My Freshman Spring Harvard Classes

A quick update on how the semester is swinging into action before I get back to my readings (I have to read around 70 pages of business case studies for SOCWORLD 49 by tomorrow, and both Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and Ulysses by James Joyce by this coming Tuesday).

I have my class schedule for Freshman Spring! Hooray!

  • [Humanities 10B] A Humanities Colloquium: From Joyce to Homer

A reverse chronological take on the great canonical works in the humanistic tradition, continuing from last semester’s Humanities 10A “From Homer to Garcia Marquez”. The professor leading my seminar is Racha Kirakosian, who teaches German and the Study of Religion. Goodbye, Profe Carrasco! 😢

  • [English 90 CNC] Conrad, Naipaul, Coetzee: Genealogies of the Global Imagination 

A 15-person English seminar taught by my idol in postcolonialism—Professor Homi Bhabha!! In Junior College (12th grade), I wrote my Knowledge & Inquiry Independent Study on “Decolonizing the Past: Can historical fiction contest the knowledge constructed in colonial historiography?” and I read some of his writings during my literature review. He is one of the most important figures in the field of post-colonial studies. I still remember mentioning his name to my Harvard interviewer when she asked why I wanted to go to Harvard.

  • [English CNM 002] Introduction to Fiction (Workshop)

A 12-person fiction writing workshop under novelist Neel Mukherjee. After last semester’s workshop, I didn’t expect myself to apply for another one this semester; but he is only here for this spring semester as a visiting lecturer, so I guess it’s now or never.

I’m still at the beginning of my writing journey and it seems like with every new piece I write I discover more things to work on. I would like to be in this workshop to continue to reinvent my writing and find a newness of language (away from clichés and tropes that I often subconsciously rely on)—how can I have greater vividness and immediacy in my stories? How to create a world that is both rich and consistent? Very honestly, in the college context, I really do simply yearn for an intellectually honest, intimate space and protected time each week devoted unreservedly to the craft of writing.

  • [Societies of the World 49] The Worlds of Business in Modern China

Entered the lottery for this super popular class (the room was so full my roommate and I had to tiptoe by the door frame to even hear what’s going on inside) taught by Professor William Kirby and miraculously got in—apparently, only 60 students are allowed to enroll out of the 190 or so who tried. The course employs Harvard Business School cases on “doing business” in modern and contemporary China, so 40% of the grade comes from class participation. Hopefully, that works out. 🙋🏻

  • [East Asian Studies 97AB] Introduction to the Study of East Asia: Issues and Methods

I am considering doing a joint concentration between English and East Asian Studies, but it’s still early so that’s definitely not set in stone. I’m taking this sophomore tutorial (open to freshmen) to see if I like how East Asian Studies is taught in a Western context. This tutorial is an interdisciplinary course taught collaboratively. Each week a different lecturer will discuss their particular disciplinary approach to the study of Asia, including topics such as:

Classical Chinese Thought, Buddhism and its Acculturation in East Asia, Chosŏn Korea, East Asia in Comparative and Global Perspective, Modern Chinese Literature in the East Asian Context, East Asia in the Cold War, Popular Culture, Media, and Early Modernity, Korea’s Search for Autonomy in the 20th Century etc.

That’s it! It’s back to reading for me, guys! I’ll get a longer post out when more things have happened in my life. We can do this. 💪

Lots of love,

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Girl in D.C.

Dear You, what is art for?

Last week, I was in Washington, D.C. with seven other Harvard students on a 10-day Wintersession at Dumbarton Oaks revolving around this topic:

Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy, and Diplomacy in America.

In those 10 days, I’ve seen art like this:

And this:

Interestingly, this:

But also this:

Lastly, my favorite:

While wandering around all these private collections-turned-museums, I wondered: why do so many rich people collect art? Does collecting art offer the hope of immortality?

If I were a millionaire and bought artworks according to my own taste, and then proceeded to open my artworks to the public, am I doing philanthropy? Is this then effective altruism?

As a student in the humanities, I recognize that this is an increasingly data-driven world. A dispassionate assessment of value is involved in most things. Similarly, in the field of philanthropy, the value of the practical (a medical cure) is much easier to measure than that of the cultural (museums). Few people would deny the value of art museums or art itself. But, the act of opening a museum, or donating works to an existing one, is one that deals in the intangible currency of beauty, inspiration, creativity, memory, and joy. The outcomes are often measured in stories. That scruffy boy-artist who was once inspired by a green dinosaur sculpture that breezy afternoon, hands chilly and heart thumping. A girl in pigtails who gazed into the face of a Buddhist sutra on a silk tapestry and found ignited a lifelong ardor for the study of religion. On opposite totem poles balance narratives and metrics. It seems trivial to stand in a gallery and ponder the question of beauty, the virtues of Renoir, or inspect the unspeakable allure of an artwork to our eye when temperatures are rising, geopolitical depression beckons, democracy is arguably under assault, and all sorts of polarizing tensions are erupting at the surface.

Knowing all that, the question is then: is being motivated by “passion” instead of “reason” in philanthropy immoral in a world where there is need? Or, turning the gaze inward, is being motivated by passion instead of reason in choosing my studies and life’s work an ineffective use of resources?

I don’t know.

This wintersession was an incredible course. I loved going to a museum each day and discussing with professors the gospel of wealth (an interesting—and short—read: Wealth by Andrew Carnegie), the culture of giving, the economy of prestige (naming rights of buildings are a key instrument in philanthropy, as the greatest longevity is embedded not in capital but in culture), the disturbing inequality of our times, and—

The grey areas of philanthropy. By all measurements, we are living in an era of growing inequality and the consolidating power of big money. A statistic that scared me is this: the richest 62 people are as wealthy as half of the world’s population. But rich people don’t just own the wealth, feel la-di-da, and spend it on private jets and Chanel bags. Intentions aside, they are shaping our lives in unimaginable ways using philanthropy. Call me ignorant, but this is the first time I really wrapped my mind around the fact that philanthropy is not an inherently good thing—it needs to be used well. Unlike the government, most philanthropic foundations (from Gates to Carnegie) have no checks and balances. They own wealth enough to rival national economies as well as social resources (tax exemption), but their agendas are set by a few individuals. What kind of impact do such megafoundations generate? For instance, Bill Gates is fixing education in the U.S. with his Common Core State Standards initiative; that means, putting it generally, one man can decide what millions of kids are going to study.

How adequate are the institutions of philanthropy to the needs of the day? How can we shape this system?

I vacillated between wonder and the alienating sense that all these questions I was contemplating in the first place were inaccessible and removed from most people’s realities. I’m sitting here in my dorm room back in Cambridge choosing classes, two days before Shopping Week begins for the spring semester, and I’m trying to make sense of all these intellectual endeavors. So here’s my tentative goal this semester: to go beyond simply reading and analyzing class texts (mostly fiction and books written by old white men; sometimes it feels like we are still discussing the same ideas as centuries before) to figure out how to apply that narrative lens to the social realities around me.

For those of you also coming back to campus, here’s to a semester with classes that tear apart your assumptions and equip you to rebuild them, self-discovery, friendship, and happy adventures!

Lots of love,

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(From top to bottom, the artworks can be attributed to Claude Monet, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, and Marc Chagall.) 

2017, Thank You for Everything

2017 is my most paradoxical year yet in that it is both the most monumental and the most peaceful one in recent memory. For the first time in a long while, I found myself without any clear-cut, measurable goals. Since I was a kid and could grasp the concept of a university, Harvard had been my dream. After 13 December 2016 when the dream actually came true, I became suspended in a haze of euphoria. This happy bubble finally knocked against the edges of reality once again (as it should) when I stepped into college. I began wondering what the next big thing in my life was going to be. On the first day of 2018, I can tell you honestly that I still don’t have a concrete answer; I’m confused and conflicted about my aspiration for significance. But, 2017 is the first of many years in my life that I will spend figuring that out. As a yearly tradition, I write down the lessons I’m most grateful for on the first day of each new year. This year, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned with you:

  • Solitude is fertile. Solitude is okay. The capacity to be still and to soak in the uncertain, the unknown, the unresolved, and the uncomfortable sensation of being in your own opaque yet intimate psyche can be raw material for deeper self-understanding and even creative work. For instance, it gave birth to this paragraph and a story revolving around a theme of loneliness:

It was then when she saw the bartender, silent and smiling, like a priest intoning a mass to well-ordered rows of glasses. In the pool of warm light, she saw his dancing hands concocting drinks that swallowed worries without prejudice; his clear-headed sobriety in an inebriated world; and, through her sunglasses, she saw plain as day his brilliant solitude.

— “April, I Arrive on The Shores of Your Love” (the final story I submitted in December 2017 for the CFMR Fiction Writing Workshop, one of my freshman fall classes)

  • Boredom too is fertile. In fact, I’ll argue that it’s necessary. I used to get really anxious about being idle, but I’ve since come to terms with how it renders my messy and at times incomprehensible life into something less perplexing. Instead of striving to be productive constantly, being present in the moment and to simply rest idly allows for me to imagine—to imagine a mosaic of meaning for the web of my life.
  • The best way to become better at writing is to write and to receive honest no-frills critique. When I was at a literary reading by Jeffrey Eugenides a few months ago, he told all of us, Inspiration is a myth. It’s something produced by exertion, not grace. I’ve found that increasingly true.
  • “I don’t know” is one of the most freeing and rewarding sentences ever. Surrendering myself to not-knowing is liberating. I’m far more at peace with making uncertain what seems certain than with claiming certainty.
  • Our lives are a constellation of chance and choice. There have been frequent moments in 2017 when I was struck by an incredible wonder—will I be who I am at this moment if I had given up in a period of despair in 2016 and didn’t apply to Harvard? What if I had filled out my Housing Questionnaire differently and winded up with an entirely disparate set of roommates? What if I hadn’t applied to the Fiction Writing Workshop this semester as one of my classes—would I still be thinking about concentrating in English instead of Government or History? What if my parents hadn’t changed their minds at the very last moment on the matter of scholarships, and then I might have headed off to college with a wholly different set of priorities? I sometimes think about this when crossing the streets, rushing across the Yard, or lying awake in bed at night. Then, I realize that maybe we’re all just a cosmic aggregation of the lives we lead and the lives we don’t.

I do not know where I might have been led… What is certain is that I am satisfied with my fate and that I should not want it changed in any way at all. So I look upon these factors that helped me to fulfill it as so many fortunate strokes of chance.

Simone De Beauvoir

  • To my future self: be wary of choosing the ‘easy path’ and be wary of prestige. If I am equally torn between two paths, but one is more ‘prestigious’, as a general rule I really ought to choose the other. My thoughts on what’s desirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige. So, if the two choices seem equal to me, I probably have more genuine desire for the ‘less prestigious’ one. I hope I remember that.
  • What a lucky accident it is for us to be alive. There is no redoing, no perfecting, and no rehearsals to life. As it happens to us, we happen upon it. There is a strange serendipity to life, of such a delicate balance of infinite little accidents and intuitive encounters and contingencies that a single miss would have meant that this me I so concretely know vanishes into oblivion. Whenever I feel very down, I think of this and it makes me a feel a lot better. I am reminded of the magnificence of even existing. How can any single existence be ordinary?
  • Life is but a moment, so living it happily matters more than anything else. I really like how this phrase sounds in Chinese, so I’ll write it again: 人生就是一瞬,自己每天高高兴兴地过最重要。

Thank you to my dearest friends, family, and most of all to God for all the goodness, blessings, and wonder in my life. Without Him, I wouldn’t understand the importance of waiting, of growing, of failures, of tiny milestones of awareness, and of new understandings that push me into a braver, stronger, kinder, and better version of myself. It’s strange how life works—something that seems monumental, defining, or inescapable no longer amounts to much (if anything, at all) when we perceive it from many steps ahead. That’s life—it’s to keep moving forward and not wallow in the despair or jubilation of a moment.

HAPPY NEW YEAR! ❤️


Lots of love, and thank you, always, for reading,

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