The parents left for London today. Just in time for the Olympic madness.

They’re going on a 3-week tour of Western Europe, just the two of them, which leaves the remaining 3 members of my family all alone to fend for ourselves.

This means washing and cleaning duties to be shared, and cooking to be done.

My dad told me to drain out the water filter, or sommin’. Did you know, we now have a water filter that talks? You make a selection among 7 options on the touchscreen menu, and a female voice goes, “Drinking water coming down”, all sexy-like, and water comes down a narrow pipe. You press the button again, and there she goes, “Water supply suspended.”

Seems like a very unnecessarily fancy piece of equipment, especially since for the past year I’ve been getting my supply of drinking water by walking to the kitchen sink and turning on the tap.

And speaking of equipment, I have a piece of sad news to share.

It seems that my Macbook, dear ol’ buddy of 4 years, my partner who hasn’t once left my side since our first acquaintance, is on its last legs. It has gone through a lot, man. A lot of rough traveling. Every time I travel, it is hastily taken out of its snug pocket in my backpack for security checks, then hurriedly shoved back in again afterwards, only to be kicked under plane seats and piled into overhead compartments after each transit. In school, it is put on messy table tops and on unmade beds, it is laid on my lap at an angle and left on sticky kitchen counters. Sometimes, it is even left sitting precariously on top of a large amplifier on those weekend nights when regular speakers don’t cut it. It never gets proper rest — I turn it off once every two weeks.

I know, I know. I could’ve taken better care of it. But it’s been 4 years, and its struggle to survive another doesn’t seem like it would end well.

Honestly, this is the only thing I have that’s been with me throughout all 4 years of college. No matter which part of the world I was in, this thing was always with me. I got my Bachelor’s Degree with this thing! I got it at a time way back when there was still an “us” and a “them” — us with our smooth white Macbooks, and they with their shiny silver Macbook Pros. Now you couldn’t buy regular Macbooks even if you wanted to, which makes me sad.

One day, I’m gonna wake up and try to turn this thing on, only to find that it is utterly, irredeemably dead.

My new problem then would be this — I have no money to buy a new laptop. Help!


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.

Stay forever?

Winter last year.

My friend and I spent a week in Des Moines with an Egyptian family who welcomed us with open arms: partly because they’re warm people who love visitors, partly because they have 6 children—the youngest of whom is 3 months old, and the eldest, 11. They’ll readily admit that they need all the baby-sitting help they can get.

One boy, Peter, is four. The last time I saw him, he was a happy, bouncy 1-year-old. Back then, he seemed attached to me; the family and I would sit around the den, and he’d waddle past everyone else, stop at where I was and—in clumsy footsteps—climb over my legs and onto my lap.

Now, three years later, he doesn’t remember me. “Peeta, do you remember Joo Yan?”

He shook his head shyly, and for the first day, all he did was stare at me curiously.

He watched me bake an imaginary strawberry cake with his sisters.

He stood around as I helped his brother turn a pile of pillows into a defense fort.

During dinner, he asked if I liked baked yam, and if I could spoon him some.

Then he brought me his favorite book, Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham”, and there I was, in a deep, booming voice, refusing to try green eggs and ham in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, as this tiny boy sits giggling on my lap.

Before I knew it, I was his best friend again.

On Sunday, we packed into the family van, all 10 of us, and drove off to attend service at a Greek Orthodox church.

As we were driving home, we passed a house that was having a garage sale. A large van was parked outside. Every inch of that van was covered in paint and multi-colored glitter. If ever there were a rainbow van, this was it. It was a little bit kitschy, and a lot of cute. The kids loved it.

The older children started shooting off questions at their dad. “Can we go out to touch it?” “Isn’t it preeedy?” “Can we do that to our van??”

The father fielded all questions with a single, less-than-enthusiastic, “Maybe. If we have the time.”

The response set off a volcano of further queries. “When?” “Really?!” “I want to ride in it!”

And as the torrent of questions let out by the older kids continued in escalating decibels, a small, soft voice next to me—one that has remained quiet all along—suddenly went, “Joo Yan, will you come into the van with us?”

I looked down at that 4-year-old. He looked down at his feet, which were sticking out over the edge of the car seat. Then he turned to me. The seat belt—a little too big for him—covered part of his face, and made him look tiny. His hands were clasped, his lips colored a glossy shade of baby pink by his mother’s lip balm, and his brows were furrowed.

He was concerned! He was concerned that I’d leave him.

And when the time came for me to really leave, because I could only stay in someone else’s place for so long, he grabbed my hand and tearfully asked, “Can’t you stay with me forever?”

Kids have bad memory. Little dude is not going to remember me a year later. Still, it broke my heart to have to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon, okay?”, knowing that it was more lie than truth.

Oh, as I’m writing this, the mother of this family has just given birth to a 7th child—a healthy baby girl!

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? Super modest 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 travel. 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—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 around 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 nauseated. 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. 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.

To be precise, my Grinnell education—both in and out of the 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?

Stew, Cambodia

I don’t know if my last post makes it obvious enough, but I’m missing Grinnell.

Right now, I feel.. bored? That life is too slow-paced? That I’m lacking stimulations? That the Malaysian heat is slowly cooking me, turning me into a sluggish heap of meaningless existence, keeping me stagnant, slowly stewing me in my own boredom.

Isn’t it weird? A few weeks ago, I was still in Grinnell, and life was like a bullet train, speeding from one stop to the next, leaving me with hardly any time to catch my breath. So many things happening, so many things to be dealt with, so many people running everywhere, so many words being spoken, being written, being read. So much information, so many exchanges of so many kinds.

And now, I’m back in Malaysia, and suddenly I have so much time. Time, the one thing I didn’t have enough of in Grinnell, I now have in abundance in Malaysia.

* * * * *

Thank god I have a trip to Cambodia planned! An effective way to kick me out of that pathetic mood that got me writing the nonsense above.

So yes, I’m in Cambodia. When I stepped out of the Phnom Penh International Airport and into the streets of Phnom Penh for the first time, the one thought crossed my mind was — my god, this place seems so much like Ghana!

The dusty roads full of potholes, the endless stream of motorcycles weaving around cars and pedestrians, tarp-covered stalls by the roadside, children balancing large tubs of goods for sale.

This is an image that development and modernization will soon erase.

I’ll write more later, very tired.


Granola cereal and vanilla yoghurt.

Granola cereal and vanilla yoghurt in large amounts, for breakfast, lunch, or late-night munch-time.

Granola cereal and vanilla yoghurt at 3 a.m. on a weekday to stay awake during an all-nighter, and at 3 a.m. on a weekend to satiate a drunk food craving.

Granola cereal and vanilla yoghurt, just because I feel like having it, because it’s my comfort food.

Sometimes, when I don’t feel like going to the dining hall and am too lazy to make real food for myself, I decide to allow myself a heaping bowl of granola cereal and vanilla yoghurt for a meal. And such a decision is always met with a little bit of excitement and a little bit more of anticipation.

Honey granola, oats, mini flakes and toasted pecans, with large spoonfuls of thick, heavy, creamy sweet vanilla yoghurt.

Having granola with yoghurt is one of my Grinnell habits, one among many that make a regular, typical day at Grinnell regular and typical.

I bought a box of granola cereal and a large tub of yoghurt from Tesco in the new Paradigm Mall the other day. More than just to have something in the house for my breakfasts, I really wanted to reclaim a little bit of my Grinnell everydayness.

The yoghurt here, I am sadly reminded, just isn’t the same. I forgot that Malaysian yogurt is watery, runny, thin. Tangy, sharp, unpleasantly tart.

It’s not just granola and yoghurt that I want, it’s the taste of combining that granola cereal with that vanilla yoghurt that I desire, that I’m trying, and failing, to recreate.

Guess it’s time to let go of this Grinnell habit. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

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—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 kind that 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, and 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 on the phone 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 drunk together one final time!” and the hopeful “I will see you soon, okay? I’ll come to visit you in Malaysia!” did NOT, in fact, feel like our final words face-to-face. These are the people who know me best at this point in my life, 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.

Till what’s next, Three

Seeing that graduation is next week, and most of us will be going to far off places and probably not seeing our friends/guys any time soon, the following is a legitimate frustration, expressed in a (possibly fictitious, possibly not) conversation:

“So my period came.”

“Oh shit, worst time to be on your period! Are you going to do it anyway?”

“I want to, this’ll be our last time, but I don’t want the mess.”

“But you can do it in the shower. No mess.”

“Yeah, but that means we’ll have to do it late at night.”


“Oh but I don’t want to get my hair wet at night.”

“Maybe you can wear a shower cap?”

“… a shower cap?!”

* * *

I can’t believe it. What I do with these people in the next few days will be the last time ever that I’m doing these things with them, in this setting.

Once you grasp the significance of this, it is very hard not to become emo.

Till what’s next, Two

Next Monday we’ll have our Class of 2012 commencement ceremony, which will be held outdoors. Our families will be here to see us walk the stage, smartly dressed in our graduation gowns, and receive our bachelor’s degree that we’ve worked four excruciatingly stressful years for.

Are seniors concerned about Monday’s weather? May-haps. A little bit, kind of.

This Friday will be Block Party, which will be held outdoors. An entire street will be blocked off from morning till evening, beer trucks will be brought in, music will be played loudly enough, and everyone will drink and be merry. Everyone will be intoxicated, from the booze, obviously, but also from the high of knowing you’ve survived another stressful Grinnellian academic year, and now all you and your wonderful friends need to think about is how much more you can/should drink.

Are seniors concerned about Friday’s weather? OH GOD YES, SO CONCERNED, you best believe it!

And this is typical Grinnellian behavior. All-day drinking parties are just more important. Obviously.

I mean, we already did the work. We know we’re graduating. A ceremony is fine, but a party is better!

(Drink responsibly la, no problem one.)