Coming to Terms

It may be that I’m coming from the traditional Asian family. In such a context, there are only a few career paths worth taking. Doctor, lawyer, engineer – anything that can be labelled and understood as smart and difficult to achieve. Or anything that makes money. I am decidedly none of these. I would say that I ended up label-less, in a field difficult to explain to my mother. I shrink the job description to a few words. Despite the universities and degrees, the cost and travel, it’s not as glamorous as she’d hoped. She can’t explain it in a word to her friends, to my aunts or my uncles. All she has to show are the names of various institutions, places where they’ve never been, but only hear about in the news. Huge organizations where working there doesn’t mean much unless you can say that you actually do something apart from the ever-nebulous, analyze.

Anything that has a label would be better. Or else, anything else would be better.

“His degree will essentially be in Neuroscience. That’s not what he does, but that’s what will be written on his degree in any case.”

(This last comment goes unheeded. Neuroscience is a known, labelled, respectable science, bien sûr.)

“See, that’s what I dreamed of you doing.”

(I had no knowledge of said dream.)

She continues, “Anything would be better.”

(Really? Anything?)

I put aside the fact that after ten years, she doesn’t really know what I do. (But perhaps I’m giving her too little credit, and her statement still holds. That is another matter altogether.) And that, even if she doesn’t know it, this is what she wanted at one time. It’s just that my ultimate employer doesn’t yet start with “World” or end with “Bank”. In her mind, she knows what those people do. And it’s respectable.

My efforts to explain the last ten years bear little fruit. Through a mishmash of opportunity and ‘interest’, I have fallen into what I’m doing today. Your school teachers and professors don’t seem to mention the significance of a label once you get out into the world. It’s somehow important. It’s somehow critical that you can fit your days into a single word, or maybe two. At some point, I came to envy those who could graduate and immediately say, “I’m an engineer.” Or “I’m an accountant.” Or “I’m a doctor.” And people know what they mean. There’s no need to go further. They don’t endure the moments of pause or confusion and the necessity to breach an entire subject matter just to convey how they spend their time. Yes, I envy that. Or perhaps self-branding is a skill I don’t have. But I’m skeptical that that is the solution.

The closest label that we’ve been stamped with is social scientist – a label that could mean nearly anything and one that has been gendered and pushed aside as soft. And this is forever hard to swallow. But perhaps I’m finally coming to terms with the idea.

“What do you do?”

“I study *mumble mumble*…”

“Hm okay, but you do do statistics? That counts. I’ll add you to the mailing list for our seminar.”

THAT COUNTS.

And with those couple of words, perhaps I finally began coming to terms with the label. For now, let’s set aside the fact that external validation seems necessary for me to accept what I’ve become. And that there’s some feeling that the career defines me. With those words, it began to take the form of something real, respected, and worth the brain energy spent. Based off a simple interaction, this is delusional, of course. But perhaps, all the same, it was some recognition that I’ve spent some of my years learning at least some things. So yes, perhaps I finally am coming to terms.

But then, I’m also adding words to say Computational Sciences on that final piece of paper…so maybe not.

A Dinner Party

Winter is the season of dinner parties. Excuses to get together with people, but stay indoors, dress up in sweaters and sweater dresses and celebrate when the sun sets early and the ever present fog leaves beads on your scarf and colors your nose.

Early evening: Accepting the invitation

It’ll be great to get out of the house. It’s an excuse to dress up, because, why not?

It’ll be fun. I’ll see people and have lively discussion. It’s my chance to be social and energetic and show that I’m a fun person.

I do things. Yes, I do things with people.

Getting ready

What kind of get-together is this? Are we talking full makeup? Or would that be trying too hard?

And what to wear. Is this too much party? Or should I be safe and go with black? Maybe it’s too sad and dark. But black is safe.

I’ll just add some color with my shoes for some fun. Heels aren’t too much. People wear heels to dinner.

Purse. No purse? Purse. Which purse? The everyday one, not too much. And coat. Definitely coat, scarf, gloves.

Okay, ready.

Wait, lipstick. Always lipstick. Yes, done.

Oh, and the champagne. Your one job. The champagne. How could you forget?

And late, of course.

The (late) entrance

Okay, hi. This is a lot of people. I’ll say hi to as many people as possible, and then just happily ignore the others that are difficult to reach. I’ll be introduced eventually. I don’t want to make a whole disturbance now. It’s pretty unlikely that I’ll ever see them again in my life anyway.

This is a nice spot in the room. Just nod and smile. Don’t forget to ask questions. You can talk less that way.

Yeah, I don’t understand half of what’s going on…but that’s fine. You’re the foreign one. You’re not supposed to understand. It’s a nice excuse anyhow, a nice excuse to not talk. I just feel bad that they’re trying so hard to include me. But I can also see them getting tired of that responsibility. Sorry! It’s okay. It’s okay. I can’t fix that right now.

À table

Ah finally, we’re sitting down to dinner. I can just eat. Eating is a valid excuse. It takes ALL of my attention. It does. Taking the right amount of salad from the bowl. Not looking ridiculous that I can’t get lettuce onto my fork and on a successful journey to the mouth. How to make the lettuce not overly large? Yes, that’s right. Be sure to fit the entire piece in or else you’ll look like a dumb rabbit. Dumb in all senses of the word, considering that you can’t engage in conversation like normal person right now. ALL THE ATTENTION. Okay, that’s normal.

Hm, that wasn’t enough food. I’m definitely still hungry. I thought the “I’m American” disclaimer was well-distributed at this point. There’s not really anything much left though. I can’t be the one to take all of the final drippings.

The bread! Thank God for bread. The bread will do it. Eat the bread.

I hope they don’t expect me to have followed the conversation. My brain is tired. It can only translate so much in a prolonged period of time. I also have the jetlag excuse in my pocket. I must have zoned out for the past five minutes at least. Okay, fine. Try again.

This conversation isn’t particularly exciting. Maybe I’m not actually understanding. But I think I am. Would I be having fun if I was with my own friends? Or is this really just a language thing? Or do people just get boring when they get older? Or am I just more disinterested? I think I’d still be bored if it were my own friends. Maybe I’ve been here too long. Maybe that’s all it is. This is probably what it’s like for outsiders to hear my friends and I hanging out. I’m suddenly so sorry for all of those people that have to sit through us…

Bored. Maybe this is why I don’t come to these things. Just smile. More smiling.

Woo! Dessert! This is cause for celebration.

Post hoc

Dinner, check. We have to be leaving soon. There seems to be lots of talk left in them yet. *sigh* I’m exhausted. But I still look nice.

Okay, yes? Yes?! Coats. I can do that. I have all the things. Coats, gloves, purse.

Bisous! Love you all! We should do this again? Yes, of course! Let’s do this again soon!

*door shuts*

SWEET FREEDOM.

Let’s take a walk.

A walk sounds marvelous.

My mother, the X-man

My mother has an X-gene. It glows a pinkish orange, greenish blue, goldish red.

I first noticed when I was 12. A long-faced woman – tears brimming her eyes – was retelling a grey story in the hallways of an elementary school. My mother nodded along, her face strained with the scrunch of real empathy – the kind you rarely see. A hug and phone number exchange later, the long-faced woman walked away, glowing a pinkish orange, greenish blue, goldish red.

The pattern would repeat itself over the years. People with grey stories would find an ear that listened and a heart that cared in my mother, and she would move mountains to colour in the grey. To ease some of the pain. To make this life thing just a little more pleasant for those that crossed her path. They’d walk away from the interactions enveloped in all shades of pinkish orange, greenish blue, goldish red.

Some days I’d notice the toll the power took on her. The wrinkles etched by other people’s stories, the frustrations of not doing enough or having done too much. Still, it never wavered. Relentless on its mission to colour the grey, her magic led her to the front of a classroom. Here, every year, new stories await her, and she takes on the task of equipping them with their own power source. She teaches them how to add compassion, subtract hate, and multiply empathy. Every year, she leaves behind classrooms basked in hues of pinkish orange, greenish blue, goldish red.

My mother has an X-gene. I’ve often wished I had her blue-green eyes, her light curly hair, her cascading laugh. But mostly, mostly I want her power to paint the world a pinkish orange, greenish blue, goldish red.

Happy birthday mom! On behalf of the world, thanks for being born.

Exposed.

You know the feeling you get after an evening of being hypersocial? The drink helps and the exhilaration heightens and the words flow freely. Oversharing. What I keep for myself most of the time is coming out. My own. The morning is the aftermath. You sit in it, alone. Alone with only your recollection of split seconds here and there, overanalyzing your words and their reactions and what it means for tomorrow.

No? You don’t know that feeling?

Perhaps it’s my introversion showing. The next morning it reemerges, in full recoil. I’m experienced in this cycle by now – the one where I crave social interaction, only to be met with angst afterwards – but I’m no expert. It takes that same rationalization, that same analysis to remind myself that it doesn’t matter. That no one will remember all of the bits and pieces of yourself that you left out there in the open to be judged, stomped on, and known. Not really. Everyone is also wrapped up in their own selves. The baseness of human nature is there to catch you.

I continue through my morning, hoping that I don’t remember every moment of the night before to dwell and analyze. I work to forget. The hangover helps. It helps the not thinking. The energy has been sucked away. Still, I yearn for the next night to erase this one. The next night when I’ll see the same people and I can re-write. Again and again.

How to make friends in 20 minus 19 easy steps

1) Don’t be lonely.

2) Item #1 is in fact sufficient, but let’s keep going because lists=clicks.

3) Bite the bullet and decide what your “hobbies” are. Find groups that take part in them.

4) Identify the one or two people you enjoyed during the aforementioned hobby-wielding group gatherings and stalk them.

5) At least legally stalk them. Add them on Facebook and essentially ask them out on a friend date.

6) Friend date them.

7) Get excited when they start texting you random life details. Level “friend” unlocked.

8) Go to lunch with colleagues who hold the potential of being vaguely interesting when away from a desk.

9) Plan get-togethers to bring “friended” people together.

10) Fail at actually holding get-togethers to bring “friended” people together.

11) Give up on making friends. You are too stressed out/ unhappy/ dark/ annoying for people to be interested in your friendship. Be sad about this.

12) Be mad at all humans.

13) Realize that this is irrational.

14) Try to understand your loneliness and figure out what’s really been bothering you.

15) Get incredibly busy with your life and your plans.

16) Understand that it was never personal. You are, and have been, just fine.

17) Stop feeling lonely.

18) Stop actively seeking friends.

19) End up with a social calendar you can’t keep up with.

20) Ignore steps 2-19.* Keep it simple: don’t be lonely.

* For the purposes of offering you high-quality, evidence-based advice, I personally tested items 2 through 19 so that you don’t have to. My findings suggest that one of the following phenomena are at play in making item #1 so successful:

a) One theory is that loneliness is a viral infection. Other humans can smell the moribund stink of it on you, and as conscientious, harm reductionist citizens, they will take the very appropriate measure of initiating a quarantine. Therefore, not being lonely will protect against a quarantine and thus facilitate friendship. The vaccine against loneliness is in development, with Facebook leading global efforts. FDA approval is pending the removal of side effects such as Facebook depression and cell phone addiction.

b) Another theory is that loneliness is an addictive drug that changes neural pathways, leads to obsessive behaviour and enhances paranoia. Those addicted will suffer from seeking comfort in their victimization and developing misanthropic tendencies. As a result, they will alienate themselves from society in order to maintain access to their drug of choice.

In conclusion, don’t seek friendship when you feel like you need it most. Instead, figure yourself out, wash off the Lonely, put on some Happiness foundation, dust yourself with Pleasantries blush, and plump your smile with Good Times lipstick.

Your friends await you.

The Coupling Constant

I’m at that age. I’m at the age where everyone is coupling up. The age where things are done in couples. It crept up on me. I didn’t realize that this was a new baseline until it was impossible to ignore. I found myself on a long weekend trip of 11 people, five pairs of these 11 were (surprise!) couples. Let me add by saying that one of the sources of entertainment of the weekend was pairing up the lonely lingering one. The Couples were expected to do the entire weekend together. Maybe they normally do anyway. Still, the declared status of togetherness was overwhelming. People now come in pairs.

I found the realization disturbing whether or not you define yourself as being one half of a couple. It’s something that you don’t necessarily realize or care about when it’s just you and the other person. You’re wrapped up in life with this other person. Me and you. I suppose that’s what companionship is taken to mean. But with a group of couples, it seems to morph into something else. Navigation of the social space is different. You’re attached. You’re expected to know one another, complement one another, and present this to the world.

Now, I’m finding it a rarity for people not to be paired up. It’s all too tangible that this is the age where I should expect my peers to have significant others, husbands, and wives, if not families. Too many times in the past month have I already made decidedly wrong assumptions.

“So, you have roommates?”

“No, I have a family.”

“Oh…yeah, those are like roommates…”

It’s a different frame of mind. People come in pairs. Whether it’s the natural course of life, I’m open to debate. Companionship is, of course, a goal from a young age. It’s rooted in humans as the ultra-social species, perhaps even in our wiring for survival. The challenge of it all is maintaining independence and individuality within the couple, even if we’re horribly attached.

Maternal Instincts

Maybe it’s my age or something. Maybe it’s me becoming more of my parents with each passing day. Maybe it’s the current world climate, or the way I consider death to be a very real, tangible possibility today or tomorrow. But my propensity to worry (excessively) about the well being of other people has been kicking in lately. In a bad way. In a (semi-) irrational way. To the point that it can be debilitating for that short period of time.

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Smartphones. Computers. Laptops. iPads. Email. Facebook Messenger. Google Hangouts. Skype. iMessage. WhatsApp. Viber. The list goes on and on.

In today’s messy, globalizing, technologically advancing, multitasking, fast-paced world, we’re constantly connected to a seemingly eternal universe of information, and to each other. We’re connected to the ones we love and the ones we hate and the ones that we will never know in any sense of the word. I can send a message to a friend in Geneva, a friend in London, in Paris, in San Francisco, in New York, in Phnom Penh, in Yaoundé, in the length of time it takes my thumbs to move about on the keyboard of my iPhone – which, I’ll say, is not that much time. J I can do this with the click of a few buttons, for free, from the comfort of my desk, my local coffee shop, my daily bus ride, or in the middle of a lengthy statistics lecture. I can successfully communicate with my friends and family at any time in nearly any place and expect to receive a message back.

Now, let’s examine that last part: expecting to receive a message back (assuming that the message compels a response). I like to think that I’m a reasonable person. I wait a good amount of time for the response, allowing for a varying time range depending on who you are and the topic of discussion. I know who will respond within five minutes and from whom I shouldn’t expect to hear until next week. I know that my sister will respond immediately to a video of pug puppies, but conveniently “forget to respond” to a question about how her math class is going.

But there are some instances, when I don’t hear from someone within 24 hours, where Messenger’s Active 23h ago brings up my latent anxiety, releasing the monster perpetually lingering just below the surface. It’s that instant where my brain involuntarily jumps to the worst possible possibilities. But even as rationality takes over, remnant unease remains. In these few in-between hours, I wonder if my brain is simply programmed around loss and death. Perhaps this is just me.

Still, the response lets me know that they’re alive. I’ve clearly passed the stage of – “oh, they’re not answering because they don’t want to talk to me,” or “they must be upset with me,” or “hm, they must not have network.” No. I’m at – “SOMETHING BAD MUST HAVE HAPPENED.”

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Kind of. It’s more like – “well, I hope nothing bad has happened.” …repeating over and over and over again in my head…I hardly find that any better.

Where does this come from? This bubble of latent, and sometimes not so latent, anxiety and worry. Worry, when this other person is simply going about living their life. Yes, my friends and family simply have lives. Lives where responding to the multiple messages on their phone or email or Messenger is not a top or only priority. Being disconnected is something that we strive to do in preserving mental health, sleeping better, creating and maintaining real human connections, improving focus, gaining time, and life balance in general. This should be an admirable trait, to live unconsumed by digital connection, instead of shackled by a relentless need for connection. So when we’ve come to depend on it, to classify it as part of daily life, as a guaranteed mechanism to reaching another person, but possibly also exacerbating an underlying paranoia, does it become damaging?

On the one spick_maternal.jpgide, I’m convinced that heightened anxiety runs on both sides of my family. Fine. I’ve learned to cope with it in various ways: yoga and exercise, a balanced diet, regular pampering, reading, hot showers, acknowledgement of the importance of rest and leisure. But more generally, where does this tendency to worry come from? Is it related to a projected ‘maternal instinct’? If not, what is it? Is it beneficial manifesting in this way? Is this normal? Or am I the extreme? How much of my reaction is shaped by the current social and political world forces? How much is driven by fear? How do I separate the rational from irrational reaction? When is it valid to worry? Would it help if I made greater efforts to disconnect, making my world just a bit smaller?

Whatever the answers to these questions, I’ll just be over here, monitoring the Active 23h ago, hoping for the update, awaiting your response.