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,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

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 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,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

 

[Late night thoughts] October is unraveling…

First things first: I’m listening to Lana Del Rey’s The greatest on loop.

No other song has been able to put me more immediately in the mood of my novel than these guitar strums. The tint of melancholia conjures to mind the moment of nearly unbearable light, the breath right before sunset.

On Sunday, I was padding around my room in socks. A tragedy would ensue. I hereby reconstruct the scene for you:

I lounge on my purple floor chair. I get up to grab my phone on the desk, slightly out of reach. My fingers graze the Le Petit Prince phone case. The next thing I know, the world tilts on its axis. My socked foot slips. My weight bears down entirely on my left ankle. My phone lands next to me. But all I can think of is: Holy, I’ve not been in this much pain. Ever. 

For a few moments I don’t even breathe.

Two minutes or twenty minutes later, the blinding tide subsides. My fingers fumble for my phone and I play The greatest. My nails dig into the soft flesh of my palms. The world quivers, but there’s no demolition. I’m not pulverized or crucified. Hell, it’s only a sprain. But as the music fills the heady space, and a foggy, forlorn voice washes over me, I am baptized.

***

Let me indulge in melodrama now that we’re halfway through the Fall.

At first, just a loose thread or two. Now, with that fall, I might have wrested a thread from its knots and the entire tapestry comes apart at the seams.

My parents say, “Don’t look at things as a series of unfortunate events. They aren’t related. If you ponder one thing, holding it alone on your hand, you see the way it glints under the light. If you pick and choose all the bad things and gather them in a pile, you will feel overwhelmed with the sheer thought of that soggy mass.”

I guess they are talking about silver linings. Or compartmentalization. Or seeing a glass half full.

But I just feel lost. Everything is at a standstill or hazily in progress. My procrastination never gets better. My novel doesn’t get written. I have no idea what I’m doing next summer. I fall asleep at 4am. I received a bad paper grade. I submitted two things late. I’m actually on crutches for the first time ever in my life.

I want to pinch each of them and dangle it before me. Murmur to it fiercely: Disappear! Run far far away.

Still, right now, I’m humming and suddenly in a good mood.

Weird.

sprained ankle

Good night, with love,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

 

 

My Junior Fall Harvard Classes!

Vietnam Ha Long Bay Cruise

Hello folks, we’re entering week 4 of Junior Fall?! Summer feels like yesterday — banana shirt days in flip-flops, lounging in the shade reading novels, and smearing the ring of condensation on my fingers when sipping iced tea/milk green tea with golden bubbles/pineapple smoothies (happy sigh).

My life has never been this routine and packed — classes, readings, dining hall meals, exercise. I’ve picked up running again. Weaving between Georgian buildings in the darkness, feet pounding on empty pavements, a flash of headlights, the smell of wet grass, a sliver of the night chilly between my slick fingers, my figure solitary between marble sky and solid earth.

For the first time ever, I’m taking 6 courses in a semester (one of them being an Independent Study) but still, my schedule looks deceptively doable — continuing my streak of no classes on Fridays! But, quite honestly, I’ve been feeling like I’m on a knife-edge. One misstep or a brief surrender to procrastination, and the wheel throws me off. Keeping my balance precipitously on the tightrope of discipline. It’s hard to finish all the readings but I really do want to.

Screenshot 2019-09-11 at 9.08.03 PM

IGA 211/GOV 1796: Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press — Graham Allison, David Sanger, Derek Reveron

Piqued by a summer immersed in international news at CNN, I decided to take my first Government class at Harvard (eons ago in high school, I once took Geopolitics at NUS).  It’s held at the Harvard Kennedy School, with a small class that features a mix of Kennedy school students, National Security Fellows, cross-registered students, and undergrads.

The class is memo-style with national security cases on likely real-world scenarios ranging from North Korea’s ICBM tests to Chinese intervention in Hong Kong to Homeland Security and immigration to cybersecurity. The three professors offer different views/approaches to each of these security challenges. One fascinating dimension is the press: How does domestic press coverage inform/intrude national security decision making? How does social media (Twitter, for example) transform national security strategies? (Think: Trump.)

Fun fact: PM Lee Hsien Loong was a former student in this course (yes, it has been running for a long, long while).

HIST 14V: Walter Benjamin — Peter Gordon

My first History department course. 😳 (This is quite the semester of experimentation.) I still feel slightly out of my element due to the European focus of the class. Sorel on the myth of the general strike? Scholem on Jewish mysticism? Postlapsarian wha—?

But, I’m persisting. We are about to read Benjamin’s Origin of the German Trauerspiel this coming week and it’s apparently one of his most difficult pieces of writing. Let’s see how that goes.

Why am I taking this class? I’ve previously encountered Walter Benjamin only in snippets, sporadically in different courses across departments – for instance, “The Task of the Translator” in my freshman seminar on the creative work of translating, and his writings on the flâneur in Global Fictions. My academic interests lie in cosmopolitanism and the diasporic individual in the age of globalization/postcolonialism as well as at the intersections of phenomenology and literary subjectivity. Time to trace the roots of these ideas to one of the fathers of cosmopolitan thought.

If you’d like to give Benjamin a shot, here’s a short essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.”

ENGLISH CAFR: Advanced Fiction Workshop: Writing this Present Life — Claire Messud

My 4th creative writing workshop at Harvard. So excited! The first workshop I’ve ever been to in my life was Intro to Fiction with Claire, in the fall of 2017. I still remember when I was first rejected for the class and then miraculously got off the waitlist (Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)) — life works in mercurial, magical ways. Somehow, I’m just glad that I’m still writing, frantically, confessionally, unabatingly. 

That Freshman Fall workshop ended up completely altering my college trajectory (and aspirations). While before I had jotted down snippets in notebooks or started too many novel drafts left unfinished, I wrote my first full-fledged short story (posted as a Valentine’s Day short story on the blog: April, I Arrive on The Shores of Your Love) in that course. It only sank in then that ‘writer’ had contours that I could touch and maybe eventually fill.

This semester, I’m working a projected longer work. It’s a speculative fiction piece about celebrity worship, mass culture, and the future of media in 2035. If you have thoughts on this or some wild ideas, or if you just want to orate about a futuristic world, GRAB A MEAL WITH ME AND TALK TO YOUR HEART’S CONTENT.

HIST-LIT 98: History & Literature Junior Tutorial — Catherine Nguyen

There’s just three of us and our tutor. We create our own syllabus collectively — each of us decides the readings/topics for around 3 weeks. I like the autonomy but the fluidity of structure is quite unprecedented. For my weeks, I’m thinking of these topics:

  • Language and Exile (Nabokov? Pnin? Imaginary Homelands?)
  • Migration and Intimacies (Wong Kar-wai? Eileen Chang?)
  • Refugees, Displacement, and Transnational Futures (Exit West? Viet Thanh Nguyen?)

What would you study, if given the opportunity to craft your own syllabus?

PHIL 97: Philosophy Sophomore Tutorial — Rachael Goodyer

We are studying the concept of dignity through its historical foundations (four influential traditions include: the Stoic, the Catholic, the Kantian and the 19th century German), dignity’s relationship to human rights, and dignity’s discussion in medical ethics. Dignity is embedded in political and legal discourse, so the readings cover many genres (legal cases, philosophical texts, literature, political declarations/treatises).

Is dignity a ‘squishy, subjective notion’ as Steve Pinker calls it? Or is it essential to the conception of human rights? Ah, how hard it is to define dignity; how omnipresent it is in our lives.

Independent Study — David Wang

I’m tentatively working on a love story set in future Hong Kong in a time of crisis and collapse, in the vein of ‘Love in A Fallen City’ (倾城之恋).

After a long, wonderful conversation with Professor Wang about speculative realism, the Hong Kong protests (the city is a crucible of capitalist & socialist forces), post-humanism, and the biopolitics of the state, I’m brimming over with possibilities and the daunting thought that every story — no matter how outrageous — needs to be grounded in the conservative/ordinary/minute human concerns. The political cannot be brushed aside.

***

Read about my classes in previous semesters:

My Sophomore Spring Harvard Classes + Some Little Things

My Sophomore Fall Harvard Classes! (ft. Life)

My Freshman Spring Harvard Classes

Lots of love,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM

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,

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.16.46 PM