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.

Last First Day | Fall 2016

Preface: this is very emotionally graphic for me, and although it’s a relatively innocuous topic, makes me very vulnerable so 1) if you generally think people (or, God forbid, specifically girls) just like to be overdramatic, I suggest you stop reading and 2) I’d strongly prefer no one discuss this post with me in person because even though I’m okay, I don’t really want to talk about it- I feel like I’ve gone over it in my head too many times already and just want to move on. Thank you for respecting my space and I hope you appreciate this one in particular.



The day before I left for Penn, I drove myself to the dentist (cue shiver) and on the way there, “Save Tonight” by Eagle-Eye Cherry came on. I remember singing along, save tonight / fight the break of dawn / come tomorrow, / tomorrow I’ll be gone, thinking about how apt the song was because have I ever wanted to leave? No. The answer is no.

That night, like all pre-flight nights, consisted of me lying down in my bed looking around my room considering how bizarre it is that I have to leave this place again. I am almost confused by it. “I am here now, but tomorrow I won’t be.” Huh. OK.

Needless to say, I always leave with a heavy heart. I suppose I am lucky, right? Not everyone has something difficult to say goodbye to, and although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think it’s great that I do. Except then I actually have to do it. Say goodbye, I mean. Some people say it gets easier every year but I absolutely must disagree. I was telling Shahirah a few weeks ago (when the crying-about-going-back-to-school began again) that it feels like when you ride a rollercoaster and after you get off you know how scary and heart-wrenching it was, so the next time you queue up to ride one, the dread and fear becomes even more real because you remember so clearly the feeling.

But beyond that, this year was just a tad different because I can’t help feeling like it’s the last time it’ll be like this at home. Aida will be in London and her summer breaks will get shorter every year… she’ll be straddling two homes for the next 6-or-so years. That’s a long time. Julia will leave for college the fall after I graduate. That’s quite soon. I’ll (hopefully??!?!?!) have a job and it’ll never really just be us, just kids, just laughing about Princess Diaries in the living room anymore. Here, I would like to re-emphasise how apt “save tonight” really feels.

Then as time somehow always does, it just goes on, regardless of how fiercely you dig your heels in the ground. My lungs feel like they are about to burst and the pain makes me grit my teeth but moments later I still find myself on the aeroplane. I stare out at the window, waiting for the exact moment we take off… and I am off home soil. There is one clear line that separates me being home and not home and I take it all in as we make our way to Doha.

Some thoughts I jotted down on the plane ride there: The word “ache” is very appropriate because as this journey drags on, it starts feeling less like acute pain, and more like someone is kneading on my insides like play-doh. My back against this chair (though I think calling this seat a chair is a bit of a reach) is so warm but my front is freezing and it is disrupting my sleep to keep having to put this blanket on and off. People always say “it’s a small world” but how is that true if I have to fly over 20 freakin’ hours to get from one place to another??!!!??! I can feel my legs swelling like Aunt Marge in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I miss bidets already. Our XC60 will not shut up until both people in the front seats have strapped their seat belts on so why the hell do stewardesses have to manually check if every passenger on a plane is wearing their seatbelt? Is it 1990? Clearly I become very sassy when I am stuck in a coach seat. The PA just mentioned “Malaysia” and immediately I realise it will be a long time before I will hear that outside of a private conversation again. I almost don’t want to leave this aircraft because once I step into Hamad International, I could be from anywhere going anywhere, and there will be little left to suggest I was just in Kuala Lumpur, that I was just home.

I make my way to the gate for our connecting flight to Philadelphia and I start to spot people who I know are fellow Penn students. I cannot help but stare because I am partly shocked. Clearly, it has not fully registered in my mind where I am going. But I have to deal with it, don’t I? I am going back to Penn.

Every year, I wrestle with feeling like I am being severely ungrateful for this experience because I don’t love it. What can I say? I wanted to love it, but I just don’t. I sit and think about how to be grateful about things you don’t love… what that feels like… whether I am actually doing that. I will concede, there are days I love, and I love what I’ve gotten out of Penn but I like to think a cake enjoys being a cake without enjoying being baked in an oven at 180 degrees for 30 minutes. The process is excruciating. But it’s okay. I remind myself that one of the things I place a high value on in people is the ability to do things they don’t love to do because it’s what they need to do, because it’s the right thing to do.

If there’s any time to think about the stark contra between being at Penn and being home, it’s here, in transit. Sometimes it feels like the only place I can properly juxtapose pictures of both ends of my world is here, in an airport somewhere in The Gulf. My lives seem so parallel that it can be difficult to imagine the other when I’m in one. I remember, about a week-or-so ago, after my family and I had just gotten back from Hong Kong (amazing holiday, by the way, I loved it there) I was washing the dishes after lunch or something and it was a very chill day. We were all tired. I didn’t leave the house. So there I was at the kitchen sink, just calmly scrubbing my plate when my mind started to wander and picture my many hurried walks past Huntsman on 38th street under the Locust bridge… and I realise how easy it always is to forget and to shed off the Penn pace. And that’s a huge contrast. These two worlds seem to run on their own separate clocks. When I’m at Penn, I’m always reciting my daily schedule in my head because I can never afford to mess up the order of everything I planned—there’s just always so much to do—and it’s never like that at home. At home, at least so far in my life, it would be weird to be sitting in bed staring at a Google Sheet of club expenses, weird to be up at 12 a.m. talking about MATLAB codes, weird to be rushing back from the gym to cook lunch. I just don’t do stuff like that at home. I don’t even walk so much at home (god, I miss being driven around).

This year at Penn is also different. It’s senior year, and for most of us, that means relentlessly reaching for opportunities to get a job. I mean, that in itself is a whole ordeal. I am not one for networking so putting on a blazer and heels to compete with intense Penn kids for a chance to speak to recruiters is just so not my thing. But it’s also just crazy to think that what I will be doing a year from now is a complete mystery. Next September, there will likely be a physical space I will be commuting to and spending lots of time in every day. It will be the income I live off of. It will be what I put on Facebook and LinkedIn, presumably. It will be what I tell everyone over and over again at raya. And yet, for the next I-don’t-know-how-many but-hopefully-not-too-many months, I won’t know what that is! Think about it! It’s normal, but it’s crazy! It’s difficult to face because I have loved having a structure, a plan, a procedure to follow. It makes me retreat into and cling onto my youth more and more because the road ahead is so uncertain and so vast, but the past is so tangible and safe.

One of the few certainties is the fact that a lot can happen in a school year. On a big-picture level, I have no idea what will happen, but on a micro scale, I am very aware that I am walking into a school year facing a calendar with overlapping entries and sparse empty spaces. It’s like walking into an abyss by first passing through a very real storm. (Does that even make sense? I don’t know)

I know I’m making college sound like utter crap but there are parts of this experience I will be savouring for the next 9 months. Of course, being with my friends is one of them, but just as notably is the fact that for the past 3 years, I lived with a mandatory irresponsibility that I know I enjoy more than I can currently fathom. Sure, I’ve had to be very adult about being my own discipliner and taking care of myself, but it was my job, I would say, to be prancing off halfway around the world every few months, usually (and coincidentally) whenever one place became too much. Tired of hearing about Trump? I’m off to Malaysia! The haze is back in KL? Hello again, Philadelphia!

In due time, this will no longer be my reality. I will no longer be living a life benchmarked by trips to airports and I will gradually be able to afford recklessness less and less. I do not enjoy this idea. Let me be clear here, I respect responsibility and I despise thoughtlessness. I came back to my apartment to find that someone stacked a baking tray on top of a wok and I cannot even accept the lack of thought that went into that arrangement. However, there is a degree of carefreeness that is still dismissible with my age and stage of life and this privilege is surely dwindling. To be blunt, that’s just like, really annoying.

Over the summer, I saw my cousin firmly embrace one of the traditional landmarks of adulthood—parenthood—and I, in my denial, retracted so steadily. Several times I stared at her baby (and I feel really bad for saying this) feeling perplexed at what is happening in front of me: why is everyone coddling her? Why are they all so happy? Because to me, this was a jarring sign that everything was changing. It was like everyone was throwing a party while taking down our childhood wallpapers and removing our toys while I just sat and watched as the only person retaining objectivity, the only one seeing what was truly happening here. I did not realise when we all left childhood and crossed into adolescence, and was later rudely awoken by all the change. This time, I had my eyes wide open as we were transitioning life stages again, determined not to make the same unconscious mistake. I just don’t want to grow up. I know that sounds immature, but I have never been one to lie to myself about how I feel. I know there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’d just like it to be plainly said. Maybe then I will stop resisting it so much.

I know I will focus on the more concrete things directly ahead of me and ease into it… basically, take things in one baby step at a time. And despite all my resistance and confusion, I will become an adult as seamlessly as I became a senior in college—not having a clue what changed when. I look at freshmen now and I am, at once, surprised and assured, when I realise I cannot presently relate to their concerns anymore. We are often blind to our own progress and, you know what, I’m thinking that can be a good thing because I can be so resistant to change sometimes that maybe I am better off not knowing when I am improving and growing.

As I list down my commitments this year though, I cannot help but again, realise that I’ve grown. This year, I’m a TA for Intro Psych. I am beginning my independent research project in psycholinguistics with Professor Dahan, who taught me Language and Thought last semester. I am attending info sessions and coffee chats and career services appointments. My friend Miru and I are taking on podcasting as a passion project. I am taking a creative writing class for the first time. I am practicing for a (theoretical, someday) 5K (haha). As always, I don’t know how I will manage all of these things but I’ll just have to see how that works out and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.

And so senior year started on Tuesday. Shahirah and I touched down in Philly a few minutes shy of 8 AM that morning and by 9.30 AM we were in our off-campus apartment. I changed clothes and instantly darted off to the chemistry lab building, dodging looks along the way because I didn’t want to meet anyone when I knew I hadn’t showered since Malaysia. I made it to Rise and Fall of the Spanish Empire with 2 minutes to spare: my laptop clock told me it was 10.28 PM. I change my timezone settings to Eastern Standard Time, and now I’m really back for the first day, for the last time.

Week 8: Sometimes Small Hurdles are Big Hurdles

Here we are. Week 8. I am at the midpoint of the semester, otherwise known as the time my to-do list reached puberty and went through a growth spurt.

Midterm next week and 200 pages of reading to do, remember to email the TA about setting up an appointment to ask clarifying questions, review material so that I know what questions to ask to begin with, email student groups about collaboration on event, go to Lea elementary for advertising 3 times this week, remember to print out flyers before you go, text Casey to coordinate where we’ll meet, email the homeroom teacher to tell her we’re coming, remember you have an appointment at Career Services at 1.30pm to talk about how to take control of finding a job, submit your resume and cover letters for criticism, follow up on advisor about transcript problem, cook lunch/dinner at 7 a.m. because you won’t have enough time to do it otherwise, call SHS to see if my appointment was schedule correctly online, make a dental appointment, see if I can squeeze in an extra gym session on Wednesday morning, drop by Marcus’ office hours to collect my midterm exam and assignments, see Professor Epstein to discuss the stuff I didn’t understand about his lecture on perception, remember to ask Mama about her medical appointment, email sponsors my transcript (!!!), make sure you’re drinking enough water, oh and water your plants check to see they haven’t completely died, do the dishes from yesterday morning please, oh and you really need to do laundry if not you’ll have nothing to wear to the gym tomorrow, also pick out classes for the Spring semester and make a mock schedule, which means you have to see Professor Connolly to approve some of your course selections, also see an ECON advisor to help figure out if you want to continue with that major, and see a PSCI advisor to see if you could accidentally get a minor in political science, and remember to write a blog post about your week in time.*

I hate to sound all ~oh I’m so busy~ but man.. the little things. It’s like that light rain which is more like mist, where it’s not heavy enough to warrant you staying inside, and yet an umbrella just will not protect you from it because it still gets in your face. It’s like a pile of books in my way for which I just need to figure out a system to stack them on their respective shelves. It’s like a being a waiter at those restaurant where they carry like 6 dishes on two arms (or is that not a thing?).

See, the thing is, none of those things really scare me in and of itself, and I know I can use iCal and my to-do list and reminders to help me get through all of them. But sometimes I wish someone would just give me a play-by-play of what I need to do on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis so I would just follow instructions, as opposed to having to always re-evaluate and re-consider and improvise. It’s like how the rubic’s cube was so much more fun once I had memorised all the steps, instead of having to think my way through it and calculus only became my favourite subject once I had gotten the hang of it.

Dude, this transition into being an adult is toughhh. It’s like I’ve spent my whole life riding those tiny aeroplane rides where you pay like a dollar or something to use and it just swings you back and forth for 2 minutes while playing some fun-fair type music, and then I blinked and suddenly I am in a real aeroplane and there are buttons on the dashboard and ceiling and floor and levers that serve functions I don’t know of.

It’s times like these I really need to just take a step back and detach from the street-level view of my life and “zoom out”. Yeah, they’re like a million tiny raindrops, but it’s just rain. Soak in it, wipe it off–it will stop, you will dry off. It will be okay. Deep breaths. One thing at a time. One step, and then another, and another.

Honestly, “baby steps” is like one of the most liberating pieces of wisdom I’ve ever received, which is why it’s on my Instagram bio thing (and that is clearly where all pieces of wisdom belong).

Week 2: I Listened to So Much Justin Bieber and I Don’t Know Why

Photo Aug 31, 6 11 16 PM

In 2013, I moved into my single dorm room on the 4th Floor in Fisher Hassenfeld. It was my first time being away from my family, and now I’ve been enrolled at Penn for two years. But this morning—in fact, most mornings—I wake up almost needing a moment to calibrate myself to my surroundings.

To put it simply, sometimes Penn just does not feel real and I felt that way this past week more so than usual. Call it denial if you like, and you would not be wrong. Like I said, I was hardly mentally ready to come back to school. My first week of classes went okay but I still found it difficult to digest the fact that I had readings and assignments to do because all I wanted to do was still to eat maggi, sleep, watch Korean dramas and listen to Justin Bieber (which is so odd for me–Justin Bieber, especially. What?!).

Photo Aug 24, 6 07 52 AM

Accurate representation of my first weekend back. That’s 2 packets of mee sedap btw, just so you know. Can you blame me? It really lives up to its name.

Photo Aug 28, 6 43 03 AM

I contemplated instagramming this with some sort of poetic caption or something (because I had nothing to post because I was indoors so much).

Not to be cheesy or anything, but I was really stuck in a post-summer daze. I mean, I guess that’s understandably normal, and I wasn’t alone. The day after we got back to Penn, my friends Shahirah, May May, Hui Jie and I stayed in Shahirah’s and my apartment pretty much all day talking about how crazy it is that we’re juniors in college now and still don’t have much figured out.

But we have to have discipline and responsibility and whatever, right?

So besides classes, last week I also took a couple of walks in the city, went to my gym classes, cleaned the apartment and went back to cooking meals for myself. Oddly enough, it felt strangely nice to be on my own again.

Photo Sep 01, 8 10 32 AM

Morning-ly omelettes.

Photo Aug 31, 7 08 05 PM

Lazy night salads.

Photo Sep 01, 4 45 45 PM

Fitting for 31-degree C days.

Photo Sep 01, 12 55 23 PM

I was craving pasta but refused to pay $30 for a bowl (what is that, RM100? *shivers*), so I made this and it was my favourite thing I made this week. (Not so) fun fact: I was very sad when I finished it.

It felt nice to cook myself breakfast, lunch and dinner again. It felt nice to reach 10,000 steps a day, to run errands on my own without waiting for someone’s car to be available, to be able to walk out to get froyo, walnut shrimp and dan dan noodles and to have so many of my friends from all around the world within walking distance again.

Honestly, I forget how much I like taking care of myself until I actually have to be independent. Although, that said, yesterday I was imagining married life and started crying because I don’t wanna ever not live with my parents, hehe (hashtag anak sulung paling manja). I miss my family so much but I’m not going to talk about that right now because I’m not really in the mood to entertain another one of my 20-minute crying spells.

So, anyway! For now, I have to fully snap out of my ~easy breezy summer~ mood. I need to accept that I need to work very, very, very hard. It’s going to be slightly uncomfortable to go back to pushing myself, but I think I’ve been doing the bare minimum for too long and want to step it up again. Plus, I don’t really have much time to spare for this annoying case of denial I have because the semester will pick up very soon. My first exam is in 2 weeks, I think. Yikes. Wish me luck!