Overnight

11:45 pm.

On a night in late November, I arrive home dead tired. It was a long evening in the lab, staring at a 27-inch screen until my brain turned to mush. I drop my bag to the floor. Brush my teeth. Change my clothes. And fall into bed – to no avail. I turn on my bedside lamp, read a little.

Finally, it’s time for sleep. It needs to be or I’ll hate myself in the morning. I turn out the light.

12:45 am.

I’d mistakenly thought that that Moroccan Mint tea would be fine. My mind is wired though, flitting between the problems in my code, the fires I’ll have to put out in class tomorrow, and all that needs to be done by Friday, the day after. I try to quiet my mind. I listen. My apartment is asleep, but there are still noises in the night. Cracks outside. Like gunshots, I think. I put it down to whatever trauma I still carry from Baltimore and my obsession with true crime.

1:00 am.

The alarm starts. I lay in bed listening for a few seconds, initially unsure. They must have replaced the fire alarms while I’d been gone over the summer. I’ve never heard these before. I open my door to the dark hall, staring at what must be the alarm in confusion. It could only be that.

It doesn’t stop. Footsteps start upstairs. My roommate steps out from her room, the same expression of confusion mixed with questioning alarm. The footsteps become increasingly frantic. Smells of burnt toast. Perhaps that all it is. We don’t say anything as we go together to open the front door, which opens to the entrance of the complex. It’s unsettling to say the least.

A few seconds of waiting and listening and people are running down the stairs.

“Get out! The whole building is burning!”

I look back down our hallway. It stretches the length of the building. An unmistakable orange glow is now dancing across the white of the refrigerator, the pots and pans gleaming. The air now reflects light, increasingly paled by smoke.

My third roommate finally pokes his head from his room. Despite his dazed look, I think he gets the point. The fourth has yet to emerge from his room. As the kitchen grows brighter and brighter, I yell down the hall as I get myself together. He finally emerges.

In these seconds, you don’t think, you simply do. I grab my bag, shoes, coat, phone.

1:03 am.

With these things overflowing from my hands, I stumble out the door. I pull my boots on in the carpeted foyer. Getting out to the sidewalk, I pull my coat on. It’s still a cozy 34°F outside. The last few people flow from of the building. Some are already in tears. I realize that I’m shaking uncontrollably. Thoughts of what to do now are only faintly beginning to filter in. Sirens.

1:05 am.

Policemen are on top of us, yelling, pushing us to get off the block, anywhere, just away from here. Sledge hammers are already pounding away at the electronically locked glass doors to the foyer. Only just installed last week.

They’re already in our unit. We can hear the shouting, making sure everyone is out. We slowly heed their words, backing away slowly, but not sure where to go.

We can’t help but watch. We can see the flames rise above the building. You can’t help but think that everything is lost. All that wood.

I take a minute to feel the air. It’s dry, but there’s only a little wind. Thank goodness, I think to myself. The four of us continue walking to nowhere in particular. I concentrate on stopping the shaking.

1:15 am.

We find a late night café and sit. We sit in silence. Some minutes pass. Logic begins to come back to us. During these moments, your mind inevitably files through all that you have in there, now presumably in flames. Yes, there are childhood mementos, my passport, the products of some hard work. You realize what you truly value for those few moments, and it’s little. More sirens.

The logic comes flooding back. Priority #1: a place to stay for the night.

7 am.

It’s Thursday. I respond to text messages, explaining 2 am phone calls. I check my email. I find presentable clothing. I go to my meetings. I go to class. Carry on as usual. There’s not much else to be done. I carry on as usual.

Sure, I’m sure that I do.

People.

A not insignificant part of my time is spent avoiding people. Avoiding people in conversation, I mean. It’s active avoidance. I’m sure the rift in language at the moment only encourages this tendency of mine. For some people, the offhand remark, few words, or even enough words for a full conversation comes flowing without thought for making the words themselves. For others, it’s another extreme. It’s safe to say that I’m on the latter end of the spectrum. The far end. It’s been a lifetime endeavor to minimize its impact, which is mostly detrimental from where I’m sitting.

I actively avoid engaging with people.

Waiting at the Apple Store, sitting at those large tables with nothing to do but wait because they’ve taken your phone / laptop / whatever electronic device you have otherwise semi-attached to your person, it seems natural to exchange a few words with the person sitting not ten centimeters from you. But no. I will kindly respond to your leading question and then kindly ignore you in a sufficiently frustrating way as to make it truly an awkward effort to continue speaking.

Walking out from the metro, you hold the door from afar, waiting politely. I see your craving for words. I slow my pace. I allow the man formerly behind me to be subject to it. As I see the conversation continue to the ground above, I breathe a sigh of relief. A narrow escape.

My days continue. Was I born this way? I suppose so.

As a child, I would rehearse the words over and over in my head before they came out, whether to order something at a restaurant or ask for the restrooms. It couldn’t be the wrong thing – grammatically or socially. It couldn’t make you or me uncomfortable. It couldn’t reveal any of myself, but perhaps none of you either. And so my boxed life could continue, wildly uninteresting, peppered only by the stories that I built within it.

When you listen more than you speak, it’s easier to learn things. You realize that people like talking about themselves. A lot. You learn from this. You feed it. You also learn what degree of yourself you’re required to share to meet people, actually make friends. Meeting people, after all, is one of the things that makes life interesting. People do amazing and frightening things. At least, some do. But talking to people is how you learn about them. Not simply what they say, but how they exist. Some of time’s most influential ideas have come from people talking to each other. Not to mention, it fights some part of our mortality. Don’t you want some part of that?

In recent years, I thought I’d conquered a lot of these people-avoidance anxieties. They seem to have returned with a vengeance. A new language. Before, I was young enough to have excuses. Now, it’s a weird paralysis. I continue practicing over and over in my head so much that I annoy and tire myself. It still doesn’t really ever come out the right way. I can’t plan for everything. People are still unpredictable. But the best way to learn a new language is – surprise – to talk to people. Any person. It seems impossible.

It has me a bit nervous now. They say that by about my age, as women, our personalities and habits become more set and stable. (That’s why it’s best to marry after this age, so I’ve heard. Though debated.) Whichever is true, am I to suffer this crippling anxiety forever? Forever?? Likely.

Still, I like to think that I manage to float comfortably atop the well of self-pity. If the last 27 years is any evidence, I’m perfectly capable of overcoming it, in this language or the next.

The English Din

I step into the terminal. Time seems to slow for a few seconds. Returning to the din of voices that I understand, little segments of sentences which again hold meaning for me float through the air. I’m surprised by the welling feelings of comfort, distraction, and disdain. I haven’t been away for very long, which is why I’m surprised. In the short time away, my mind has come to inhabit some place worlds away from where I grew up. Upon returning, I had expected more comfort than anything else. Instead, I’ve found myself somewhere in between, playing down some parts of myself in order to adapt to the present and respond in an acceptable fashion, to make people feel comfortable. I do this naturally by now, perhaps to a fault. It’s become instinct to hide what is different or foreign to people’s daily lives and respond with the minimum. In the few moments that I’ve gone too far, I’ve suffered the unpleasant consequences. People cut off from you, find you intimidating, can’t relate, and you become a self-proclaimed repository for passive aggressive comments. You could believe that this is an efficient filter of people from your life. I find that it only serves to pain others and yourself in many cases. Everyone has their own world and finds comfort within that.

But let’s go back to the airport. All together – comfort, distraction, disdain. In the short time away, it seems that I’d become accustomed to not understanding the words most people speak. I could block out the side conversations of no interest to me. It’s liberating in a way – to be able to sit in a crowded restaurant, café, coffee shop, party and remain with your own thoughts. To allow disturbances becomes a conscious decision, only allowed when one makes the conscious effort to listen and understand. After being alone in my head for some time, unconsciously understanding the conversations all around naturally becomes distracting and invasive. I find that I’m out of practice at blocking out the endless voices. The disdain only comes from understanding the emptiness of so many conversations. A pair of ladies gossip about the audacity of a friend: “Can you believe it? She’s telling me to do this, but it can only be done with aluminum pans! Well, I don’t have aluminum pans.” The indignation is tangible. What an affront to this poor lady. Yes, of course, when giving cooking instructions, care should be given to consider the recipient’s capacities so as to avoid offense. I’m struck by the banality of so many conversations. Of course, this is the case in any language. I’d only escaped it for a moment.

Perhaps it’s the only positive I’ve found amidst my seemingly constant frustration with the French language. I’ve harnessed this frustration into disdain for myself, rooted in an incapacity to learn and promptly apply. The violence of this frustration has made itself known in the past few weeks. I’ve come to blame language for my persistent dissatisfaction and what I’ve perceived as a regression to propensities I’ve so diligently worked to subdue. Low confidence, an incapacity to make decisions, and debilitating fear of doing the wrong thing all thwart my innate need to be independent at all costs. My already limited conversation has become even further reduced. People pass over me, either out of their own discomfort or my short conversation. And I feel indebted to the ones that don’t. I’m sorry for their efforts for so little reward. It makes me question my potential to be happy in that place. The idea that if only I could move around with confidence, independently, without a constant fear, frozen gaze, or incoherent mumbling. If I could move around without revealing my secret. Instead, my fixed smile seems to say, “Yes, you’ve found me out. I don’t fit here.”

How important that sense of belonging is. How important for confidence, for independence, for happiness. Where does this fear come from? I’ve been asking myself this question for a long time without a satisfactory answer. It only seems to ooze from some eternal black hole that pollutes my every action, each a strictly calculated movement. Despite all of this, I’ve returned to the din of English and find myself hating it. Perhaps it’s only the lack of sleep. Or perhaps I’ve adopted yet another repellent tendency – the Parisian sensibility of endless complaining and haughty disdain.

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.

Define Successful.

My daily procrastination. My daily scroll down the newsfeed.

And there it is, the life status assessment of the day: “The bad habits you should give up if you want to be successful,” attached to a soothing photo of women doing what appears to be some form of yoga in hot springs. What success. Somehow the image does evoke a soothing “I’ve got my shit together and that’s why I have the time to be doing yoga in a hot spring” success. What life awareness.

The title is provocative only in that I can’t help but get defensive – define successful. Successful presumably means vastly different things to different people. I’d be hard-pressed to accept that success defined only by the number of commas printed on my bank account statement would mean success to me in 20 years, though it may for someone else. Likely success in this case is meant to be generic, to be whatever success means to the reader. But then, in that case, would the advice in the article ever be relevant to a person’s own so-called barriers to success? It’s bound to be a list of all the traits that a normal person can’t possibly give up if they are defined by exactly that. Normal. But I take the bait.

It’s a list. I skim through the bolded text – that’s the important bit. Yes, the little tidbits of wisdom that I can say I’ve absorbed for the day, a day unwasted. Except that I reach the end and feel that I haven’t been enlightened. There is nothing new that I can add to my hoarded treasure trove of forsaken goals on my way to a seemingly unreachable “success”.

I’m generally healthy. I go to the gym. I do things. I plan for the long-term. I take opportunities – not only the small ones I like to think. I very much take responsibility for what happens next. Perhaps too much so. I know that learning takes effort, and that I have the discretion to make that learning happen. I don’t believe that it’ll happen overnight. In fact, I’d be disappointed if it did. I gave up perfectionism long ago – I’m told failure is supposed to be healthy. I’ll keep going with that for my own sanity. I’ve learned that to be really efficient, I cannot – cannot – multi-task. I don’t need to control everything – again, my goal is sanity. Okay, I admit, I’m working on not saying yes to everything. I’m improving. I’ve most definitely given up on toxic people, just ask my friends. The real ones. Okay, I’ll make another concession. My need to be liked still hangs around, but I can’t say I’m in it for mass appeal. Dependency on television doesn’t seem to exist. In fact, the opposite seems to be the problem in my ability to be a normal social human being.

So is there anything in there? I’ll admit, a few were borderline. But for the most part, I’d say that I’m pretty satisfied in my ability to say that I effectively don’t have any of these “bad habits”. So what do I do now? If these are all that I need to give up to be successful, by my own definition, why does the path to success seem so obscure? Perhaps it’s more of a question of reaching that satisfactory definition of success. At this point, it’s more probable that I’ll never reach it simply because I’ll never be able to define it. When will I feel that I’ve “made it”? Maybe that’s a list worth reading.

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.

Opinions. And on having them.

Maybe this was only the irrational fear of a 12-year-old, the fear of not having opinions on anything. It came from this idea that I don’t have anything to say because I don’t have thoughts about them and that those non-thoughts form only non-opinions. I don’t say things because I don’t have anything to say. Without an opinion, I don’t have a stake in the conversation, in what’s being put forward as right, as legitimate, as ethical, as the way things should be in the world. I don’t have opinions on anything. This fear hung in the air for a good chunk of my teenage years.

American grade school (and into college) is a place where young people are lauded for their “participation” because this active contribution to the classroom is hailed as the way that people are heard and legitimate and intelligent. These people are the ones that move the discussion forward, that defend their arguments to others, and have influence, and what I’ve heard called “leadership” skills. To voice your opinion and your thoughts on some issue is to be worldly and to “know your stuff.” In other cultures, it’s called being rude, loud, obnoxious, and/or imposing on others. For a long time, I had trouble reconciling these two worlds.

I’ve come to realize that, back then, I was only gathering information, so-called data on truth. It is without doubt that from a young age, I had some kind of obsession with the truth. I struggled with the idea that perhaps, and probably, there is no real truth in the universe. As you can imagine, this made religion a difficult concept for me to grasp. While you could argue that I wasn’t brought up Christian enough to take certain ideas as self-evident, I’d argue that it was in my nature to be skeptical of that which could not be reasonably or definitively proven multiple times over. Rather, it was my acceptance of religion as a value to human society rather than the belief system of any one religion that answered my questions into why it should exist at all.

I had a certain way of speaking. [Some would argue that this sentence should be written in the present: I have a certain way of speaking. Perhaps.] Things had to be worthy. Statements had to be worth the effort of speech. And correspondingly worth the time spent listening to it. Hey, I’ve always been considerate. Speech had to make some worthy contribution – worthy meaning thought-provoking or relevant, adding something new. Why would you spend your time listening to and learning the same things over and over again? You wouldn’t. But perhaps this leads me to make too many assumptions about what other people would find interesting or relevant or new or of value. Maybe it is only an excuse for me to continue gathering information without making my own contribution to that data collection and its synthesis. Maybe the assumption that people see what I see given the same information is too strong. But hey, I’m learning.

This is yet another fear about which my 20-something-year-old self would be able to reassure my 12- and 15- and 17-year-old selves. I have opinions. And strong ones. I have opinions that after 20-odd years of data collection in the form of experiences, anecdotes, media consumption, diversity, culture, and (I hope) continued openness have cultivated. I have things to say and it matters that I say them. Though I remain reserved, these are opinions that I will honestly share while being conservative with who is worthy to hear them. After years of being a woman, I know well when words only fall on deaf ears.

This past month has reminded me of these past fears and more recent realizations, and really in ways that I would have gladly gone without. It reminded me that I am capable of an emotional violence in my opinions and beliefs at a very basic, fundamental level – a driving force that remains hidden if not completely smothered in the day-to-day. And it reminded me again that there is so much more truth to learn. That settling down is not an option. We must instead strive to engage and listen and contribute and find those things that are worthy. That complacency and blind trust is dangerous. And that those with all of the loud opinions may be more empty air than American reverence would make them seem.