Thanksgiving with Books and BBQ

Professor David Carrasco

With Profé Carrasco (from Hum 10)!

What’s in your magnitude?

What’s in your library?

What’s in your details?

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

This break, I’ve been on campus: empty cobblestone streets, a handful of lit windows in the wintry night, closed restaurants and libraries, vacant laundry machines — solitary, quiet, and kind of really nice.

I’ve been reading and reading and writing and writing. I’ve been to Widener more in the past two weeks than I have in my entire college career. Belated discoveries, two years late to be exact:

  1. Harvard libraries have no borrowing limit.
  2. Most books can be automatically renewed, up to five times.
  3. Each loan has the duration of an entire semester.

A heap of 13 library books on my desk.

What’s on my mind: Arjun Appadurai’s postnational imaginary, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, globalization theory, nationalisms (trojan nationalism, spectral sovereignty, long-distance nationalism…), cosmopolitanisms (plural!), migration statistics (the world on the move; a future where migration would be the norm), and my novel-in-progress which I’ve snubbed for the past few days (urgh).

Thanksgiving Day is in the details: 7 plates of beef, 238 new photos on the camera roll, the smell of barbeque on my scarf and my hair, tongs and chopsticks poking sizzling ribs and lean cuts on the charcoal grill, 3 types of matcha desserts, flushed faces under a red lantern, cool noir outside the timber panes, belting out Mamma Mia on ghostly pavements, and continuing the freshman tradition with Marwah. ❤️

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Thanksgiving. I think of things ending and starting. A semester that flies by too fast. We can’t even catch five days and cup them in our hands long enough to count them. I blink and everything is over. Two days later, Cambridge will snow. Two days after, classes will end.

The lantern burns bright. The glow accompanies me into the dark night. Thank you, you, and you for the rosy warmth and the guiding light.

And thank you for reading ✨

Selina thanksgiving

Lots of love,

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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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Ode to My Youth • 母校,生日快乐

Saw a couple of tiny girls in Hongzi at Bugis today and suddenly remembered. Happy 102nd birthday, Nanyang! ❤

Selina Xu NYGH Graduation

一九一七八月十五,是宝贵的良辰。 在火药气味浓厚中,可爱的母校出现。

I remember those golden, burnt-edged secondary school days of folding notes and passing them with furtive glances in ordered classrooms when the teacher isn’t looking; of six heads huddling over one glowing phone screen playing Boys Over Flowers on blurry, drowsy mornings before the bell rings; of splaying over beds in late-night talks at the boarding school about boys from across the bridge; of group therapy sob sessions over fictional characters and novel endings; of shared Facebook stalking sessions of the latest eye-candy; of traipsing to Starbucks in the humid heat during 1-for-1 promotions paid for by pooling our allowances together; of weird shenanigans in class such as playing “I love you” on Google Translate when we had to discuss Romeo & Juliet and collapsing into laughing fits; of curiously acquainting oneself with the awkwardness of one’s adolescent body in the mirrored walls of the dance studio during Chinese dance classes; of the collective panic before NAPFA 2.4km tests around the red tartan track; of proudly making hilarious iMovies such as “The Hungry Games” (featuring four of us eating gummy worms at midnight), a talk show featuring us acting as To Kill A Mockingbird characters (I was Mayella Ewell), and a student council election video with young, shining, grinning faces; of the girlish excitement at looking older in our yellow blazers, blue flaps and white pencil skirts; of the simple pleasure of fried fish soup, hot milo, Soghurt stamps, school bookstore snacks, an early recess, bright jackets by each club to don over our pure white Hongzi; the novelty of (and subsequent disillusionment with) a sandwich vending machine; and hollering Jay Chou songs onstage.

I remember graduating in a blur of tears, photos, hugs, and that deep tidal wave of immediate nostalgia in the final moments (A Simpler Era furiously waving goodbye on the platform, receding into a speck).

我的青春,谢谢你温柔地来过。

Selina Xu NYGH Council

Lots of love,

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A New York Sunday

12:00am It’s pouring in New York City. Curtains and curtains of rain in the darkness with speckles of light. Apocalyptic streets with the occasional yellow cab and barely any human alive. We are all drenched after dashing out from shelter in Central Park and scuttling up the restaurant’s shuttle. And then in a state of utter confusion, five of us got off from the bus and disappeared into the wet swamp of New York’s night.

12:21am I’m home.

2:08-2:20am Somewhere between these timestamps, I fall asleep.

6:50am My alarm goes off. I need to get up for work because Fareed Zakaria GPS is having a live show. Am so tired I can barely open my eyes. My hand reaches out towards the plush floor chair, pats around, and locates the vibrating phone. Swiftly, the finger hits snooze.

7:04am Bleary-eyed, I stare at my phone. The executive producer has sent out an email that the show is preempted as CNN covers deadly shootings. My first instinct is to go back to sleep but I start reading the news. And then it’s impossible to go back to sleep because on days like this, I just feel suddenly grateful to be alive. In one week, America had 4 deadly shootings: 3 people were shot and killed at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California on Monday, 2 employees were fatally shot at a Walmart store in Mississippi on Tuesday, 20 people were killed on Saturday morning at another Walmart in El Paso on Saturday morning, and in less than thirteen hours after, another 9 people were killed in Ohio. The fragility of life, the unpredictability of mass violence, America’s love-hate relationship with its guns, and just the thought of one of my loved ones being in these situations makes me tremble with fear… I’m just not quite sure fear of what—of the heartbreaking tragedy of death, of the blinding hatred that pushes these shooters to kill innocents, of the unpredictable and almost cruel odds of living, of a country that mourns again and again but does not change anything. And maybe it’s all of these things, along with the smallness of my own matters (like waking up) brought starkly into ironic relief. I text my friend who is also awake.

9:08am We Facetime. Marwah and I literally talk for TWO HOURS AND TWENTY MINUTES. We’ve both barely woken up—I’m wearing an eye-mask like a bandana, she’s crunching on cereal. It starts to feel like a footloose, fancy-free kind of day.

11:47am I start making breakfast. The electric kettle has malfunctioned since a week ago, so I boil water in a pot. It takes forever and I lean against the wall, reading Franny and Zooey—it’s a slim book but I’ve only been reading it whenever I wait for the water to boil and progress is slow. The book is so on-point and so pretentious that it’s funny—it tickles the profound, but I’m not done yet, so who knows?

3:03pm I finish feeding myself and doing laundry. Realize that this is THE last weekend I have in New York this summer. Decide that I should get out of the house.

3:43pm I finish drying my hair. A colleague has recommended Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story at the Guggenheim (which I’ve never been to), and so I’m off.

4:15pm The car cruises up Fifth Avenue. The world keeps turning. People die and people live. Life goes on.

4:20pm I arrive at the Guggenheim, which is full of exterior and interior curves. The walk is a continuous spiral up six stories to the dome (no more zig-zagging museum corridors and labyrinthine galleries).

guggenheim spiral

5:40pm The museum closes.

6:38pm I arrive in Chinatown to meet Mingsi. We eat BBQ pork and roast chicken which makes me fervently lust for Singapore’s char siew rice. Half of the sky is sunny and blue, the other half is grey and menacing. The weather just can’t decide.

7:30pm We talk about what’s going on in Hong Kong while strolling towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Soon we coalesce into the stream of people (mostly tourists) who are swarming onto the magnificent overpass. The sky above is lilac and cotton-candy pink. There’s the smell of sea salt and car exhaust fumes.

8:08pm The sun sinks. The crowd thins at one point. And then it starts pouring again, and I’m all wet—the second day in a row. We are shivering and dripping and chattering nonstop about Moulin Rouge (me, gushing; her, analyzing it from the A&R/music business perspective).

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8:52pm We are cold and still damp, but bubble tea beckons. In the washed-out light, under three cute skull drawings, we sip peach oolong tea and slurp herbal jelly. I somehow know every single song the store is playing and we are the only customers, so I sing to the chorus and the night feels cold at the fingertips but warm inside—and I know I’ve said this, but I’m just thankful for these pulsing, animate moments today.

10:33pm I am actually getting pretty good at taking the New York subway right when I’m about to say goodbye to New York. How do I know I’m getting better? Because I actually get home with NO MISHAPS (or wasted dollars).

11:58pm Jump onto my bed fresh out of the shower.

12:03am Write about a New York Sunday on a New York Monday.

Praying, and with love,

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The Big 21

On May 31, 2019, I turned 21.

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Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner 

The big 21 is sundrenched in Californian heat, pulsing in road trip vibes, and peppered with desert sand and surrealist tree-like cacti with muscled arms (think: the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter). Outside of the window are lonely gas stations, abandoned houses, and then a humongous pink ice cream rupturing the barren, earthy landscape. Glitzy outlets in deserts. 50’s diners in ghost towns. A candy factory by the highway. Wasteland dotted in green thorns.

The big 21 is 1,500km over three days. Being on the car for hours at an end, with my legs up on the seat in front, light filtering through the windows, my fingers shuffling songs on Spotify, basking in the shadow of mountains. Highways nestled in endless expanses of land. So much land that my dad says, America must be blessed. There’s so much history — historical injustice — and circumstance wrapped up in that statement, but as the land whizzes past, it seems true.

The big 21 is perching on a hot, red rock at Grand Canyon West’s Guano Point, wind ruffling my hair, and sun in my eyes. It’s gazing into the canyon abyss on a glass skywalk. It’s the glory of nature’s hand, so close to mankind’s own feats, but those pale in comparison.

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The big 21 is returning from that display of nature to the haven of capitalist excess. It’s being surrounded by temptations in the desert oasis that’s Las Vegas. It’s weaving in and out of the glittering sprawl of casinos, amidst the intensely colored slot machines making cute sounds. It’s marveling at the incredible, gravity-defying feats of Cirque du Soleil acrobats at KÀ (which had multiple VERTICAL combat scenes?! and people strewing rose petals as they make an arc over the air). It’s learning the danger of unchecked desires. It’s beginning to make new principles.

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The big 21 is spending the day at Universal Studios Hollywood (it’s really becoming a tradition! my 20th was at Universal Studios Japan 🥳). It’s licking cotton candy (shaped like Marge’s hair from The Simpsons) off my fingertips, drinking Butterbeer at Hogsmeade, taking my favorite Revenge of The Mummy ride (which I almost know by heart now), seeing the Bates Motel set from Psycho, wearing a bright blue birthday badge and hearing birthday wishes from buoyant voices all day long. It’s feeling like a kid still, and acutely aware and grateful that I’m 21 but always my parents’ baby.  

The big 21 is feeling grateful for all the love and wishes from friends, old and new. Growing up is realizing that some people might only stay with you for a short station in life’s journey but that some people do stay, for a very long time. Time and distance can change things, and somehow I am further apart from friends geographically unlike younger days when we all lived within twenty minutes’ drive. For the friendships that last, I am immensely grateful. For the friends who I’ve met at Harvard, I’m so thankful that college life has been spent by your sides. To everyone who remembered, very blessed to have you in my lives. ❤

The big 21 is about family. Parents who will fly eighteen hours with me across the Pacific to celebrate my birthday. Parents who tolerate my childishness (even when I’m now legally an adult T_T) while treating me like an equal in many matters; who educate me when I make mistakes while always growing and reflecting alongside me; who give me the freedom to fly far away and explore to my heart’s content while opening their arms in wide, warm embrace each time I return to their harbor. 爸比妈咪,我爱您们!💕💕💕

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The big 21 is realizing God’s hand in guiding my life in the smallest, most moving details. At so many points on the West Coast, I’ve realized His wisdom only in retrospect. Thank you, God, for carrying me on Your shoulders. I hope to keep growing into a better version of myself under Your love and to do You proud.

The big 21 is also about this blog, where I pen these thoughts down. I started this in 2017. Now, this is my 57th post. Over 30,000 of you have visited, and many of you have kept reading. My last wish here is to keep growing alongside more of you, to keep writing, and to tell life’s magic in stories that can stay. Thank you for reading the story of my life. ❤

Wishing you, dear reader, all the love and happiness in the world,

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Selina Xu Birthday Cake