22

hi dear friends and readers, today i turn 22!!!!

today i feel very very loved and very very blessed. thank you to each of you — you know who you are — who have made it so special. i’ve waited seven years to play this song (so let this be the soundtrack to this blog post):

(taylor swift’s 22)

this day has turned out entirely different from what i expected. this morning, i woke up to my mom blaring a birthday song remix and dancing Zumba moves beside my bed. then, my dad sent me a video montage he made — it started with the airport farewell in August 2017 when i was hugging my best friends goodbye, as i was about to head into an entirely new chapter of my life far away from home. i remember crying when the plane soared into the darkness, a forest of lights diminishing far below, thinking anxiously about the weight of distance, the receding intimacy of everything i had grown up with, and all that the husk of ‘harvard’ promised. would i like my roommates? would i make good friends? would harvard ever match up to the years of yearning?

in the blink of an eye, i’m almost done with college. incredibly, my roommates have become my best friends, i have found friendships that are too precious not to last for life, and harvard no longer seems like an amorphous mass suffused with uncertainty, overblown with desire, and untouchable. instead, it has become the most unexpected incubator of ambitions, the wildest adventure, and the best house of minds. harvard has become a second home and, without doubt, the past three years are some of the best in my 22 years. (on a side note, thinking about this coming fall, i love my time there so much that i would hate to spend my last year far away from the people and energy that makes harvard, harvard)

and somehow, three years later, my friendships from home have stood the test of time. distance hasn’t changed anything. i am so immensely grateful to have so many constants in my life — people who i have grown alongside throughout our most awkward, idealistic, and undaunted years, whose friendships ground me as life throws us up in the air, who i will always hug close to heart. i’ve known some of you for 8, 10, 13 years. others, i’ve only known for 3 years, but i feel like i’ve known you for a lifetime. here’s to many more decades and more memories!! ✨

to my dearest Zhao, who put together a video of birthday wishes from my closest friends that made me cry, THANK YOU! I LOVE YOU. 22 is unforgettable because of what you did. words don’t suffice. thank you for for your bangin’ production skills (better than hollywood), for bringing together people i love across screens and timezones, and for loving me the way you do ❤️

back to my dad’s video montage: it ended with this family photo at the Changi airport, the blocky letters of DEPARTURE looming in the background. for the past three years, every moment spent with my parents has been transient. i was like a bird in flight, stopping to rest in a nest but leaving it behind again and again. on the heels of past birthdays came farewells at airports and in hotel lobbies, as I went off in pursuit of some semblance of adult life, eager to forge independence away from my parents.

today has none of the urgency that laced past birthdays. the past few months in a pandemic — like a clearing in the woods of days — has taught me a new relationship with time. i feel time pass gently, without burn. i feel grateful to the quarantine/circuit breaker, in a twist, for giving me treasured months with my parents. our family is finally all in one place, no goodbyes on the horizon (yet) and feeling the days wash over us with no countdowns. 谢谢最亲爱的爸比妈咪,包容我的任性,尊重我的梦想,鞭策我的成长,并给予我最可贵的陪伴。您们的爱让我勇敢地去探索世界,自由地选择想要的人生,并始终相信自己。因为您们,我看到了什么是理想与奋斗,什么是爱情最美好的样子。长大了的我只想像您们一样潇洒、善良、浪漫、热血,坚持自我。愿二十二岁的我依旧能让您们骄傲,不辜负您们的信任。您们是最伟大的父母。爱您们!!! 🐲🐯🐵

since the semester ended two weeks ago, i have been in a state of torpor, mostly indulging in leisure. i love idleness (and am a proud proponent of its value in creative realms) but i also know everything is only good in moderation. for the first time in a long while, i now have full autonomy over my time with no external structure or authority. i have no one to answer to. i have no goal that is imposed; i have to articulate it in action. the first few months of being 22 is free for me to define. i’m honestly not that great in terms of self-discipline (procrastination has been the scourge of my life), so needless to say, my biggest fear is that i will emerge at the other side of summer without having done anything. my public goal, stated here, is to draft another 60,000 words for my code-named work in progress, IDOL 2047. 🌝 this means 20,000 words per month from june to august. i will be tracking my progress on this blog. 💪 i’m thankful to have the space and time to think and write. 希望我对得起自己!

to God, thank you for always guiding me with love, for surrounding me with people who inspire me, and for teaching me how much i don’t know but giving me the pen to write an answer on life’s canvas. because of You, i’ve realized that everything in my life happens for a reason. when so many things are spinning out of control, thank You for giving me the strength, the peace, and the faith to carry on. i submit myself to Your wisdom and arrangement. in these times of trial, when i see one set of footprints in the sand, i know You are carrying me.

to each of you who read this blog, thank you for stopping by, staying, and breathing in my words, however raw or unembellished. this is my 84th post. not including this post, i have cumulatively written 88,665 words on this blog. (the length of a novel!) i can’t imagine having this much to say about anything, and yet, time works its magic. each snippet, easily forgotten in memory’s dark chambers, are preserved in this tiny corner of the internet. this blog is my time capsule. i have never persisted in writing anything for this long, neither diary nor blog (the last one lasting for 880 days). thank you for being part of my life’s stories. x

from 22-year-old me, with love,

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. ❤️

marwah and selina 1

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)

IMG_6775

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 marwah mamma mia

MAMMA MIA! ❤

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).

rbsh

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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