later, when I get a FaceTime Audio call from my sister Julia at 12.44 AM. It was unprecedented and alarming. I pick up, unsure of what to expect. “Julia?!” I say as I answer the phone. But I don’t hear anything and she hangs up.

I switch my lights back on, wracking my brain for a perfectly pleasant explanation. For a second, I think, maybe I’ll just go to sleep and she can tell me whatever it was she wanted to tell me in a text and I’ll read it in the morning. I want to believe her reason for calling me was as dismissable as a butt dial. But I sit up straight, frozen still, knowing on some level that there was no way I could have gone to sleep and that I would be crazy for ignoring my phone. I open WhatsApp immediately to see if I had missed something… because maybe she just wanted to ask me something and I hadn’t replied quickly enough.

And after what seems to be the single longest minute of my life, she calls back. “JULIA?” I answer again, implicitly demanding to know if everything is alright. “Uh, Che,” she begins, and she almost sounds like she is going to ask me what cereal it was I bought at Jaya Grocer the last time we went. “Katy passed away.

I ask her a series of questions and she answers me as best as she can. She doesn’t know why. No, he didn’t get hit. Yes, only just. No, she doesn’t know what to do. Yes, she was alone at home.

I am not sure at what point I started crying but my lungs felt like they were going to burst. I am not sure if Julia had been crying from the beginning but we sobbed collectively for a moment, two sisters on opposite ends of the world. We hung up at some point and feeling more lost than I ever have in all my years away from home, I walk to Shahirah’s room as she was just about to fall asleep but I wake her up and she sat with me as I cried for an hour straight, just saying everything that was on my mind. I can’t imagine how my family feels. Julia was all alone. How will Aida find out when she wakes up? I feel so helpless because I can’t be there. I just can’t believe he’s gone. He’s just gone. I hope he was happy. I hope he felt loved. And I repeat each one of those over and over and she nods and offers me tissues and water. I eventually tell her I will go to sleep and that she can too, but I just wanted to be alone.

No one had said anything about it yet on our family group text. I didn’t know what was going on so I had to be the first to break the silence. I say I’m sorry I can’t be there. I say I wish I was home. I tell them to “stay strong” like a generic tweet from a stranger because that’s all I can offer and then I excuse myself virtually, saying I need to try to sleep.

I turn off my phone and I don’t sleep. I lie in my bed in the living room of my college apartment, staring at the clock on the oven in the kitchen. I have cried myself to sleep plenty in my life but even I was impressed with myself this time. It must have been about half past three the last time I glimpsed at the time.

***

In about three hours, I wake up and for a brief moment I almost forget. But then I break the news to myself and I curl up in bed, reeling. My sisters and I are still texting about what happened. Did he walk onto the patio to die? I guess he knew he was going to die. I hope he was happy, what with having to live with 3 legs and all. He came home to our house when he lost his leg, he must think of our home as his home too. This was the last snap I took of Katy. Do you think he was there long before you found him? Did you see him earlier in the morning? I wonder if he purposely chose that spot, or if that’s as far as he managed to go. How did you carry him? Where did you bury him?

Then, as time difference mandates, my family back home goes to sleep just a few hours after I wake up. My parents don’t say anything about it as they say their goodnights over text, but I know we’re all thinking about him. And suddenly, I feel like he is slipping away. I sit up immediately, and I grab my laptop. I open my Notes app and furiously type out everything I can remember about him.

I named him Katy after Katy Perry. We thought he was a girl but then we were told he was a he. The name stuck. We had nicknames for him like Kates, Kay Kay, Taty, The Black Guy. He was jet black but turned more brown as he got older. Very furry. Grey-ish at his belly. He used to wear a pink collar but he hated it. He hated being carried. He never really liked toys. Hardly ever meowed. I used to take videos of him with my Nokia 3500. I used to throw sticks from inside a room to distract him by making him get it if he was waiting in front of the door I wanted to get out of. He peed on plastic a lot; we could never leave plastic lying around the house. He liked Calci-Yum yogurt. One time, he was lost for a few days but he came back and we always wondered where he went but we’ll never know. One time, we thought he was lost for a few days but he was just stuck in Julia’s old room! He would get into fights with the other cats in the area and my dad would worry endlessly about how much hair Katy was losing. He was never allowed in any of our bedrooms and I hope he wasn’t always too bored at night. He liked the red chair in the living room downstairs, the area near the elliptical upstairs, and sometimes the rug near the kitchen sink. He was the reason I’d jump a little whenever I saw a black bag or something on the floor. I wonder if he would have been saved had we kept him at the vet longer. We kept the vase in the living room downstairs because he drank water from there even though the little bamboo plant we used to have in it died a long time ago.

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***

I feel bad. I’ve left home for Penn six times now and I’ve never really said goodbye to him. We never really interacted because of how scared I always was. There have been times I don’t think of him for weeks while I’m away. I’ve even said there were times I forgot we had a cat. I partly feel like I don’t have a right to be so sad. And yet I felt numb—so inexplicably and painfully numb—in ways I honestly didn’t even when both my grandfather and grandmother died; Atuk had already been sick for a very long time and I was so young when nenek left us. I cried then too, but I was with my parents and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles and we sat in circles and said prayers and held each other. But that phone call was exactly the kind of thing I have always dreaded since I left home for the first time over three years ago. And I know it will hit me in ways I can’t fully anticipate when I go back home in just under 8 months: no more sitting cross legged at the dining table, never hearing anyone pour cat food, no litter box at the back of the kitchen, no occasional meows from the living room.

Being so far away, I can almost tell myself all is well at home. That he’s lying on his back with his feet in the air on Mama’s old red computer chair upstairs in front of the TV. That he still chases after my dad when he walks up the stairs. But he’s not. He’s just not.

He was part of our family, and I hope he was happy to be. I hope he felt loved. Thank you for 8 years, Katy. You were my most unlikely love.

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The Recruiting Game | Fall 2016

It’s Friday night and I have so much work to do but I just can’t bring myself to do any of it because, well, Friday night has this connotation of like ~fun~ and whatever… so here I am instead. This week, I thought I’d talk a little bit about my (limited) experience with job-seeking in an American college because I’ve heard so much about the process since I was a freshman and now I’m finally starting to understand how emotionally turbulent it is.

At Penn, and I think a lot of other colleges in the U.S., we have this thing called OCR which stands for on-campus recruiting. Companies come to campus, give talks about their open positions, host events for students to interact with their employees and then we write cover letters and polish our resumes, apply online and wait anxiously to hear back. It sounds straight-forward-ish and I absolutely love how efficient this process is. Except, I don’t know, it seems like the whole thing is turning into a long dragged out game.

I say game because the process comes with so many rules, many of which are unwritten and unverified. People say go to the info sessions, sign in and try to make an impression on the representatives so they’ll remember you. Sign up for coffee chats for companies you’re applying to to learn more about the company. This is the book you should use to help you prepare. This is how you write a cover letter. Your resume should look like this. Email the company representatives you’ve met to thank them for your time and keep in touch with them throughout the process. Practice for the interview before you even start applying…

Just under a couple of years ago, I was at my friend Amanda’s for thanksgiving dinner. She was a senior looking for jobs at the time and I saw a post-it note in her kitchen that said “OCR is like Tinder” and I laughed, but her friend Iris (who I think wrote it) immediately exclaimed, “IT’S TRUE!” and I totally get that now. Like the dating game, it’s this idea that there are all these rules and subtle calculated advances you have to make, and it’s like you’re dating all these employers trying to court them to marry you into their company. And then you’re stressed and jumpy as you wait around impatiently for a call or an email or a resounding silence. I guess I just feel a little nostalgic for a job process I never experienced: you send your resume, and I don’t know, fill up a form, go for an interview and just get the job or not get the job. When did it all get so complicated? I mean, it’s just so overwhelming these days.

I hate going to info sessions because I tend to go alone and no one tells me whether I should or shouldn’t bother bringing a resume. Is a blazer too much, will anyone even care if I’m not wearing one? Are these flats too casual? I put on a shirt and pants and heels and just carry my blazer on my arm. I sit among a sea of people and look around realising they’re all interested in the same small number of available positions. Afterwards, I leave the room, sure to pile on as many crab cakes and cheese bites as possible on my plate while avoiding looks as everyone else crowds around the company representatives and then I just quietly slip out of the venue. If I bump into someone, I get the impulse to justify leaving so quickly (should I say I have a lot of work to get done? Or go with the vague “it’s been a long day”?) but the truth is I leave because I just don’t like fighting for a chance to speak to someone just for the sake of it and I don’t see the point! I almost don’t want to believe in the process. I want them to pick me because they like me from my interview, skills and accomplishments. I want them to pick me because they actually think I’m good. Because I really deserve it more than anyone else. Not because they remembered how charming I was at one of these events. Not because I knew someone who knew someone. Not because I knew how to play the game. So I just don’t try to participate. But then I wonder, maybe that is what it takes to deserve it? Maybe it takes pointlessly jumping through hoops just to show how badly you want it.

Part of me also just doesn’t want to do it because everyone else is already doing it, and they’re doing it so intensely that I almost volunteer to back off, to make more space where there is so little, to not fight so I can never say I lost. Part of me doesn’t want to show anyone how much I want it. And yes, that’s partly because I don’t want to seem just like everyone else but I think that’s also because I don’t want to be pitied and felt sorry for if everyone knew I tried my hardest for something I really wanted and then didn’t get it. I hate getting the “aww, it’s okay, everything happens for a reason” text. I’m always tempted to go like, “yeah, I KNOW, okay?” This is why I don’t tell people things. Everyone gets very mushy and it sounds like mosquitos at my ear telling me things I already know.

I don’t know, I wish I had the time to sit down and parse through these feelings and then start applying but unfortunately I don’t always set my own deadlines and whether I’ve figured it all out or not, I have to get ready to play this game.

After I submitted my application, I thought about how similar this is to Masterchef and Top Model and Amazing Race and all those other reality TV shows we guiltily love. A lot of people in those shows are really good and talented, they really want to win and they usually have a great reason for wanting to win. But in those shows, only one person gets the prize. And when anyone gets eliminated, they cry and we cry and they tell us how  frustrating it is because they had so much more left to give to the game, and how their journey won’t stop there and how much they’ve learned from the competition. And we feel sorry for them. But then we all collectively move on. I thought about how nothing so bad can happen to you for showing how much you want something even if you don’t get it in the end. Like, literally, so what? A lot of times we love the contestants who get eliminated just as much as the winner or the finalists, but we accept that’s just how the game works. Everyone moves on eventually.

That’s not to say that I’m now totally over the stress of the process… I go through this whole thing tangled in shame and anxiety still. I still feel like I’m really bad at interviews. I practised case interviews with my friend May May several times last week and I struggled and part of me genuinely worried May May wouldn’t be friends with me after she saw how bad I was at thinking through these practice problems. I resisted practising with her because I didn’t feel ready. But she looked me in the eye and said “you won’t be ready until you get ready” and God bless that girl, there’s a special place in my journal now where that quote deserves to be written in gold ink. We painfully pushed through a case and she’s still friends with me. I will never forget how she sat down with me last Sunday and was just like “ok, let’s think about how we can help you think faster” and I quietly realised how amazing that is. I was like wow, why does she still believe in me enough to help me? Why do people who love you believe in you when they seriously have no reason to? It’s honestly perplexing, but I’m so indescribably grateful to all my friends who have been so supportive throughout the whole process so far.

I’m so thankful for May May, Zohair and Michelle for “casing” me, Shahirah for listening to all my rants and even kinda offered to iron my shirt for me, Busra for getting desserts with me when I was about to fall off a cliff, Cristina for emotional support, Hui Jie wishing me luck from across the Pacific, Charis for giving me advice, Joanna for checking up on me, my new friend Yousra who has kept me company on multiple occasions at awkward networking events, Adriel who has offered encouragement consistently. Agh. Love them all so so so much and sincerely hope I can justly repay them for everything. (I think my point here is to not do things that are difficult for you alone, but you probably already knew that.)

The morning of my interview, I made a (salmon and cheese!) omelette, got dressed, did a little dance to psych myself up and walked over to the hotel with crumpled paper of interview notes in hand. I think it went okay although to be fair I don’t quite remember now how I felt as soon as I stepped out of the meeting room doors that morning because at this point I’ve had over 2 days to ruminate over everything: I paused too long at some points, looked too confused, misjudged some numbers… I hope I seemed interested. I hope I seemed organised. I hope I didn’t say something stupid without realising. I know there’s nothing I can do about it now, but the thoughts find ways to creep into my mind anyway. I cringe.

In the beginning of my first interview, my interviewer said “it’s always nice to be on campus speaking to all these smart people” and I heard it as “small people” so I said “haha, I’m happy to admit I’m a small person” and he was immediately like “Oh my god, no! Smart! Not small! Did I say small? I’m so sorry, I’m glad you didn’t walk out of here thinking I said small!” and then of course I was like oh crap I misheard something he said, oh my god. And in the second interview, I let the interviewer pour me a glass of water when the jug was right in front of me, you guys!!!! Oh goodness. It’s so irksome to think about now, haha. But in all honesty, I think I was confident and calm throughout the interview and maintained a genuine smile and at the very least I’m proud of myself for that.

The night before the interview, I naturally had a little trouble sleeping. But I said a prayer and gradually became really overcome by the thought that I had nothing to fear but God. Nothing. And I think walking into the interview room with an unshakeable faith really propped up my previously wavering confidence. It was less of a I-will-crush-this confidence, more like feeling truly at peace with the fact that everything will happen as it is meant to. And it always feels better when you genuinely feel it as opposed to hearing it from someone else.

I took this picture before I interviewed the last time in January (you can read about it here) and came back to it this week.

Ultimately, interviewing has been a very hands-on lesson in forcing myself to believe in myself and to deal with everything as it comes. It honestly is very difficult for me to walk up to a person, look them in the eye and say, look, this is why I’m good, this is why I believe I am a good investment for you. But I also know how it feels like to come out of an interview feeling like I didn’t give it my all, like I played it too safe, like I sold myself short in the name of being “true to myself” and then regretting it in the long term. It straight up sucks. So I’m proud of myself for pulling all the stops time and rising to the occasion.