Two Takes on My Harvard Freshman Year (My Year in Review?)

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TAKE ONE

Here’s how it happens: eyelids fluttering, an image rising, and a sudden plunge into the hot, wet mouth of memory. I’m walking on a boulevard and then this hutong catches my eye and before I know it I’m wandering down networks of neurons, lost. Or I’m talking to someone, laughing, and there’s a tug and I can’t remember what I ever wanted to say. There’s a face, a sentence, a moment. One minute I’m dancing to Bruno Mars on a raised platform in a swanky Beijing club at 1:58AM and suddenly I’m a freshman again in a long snaking line of sweaty, jittery bodies leading towards the First Chance Dance housed in the dark Northwest Labs. Some weird upperclassman guy in crimson is smelling the green tea bottle in my hand like it’s beer, a tendril of hair sticking out from his nostrils. The white cloth-covered tabletop is littered with askew metal plates full of crumbs and crumpled wrappers. Self-consciously, I’m dancing or trying to move to some insipid, synthesized track while the bones in my body hesitantly reconfigure. A crack. Flash forward a few months: I’m leaping around and jutting out my hips to Zumba at the Hemenway, all over me a sheen of sweat, like I’ve been dipped in oil. My shoes are scraping against the bare floor and screeching to Meghan Trainor’s hearty, sassy ‘No’. The air-con licks my skin.

Or, in the present, I’m sucking on a red bean popsicle by the curb near a symphony of honking from Beijing’s sea of vehicles or thirstily swallowing a spoonful of matcha soft serve in Kyoto’s heat and then I recall the first taste of J. P. Licks during a pre-orientation program, immensely hopeful, eyes squinting against the sunlight as we crossed the street like a beaming group of tourists. Samples of sliced, melting mochi ice cream from smiling aunties at H Mart in neat little cups, opposite the freezer with dumplings and banchan. Berryline on cold days, gloves stuffed into the pockets of a down coat. My breath hanging before me like a fog.

I could be scrolling through my phone to airdrop someone a photo, or enlarging a selfie, or searching for an ancient screenshot. Maybe I see a photo of a beige wall decorated with yellow post-its and fenced off by purple and red ribbons. That’s all it takes. One look brings back the quote wall, the dubious carpets, the spiderman gravity-defeating moves, and the laugh-addled screaming-cum-squealing sessions that invited some poor guy from the floor below to check in on us out of concern. Five minutes later I’d still be standing there, unsure what I was looking for, like emerging from a pool with a smile on my lips. The phone screen turns black.

Or, crowding beside roundtables of hotpot with floating shrimp, meatballs and spicy vegetables, rotating a glass turntable laden with Peking duck and thirty appetizers, sipping on cheese tea in a crowded mall, chewing on pumpkin seeds in a teahouse simulating the old days while a lady in cheongsam sings opera, suddenly it’s the third week of Fall semester again and I feel like a stranger walking into Annenberg and drowning in the din. Then I drift into another memory. My third bowl of golden hash brown nuggets, with a heavy green blob of guacamole on top. Eating breakfast food for lunch on Sundays because I never wake up otherwise. The times we sit at a table next to someone’s crush, or two guys who looked decently cute in the dim light, or just some awkward acquaintance from God knows where, and we communicate with only our eyes, collapsing into giggles on our way out of the hall.

It’s living several lives, curled up in a hotel room’s rumpled sheets, or the pristine homestay bedroom just a door away from my new Japanese family, or my familiar, old bed with three pillows and a fluffy panda in Singapore. And when I come back to the present, eyes blinking, I am typing on the same screen, listening to the same Spotify playlist, the yogurt cup on my desk leaving a rim of condensation. On my computer the same blinking cursor. Inside my mind, I am remembering and forgetting a thousand tiny things.

TAKE TWO

Very honestly, I was planning to seriously write out a comprehensive Year in Review post with bullet points, labels, a slate of photos, and coherent paragraphs of descriptions. As I tried to write that post, beautifully envisioned and probably much easier to read than whatever I wrote above, the inevitable came: my impressions of those moments were always shifting and being filtered through the numerous new experiences I had. It felt pretentious even to slip back into my own skin and write about how I feel about something at its most visceral when it happened months ago. But. To go back in time and capture how I exactly felt would have been near impossible EXCEPT for the fact that many of such moments and my reflections have been penned down in the 21 blog posts published over the course of freshman year. So here’s another way to look at this year.

In my freshman year…

  • I explored writing fiction: I’ve never written as much fiction. Ever. I’m most grateful for the tremulous beginning to this writing journey—when I applied, got rejected and subsequently got off the waitlist for Claire Messud’s workshop in the Fall. One year later, I’ve completed three short stories for class, enrolled in another workshop (with Neel Mukherjee), and still struggle with this lonely, poetic affair. But this is what started it all. Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)
  • My main extracurricular life could be boiled down to three words: Harvard China Forum—when I surprisingly pulled together, with the help of many many people, a panel of speakers that I never could have imagined coming face to face with before Harvard (director of my favorite 2017 drama! lyricist to my lifelong pop idol Jay Chou!!! sci-fi novelist! variety show producer! CEO of online fiction publishing juggernaut! veteran journalist!). This Fall, I’ll be doing it all over again, yay! To Harvard China Forum • 致哈佛中国论坛
  • I spent my winter break at Dumbarton Oaks interrogating cultural philanthropy, diplomacy, and art in the cold. Girl in D.C.
  • I spent this sweltering summer in Kyoto. When In Kyoto ≧◡≦
  • I also ate my way through Japan. From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit
  • I turned 2-0! From 20-year-old Me, With Love
  • I experienced my first shopping week, my first snow in Boston, a November of Taylor Swift, BBC’s Austen adaptations and daylight saving time, and made a list of things I love.
  • I told my own growth on this blog through stories. On navigating love after a bleary-eyed whirlwind Black Friday, on coming to terms with materialism in Gangnam, on those fleeting moments of great metaphorical meaning or unexpected snippets that we cannot capture behind every grinning photo, on combating drama addiction after a dreary spring break.
  • I deal with debilitating doubts about my writing; on bad days, I yearn for external validation like an addict. But, in the end, it’s really just the page and me. I feel extremely nervous about putting my edited works onto this blog for more eyes to scrutinize, but I would like to start doing more of that! Here’s a throwback to the two stories I’ve published here during freshman year: [Story] Why Believe in Fortune Cookies, and 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?.

Here’s to a sophomore year with more blog posts!!! To everyone I met during my freshman year and over this summer, wherever our paths may lead us, thank you for being part of this journey. I hope you will stay with this blog ❤

Lastly, Happy Birthday Daddy!!! 亲爱的爸比,生日快乐 🎂🎉✨ I’m not sure if I can keep myself from crying when I say goodbye to you both at the airport tonight, but I know that because of you, I can venture continents away with strength in my wings, love in my heart and an unyielding faith in the kindness of life. 没有您,就没有我。谢谢您总像魔术师般地将我的烦恼和忧愁化为动力和正能量。您的智慧、引导和关爱让我这棵小树一直在幸福的包围中茁壮成长。谢谢您为我撑起了一片天,为我遮风挡雨。我会让您骄傲的。永远爱您,爸爸!❤️❤️❤️

Lots of love,

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First Snow • 初雪

The morning view from my window. ❄️

I haven’t seen snow in three years. The last time I did was in December 2014 when it was barely snowing in London and the brownish-grey slush in the fairgrounds weirdly resembled the chocolate slurpee from 7-11. It was not pretty. I was sad.

This morning, I was barely awake and on the phone with my mom when I rolled up the blinds and saw this view. On the other side of the chilled windows was a different Cambridge from the one I had been used to. A hushed, illumined world that had lost its garish colors and sharp edges because tiny snowflakes were gently raining down and blanketing everything in soft, furry cold. All-embracing, the snow was turning everything—grey streets, balding trees, metal gates, crimson walls, sleeping cars, and boring roads—into one brilliant white.

Snow is soft and hard, white and brown, a still silence and a crunch under my boots, gentle and biting, frozen and melting, intimate and ghostly, lightly falling and thickly drifting, horizontal blurs and swirling eddies, made the instant that it is unmade, remade as it is being unmade.

Shrubs turn into cauliflowers, trees grow white flowers, slopes form pillows for feet, and a smudge of earth reveals itself when you kick hard enough at the fluffy surface. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” plays in a soft hum from my phone, people are smiling more, two strangers offer donuts and blessings, we shake snow from our heads like wet puppies and then give up after two tries, I leave my own set of footprints in the yard.

It’s Narnia, Arendelle, the Snow Queen’s palace, Lyra Belacqua’s Arctic expedition, Jack Frost, and my polar express. What a childlike, funny place a snowing world is.

I honestly don’t know if I will want to kill this post when snow loses its charming novelty once I return from winter break next January. I can already see my future spring semester self in vivid detail: freezing into a popsicle and drowning under a thousand layers, but—

For now, the snow makes me feel happy!!! This week was our reading period before Finals week, but I only have one Final Exam left. Over the past five days, I edited and submitted my 3,922-word story (titled April, I Arrive on the Shores of Your Love) for my fiction writing workshop, read aloud part of the story at a Reading Party, finished two 1,200-word papers within eight hours for the Hum 10 take-home final (comparing Oedipus the King and Meditations, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Fragments of Sappho), and presented my creative translation project (on love! inspired by my parents haha) in seminar. All that’s left is my Archaeology final on Wednesday.

By this time next week, I will be in sunny sultry steaming Singapore and the only snow I will have is bingsu. 🌞

As the snow is descending upon us, everything is winding down to its final moments.

I’m grateful for this semester of quiet blessings; gentle lessons on life; genuine moments of connection in laughter-filled corridors, over late nights, and between munches; continuously tandem feelings of comfort and challenge; the cerebral sigh of content when I’m doing what I love; books that reveal to me what it means to be human across the millennia; brilliant professors who set a benchmark that is going to be hard to surpass in future classes; and all the wonderful, inspiring people I’ve met (if you’re reading this blog, you’re definitely one of them!).

See you back home/next semester/over Facetime!

晨起开门雪满山,雪睛云淡日光寒。檐流未滴梅花冻,一种清孤不等闲。

《山中雪后》郑板桥

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

“The Dead” by James Joyce

Lots of Love,

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On Black Friday Morning, in a Sun-lit Café

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BLACK FRIDAY — 10:40AM, Friday

She sits there, her heart a solid thudding of the metronome, an old man’s pace. The café is a startling white, clean like a repurposed showroom. The rows of baked goods behind the open-air counter are a dash of brown-gold, like yolk nestled in egg-white. Patterns crawl across its interior; grey wisps swim on the marble tabletop; black tiles mark out the honeycomb mosaic floor her brown boots are tapping on. The monochrome is artificial to the strained eye. She has been up since midnight and it’s already almost noon.

To her right, another girl is collapsed against the bistro chair with shopping bags pooled at her feet—the little red star of Macy’s peeks at the trio.

“I guess this is the American Black Friday experience,” the guy on her other side says, somewhat in wonder.

She is too tired to make a scintillating comment. Her cleverness has abandoned her in the wake of the sheer exhaustion from staying up beyond 24 hours, the rapidly dwindling adrenaline of battling in the discount-strewn aisles, and the curious, surreal feeling that Thanksgiving night half a day ago seems like a fraying memory several-years-old.

The plate and cup before her are empty except for crumbs and foam on the rim. She remarks, “I’m starving.”

“Still?” the girl on her right laughs. She’s about to say something else when a server stops in front of their table.

“Oh, my food is here,” the guy says, sitting up, as the server places the croissant sandwich on the table and whisks away the number stand.

She might not know now but she will remember and thank this moment to come. This moment as wet sunlight is touching her weary face and a warmth buds unexpectedly, as the realization washes over her that perhaps all she thought she had known about what love means is wrong, as he nudges the sandwich towards her—stubbled face, black-rimmed glasses, blood-shot eyes, incompatible sexuality and all—and tiredly says, “Eat up.”

It dawns on her gently, an idea of what matters in this waiting and searching for someone to like simply and wholeheartedly. She hugs it close to her.

THE DAY BEFORE, THANKSGIVING DAY — 11:40PM, Thursday

She is in the car, listening. Her fingers are numb from the cold. She pulls out striped gloves from her pockets, wears them concentratedly, but cannot block out the la-di-da voices around her.

She knows, in this tiny vehicle weaving through the night, that she is placing something down. As she casts aside old understandings, she is uncertain what to think next. Some new understanding is taking shape in the dark, still nebulous.

She doesn’t know now that she will—in a sun-lit café the next morning after an unbelievable night—finally understand that perhaps reputation means nothing, as do complexion and pretensions, superficial impressions and fleeting interactions, and too much a dosage of self-assurance.

But, there and then, in the car, all she thinks is yes as her phone screen lights up with the message: Black Friday shopping? Like in 15 min?

Her gloved finger starts typing out a reply.

November is…

On a sunny day, we did an impromptu photoshoot outside the dorm room when it was not yet cold 😇

November is the great mystery of daylight saving time. It’s the time when night comes early, days turn dark in mid-swallow, and the sense of time grows distorted. It also makes me freak out a bit when it’s 5pm but it feels like 9pm and I’ve not yet started on my paper.

November is days bleeding into one another in a whirlwind of the now familiar routine of classes and paper-writing (I just wrote an 8-page paper last week on Descartes’ Meditations — throwback to KI!), meeting new people and connecting with friends that begin to feel curiously familiar. It’s a whirlwind interspersed with brilliant encounters with famous people in different settings (sitting in the audience as Elton John received Humanitarian of the Year from our dean onstage; attending a lunch workshop with Man Booker Prize-winning writer Michael Ondaatje, who autographed my copy of The English Patient!!).

November is cold. I’m swamped in huge furry coats, woolly gloves, and snuggly scarves, with the heater turned on high. I’ve also gotten a tad bit more used to people using Fahrenheit — thirty basically means freezing. A usual morning on the groggy side looks like this: Wakes up — opens the Weather app on my phone — stares at the 3°C below CAMBRIDGE — swipes right and surprise! SINGAPORE displays 30°C. 😭

November feels at once brand new, cloaked in autumn gold, and like the same old calendar month. Classes are winding down to the final two weeks — there’s the Harvard-Yale Game this weekend at New Haven and next week’s Thanksgiving Break in between. Then it’ll be reading period, final exams, and WINTER BREAK! I’ll be in Singapore for three weeks 🏝 and then in Washington, D.C. for ten days (look out for updates!).

November is discovering the magic of the BBC’s Jane Austen adaptations. When I had to read Emma for Hum 10 and my roommate Ani declared that she had watched the 2009 BBC Emma miniseries no less than five times, I promptly went on Hulu, clicked Episode 1, and proceeded to say goodbye to my next four hours. I finished the entire series in one sitting. It was magical and redefining. Here comes the newest pivotal dilemma of my life: who should I choose — (A) wet-shirt, broody, principled Mr. Darcy (by the incomparable Colin Firth in the 1995 version) or (B) handsome, intensely sweet, morally righteous Mr. Knightley (by the brilliantly subtle Jonny Lee Miller in the 2009 version)? QUESTION OF THE CENTURY.

darcy

“Well, of course you must choose me.”

knightley

“How can it not be me?”

November is listening to Taylor Swift’s new album Reputation at midnight. ❤️ I’ve been listening to her songs since I was eleven, through her eponymous album, Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, and now this; her songs are my go-to in times of crushes and heartbreak from unstarted loves. November is having her songs on repeat enough to last me (and ride out my habit of persistently playing a favorite song for 100000 times till I get sick of it) through the remainder of 2017. It’s my roommates dying from hearing her new songs in the morning when my alarm clock goes off, gets snoozed, and the scene iterates… HAHA.

My favourite Reputation lyrics

“You should take it as a compliment that I’m talking to everyone here but you.” — Gorgeous (THIS LYRIC)

“Is the end of all the endings? My broken bones are mending / With all these nights we’re spending / Up on the roof with a school girl crush / Drinking beer out of plastic cups.” — King of My Heart

“This ain’t for the best / My reputation’s never been worse, so / You must like me for me.” — Delicate

“Even in my worst lies you saw the truth in me.” — Dress

“There are no rules when you show up here / Bass beat rattling the chandelier / Feeling so Gatsby for that whole year.” — This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

“I’d kiss you as the lights went out / Swaying as the room burned down / I’d hold you as the water rushes in / If I could dance with you again.” — Dancing With Our Hands Tied

“I want your midnights, but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” — New Year’s Day

This time, Taylor also penned two poems included in the limited-release magazines accompanying the physical album — “If You’re Anything Like Me” is acutely vulnerable, but it’s “Why She Disappeared” which uncannily resonates with me.

If You're Anything Like Me_by Taylor Swift

Why She Disappeared_by Taylor Swift

I’ll have a lot more time next week to slow down, take stock of the messy brilliant college semester so far, and blog (!) once Thanksgiving recess starts on November 22. Till then! Keep warm / cool (depending where you’re at) ❤️

Lots of Love,

To warmer days,

Sel

Wheeeeeee

Things I Love

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Yesterday at Kirkland House (where Mark Zuckerberg stayed!!) after a FIP lunch.

1. Sundays on hammocks in hot Singaporean-like Cambridge weather. Hurrah!

2. Learning. The room is warm. My pulse is throbbing at an almost manic pace. In a hitched breath’s moment of unconscious cerebration, it occurs to me that I am surrounded by knowledge coming to life — in eager minds, raw stories, bustling thoughts, and this palpable sense of convivencia and of shared humanity that emerges from within all of us when we discuss vanished worlds in ancient texts (Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Poetics, Symposium…). Unbelievable, but somehow it is happening, in this time and place, in this infinite now. (I am really loving my Humanities seminar under Professor David Carrasco — here’s a link to his Wikipedia page! Every time I walk out of class, some ineffable change washes over me; I’m not sure what it is, but I feel just a bit more comfortable with uncertainty and a little bit more certain about what gives me meaning.)

3. Making stone tools in archaeology section (Anthro 1010). This satisfies Math?! Blessed.

Trying to refit the fragments of a stone.

4. Yesterday, I went to church for Sunday Mass for the first time in a long while. Some of my close friends may know about my uncertainty and burning questions with regards to religion’s answers to ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘How should we live our lives?’ As a kid, I encountered God in the Catholic tradition due to my parents and upbringing, but in recent years, I have leaned towards labeling myself as spiritual instead of Catholic. But, in a strange turn of events, I found myself seeing this age-old faith with new eyes after many years of estrangement. Thank you to each of you who are giving me a hand in this self-exploration 🙂

5. Drowning in books (is there anything happier than drowning in books?). There are a few which I’d like to spotlight because, without college, I would possibly never touch them:

  • Sappho’s If Not, Winter (for Humanities 10): basically the Taylor Swift of ancient Greeks (102: sweet mother I cannot work the loom/I am broken with longing for a boy by slender Aphrodite)
  • Anne Carson’s Nox (for my Translation seminar): a handmade book in a box, an artifact, a translation, an accordion, an epitaph for an estranged and deceased brother, a raw and almost manipulative scrapbook of his life… It defies categorization, bursts with torn photographs, yellowed notes, and an overwhelming, fatigued sense of loss that echoes in Latin poem Catullus 101 (which Carson translates).

    nox

    Look at this gorgeous work of art.

  • David Macaulay’s Motel of the Mysteries (for my Archaeology class): it’s honestly hilarious. In the year 4022, a random dude chances upon a hotel from the 2000s and thinks it’s a tomb. He treats the toilet seat as a sacred urn and all kinds of nonsensical, nutty misinterpretations of the past ensue. But, maybe, if ancient civilizations read about our current account of the past, they would be laughing in their graves.
  • For my fiction writing workshop, our lovely professor Claire Messud was on a book tour last week in London so she couldn’t come to class, but her husband did and he is James Wood!! He has been called the best literary critic of his generation and he writes book reviews for The New Yorker. The fact that I get to be taught by such incredible people sometimes blows my mind.

6. Roommates who squeal with me on Saturday nights about the WEIRDEST things. 😇

At slinky silent disco (???)

7. A weekend that included a wondrous burger at Harvard Square (Alden & Harlow), going to Chinatown in Boston for xiaolongbao and authentic bubble tea, singing karaoke, rewatching The Social Network, a lot of ice-cream, and good catch-ups with friends that have been swallowed by the monster called Harvard Life.

8. Facetiming/Skyping/Video-calling people I love, such as my parents ❤ ❤ ❤ If you are my good friend and we’ve not Facetimed, TEXT ME NOW.

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Until next week!

To all my dear friends across the globe: how have you guys been? I miss you and I love you.

xoxo,

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