January: New Year, Old Self

New year, new beginnings, new you. The concept of tabula rasa is especially true for 2021 as we try to shed the tragedy of 2020 behind. Spring is the light at the end of the tunnel. Just hold on a bit longer, and the vaccine will solve everything.

Why, then, do I find myself these days dwelling in the past? Not the past year (as I, too, would like too erase these memories), but two years, four years, even ten years ago. Weekly journaling and long walks with my parents mean I’m constantly digging through my memories, and there’s nothing quite like discovering a hidden gem that you don’t remember burying.

On Christmas day, I thought back to the time I discovered that Santa Clause isn’t real. I was nine. My family was in Beijing for winter break and I woke up Christmas morning to a pink leotard on my bed. Two problems arose: there was no chimney in our hotel, and more importantly, the leotard didn’t even fit me.

From the Santa memory, my mind jumped to my naïve childhood belief in the tooth fairy. Despite putting my tooth under my pillow like I was supposed to, I could never find money when I woke up, so I would ask my mom for help. Somehow, as if she had an innate talent for finding money, she would come out of my room with a dollar bill in hand. I believed it all.

My memories aren’t all rosy and joyous. Two winter breaks of my high school years were the lowest points of my life:

Sophomore year. Shenzhen, China. On one hand, I ate the best meals I’ve ever had, visited my dream destination of Hong Kong, and fell in love with Chinese Walmart. On the other hand, I was the loneliest I’ve ever been. The time zone difference and The Great Firewall of China meant I could hardly talk to my friends. My mom would spend the afternoon napping and my brother would stay inside to play video games. I wandered the malls alone, lacking both money and language fluency, and saw young Chinese couples with ginormous shopping bags. As if that wasn’t enough for my pubescent self, my debate partner had ditched me and my new partner was uncommunicative. The horrors of the International Baccalaureate program loomed ahead. In my new Miniso grid journal, I made a will and ranted emotionally: Do I have anxiety? Depression? I’m not sure. I’m just confused, lost, and pressured. But I keep it inside. After returning home, my emotional state didn’t get much better. One night, I felt a pressure on my chest that inhibited my breathing and I genuinely thought that if I fell asleep, I wasn’t going to wake up. At 5 a.m., I finally drifted out of consciousness—the latest I’ve ever slept.

Senior year, I faced the same enemy: uncertainty. Stuck at home because of college apps, I was relieved from a time zone difference, but robbed of distractions. Once again, I was dealing with debate drama (my partner quit a few weeks before an important tournament and our friendship ended too). Again, battling academic stress, this time on a much larger scale; IB was two years, college is four and much more determinative of my future. There were days when I would cry six, seven times. I wouldn’t call this seasonal depression, but now I can’t help associating winter break with loneliness, melancholy, and distress.

In “Pasts to Remember,” a chapter of We Are the Ocean, anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa contrasts the Fijian and Tongan concepts of circular time with the Western notion of time as linear. Whereas the West labels the past as behind us, the Fijian and Tongan languages describe the past as “front” or “ahead.” Similarly, the Mandarin phrase for the past is 以前, the second character 前 meaning “before,” “forward, or “ahead.” Hau’ofa argues that circular time complements important natural cycles of so-called traditional societies, such as annual rituals and the agricultural season.

But circular time is also useful for learning and surviving:

That the past is ahead, in front of us, is a conception of time that helps us retain our memories and be aware of its presence.

In such a turbulent time, the past is my safe haven. It is in front of me: on the pages of my bullet journal and in foggy winter breaths. Fond moments create shared laughter that punctures our family walks, drawing humorous glances from passersby. The unkind memories I am not yet comfortable sharing with my parents, but I feel secure when I submerge myself in them. They are reminders of my growth, how far I’ve come, that things have gotten—and will get—better.

Do Self-Help Books Actually Help?

Making last-minute progress for 2020 on my Goodreads to-read list, I read two self-help books that supposedly teach readers how to be happy.

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Miguel Ruiz is a short guide that outlines four simple truths to follow: 1) Be impeccable with your word. 2) Don’t take anything personally. 3) Don’t make assumptions. 4) Always do your best. Easy, right? Think again. These steps are too simple; they don’t offer any concrete advice, nor did they provide me new insight into human behavior. I would rather skip this preachiness in favor of a Buddhist text.

On the other hand, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi takes a psychological approach to maximizing satisfaction through exploring a state called flow: “in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Though this book has a lower rating than The Four Agreements on Goodreads by 0.05 stars, I gave it 3 stars higher. Not only is it backed by (1) scientific studies, it (2) gives a litany of diverse examples, (3) recognizes the roles that genetics, family structure, and society play in shaping individual experience, (4) doesn’t use a one-size-fits-all approach” by recognizing that “happiness…must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person,” and (5) labels various forces that shape our experience, which gives coherence to our behaviors.

The blueprint for flow activities is this: (1) pay close attention to minute details of your environment to discover hidden opportunities for action (2) set goals and monitor progress through feedback (3) whenever a goal is reached, make the activity more challenging/complex. I was immediately reminded of high school policy debate. Bombarded by competitive, self-defeating pressures, I had to dig deep to find reasons to stay in the activity. Progress was tracked through speaker points and win and loss records. As the years passed, our goals would shift from surviving a tournament, to breaking at a tournament, to the asymptotic dream of bidding to the Tournament of Champions. Debate was a state of flow. I was unable to extricate myself from the activity, despite its challenges and seemingly marginal benefit in my senior year.

Below are a few quotes I saved from the book.

On poetry:

Reading from a book of poems each night is to the mind as working out on a Nautilus is to the body—a way for staying in shape. It doesn’t have to be “great” poetry, at least not at first. And it is not necessary to read an entire poem. What’s important is to find at least a line, or a verse, that starts to sing. Sometimes even one word is enough to open a window on a new view of the world, to start the mind on an inner journey.

On friendship:

Friendship is not enjoyable unless we take up its expressive challenges. If a person surrounds himself with “friends” who simply reaffirm his public persona, who never question his dreams and desires, who never force him to try out new ways of being, he misses out on the opportunities friendship presents. A true friend is someone we can occasionally be crazy with, someone who does not expect us to be always true to form. It is someone who shares our goal of self-realization, and therefore is willing to share the risks that any increase in complexity entails.

On finding meaning in life:

It is true that life has no meaning, if by that we mean a supreme goal built into the fabric of nature and human experience, a goal that is valid for every individual. But it does not follow that life cannot be given meaning.

Monthly Favorites:
  • Article: “The Last Children of Down Syndrome” by Sarah Zhang — a nuanced deep dive into how prenatal testing and Down-syndrome-related abortion highlights the intersection of disabilities, bioethics, and meritocracy.

Down syndrome is defined and diagnosed by a medical system made up of people who have to be highly successful to get there, who likely base part of their identity on their intelligence. This is the system giving parents the tools to decide what kind of children to have. Might it be biased on the question of whose lives have value?

Recent Life Updates
  • I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve been using Google Keep to track essays and articles that I’ve read. To be honest, I still haven’t found the perfect system for organizing my ideas and notes. I have an artsy scrapbookish journal where I write my daily activities, a Moleskine for my 52 weeks of self discovery and longer, more personal entries, this blog, Google Keep, various Google Docs and Sheets, my windows Sticky Notes, Google Calendar, Goodreads for books, and OneNote for school. I know some people use Notion, but I’m too lazy to transfer all my past notes and create a new system. But for now, I think I’m okay with not having everything in one place. These various apps and programs all have their advantages and disadvantages, and I haven’t yet lost anything.
  • I’ve been working on a new journaling challenge: 50 Questions to Start Your Personal History.
  • On New Year’s, I moved to Washington D.C. Alone. As someone with a workaholic Asian mom who cooks and cleans the household, moving out and managing my own life has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I used to never feel homesick. During seven-week debate camps, I’d text my parents once. But since moving out, I’ve texted my parents every day and called them while sobbing about how hard it is to live solo. Even though I’m an introvert who loved all my “alone time” (under the care of my parents) during quarantine, living by myself is an entirely new level of solitude. On the day of the Capitol Riots, which were just a a few minutes from where I’m staying, I heard far more police sirens than human voices.

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