Conversation Sparks: Life, you’re the dancing queen

We tend to romanticize the past. For a while, I complained to friends that I was feeling the belated onslaught of the Sophomore Slump — call it the Junior Jetlag. Every seven hours, I would reminisce about my idyllic, fulfilling sophomore fall. But then, I went to read what I wrote one year ago — my pillow book: the pathos of November. MAJOR THEMES (tl;dr): Bad days, paper extensions, and all-out clumsiness. Turns out, last year this time, I fell down an entire flight of stairs in Quincy. HAHA. I must have edited out the memory from my head.

Ever since the (angsty) post about October unraveling, the universe has been sending me sparks left, right, and center. Grateful to everyone who has engaged in long conversations and hearty eating with me over the past two weeks.

ME: Life, you seem meaningless. I feel hollow.

LIFE: Catch this! Try this! Hear this! WATCH ME JIVE!

ME: (speechless and incapable of mustering a further complaint)

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LIFE.

Three Life Paths Appeared Yesterday

Over Louisiana Gumbo at Legal Sea Foods, Professor Graham Allison suggested to me Singapore’s unique position as a hub for independent analysis/opinions during this chapter of U.S.-China relations when the global discourse is increasingly polarized.

In a dusky café by a church, I chatted with a Singapore writer about MFA programs, novel-writing, and how we don’t fact-check public discourse in Singapore. She writes beautifully and two years ago, her incredibly honest post on her scholarship experience— Once Bonded — inspired me not to take the PSC scholarship. If you’re at that crossroads, this is a must-read. If you want to be a full-time writer, she said, be ready to accept that you will be poor.

The day ended with an absolute intellectual blast — a three-hour conversation with an ex-TF (teaching fellow). I came away with ten book/thinker recommendations after a wide-ranging, spontaneous discussion on intellectual history, internet sub-culture, Chinese politics, post-colonialism, speculative history, family diaspora, the culture of academia, etc. You are a good fit for grad school, my TF said, but every system has its own expectations. Don’t romanticize it and think you will have a lot of free time to write creatively.  

Dining Hall Pep Talk

“Why are you so hung up over a single bad grade? You study power and politics and systems and society. Can’t you see that you care so much about a grade because of conditioning from young? Getting an A used to matter, but does it matter that much now?” Marwah drills me.

She eats a piece of bread and I eat a slice of apple pie.

“Procrastination is not a waste of time. Total energy remains constant. When your kinetic energy goes down, the energy is still there. Except that now it’s potential energy,” she continues, voice crisp like a commander.

I nod, mesmerized by her oration.

She eats another piece of bread, slathering cream cheese. This time, I choose blueberry pie instead.

She tests me between chews, “You sit in bed looking at your phone for three hours versus you meditate by the river for three hours — which one makes you feel more guilty? Exactly, when you’re using your phone. We are indoctrinated by the older generation, who are wary of technology.”

A pause.

I said, “On a side note: when I’m with you, I always feel hungry.”

Selina Xu and Marwah Sabrah

Three days later, we eat 50000 Halloween candies/cheese cubes/digestive biscuits.

Global Consciousness

“I like that you situate part of it in China,” Professor Maya Jasanoff tells me over Faculty Dinner.

We have stories with a global consciousness about South Asia or Africa. Think: writers like Mohsin Hamid or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But, most writers of Chinese heritage writing the anglophone novel have tended to deal with identity, traditions, and generational trauma. (A generalization, perhaps. Feel free to suggest titles that prove otherwise — would love to read!!)

“Perhaps, you could write that,” she says.

I clasp my hands and silently murmur a quick prayer there and then.

“That’s the aspiration,” I say.

Talking to someone who sees the world humanistically is powerful and inspires faith — faith in our capacity to see outside the bubbles of our identities and the limits of the present; to think intelligently and independently beyond echo chambers, demagoguery, and establishment views; to recognize inherent within our own subjectivity, our ignorance; to empathize, imagine, and understand. Professor Jasanoff makes me want to be ardently, unwaveringly a humanist.

Maya Jasanoff Faculty Dinner

A Dose of Tough Love

On our weekly Friday lunches at Leverett, I whisper furiously to Shi Le, “I need to hear harsh things. I need your tough love.”

“First,” she said, “you cannot take a second cookie.”

After I visibly wither under her gaze, she calmly continues, “Secondly, you need to stop getting out of bed at noon. Since you need to hear this, listen: THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”

“If life unravels, ask yourself what you have control over. You can control when you go to eat and when you sleep. So do that. Structure.”

Selina Xu and Wong Shi Le

Tracing the Dots

For two nights, Xin Min sleeps in my room.

On the last day, as she zips her luggage and I shuffle songs, she tells me, “I’ll leave at 10pm.”

We talk about the five things we want in life. We talk about our threshold of fulfillment.

It’s past 10. Her luggage is ready by the door.

“Ok, I’ll leave at 11pm.”

We talk about how to hold ourselves accountable, how to test aspirations.

She sits cross-legged on the floor and throws me suggestions, “You should post more often on your blog. Put each complete scene on your blog. Build Insta.”

The room is cold and we are quiet. Our conversation is meandering, our voices soft. My hands are numb but I’m thinking, How rare it is that someone will sit down with you and interrogate your dream. Brainstorm your life like it’s theirs, just for a moment. 

“That’s what I admire about the liberal arts education, you have ideas all over the place,” Xin Min says, “like dots.”

“Like dots?”

“You have many dots. The problem then is how to trace them and draw them into a constellation.”

We leave the room at 12:24am.

Selina Xu and Lee Xin Min

On Halloween

In the airy atrium at the Harvard Art Museums, my creative writing professor Claire Messud paints for us the world of a writer over lunch — there are expectations (perhaps, gendered), reviews, time/sacrifices/choices when one has children, and how 99% of writers can’t pay the bills with writing. But, still, we write on. A girl talked about how she quit her job and started bartending so she could have more time to write.

As I poked at my salad, I wondered about this weird instinct that compels us to create and live in words. We inscribe our place in the world with a frantic pen. We anchor our life in stories and cup them in our hands, hoping that strangers will read. We surrender to one vivid and continuous dream after another.

If writing is easy, anyone can be a writer. I think it’s a holy life; a moonkissed mind, a conduit — by choice.

***

If you’ve read till here, thank you for indulging me. x

Sending you sparks! ✨✨✨

Lots of love,

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Futuristic thoughts while grocery shopping

selina xu fat man

This marks the end of my third week in New York. Say what? It is true.

This means three weeks of LIVING ALONE in the biggest city in the United States, actually WORKING eight to nine hours a day in a cubicle on the 21st floor of a massive glass tower, and actually being a self-sufficient, disciplined adult. Which all means: BE INDEPENDENT.

My biggest hurdle has been feeding myself, which is quite unexpected.

Due to a mixture of crazy reasons like…

(a) I need to lose weight (b) I cannot eat too late at night (c) New York restaurants are very solo-female-eater-unfriendly compared to somewhere like JAPAN THE LAND OF SOLO DINERS (d) I do not know how to cook (yes, call me useless) (e) I have strangely not mustered any motivation to learn how to cook (yes, I am lazy) (f) Ubereats takes an hour and I have no time to toggle the app until work ends and it’s too late (b) I cannot eat too late at night, remember? (g) I am always hungry (h) I am even hungrier now that I’m working (i) I return back home by 7pm earliest and then roll/flop around before realizing I have to feed myself when it gets dark outside (side note: New York’s sunsets in the summer are really late; usually the sun sets at around 8.30pm.) (j) I need more friends to eat with 😢

…I have henceforth discovered the capitalist joys of ready-made food and have found grocery shopping very revelatory.

Here are some discoveries:

  1. Instant self-heating Haidilao hotpot which only needs COLD WATER to heat up by itself. *mind blown*

Haidilao self-heating hotpot

  1. Seaweed soup and miso soup that you can make instantly just by pouring hot water onto a cube/mixing it with a premade packet.
  2. Frozen and ready-made MIXED VEGETABLES that I can eat just after microwaving.
  3. Frozen and ready-made MEATBALLS that I can just microwave.
  4. Frozen and ready-made WONTON SOUP that I pour cold water in and microwave, and voila, it’s soup.

Frozen foods

  1. Prepared omelet rolls that can last for a week.
  2. Instant rice. Who even needs a rice cooker?

Conclusion: I don’t even need to touch the stove. Therefore, I have not.

Remind me, how far are we from ingesting ready-made food tablets again? I used to scoff at that thought. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I enjoy the very experience of eating: often, it’s communal, it’s aesthetic, it’s pleasurable. But living by myself (different from being on a college campus) has reduced me to convenience. While a future of meal-in-a-pill seems quite unromantic still, the future of work is poised to compel increasingly creative solutions that can liberate humans from unnecessary drudgery in the kitchen.

The numbers in the spotlight in China right now is 996, which means working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Call it ‘hustle culture’ or ‘rat race,’ I think the bulk of the workforce that turn to ready-made meals will eventually create a demand for technology like a robotic sous-chef (imagine selecting a recipe on an App Store-like interface on the commute home), 3D-printed foods, nanoparticles that give bursts of flavors, personalized online ordering (completely tailored to the individual like cooking for yourself), and more.

If you’re interested, here are some articles I read while mindlessly waiting in line for checkout at the supermarket:

Will supermarkets even exist in the future? Probably not. It’s really a pain carrying heavy bags back home.

What do you think is the future of food, hmm?

Lots of love,

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