A few thoughts on surviving my first semester of grad school



I was scared to come here, honestly. Moving to a new town, switching majors, being in a long distance relationship – this all sounded terrifying to me.

Fortunately, the last few months have been nothing short of wonderful.

I made new, amazing friends. My empty apartment became a cozy home. My days settled into a happy routine – and always began with a lazily made latte. I tried cooking new things. I went out to bars and danced to live music. I found time to actually read. I learned so much in my classes (and also learned how to swing dance). I worked out, went to yoga classes, and was even convinced into trying Zumba. I got a haircut. I flew across the country to work at a national lab. I wrote my first song.

And throughout the course of all these things, I started to feel a little different. A little brighter. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that was so until I stumbled across a poetry book at Webster’s today.

Inside the front cover, the author himself had scrawled a note to his mentor: More than anyone, your influence, your passion for poetry, sparked these poems, he wrote. Without your teachings, I’m not sure I would have arrived as a ‘poet’ until much later in life. For that, of course, I must thank you. I can assure you, what I become in this world owes no small sum to your dedication and kindness. I would be honored to have a fraction of your sincerity and compassion. I hope these young poems show something like potential. They are yours, somehow – your passion working through me….

For some reason, these words touched me deeply. Maybe it was because they were handwritten and felt like such a personal glimpse into a stranger’s life, maybe it was the inspiration and gratitude that was so evident in his tone – but for whatever reason, this note made me realize what was different these past few months: I’ve felt inspired.

Much like the poet who just published his first collection of poems, I have just begun a new chapter of my life that I am passionate and excited about, too.

Sometimes, our days just blur together and we find ourselves on autopilot. Sometimes we get so caught up in our schedules that we lose our true sense of what we’re waking up for every morning, what we’re ultimately fighting for. But I realized that I felt different these past few months because it was the first time in my student life that I had both the time and the interest to truly appreciate everything I was learning. And it turns out that when you are actually happy with what you’re doing, you live with a little more...purpose.

You live more deliberately.

And even though I’ve been warned that it’ll get harder, that research will be tough and that I will grow jaded and tired – guess what? I like living deliberately, so I am determined to hold on to the optimism and zeal that comes with new beginnings. I’m going to stay inspired, and stay curious.

Because why do what you’re doing if you can’t find meaning in it?


You win some, you lose some



I went to a poetry reading a few weeks ago—or rather, I went to a café with the intention of studying, only to discover that I had walked in on a monthly poetry reading event. As it turns out, I think I learned a lot more from the poets than I ever could have learned from my thermodynamics textbook.

My favorite poem was titled “Why A Pansy.” The woman reading it explained that she had recently gotten a tattoo of a pansy—because it is the symbol of remembrance. The pansy represented the things that we’ve lost: the ones who have passed away, the lovers who left us, “the versions of ourselves that didn’t make it to today.

That particular line stuck in my head. It reminded me of all the risks I didn’t take, the challenges I shied away from, the accomplishments that I never achieved because I was too afraid to try. It made me realize that there are far too many versions of myself that didn’t make it to today.

And that’s such a shame.

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I’ve been trying to learn how to do headstands lately. Now don’t judge me, but I follow all these beautiful, fit women on Instagram who are always posting pictures of fancy yoga poses and videos of effortless inversions. Feeling ambitious (and a little jealous), I thought, hey—I can do that too!

Except that…I couldn’t.

I tried over and over again, but to my utter disappointment I just could not hold my legs up straight. Being upside down felt unnatural and scary and I didn’t like the way my room looked when the floor was suddenly the ceiling. My body felt heavy and my arms felt weak—

Until I flipped over, landing flat on my back with a resounding thunk. Ugh, my downstairs neighbor is probably judging me right now, I thought, being self-conscious about what other people think of me, as per usual.

But wait, that actually didn’t hurt was my second thought. Because it really didn’t.

And suddenly, headstands got a whole lot easier.

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I know that most things in life aren’t this simple, but I’m a sucker for metaphors.

And the truth is, the concept still holds: it’s scary to put yourself out there, to try something new, to tackle a challenge when you’re not sure if you’ll come out a victor. But for what it’s worth, even the most perfect person will not be successful in every one of his or her endeavors—ironically, it’s the realization that it’s okay to fail that will ultimately make you successful.

During my Thanksgiving bus travels, I listened to Mindy Kaling’s book Why Not Me? She said that a little girl once asked her, “Mindy, how are you so confident?”

Her response wasn’t what I was expecting, but it sure was the truth. She said that confidence is like respect—you have to earn it. There’s no magical formula for becoming that smart, confident person you want to become. You just have to work hard. Put in the effort. Try.

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I know it’s a little early for new years resolutions, but I always thought it was silly for January to be the only month you could rise from your phoenix ashes.

The way I see it, you can’t wait around for a sign to finally do the things you’re scared of. Maybe it’s a hard physics problem that you don’t think you can solve. Maybe it’s a hobby that you’ve been meaning to pick up “when you have time.” Maybe it’s admitting to that cute girl that you think she’s really somethin’.

And maybe you won’t solve the physics problem. And you’re horrible at that hobby. And the girl says you’re just friends. But even if you don’t succeed in everything, you’ll succeed in enough that your confidence starts to grow just a little tiny bit…

So forget new year resolutions. Just start now, because that’s what this is all about anyways: always trying, often losing,

sometimes winning. It’s the only way we move forward.


The art of letting go



Most of my friends know that I am a pretty anxious person—okay, I’m a really anxious person. And I’m a very nondiscriminatory worrier too, because I will panic over the miniscule details of my day just as much as I will panic over important life decisions.

I rush to every class and every meeting, thinking I am late every time, and always end up arriving ridiculously early. I’m incapable of playing any sort of musical instrument in front of an audience without my hands shaking so much that I create an entirely new piece altogether. And if I have so much as half a latte before any sort of remotely stressful situation, I am sure to have a panic attack (which is really unfortunate, because I happen to like lattes a lot).

I am the kind of person who will think about one question on an exam from the moment I hand it in until the moment I get it back, wondering and wondering if I forgot that one negative sign (I probably did). And sometimes, when nothing is stressing me out, I start worrying that I’ve forgotten about something that should be stressing me out.


Am I making you nervous yet?


Anyways, bearing all this in mind, I was sure that my first few weeks of grad school would be a completely traumatizing experience, but to my pleasant surprise it has been quite a happy transition. And I think that it is because lately, I have stopped trying so hard to always be in control.

Because life isn’t about always being in control—it’s the opposite. It’s about letting go.

I went to this yoga class the other day and it was in this dim room with a few earth-toned tapestries hanging on the walls and bookshelves made of dark oak. As I sat on my mat thinking about how unlike other yoga studios this place looked, I realized (with some embarrassment) that there was a shirtless young man doing handstands on my right, and grew increasingly self-conscious when I looked around the room and saw that a little more than half the class was actually male. Suddenly, the instructor said okay everyone lie on your stomachs, turn your head to one side, and close your eyes

And then he started spouting the most philosophical poetry I had ever heard. I actually peeked my eyes open for a second to see if he was reading off anything and was impressed to discover that his eloquent words were completely impromptu.

can you feel that? can you feel what’s in this room?

At this point I started to get worried because no, I didn’t feel anything, what was I supposed to feel?

can you feel your heart against the floor, can you feel your breath? now stop and just notice this moment. notice the present. feel that jumble of neurons in your mind, all the cells that make up your body. do you realize just how many cells that is? And you think “this is my body! I want to control my body!” but just relax. you don’t need to control every one of those cells. don’t you see how your body breathes without you having to tell it to? let your mind be still, trust yourself, and let everything calibrate on its own…

It wasn’t a life changing moment. It didn’t knock the breath right out of me. But the words just stuck with me, you know? They kept echoing in my mind…

A couple of days later, I came across a Native American story in a book I found while browsing through a second-hand book store (the best kind of book store). In the story, a Native American elder said, “There is a river flowing now, very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination.  The elders say we must push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above the water…”

I don’t know about you, but I’m a romantic so I am a giant cheeseball when it comes to life metaphors. And I particularly liked this one.

It’s kind of a relief to know that it is okay to not worry, to simply let life happen on its own. And I’m not telling you to give up, to lose motivation, or to wing the rest of your life. I’m just saying that it’s going to be alright. I’m saying that it’s completely okay if you don’t know what’s supposed to happen next, whether it’s the next day or the next couple of years. I’m saying that even if you plan something meticulously and it all falls apart, life will go on.  

It’s good to know what you want, it’s good to have a plan, and it’s good to care enough about your life that sometimes it even causes you unnecessary anxiety. But if that anxiety is not benefitting you in any way, it’s time to let go.

“Let go of that which does not serve you,” as they say…

Take responsibility for the things you can control, but learn to let go of the rest. Keep your head above the water, but don’t try to fight the current.


On being fearless



I’ve always loved that word—fearless. I love the idea of it. The concept. The feeling. When I was a little girl, I used to hide behind my mother’s legs every time I got introduced to someone new. She said I was like a baby koala bear—I could never let go. Although I eventually grew out of my marsupial phase, I remained shy throughout my teenage years, and now in my twenties I find that I am still shy, sometimes insecure, and always anxious.

But I don’t want to feel this way. In the words of the poet Mary Oliver, “I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.”

I have a lot of idols. My favorite blogger, Scarphelia, for moving from London to New York City all by herself at 22. Adriene Mishler for creating the inspiring home yoga series Yoga With Adriene. Kayla Itsines for her rockin' body and BBG workouts that have reached continents all around the world. Anna Akana for her hilarious YouTube channel, budding acting career, and clothing line. My parents for taking the big leap from Taiwan to America. My brother for his love of the stage—whether it’s diabolo, piano, or dance. My boyfriend for running a marathon. One of my best friends, Steph, for realizing what she really wanted and changing her career path. My amazing Harvard-bound roomie.

You see, I want to be as brave as Scarphelia and my brother and my roommate. I want to be fearless.

Next month, I will be moving into a new (one bedroom) apartment in a new town to begin a new chapter of my life. My August calendar is covered in post-it notes and reminders—pay rent, transfer utilities, schedule meeting with Peg, submit immunization records, etc.—but I’m starting to think that I need a new set of reminders.

As I begin the journey towards my graduate degree, I will remind myself of a quote from yet another beautiful and lovely idol, Natalie Portman: “Your inexperience is an asset.” She said that she once knew a violinist who said he couldn’t compose because he knew so many pieces that every time he tried to write something original, all he could think of were the melodies of pieces he already knew. Most of the time when I’m scared of something, it’s because I’m afraid of inadequacy, that I’m not good enough, that I don’t know enough. But if I want to be fearless, I must dive right into the challenge. I must believe that my ideas are worth something. That my inexperience is, in fact, an asset.

At the same time, though, I will remind myself to admit when I am wrong. I won’t be afraid to ask for help when I need it. And I will not be afraid to say no.

I’ll learn to love myself. I’ll remember bad memories without cringing, without feeling weak. I’ll say I love you, even if it makes me feel like my heart is completely naked. And someday in the future, I’ll live in the bustling city and the subway won’t confuse me anymore. I’ll be the boss at wherever I work, and who knows, maybe I’ll even become someone else’s fearless idol.

But for now, I’ll settle for becoming brave enough to play the ukulele and sing in public some day. Maybe I’ll learn those yoga inversions that make me feel like I am falling into the earth.

No matter what I’m doing—whether it’s grad school, reaching personal goals, or just my every day shyness—I will learn to be bigger than my fears. I will walk onto that stage one step at a time…and one day…I will be fearless, as though I have wings. 


Confessions of a social media addict


Social media is life. Social media is king! Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest make the freakin’ world go round. As one wise person once asked, “If you don’t Instagram your brunch, did it really happen?” I know we’d all love to think that we don’t depend on these things, but really, could you go a day without them?

I decided to give this blog a new look the other day, and I must admit I was pretty proud of the little social media buttons that I added to the sidebar: there’s a cute box below my profile that says “Let’s be friends,” under which there are four mint-colored icons linking to my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr. But as I was checking to see if all the links worked, I suddenly found myself staring at a Chrome window with four different tabs open, each a different representation of my identity on different corners of the Internet.

Let me be honest with you. I have an eight-year-old Facebook, a Twitter account which has undergone several username changes, an Instagram that basically consists of dogs and cats and food, two Tumblrs (not including my angst-filled teenage private Tumblr that I deleted sometime in high school), a Pinterest that I sporadically become obsessed with and then forget about for months at a time, and a LinkedIn profile that makes me look a hell of a lot more qualified than I probably am. I also have two Gmail accounts, and consequently, two YouTube accounts that are linked to those Google accounts, and a Google+ profile that I don’t even want—thanks, Google.  

All of these forms of social media are supposed to reflect who I am. They’re a way for me to share a piece of myself to the public and for me to learn about my friends in return. But the thing is, being a part of so many different social media communities at the same time is actually really confusing. Between the casual, everyday life posts on my Facebook, the reblogs which don’t even belong to me that are on my Tumblr, the staged Instagram photos coated in different filters, the cryptic one-liners on my Twitter, the hair and fashion pins on Pinterest that I will never achieve in real life, and the professional profile on my LinkedIn, I don’t even know who I am anymore.

There is a similar confusion on the receiving end of social media, too. I was taking a bus home from the city the other day, and because I’m super nosy and have this uncontrollable habit of hyper-observing complete strangers, I kept peeking over at the guy sitting diagonal to me, who was on his phone for the entirety of the one-hour ride. What I was fascinated with was the speed at which he scrolled through his Instagram feed—I swear he was scrolling at a rate of three photos a second. How can someone retain any of what they are looking at when they’re scrolling that fast?! He did pause every once in a while to take a closer look at a photo. The first time was to check out some girls in bikinis at the beach. The second time was to check out some other girls in bikinis at the beach.

As much as I’d like to laugh at this guy, though, I know I’m guilty of the same thing. (The photos I pause at are usually puppies though—not bikini babes.) My point is, our computer screens and phone screens are so saturated by waves of statuses and pictures and gifs and hashtags that we don’t even surf the web anymore. We drown in it.

Now I’m not saying that social media is bad. I’d be a complete hypocrite if that was my message. But I do find it a little alarming that I am sometimes more connected to the ones and zeros zipping around cyberspace than I am to the physical world around me. It’s easy to get caught up in the world of the Internet, and it’s a ton of fun, too—but I think that every once in a while (like now), we just need to remind ourselves to look up and appreciate the rest of the world. To like not just Facebook statuses, but what we see with our own eyes. To discover a new favorite book, instead of just favorite-ing tweets. To enjoy your goddamn eggs benedict so much that it’s all gone before you even think of Instagram-ing it.  

I love social media, but I love life, too. It’d be such a shame if we forgot to live it.

-B.


It's a really old city, stuck between the dead and the living


Okay. Let’s call it a place. People and things are too hard to talk about, but a place is more vague. A place is less personal. You can walk away from it, but still go back and visit someday.  

This place feels familiar and strange at the same time. It’s a city, and during the day it’s bustling with people who have purpose in their stride, but at night the darkness explodes with gunshots and at dawn my alarm is the sound of sirens. It snows a lot in this place but I actually kind of love the snow because it blankets the city in this white perfection—at least until the snow melts into dirty slush that piles up on the curbs.

I’ve memorized the map of this city. The roads haven’t changed in years and I know the street names by heart, but new shops have started popping up everywhere and just the other day I visited my favorite café only to find that it, too, was closing soon. There was nothing special about their coffee, but I really liked its down-to-earth atmosphere. And the view from the table in the corner.  

Most of the friends that I met here years ago have already gotten new jobs and are trickling out of town, but I haven’t had any reason to leave. It’s beautiful, this city, it really is. But for some reason every time I try to take a picture of the skyline, the camera just can’t seem to capture what I see. It’s as if this place is cursed with a beauty that can’t last.  

I know I should leave this place. I want to run off to the West coast where the skies are always sunny and the cities are alive, but the truth is, this place is my home. I want to run off, but there is nowhere to run, because this place isn’t even a place. It’s the past.

And no matter how many days or months or years I put between it and myself—no matter how much I don’t belong there anymore—I’ll always live in this place. Despite the gunshots, despite the snow, despite my missing café... I will always live in the past. 

-B.


The search for love in a world of hate



I have never been very good at keeping up with the news, but lately I’ve been making a conscious effort to stay more informed—maybe because summer is making me restless, maybe because the hype of next year’s elections is infectious, who knows.

The problem is, staying informed is damn depressing.

I mean, seriously, the top stories on my Flipboard right now are “Charleston Church Attack Suspect Charged with 9 Murder Counts,” “Terror attacks, deaths up sharply in 2014: State Department,” “Ten dead after attack linked to gangs in northern Mexico,” and “Gunfight in Cincinnati street leaves officer, armed man dead.” It’s difficult news to swallow. It’s bewildering. I want to shut off the TV, close all my news sites, and drink my chamomile tea while watching Game of Thrones. Because at least the violence in that is fictional. The violence on the news is real.  

I’ve lived in a safe suburban bubble most of my life, so call me naïve or even call me insensitive but for the most part I haven’t felt a strong connection to the increased hate and violence in the world—it was never in the local newspapers that landed on my front doorstep. But recently, my Facebook newsfeed has been full of angry statuses condemning the latest shootings (notice the plural) and amid the pretty photography and silly gifs on my Tumblr newsfeed, I was hit with a reblogged condolence speech by Obama.

In a casual conversation with my mom about going to the city, I was warned about a criminal in Manhattan who has been specifically attacking Asian women in the past few weeks. I have always considered myself pathetically oblivious to the real world, and yet the real world is crashing into my bubble with alarming force, spelling out the worst parts of humanity with a vividness that is impossible to ignore.  

But you see, now I am at a crossroads. When I sat down to write this post, I had intended to give it an optimistic twist, for it to be a reminder of the love and the good in the world. To assert that despite the negativity that dominates the news, there is a lot to be happy and grateful about, from the little things in our daily lives to the $358 billion that Americans gave to charity last year. But is this hopeful view a lie? Am I just fooling myself? Would the world benefit more from trusting in the good, or confronting the bad?

Either way, I feel helpless. The problem is too big—in fact, I’m not even sure how I would define the problem. All I know is that when it comes to running away from one, I’m usually an Olympic sprinter—but here, now, exposed to the tragedy that is our reality, I am unable tear my eyes away. But staring isn’t going to help anyone.

What am I supposed to do?

-B.


You have to be always drunk



I went to a bar called The Beerhive the other day, and as I sat there with my friends sipping on an intriguingly flower-scented beer, we suddenly noticed a quote on the wall behind us:

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.
But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking…ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

We laughed as we started to read it, thinking that it was literally only a quote – appropriate for a bar – about the wonders of being tipsy. But as we continued to read we realized that it was not necessarily about being drunk on alcohol, but that it was about finding something you care about so much in life that you are perpetually intoxicated by it, euphorically drowned in it, blissfully consumed by it. “Have you guys found a passion like that?” we asked each other.

Among us we had a physics major, an electrical and computer engineering major, a business major, a psychology and human-computer interaction double major, and a mechanical engineering and philosophy double major, all of whom are graduating from Carnegie Mellon in less than a week. This is a pretty random sample, I think (my statistics major roommate might disagree, but shhh), and yet out of the five of us, not one felt as if we had truly found something we are passionate about.

I’ve always envied the people who take the unconventional path. You know, the ones who move to the city of their dreams and bartend at night while writing a novel during the day. The ones who start a band that maybe makes it big and maybe falls apart but never for a moment was something they didn’t love. The ones who start their own company from scratch and give it their all, despite the risk of failure. And I don’t know, maybe they’re not always happy and maybe their salary isn’t pretty and maybe I’m just being a romantic, but at least they had the guts to chase their dreams, right? At least they found passion.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m excited about my future. I look forward to going to Penn State and getting my Ph.D. and I genuinely hope that the research I do can benefit society in some way. I chose Penn State because the lab group I’ll be working in specializes in organic photovoltaics (in other words, new solar cell technologies!) and I want to be a part of this cutting-edge energy research. “I’m going to save the world!” I tell my friends naively. I think the science is really interesting and I like that it’s an applicable field that could have real-life impacts on the world…but I certainly don’t get drunk off it.

Anyways, I guess we’ll see. The world is a big place – maybe it just takes a while to find where we belong. After all, I didn’t even like beer four years ago, and now I’m going to places called The Beerhive. You just never know.

-B.


You can't always get what you want



A new year is usually a good thing, an exciting thing—but 2015 is a little more intimidating than the others. 2015 is the year I graduate from the college that I’ve sometimes hated but loved just as fiercely. It’s the year I venture outside the little bubble where I live with my best friends, where the Starbucks baristas remember my name, where I know shortcuts around campus like the back of my hand. It’s the year of uncertainty, of dreams that can be crushed just as easily as they can be achieved, of making bigger decisions than I’ve ever had to make before. It’s the year I’ve longed for but dreaded, and it’s the year that is finally here.

There are resolutions upon resolutions that I could make for the new year, like working out more, not skipping meals, and learning how to cook, but if there is one promise that I absolutely have to make to myself for 2015, it is to accept the future as it comes, even if it’s not the future I saw for myself.

Last week, I went to New York City to watch “Beautiful The Carole King Musical,” which was based off the true story of singer-songwriter Carole King’s rise to fame. While she was always a talented composer, Carole struggled with writing meaningful lyrics for her music. As fate would have it, she met and fell in love with aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin while in college and the two not only quickly married and had a child, but Carole’s musical talent and Gerry’s penchant with words made them a powerhouse for top radio hits. The happy couple enjoyed several years of magic and success, but Gerry soon became frustrated with writing catchy radio tunes, wanting instead to create a new style and sound, to be the pioneer of the next generation of music. Gerry’s obsession, though, led to irrational behavior, infidelity, and eventually, the deterioration of his marriage. Without Gerry, Carole felt completely broken—not only did she lose the love of her life, but she also lost the voice and the words behind her music. With time, though, Carole began writing her own songs, and performing them too. It wasn’t easy, but in the end she produced her famous album Tapestry, which won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1972—something that never would have happened if her life hadn’t been turned upside down. I was tearing up by the end of the musical because it kind of hit home for me. The upcoming year is going to be a big one, and I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be a smooth ride, but it is comforting to know that even if your world comes crashing down on you like it did for Carole King, it might just be a blessing in disguise.

For myself, as well as for many of my friends and my peers, 2015 is going to be the witness of our job offers and job rejections, our grad school offers and grad school rejections, our all at once confident and terrified steps into the real world. It is going to be a scary year, but it is a little less scary because of my new years resolution, because I’ve decided to loosen my grip on my expectations and understand that the “perfect” future I want so badly is not the only future in which I’ll be happy. The Rolling Stones said it best: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you might find you get what you need.”

-B.