Brevity: Renaissance Woman

Yuri

“Dark” by Xuan Loc Xuan

Brevity features short posts on the interesting, incisive, or inexplicably moving ideas I encounter at Harvard. It’s a record of the detail in those intellectual and creative moments, as well as an exploration of the curious questions that keep me up at the midnight hour. Here’s an honest snapshot of my mind.

Sometimes, I realize how much more I have to go and then —

limits.

I saw on Facebook that someone in my year won the Wendell Prize (congratulations!). It’s awarded to one Harvard sophomore annually, who is identified “as the most promising and broad-ranging scholar in his or her class.” We were Facebook friends but I don’t think we’ve ever met in real life. I Googled his name. What came up first was an article he had written for the Harvard Independent, titled “Getting In.” It was beautiful — a portrait of a young artist rendered more evocatively, gently, and vulnerably than most writers on campus (myself included) could have.

How to be a modern-day Renaissance woman (or man)? In a few seconds, I just knew. This was it.

Returning to the page of search results, I clicked the second listed site. It was a Physics department page. He was an undergraduate researcher in the Department of Physics, doing “statistical and semiclassical analysis of thermal distortion potentials.”

Before me was a vague outline of someone who was not just good but excellent at many things. I felt a burst of wonder and respect, but also intermingled in a tide of wistfulness, a dim sense of loss. It wasn’t self-negating. Yet, this brief internet encounter with a silhouette of brilliance made me rethink why I found his straddling of fields so surprising.

Our instincts are honed by stereotypes. Somewhere along the path of my education, I must have subconsciously internalized the distinctions between the literary arts and the sciences, took their gulf for granted, and happily embraced specialization. Why should scientists not be able to write beautifully? (Carl Sagan and Paul Kalanithi come to mind.) Why would it be impossible that a writer be a scientist? (Like Nabokov and his butterflies.) Are their objects of inquiry — nature and culture — all that different? The universe and its truths. The human condition. A story with different building blocks.

With the platter of liberal arts options, I have thus far chosen to do a grand zero of problem set classes at Harvard. Truth is: I’ve willingly, single-mindedly boxed myself in a rigid taxonomy of disciplines, the boundaries of which might actually be more nebulous than I think. The divisions between fields that we presume as perennial are often recent constructs — e.g. philosophy and the natural sciences (for instance, phenomenology started as psychology under Brentano).

Not sure how I will move forward with these thoughts. After all, I count myself blessed to have found an irresistible love for the humanities and the opportunity to study them at a place like Harvard. But, honestly, where else could I have had such a close brush with the contours of a renaissance man, or this acute of a realization?

(Typed this in a flurry, during a break from writing a paper that’s due tonight. Back to more practical tasks on hand!!!)

Lots of love,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

 

 

 

 

 

My Sophomore Spring Harvard Classes + Some Little Things

Belatedly, wishing all of you: Happy Year of the Pig!!! ❤ ❤ ❤

First things first, things that have served as brilliant reminders when life works weirdly:

1. Turn your FOMO into JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) — I would like to interpret it as loving yourself and realizing that doing nothing or doing less are all relative terms that we use to measure ourselves relative to something external. Though we might often doubt ourselves for not doing enough, not spending time on academics or extracurriculars might mean spending it with your body, your mind, or your soul. (Thank you, Marwah. x) That’s as worthwhile and meaningful. We all have different paths and different destinations along the way. So the balance is to walk my own path while still keeping in sight where I want to go and to make sure I’m keeping pace with my internal calling.

 

2. Maintaining a healthy weight is a marathon not a sprint!!!

3. My classes. Let’s say, Q = “Eating more brings weight gain” — at least, there’s one thing in life that works by the same causal logic as proposition Q: reading and thinking more brings a better version of myself. I’ve slacked off quite a bit this long weekend (on Sunday, I curled up in a corner of Cabot Library and just read romance novels for an entire afternoon). No skimping on readings subsequently, Selina!!!

Now, a bit more about what I’m taking this semester:

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 8.24.43 PM

AESTHINT 47 Forbidden Romance in Modern China

I was destined to take this class. Forbidden Romance? Check. China? Check. We’ve studied illicit love letters between Lu Xun and his female student, Yu Dafu’s auto-erotic story of narcissism and patriotism, and the secret love affair between the married darling of modern China and Virginia Woolf’s nephew.

Almost astonishingly, I’ve discovered that women back then had much greater latitude in exploring new forms of intimacy, constructing a new feminine subjectivity in romantic liaisons, and breaking from societal traditions. The many types of love (teacher-student, extramarital, eroticism, older woman-younger man) that flourished then amidst the post-May 4th zeitgeist might be considered taboo right now. Perhaps, the literary history of modern romance is a narrative of regression.

Professor David Wang, who teaches this, is so incredibly earnest and empathetic in his lectures. His lecture on the life of Yu Dafu (a writer who began his life with debauchery and ended up in martyrdom) was the first time I teared up in a lecture.

HIST-LIT 97 Sophomore Tutorial — Cultures of U.S. Imperialism

One of my main reasons for declaring History & Literature is to explore imperialism/postcolonialism and narrative historiography (empire and globalization through fiction) in tandem. We will be reading many authors who I have encountered before (which could be a good or a bad thing): E. M. Forster, Joseph Conrad (!!!), J. M. Coetzee, Wole Soyinka, and Jamaica Kincaid. Thus far, we’ve looked at the British empire as much as the U.S. empire. It’s interesting being the only non-American a class as U.S.-centric as this one, and having grown up with a partially Anglophone education in Singapore that bears the indelible vestiges of British colonialism.

PHIL 33 Ethical Issues in Social, Cultural, and Artistic Representation

Telling other people about my classes this semester has been a mouthful because of Phil 33. Everyone’s response is always a lull, followed by, Say again?

I didn’t actually shop this class, but shopped numerous others. Expectedly, on the Friday of Shopping Week, I once again ended up in utter confusion and disarray about my course cart. After my friend told me in the afternoon about this class, I decided to enroll on a whim. I’m interested in the topics we have been discussing in class (it’s just 8 of us) in the abstract, but not that much in the specific. Right now, we have been analyzing arguments on both sides of the Confederate symbol debate. How do we judge the past? What gives a symbol its racist meaning? How can we correct historical injustice?

Subsequent topics might resonate more:

  • Cultural Property and Cultural Appropriation
  • Stereotypes
  • Ethics and Fictional Representations

PHIL 136 Phenomenology of Lived Experience

Taught by Professor Samantha Matherne!!! (She taught my Kant class last semester and was phenomenal.) Absolutely a blast so far. I wasn’t familiar at all with the word ‘Phenomenology’ before taking this class and still am not quite sure. The central question is: what are the general structures that any experience involves?

We started by looking at treatments of the phenomenology of lived experience in general in texts by Brentano and Husserl (now Heidegger). I’m really excited to later work out the phenomenology of specific modes of lived experience in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Emilio Uranga’s “Essay on an Ontology of the Mexican,” and Sara Ahmed’s “Orientations: Towards a Queer Phenomenology.”

I WILL DO MY READINGS THOROUGHLY!

If any of these ideas interest you, come talk to me about my classes anytime.

4. Happy Lantern Festival! 元宵节快乐~We’ve reached the fifteenth (and the last) day of the Lunar New Year celebrations so fast. There have been some dreary days and afternoons of seemingly incurable malaise, but also some mornings when I sit in class and look at the world in wonder, emerging from a vulnerable conversation into a kinder world.

Even though I haven’t eaten tangyuans (those glutinous balls with black sesame or peanut paste fillings), I had a call with my mom tonight across continents and time zones, which put my life in perspective and filled me with faith. Thank you for always believing in me. You don’t know how much it means to me, 妈咪 ❤ Sending this ball of positive energy to all of you. On cold nights with swirling snow weighing on gaunt treetops, think of this cute picture below.

打印

Lots of love,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

 

 

my pillow book: the pathos of November

Inspired by Sei Shōnagon’s diary-lists in The Pillow Book.

tempImg 2

Things That I Will Remember

Shivering as we tread the familiar path to Annenberg in the canopy of night. Everyone holding signs celebrating the declaration of their concentrations. Shimmery silver streaks, Trophy Wife and Sugar Daddy signboards, bare cookies, beaming faces, flashing lights, postcards sent into the future, holding my choices in my palm: History & Literature and Philosophy.

Classroom to Table with Professors Ellen Song (History & Literature) and Musa Syeed (Screenwriting). Faculty Dinner at Leverett House with Philosophy Professor Samantha Matherne. ❤

IMG_9559 (1)

Professor Matherne, who chatted with me about Kant, Kyoto, the imagination, grad school, and teaching philosophy. 🙂

Stepping into the dim, timber lighting of Border Café, looking left and right, before my gaze falls on a face I haven’t seen in person since 2014. Many things change, her smile (and our appetites) stays the same. Aspirations are different, more uncertain, still fervent. Our eyes as bright, as clean as our sixteen-year-old selves.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The hasty, just-right moment of picking up the phone, hearing a strangely familiar voice and only being able to utter Oh my God again and again until we both start laughing. Falling into an easy camaraderie built from a patchwork of a few days — some friends are only made in a handful of hours but seem to have been known to me from a past life. Laughing in an empty dorm room strewn with red solo cups and curious, sullen bottles of alcohol, like the aftermath of some alien abduction scene, the three of us the last ones standing. Talking till 4AM, bleary-eyed, yet feeling like if sleep was not gravity, we could float till infinity in this ether of honest intimate conversation.

Eating hotpot with ginger ale and lemon tea, slurping a big bowl of ramen under the veil of steam and the wise words and heartfelt advice from Tim & Ee San, tasting first snow on the tip of my tongue.

IMG_9585

To the wisest and the kindest. Thank you for guiding me and bringing me to eat yummy food! ❤

Going wild at Berklee’s Jay Chou Tribute Concert, in stark contrast to all the other mild concert-goers. Singing like no one can hear us, dancing like no one is watching us.

Doing Harvard-Yale as a room, all deck in Harvard gear, rubbing numb fingers, smiling in the wind, rosy cheeks, furry hats, munching on fries, cheering confusedly, posing for photos, and collapsing into giggles over how good we look.

IMG_8214 (1)

Walking from Fenway Park (in Boston) back to our dorm (in Cambridge) in the cold, noses red, sipping on bubble tea (milk green tea, mini bubbles, 50% sugar, no ice) and talking about everything under a sky thick with clouds and fecundity.

Things That Constitute A Bad Day

Waking up at 7AM after snoozing my 6AM alarm for an hour, once every eight minutes.

Writing a paper already due which I got an extension for. Clock ticking.

Stomach growling but no real food in sight.

A throat parched and scratched from two chocolate chip granola bars and a hundred goldfish crackers.

Waiting in front of the printer for ten minutes, paying three times, refreshing, and nothing stirs.

Being late for class. Again.

Falling down the stairs of Quincy, wrapped like a maki roll in my puffy ankle-length down coat, tumbling, crashing into the long legs of some bewildered, terrified guy who grips me tight and sets me right on the stairs. Glasses askew.

Not wearing contacts and glasses fogging up when I blow my nose.

Limping back to my dorm room in the darkness, puddles sprouting in front of me like invisible tiles.

Purple bruises on my legs when I want to wear a skirt.

What I Wrote This Month

A 20-page screenplay titled UNWIND ME about the inexhaustible variety of college life. Three characters. One night. Sometimes we don’t see how much we need someone to care or just how lonely we are. 

A paper using the lens of trauma to inspect the complexity of white liberal guilt in Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine: its historicity, hypocrisy, and fantasy of a return to innocence.

A comparative paper on the extent of fictional repair in Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats vs. Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.

Coming up next week: revising UNWIND ME and writing my second PHIL 129 midterm paper.

Things That Don’t Last

Strawberry yogurt-coated pretzel crumbs. Squashed juice boxes. Empty bottled iced tea. Lindt chocolate wrappers like aluminum petals.

Negativity. Bad days. Writer’s block. Being upset at a friend. The absence of a response, the limbo before a decision, the length of time called waiting.

A month like November.

Lots of love,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

 

I declared my concentration!

BLACK SCREEN. FADE IN.

INT. DORM ROOM – NIGHT

Selina (20, Singaporean-Chinese) has both hands on the Mac keyboard. She is leaning forward expectantly before a desk piled high with dog-eared books, loose sheets of paper and thin notebooks with mythical, cartoonish covers. Cue music: something whimsical like Hisaishi’s Nausicaä Requiem! something dramatically perching on the edge of the symphonic abyss like Mahler’s Sixth!

The my.harvard page is loading.

She stretches and hums.

She checks Instagram, puts her phone down, and flips a page of Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine.

The front page loads. The music reaches a feverish pitch.

She feigns hesitation for a moment. It’s nice to dwell in a state of no commitment. Then the stillness breaks as her fingers start flying across the keyboard.

She swiftly clicks on “My Program” and then “Declare Concentration”.

ZOOM IN on her laptop screen. A series of selections from one drop-down list to the next:

  • Joint Concentration. Click.
  • Primary Concentration. History and Literature. Click.
  • Allied Concentration. Philosophy. Click.

The cursor hovers over the red ‘Submit’ button. The music dies. Silence is viscous on the screen.

SELINA
Alright. (a pause) Amen.

A beat. She grins and presses.

Click.

IMG_9426

Lots of Love,
Officially a Hist&Lit and Philosophy major,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

After the Darkness, A Meadow of Books

The number of papers I’ve written this semester: 

7.

Words that appeared in my first 10-page screenplay*

Wong Kar-wai. Temple. Claypot. Kant. Fortune-teller. White peach tart. Mahjong. Wikipedia. Red Mansion Dream. The Gods are real.

*If you are intrigued and would like to read it in exchange for giving me your genuine critique and constructive feedback, please reach out to me. (´・ω・`)

The number of times I went to the gym: 

8.

Where I’m going for Thanksgiving Break:

Cambridge (UK) & London (hello my loves)!!!

The number of sit-down exams I will have during Finals: 

0.

WHAT? It is, fortunately, happily, emphatically, true.

Correlatively, the total number of pages I will have to write in my final papers:

41 to 48 pages.

(A 20-page screenplay, a 6-8 page Global Fictions paper, a 7-10 page literary analysis or creative project, and an 8-10 page paper on Kant.)

The number of days till I come back home (i.e. fly back to Singapore): 

40.

(In fact, I won’t even be on campus during Finals Week (or Reading Period) because I’m flying off on the last day of class, which is December 5th. I shall lovingly labor over my papers in Singapore.)

A jumble of things on my mind: 

Unpaid. internships. Concentration dilemmas. (ಥ﹏ಥ) Career choices. “Don’t idealize or romanticize suffering.” Screenwriting. Grad school? Techno-orientalism, postcolonialism, literature & culture & race. Sit in an alcove and read and read and read until I grow cracks and crumble like moth wings. Do novels get written under deadlines? Do I want a creative senior thesis? I want to read big, fat, difficult, swollen, convoluted books that I will never read again. But, I don’t want to take a class only on Shakespeare, or Poetry, or early British literature. I should do Hist & Lit. The fantasy of intimacy with the language is increasingly falling apart. I want a critical lens, to explore, to challenge, to immerse myself in the contemporary, not the old, white, Western canon that has nothing to do with a 21st-century Singaporean-Chinese girl grappling with globalization, who wants to enter a conversation with writers who deal in that vein of global imagination. 

Here’s an Easter egg—a random snippet I typed on my phone in class because I was hungry and homesick and harboring within me a dim sum-shaped hole: 

The first thing I hear when the Play begins is the flurry of Cantonese chatter. Flying across the room like darts and then bouncing on the cloud of soft affection, blood ties, subtle enmity and piping hot early morning news Fresh off the Tongue making rounds.

Xuan, beautiful, a head taller and cantonese-speaking, whispers into my ear, with a glint in her eye. That short fat man, Xuan says, with a hiccup, as she downs another gulp of sweet white coconut milk, does pharmaceuticals and always loses in mahjong, probably intentionally when he plays with my Ma. Listening, my mouth forms the shape of an ‘o’.

No one else notices us collapsing into giggles, or my wobbly chopsticks dropping the prawn puff beneath the table, or us imitating the adults while chewing, or me eating three times The Amount of Golden Buns that Mami said I was allowed to.

The table is strewn with dumplings with different skin, different colors, different meat textures, with brown baskets of steaming hot pastries half the size of my tiny palm, with sweet chicken claws and spicy carrot cake, hard noodles in cups and soft eggs in half cut shells, and the iced mango sago melting over my tongue like cold cold honey.

***
After a brief patch of darkness, of indecision, of agonizing back-and-forths between two concentrations that may seem indistinguishable to the observer (English with its early British literature and poetry requirements and the glowing possibility of writing a novel in a Creative thesis, and History & Literature with its incredible freedom of charting my own course and piecing together a singular academic focus from an array of departments), of self-interrogation, of asking myself again and again ‘What do I want out of college?’, of grasping the shovel to dislodge already fixed aspirations, of negotiating the dilemma of studying the canon versus what I’m actually intellectually passionate about, of self-doubt, of my aversion to certain facets of the English language, of my fraught relationship with writing…

I see that there is always a meadow of books—my green light, an intellectual lodestar. It eludes me sometimes, but it’s an ancient instinct from which I may stray but always never wander far.

My favorite books that I read in class this semester: 

 

 

Lots of love,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM