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.

2011, marshmallows and barbs

Huuummmm. I wrote this after ushering in 2012, but left it filed under ‘drafts’ and never bothered to edit it for coherence. Might as well do it now that I’m on spring break.

* * * * *

So we’ve moved on to a new year (we’ve moved on about 15 days ago, actually), and I’ve not had any desire to write one of those silly new year posts urging everyone to make the new year an amazing one, live life to the full, love yourself, etc. etc.

I see the date every day, I know it’s 2012, but…. really? How did we get to 2012 so soon?

I started off 2012 with a very dramatic, very eventful night. One that involved getting lost in the city all alone, chasing a barefooted friend down a busy street, being threatened by an angry cab driver, sitting down in the dead of winter in nothing but a cocktail dress, and having the police come over to tell us that we’d better **** or else they’d ****. Those darn po-po, going around bothering people on new year’s eve.

I thought there was no way, absolutely NO WAY that any year could top 2011 in terms of drama, craziness, eventfulness. Judging by the way 2012 started, and the things that have happened since, maybe I’ll be proven wrong.

2011 had been ridiculously dramatic. I had the best of times, and the absolute worst of times.

2011 was chockablock with contradictions.

On the one side, I travelled a lot, I explored places whose names I can’t even pronounce (Djurgården, Stokholm), and it was the longest I’d ever been away from home; but on the other hand, I’d never been more aware of and more fired up about Malaysian news in my entire life as I’d been in the past year. For the sociology major and political studies student in me, reading about the rallies and demonstrations signifying an awakening taking place in my home country but being 13 time zones too far to participate is like being 10 years old and having a rainbow-colored lollipop dangled in front of you, close enough to think you can touch it, but just a little beyond reach. So excited to be far away from home, but so wanting to be home at the same time.

I spent 5 months of 2011 in one of the most developed countries in Western Europe. My room decor consisted of wood and white — anything that was not Ikea wooden furniture, was Ikea white-washed furniture. Everything looked so sterile! I had my personal bathroom, and my room had automatic shades. Automatic shades!

So white, so sterile

But so comfortable!

Less than a month later, I found myself in one of the most under-developed regions in a Western African country. Dust colors everything in my room a shade of brown. The floors were peeling, the walls were stained. I shared two toilets with about 10 other people. Oh did I say toilets? I mean buckets.


My room is to the left, where the brown door is. The door to the toilet is straight ahead, next to the woman in sarong who’s fetching water.


Dirt-stained room

For the first 5 months of 2011, I had food that required a delicate, discerning palate to appreciate — wine was abundant, French cheeses were enjoyed daily, and I had foie gras more times than I really care for.

Traditional French savory crêpes (galettes)

Traditional Norwegian reindeer stew 

Traditional Italian gelato

Then for 2 months after that, carbohydrates and starches reigned supreme. Rice, noodles, root crops. Rice, noodles, root crops. And then more rice, noodles, root crops. Sometimes, they were pounded and molded into balls. Pounded cassava balls, ground maize balls, pounded rice balls, all served with stew. If I was lucky, I’d have some meat. If I were really lucky, I’d have some vegetables. Meals were often a large plateful of one general taste. No sophisticated taste buds needed. And yet, they taste SO GOOD, so good! Within a month, one of the women groups that I visit each week told me I put on weight.

Kenkey — fermented pounded maize (corn) balls, with bean stew and fried fish

Waakye — rice & beans, with noodles, pounded cassava and a spicy stew. Super delicious, wonderfully filling, and for only 5 cedis (RM8)!

TZ — pounded rice balls, with groundnut soup

Europe versus Africa comparisons aside, 2011 was rich with contrasts of the more personal kind.

In 2011, I experienced emotions at the two extreme ends of the spectrum. I have been so joyful that I danced and leaped to a song in my head, so happy that tears fill the rims of my eyes, so ecstatic that I could feel my rapid pulse at the back of my throat, could hear it thundering in my ears. I have also been so sad that I bawled my eyes out with my friends in the next room completely at a lost as to what to do; I cried hard and loud, I couldn’t talk, could hardly breathe, my sobs echoing around the apartment like a bell chime resounding through town.

I’ve experienced both love and hate. I felt the bliss of being loved, both tenderly and intensely. But I’ve also had my first ever real fight with a friend. It was a fight involving loud voices and finger pointing, and a lot of baseless accusations that stemmed from irrational, uncontrollable anger, a fight that ended in weeks of tension and silent treatment. (This anger and the above-mentioned sadness were from separate events though.)

In the past year, I’ve had moments of intense aliveness. When I was up in the mountains in Norway, with one of the world’s greatest fjords spread before me, an intense feeling of utter bliss washed over me. It was from an acute awareness of not merely existing, but being alive and living; an electrifying realization that this world is fucking beautiful, and I’m actually alive to experience it; I’m actually ALIVE in this world (Descartes philosophy on existence, anyone?).

Intensely happy. Swinging in the mountains. 

Buying a postcard, taking a walk, and realizing, holy shit, that scenery is right in front of us!

5a.m. sunrise in the fjords — wonderfully tranquil moment

Lunching on a cliff overlooking the islands of the Stockholm archipelago in Sweden

But in that same year, I have also tangoed with death’s cousin. I’d been sent to the ICU, had a head CT scan done, and been told I almost went into a coma.

Like I said, it was some of the best times, and some of the worst.

The old cliché that life is full of ups and downs and twists and turns have never been more true for me. But hey, I’m still alive and well, and I’ve earned a pretty crazy story to tell.

 

… But I think I’ve had enough drama in 2011 to last me the next 5 years.

 

23

I turned 23. Twenty-three!

I’ve been called “oldie” and “old-timer” several times already.

Do you see the twenty-three-ness radiating from my skin, gushing out of my every pore? Dancing off the walls, bouncing around the room, flooding the air with the wisdom, maturity, confidence, self-assuredness that only comes with being 23, and not a year younger?

You don’t?

It’s okay, I don’t see it either.

I’m as wise, mature, confident and self-assured as I was when I was 22.

One of my closest friends here has her birthday 2 days after mine, so we’ve got some very interesting adventures planned up for the week.

I will let you know how those go after they’ve went. Be back soon!

Little Wonders

The lyrics of “Little Wonders” have been ringing out in the hallways of my mind a lot lately, so that as I go about my daily life, the sights and sounds of the moment filling the passageways of my consciousness, Rob Thomas’ lyrics resound in my subconscious, becoming the background music that colors my world.

I swear that song has become the soundtrack to my life.

Our lives are made
in these small hours
these little wonders
these twists and turns of fate

Time falls away
but these small hours
these small hours
still remain

I know what “small hours” means to the dictionary, and hence to rest of the world, but I also know what “small hours” means to me, uniquely.

To me it means those moments that seem insignificant, the moments between Earlier and Later that really do not mean much, whose sole purpose seem to be to fill the voids between more meaningful tasks. Moments like waiting for the subway home.

It is also synonymous to “this very moment”. Our lives are made in small moments, moments just like this one.

These little wonders, these twists and turns of fate

I was telling my friend over lunch at the university cafeteria yesterday just how happy I’ve been for the past few months. My mind has not yet completely wrap around and digest the fact that all these things are coming true for me.

How did someone like the 17-year-old me, reserved, awkward, dependent, timid and cowardly, not particularly smart, confused about my identity, and a constant daydreamer, how did someone like that end up here, where I am today?

The 22-year-old me is still not particularly smart, still reserved and awkward, but not dependent. No longer cowardly and scared of trying. And most of all, I’ve discovered my voice, I know who I am now. I found my identity.

And the most amazing, AMAZING part of all this, is that the objects of my daydream from many years ago—dreams that were once unrealistic and unrealizable—are suddenly coming to pass, seemingly materializing out of thin air.

Life’s twists and turns have brought me here. Physically, in France. Metaphorically, pursuing the two things that I love the most — sociology and traveling — in countries that at one time seemed exotic and inaccessible to me.

A long time ago, or so it feels, I knew something wasn’t right with the world. There is something incredibly wrong with the way it works, but the 15-year-old me didn’t have the words to describe what exactly is wrong, or what I thought should be done, or even how I felt about it. The 16-year-old me brooded over it for so long one school break that I fell into a state of gloom and melancholy.

And then something wonderful happened to me. I discovered sociology. It gave me the voice, the words, the knowledge, and most importantly, the confidence to talk about the wrongs in the world that the 15-year-old me couldn’t figure out. (Now I can’t stop talking about it, to the annoyance of some, I’m sure LOL.)

I remember when I first chose to apply to only liberal arts colleges in the US, my parents weren’t happy. Frankly, if you asked me how and why I decided on LACs in the first place, I couldn’t answer you, because I don’t know. I once knew what attracted me to LACs, but I have forgotten them. It just felt right, in an incredible, indescribable sort of way. I’ve said it many times, but I can’t help saying again — it’s the best decision I’ve made in my life.

It helped me discover sociology. It helped me discover me.

And the winding roads of life has taken me from my small classroom in Grinnell, and brought me to a large lecture hall in the University of Nantes.

I am in France! I am in France! A long time ago, my dream was to go to Paris. It was one of those things I would say, but never thought it would happen. Now, I’ve been to Paris twice, and the other day, as I parted ways with my friends after classes, I said I was going “home”. Home! I just called a French house, lived in by a French family, in France!!, “home”!

And this is what I mean when I say, Rob Thomas’ lyrics from “Little Wonders” have been playing in my mind a lot lately.

The small, uneventful hours that make up the life I’m living now. Waiting for the tram to go to school. Buying tickets for a meal at the university restaurant. Grumbling about homework and classes — in French. As the song plays in my head, I’m reminded that these seemingly mundane moments are what make up this life that—only a few years ago—I could only dream of.


Bon Nouvel An Chinois!

It feels sort of pleasantly odd, to have heard and read of “Nouvel An Chinois” so often the past week that the French counterpart to “Happy Chinese New Year” now sounds very familiar to me.

This CNY is the first time since I left home (which feels like eons ago) that I haven’t been homesick much.

It’s not like this year’s CNY was any bigger a celebration than the past few years. But it was 10 times more interesting than the past couple of years added together.

What did I do on Chinese New Year eve?

My friend and I were invited by a bunch of French people our age over to their place for CNY celebration. Reason: They learn Mandarin, and CNY was an excuse to have fun.

So we tapao-ed food from a Vietnamese restaurant, went to one of the girl’s apartment, cooked rice, and had dinner on the sofas in the tiny living room, all 12 of us. Then we talked, and we played a much more interesting variant of charades.

That was another Little Wonders moment for me, right there. I know it sounds super childish, but I always wanted to have French friends. I thought French people were super cool. And, ushering in the Chinese New Year in a tiny apartment with 10 French people who knew close to nothing about CNY, that was a little bizarre, but it was a moment that made me go, “Whoa! Who woulda thought? Not the 17-year-old me!”

It’s sort of amazing how life’s winding roads have brought me to all these places, and to the person that I am today.

There is absolutely nothing in my life that is worth complaining about. I couldn’t be happier.

And all this is happening SOLELY because my parents allowed it to. So really, the BEST thing to come from all of this?

Knowing that my parents love me this much to make all of this possible for me.

If my heart could fly from happiness, it would be doing exactly that right now.