My 11 months in Washington, D.C. was nothing short of magical.
It started in September. Hanna picked me up in Philadelphia bright and early with a trunk full of the boxes I stored at her house over the summer. I had that first-day-of-school feeling. I kept joking that it felt like she was dropping me off at sleep away camp. I didn’t have a lot of things and I pretty much finished unpacking by the time she arrived back in Philly.
I didn’t start working until a week after I got there so that first week was mostly me watching Netflix in bed and eating maggi. I was too jet lagged to do anything most of the time. But I had google mapped 14th St long before I got to D.C., and was itching to see it for real so one morning, I decided to get out of the apartment and walk 10 mins down to Trader Joe’s to start stocking up my empty kitchen cabinets. There’s something about using the keys to your own apartment for the first time that feels like staking a claim. And there’s something special about walking down your street for the first time that feels like a ribbon cutting ceremony in the privacy your own mind. It was hot, but not too. It was a moment. I had a bit of a strut in my step. I felt good. Instantly.
It was never like that in Philly. There, I took many timid steps and tentative trips for years. I resisted making it feel like home somehow. But in my senior year, I don’t know, something changed. I think I’ve said that on here before. I just felt like whatever anchor I was dragging for a long time was cut loose. I regretted not loving it there more, or not trying harder to love it. When I was just about to graduate college, I desperately felt like I wanted a bit more time. A bit of a do-over.
And that was partly why I could jump in so wholeheartedly into life in D.C. It was like my second chance. Even back in October I had gotten that sense… it was like I came back to the U.S. after spending the summer after senior year in Malaysia with a voice in my head that said “okay, go again, and love it this time.” And I did.
And nothing has ever fit like a glove the way Washington, D.C. did.
I learned which route on the Metro I liked taking best. I frequented old and new favourite coffee shops around this new city (to me, it was a sign of Mercy that La Colombe—a Philly fav of mine—on Florida Ave was only a 5 min walk from my apartment). I started going to restaurants and ice cream shops with the wonderful people in my intern class. I went through the annoying process of getting health insurance on the D.C. exchange and paying for it myself every month. I learned the roads, the rivers, the suburbs. There was always a wholesome activity to do, whether it was the museums or walking in Rock Creek Park, kayaking on the Potomac, watching movies with MoviePass, or watching The Moth or a comedy show. With the help of my former NPR colleagues, I advocated for myself for a job at D.C.’s NPR member station, WAMU, when my NPR internship ended.
A Baked Joint
And that was other thing. Both of my jobs were a huge part of why D.C. was so special. Back in April, when I found out I got a summer internship with How I Built This, I realised there was a little bit of a wrinkle in my plan. I knew I would have to apply for a post-college work visa. I didn’t realise when I applied that it wouldn’t come through in time for the internship (if it came through at all). So I had to call my would-be supervisor, Jeff, to tell him about my sticky little situation. He had every right to just revoke the opportunity from me, or tell me to reapply. But instead, he deferred me to the Fall internship, which ended up working better for me because I was then able to spend raya at home—it was going to be my sister Aida’s last raya at home in Malaysia for a while, so that was a big deal. In the end if the visa situation wasn’t an issue and I didn’t get deferred, I would’ve had to go 17 months without going back to Malaysia. I would’ve had to spend raya in D.C. before I really got to form any roots. I wouldn’t have gotten to work with Benjamin, who has been one of the biggest joys from the past year. In hindsight, it feels like a pure act of divine intervention. A miracle.
When my stint at NPR was coming to an end in January, I was mired with quite a bit of apprehension about being unemployed. On my visa, you’re not allowed to be unemployed for a certain amount of time and I really didn’t want to eat into that time. And it’s kinda hard to get a job in radio/media. I wasn’t restricting myself to that necessarily, but it was definitely difficult to find a job at all. My time at NPR was ending on the 26th of January. I was introduced to someone at WAMU just one or two weeks before that and just happened to have someone on their team leaving on the 26th. The timing worked perfectly. It was for a job on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, a daily talk-show about local goings-on—in politics, health, culture, transportation, the schools, the environment. It was very intimidating because everything about it was both difficult and unfamiliar for me. I didn’t know D.C. very well (other than where my favourite restaurants and spots were) and I had no experience producing a daily show that was live.
It took me quite some time to settle into a rhythm there but once I did, it just made me love the city 50 times more. When I started learning about the graduation rates, new healthcare policies, elections and the history of the city for the job, I just felt so much more acquainted with it and so much more connected to where I lived. I could walk around with an awareness of what was going on in the neighbourhoods and spheres that I had no personal stake in. I felt integrated and involved, like a real adult who lived in this real city. I loved getting into a Lyft in D.C. and hearing people listen to WAMU—once I even got in and someone was listening to a show I produced! And because Kojo is a local show, people have a much stronger connection to it. I was proud and happy that I was helping people get their stories told and I got a deeper appreciation for local journalism that I had never really thought about before.
So, living in D.C. wasn’t just fun because it was fun. It was fun because I felt like I grew up here. I was invested. I had to swim or I might’ve sunk.
But that isn’t to say that living in D.C. wasn’t fun. It was so, so, so much fun. It’s a great place to be in your early 20s. I loved where I lived. The apartment was so lovely. It’s a little intimidating to move into an apartment with someone you found on Craigslist and only spoke to over Google Hangouts for like 15 minutes. But I really enjoyed living with my roommate so much—a bonus was that she was pescatarian (!) and didn’t eat meat so I never had to worry about bacon/pork/sharing pots etc, haha.
Plus, I loved the friends I made. They are some of the most amazing people I know. A lot of people move to a new city and have trouble growing roots but coming into D.C. with an intern class of 50-60 people was so much fun. Having a group of Malaysians in D.C. to have home-cooked dinner with every few weeks really made me feel comforted. And when my friend Clare who I knew from Penn moved to D.C., it just kept getting better. It was also nice to have people who I could say to people in D.C., “I knew them from before.” (I also liked that in D.C., I had a “before.” I came from somewhere in the U.S., and I had a history.) Plus, people were always visiting D.C. and I loved getting to see my friends like Busra, Jamie and Cristina as they passed through town.
And the neighbourhoods are so wonderful. I can’t even fully say how much. D.C. is so small and so dense but it is built of so many distinct neighbourhoods. With a 30 min walk within D.C., you can feel like you’re in a whole other city because each area is so different. And the neighbourhoods all push against each other and they’re always changing and growing. Something is always happening. There is always something to discover and rediscover.
I also love that most tourists come for the weekend and they don’t see much other than the Mall and the monuments. And maybe they go downtown. Or they venture to U Street. But not everyone knows the amazing scrappy little restaurants in Columbia Heights or Petworth. Or the more sterile Tenleytown. Or historic Shaw. It’s like there’s D.C. the government city, the capital. And then there’s a little Narnia cupboard that you walk through if you live here and it’s D.C., a real, vibrant city.
My life in D.C. is hard to walk away from. I wouldn’t have made that choice had I had a choice. It’s funny how something can fit easily like a glove but can difficult to remove.
As I write this, I’m at the Doha airport and I don’t know how many more of these 24-hour journeys are ahead of me, but by the time you read this, I would probably have braved the entirety of my day-long journey. I will probably be home in my childhood bedroom, with its lavender walls, zoo-animal-themed ceiling light and finger-painted bathroom door. I have absolutely no idea what’s ahead of me, and I know I must resist the urge to keep looking back. But the one thing I know for sure at this point is that that when I do glance backwards, the image in the rear view mirror will be full of magic.
I don’t know if anyone else gets this thing where they’ll get a line stuck in their head, almost like it belongs to a poem or a song and you just have to finish it. I get that a lot. Lately, I’ve been thinking that nostalgia lives in our bodies.
I took a walk around my neighbourhood a few weeks ago and as I passed my secondary school, I could almost hear the school bell and I could almost feel the heat from the brick pavement through my chalk-white school shoes. I don’t miss school much if at all, but in that moment I felt like I could go back, like I was back.
I still open doors in my house slowly and only a little bit at first before opening them all the way because I used to be scared that our cat was waiting outside for his time to bolt in. Katy has been gone for almost a year now.
My mum and I walked around Sunway Pyramid—a mall I used to know so well because I went there all the time—and was surprised by how disoriented I was. We played the guessing game of What Shop Used To Be Here Before This One as we walked through.
I smelled mosquito repellent being sprayed in my kitchen yesterday and instantly, images of Winnie the Pooh vocabulary books and the sounds chants my cousins and I used to sing before bed to stop us from wetting the bed (don’t kencing, don’t kencing, don’t kencing, while being held upside down) all came to my mind.
Nostalgia is shops and basketball courts and Ridsect and bedtime rituals. Nostalgia lives in our bodies, in our muscles and eyes and ears.
I just walked home from Centre City. It’s almost 10.30 PM and I’m sweating. It’s getting very balmy here in Philadelphia. Earlier, on my way out, I stood at the corner of 39th and Chestnut waiting for the 21 bus into the city as I always do. The warm wind was blowing and I could feel the humidity weighing down oh so gently on my face. I couldn’t help feeling like I was home, though I wasn’t sure what that meant. The feeling came almost without description, if that makes sense. I was not sure whether I felt that way because of the warm, heavy, summer air—really, as I stood by the side the road waiting for the bus, I could’ve closed my eyes and lied to myself and pretended I was somewhere in KL—or whether it was because I have come to know this road, this view and this routine so well. I couldn’t say for certain. But have you ever tried to close a door or lock two things together and then you think you’ve shut it or fit it together properly, then later you hear a click and you’re like “Oh! Ok, yeah, now it’s definitely shut”? I know that’s a somewhat specific feeling and perhaps it’s an odd comparison to make, but that’s how I felt on my walk back. I thought I already felt at home here and then, out of nowhere, there was a click. Somewhere between Market and Chestnut on 20th street, I felt that way. And I was sure.
It’s strange to know that there are most probably fewer walks like that ahead of me than there are behind me. I walked home on Walnut with a silly smile spread across my face the whole way. My mind was playing a highlight reel of all the things I’ve seen on my many walks towards West Philly along that road.
On 22nd St, Hui Jie, Shahirah and I once laughed about the fact that we chose the morning after snowstorm Jonas to go grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s. Along the bridge, just before the presidential election, I walked past a man waving a Hillary Clinton flag and he smiled at me and I felt like that meant something, and the next day we lost, and it rained, and I thought about him that morning as I lay in bed and I wondered whether he had a daughter and what he told her, if he did. On 30th St, on a sunny spring day, Fayaaz and I once saw glass shattered all over the road and news reporters at the scene, the aftermath of what we supposed was an accident. At that same spot, on the left, Penn Park, where Shahirah and I took a walk to once in freshman year after we got back from London and I remember I wore my Gap jumper, purple sweatpants and orange Adidas shoes which I had just recently thrown away. Just after that, World Cafe Live, where Habeeb, Dania, Osama, Ben and I saw someone propose to his girlfriend in front of a whole crowd, with a rap song. Then, the ice skating rink, which is where every year, I go to the MSA midnight ice skating event (except for that one year where I had to write a PSCI paper on India and Nigeria) and maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many pictures of myself at these events but I can tell you exactly what wore to that event each year. Further ahead, I passed by the Nanotech building on my right where I once sat with Hui Jie after Astronomy, eating grape leaves from Magic Carpet, listening to a Planet Money episode about trade adjustment assistance. On the left after crossing 33rd St, (which has a traffic light that always stays on green in this direction for a long time; I never think I’m going to make it but I always do) I passed some engineering building I can’t name on the left, where I had to walk to in the cold, with slippers, twice, to get Shahirah’s keys from her because I had an awful tendency to lock myself out.
Somewhere in my diary, I keep a list of reasons why it is humbling to be human and one of the reasons is that I don’t understand the reason we keep and seek happy memories. My mind sometimes reminds me of art museums. There all these things I store in different sections of my brain… things I take mental strolls to look at, things that make me pause, tilt my head to the side and think or smile or cry or laugh about. And just like how people value art more the more intricate it is (or at least, I think they do), I cling on more tightly to the more the granular memories. When I say “I remember what I wore that day” or “I remember what song I was listening to on my way there”, I feel like it is comparable to the way people talk about textures and brush strokes. Maybe you’re more cultured than I am and you know why we have art museums and like visiting them but I don’t, other than the fact that I like looking at paintings because they’re aesthetically pleasing and sometimes make me feel things. I think people say art enriches our souls or something like that but no one has ever explained to me what purpose museums really serve even though we protect and preserve them… and that’s kinda how I feel about the galleries of memories I curate in my head. There are all these things, and I don’t know what they’re for, but they’re mine, and I like them. I like them a lot.
So, also on that list of why it’s humbling to be human is that we have so little control over what we forget. I enjoy remembering and sitting down and memorising lists because I know that if I put in the effort, I’ll retain the information. There is an efficacy associated with remembering. But I don’t think you can say the same about forgetting. How crazy is that? Really, think about it. It amazes me every single time I try. Someday, and I don’t know when, but the details will blur and I will be left with a glimmer of something that happened at some point in some place.
I feel so, so, so taken by all of this if you can’t already tell. I feel taken by it more than I know how to say… which brings me to the last thing I have on that list, and that is we are confined to the words we know how to use. I can only express to you how I feel to the extent that I can say so. I am so frustrated that the depth of both my grief and gratitude cannot be matched by the shallowness of the sentences I know how to construct. But if I had to try to tell you how I felt on my walk home today, I would say this: I don’t know what all these memories are for. I don’t know why I keep them like paintings in a museum. I don’t know why I replay them over and over in my head like a chart-topping pop song on the radio. I think I’ve never said this before—or if I have, you could count the number of times with a single hand—but to the humble portion of Philadelphia that I’ve come to know and call home, I love you, I love you, I love you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all these memories. They’re mine and I like them a lot. I like you a lot.
Last week, I put out my very first attempt at “narrative audio journalism” (if you can call it that) called “Ready or Not”. If you missed it in last week’s post, you can still listen to it on Soundcloud! Actually, please do, because it’s so close to 100 plays!! Haha.
To be very frank, I wasn’t too happy with how it turned out. It was only after publishing it that I realized I had accidentally cut out a part of Hanna’s interview. The music probably wasn’t at the right volume and honestly, I don’t think it even appeared at appropriate times. I don’t even think each audio clip was at the same volume. I was recording my narrations at 1 a.m.—because I didn’t have a studio, I needed to wait for the traffic outside to slow down before I could record. This meant having to use my croaky voice. I felt like I didn’t give it all the attention it deserved. I started working on this in early February but kind of stalled working on it during the school year because I was busy and then later rushed it after commencement because I didn’t want to “miss the moment” or whatever and I’m kind of annoyed at myself for that.
Still, I was so encouraged by and thankful for the support from everyone who listened. I recall that I have mentioned this project on here a couple of times and said I would explain more when I have the time, so I’m going to take you through what I did and why I decided to even do this in the first place. Fair warning, this a pretty lengthy one.
Some of you might know that most of my junior and senior years in college have been fraught with the search for a job. I did the whole consulting thing for a while and that… didn’t turn out so well. I failed to get a consulting internship the summer after junior year and failed again to get a full time job in my senior year. I really wanted it and for a while, I really thought that was the track I was going to take. Both times, I came so close and I didn’t get it. It sucked. But I got over it. Still, that meant I had to find something to do.
If you remember, last summer I would mention quite often in my posts that I had discovered this and that podcast (my two first favs were Millennial and Start Up!!) and I would rave about it endlessly both in my posts and to my friends. I was so enamoured by the medium and it was one of those things that was like… “this is amazing and I actually think I could do this.” But I never thought of myself as brave, risk-taking or creative so the idea of going out and running my own podcast was just an interesting thought to be kept for future reference… for when I somehow become gutsier and smarter (and have saved more money from working very hard at some other cutthroat job first).
But when the consulting job route didn’t pan out, there was nothing else I wanted to or thought I could do. Nothing. Everything I considered would’ve been a job just for the sake of having a job and that made me so repulsed? depressed? I don’t know. I remember talking to my parents once and they were like, “just search for jobs in whatever, like HR or sales or something” and in my mind, I was like “SALES???????” It’s not like anything was wrong with a job in sales per se, I think it just made me feel like college and my years of prep didn’t matter. Because I spent four hard years getting a liberal arts education, and the idea that really stuck with me in my time here is that we should work with a firm purpose, do something that means something and be of service to society (and no, the irony was not lost on me that I wanted a consulting job, but to be fair, that was to “gain skills” and “save money” so that I could do what I really wanted—such a typical Penn student trope!). But the picture I had of a sales job (admittedly a misguided one) was someone standing in a mall handing out flyers and you might see why I didn’t want that.
Yeah, it is a very millennial story line. I knew objectively that many people don’t start out at thebest job they can get, but instead, patiently and diligently work their way through. Regardless, I fell prey to the “I worked so hard for… this?” line of thought. At this point I think I had already decided I would apply for internships in the radio and podcasting industry. I didn’t think I would get anything though, given my utter lack of experience. In other words, that was more of a “I will give it my best shot and put this first but think about other things also” plan. Still, eager to get my hands dirty and to overcome the inertia of inexperience, I decided I had to make something.
At this point, I was sad and anxious and maybe even a little angry. I had these burning questions: What was it all even for? And what do I do now that it’s almost over? I knew my friends and I had been having a lot of conversations about these things. In particular, I remember Shahirah and I talking in her room one night and she told me that even though she already had a job from the outset because of her scholarship situation, didn’t have to pick a major and didn’t feel pressured to get good internships over the summer—things that often made me feel anxious—she still felt lost because college is such a good time to figure out what you love doing and when she’s done serving her bond to her employer, she won’t have that same college environment to help her figure out what she wants to do. Around the same time, I spoke to Professor Pollack (while sipping a chai latte in futile efforts to stop myself from tearing up) about not knowing what to do next and feeling like all my hard work was pointless because I felt like I wouldn’t ever do anything meaningful with my life. Then, we talked about how you never know where one thing is going to lead you, how there is often only one spot at the top job but that doesn’t mean everyone else is doomed and there is always something to be learned wherever you end up.
I loved having conversations like these and on those days I remember wishing I could write about them on my blog or share them with more people or just mobilize them in some way. So, that got me thinking about talking to other people and recording it into a podcast type thing. For a long time, I told people that it would be about “graduation anxieties” and how we navigate them.
I had a strong gut feeling that it was a good idea but I had no clue what I was doing. Last summer, I spent some nights taking an online class on using audio for storytelling by Alex Blumberg (the founder of the podcast production company Gimlet Media and former host of Start Up and Planet Money—who, you might recall, I was ecstatic to meet last January!!!!). I watched YouTube videos and read lots of articles on Transom about equipment and writing an outline and doing interviews but you know, reading about how to drive isn’t going to help you actually learn to drive, right? So then I kind of took the plunge, I guess.
First, deciding who to interview was partly easy because I knew I wanted Shahirah and Ken, two of my really good friends who had these different life trajectories. I knew I wanted a couple of people who didn’t know what they were doing yet and luckily Clare and Rashad were both willing to be my subjects. I knew I wanted someone who had been through it all, and that was my friend Hanna. I had known that I would interview Professor Pollack since that day in his office, but I needed something more. It didn’t feel complete. This was like mid-late February. Around that time, Penn Perspectives (a lecture series for seniors that I was participating in) invited the University Chaplain, Chaz Howard to come speak to us.
At that lecture, Chaz talked about how it’s funny how when you’re in college you have all these titles like President of this and that organisation and you have all these underclassmen who know your name and you wear your club sweatshirt or varsity jacket and it means something on this campus. But if you come back to Penn after you graduate, you know almost no one, and all those titles you used to have now mean nothing, and then who are you? Who are you, stripped from your job and your identity as a student? He also talked about finding comfort in mystery, trusting the “interruptions” in our lives that are divine interventions leading us to where we really need to go, and how the fruits of our success should help other things grow. By the end of it, so many of us in the crowd were bawling. We were so moved. The next morning, I emailed him asking if I could interview him and it was such a great decision. I think he really added a lot of heart to the story.
I absolutely loved interviewing Chaz because on top of being wise, he is such a natural at speaking in front of a mic! I loved our entire conversation, which made picking sound bites from his interview so difficult. I didn’t end up including this but in that interview, we also discussed the parallels between moving from high school to college and moving from college to work. In both cases, you make new friends and readjust to new environments. You tweak/rebuild your identity. He had this great metaphor about seeing college freshmen slowly stop wearing their high school athlete clothes and how we will learn to do that again when we go into the workplace. It made me realise that even though I dreaded the anxiety of leaving college, I’ve kind of… done it before. We all have. I couldn’t fit that part into the piece but it’s one of my favourite bits of tape I ended up excluding.
[Slight digression: after I interviewed Chaz, he told his friend Jennifer Lynn, a radio host on Philadelphia’s local radio station, about me. She later gave me a phone call and offered me advice on making audio pieces. We later sat down together, Jennifer, Chaz and me, and chatted about my project. I completely forgot about this, but that conversation was recorded and was featured on WHYY a few weeks ago along with a blog post featuring an excerpt from my interview with Chaz. It was pretty cool. Listen to it here!]
Anyway, the problem with using what Chaz and Professor Pollack said as an ending though, was that it was very… “I was confused but then I learned this cliche thing and everything became ok” and that just didn’t sit well with me. It begged the question: so why do we do this? Why do we feel this way? The week after Chaz spoke at Penn Perspectives, we had a lecture by Adam Grant. It was early March. He mentioned how he anticipates that by September, like most Septembers, his inbox will get filled with emails from fresh grads in Finance careers asking if he thinks it’s reasonable for them to hang on in these jobs until January just so they can say 2017-2018 on their resumes. He talked about how even though we know what will and won’t make us happy or fulfilled, we tend to ignore what we know and do something else. I thought it fit perfectly into the tentative narrative I had cooking in the back of my mind.
That same night, he also gave us some advice about making the most out of the last few months in college. He said to email the professors you want to connect with and to do it before you graduate because professors feel more obliged to help a current student and that privilege quickly wanes once you graduate. So I emailed him. I told him I liked his talk and I wanted to include what he said in my project and he replied asking me to schedule a time for a phone call! Adam Grant is one of my favourite authors, so that moment was probably one of the highlights of my senior year. Of course, because he was busy, that conversation couldn’t happen until 3 weeks later. When we spoke, he asked me for my notes from the talk, he told me my project sounds great, that I shouldn’t worry about misquoting him and he even offered to help me make connections with people in radio. Yeah, it was definitely one of the highlights of my senior year.
Anyway, back to interviews. Scheduling was difficult but I managed to get seven interviews done within a couple of weeks. I think interviewing people was kind of easy because I knew the people I had selected were naturally introspective and I knew what perspective they would add to the story. It was just a matter of asking them in the right way for the conversation to sound organic and not rigid. I was kinda worried about interviewing people and then realising I couldn’t use something because I didn’t ask the right follow up question or whatever but honestly, I had so much tape that whenever something absolutely didn’t work, I just tossed it. In the end, the hardest part about interviewing people was to not interject them when they speak and chime in with an “I know, right!” or something like that, haha.
As for equipment, I knew the Penn library had these simple audio recorders I could borrow for 3 days at a time and I knew that the Kelly Writers House had a recording studio I could book to use for interviews. I ended up using a mix of both just because scheduling was tricky. The thing about the recorders from the library was that they come in these bright bulky yellow boxes and I’d sometimes take two out just in case I couldn’t figure out how to use one of the two and I would carry them around with me through campus. Sometimes I’d also be lugging a tripod and ugh, my shoulders were not happy with me all of those days. Even so, the project made me really grateful to be at a place like Penn where resources were never a problem.
The next step was to transcribe my interviews. I knew that was the “industry standard” or whatever and I also felt it was the most intuitive thing to do because then I could treat writing the outline and my eventual narration as writing a paper and treat the transcriptions as “sources”. Transcribing took so long though. I had about 200 minutes of recordings. Two hundred! And if you’ve ever tried typing out something word for word as you listened, you’ll know it’s not that easy. Every minute of audio ended up taking like 5-7 minutes to transcribe so you know, do the math. Plus, this was during the school year! I finished getting all my interviews early March and ended up only finishing transcriptions in early April. It amounted to about 23,000 words!
At this point, I told several people whose insight and/or writing I trusted about what I was working on. One of those people was my friend Kimberly Siew. Kim and I took a Creative Writing class together last Fall and became fast friends—our classmates found it difficult to believe that we didn’t know each other before that class. She’s an excellent writer and better yet, she’s great at workshopping pieces and giving feedback. So one night, after I baked some (delicious) pecan cupcakes, we sat on my couch and I kind of bounced ideas off of her. I never really understood that phrase, too bounce ideas off of? What does that even mean? But this felt truly collaborative. I would tell her my issues with the tape that I had and how I wasn’t sure how to fill the gaps, we’d throw out some options and exchange comments and I really think our conversation that night became the backbone of the existing structure of my piece.
Another person I spoke to was Jamie-Lee Josselyn, who actually taught the class Kim and I took together. She helped me think about how to go about deciding what to include and omit so as to hone in on what I want to get across. Basically, I needed to trust my instincts and be very aware of when I get bored listening. I also spoke to Caroline Connolly, whose Intro to Psychology class I TA-ed for this past year. I brought it up before class once because I had also taken a Developmental Psychology seminar with her called Modern Young Adulthood, which was all about the psychological processes related to the transition into adulthood so I felt it was relevant. We ended up getting coffee after her lecture one of the days and just spent like 3 hours talking.
It was in that conversation with Connolly that she mentioned the cliff metaphor which you hear in the piece: a lot of people treat graduation like it’s final, like you’re jumping off a cliff. I told her that day that I know it’s silly and that even though I feel that way too, I know I shouldn’t. But she told me that it’s normal because in a way it is final for so many of us. It’s the last time of our lives we’ll dedicate solely to pursuing knowledge formally. What that subtly implies is that we should be prepared because we’re “done learning”. Obviously that’s not exactly true, but it helped me see why we are so prone to thinking that way. A lot of my conversations with both Jamie-Lee and Professor Connolly did end up informing the way I thought about writing my outlines.
Even with all that inspiration, it took some time to write my outline. I didn’t know what the overarching narrative would be. Kim and I had kind of come up with several takeaways for the ending, and I already knew what the starting point was (me crying like a dramatic millennial about how nothing matters lol) but I had no idea how to use the hours of recordings I had gathered to get from point A to point B. I was very intimidated by the amount tape I had (200 minutes!!! 23,000 words!!!). I felt like so much of it was insightful and I wasn’t sure how to get it down to 40 minutes. And not just any 40 minutes but an impactful and coherent 40 minutes.
I sat down with printed versions of the transcripts, highlighted my favourite parts and labelled them to find common threads. The problem was, it was very difficult to write for audio and I found that I couldn’t quite treat it the same way I approached writing papers for classes because with a written thing you could more easily just pluck out short quotes and use these bracket things […] lol. Plus, for classes, the topic is usually more critical and well-defined (at least, in my experience) so arguments tend to be more logical. This was kind of an audio diary. I felt like it could more easily fall down the slippery slope of being rambly and whiny or overly emotional. So, I “zoomed out” and really looked at things at the base level to try to focus on the most barebone outline.
Then I wrote it. I think by mid-April, I had a rough draft. I sat down with my friend Clare first to discuss the outline because she’s a great writer and spent 3 years at Penn as a writing tutor and because I had been talking to her about it all semester. I knew she understood the core idea of it. We made some adjustments and I spent another couple of days tweaking it. Then, I gave it to Shahirah, Ken and Hui Jie for comments. It was helpful for me that they pointed out where I wasn’t clear enough and things like that.
At this point, Hui Jie mentioned something that I had already kind of been thinking about but tried to ignore… and it was that I introduced one person and then the next and then the next whereas a lot of podcasts splice the interviews to clump the issues together. She pointed out that it made the piece seem a little repetitive because of there are kind of repeated problem-resolution sequences instead of a more concerted structure: all the different problems lumped in the beginning and then an overarching resolution in the end. I agreed with her and wanted to take some more time to think about it but I never ended up making the time because by that point we were getting close to finals and the typical end of semester/year craze.
So yeah, then it kind of got pushed to the side until all the cacophony of commencement died down. By then, I decided I just needed to do it. So, I literally dragged a chair into my closet, hung my bathrobe behind me and placed my phone amongst my clothes to minimise echo as much as possible. (Side note: this is a Ted Talk about audio storytelling that features journalists recording in all sorts of funny arrangements) Safe to say, I was sweating by the end of it. Then, I spent the next day or so editing it on Hindenburg, which I chose to use solely because during World Radio Day last February, this $95 software was on sale for $1.90!
After editing it, I gave it a listen and I just knew it still needed a touch of music. Just a little bit, nothing too dramatic. I tried tinkering with GarageBand but for the life of me, I just could not figure it out. Luckily, over a year ago when I hung out with my friend Osama, we got to talking about his experience making music with GarageBand and Logic Pro. So I just sent him a text asking for help and thank god he was still on campus. He was so kind to let me (poorly) hum to him what I wanted and he improvised and made it a lot cooler. Honestly, it amazes me what my friends can do. We ended up spending a couple of hours catching up too, which was really nice. I was seriously so glad he was around to help me with that final touch.
And after layering the music tracks over the audio, I finally put it out there! My project! I was carrying it with me for months. I remember transcribing while eating sweet potato fries at Hip City Veg, while waiting for my flight at LAX and at my table at night after I finished my homework. I remember sheepishly asking my friends if I could interview them and carrying all that equipment around. I know I said I wasn’t absolutely happy with the end result but I’m glad I did it because it felt like a culmination of my Penn career; something to show for that I actually made. Something I hope to continue to do for a long time.
So I guess now’s probably the best time to say what I’ve been actively withholding from saying on here for months. That is, I’m going to be interning at NPR in Washington, DC this coming Fall inshaAllah. After so long, it felt like everything made sense and I’m so, so, so grateful because it feels like a dream. It might not have been the path I initially thought of taking but I feel really good about it.
Anyway. This has been my longest post ever (I really didn’t think I’d write such a long one so soon after the commencement one!)and I’m sorry if I went into greater detail than anyone needed or wanted haha but thanks for reading anyway and if you listened to my audio piece, thank you so much!!!
Lastly, I wrote this because I know someday I’m going to forget all the hard work it took me to learn even the most basic things even though they had once seemed like insurmountable challenges. This will remind future me that if you take it step by step, you’ll find a way. And if you’re reading this and there’s something you’ve always wanted to work on but don’t know how, I hope this shows you that sometimes people don’t start out with all the talent. Sometimes people succeed at doing the things they initially didn’t know how to. You persist by taking things one step at a time and slowly, things start to come together. And even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly, the feeling of proving your own self wrong and reaching beyond what you thought was your limit is so, so sweet.
I really like London. In London, the news comes on and I recognise the intro tune from a time I can’t remember. There’s the corner of Hyde Park where we all shared a crayfish sandwich. Even tube stations leave me with a lot to be nostalgic about: I know I’ve been to Queensway with Eugene, we used to go to Holland Park a lot when my uncle lived there, we took the stairs down the Covent Garden station by (a huge) mistake once. We’ve been to this restaurant before. Oh, and there’s Whitleys, where Natasha couldn’t finish her sour mango ice cream.
I think I like places for a past. That’s why moving to Philadelphia over three years ago was so difficult. Here was a land I had never step foot in, one I had scarcely ever heard about from the people I knew. A switch in a mailing address does not equate moving homes.
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 didnt just happen. I earned this. We earn the places we call home.
It feels surreal to be back one last time. It feels like it has been ages since I was last here, but at the same time, I feel like winter break never happened and the only evidence I ever left is the number of Sainsbury’s bags I have on my bedroom floor.
It’s bound to be an interesting semester and I’ve started it with…. a trip to the doctor’s and cups and cups of hot tea. Haha, sigh. I’m sick. Again. I must’ve gotten it from my mum and sister in London, but now I’m breathing through my mouth and don’t have an appetite and lol idk. It is what it is la huh?
I’m trying for a more relaxed semester than the one I had last Fall, which really kept me busy constantly. But I don’t know if that will happen. I was done with my president post in December, but now I’ve got my hands tied in 2 more side projects/activities. I’m taking 4 classes instead of 5, but I signed up for a weekly lecture series so it kind of adds up to 5. I’m still TA-ing for Intro Psych. So, we’ll see—it seems like busy is the only way I know how to function, haha. Considering I actually did pretty well last semester, it might not be a bad thing to keep my hands full. But I do want to spend more time with friends and enjoy the city before I leave. Hmm. Anyway, I’ll keep you updated 🙂
(shoutout to my mom for correcting 2 typos on this post lol)
I’m sitting on the balcony at work while I write this because the office is freezing and I have a bit of a cold. Ok, a lot of a cold. But it’s so nice and warm out here. There’s natural light and I can play music out loud on my laptop.
It’s Friday and I’m done with my third week of this year’s internship! Although, honestly, because they were a little… disorganised, this felt more like my first week. I haven’t been doing that much but at least I finally feel like I’m learning. Most importantly, I’m learning about being more assertive. If I don’t know how to do something, I know I can approach someone and ask them. If I disagree with something, I’m practicing raising my hand and kindly pushing back. I like feeling like I’m growing a backbone.
I haven’t done too much other than go to work and come back, but as you might have seen from my 100 Happy Days post, yesterday was Ayden’s birthday! Ayden is my cousin’s son, and currently the only member of the next generation in our family so he gets a lot of attention. We were all at my cousin’s house yesterday to celebrate his turning 2 🙂 he’s obsessed with Toy Story right now I think, so there were Toy Story-themed decorations. And he got his own little car as a surprise present! I wish you would have seen his reaction when his parents revealed the present. He was so clearly moved. I would’ve thought most children would just run towards the car screaming, but Ayden had to kinda like take a moment to process it and he walked towards the toy car slowly, but beaming, with his hands on his mouth. It was the cutest thing!
There are so many people I want to meet now that I’m home but since I’m working for the bulk of the time I’m back, it’s actually quite difficult because I find myself just wanting to spend time with my parents and sisters at night. Going out for buka puasa is kinda leceh (troublesome) and to be honest, I’m quite malas (lazy) to do that. And I always like to sleep early on week nights so going out after Isya’ is also a meh for me. So I’m a little overwhelmed because I do want to see my friends but plans to meet up tend to come all at once and I don’t know how to spread them out. I feel bad but obvs my family is priority plus I also want to maintain a certain rhythm and normalcy to being home. That is, feeling like I’m just home as opposed to home for a while. I don’t know if that makes sense.
This past week has been turbulent, hasn’t it? I don’t want to talk about it too much because I know we’re all saturated with bad news, but I just want to remind people to have faith in each other. Reach out to people you think may be affected by the news. This means muslims, people of colour, the LGBTQ community. Someone recently said to me that it’s scary to be a muslim in America, but the truth is it’s scary to be a lot of things in America and all over the world. Even here in Malaysia, it can be scary to be so many things. So if you see something, say something. If you see someone speaking with hatred against someone else because of their identity, you could say something. And it’s not just speech. Sometimes people don’t realise they discriminate against others. We can all find ways to be gentle and informed while pushing back against things like that because it really is a form of oppression.
Anyway… thanks for reading, as usual! If there are other blogs you read and really like OR if you write a blog yourself, please send me links to them! I’m really enjoying reading other people’s stuff because it inspires me to keep on writing so I’d love it if you shared some of your favourites with me 🙂 see you next week!
(By the way, since I started writing, it has gotten gloomy, started raining and I’ve had to move inside. Typical Malaysian weather.)
There is a specific part of my Penn interview I can recall very clearly, and that is because I think about it all the time. My interviewer was a Penn alum, an American living in Malaysia. He worked at the U.S. Embassy in KL. We sat across each other by the window of Starbucks in Great Eastern Mall. I wore a yellow cardigan from Primark, and I had an iced green tea latte.
I can’t remember much. It was a decent, relaxed conversation. Nothing too exciting or stressful. I don’t know if this was usual of Penn admission interviews, but I would compare it to small talk at a family gathering. We talked about what I did in the time between completing my A Levels and getting into college. We talked about what I did for fun. We talked about why I wanted to go to Penn and what my parents do for a living.
This, I remember so clearly.
I told him my dad does corporate training and consulting–or something like that. He asked who my dad does training for. Among others, I mentioned Bank Negara. Now, looking back, I question the validity of this memory a little, but as I remember it, his expression kind of changed. He said, “Oh! The governor, Zeti Aziz, went to Wharton, didn’t she?”
And then I feel like the conversation got a lot better. It wasn’t necessarily bad before, but I just feel like it got better. So, when I found out I got into Penn, I attributed it to the fact that a) MARA was paying full tuition for me, b) I had a good interview and c) diversity.
I know this is a long-winded story, but bear with me. The thing about those facts is that I know I could get a MARA convertible loan because I have bumiputera status and I felt I had a good interview because I have an insanely loose association with Zeti Aziz, Wharton-grad and Bank Negara Governor extraordinaire. So I always felt like I got into Penn by slipping through some crack. I honestly still do, all the time. I feel like I’m an impostor. A fraud.
I think some people name drop Penn often, because it’s like spraying perfume in public, hoping everyone gets a whiff of the prestigethat comes with an Ivy League institution. But while I am definitely proud of it, I feel like I don’t deserve it at all and am just free riding on the positive connotations that come with it.
Today at work, my supervisor introduced me to another guy who had spent a significant amount of time in North America, and is familiar with Penn and its reputation. My boss said, “Nur Dayana goes to UPenn” and the other guy turns immediately, saying “oh, so you’re really smart!”
Me, in my head: ughhh craaapppp.
I do not like it when people expect me to be smart because I really don’t think I am, and I haven’t thought of myself as smart in ages. I think of myself as lucky. Just extraordinarily lucky for a prolonged period of time.
I got through secondary school with good grades because the Malaysian education has an oversimplified syllabus. I made it through A Levels because my teachers spoon-fed me and held my hand through it all. I got into Penn because of all of these reasons and I mentioned the governor in my interview. I got my positions in clubs and organisations on campus because those interviews and applications are kind of a joke. I got all my internships because my dad knew someone who knew someone. Stroke after stroke of luck.
The thing about this is that I’ve spent years watching my back, hoping no one realizes I have made it this far by a little act of miracle. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that God is the best of planners and I’m not really questioning my fate, if that makes sense. I just sometimes feel I am in places far, far, far beyond where I think I deserve to be and I’m scared people will find out and be frustrated with or angry at me. What’s more, I even feel guilty for “taking” this opportunity from someone who might have deserved it more and then not making the most of my chance.
When I wasn’t sure if I could handle an intro level literature class in sophomore spring, I spoke to Professor Esty about it and he quickly dismissed my fears saying that if I got into Penn, I could surely handle the class… but I thought, “ok, clearly he doesn’t know that in school we read a less-than-a-hundred page version of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ with large font and pictures.” If someone compliments me for doing a good job, I sometimes think “someone could have sneezed and accidentally done a better job than I did.” When someone uses an acronym I don’t know, I take a mental note of it and Google it later instead of just coming straight out and asking them what the hell they are talking about. I try to only make phone calls in private, because I am scared that someone will notice how inarticulate and incoherent I am when I speak. I also go to the bathroom or walk past someone’s desk or office 5 times before I have the guts to go in because I am scared they’ll get annoyed that I have a question to ask. I have pretty much stopped putting myself out there and volunteering myself for tasks because I think even my offer to try would be an over-promise preceding an under-delivery. When someone complains about how badly they’re doing in a class I just sigh and go like “oh yeah I know how that feels” but in my mind, I am one-upping them going, “wow if you knew how dumb I am…”
So I feel like I’m hiding so much all the time. I’ve spent way too much time with a racing heart, sweaty palms and a straight face to keep the anxiety undercover. Because I go to Penn. I’m supposed to know all of this and I’m supposed to act like it. And if I don’t, I know (I just know) they’ll be thinking “wow how did she get into Penn?”
Anyway, I’ve just been thinking about all of this lately because I’m at my third internship this summer and every year, I have to deal with this “impostor syndrome” all over again. This happens all the time. In every internship. In every class. Someone gives me instructions and I think I understand until I try to do it and realise I have no clue. So after some convincing myself, I go and ask for clarification and when they seem remotely annoyed or disappointed, I immediately retract and abort mission, thinking “Oh no. They’re onto me. They’re going to find out I’m a fraud. Run.“
“[The impostor syndrome is] always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You feel as if you’ve flown under the radar, been lucky or that they just like you. If you dismiss your accomplishments and abilities, you’re left with one conclusion: That you’ve fooled them.”
Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women
Because I’ve dealt with this for so long, I have gotten so used to the impulse to run away (side note: this is one of the reasons why Princess Diaries is like, my all time favourite movie). I have gotten so used to wanting to run away from things that make me anxious that over time, I’ve stopped even approaching big things. “What’s the point?” I would think, “why try?”
I don’t know if I’ve written about this, but last December, I was at Heathrow Airport, queueing in line at immigration. If you’ve never been to Heathrow, the immigration queue is usually super long so they need a lot of immigration counters. They have so many counters that you might not be able to see which ones are free even from the front of the line. When I was there, it was fairly busy, so one lady stood at the front of the queue. Her job was to monitor the counters and direct people to the open ones. I saw her and I was like “now that’s a job I can do.”
You see, during this time, I was applying for a consulting internship and I felt super intimidated and discouraged by it. I didn’t really know how to do case interviews, I didn’t think I had what it would take. And as I so often have, I just craved to do something I already knew how to do.
Somehow, over time, I’ve begun to raise my hand less, retreating further into my comfort zone. People always ask me what I’ve gotten out of Penn and I don’t really know yet, but I think I’ve lost barrels of confidence. And it’s not just confidence. Lack of confidence was when I was in school and maybe I knew the answer but might not have wanted to say it. This is… I know that I don’t know anything. Or at least I think I know that I don’t know? I am never sure.
The other distressing thing is feeling like I’ve lost the ability to accurately assess myself and getting used to staying silent, so much so that I don’t like the sound of my voice in open spaces, the sound of my footsteps in quiet places… almost like I’m trying so hard to hide that I am aspiring to be invisible.
Recently, I took a test of the Impostor Syndrome and scored 83% which “means the respondent often has intense [Impostor Phenomenon] experiences” and I was just like “hahahaha yep pretty much.” But I myself will be the first to recognise how that is so deeply problematic. Trust me, I know, I truly know, that I can’t always just do things I already know how to do. I mean, I totallycould. That’s easy. But I guess I’d never learn anything new, which I shouldn’t be and am not okay with. All of this just means I need to reconcile my fear and my ambition, and not run even when I am scared (unless there’s a cat, in which case, I will always run by all means).
And I don’t mean to scare anyone going abroad to study, starting a new job, trying new things or anything like that. Because I think if we know we think these things and feel this way, we can at least do something about it. It’s hard, of course. But I am a firm believer of consistently taking baby steps. With that said, I think I’ve gotten a little better at managing this feeling. And if you’ve felt this way, maybe you could tell me how you deal with it (or we could just talk about how much it sucks together) but I’ve done some of these things:
I ask myself, “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” and I would sometimes go so far as to imagine that someone gets so mad at me for being so incompetent that they shout at me until I cry, and I don’t know, let’s say they’ll slap me (worst case scenario! Not that I know anyone who is actually that mean-spirited). And then maybe things will be awkward for a while. My face would hurt, I guess. But I will, ultimately, live through it, eventually gain distance from it and inevitably learn from it or laugh about it.
I notice that I don’t pay much attention to other people talking on the phone, to their footsteps, or what they’re working on on their computers and I remind myself that unless I’m working directly for someone, most other people do not pay attention to anything I’m doing.
I write down any thought that helps me. For example, this morning I read: “Half of getting there is having the confidence to show up and keep showing up.” It was one of those cheesy quotes on the advert page that shows up for 5 seconds when you get to Forbes.com, haha.
I talk to friends about it! I usually talk about these things to friends who I know would understand how I feel and would just let me talk, listen to me without necessarily trying to meddle and fix things because that’s the kind of environment I need. Knowing what kind of support you like is good.
I mean, these are just things at the top of my head. I’m sure there are many ways to deal with it, to tackle the problem on a more fundamental level. I feel like I’ll regret talking about this so openly because I think people are not going to believe me, think I’m exaggerating (*rolls eyes*) or try to help me in ways I don’t want but I also think many other people feel this way and this could make you feel less alone, just like many other women, for example, Sheryl Sandberg and Julie Zhuo have for me. When, almost two years ago, I first heard Sheryl Sandberg talk about the impostor syndrome in her book, Lean In, I honestly could not believe I wasn’t alone. So even though there are a billion articles about this, I insist on writing another.
I don’t want to ramble on for much longer, but I want to add just one more thing to that list above. The most important thing I do for myself is to, by my own volition, recognise and celebrate small victories. It doesn’t really help when someone says “Hey look! You did that thing well!” because I find it so difficult to believe them. I have to practice spotting them myself, no matter how small.
During my first internship, I was so timid and afraid that I made minimal trips to the bathroom and never went to the pantry to even get myself a cup of water. But today, I got up, went to the pantry and made myself a cup of tea. That involves boiling water, getting a mug (this is usually nerve-wracking because I don’t want to be judged by my choice of mug, or take someone’s usual mug. It sounds crazy, but I kid you not), getting a tea bag, ripping a packet of sugar, stirring and then carry it back to my desk. Do you know how much sound that involves? For someone who kinda enjoys being invisible, I felt like this was a feat and I am so happy about it.