Hurrah, Hurrah

(Fair warning: this is a long one)

I pray I never forget that all of this was once a distant dream.

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I don’t want to go too far back with this post, but I’ll start by saying I remember snippets of 2013. Photos of Stanford were my wallpapers and cover photos, and I spent every single day toiling over application essays. I remember the day all the decisions came in, and I was in Malaysia so it was in the middle of the night and I woke up just to check my emails and the Penn decision was the last one I opened after a stream of rejections and a song came on but it still hadn’t occurred to me what that meant because I was still scanning for a “sorry” or an “unfortunately” as I successfully found in the previous letters. Oddly enough, I don’t remember what happened next or who I told first or what we did to celebrate. But I remember feeling apprehensive. I remember tearing up at the mere thought of leaving the country, leaving the people and places I knew, the people and places that made me, me.

And before I knew it, I was thrown into the Penn current. One of my clearest, probably most defining moments at Penn was early in the Fall semester of my Freshman year when Shahirah and I walked out of Huntsman after Malaysians@Penn Elections. The upperclassmen were talking about their other time commitments this semester and it was the first time I saw that students here were really involved, and involved in so many different cool things I could never imagine myself doing. Shahirah and I left the elections and I panicked. I felt like I was absolutely in over my head at this school. I saw so vividly the gap between where I was and where I was expected to be and it scared me. We sat down on a random bench on Locust, just past the Tampons (to non-Penn readers: it’s a structure on campus and Tampons is just the shorthand, though idk what it’s really called) and she and I just talked it out.

A friend once told me, you never want to be the smartest person in the room. Well, that was never a problem here because I think the freshman year panic attack was the beginning of four years of being on the bottom ranks of every single room I was in. It was a huge, long, drawn out lesson in humility. Repeatedly, I was tested with the temptation of comparison. Everyone else seemed to be doing so much more, so much better. I learned to tell myself to keep my head down and all my time here has been a piecemeal process towards internalising the belief that my trajectory cannot be compared with anyone else’s because we didn’t all come from the same place—and that doesn’t mean victimising myself or whatever, just… acknowledging the fact that we’ve had vastly different experiences, and any comparison is meaningless. I don’t think I’ve completely bought this idea yet, but I am a lot better at it now than I used to be.

Besides that, I think graduating college is difficult because I don’t know for sure how else I am different than I used to be. Not being able to answer that question, I’ve once said before, is like leaving the petrol station after filling up your tank without a gas indicator; you don’t know whether you’ve really gotten enough out of it. I think I find it difficult to list the ways in which I’ve grown. It’s not really reflected in my grades. I didn’t learn Excel like I thought I would. I still read primary documents very slowly. I still write with a lot of planner’s paralysis. So even though I’ve had a tumultuous love-hate relationship with Penn, I feel like I leave with a heavy heart, like I fell short, like I wasted my time.

And it’s not just the unpreparedness that weighs on me, it’s also that my grief really blindsided me. I struggled to make a home out of this place (case in point) and I revolted at the notorious work hard play hard never ever stop pre-professional pretend-everything-is-ok-even-when-its-not culture of the campus. I didn’t like it. I’ve attended college application workshops in Malaysia unofficially representing Penn and applicants would come up to me with wide-eye wonder and I’d be expected to talk up my school and I wouldn’t know what to say because I didn’t like it. I cried my eyes out like something was being yanked from inside me every time I had to leave KL because I didn’t like it. I left right after every final and arrived right before every semester’s first class because I didn’t like it (exhibit A, exhibit B). I told people I wouldn’t miss it because I didn’t like it. You get the picture! So, part of me is so upset that I didn’t see this coming. I knew I would miss my friends and learning, but I didn’t expect to feel so sad to say goodbye to all the things I feel like I didn’t enjoy. People tell me that I’m very self-aware and introspective, and even earlier in this essay, I said that I think I’ve grown most in self-discernment. So the fact that all of this caught me off guard has been really disconcerting. Do I actually so severely lack astuteness? Was I just too stubborn?

A few days after commencement, I texted my friend Hanna like “is this what labour feels like? It’s the most painful thing ever and then you give birth and see your baby and you’re like I LOVE THIS and you just do it again and again” because maybe that’s what this was. Maybe I could have never seen it coming, and maybe I should be less hard on myself (another lesson I grappled with throughout my time at Penn, and one that I think will continue for years). But I leave curious when this shift happened. When did I start to love this place? When did it start to feel like home? (side note: it made me think of that song in Beauty and the Beast where they’re having a snowball fight and they sing “there may be something there that wasn’t there before” because that’s when they noticed they were falling in love and I wish in life things could be as clear as they are in Disney films)

I wrote about this in January, but maybe I just underestimated the extent to which my feelings towards this place were changing:

But I like Philly a bit more now. I like that I’ve had the same apartment for over two years now. I like the way I can tell it has been snowing by the way the tiles in my apartment lobby look. I like how I know whether or not I’ll make the traffic light before I actually get there. I can walk to Van Pelt on autopilot and instinctively know to avoid the steamy pot hole on the way there. The way walking past Starbucks on 39th gives me deep chills because it reminds me of pre-sunrise coffee runs. This didn’t just happen. I earned this. We earn the places we call home.

Anyway. I guess I still have a long way to go with regards to getting better at reflecting, etc. Funnily enough, I recall several remarks being made at commencement this year about how knowing yourself is important. Jennifer Egan, the College of Arts and Science commencement speaker spoke about how writing helped “organise her reality” and urged us to “look inward” and “spend time with ourselves”. I believe in these things to be true in my life as well, but have yet to learn why that’s so because I think in all my time at Penn, I’ve felt that these were not things that were valued as much—they don’t clearly lead to bottom line results. So, I suppose I’m a) grateful that the things I valued in my journey through Penn were validated in these speeches and b) looking forward to seeing how/when it will be important.

On the note of looking ahead, I’ve mentioned before that I am worried about losing my work ethic, no longer being able to read broadly across so many different fields, failing to think critically without the push of a classroom environment. I don’t know where life will take me. It’s so unnerving to lose the reliable structure of neatly compartmentalised time blocks: 4 months in the spring semester, 4 months at home for summer and 4 months in the fall for 4 years, only to walk into a mush of time and uncertainty where I have a lot more free reign over how long I spend where. I worry that without this structure I’ve grown with, I will flail around more than I’d like.

I know I’m making this all seem so terribly depressing, but I think I just have a good memory for a lot of these things so I tend to wallow in all of it and you know, it’s both a blessing and a curse to remember so much. At the end of every semester, people are always quick to quip that time just flies, and I never really relate to that. Shahirah thinks it’s because I retain so much memory that my perception of time is a little different. And as everyone makes those same remarks again at graduation, I genuinely empathise but stop short of saying it felt like it was all just yesterday. I empathise because I realise now I will miss it, and it feels like it might have passed quickly because part of me wants it back. But I refuse to say it was just yesterday because although I cannot name the ways in which I have grown, I also don’t feel like the person I was in 2013. Is that paradoxical? She just seems so distant from who I am today. I don’t dress like that, or listen to the same music anymore. I stop short of saying it feels like just yesterday because it reduces the amount of time and energy that I clearly remember it taking to get here.

I predict that I will look back at this campus like it’s a childhood playground where I had once ran, fell and scraped my knees over and over again; a place both risky and safe all at once. I hope I never forget the late nights spent agonising over one more page of the textbook, the times I sat outside the exam hall trying to flip through my study guides just once more as quickly as possible, the stress of running from meeting to meeting feeling like there is never any time in between for anything else, tripping over the manhole on the way to class, crying on Locust over my first C. I want to remember. I want to remember everything. I want to remember where we kept all the pots and pans and glassware in our apartment, I want to remember the view from my bedroom and lab, I want to remember where the nearest bathroom is from my favourite place in Van Pelt, where the onions are at FroGro, where all my friends used to live (shout out to 4002 Ludlow I love you guys so much), which department belonged in which building, who taught me what and when, what my go-to order is at Sweetgreen I JUST WANT TO REMEMBER IT ALL. Because it was difficult to make a home out of this place and all these little things is what made it happen and I feel like if I forget, it will make everything less real.

It was real. It was real when Ken, Hui Jie and I took a spontaneous trip to Chinatown for bubble tea, when May May spent the afternoon assembling furniture with me and Shahirah, when Sha and I seemed to dress the exact same way for a whole year, when Jamie used to come down to my room just to taste some of my food, when Busra let me use her single room in Rodin as refuge because I needed a place to be alone, when Sofia drew cartoons of dogs on the blackboard when we were supposed to be solving math equations, when Cristina helped me move out of the Quad, when Rashad saw me crying on Walnut that one crappy day and walked me home, when Hanna made me pesto sandwiches, when Peter first told me the story of how he used to work at Pandora, when Clare and I watched documentaries on Bill Cunningham and Banksy like the nerds we are, when Julia and I dressed to the nines to go to Trader Joe’s during fling, when Selina got really tipsy and started walking down Locust with locked knees, when Claire and I pulled an all nighter to the soundtrack of Frozen, when Zohair, Keyan and I sang Taylor Swift tunes at the corner of the street while waiting for Penn Ride to pick us up for ice skating, when Adel finished that crossword puzzle with me, when I walked out of Rodin at 7 am to go home to sleep and Irtiqa was walking in to Rodin to go home to sleep and we laughed about it together, when Iman called the dentist demanding on my behalf that I get some pain killers after my tooth surgery, when Adam gave me crap for not following him back on Instagram, when Fayaaz took me to South Street for the first time,  when Habeeb, Doc, Yusra and I were on MSA Social Committee together, when Ahsen presented me with a tiara for my birthday, when Ahmed and I Uber-ed back from our night class at the museum, when Petra took me out to lunch as a lost little freshman, when my freshman year RA Cat gave me advice about making friends. It was all real. And I want to remember it all.

Really, it has been my friends. My friends were the ones who made this all bearable, who made this all worth it. I was talking to Professor Pollack last week, who told me about how he felt that he “had found his people” when he went to Harvard for grad school. Though I did not love the school per se, I had that same sneaking suspicion about my new friends when I came to Penn. In October, Shahirah, May May and I had a spontaneous sleepover and in the morning, decided to go to King of Prussia to shop. On the bus to the mall, I was stuck with the My Little Pony song, Friendship Is Magic and they were probably like what is wrong with this girl, but I don’t think I told them that the reason I even thought of that song in the first place was the line “I used to wonder what friendship would be, until you all shared its magic with me.” To all my friends at Penn (and I’m sorry if I didn’t mention your name here, it was inevitable that I’d miss someone), I knew when I met each one of you that I had been waiting my whole life to meet you. I think that’s the kind of feeling people describe when they talk about meeting their soulmates, so how lucky was I to have felt that with so many of you? I respect you all so much, and I will look up to you for the rest of my life. I am grateful to have met you and I will miss you all. I am 100% the type of person who gets random flashbacks of memories all the time and usually when I do, I make a mental note to mention it the next time I see that person but because I don’t know when I will see most of you next, be totally prepared for me to text you all random “omg do you remember that time when…” texts, just because that’s the kind of thing I do. And I hope to see you again soon.

So I guess, this is it. It’s over. I don’t really know what else to say, I didn’t have a nice sweet ending planned with a bow on top or whatever. But thank you, I guess. I think I will spend years of my life belatedly uncovering the gems Penn has given me that I currently don’t yet see. But for now, I will try to let it sink in that this was all once a dream, and despite everything I’ve gone through here, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything else. Penn and everyone I’ve had the pleasure of meeting here, you are now the people and place that makes me, me.


P.S. For the few months leading up to graduation, I interviewed some of my friends about our plans or lack thereof and recorded all of those conversations. I then transcribed them and edited them into a little audio thing, and if you’re curious, have 40 minutes to spare or would just like to hear my rambly voice, you can listen to it here.

Just Like That

I always knew it would happen, but having it all actually happen felt both very emotional and anti-climactic at the same time. Two Mondays ago (because I owe you a blog post from that week) I went for my last Barre class at Pottruck (our gym) with the instructor, Diane. As we were about to leave, I said my goodbyes and almost teared up and lost my words but thankfully for the power of social norms/conventions, I didn’t. I did my usual thing where I asked for a picture and she obliged and just like that, I don’t know when I’ll ever see her again.

The entire week was full of lasts. I had my last class on Tuesday, it was Astronomy. Look, I know I’ve not had the best relationship with this class—in fact, when he posted a poll about how we felt about the class, this is how I answered.

I kinda wanted to answer the first option but the poll wasn’t anonymous, hahaha. So anyway, yeah, I didn’t love it but it was good for me. I learned so much. The seasons are not caused by varying distances from the sun. Spacetime was not a thing invented by Hollywood. We only ever see one side of the moon. I walked out of DRL that day and was like, wow I’m done. But at the same time… I didn’t quite have the time to feel that way because immediately, I was thrown into finals season. So honestly, it did not feel like anything major. It was more like… just another semester.

The thing that made me most feel sad was having my last post-Astronomy lunch with Ken and Hui Jie. I made us play some Sporcle geography quizzes at lunch just to make it extra special too, hehe. But the rest of the week was just back to work. I had a poster presentation thing with the Psychology department where you have to present what you’ve been doing research on, and all the faculty will come talk to you and ask you questions. I have to admit, my poster printing was a pretty last minute situation… so much so that I was kinda working on it at other events and stuff right up to the very minute I had to print it. But it all turned out okay. I stood in front of my poster for 2 hours. Ken and Hui Jie turned up to support me!

Thinking back now, that day was so annoyingly hectic. I had to meet my research advisor to just go over what to put on my poster again, but I could only stay 20 mins because I had to go to Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg’s Authors@Wharton event, which I ended up being a little late to and having to leave early because I wanted to attend the Pan Asian American Community House (PAACH) end of year celebration… which I also had to leave early because it would’ve ended at 8-ish and I had to book my poster printing appointment with the printer at 7. It really annoys me whenever I know I’m not really being present at any one place, and that’s one thing I’m glad to move on from right now.

Besides the rushing around though, it was a good day. Sheryl Sandberg’s talk thing was so good. Seriously. I cried almost throughout the entire thing. She was talking about her new book with Wharton professor Adam Grant, which is all about grief and how we deal with it. She lost her husband two years ago and this book was born out of that experience.

Sandberg talked about how we tend to not ask how people are doing anymore if it’s not the first time we’ve seen them since a traumatic/heartbreaking incident happened because we are afraid we will “remind them” of it. She made a very good point, which is that we can’t remind anyone they lost their husband. They already know that, and are probably thinking about it constantly. She also talked about how it’s more useful for us to say “there’s this thing I can do to help you” when we’re trying to support someone as opposed to “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help” because the latter puts the onus on the person who is hurting to figure things out. I thought that was really powerful.

She also pointed out links between grief and confidence: when she got back to work after losing her husband, she felt like she was not at her best at all. And it made her feel like “great, I lost my husband now I’m going to lose my job too”. According to her, what helps during this time is pointing out little things that the person who’s hurting usually doesn’t need complimenting on in order to build back their confidence. I just really related to all of that so much and I think it was all such useful advice. I’m very excited to read Option B this summer.

Then, Thursday and Friday (and the rest of the weekend) were reading days, which are essentially days off for you to study before finals but people end up using them to have farewell events etc. I had two that weekend, one with Malaysians at Penn and the other with the Muslim Students Association.

The MAP senior sendoff was fun because it was really yummy Malaysian food at this place called Sate Kampar in South Philly. The MSA one was also really fun because we were such a huge group and it was nice to see all the MSA seniors together. They gave us superlatives (I got “most likely to go viral” LOL) and sweet little cards at the end of the night and I was so moved. Honestly, these two communities have been a huge part of making me feel at home at Penn and I’m sad to “leave” it but I know they were always part of the process of supporting us as we go on to bigger and better things.

Fun fact: MSA senior send off was initially supposed to be at this Indian restaurant called Sitar which made me so excited because at the time I found out, I had been craving it for ages. I think I was almost going to go to Sitar on the day they told me about the dinner but when they said it would be held there I decided to wait. PLOT TWIST. The afternoon before the event, they changed the location to Manakeesh. I went to Sitar for lunch immediately.

The rest of the weekend was dedicated to poring over the Astronomy textbook. I hadn’t been doing a good job of keeping up with the material so it really was like binge-watching a tv show except, it was binge-reading a textbook. I was actually quite nervous about how much I didn’t know so those few days were intense. I did little else other than eat sleep and read that textbook. The exam on Tuesday actually turned out pretty well considering how (not) prepared I was! I was very happy with how I did and was glad to be done with the class. So there. This blog can say goodbye to me complaining about that class now.

I spent the rest of the evening after the exam hardcore chilling. Professor Connolly took all her TAs out to thank us for the semester so that was fun—I have loved getting to know her over the past year more as a person, beyond the classroom. Then Cristina came over to my place and we made broccoli and cheddar soup for dinner. I have to say, it was pretty good. I spent the rest of the night catching up on the past season of The Big Bang Theory (oops, guess I wasn’t really done with Astronomy then).

The rest of my finals were relatively chill. I had to write a paper about my research (which I had already written half of) and take an exam for my Psychology class (which was based on only the last few weeks of material and was open book). I took my Psychology final on Thursday evening (though I ended up forgetting the book!) then came back to write the rest of that research paper thing.

The next morning—let me warn you, this story is about to take a turn but I promise I’ll bring it back—I woke up, watched a YouTube video about how to make the best grilled cheese sandwich and got out of bed to go make it. I switched the light on and I saw something spread out on the kitchen counter. I wondered, “huh, what did I spill?!” before I realised, to my utter heartbreak and terror, that my bread had been chewed through from the side, through the plastic by a RAT!!!!!!!!!!! I mean I didn’t actually see it but what else could it be?!

I was so scared I couldn’t go back in there. I told Shahirah about it then texted my family about the scene I had just witnessed. My sister laughed about the fact that I called it a “scene” so in order to justify my word choice, I marched back into the kitchen to take a picture. AND I SAW IT, GUYS!!! I SAW THE LITTLE CREATURE. I screamed sooooooo louddddd and just start shaking and burst into spontaenous tears.

Naturally, I just packed up my stuff and left to go to Starbucks. Hey, don’t judge. I had a paper to write still (told you I’d bring it back to the paper). So yeah, I spent the rest of my morning terrified but powering through, proof reading my paper and editing last bits. It was due at 5. By about 2, I was really done and was just staring at it. That was it. It was over. I still had to print it out and submit it to the department but… I was done. I’m now a “graduate”, even though I feel no different at all.

After putting it off enough, I went to print and submit it. Then I just sat in the lobby of the psychology building for a bit…. feeling… I really don’t know what I was feeling. It felt like I was suspended in air. Floating. Cut loose from gravity or whatever. It was just me in a chair, awkwardly looking around. No confetti, no smarter than I was the day before. It was strange.

Because I didn’t want to linger and that feeling of weirdness, I got bubble tea and went to Ken and Hui Jie’s to hang out. We spent hours…. I can’t even remember what we were doing but I know it ended with us playing Sporcle for a few hours. I love those two, and I love Sporcle. So. Much. In that moment, I really just wanted to pause time and soak up the feeling. It’ll never really be like that again, just spontaneously hanging out at someone’s place for 7 hours, ending up playing geography quizzes. I loved it. But then that ended too, because we were all heading out on little holidays in the morning but as of midnight that night, had not even started packing.

Hui Jie and I are in Chicago right now (she’s asleep next to me as I type this all out on my phone because I didn’t want to bring my laptop). Ken, May May, Peter and Selina are in Tennessee. Shahirah is with Fahmida in Seattle. We’ll all be back for commencement ceremonies and all of that soon but, just like that, ~college~ is over.

Graduation Goggles?

I had coffee recently with an alum named Alex, who asked me how it feels to be so close to the end of my college career. I think about this a lot—like, I can actually confidently say I think about it everyday—but I never really know what to say when someone asks.

In a way, I like it. I like that it’s coming to an end because I’m so tired. I’m not saying that the “real world” is easier than school because I know that you’re responsible for so much more once you start working etc (or at least, so I’ve been told), but the thing about being in college is that you are doing your job 24/7. I wake up in the morning even on weekends and I try to get to work as soon as possible. I am tempted to get into bed at 11.30 p.m. on a weekday and my mind sends out an internal alert that’s basically saying, “um, are you sure you can afford that?”. Working hours are so fluid, so boundaryless. If you’re writing an essay or studying for an exam, there’s always another sentence you can edit or another chapter you could go over again. There’s just no limit to how much you can work, especially when you LIVE on a campus and almost everywhere you look, people are working. Imagine living in your office with all your colleagues?! Anyway. I’m eager to get away from this pressure cooker of a place.

I also like the feeling of being almost done. It’s this silly thing that our human brains do where like, we see things differently the closer we are to it being finished. You know what I mean: graduation goggles. I now have all this premature nostalgia and it’s so interesting because it’s one thing to have nostalgia about a phase of your life that’s behind you, but it’s a whole other thing to feel nostalgic about something that hasn’t ended, because it’s this brief window of time when you get to live it and almost miss it at the same time. When Alex asked me how I felt, I told her it feels strange—there were all these things I had always known I should feel grateful for but still used to whine about, and now I’m suddenly talking about them like “Wow isn’t this great? This is amazing. Look at this bitter cold, it’s wonderful. I have a midterm next week, how exciting!”

Okay, obviously that was a slight exaggeration. But yeah, I walk down Walnut on my way to class every day and in my mind I’m like, “thanks, Philly; thanks for hosting me these past few years”. Most (if not all) of my freshman-year wide-eyed wonder dissipated without notice a long time ago. I no longer walk through any corner of campus feeling the need to look around, no more “what building is this?”, no more “oh, that’s where that road leads to”. All that freshness has gone, only to be replaced by a sense of familiarity and comfort. But this premature nostalgia, these “graduation goggles” have resurrected my freshman-year eyesight to some extent. For the first time in a long time, I’m seeing Van Pelt library as a brilliant resource instead of just referring to it as a place that smells like socks and feels like fatigue. For the first time in a long time, I’m trying to go to as many events as I can instead of mindlessly skimming through Facebook event invites. It’s nice.

But of course, I can’t ignore the undercurrent of impending grief that powers my nostalgia. I have said this repeatedly, but soon, I won’t live within a 1-mile radius of all my friends. My friends are not going to come over at a moment’s notice at midnight to hang out with me until we can no longer hold up our eyelids. Soon, I won’t be handed dense readings about everything from economics to pop culture and be pushed to read and discuss them. I won’t be invited to hear people like Joe Biden and Malcolm Gladwell speak anymore. That… sucks.

It especially sucks because even though I know I’ve gotten a lot out of Penn—events, speakers, classes, leadership roles, mentors—I don’t see how I’m any better because of it. So, part of me just isn’t ready to leave. It’s like going to the petrol station with a malfunctioning gas indicator and feeling like you can’t leave yet even though you have to because you don’t think your tank is full yet. Does that make sense? Do you know what I mean? I don’t think I’ve gotten enough skills yet, or become smart enough yet. I could still become so much sharper, so much more polished.

Seriously though, I know I’ve mentioned this before but my fear of stagnation runs so deep. I worry that I’ve laboured over all these college courses—without quite knowing how they will someday benefit me—only to settle in a crappy office job where I don’t feel like I’m learning and growing. I am fully aware that I risk sounding like the typical whining millennial but say what you want, I genuinely worry that I’ve worked so hard only for it to not matter, for it to not amount to anything more than to act as a bit of glimmer on an otherwise-dull resume.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I think part of what’s driving this specific feeling is the fact that I’m probably not heading to some high-paying, prestigious job. I feel like the culture at Penn is such that a significant fraction of my graduating class will head to finance and consulting jobs so having other jobs can make you feel like you’re “underachieving”, even if going to Wall Street is the last thing you want. But there is a certain rigor, or at least, a perception of an intellectual rigor that is associated with finance and consulting jobs that I feel like I will be missing out on. I mean, I have to stress that I don’t think other jobs are easy, but the culture at large definitely treats it that way; whether or not you believe it yourself, the belief slowly seeps through your skin and gets to you.

I’m trying to remind myself that there are ways to learn beyond school, even if it means a loss of a structure I’ve gotten so used to. I’m trying to remind myself that meaningful, honest work is never ever beneath me, even if I can calculate in dollar terms what my opportunity cost is. I’m trying to remind myself I am not sealing my fate, that my future isn’t irreversible; it cannot be cemented by donning a cap and gown and walking across the stage. But it’ll take some time.

So, with 11 weeks to go… that’s where I’m at.