Chance

I logged on to Facebook this morning, and was greeted with a flood of “RIP”s and “in memory of”s and “we will miss you”s.

Another Grinnellian from my class has left our side.

They say my class, the class of 2012, is cursed. In the last four years of school, 3 people have tragically passed away, all of them from my class.

This person who just left us was involved in an elevator accident.

Throughout college, our paths crossed several times; never long enough for us to be walking side by side, but enough times for me to have formed a memory of him. My college being a small school, we shared a lot of mutual friends.

The last time we interacted, it was a month before graduation, when he attended a party in our apartment. I found him in a dark space in the kitchen, standing with a small-sized, impressionable Brazilian sophomore, the latter backed up against the fridge. They were both laughing; he was trying to get the sophomore to take shots of Everclear. I tried to intervene — Everclear is 95% alcohol, and tastes incredibly nasty straight — and I knew from past experience that this sophomore falls over his own feet when he drinks. Then that college senior, that instigator, smiled his broad smile, one that looked like his lips would wrap around his face and meet at the back of his head, gave me a wink, and turned his focus back onto that sophomore. I later learned that he managed to coax 3 shots of that nasty into that Brazilian.

I don’t know why I told that story. When I think of him, this memory sticks out in my mind.

I was talking to my friends last night. First group talk since graduation 5 weeks ago. It was an intercontinental call across 4 countries, but it felt like we were in our apartment again, talking about this Grinnellian and that Grinnellian and this job application and that internship.

I think more than anything, the passing of this person shocked me back to reality.

My friends and I always talked about the future — where we want to end up living, what kind of family we want, what our dream job is. And as graduation neared, our paintings of the future became less romantic, our idealistic ambitions were ditched to make way for more practical plans.

And there were so many plans that were made. Plans of traveling, plans of internships, plans of researching graduate schools… So many plans that there was no room, absolutely no space, for such eventualities as, What if I don’t get to carry these plans through?

My friends and I always talked about the future. I have no doubt that this person who passed away talked to his friends, a lot of whom I know, about his plans for the future too. I still have my chance to work hard and see mine through; he has lost his. Graduation was a month ago; we all walked with pride and hope that summer’s day. It’s so weird, so unsettling, to realize that it could all be very suddenly taken away by death’s swift hand.

May he rest in peace.

Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering

(Just a heads-up: this is a navel-gazing sort of post. )

Sometime in March last year, I told my mom over Skype that I wanted to travel to Scandinavia alone. I told her that the “alone” part wasn’t particularly intentional—I just couldn’t find anyone who was interested in going. I’d seen pictures of Norwegian fjords and Swedish archipelagoes that took my breath away and set my heart racing with excitement, and I’d made up my mind that I was going to see these beauties, whether or not it meant going alone.

My mom, predictably, wasn’t as excited as I was about my plan. The world is no place for a girl to walk about solo.

A month later, I called home again, this time to tell her that I was applying to a school grant for a summer internship in Ghana. I could actually hear her tensing up, could picture the furrowing of the brow, could feel the straining of her mind for reasons why it was rationally, sensibly, logically, a very bad idea.

And then, she said, “You know, of all my children, you make me worry the most. You and all your strange, unconventional ideas!”

All that took place in France, where I was studying abroad, instead of Senegal, where I’d initially wanted to study abroad.

My mom gave me a hundred reasons that France is a more rational, sensible, logical choice than Senegal. She needn’t have done that, for I, also, could come up with a hundred reasons for going to France. But I could also come up with a hundred-and-one reasons for going to Senegal, too.

My mother calls my excitement for staying a week with the Amish “weird”. Why would I want to spend a week with a community so intently stuck on living a seemingly preindustrial life? No electricity, no electronics? Gas lamps? Near identical clothing that covered you from the neck down? Horses and buggies? But… why?

At the risk of sounding ridiculously corny, my response to this constantly-asked question is, “Why not?”

I’ve thought about all this for quite a bit, I’ve wondered what makes all this so incredibly exciting to me. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got it.

It’s the unknown, the unfamiliarity, the feeling of knowing that every turn of path, every bend of the road, reveals something completely new. And I mean this quite literally—if you don’t know the road, don’t know where it leads, it could bring you to anything.

I guess people dislike change. A lot of people desire certainty, for they crave the security it brings. Friends of mine worry when they don’t have a path figured out, whereas I find great thrill in the uncertainty, for it means anything is still possible.

I crave change; I get stir-crazy when life starts to become too routine, too predictable. And I think, from this enthusiasm for the unknown is where all these “strange, unconventional ideas” are birthed.

It dictates my philosophy of traveling. I don’t see traveling as a vacation, an away-time from the hustles of daily life, a time to relax. Rather, I see it as an opportunity to be faced with the new, a chance to experience the exhilaration of coming up against the unknown.

When I tell my tuk-tuk driver to take me to a landmark, when I heed a map that tells me to turn left down a street 4 blocks away, I don’t know what to sight to expect. When I order reindeer stew, or agree to try banku with palm oil stew, I don’t know if I’d find it delicious, or if it’d kick up a storm in my tummy. And that’s what makes traveling to distant, foreign places so intensely exciting.

A reason why I love traveling alone (my best travel experiences were done solo) is that the less I have the presence of someone familiar to depend on, the more thrilling the experience.

The unfamiliar and the unexplored don’t only come from traveling to foreign places. I remember times in Grinnell when I’d go, “Let’s have an adventure!”, and we’d figure out things to do that we’ve never done before, and would probably not think of doing if it weren’t for the pretext of “having an adventure”. Like taking the long walk to the cornfields in the dead of night and observing the stars. Like going high on the swings in some stranger’s backyard in the middle of a snowstorm, singing Bohemian Rhapsody against the whistling winds. Like going to one seedy bar in Grinnell after another, having conversations with colorful characters as we make our way through cheap beer and even cheaper shots.

No surprise then, that my favorite word, and the word that my friends often quote me on, is “Adventure”. It encompasses everything that I’m trying to convey in this post—coming face to face with the unknown, braving the unexplored, the foreign.

I would be lying if I said the unknown doesn’t scare me; on the contrary, sometimes it scares me shitless. Flying alone to a land halfway round the world, not knowing what it’d be like, but knowing it’d have to be home for the next 4 years, that was scary as fuck. I’ve probably said this a thousand times, but I’ll say it again—that scary decision was the best I’ve ever made.

The night before I was to fly to Ghana, I started panicking. Suddenly all those warnings of malaria and hepatitis and poor people who’d rob you of your money and the unthinkable sanitary conditions and the violence of people desperate to find a means to live, they began to hit me like a tsunami. All that, coupled with my imaginations of loneliness, of being sick from bad food, of being confused by the local language, of homesickness, of committing endless social faux pas… all of these worries swarmed my mind, making me feel more than a little nauseous. But none of these worries came true, and I had an incredible time in Ghana.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t worry before going to France. I’d been there before, and prior to that, I’d spent a month in London, which, language aside, isn’t too different from France. I said “interestingly enough”, because while I had a good time in France, it ended up falling short of the exhilarating experience I was hoping for, mostly because I felt like I wasn’t being challenged.

This really points to one conclusion—that comfortableness is not necessarily good, and fear is not necessarily bad. Fear is an indication that you’re heading into unchartered ground, that you’re exploring the unexplored.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that Grinnell has made me become aware of so many more life opportunities, possibilities that I’ve closed myself off to before this. In fact, I should have said, my Grinnell education, both in and out of classroom, has built me up to be braver in facing the fear of the unknown, so that strange, previously untraveled paths have now become an option. It has helped me grow to not only be able to confront the new, the strange, the foreign, but to revel in them, to seek them out, to pursue them, knowing full well that if I don’t stretch beyond the comfortable and familiar, I won’t grow, won’t flourish.

Sometimes, you have to confront your fears, take a free-fall of faith…

… and land wherever the wind takes you.

 

As one of my favorite bands, the Polyphonic Spree, puts it:

The unknown, while uncomfortable at times, provides us with the most satisfying rewards after the day is done.

I feel like I just babbled my way through an entire post.

Before all this, I’d really wanted to say, I found a job opening for a high school teaching position in Somaliland. Somaliland! Horn of Africa! A country who proclaims itself an independent state, but no other country recognizes its independence. As a foreigner, you have to be accompanied by armed escorts if you want to travel outside the capital.

It would give my mom a heart-attack if I so much as hinted that I think it sounds like an interesting opportunity.

Should I propose an application to the position then, just for shits?

Home ahead

Tonight, is my final night in San Francisco. Tomorrow, I’ll board the plane heading towards Malaysia. I’m heading home for the first time as a college graduate!

It’s interesting the way I’ve come full circle.

I started off my most exciting, most eventful, and most life-changing year here in San Francisco. I ushered in 2011 here. And now, after all the events that have taken place in the past year, now, 2.5 weeks after my graduation from college that gave me the most significant 4 years ever, I’m ending this phase of my life in San Francisco once more.

My favorite music to listen to while writing papers (and goodness knows all I ever do in college is write papers) is the Lord of the Rings film soundtrack. It is energetic and passionate, serene and calming, all those things, without having distracting lyrics.

One track in particular, the one titled The Steward of Gondor, has a short section of lyrics that held particular meaning to me, especially when I first got to Grinnell.

Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread;
Through shadow, to the edge of night,
Until the stars are all alight.

It is so full of hope, suggesting the necessity of leaving the comforts of home far behind in order to pursue something meaningful, to achieve something of value. Being so far from home, in somewhere so foreign, so far from the city, having no one with whom I can immediately relate to, that was really tough at first. I was homesick, and it took some time to adapt to Grinnell’s odd culture, heavy workload, and the way classes were conducted that was very different from what I’d been used to.

But I was so hopeful. I’d been so determined to come here, and I was going to make sure it would amount to something very valuable in the end: “Until the stars are all alight.”

I can’t even begin to adequately express how much and in what ways the past 4 years mean to me. It’s been great. It’s been more than great. It’s been amazing. It’s taken off the wrongly prescribed glasses through which I’ve been seeing a blurred world for the past 18 years of my life. It’s given me the ability to put to words and vocalize the confusing mess of thoughts, musings and hunches about the world that I’ve long held interiorly but hadn’t been able to articulate.

Most importantly though, it’s given me so much hope and optimism. I dunno what it is about Grinnell, but it’s made me tear down the mental roadblocks that I’ve constructed for myself, the same kind that most people build for themselves from years of adhering to expectations and sticking to conventions. I’ve learned not to say ‘no’ too quickly to seemingly absurd suggestions, to make plans that include a little bit more risk, a little less pragmatism, and to spend a little more time actively seeking out adventures. I’ve discovered the truth to this piece of wisdom in my trip to Ghana. Traveling alone to Western Africa, taking a lonesome 12-hour bus ride to the rural Northern Region, was not, by any traditional measure, a “sensible” thing for a girl to do. But I did it, and it was awesome, and one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had. Adult sensibleness, in moderate doses, is fine, but in excess, can be so crippling to personal development, not to mention to any sort of effort to make life actually enjoyable and fun to live.

Oftentimes the most rewarding experience is not necessarily the safest, the easiest, or the most practical, it may not seem sensible at the beginning, but there’s something about the unknown that, while a little scary and uncomfortable, is at the same time so incredibly exciting, and that in itself is a great reward that makes the trouble worth it. The most important thing, I think, is to guard your enthusiasm and energy like your life depended on it.

I’ve realized that my life is not a set path to be obediently followed; I’ve opened my mind to so many different possibilities, so many different routes that I can choose from. It’s not that Grinnell has given me these possibilities, it’s just made me become aware of them, and excited for them, and motivated to pursue them. While I’ve always had great dreams, they were nothing more than daydreams that I’d talk to my best friend about; the greatest gift Grinnell has given me is the realization that they need not remain dreams, because I have the ability to make them real.

The lyrics from the song that I quoted above is actually taken from book one, The Fellowship of the Ring, of the LOTR trilogy. In the book, it continues on:

Then world behind and home ahead,
We’ll wander back and home to bed.
Mist and twilight, cloud and shade,
Away shall fade! Away shall fade!

So this is it. I’ve graduated, with my new diploma in hand, no longer a student but a new member of the Grinnell alumni, and I’m heading home.

This journey, difficult though it was in the beginning, has been worth it. The breakdowns, the tears, the endless papers, the brutal all-nighters, the anxiety, the piles of books and references that clutter our rooms… they’ve all been worth it. I’m glad I stopped being so anal about my grades towards the end of my time in college, because there’d been some golden moments that I would’ve missed if I’d holed myself up studying.

If I thought going to Grinnell alone 4 years ago was tough, leaving Grinnell now, with people I’ve grown so close to waving at me from the sidewalk as my car pulled away, was unbelievably tougher. Due to a slight mistake with our flight booking, I had to leave Grinnell a day earlier than I’d planned to, a day earlier than all of my friends did. While it was sad to leave them, the countless “I wish we could’ve drank together one final time!” and the hopeful “I will see you soon, okay? I’ll come visit you in Malaysia!” did NOT, in fact, feel like our final words face-to-face. These are the people who know me best now, there was no way this was goodbye forever. Knowing this made saying goodbye a little bit less difficult.

I’m writing parts of this in the Hong Kong International Airport. In a few hours, I’ll be boarding yet another plane, one among countless that I’ve boarded in the past year, but this time, this time will be different, because I’ll be heading home.

I’m homeward bound, baybeh!

Till what’s next, Four

Today, I graduated from college.

I went to the stage as a college student, with my mortarboard tassel hanging down the right side, and I walked off stage as a college graduate, tassel on the left, a Bachelor’s of Arts diploma in hand.

I graduated with honors! With a Sociology major and a Global Development Studies concentration.

My brother and sister came all the way from Malaysia to watch me graduate. My parents stayed up really late to stream the commencement ceremony live and watch me walk the stage to get my diploma.

I couldn’t have gotten this far without some very, very important people.

My parents. My mom and dad, who were willing to pay for my four years at an expensive liberal arts college. A liberal arts college! Do you know how incredibly supportive typical Asian parents like mine have to be, to be willing to pay that much for a degree from a liberal arts school? A degree in sociology, no less?

One time, in college, I screwed up in a really, really big (non-academic way), and my parents never reprimanded me. All they wanted to know, all that seemed to matter to them, was that I was all right, and that I wasn’t too stressed about it. I can’t describe the gratefulness I felt to them then.

My friends. My friends were the biggest source of motivation for me when Grinnell became too tough, too stressful, too overwhelming–which was so, so often. They, who ta-pau-ed food from the restaurant in town when I was still stuck in my room, too stressed about finishing my final paper to go get dinner. They, who stayed up till 4 a.m., listening to me talk about my worries, my insecurities. They, who wrote me “Be happy!” cards when I was feeling down.

And also, they, who made sure we each get home safe after a night out drinking. They, who listened to my drunken, emotional outbursts, then teased me about it the next morning. They, who danced with me, laughed with me, cried with me.

I couldn’t have gotten this far without the support and love from these people. Going through college (and graduating) is definitely not a solo effort.

Grinnell College class of 2012!

[2012], I will miss ya like crayzay.

If you see me (Clap once)

Oooooooo, okay. I re-read what I wrote in the last post, and even I thought I sounded —what is that word— self-admiring? Self-approving? Perasan? 

“Sometimes I make up my own recipe”? Hello, any person who randomly throws handfuls of ingredients into a pot is making her own recipe! I want to make it clear that I am, in no way, a very good cook. Just some person who dares throws stuff together then surrenders all to good ol’ Luck.

Anyway. Today was our last performance. Needless to say, I feel melancholic, quite empty. This thing that has taken so much of our time this semester is suddenly over. Done with. (Did I mention, by the way, that we did four shows, and all four of them sold out? We performed to sold-out audiences oh yes!)

After our show today, we stayed back for two hours to detach prop things and unscrew stage things and carry things back into the design shop. Basically, make the theater look like a theater again. Return it to its proper theater condition.

I say “make it look like a theater again” because for our show, the theater was not a theater. It wasn’t a conventional venue where the audience comes in, sits in rows of chairs, watches the show, then leaves.

Let me first say, I am extremely glad to have been a part of this production. I am so glad that, at the beginning of the semester when I was debating on whether or not I can make the time commitment for the Dance Ensemble, I ended up deciding that yes, this would be worth the time.

I’m talking about major time commitment here. Dance sessions three days a week for the most part of the semester, then rehearsals almost everyday in the final weeks.

This was how my schedule looked like during tech week:

—-

8:00am-10:00am : (Economics class) Environmental Economics

10:00am-12:00pm : (Sociology class) Contemporary Asian American Issues

12:00pm-1:00pm : Group meeting for presentation on human rights in Asia

1:00pm-1:30pm : Meeting with professor

1:30pm-2:00pm : Lunch

2:00pm-4:00pm : (Political Science class) Human Rights

4:15pm-5:15pm : Javanese dance rehearsal

5:20pm-6:00pm : Dinner

6:00pm-11:00pm : Dance Ensemble rehearsal

11:00pm-3:00am : Homework!

Repeat for every day of the week.

(You see that I get 30 minutes for lunch, 40 minutes for dinner, and every other hour is busy, busy, busy? By the time I hit the pillow I’m already half-dead.)

—-

Not that I am complaining, of course. It was a pleasure being a part of this.

I am most proud of this production out of any performance I’ve ever done because this show was one-of-a-kind. You had to be there to truly understand it, but I’m going to indulge myself and describe it to you, just because so much time and effort was put in it and I thought it went so excellently well. Most importantly though, I feel like I’ve taken so much from the theme of the show.

So the production is called Now You See Me, and it explores theater, dance and spoken word as platforms for political and social activism. The entire production is made up of 3 different pieces, the first two choreographed by senior-year students, and the final one by the theater and dance lecturer.

Let me first start by describing the prologue, which really sets the context and theme of the show. As the audience comes in, Celeste, the dance lecturer, does her solo on a platform in the middle of the theater. When the audience settles, the lights go out completely. Moments later, in the dark, someone yells, “ACTION!” A spotlight comes on, and we see a girl sitting in a chair high above the audience. The chair slowly lowers to the ground, the spotlight focused on her the entire time as the rest of the theater remains dark. Once the chair reaches the ground, the girl jumps off, and starts her speech. I can’t remember the words, which is embarrassing, considering I’ve seen it a million times during the endless rehearsals we’ve had.

It is basically about us (the “spectator”) watching the social and political goings-on in the world (the “spectacle”). It’s about what drives our decision to take action, to do something (to “act” or to not-“act”). My favorite line:

What is it that keeps us from being a part of it?
Stage fright. The fear that keeps us off the stage, and the terror that freezes us once we’re upon it.

This idea of “acting” was a major theme of the production. I love the message it conveys. It reminds me very much of one of my favorite songs, Bob Dylan’s Blowing In the Wind, which pretty much asks, how much of the world’s injustices have to happen before we decide to stand up against it? How much wrongs do we have to be a spectator of being we decide to “act” against it?

It also reminds me of the video I talked about in this previous post (“First Follower”). Here’s a link to a TED Talk by the dude who made the video talking about the same video (because TED Talks are legitimate). Point: It takes courage to stand up to be the first follower of a social movement and really give it momentum.

Message: Don’t let stage fright stop you from taking social action!

Anyway, back to our production.

This production is unique because of 2 things:

First, with the Occupy Movement in mind, the choreographers played with the idea of “occupying” the theater. This translates to having dancers performing in many different, unconventional, traditionally unused parts of the theater all at the same time (you get the feeling that the dancers are taking over the theater), and having audiences moving around the theater after each piece and watching the show from different vantage points.

This means at one point, I was performing in the “catwalk” above the stage (where the stage lights are installed), so audiences have to look up to see me dance. This also means that audience groups watch from different areas of the theater: from the stairs leading up to the stage, or from the back of the theater, or from above the stage where old stage props are stored.

Some of the audience are onstage, where there are chairs lined against the backdrop, as they watch the show. After the show, one audience member said, “As I was sitting on stage, and the dancers are three feet in front of me, I realize that audience watching from other areas of the theater are probably watching me as I watch the performance.” Ta-da! The spectator hence becomes the spectacle.

The seats in the house, the ones where audience usually sit, are completely empty, and that space is transformed into a performance area. Camping tents were also set up around the theater to evoke a sense of “occupying” the theater.

Second unique thing, the production tries to interrupt the conventional relationship between performer and audience by challenging the very-rehearsed roles of the audience and the performers. There are moments in the show where a dancer goes,

If you can hear me, clap once…
If you can hear me, clap twice…
If you can hear me, clap three times.

The rest of the cast all clap, the audience, however, are free to clap along or not. During the talkback after the show, some people have asked, “Were we supposed to have clapped?” And the answer is, there is no answer to that. It depends on how much you feel a part of the action. It depends on whether you want to take the role of the “spectator”, or the “actor”. (Again, this blurring of the line between performer and audience relates back to whether we are satisfied with watching world events unfold, or whether we decide to be part of it.)

Actually, this is a good place to take a break. This is long enough and I have a short paper due tomorrow that I have yet to write. Let’s do Part 2 another day. Stay tuned!