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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Confession: “I Was Born A Writer”

I’m not sure that Morocco or France are my countries… No, my country is language. My country is a library.

Have you ever felt utterly exhilarated just listening to someone talk?

I was in a conference room somewhere in the basement of the Center for European Studies. Leila Slimani was in conversation with my Advanced Fiction Professor Claire Messud.

Every single word that tumbled out of her mouth — matter-of-factly, resolutely, spontaneously — was setting off fireworks in my head. 

I was born a writer, she said. I always knew I was going to be a writer. 

When hard things happened in her life, even before she started writing her first novel, a part of her was always thinking, Now I’m getting closer to my destiny. Every moment, life was giving her material that could be digested and transformed into literature. So you’ve survived, now you can write. Everything is literature. 

When she said the word “destiny,” I was falling through time and space. When I was in first grade, the school project for the holidays was to fill out a 10-page activity sheet on our life ambitions. (Think: when I grow up, I want to be x.) In 2005, my dad was a computer scientist with entrepreneurial zeal and my mom was a homemaker armed with an engineering degree and childhood education diploma. I wonder how I knew even then the destiny of those letters as my seven-year-old self painstakingly penciled the word: w-r-i-t-e-r. My most primordial instinct, before socialization.

Then I lost that sense of destiny.

Sitting there, hearing Leila talk about how we reach the unreachable and the unspeakable with respect and tenderness in art, about the sheer freedom of writing (we can write about anyone from the inside with intimacy, even monsters or people we hate), about how writing is never to judge but simply to reveal how a person is like, gave me vertigo.

I don’t know if I have talent but all I know is that if I wasn’t a writer, I would have been a bitter, angry, jealous person, Leila said in response to my question. In writing, I accomplished myself.

She was the silhouette of a 37-year-old I hoped to grow into, what I had let fall in the march of years, and what I so desperately wanted to believe, believe, believe. And to remember.

I was born to be a writer. I am going to be a writer.

Even if some days I can’t write, even when I’ve never written anything close to a novel, life has an arc, a constellation of dots, a thrumming of strings ONLY IF WE CHOOSE TO SEE. This vision, undercut by my own doubts, has been postponed, danced around in conversations, swept aside and buried when it wasn’t achieved in 21 years of existence.

But these years should neither be proof of my inadequacies nor a tractor demolishing intuition. The life I’m living through and the inner life that’s ever-shifting within me are all pieces and strands that will eventually crystallize. Every moment I’m just a step closer. 

Thank you, Leila, for the sheer imprint of your burning-hot conviction. I’ve never met someone this serenely confident in the meaning of their existence. You’ve delivered my sense of destiny back to me.

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Here’s an article about Leila from The New Yorker: The Killer-Nanny Novel that Conquered France.

Here’s a short story by Leila, The Confession. Trigger warning: it’s from the perspective of a rapist.

***

Lots of love on a revelatory day,

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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

My Sophomore Spring Harvard Classes + Some Little Things

Belatedly, wishing all of you: Happy Year of the Pig!!! ❤ ❤ ❤

First things first, things that have served as brilliant reminders when life works weirdly:

1. Turn your FOMO into JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) — I would like to interpret it as loving yourself and realizing that doing nothing or doing less are all relative terms that we use to measure ourselves relative to something external. Though we might often doubt ourselves for not doing enough, not spending time on academics or extracurriculars might mean spending it with your body, your mind, or your soul. (Thank you, Marwah. x) That’s as worthwhile and meaningful. We all have different paths and different destinations along the way. So the balance is to walk my own path while still keeping in sight where I want to go and to make sure I’m keeping pace with my internal calling.

 

2. Maintaining a healthy weight is a marathon not a sprint!!!

3. My classes. Let’s say, Q = “Eating more brings weight gain” — at least, there’s one thing in life that works by the same causal logic as proposition Q: reading and thinking more brings a better version of myself. I’ve slacked off quite a bit this long weekend (on Sunday, I curled up in a corner of Cabot Library and just read romance novels for an entire afternoon). No skimping on readings subsequently, Selina!!!

Now, a bit more about what I’m taking this semester:

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AESTHINT 47 Forbidden Romance in Modern China

I was destined to take this class. Forbidden Romance? Check. China? Check. We’ve studied illicit love letters between Lu Xun and his female student, Yu Dafu’s auto-erotic story of narcissism and patriotism, and the secret love affair between the married darling of modern China and Virginia Woolf’s nephew.

Almost astonishingly, I’ve discovered that women back then had much greater latitude in exploring new forms of intimacy, constructing a new feminine subjectivity in romantic liaisons, and breaking from societal traditions. The many types of love (teacher-student, extramarital, eroticism, older woman-younger man) that flourished then amidst the post-May 4th zeitgeist might be considered taboo right now. Perhaps, the literary history of modern romance is a narrative of regression.

Professor David Wang, who teaches this, is so incredibly earnest and empathetic in his lectures. His lecture on the life of Yu Dafu (a writer who began his life with debauchery and ended up in martyrdom) was the first time I teared up in a lecture.

HIST-LIT 97 Sophomore Tutorial — Cultures of U.S. Imperialism

One of my main reasons for declaring History & Literature is to explore imperialism/postcolonialism and narrative historiography (empire and globalization through fiction) in tandem. We will be reading many authors who I have encountered before (which could be a good or a bad thing): E. M. Forster, Joseph Conrad (!!!), J. M. Coetzee, Wole Soyinka, and Jamaica Kincaid. Thus far, we’ve looked at the British empire as much as the U.S. empire. It’s interesting being the only non-American a class as U.S.-centric as this one, and having grown up with a partially Anglophone education in Singapore that bears the indelible vestiges of British colonialism.

PHIL 33 Ethical Issues in Social, Cultural, and Artistic Representation

Telling other people about my classes this semester has been a mouthful because of Phil 33. Everyone’s response is always a lull, followed by, Say again?

I didn’t actually shop this class, but shopped numerous others. Expectedly, on the Friday of Shopping Week, I once again ended up in utter confusion and disarray about my course cart. After my friend told me in the afternoon about this class, I decided to enroll on a whim. I’m interested in the topics we have been discussing in class (it’s just 8 of us) in the abstract, but not that much in the specific. Right now, we have been analyzing arguments on both sides of the Confederate symbol debate. How do we judge the past? What gives a symbol its racist meaning? How can we correct historical injustice?

Subsequent topics might resonate more:

  • Cultural Property and Cultural Appropriation
  • Stereotypes
  • Ethics and Fictional Representations

PHIL 136 Phenomenology of Lived Experience

Taught by Professor Samantha Matherne!!! (She taught my Kant class last semester and was phenomenal.) Absolutely a blast so far. I wasn’t familiar at all with the word ‘Phenomenology’ before taking this class and still am not quite sure. The central question is: what are the general structures that any experience involves?

We started by looking at treatments of the phenomenology of lived experience in general in texts by Brentano and Husserl (now Heidegger). I’m really excited to later work out the phenomenology of specific modes of lived experience in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Emilio Uranga’s “Essay on an Ontology of the Mexican,” and Sara Ahmed’s “Orientations: Towards a Queer Phenomenology.”

I WILL DO MY READINGS THOROUGHLY!

If any of these ideas interest you, come talk to me about my classes anytime.

4. Happy Lantern Festival! 元宵节快乐~We’ve reached the fifteenth (and the last) day of the Lunar New Year celebrations so fast. There have been some dreary days and afternoons of seemingly incurable malaise, but also some mornings when I sit in class and look at the world in wonder, emerging from a vulnerable conversation into a kinder world.

Even though I haven’t eaten tangyuans (those glutinous balls with black sesame or peanut paste fillings), I had a call with my mom tonight across continents and time zones, which put my life in perspective and filled me with faith. Thank you for always believing in me. You don’t know how much it means to me, 妈咪 ❤ Sending this ball of positive energy to all of you. On cold nights with swirling snow weighing on gaunt treetops, think of this cute picture below.

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Lots of love,

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Sky Lanterns & New Year Resolutions

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Get off the old train, step onto the platform, merging into the stream of bobbing heads flowing along at the speed of a sweating snail.

Squeeze past the human gantry, craning my neck for a look at the sky behind the canopy roof. See the miniature sky in the phone screens held up by the multiple raised hands, the real blue expanse split up, obscured, and obstructed from view by the sheer size of the crowd. There are many gasps of wonder around me. The path reaches the edge of the platform and now widens —

As the crowd cascades left and right, the sky unfurls before me. Baby blue. Rolls of clouds like crinkled leather. Suddenly, from behind a corrugated roof, a lantern rising. From between buildings on two sides of the track, a gap of light. Another lantern-like bird or bird-like lantern. A third. The sky dotted by lanterns rising, faint streams of smoke trailing, embers behind the paper.

Choose a lantern from a catalog of auspicious blessings. Watch it pinned up by worn, quick hands. Pick up a brush and dip it into an ink-splattered bucket.

Scrawl. Scribble. Signature. An imprint of wishes, prayers, and dreams by a railroad. Set against a sky full of lanterns, like the old, wise eyes of clouds watching from up above.

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There’s something reassuring about ritualized actions — writing prayers on paper, letting the lantern rise, watch it soar up and beyond until it’s a tiny dot. It will eventually land somewhere, wedged on a rooftop, fluttering in the mountains, resting on a rock. Yet, at least from what I can witness, its symbolism leaves me full of hope. Apart from the wishes I’ve released up into the sky, penned on all four sides of the sky lantern, I feel compelled to write down my 2019 resolutions after a break of two years (I used to religiously write all my resolutions down on a piece of drawing block and pin it up on my desk).

Some small things:

New Year Resolutions

养生 Health 🍵

  • Eat wisely. Lose another 3 kilograms, which I inevitably gained in Taipei and Singapore. T_T
  • Sleep early before 12:30AM daily. My mom scoffingly informed me of this phrase she read online — “用着最好的护肤品,熬着最晚的夜!” — which is me personified: slathering layers of skincare products on my face while staying up late.

On a side note, I’m bringing jasmine tea leaves(茉莉花茶), chrysanthemum packets(夏桑菊), and my beloved Chia Te pineapple tarts (THE BEST I’VE EVER EATEN) to campus. Guess which is not going to be helpful for my first resolution.

To be really honest, I can understand my parents’ strict standards for my weight. To them, it represents how much self-discipline I have. If it is within my ability to be healthier and to look more attractive, compromising that reeks of laziness and unchecked desire.

责任 Responsibility 🐝

  • Be punctual. Be punctual. Be punctual. I would like to apologize here to everyone who has ever waited for me. New year, new me!
  • Be better at responding to text messages.
  • Every year, this resolution remains the same: time management. Only when I can manage my time well enough to accommodate for emergencies will I have the room in my life for unexpected opportunities and adventures. ❤
  • Full attendance for all classes this year (even if I’m feeling unwell). On the first day of 2019, my dad did a ceremony where he paid my tuition fees for the spring semester. I’m immensely grateful for the freedom my parents have given me to experiment, to choose, and to figure out my dreams at my own pace. I’m going to remember that on the mornings when I can’t get out of bed.

情感 Relationships 👨‍👩‍👧

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跟爸爸妈妈在一起的时光是最快乐的。可是,快乐的时光总是那么的短暂啊。小时候,我觉得好女儿志在四方,向往着成为一个矫健的雄鹰,飞过天南地北,头也不回、勇往直前地闯天下。长大后才愈加发现,家是我最眷恋的港湾。似乎,暮然回首,那一场又一场考试,各式各样的申请,就是为了将我推上离您们越来越远的道路,一瞬间会很想哭。很多人都说父母子女一场就是一段渐行渐远的缘分,可是我坚信我们是例外。感谢您们让我明白成长虽艰难且不可避免,但依旧是奇妙、幸福的。所以,我就算舍不得您们也还是要长大呀。希望2019年第一次的道别我可以坚强,不要再流泪了。

  • To not cry when my parents are sending me off at the airport. Be stronger. Farewells are meant for teaching us how to better reunite.
  • Be a kinder, more peaceful person to friends and also to strangers. Be more considerate to those who love me. Often, we are careless to those who care for us the most. I would like to be less selfish and to get into the habit of thinking from the perspectives of others — make that into a first instinct!
  • Have more faith when God makes me wait. Let me see waiting as an opportunity to build my faith and to understand that there is a reason — 我想,有时候,上帝赐予我的礼物会有意晚一点递到我手中。也许,上帝只是为了更精心地绑一个蝴蝶结,让 ‘等待’ 抚平我的焦躁,好让我有一双更善于识别美好的眼睛。Thank you, Father. ❤

 

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May all your dreams & resolutions come true in 2019 too! 🌠🌠🌠

Lots of love,

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