My End-of-School-Year Lists

I once asked my writing teacher what to do when I don’t know what to write about. He told me I should make a list.

I always envisioned my end of the year post as a deep riveting essay reflecting on the past academic year. However, as I finishing scrapping together my last project report, I realized that I’m either too burned out for deep reflective essays or don’t actually have deep reflective thoughts about the year. Instead, in an attempt to keep my New Year’s Resolution, I will make some lists. A list of things I’ve learned. A list of things I’m thankful for. Because as long as you have lessons to learn and things to be thankful for, the year was not a waste.

Things I’ve Learned

  • Sometimes, it’s important to know when to give up.

As a second year PhD student, I ambitiously caught myself in projects that were very theoretical and technical in fields I am unfamiliar with. Sadly, it turned out I simply can’t catch up with the field in a short quarter or, like my ego likes to claim, simply not interested enough to put in the time needed.

After spending numerous Sunday afternoons struggling with my friend over game theory models and a Saturday from 9am to 9pm trying to get my multi-armed bandit algorithm to run, I was forced to admit that perhaps these projects won’t be the success and potential publications that I’ve childishly imagined.

It’s okay to admit that some things just aren’t for you. There are many projects out there and I still have over half of my PhD left to find them.

  • Learn to time manage, but don’t beat yourself up over wasting time.

This piece of advice actually came from my professor. Frustrated with my lack of progress on research, I asked her feedback on what I was doing wrong. Her answer was much more forgiving than I expected. She told me that every graduate student at some point wastes over half of their week away. And it’s okay, because it happens to everyone. Don’t stress about it, just make sure it doesn’t happen every week.

We can work on better time management skills next year,” she reassured me.

  • Exercise is important.

This one is quite cliché so I won’t explain myself. But clichés are clichés for a reason. I shall just cite that I noticed an increase in productivity in the weeks that I exercised regularly. Of course, don’t over-exercise either.

  • Blocking off time for rest and fun is also important.

In undergrad, I frequently sacrificed sleep and fun to finish homework assignments. I told myself I shouldn’t do that in graduate school. However, whenever finals season come and the pressure of final projects hit me, I fall back into my undergrad ways. Maybe it’s signs of old age, or perhaps my older and wiser self is simply more aware, I’m completely unproductive when I’m tired and stressed. Instead of actually reading a paper, I spend over an hour rereading and rereading the introduction because my brain refuses to process information. Typically, a couple hours pass before I realized I need a nap or a break.

Which relates back to my first lesson, sometimes, it’s important to give up.

Of course, all of these lessons are easier said than done. But hopefully this post will serve as a reminder for me in the coming year.

Things I’m Thankful For

  • Reconnecting with old friends.

I’ve always been bad at keeping up with people. However, this year, perhaps because the west coast is a popular vacation spot or we finally started missing each other after a few years of break, I’ve been meeting up with many old friends from high school and undergrad.

Surprisingly, despite all changes in our lives, we seemed to pick up exactly where we had left off, teasing and annoying each other like we always did. No matter what status, lifestyle, job, or etc. changes, they were suddenly the same people I struggled over late night psets with in the dorm room kitchen, cooked dinners with for our co-op house, and bonded over midnight truth-or-dares with on the campus lawn.

Perhaps things haven’t changed as much as I thought.

  • Building new community.

First year was a struggle in terms of community; it was difficult juggling adjusting to grad school life, to Bay Area life, and making new friends. This year, however, I’ve felt much more settled and at home. I have found a church, bible study, and campus fellowship that I love. I’ve gotten to know people in my department better. I’m getting along wonderfully with my roommates.

To my friends, old and new, I truly appreciate your friendships.

  • Understanding my professors better.

After sticking with me over my year of unfinished projects and endless soul-searching for new projects, it finally sunk in that my professors probably aren’t going to abandon me for other brighter and more efficient PhD students. I have always been mildly scared or intimidated by my professors. However, as I got to know them better, I realized that despite all their awe-inspiring achievements, they are people, just like us. Luckily for me, my professors are caring and insightful individuals who are ready to give advice as long as I have the courage to ask them for it.

  • Family.

This one is self-explanatory. I’m always thankful for the ones who support me and encourage me despite how annoying I am. Thank you, mom, for being my negative emotion dump throughout the year. Although you don’t always give the best advice, thank you very much for listening.

  • God.

Last but definitely not least. A list cannot encompass God’s blessings over the past year, for He was the one who taught me how to give thanks in the first place. So, I shall just say, thank you very much for your blessings and guidance and I hope that everything I do will give thanks to you.

“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Colossians 3:15-17

The Winds of April/干脆面

A rough translation

The winds of April are cool and fresh.

The noon of April adds a touch of warmth to the wind.

 

Lunch time has not yet arrived, but I’m already hungry. Reaching out to the edge of my desk, I picked up a bag of barbeque flavored Xiaohuanxiong Crispy Noodles, a common snack from China. I shook the bag and crushed the dried noodles. Then, I opened the package, took out the seasoning bag, and sprinkled it over the crumbed noodles. Finally, I grasped the bag close and gently shook it until the seasoning has covered the surface evenly.

After a few shakes, the snack was ready. I opened the bag, the smell of the barbeque seasoning wafted in my face. Grasping a handful of the crumbled crispy noodles, I stuffed it into my mouth. Dry, crunchy, mixed with the ever-familiar barbecue flavoring, tasting like it has always tasted. I grinned quietly to myself.

 

Whenever I leave Beijing, I always remember to buy a pack of Xiaohuanxiong Crisy Noodles. Although it’s far from being Beijing’s (least of all China) famous snack, it was my number one favorite snack as a kid. I practically ate it every day in elementary school; to the extent that my classmates made fun of me every time I walked in with a bag of crispy noodles. When we moved to the US, there was nowhere that sold crisp noodles. I would slowly eat the meager bags I had brought over from Beijing. Every once in a while, I would pretend to be mildly melancholy as I slowly ate tiny handfuls of the crispy noodles.

Of course, it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t continue eating crispy noodles every day. Amid the rapid price inflation of Beijing, a snack that still costs a little over one yuan after more than a decade is probably not made with the best ingredients. After elementary school, I would only return to Beijing every three to four years. The days where my classmates laughed at me for binge eating crispy noodles have melted away like the snow in December.  In fact, I have long stopped loving crispy noodles. Perhaps all I’m tasting is just a memory; memories of childhood, memories of the Beijing in those days. People say that the world has become smaller. But I think the world is still very big. China and the US are still worlds apart. There was an online quote that my mom told me as a child (roughly translated), “The United States has beautiful mountain, good water, but everyone is lonely. China is dirty, messy, but everyone is happier.” After more than a decade, the quote is still holds some truths. In America, the skies are always clear and blue, a walk or jog around the park is refreshing and energizing. In Beijing, the skies are always foggy, a walk down the streets may cause you to cough and sneeze for the rest of the day.

When I am bored and slowing chewing on the crispy noodles, I sometimes speculate about what would have happen had my parents stayed in China. What would my world had looked like? No moving, no feeling of being a foreigner, no cultural barriers to overcome. However, would Beijing had always been what I have imagined it to be? Bustling with energy, filled with good food and good company. Would we really be laughing and joking through the day? Of course, I know the answer, that is: the grass on the opposite side will always be greener. The Beijing in my daydreams will only be in my daydreams. After all, aren’t many people in China hoping to move the US, to the land of opportunities? Perhaps just like the crispy noodles. Perhaps what I’m nostalgia for is no longer Beijing, nor is it childhood, but the time where everything was simple and carefree. Perhaps what I’m remembering is the time when I can just sit on the grandma’s bed, eating dried noodles with one hand and reading a novel I had just borrowed from the children’s library in the other. Yet that time, hasn’t it also melted away like the snow in December?

 

A familiar “click” sound came from my computer. My manager had sent me new tasks for the afternoon. It was still during the work day. I sealed my bag of half-eaten crispy noodles with rubber band. Unhealthy things should probably not be finished in one go. After a few mouthfuls of tea, the barbeque taste has long faded. There is still a lot to do today, and I’ve already started going over the new dataset my manager sent me.

The winds of April blew in through the open window, as fresh and gentle as it has always been.


 

四月的风,凉爽清新。

四月的正午日,让那风中又添了一丝暖意。

 

午饭时间尚未到,但已有些饿了。我把手伸向了桌旁的那包烤肉味小浣熊干脆面。 熟练的,我先吧包里的面碾碎,把包装打开,拿出里面的调味袋,洒在碎了的面上,然后抓好包口,轻轻的摇一摇袋子,好让调料的味道均匀的盖在面上。

摇了几次后,觉得差不多了。我满怀期待地打开了那包小浣熊干脆面,淡淡的烤肉香扑面而来。我抓起一把碎了的面,塞到了嘴里。干干的,脆脆的,那熟悉的烤面味混合着稍变了的的烤肉味,还是那样的回味无穷。我悄悄地笑了。

 

每当离开北京前,当然得记得买一包干脆面。虽说离什么北京(或中国)著名小吃还差得远呢,干脆面可说是我小时候的第一零食最爱。小学的时候,几乎是天天一包。喜欢到什么程度?到班上的同学都觉得好笑,略略拿我和干脆面开玩笑。记得后来我们搬到了美国,没有地方再买干脆面,我之好慢慢地吃我从北京带来的那几袋。每次只一小口一小口地嚼碎,吃完后,伤感不已。

当然,没能继续一天天地吃干脆面对我定是个好事。在北京物价飞速上涨的时期,十多年后依然是一块钱一包的零食自然不是什么好东西。上了初中后,每三四年才会回一次北京,我那因嗜吃干脆面而被同学笑的时候已经如腊月的雪,化得无影无踪了。

 

其实,我早已不爱吃干脆面了。我吃的只是一种回味。回忆童年,回忆那儿时的北京。

人们都说,世界变小了。 但我觉得,这世界还是很大的,中国和美国,依然是天壤之别的两个世界。用一句妈妈小时候告诉我的网上名句概括一下,“美国是好山,好水,好寂寞。中国是好脏,好乱,好快活。”十多年后,依然如此一针见血。美国的天,蓝的透彻,下午阳光下在街上散步跑步,健身清肺。北京的天,时儿灰雾蒙蒙,上街散步可能回来时会咳得上气不接下气。

当我闲暇无聊,慢慢嚼着干脆面时,有时会想一想,如果当时爸妈留在了中国,我的世界会是什么个样子。没有搬家,没有外地人的感觉,没有融不进去的文化。但在北京,真的会像我想的那样,热热闹闹,有好吃的,有好玩的,嘻嘻哈哈,其乐融融吗?

其实答案我是知道的,那就是:对面山坡的草总是会更绿些。白日梦里的中国终究只是在白日梦里。多少中国人不是还向往美国的干净清高,和那满地的机会。

可能,如同那干脆面,我留恋的也已不是北京,也已不是童年,而是那无忧无虑,天真无邪的时光。留恋的是当我坐在奶奶家向阳房的炕上,一手吃着干脆面,一手读着刚刚从小庄少儿图书馆借来的小说的时候吧。但那时光,何不也如那腊月的雪?

 

这时,电脑传来了熟悉的“咚咚”声。一看,老板又给发来了任务。现在还是上班时间。我用皮筋封上了刚吃了一半的干脆面。不健康的东西,最好不要一次吃完了。

几口茶水后,口中的脆面烤肉味早已淡去。今天的事还有很多。我已开始过目老板发来的新数据。

四月晌午的风,透着窗子吹了进来,还是那样的清爽柔和。

Guilin, China – A Photo Essay

There is a saying in China: “桂林山水甲天下” – loosely translates to “Guilin is the most beautiful place under heaven.” The scenery of Guilin has probably inspired many of the quintessential Chinese landscape watercolor paintings. In China’s elementary school textbook, there is an essay about the beautiful mountains and water of Guilin. I remember reading it. Apparently, my mom remembers reading it, too.

This spring break, I finally decided to visit Guilin. It’s truly one of the most picturesque and charming places in China. Perhaps not the most impressive, the most awe-inspiring, or the most unique. But it has this quaint and delicate beauty about it, that makes you nod and say, “Wow, 桂林山水甲天下.”

Our first stop in Guilin was Yangshuo. The second part to the above saying is “阳朔山水甲桂林” –  “Yangshuo is the most beautiful place in Guilin.” We caught a glimpse of the beautiful mountains on our drive from Guilin City to Yangshuo. Each mountain seems to have its own personality and shape, and together they flow into the distance like ripples across the water. Along the road, the locals were selling freshly picked clementine and kumquats, their regional specialty.

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The must-do in Yangshuo is taking a boat ride down the famous Li River. We got on a tour boat and sailed to probably the most famous picture spot in Guilin. (See featured photo. It’s the scenery on the back of the 20 Yuan bill.)

The next morning, we took a raft down the river. The morning air was refreshing and cool; the water was tranquil and clear; the trees and bushes leaned comfortably against the river bank; the mountains faded in and out in the distance.

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On the other end of the river, there was a 600-year-old bridge. Still standing. Covered in luscious vines and greenery that all work to hide its age.

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The villages around Guilin kept the same tranquility as its mountains and rivers.

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At night, when you head back to the nearest city, you can take a walk down the bustling streets of West Street (Xi Jie). A commercial center in downtown Yangshuo, many tourists gather for food, shows, shopping, and bars. As the night continued, the street musicians and artists began to strum their guitar along the alleys and bars.

 

 

The next stop in Guilin is the Longji Terrace Fields. Situated deep in the mountains, the farmers slowly carved the mountains into terraces full of crops. It was too difficult to wonder how many generations, how many people, and how much effort it must have taken. Instead, I decided to climb onto the fields and enjoy the amazing feat they have left behind.

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At night, we stayed on the terrace fields. In one of the houses built on stilts along the fields. On the side, the villagers were looking to build more, a testament to the growing tourist economy in Guilin.

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The last stop in Guilin would be Guilin City itself. The city was designed to integrated the beauty from its surrounding mountains and rivers. Just walking along the parks and lakes of the city, you can enjoy Guilin City’s world-class greenway system (if it can still be called just a city greenway). It was misty that day, so my photos will not do it justice. But just go, take a long walk, and don’t forget to also stroll along when night falls.

 

 

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Now, what do you think about the old Chinese saying: “桂林山水甲天下” – “Guilin is the most beautiful place under heaven”? 🙂

How a flat tire made my day – A Chinese New Year Story

I was never one to believe in superstitions, so when my mom called to make sure I wore red for the Year of the Dog, I brushed her aside.

“Make sure to wear red! Red bracelet, red clothes, and don’t forget the socks!” she repeated.

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll wear it.” for the first day at least.

 

“In Chinese folklores, your zodiac year is bad luck for you,” I explained to Anne at my Chinese New Year potluck dinner. “That’s why you are supposed to wear red. Though it can’t be red that you bought. It has to be given to you by someone else. See, here is the red bracelet my mom got me,” I laughed as I showed her the red string bracelet my mom especially ordered for this occasion. It’s at least a fun Chinese New Year fact to tell.

 

The next morning, “January 2” of the Lunar calendar. I woke up unexpectedly early with a mild headache; one of those mornings where you can’t go back to sleep despite how tired you are. I looked at my phone and groaned; it was 7:30am.

I groaned. The original plan was to sleep in and then head to Kirsten’s place for brunch in San Jose. But that’s at 11am. Hence, I decided to be healthy and productive and actually go to my 8am yoga class.

I pulled on my yoga clothes and headed out. The morning was chilly, so I quickly got into the car. Not that I normally check my tires anyway. In fact, I’m not even sure if it happened before I last parked or that morning. I’ve just turned onto Serra St. when I realized that the car was acting weird. It was consistently veering to the right. That’s odd. I decided to check my tire pressures and my eyes widened. The front right wheel was at 1 PSI. Huh. It was mild denial.

There were cars waiting for me at the light so I turned onto El Camino Real before pulling over. And there it was. The tire was completely flat; the metal frame was rubbing the road. Guess I’m not going to yoga. I didn’t have my phone, so my only option was to drive home. I cringed as I became acutely aware of the metal wheel grinding against the pavement and prayed that everything will be okay.

 

I debated what could be done as I sat down at the kitchen counter. It was 8am on a Saturday, and I had no idea who would be awake. So, I called my parents. After a confused discussion (“What happened?!” “Oh, not sure. I think it’s the construction.” “What did I say about your zodiac year? Did you wear red?” “I’m wearing the bracelet!” I wore black.), my dad told me that I should put on the spare tire, which was apparently in my trunk, and head to Costco.

“Your best option is to find someone to put on the spare for you,” he said.

Great. It was still only 8:30am.

I wondered if I should still go to brunch. Anne was also going too so maybe I can get a ride from her and worry about the tire later. I decided to text her (“Hey, I may need a ride. Got a flat tire…”). But then I remembered that I also planned to study for my qualification exams with Tina on campus at 2pm. And I need my car for other things. Maybe I shouldn’t go after all…But I already made the banana bread…Maybe I just won’t study…But I really should…Or I probably won’t be able to do anything today, who knows how long it will take to fix a flat tire.

A message popped up on my phone. To my surprise, it was Anne, “Oh no! And yeah, maybe 10:40?”

“Well, I may not go. I should probably fix my car…” I replied. “Do you know how to switch out a flat by chance?” Doesn’t hurt to ask.

“Do you have a spare?”

“I think so.”

“Ok. I have a jack and tools. Driving over now.”

I was elated! I couldn’t believe I found someone to help me so quickly, especially at 8:30am. I uttered a quick praise to God before rushing downstairs.

Anne lived down the street so she was here in minutes. She was in workout clothes and looked ready to help me with my car.

“That was perfect timing,” she told me. “I just got back from my morning run and you texted me right before I was going to take a shower.”

Anne was a pro at switching out a flat. I tried helping her the best I could and within 30 minutes, we had the spare tire tightened and the flat tire in the trunk.

“You are such a hero!” I have her a huge hug. I still couldn’t believe it was barely a quarter past 9.

 

“Do you still want a ride? You shouldn’t drive with a spare on the highway,” she asked as she was heading back.

“Oh. I think I’ll head to Costco. But I should still make it. See you at brunch!” It was only 9:15am after all. I have almost 2 hours. I can head to the Mountain View Costco; it’s on the way to Kirsten’s place.

 

However, I soon learned I’m a bit too optimistic. By the time I made it to Costco and checked-in my car at the Tire Center, it was a little past 10.

“How long do you think it’ll take?”

“About 2-3 hours. There are about 10 people in front of you.” My jaw dropped. Costco had only been open for about 30 minutes; I guess more people get up in the morning to fix flats than I thought.

There weren’t many options and I really didn’t want to sit at Costco. Anne is heading this direction soon. I curtly ignored my brain’s suggestion that I’m being that annoying friend and decided to call her.

“Hey, Anne! Um…would you mind picking me up from Costco? They told me it’s gonna be a 2-3 hour wait…You know, on the way to Kirsten’s.”

Anne is a hero and said yes immediately.

“I’m running a little late so be there closer to 11.”

“Thank you so much!”

As I hung up the phone, I finally started to calm down. Maybe today won’t be so bad. Maybe the Year of the Dog isn’t so bad either.

 

In fact, the day turned out amazing. It was probably the most efficient and spontaneous morning I’ve ever had. I ended up doing my grocery shopping as I waited for Anne at Costco. I made it to brunch, ate delicious food, hung out with old friends, made new friends, got my flat tire fixed, got a car washed along the way since it was yellow from pollen, and even made it back in time to study. All before 2:10pm.

In an odd way, the flat tire made my day easier. As someone who constantly tries to optimize my schedule, it was liberating to relinquish my control on where I should be at what time and then just watch everything magically fall into place. Even accomplishing more than I could have ever planned. It was a miracle from God.

So, there is my February story. I’m not sure this story has a morale, or even a lesson (except, never take Serra St./road with construction!). Perhaps they were just a set of lucky coincidences, just like the Year of the Dog probably isn’t bad luck. It all depends on what you want to believe.

Irrelevant of my opinion on Chinese folktales, I decided to wear my red bracelet for now; it’s a thoughtful present after all. However, even if my zodiac year is bad luck, I trust that God will transform it for good. There is no need to worry.

Great Expectations

I guess I originally wanted to write this for my sister, but I’ve come to realize it’s for me just as much as it’s for her.

January might as well be called the month of Great Expectations.

This particular story of expectation began with an advisor meeting. Actually, it started many advisor meetings ago, but let’s go with this one. My first meeting in January.

Last summer, I started a new research project. It’s a fascinating topic – cutting-edge, complicated, and publishable – everything I wanted in a research project. The project worked great at first. I made considerable progress. My advisor was happy. I was happy, especially since we just started working together. But as the story goes with many research projects, it hit a bug. At least I think it’s a bug. It could be many other things, but then again, I also tried many things. After bouncing around this bug for about one month, I went on Winter Break. It must have been the magic of Christmas and the New Years that made me believe my project will work when I get back in January. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

 

And that’s when our first meeting of the New Year starts.

“So, I’ve tried many things,” I launched headfirst into my explanations. “I tried running with these three mean squared error estimates. However, none of these things gave me the expected results. Then, I tried changing the algorithm parameters, that did not have a significant effect. I believe it’s a problem with our metric for mean squared error.

However, then I ran the tuning for twice as long and it worked better, so our mean squared error metric might be working? I think that perhaps we should look into this metric and see if it’s right…”

I paused for breath.

“Ok? Have you worked out the metric to determine if it’s actually correct?”

“Oh, well. I don’t know. I think it’s doing something weird.”

“How have you looked into it? Have you re-derived the equations?”

“Um…I’m not sure how I would do that…”

“Go back to first principles and think about what you are testing.”

“Yes, I’ve tried, but I’m not sure…”

“Don’t act helpless. You can do it. Now…”

To save myself from embarrassment, I will just summarize by saying the meeting did not go well. She must think I’m an idiot, was my only thought as I walked out that day. I was distressed. I felt like a complete failure, though I don’t even know what I failed. I spent the rest of the day masking my emotions to my office mates and secretly complaining to my friends.

 

“My project doesn’t work and my advisor thinks I’m stupid,” I must have said this to the Nth person by the time I grabbed lunch with Siri the next day. Siri is a post-doc friend, who, by definition, is very wise.

“Of course not,” She scoffed as she poured the dressing over her Aztec salad.

“Of course yes,” I recited a list of stupid things I said during the meeting.

“Research is hard. People always hit bugs, and advisors are used to it. Don’t be afraid.”

“Really? I don’t know…”

What was I afraid of anyways? Perhaps it was then that I realized. I wasn’t just stressed over my project. I was afraid of failing my advisor, failing some unspecified expectation she had for me and I for myself. Perhaps the rare stories of students being ditched by their advisors secretly haunt me, and I became afraid of my expectations of her expectations.

“I’ve gone in circles before, too. It’s quite common in research. Research problems are a little like mountains. Sometimes, you see a mountain and wonder if there is a hack around it. However, there isn’t and you are forced to climb the mountain.”

I earnestly nod in agreement.

“But don’t worry, it might not be so bad after all. When you start climbing it, you might realize the mountain wasn’t as tall as you thought; it could have a hill after all.”

She forked her salad and smiled encouragingly at me. I wanted to avoid the mountain; but deep down I knew she was right. Sometimes, there is no shortcut and I must learn to climb.

If research was the mountain, then expectation is the clouds that veiled the top of the mountain, madding it appear insurmountable. It was the clouds that paralyzed me.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and stared at the clouds to go away.

 

Two weeks later, when I met with my advisor again, I’ve partially re-derived the equations.

“I believe they are theoretically the same but different in practice.”

“If your numbers come up different, that means there is a coding error.”

“Oh, I thought it’s because the theory only worked theoretically.”

“There is either a bug or the derivation is wrong. You can’t have both.”

“I thought…”

She took a postcard from her desk and started re-deriving the equations for me.

“Here, you are very close, but you need to keep going. Trust your mathematics. This is the one line of derivation you needed. A lack of confidence prevented you from getting from this line to the next. Have confidence in yourself. You can solve this.”

She smiled as she handed me the postcard with that one line of derivation.

“Thank you.” Really, thank you.

I looked up at the mountain and noticed that the clouds have cleared away enough for me to continue.

 

So, my story about expectation ends. For now. I would like to note that advisor is actually very nice and the clouds were probably only in my head. But just because it’s in my head, doesn’t make it any less real.

Expectations take on many forms in many places. If the mountain was a desert, expectation would be a beautiful mirage; it creates an illusion of a place far away, shades us to the path we should take, and paralyzes us with its beauty. Be it a fog, a cloud, or a mirage, these phenomena blind us, controls us, and make us lose sight of reality. They encase us, worry us, and take away our confidence and freedom.

As January comes to a close, I hope you, too, can rise above your expectations. Expectations you have for yourself or expectations you except from friends or loved ones. Close your eyes and will the clouds away.

Yet clouds are funny things. Today they will disappear, but tomorrow they could be back.

Next time I am paralyzed by the clouds, please help me clear them away.

 

“Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:34

p.s. Ironically, this post is the result of a New Year’s Resolution – “#N: Write one blog post a month.” At least for now, I’m standing by it.

To Double Major or Not

Have you ever had a stranger who affected your life without intending to? That cheerful camp counselor who brings a smile to your face with a silly joke during your moments of depression. The girl who walks into your taxi and engages in a riveting conversation about love and life. Many times, they are strangers who remain strangers, who you stumble upon during moments of doubt or depression, who tilt your perception just enough for the sun to hit your eyes again. For a story set in college, who more fit to play that character than a wise professor.

***

Fall of junior year, after almost 2 years of debating, I finally decided to double major in Mathematics (course 18) and Computer Science (course 6). Course 6 and 18 have a ton of requirement overlap, making it one of the most popular double majors. I was originally course 18, and had already taken numerous course 6 classes. Yet after meticulous schedule planning, I realized that only 4-5 classes are needed for each of the following semesters to graduate on time. It’ll be a little stressful, but I was ready for it. After all, what is college if you don’t push your limits and learn all you can?

The reasons are all in favor. So aye, we go. The next day, I visited the course 6 registration office after class.

“Hi, I’m trying to double major in course 6. How can I do that?” I asked the lady sitting at the front desk. As if this was common practice, the lady gestured to a series of forms hung in wall files on the left hand wall.

“Then you just need to get Anne to sign it. She’s the undergraduate administrator,” she pointed to one of the offices behind her.

The form was short, and I quickly knocked on Anne Hunter’s door. She let me in, asked a few quick questions, and started entering my information into the system.

“Now you just need to choose an advisor,” she handed me a list of the professors currently available to advise undergrads. I admit; I haven’t done my research, so I randomly selected a professor in the Artificial Intelligence field.

“Ok,” she typed some more on the computer. “Just get this form signed by your current and new course advisors and you will be all set.”

“What is this?” I asked.

“You are already registered with the department. That form just registers you with the institute.”

That’s it?, I thought questionably. It was surprisingly simple for something that took me so long to decide. Not that I’m complaining; I hate paperwork anyway.

“Welcome to Course 6!” she smiled at me as she handed me the final form. I smiled back.

One last form, and I’ll finally be a double major. I was at once elated and nervous. Nervous for the mountain of work I can see pilling ahead of me. Elated for the mastery of computer science that I’ll hopefully acquire. But there is also a less glorified reason. I’m happy to fit in with the “cool” of the MIT culture.

MIT is one of those humbly intense schools. And whether we like to admit it or not, intense people are competitive. While the Ivy League students openly compete by bragging about their accomplishments (I’ve heard it done at Harvard), we modestly compete by complaining over our business. (Note: MIT is not an Ivy League school, of which we pride ourselves on). So you can commonly hear the following conversations in the Infinite Corridor on a normal Wednesday:

Student A: Uh, I am so swamped for this week. I have 3 psets due on Thursday and Friday, of which 2 I have not even looked at. And I have dance practice tonight and tomorrow.

Student B: I know! Me too! I have 2 psets due tomorrow, a paper due on Friday. I’m also suppose to finish something for my UROP (translation: undergraduate research project) by Monday and I will be away for Ultimate Frisbee all of Saturday.

Student C: This is the ultimate hell week for me. I have 2 psets due tomorrow, 2 midterms on Friday, a paper that I was suppose to turn in yesterday, and a research proposal I need to turn in by Monday. And my team still needs to work on the code this weekend for our robotics class.

Student A and B: Oh wow, good luck!

At orientation, they tell us that MIT is like drinking from a firehose. We believe, the stronger the hose the better. If presented with option of doing more things, the answer is always “yes”. The more things, be it fun or work, you can handle, the more respect people seem to have for you. And after 1.5 years of resisting a committed increase of the firehose, I finally said “yes.”

Debating and doubting a decision took up too much energy; it was time to act. After the “Yes! I’m double majoring!” moment, I casted aside my doubts and decided that I’m truly excited about the fact. I emailed both my old and new advisors to set up a time for signing the form. Meeting with my math department advisor went by without any trouble. And alas, the day my new course 6 advisor will sign my form is here. I just have to turn it into the registrar’s office, and, ta da, it’ll all be official!

I still firmly believe I was elated that morning. After packing my backpack, I especially paused to check for the form. Everything was in order. I ran out of my dorm and headed for my first class.

The meeting was scheduled for either late morning or noon, and it was a busy morning. By the time a notification popped up on my phone and told me that “Meeting with New Advisor in 15 minutes,” I was fairly tired and stressed. But the motto is to always to push through. After navigating through the maze known as the Stata building, I finally found the professor’s office. His door was slightly open. I took a deep breathe and knocked.

“Hi,” I said timidly. “Um..professor, I was the one who emailed you about being your new advisee. I’m here to have you sign the forms…Do you have a minute now?” I was always a little awkward around professors.

The professor nodded in recognition and smiled at me. He looked so calming, the very picture of an old and wise advisor. Dressed in a casual white shirt and blue pants, his hair was gradually turning white from the top and his eyes twinkled wisely behind the metal rimmed glasses. I inwardly congratulated myself for being good at picking names out of a list.

“Sit,” he motioned to a small round table right outside of his office. Crossing his fingers on the desk, he asked, “Now, what can I do for you today?”

After a short customary introduction, I jumped to the point, “I’m wondering if you can sign my advisor form for double majoring.”

He gave a curt node and I reached into my backpack for the form. For some reason, it wasn’t there. F****!! I definitely put it in! While inwardly cursing to myself, I remembered the professor was still waiting for my response.

“Uh, sorry. I swear I brought it; let me check again.” I apologized awkwardly and went back to digging through my backpack.

After about 1 min of watching me flipping through every piece of paper and pocket in my backpack, the professor seemed to realize before me that it wasn’t going to magically appear.

“Why do you want to double major?” he asked calmly, trying to reign in my attention. My disbelief of me forgetting the form was so strong that I was still engrossed in digging through my backpack.

“Uh….I..um…I don’t know,” I blurted out. “I mean…uh.”

Oh shoot, that was rude. Flustered and embarrassed, I finally dropped my backpack and turned to the professor.

“I want to double major because the skills that course 6 teach are extremely useful and practical in all domains. I’m currently course 18, and many of the courses I’ve taken are very…um…useful for course 6 courses. I only need a couple more classes to get a double major…and uh…,” for some reason, I seem to be loosing courage in my reasoning. “Um…yeah, it makes sense.” I ended weakly.

It does make sense though; I just fail at being eloquent. The professor didn’t seem convinced.

“When I was a student, I didn’t double major or take a lot of classes,” the professor began. “I was very involved in my lab group though. I would grab coffee with my advisor and lab mates on a normal basis to debate over topics from research to general life. To this day, we still keep in touch.”

I probably looked pretty confused or stoic, so he continued.

“For me, that was much more rewarding than taking classes. The group got me involved in research and we built meaningful and life-long relationships. One of the greatest things about a place like MIT is that there are so many labs doing fascinating research, and it’s a great opportunity for students to explore anything that interests them. Sometimes, the lessons you learn through people are more valuable than what classes you take and what degree you receive,” he paused to see if I was going to say anything.

What was he saying? That I’m making a terrible decision? The decision that I took 2 years to reach? I suddenly felt awfully offended and defensive. Not wanting to argue with a professor, I said nothing.

“I can sign the form any day,” the professor said finally. “But think about it, what do you want out of your undergraduate career?” With that and a friendly smile, it was my cue to leave.

Smiling as politely as possible and apologizing again, I headed out. For some reason, I became increasingly emotional as I exited the building; almost as if I was tearing up.

What did I want out of my undergraduate career? I haven’t asked myself that since freshman year. Classes, clubs, and events took over; I was too busy keeping myself busy to fit in with the culture of “staying busy.” Slowly, I fell into a cycle of doing what I should than what I want.

Maybe that’s why it took me so long to decide on double-majoring, because I wasn’t sure if I truly wanted to. Yet in the end, failing to come up with an alternative, I decided to go for it. At least it was practical, “convenient”, economical, and puts me into my fictional class of “high-achieving and successful” students.

In hindsight, I wasn’t offended by the professor. Instead, what he said resonate so deeply with things I’ve forgotten that I suddenly can’t forgive myself for forgetting it.

When I returned to my dorm that night, the form sat mockingly on my desk top; I was either just about to pack it or just took it out. Still can’t remember what happened. But that night I made another decision.

I decided to wait on the form. Instead, I sat down and started searching through labs at MIT.

After a couple of weeks, I did join a lab I was passionate about and start on an amazing research project. The form lay forgotten in a corner of my desk.

I would like to say that the story ended with me going back to the professor and thanking him for changing my life. Then we sat down and had an even deeper conversation. Sadly, I never went back, and even worse, I still don’t remember who the professor is (even tried searching through my email to find him). In college, the best way to deal with an embarrassing encounter is avoidance. It was one of those things that I avoided for so long that it became too awkward to do anything about it.

On my graduation day, though I can’t say it was exactly what I wanted out of an undergraduate career. I’m definitely closer than I would have been otherwise.

To the unknown professor: Thank you very much!


 

 

p.s. For some reason, I was also too embarrassed to ever go back to the course 6 administrative office to tell them I have dropped the double major. Therefore, about 2 months before graduation, I got an email from Anne Hunter, asking whether I’m actually graduating. Seeing no way around it now, I replied that I have dropped the double major. After which she sent me a slightly angry email stating that course 6 is a very big and busy department and they would highly appreciate it if they told us this stuff right away.

Santa Cruz on Black Friday

About two hours south from San Francisco, Santa Cruz is a wonderfully relaxing place to escape the craziness of Black Friday. For a place brimming with nature’s beauty, photos tell more than word ever could.

The best way to see Santa Cruz is really along West Cliff Drive. We first stopped at the Boardwalk.

Santa Cruz beach on Black Friday

Santa Cruz beach on Black Friday

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Sea gull by the boardwalk

Seals on the Boardwalk

Seals on the Boardwalk

What is a trip to Santa Cruz if you don’t stop and admire the courage and skill of the surfers?

Surfer museum

Surfer museum

Surfer

Surfer muesuem

Surfer museum

Surfers heading out to sea

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At the other end of West Cliff Drive, is the beautiful Natural Bridges Reserve.

Natural Bridges

Famous for their Monarch Butterfly sanctuary, November-January is the best season to see them from their Great Migration.According to the workers there, the number of butterflies today are only 10% of what it was 10 years ago. That day, we could only see few scattered butterflies flying in the treetops.  For a moment, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the woods around me fluttering with butterflies.

Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary

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Sunset by the Natural Bridges beach.

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Sunset on Natural Bridges

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