Stopping To Exchange Notes

I think so few days are as special as yesterday was. I took a train out to Ipoh on such a nice Sunday morning to visit my friend Nate, who’s spending the year in Kampung Gajah, Perak as a Fulbright ETA.

It’s so rare to have someone understand the particularities of having a foot in both Penn culture and Malaysian culture. No doubt, it’s easy to find people who personally understand the experience in broad strokes. So many of my Malaysian friends have studied abroad, even in America. But I think it’s different when you explain something subtle and specific and then get a “YES” or an “oh my god, me too!” in return because you both know both of those places to some extent and I feel like in terms of personality or like the way we think and some of the things we went through, there were a lot of similarities as well (to name a few: we both didn’t love Penn for most of our time there, we both felt very meh about majoring in Psychology, we both did Penn Monologues and we both mix sambal into the rice before eating nasi lemak).

Plus, I think what makes this whole thing even more amazing for me is that I don’t know anyone else from America who knows what it’s like to live here. All my other Penn friends who negotiate the same physical and cultural distance as me do that coming from the same side of the world as I do, so I was beyond curious to know and to hear firsthand what it’s like to be on the opposite side of that (if that makes sense?).  I’ve been a huge fan of his blog about his experience in Malaysia from day one for this very reason. On my train ride home yesterday, I was thinking about how it’s kind of like two people on different journeys crossing the same path at the same time but going in different directions, looking at the same things but from different perspectives, stopping to exchange notes… which is kind of cool.

We spent almost the whole day together effortfully navigating our way around Ipoh by foot and car. And because this is Malaysia and I haven’t been to Ipoh in at least 5 years, we. ate. so. much. That’s kind of my fault because that’s kind of all I wanted to do, but the truth is, the food took a backseat on this trip because I really came to just catch up with Nate.

I think I might’ve mentioned in earlier posts that we both met in a small Cultural Psychology class in the spring of my junior year, though Nate was a senior then. It was during that semester that he found out he was going to spend a year in Malaysia and I think on some level, I’ve been waiting to have this conversation with him since I found out he got into the program. That might partly be because of selfish reasons, like a sense of pride for a culture that I’ve never really gotten to share with my friends abroad even though I’ve always wanted to or tried to in small ways. But I think my excitement also stems from this profound curiosity.

There were so many things I wanted to ask him and talk about and I feel like we covered so much ground. We talked about difficulties trying to adjust moving to and from Malaysia, the different ways in which we stick out, learning and participating in a new culture and where we think we’re headed in the next few years, etc. (At this point I feel like I should also say that my American accent immediately resurfaced and I’m sure everyone around me was probably glancing at me like… “that girl is Malay, why is she talking like that?” but I was too preoccupied to think about it really, lol.)

I honestly felt like I learned so much which isn’t at all surprising with someone as curious and introspective as Nate is. I left feeling somewhat… rejuvenated (?) but also felt like there were so many more things I wanted to talk about but didn’t get the chance to and obviously I can’t speak for him, but I imagine he might’ve felt the same.

I know I’ve only just written about how much I looked forward to asking Nate all my questions and how I feel now that I have gotten to catch up with him and nothing really about what we talked about but that’s in part because of our privacy and because I could never fully get everything right and I don’t want to risk getting anything wrong. And since there’s no way I could write about everything, I’ll just say that spending time with Nate really reminded me of how small we are and how much of the world we have to learn from. This is so cheesy but I am so inspired by his bravery and sensitivity—the fact that he literally moved to a kampung in Malaysia where he stands out like a coconut tree in a paddy field and does not speak the language, I mean, I don’t think that’s something I could do, and he does it with so much genuine care and respect for the people around him and that’s just something I really look up to him for.

I think it was special because there’s this huge part of my life that I know most of my American friends know about on the surface level. But to have someone from that… other world of mine come see for themselves what it’s like makes me feel understood in a way that I haven’t before. Maybe I feel seen and heard better. Maybe it’s like… having one foot on both sides of the world is difficult because it attempts to rip you down the middle, and this closes that gap just a little bit more than I ever could on my own and I’m really thankful for that.

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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.

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.

Goodbye, 2016

As we march into the new year, I’m recounting some of my favourite 2016 bits. I hate doing this just because I haven’t made a conscious effort to keep track of it all year, and I, as a psychology major, know that looking back at the year on its last day just has strong recency bias—we tend to remember more vividly the things that most recently happened. But I’ll try. And I’ll start with something somewhat quantifiable: music!

I love that Spotify gives me a list of my top 2016 songs because by December, I always forget what I was crazy about in like March, even. They did however give me 100 songs, which is way too many, some of which I don’t really care too much about… so I narrowed them down and these were my favourite songs of the year, roughly in order.

Another huge 2016 thing for me was podcasts. Ugh, I love them so much. Start Up, Millennial, 2 Dope Queens, Reply All, On the Media, Freakonomics Radio, Planet Money, More Perfect, How I Built This, Invisibilia, Homecoming, Heavyweight, Code Switch, Open for Business are only some of my favourites. They are so informative!!! I feel like I’ve learned so much about race, politics, popular cultures, economics, psychology and general storytelling while being entertained at the same time. I love being affirmed of the power of storytelling and sharing information and I think podcasts are so amazing for that particular reason.

I also looked back on the year and realised I managed to read 14 books this year. Isn’t that amazing?! That’s so many more than I thought I did; it’s 1.167 books a month, haha! Granted, most of them were read over the summer, during which I read 3 a month. I really hope I’ll be able to keep this up as I… you know… *whispers* graduate.

Which means, this year also marked my last full year at Penn. I was thinking about how much I’ll miss all the opportunities being in college gives me. For example, in 2016 alone, I got to see all these people speak at Penn: actress Anna Kendrick, author Michael Lewis, journalist Shaun King, actor Omi Vaidya and freakin’ former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke.

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I also had wonderful—like beyond wonderful—professors at Penn this past year. Delphine Dahan was so kind and gracious to me as I’ve worked at her Psycholinguistics lab. Mark Pollack put together an amazing course on International Political Economy and has been a great resource for me as I sought recommendations on extra readings. Felicity Paxton and her class on pop culture gave me so much to think about how we navigate media. Jamie-Lee Josselyn, my creative writing professor, was a fantastic person to be around beyond being a fantastically supportive teacher.

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Jamie-Lee ❤

I think one of the ways I’ve grown most at Penn has been by embracing my creative side. It was such an honour, honestly, to have my writing encouraged, workshopped and commented on by people I respected and whose writing I admired. Taking the creative writing class was a huge leap on my end because I had been so put off by sharing writing that I actually tried hard on and I’m really glad I did it because now I have some semblance of an idea as to what to improve on. I also started participating in my school newspaper’s podcast, Quite Frankly which has been interesting. It’s cool to see the process of putting together an informative story for the public.

Outside of school, I’ve been lucky enough to travel. This year, I was home in Malaysia twice! I was home in January, and then again later in May, when I surprised my parents (which was definitely a huge highlight). That makes a total of about 4-ish months there which was of course, nice (simply put). I also saw Singapore, Hong Kong, Copenhagen and London, not to forget good old Port Dickson, Kuching, Penang and Melaka. It’s a privilege to be able to see that much of the world, even if it doesn’t always seem like much and I should never forget that.

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Lastly, I am reminded of the friendships that defined the year. I want to always remember that Hui Jie sat with me all night at the ER in May, that Shahirah is reliably there for me to share my ridiculous stories and thoughts (and is also a fantastic supplier of hilarious memes and tweets), May May has always picked up the phone when I freak out about anything, Jamie came by with a hug the morning after a terrible interview and Kimberly is definitely one of the best people I’ve met all year. I cannot thank them enough for being part of my life this past year.

On the whole, this year… I don’t know? It seemed to be like any other year. Maybe that’s a result of age? I was thinking earlier that I feel as if I’ve reached a point where I’m unaware of time: I frequently forget what age I am. It’s hard to say whether it was a good year or a bad year… I almost don’t believe it can be either. We have good moments and bad moments every day. There was that week I was sick, busy and lost my keys—it sucked. But there was also the time I aced all my exams even though I binge-watched Jane the Virgin for 2 days straight, I loved that! There were also all those moments in between that make us who we are, even though they leave us with nothing to remember.

I suppose I’ll admit it didn’t feel easy, but I don’t think it quite matters whether it was a “good” or “bad” year. We’re tested regardless, and we—I like to think—grow regardless of good or bad days and years. And I did grow in 2016, in ways I both expected and did not expect to. That’s for sure. So here’s to more of that.

Happy new year, everyone.

Almost There…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figuring It Out, Kinda (?) | Fall 2016

So, if you’re unfamiliar with how I do things on my blog: I generally write once a week, any point between Monday morning and Sunday night. This week, I’m here on Sunday evening, writing (or rather, typing) over my fried egg tofu dinner… feeling somewhat disappointed that something I enjoy doing has almost been turned into another thing to make a deadline for.

But I’m just so taken with how busy this semester has been—and one of my classes hasn’t even started yet.

I may have mentioned this previously, but I am effectively taking 6 classes this semester. Taking five plus TA-ing for one. I really like all my classes this semester and I enjoy being a TA so I really don’t want to sacrifice anything I have on my plate. I’m taking Critical Approaches to Pop Culture in the Communications department with an amazing professor, a Developmental Psychology seminar called Modern Young Adulthood about the process of transition to adulthood, The Rise and Fall of the Spanish Empire which is my very first history class since SPM (lol) and an intro creative writing class called Memoir and Literary Journalism. That makes four. My fifth credit is my independent research project in psycholinguistics which I can’t say much about yet because I haven’t gotten a full grip of what I’ll be studying yet.

A lot of my classes are reading-heavy which just means I have to read a lot for class every week. I don’t know, actually. Is 200-300 pages a week a lot? For me it is, because a lot of econ and intermediate-level psychology classes so far have not required much reading, if at all.

But like Hui Jie always tells me, it’s all about discipline! It has taken me like 3 years, but I think I’m finally getting a handle of it, you know? Ok I wanna apologise ahead of time because things are gonna sound a little preachy for a bit but bear with me as I tell you the most precious lessons I’ve learned:

Write it down. Whatever it is you have to do. A question that suddenly popped up about class material. A list of things you need to do. Some vague idea you have for your term paper. Write it down. It’s short and you think you’ll remember it? Write it down. You think about it all the time? Write it down. I’ve learned this the hard way many times and whenever I think back to it, I’m always like, wow how hard would it have been to write it down?! So yeah. My notes app is my best friend.

Get some sort of a calendar system if you haven’t already. This is a natural extension of my previous point, I guess. But a sophisticated to-do list eventually evolves into a planner, right? It’s really great to see all the things I have due in a very visual manner because it helps me prioritise and whatever.

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This is a screenshot of part of my Fall 2015 planner. I honestly have no idea if this is the best way to do things, but it works for me and it gives me everything I feel like I need. I list down all my due dates and exams and readings the first week of classes and make this super simple table. It was based on Weingarten’s (Penn’s Office of Learning Resources) calendar, just expanded to fit everything, beyond just exams. Using iCal is good because you see the week ahead of you, but I felt planning only a week in advance was a bit too, um, what’s the word, narrow-sighted, near-sighted? I use both. So on my desktop I always have my planner, iCal and a to-do list because I really hate missing anything or rushing work.

Look at what you need to do. This is something I didn’t learn until recently and here’s what I mean. Basically, I try to loosely designate my assignments etc to specific days to plan my week, right? But I kept running into this problem where like, I’d take longer than I thought I would on something because it was longer, more complex or more difficult than I thought it would be. And it just messes everything up. And I’d get upset. Then I fall behind. Cue the downward spiral. But at some point last semester, I realised I should invest like an extra 5-10 minutes when I’m planning to go through the things I need to do. If I’m going to put something off, I have to look at it first so I know what I’m dealing with. It’s super simple and you’re probably already doing it but to me it was like such a eureka moment and I felt so amazed when I made this improvement.

10 minutes counts. I used to always shrug off my free time whenever I had like 10, 15 minutes to spare because it’s like, oh what can I even get done in such a short span of time? It turns out, a lot. Especially if you’re super focused. Even if it’s just reading 1-2 pages, that’s like 10 minutes less of work I’ll have to do later, you know. It’s all just a matter of being able to get into that focused mindset very quickly—I feel like that’s such a precious skill I’m always trying to nurture.

Exercising matters. I read this book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg last month and he explains this great concept called developing keystone habits. The whole idea is that you focus on a habit you want to work on and because everything we do in our daily lives affect each other in some way or another, improving one aspect of your life will have spillover effects onto everything else. For me, exercise is my keystone habit. I always find that when I cement certain blocks of time in my calendar to exercise and commit to it uncompromisingly, I just make it work. I’ll get up earlier, I’ll cook faster, I have to wash my hair more often and even do laundry more regularly because if I don’t I’ll run out of gym clothes. Plus I also feel better and then I do better, etc, etc. Trust me on this one!!

~Reflection~ I know this sounds fluffy, hahaha. I cringed while I typed that! But constantly thinking back about what works and what doesn’t is very useful. Personally that’s not always easy because I magnify all the things I do wrong or don’t do well enough, and that just opens up the door to a slippery slope eventually leading me to wallow in my negativity. Clearly I need to balance. For me, part of that is writing about my week here. Feeling like there’s a public audience not only keeps me accountable but pushes me to see things (and then write things) from a more balanced perspective because no one likes reading about someone who does everything perfectly or someone who just talks about how much they suck at life. The truth is I do some things well and am straight up awful at other things and thinking about things like that regularly really helps.

Ok I’m done with that list, you have every right to agree or disagree with anything I’ve said, but those are things I recently realised were essential to me ploughing through my semesters. I know it makes it sound like in order to get through school you need to be super meticulous and boring haha but I promise that planning allows me to have more fun because I have more time. I think the amount of stress doesn’t really decrease (I think I’ve constantly been at least a little bit stressed for the last 10 years!) but the first thing to go when I decide to be more disciplined is time dedicated to stress. That is, I feel stressed but it’s very like, at the back of my mind most of the time. I have less time to be sitting by myself pulling my hair out because that’s just not on my list, hahaha.

To prove my point, I did manage to do some fun things this week! May May and I rented bicycles and cycled down the Schuylkill River Trail. I don’t have any pictures of my own of the view but it was lovely. It was sunny and there was a light breeze and people were all out being healthy and I loved it. I do have to say though, that it had been over a year since I was last on a bike so I was very shaky at times and very concerned about hurting someone.

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May May and me after cycling featuring my typically red post-exercise face.

The whole Philadelphia trail is (according to the website) about 10.5 miles long but I am still a weakling so we only went 3ish miles one way.

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The earlier part of the trail goes past the art museum but it goes into a less busy area as you continue on.

That evening, as if I hadn’t already had enough physical activity, Cristina and I walked all the way to 50th St for fruits and pizza. She made me try a pluot (which apparently is a plum crossed with an apricot!) and we got the best pear and brie pizza at Dock Street. We also got fries and leeks which I’m so glad she agreed to share with me because I know she doesn’t like fries haha.

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There was also a guy walking around selling carrot cake for $1 and everyone around us was raving about how good the cake is. He’s known in the neighbourhood as being the Carrot Cake Man. A local ice cream shop even has a carrot cake ice cream flavour named after him. The cake was so good, you guys. It’s funny because the day before that, I was thinking about how difficult it is to find a place in Philly I can go to if I just want a slice of cake, you know, like how all the cafes in KL do. I was just obsessing over getting a small serving of cake. And the next day the Carrot Cake Man and his tray of carrot cakes literally just comes to me. God bless.

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I asked if I could take a picture of him and he said “sure” and Cristina was like “SHE’S A BLOGGER” hahahahaha.

Anyway. I’m knee deep in readings and severely need to start practicing for case interviews so thanks for reading see you next week!!!

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.