Discovering yourself through others

I used to think people could achieve more alone, that other people weren’t necessary. I thought everything was attainable as long as I had the discipline, and to some extent that is still true. In the realm of developing new skills: like doing more pushups, waking up without an alarm, and programming, these are things you can refine with practice. But I’ve come to realize that there are “fuzzy” things (not hard skills) that are difficult to discover alone. This year was my third and last year at LDC (Leadership Development Center), and while it’s name is essentially a buzzword to attract high schoolers for college applications, it was only through LDC this year that I grew to realize how important of an influence others have had on me.

My first year at LDC was as a delegate, where I participated in the actual camp. The next two I was a staff, where I planned and led the delegates at camp. I went into LDC each year with a predetermined goal I wanted to achieve. My first year, it was all about me. I did whatever it took to improve my leadership, to achieve a captivating charisma. I took every opportunity to stand in the spotlight, practice my public speaking. I was on a hustle every day to talk to as many different people as possible. And this wave of self improvement carried on throughout high school. I knew and believed that if I wanted to improve my social game, I could do it myself.

The following year, I came back as a youth staff. At that point in time, I felt being a staff was more of a social status. They were the confident people in the red shirts and cool sunglasses. All the delegates would talk about them, and now I could become a part of it. I fed off this social energy and it gave me confidence. I continued to take opportunities to improve myself, and in turn I become a pretty likable character among the delegates. However, something I wish I had done differently was pulling myself out of the spotlight. After all, the camp isn’t about me. It’s about the delegates that came here to improve themselves. Thet following year, I wanted to take a step back and just witness the magic that I had experienced my delegate year. Putting my delegates before myself and making sure everybody felt included and happy. Until now, I was more of the social hustler, wanting to meet as many people as possible (like superficial friends) over developing close friendships with a smaller group of people. I wanted to use this last LDC as a chance to watch other people grow, and I wanted to develop meaningful friendships with them along the way. Taking that step back allowed me to become more aware of how people were feeling around me. Like noticing subtle signs when people felt isolated or unhappy. Also celebrating others’ excitement with them. I came to realize how caring some other staff were towards the delegates, how they would always go out of their way to make the delegates feel comfortable. Watching this made me realize how much I valued having these caring relationships with other people. I also realized how to care for others. To have somebody share their story with you and develop a closer relationship with you, you have to first put yourself out there. So many people come back talking about how LDC is so magical because it can bring people so close together in just a couple days. We get to become so close to one another because we encourage everybody to push their comfort zones and put themselves out there. When we put themselves out there and become vulnerable, others can relate with us and grow closer.

So yes, while it is exciting to put 10,000 hours into mastering a skill, you’d have a much more fulfilling time experiencing life’s ups and downs with the people you care about. You may be the one who gives meaning to somebody’s life, and along the way, you’ll get to meet the people who’ll help you discover yourself.

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This is my last clan, and its a clan I’m proud to end on.

Moral Courage

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I’ve just finished reading Excellent Sheep about 2/3rds the way into my trip to Taiwan. Ever since starting my goal to read more, I feel Excellent Sheep is one of the first books that I’ve really connected with. I know many people have bashed Deresiewicz for hating on the elite institutions (the Ivy Leagues), and it does seem at times that he is resoundingly biased against them. Regarding this point, I feel like the book would’ve been more complete if he went more deeply into accounts of people who actually went through the liberal arts education reformation he fantasizes about. Deresiewicz himself was a part of the elite institutions he claims to be so bad, so Deresiewicz is talking about the liberal arts education from the other side of the fence. He might be celebrating the liberal arts education because he has experienced all the negatives he discusses about an elite education. The grass is always greener on the other side, right? Ok, but that’s beside my point. What hit me like a train was Deresiewicz’s undertone of what he believes a true education should be.

– The purpose of college is to enable you to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely: more fully. I was talking with a couple of seniors during a visit to Bryn Mawr. One of them said, “The question I leave Bryn Mawr with is how to put my feminist ideals into practice as I go forward.” I liked “ideals,” but I loved the first part. A real education sends you into a world bearing questions, not resumes.

– The purpose of college is to make you a more interesting person – a nice formulation, as long as we stipulate that the person to whom it is most important to be interesting is yourself. What makes you interesting is reading, thinking, slowing down, having long conversations, and creating a rich inner life for yourself.

Ahh, this sounds familiar huh. It embodies the main reason I started this blog (it’s in the title!) – to become more interesting. He literally just told me how to become more interesting! LOL. I actually laughed after reading this, it’s like he just gave me the answer to my most important question. But the sad (or maybe the fun) part is that the answer isn’t that simple. I want to find out how this is true for myself, if even true at all. Deresiewicz talks about the humanities as a gluing experience that relates everything we learn with our realities. We ask of a scientific proposition, “Is it true?”, but of a proposition in the humanities, we ask, “Is it true for me?” What I do know is that I’ll only be satisfied if I find out how to become interesting in my own terms.

Another topic Deresiewicz talks about is moral imagination and moral courage, which I feel should go hand in hand. Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new alternatives for how to live. I’m not really quite sure (yet?) why he labels this as a moral imagination –– moral feels like such a heavy prefix to that phrase. His whole idea on moral imagination hits me so close to the feels because it’s essentially what I see myself doing right now. Kind of going yolo, into a new life. Not necessarily ditching the hardcore tech life behind, but more like embracing a a new type of liberal artsy life. What’s next is part B – moral courage – or putting what you imagine into action. I’m still thinking about this part of the equation, the courage to commit 100% to this imagination. Working in tech has been really fun, but maybe committing 100% to pursuing a true education won’t throw away that tech life, it might even make it stronger. So right now the challenge I have for myself is to commit 100% to something, and choosing Swat has brought me so much closer to this imagined path. I feel that the last part is seeing for myself the value of studying the humanities. I’ve read so much about it already, the feeling of life it can instill, the benefits of thinking about yourself and the world at the same time, thinking and feeling at the same time, instead of seeing things as separate parts see[ing] them as a whole. 

On that topic of moral courage though, it will probably get lonely, and that would suck. I know everybody says it doesn’t matter what other people think, what matters most is what you think. But it’s so much better to celebrate with other people. Not going to a popular and prestigious college, choosing a track of study for myself that others (parents, teachers, friends) might think is a waste of time, I know it will kinda start to suck. What I felt was kind of contradictory was when Deresiewicz quotes Aristotle that “man is by nature a social animal,” yet he continues on talking about how moral courage can lead to loneliness. Pursuing this new life I have imagined is fulfilling for myself, and I would be proud of myself. But I would also be happier to celebrate with others. Maybe I’m overthinking, maybe I’ll meet much more “morally courageous” (this term makes it sound really exclusive :/) people in college that I’ll be able to be happy with. Is it worth it to chase my moral imagination if I’m going to end up lonely? How can I find (if I will even want) a balance when I commit to a new life? Maybe what I’m lacking is that moral courage to fully commit. Maybe this dilemma is the growing pain of trying to pursue something I don’t know the answer to.

Resonance

I don’t feel my previous post about why I chose Swat gives the full story behind my decision, it was more about what I didn’t feel comfortable with rather than the specifics I liked about Swarthmore. So in this post I’m going to be talking more or so about the idea of resonance, especially that among a group of students.

So to talk about this topic, I think it’s most fitting to start by talking about role models — the people I meet in real life and online that I look up to. The type of people I look up to most are the people that are constantly thinking about how to improve their lives, and that in turn makes me think about my life. When I first visited Quora to read about colleges, I honestly spent hours on it not even reading about specifically colleges, but also things about like growing old, finding love, etc. Things that ground us as humans. Reading people write about these things was sort of addictive, it was so captivating in the way that it would always bring me on the ‘feel‘ trips. I loved to get lost in my thoughts thinking about my life, asking questions to myself. It’s kind of like when you’re listening to a song and although you’re kinda tuning out the lyrics, you are staring off into space lost in thoughts about whatever the song is about.

So from just talking with students at Swarthmore, both in person and online, I was captivated by the fact that people were thinking about their lives in such ways. Questioning why they’re majoring in Computer Science, questioning why they are even trying hard in college. And I feel that at all the other colleges I was admitted into were so focused on the pre-professional world that this whole humanistic side of our lives is lost in that job-crazed vortex. I kind of realized this when somebody asked me why I would go to college if I could already make enough money to sustain myself and be happy. Huh, I was thinking about that question. My parents, (and I think I can safely say most asian families) see college as the just the transition to getting a high paying job. Pushing so hard in high school was important so that we could into top colleges, and then college will be a breeze, then we’ll be making bank. I think this is apparent by the fact that my parents (and maybe many other parents) don’t really care or worry about the actual events in college, they just care about trying hard in high school to get in. So going back to a Swattie questioning why she should continue pursuing computer science – that struck me pretty hard because I don’t think many people would even question something like that. Especially for me growing up in San Francisco / Silicon Valley where it is clear as day that comp sci is one of the most lucrative professions, seeing somebody question showed that Swatties do care more about just making money. And I talked about this in my previous post, how I would be interested in majoring in pretty much anything.

I’ve also noticed that students at Swat are actively trying to become the best versions of themselves, not just in their majors (programming, math, physics), but also in their humanistic side by challenging their values, developing meaningful relationships, etc. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I look up to the people who embrace and want to improve their human side. And for myself, all of these things that I’ve talked about have been filtered through my lens, so developing that human side is something that means a lot to me. I will be going to a school where I would be surrounded by people with this sort of intrinsic desire, and it doesn’t even matter that we are studying different majors, since we would all be held together by that inherent glue.

So talking about all this stuff might make it seem like I have a whole set plan for myself in college. But it’s in fact the opposite. I have no clue what is going to happen to me going here, and I think what best sums it up is a metaphor regarding this legendary piston Tesla talked about. tl;dr it is about a tiny piston that, when moved up and down at the perfect frequencies in an oscillator, could even cause an earthquake. So at Swarthmore, how (maybe at least I think that) since I share that inherent glue, that matching frequency with everybody else,  even if I have no idea what’s going to happen to me, I know that oscillating at that frequency, that vibe I care most about most, will empower me to shake the world. And perhaps what I love most about this is that even if I end up in a place completely different from what I’m imagining now, I will be happy.

Cultural Relevance

I remember when I was in elementary/middle school, I wanted to identify as a Chinese-American. In fact, the term ABC (American born Chinese) sounded so cool that I wanted to be one as well. But both my parents are from Burma, and when I tell other people that I’m Burmese, I usually get remarks like “so you’re basically Chinese.” The weird thing was that I was actually fine with that, it was so much easier to identify as a Chinese person. Posting pictures of myself celebrating Chinese new year, talking about Chinese legends, they were my ticket to belonging in a culture.

I never had the opportunity to fully embrace my Burmese culture until I attended the South East Asian (SEA) admit weekend at UCLA. This program was exclusively for South East Asian admitted students, and my initial thought was why is this exclusive to only South East Asians? Isn’t that a bit racist? During my flight to LAX, I was thinking oh this is just gonna be one of those programs with a bunch of Asians. Albeit this was true (lol), the experience I had there is something that I’ll definitely cherish for the rest of my life. I guess I’ve never felt so warm and valued in such a group, like a family. It was kind of like those summer programs I had attended, John’s Hopkins CTY, Red Cross’s LDC, where you with completely random people. But what was different, was that we were all connected by our South East Asian culture. I never knew about the experiences of Vietnamese, Laos, Hmong, Cambodian students.

Something that really touched me was a story a Vietnamese student shared about his dad. Many people look down on those who perform the “low-level” jobs, and he was surrounded by that type of environment growing up. But his dad was that person you see cutting boxes at the supermarket. His father was always seen as one of those, those people who picked up our trash, who cleaned our buildings. I could see, how it was hard to be proud of a person who was marginalized, seen as inferior. But even more so than feeling proud, how he would feel just thinking or talking about his dad. When my dad came to America, he had to bus boy at restaurants to get by, and I remember when I was younger, I would feel even ashamed to bring that up. But the program wasn’t about being a sob story, I feel it was about the experience of sharing —talking about something that as minorities, not many people give a second glance to. Hearing South East Asians share stories about separated families, hiding their sexual orientations, and growing up in refugee camps gave me a fuller perspective of the South East Asian identity. Relevancy, I thought that it wasn’t so special. It’s a term that refers to a group of people, and after all, aren’t we taught to embrace (or even impose) our individuality? Of course, people will agree that relevancy is important, feeling relevant will boost your self-esteem, etc. But I think cultural relevancy is more than that, it means finding comfort in between familial generations.

I think that Eddie Huang describes this kind of cultural relevancy pretty well in his TV show Fresh Off the Boat (episode 13 can click that link to watch). Jessica expresses a conflict how people will never view her as “simply American,” yet she also cannot be “fully Chinese” since she has lost contact with some of her old traditions. As a child, Eddie Huang tried to identify with the African-American culture, kind of like MC Jin and other Asians who looked up to cultures other than their own: American, African-American, Spanish, etc. So yes, while I feel that a part of cultural relevancy is about preserving our culture, self-discovery of cultural relevancy is finding sort of a compromise between past generations and the present.

That’s how culture truly evolves with time.

Casting away the chains of comfort

Why did I choose Swarthmore?

A question difficult for me to answer, and also the question that’s been on my mind ever since committing to Swarthmore. I’m going to take this time to put my thoughts of decision into words.

I come from a traditional asian family, with parents who don’t seen the point of going to a liberal arts school, especially compared to other top schools that I could’ve chosen. Given that I wanted to major in computer science, we all thought that it was going to be a no-brainer to choose a school with the more reputable computer science program.

When I visited Swarthmore, I wasn’t immediately captivated by the campus. I didn’t have that “love at first sight” feeling. To be completely honest, I felt pretty uncomfortable being there. I felt outclassed by everybody there choosing between Swarthmore and other ivy leagues. I was intimidated by the tremendous academic stress at Swat. I felt confined in the small campus. I had always seen myself going to a big university. I had heard many perspectives of the computer science program from other Swatties, and one thing that was apparent was that Swarthmore wasn’t really the place to go if you wanted to be surrounded by tech recruiters offering students internships left and right. Being in a tech internship right now, I am in love with the type of people I work with and I can see the definite benefits of having many internship experiences. My parents are constantly telling me how I’m going to make more money going to a technical school to study computer science. And to top it off, Swarthmore isn’t really a household name that is thrown around, so not many companies know about it. To the outside, these reasons should be as clear as day for me to not choose Swarthmore. But something inside me kept urging me to go to Swat, and what made it worse was that I knew exactly what that was.

Looking back, the people I looked up to the most weren’t necessarily extremely smart, extremely rich, etc. They were people who were grounded by their human values, people who could genuinely connect with other people, and people who truly wanted to expand their minds. During Ride the Tide at Swarthmore, I made a new friend with a senior who asked me to help with a dance choreography she was working on. I asked a Swattie questions over Facebook, and she invited me to video chat her over Skype for a more personal experience. I strive to be as friendly as them. This is the type of person that I want to become, and I noticed how there was nothing related to computer science here. Interests are plastic, and they will continue to develop or change as long as I’m open to them. Hell, I thought I wanted to study medicine for my whole life until I started my engineering internship at Caviar the summer before my senior year in high school. I pretty much had no experience with programming before officially starting my internship, but once I started, my dedication to it grew like wildfire. I would come into the office almost 10 hours everyday to learn from other engineers and try out new things myself, and the people I met there are some of the coolest people I know. How awesome is it to say that I loved going to work because I’m in an environment where I’m constantly challenged, where I’m surrounded by my friends. We had our own inside jokes, we knew about our quirky habits, and we had so much fun. As I have dedicated myself to many different hobbies: badminton, pen spinning, card magic, programming, weightlifting, etc, I noticed that each of these hobbies/interests had their own worlds that I completely immersed myself in. The pen spinning community had it’s own community, with its own inside jokes and even a language we developed over time. It’s kind of like that word sonder.

sonder – n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

In the context of academics, every major has a whole world and community behind it, and I want to be able to experience those worlds. And more importantly, I wanted to genuinely connect with these new people who were crazy in love with the things they did. Hanging around with students exclusively from your major would, in a way, feel confining. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that we can find passion or fall in love with anything, as long as we’re open minded and willing to enjoy it.

Going back to the discomfort I felt at Swarthmore, I knew that in order for me to grow as a human, I’m going to sooner or later have to face that discomfort. I knew that if I wound up attending an engineering school, I would be extremely comfortable there, I would have tons of fun with people who I shared interests with. We played the same video games, we had the same quirky internet behavior, etc. But at the same time, the thing I want most is to progress, to change. How much would it suck if I came out of college exactly the same as I was right now in high school? Something my Swat admissions staff told me and something I agree with is that yes, Swarthmore is going to be extremely challenging. Honestly though, that is how I’m going to grow. I’ve been coasting throughout my whole high school career, and although it was fun, it left me bored and ultimately unfulfilled. If I’m going to be coasting through college all four years, then basically it’s like me wasting my time at an expensive summer camp.

At a technical school, I see myself graduating, meeting people who will become my best friends, and probably working at some tech company — which indeed is a great life. At Swat, however, I honestly have no idea who I will become or where I will end up, but maybe that’s the why I want to go there so badly. I would’ve never seen myself going to a liberal arts college, but hey, that’s a whole new world that I will be able to be a part of.

I’m still scared of how much work I will be doing, how well I’m going to make friends, how far I will be away from home. I’m thinking: fuck me, this is going to be very, very hard. But that’s why I chose Swarthmore, I will face these fears in order to grow. My best friend told me something that I will hold onto as I go on exploring my life in college.

“You need to cast away the chains of comfort to become the man you never were.” – Andrew Guan

Hello world

I thought it was pretty coincidental how the default intro post was titled “Hello World.” I have spent the majority of my senior year exploring Computer Science as an intern at Caviar/Square, and as I am intending to study CS at Swarthmore in August, I thought it was pretty fitting to keep this title as my introduction.

Something that has been on my mind is to start a blog, ever since writing about myself for my college applications, although it was a big drain on time and my mind, I can honestly say that I actually enjoyed it. I had enjoyed reflecting my life in my time alone, but putting those thoughts onto paper was – I guess – substantiating. When others would ask me things like “what matters most to me” or even about the things I valued in myself, I felt confident and comfortable answering. Writing down my thoughts was a way for me to substantiate my identity.

So why am I starting a blog? Couldn’t I just write in my journal and keep it private? I’m not too sure myself, did I want to post my thoughts on the interwebs to gain some sort of attention? The more I think about it, I think it’s for both myself and others. It’s kind of like my experience on reddit, many people have helped me posting stories about themselves, and as I mature and enter college, I want to join that community and share my thoughts — even if hundreds of people read this and resonates with only one person, or on the flipside if nobody reads it, I would be happy. Publishing to the public is also a way for me to discover my relevancy in this life, I want to challenge my values by questioning my thoughts, and I also want to connect with people that care to improve.

I never really would’ve thought of myself as a deeply intellectual person, but I will begin this journey to become one as I matriculate into one of the most intellectually intense communities in the world. Or maybe I’m thinking this way because of the social norms publicized at Swarthmore.

Starting this blog now, I had to choose a title and a tagline. What do I want other people to see me as? Or what do I value in my life? They will probably change, but for now:

Title: Becoming Interesting

Tagline: My reflections as I seek passion and relevancy.