Tag Archives: life choices

The Glass Half Empty

On my worst days, I indulge my narcissistic tendencies.

I wallow in self-pity.

I linger on my myriad flaws.

I feel painfully insecure.

I can’t remember the last time I flew with anyone. It’s kind of a random thing to linger on, recognizably a first world problem, but it feels a microcosm of something, to me at least.* Maybe because there’s no one to ride with to the airport, to chat with until boarding, to hold onto in case of turbulence. I’ve been alone so long I’ve just about become resigned to the feeling, only it makes the fleeting moments of connection that do occur that much more visceral, haunting, eventually painful.

*Maybe I’ve just seen one too many Richard Curtis films.

It takes all of four hours for someone to figure me out – at least on a basketball court, spread out across two nights on back-to-back Tuesdays. A guy who I had never met previously – friendly and well-meaning, but clearly slightly exasperated – gives a shout as we leave the gym. “Wilfred.” There’s a pause, as though he’s weighing his words. Then a shake of the head and a knowing smile. “You gotta stop playing scared, man.” It’s a simple, brutal assessment, one that cuts right at me. He’s right.

I’m not aggressive with the ball. I’m more comfortable being guarded than I am cutting to the basket unmarked. I feel overmatched no matter who I play, all too aware that I either 1) lack the kind of coordination and body control they seem to possess naturally, or 2) contain an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt almost entirely absent from others. Somehow, in a game that has no meaning beyond the 10 minutes it takes to get to the next one, I am scared – of letting teammates down, of looking stupid, of failing. It’s painfully obvious, even to a near-stranger.

I have always been a bundle of nerves, no matter the stakes, how big or small, or however many times I have found myself in similar spots previously. I take after my dad in that way. For all my efforts to maintain a facade of perspective in the grander scheme of things, I still suffer internally, making mountains out of molehills with a degree of regularity. Worse, I compound the psychological tendency by often fulfilling the prophecy myself, getting into troublesome situations of my own making.

Just a few weeks ago, for instance, I wandered unwittingly from a marked hiking trail, instead following along an unending ridgeline of limestone cliffs. It was stupid. I was supposed to make a left upward, rising above the clearing, but went opposite instead. Driven by a faint recollection of the description I had read the previous night, overriding all logic and common sense, I stubbornly plowed ahead – even as the ridge narrowed, the gradient steepened, and the trail became rocky and sandy.

Later, I would discover I was mere minutes from the peak when I veered off. It should have been obvious. The trail, the surroundings, the directionality – none of it made sense. Still, it takes me a half hour before I turn around. It’s harder going back. I climb through some sections, literally claw my way up others. Ahead of a particularly narrow section, I cramp. I’m writhing in pain on the ground, surveying the edge, pondering my mortality. It’s sobering: I’m genuinely terrified.* How did I get myself in this mess?

*It’s reminiscent of a previous experience I’ve written about. In this most recent instance, I even contemplate “if I don’t make it” texts to a couple of people, but it seemed like a terrible burden to put on them. So I hold back. Ultimately, I make it back and through, unscathed but for my psyche.

It seems a metaphor. I get so far in, then I pause for a breath and realize I still don’t quite know what the fuck I’m doing. That feeling of inadequacy; it’s a killer. It’s not that I fear I’m still not a finished product at 34, but the opposite – that I am a finished product and this is all I am and all I ever will be. I can blame timing and luck and nuance, but sometimes life feels like a series of dichotomous outcomes I can’t quite turn in my favor. A steady job. A sense of direction. Love and companionship.

On my worst days, I just don’t feel good enough. And I feel like I never will be.

I don’t know.

Maybe I gotta stop living life scared too.

The Thin Line Between Success and Something Else

Five years into my graduate school career, I was in a bind. The guaranteed money provided by my school had come to an end, and I had no recourse but to stitch together external funding sources  for however long it would take to finish my dissertation. I applied left and right for fellowships and grants: some abroad, some domestic, some residential and some not. I must have submitted 30-some-odd applications. I ended up getting a single offer. From Harvard, of all places.

A couple years later, as I was finishing my dissertation, I found myself officially on the job market for the first time. I was fairly agnostic about the academic world, and thus was pretty selective about the positions I applied for in the field. At the same time, I looked to jobs in the research and policymaking worlds, as well as postdoctoral fellowships that would allow me to bolster my résumé. I submitted at least 40 or 50 applications over the course of the year, if not more. I ended up with a single interview. It turned into my lone offer.

It is almost comical how many times I have encountered similar such crossroads the last five or six years of my professional life, and ended up being rescued by a single opportunity in the nick of time. I have never juggled multiple job offers, never gotten the chance to play one institute off the other while enjoying the stability of an ongoing contract. My safety nets have centered on time off at my sister’s place or on plans to secure undetermined courses to teach at unspecified colleges in a hypothetical town I would have to move to.

Naturally, this is my own doing. I chose to pursue a doctorate in the social sciences, after all. I did it at a university not ranked in the top 25, at a time when top-tier schools have increasing difficulty placing their alumni. I forged on despite apprehension about joining academia, at a time when the path within that world had become limited, and the path outside that world called into question the utility of the degree at all. And I finished despite the fact that I saw the entire system in the process of being devalued.

But putting aside my poor understanding of macroeconomic trends – or my inability to make career decisions accordingly – there is something darkly humorous about the fact that life has been this game of inches. That my résumé at face value might look somewhat impressive from the outside but belies myriad near misses and close calls, glosses over my dependence upon circumstances well outside my control and the series of lottery tickets I have managed to scrape up in the right place at the right time.

A good friend and I often joked about whether we would be the least successful people to have spent time – if fleetingly, on a fellowship – at Harvard. We were in the midst of a frustrating application season, as recipients of one rejection after another. But we were looking in the rearview mirror too, both being similarly attuned to how close we were to nothing before ending up there in the first place.* Indeed, the breadth of our experiences – then and since – have only reaffirmed the thin line between success and lack thereof.

*I was on a waitlist for one other fellowship before ultimately being rejected: at Stanford. To recap, my literal options: Harvard, maybe Stanford, nothing.

I wonder sometimes if my story is not exceptional, only the one I feel most acutely. I wonder if I linger too much on the scenarios that did not come to be. Mostly though, I wonder whether another person, another personality molded by a different upbringing and environment, would look at these same events through the lens of just rewards rather than coincidence, ascribe them to hard work rather than luck. Whether they would come to take these outcomes for granted, and to eventually believe that they deserved it.

Regardless of anyone else however, I am well aware of the ever-present precariousness of my situation, and of the fragility of it all. It’s another way in which I’ve been lucky, I suppose. There’s this great saying from Barry Switzer: “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” People like me – we’re constantly reminded that we didn’t. I prefer it that way.

Blood and Water

What is it about family that can be so frustrating, difficult, even infuriating? My mom sometimes reminiscences about how patient, how obedient, how “good” I used to be, wonders what changed. I tell her it’s because I’m not a child. I have thoughts and beliefs of my own, draw upon experiences and knowledge that I have acquired. And because I no longer take what she says at face value, because she no longer thinks on my behalf, I appear more disobedient in her eyes.

I wonder though if there’s more to it than that, than my growing up.

I have this image of myself as a person, an image of who I am and who I aspire to be. There’s a bit of embellishment, naturally, a bit of it skewed favorably on my behalf. I imagine that is the case with all of us. We have this slightly idealized image of ourselves, of how we present ourselves to the world. And with family, I think, their vision of us – and for us – is every bit as fleshed out, as real and fully-formed and stubborn, as our own.

My third or fourth grade class hosted an open house. On my featured art,work my family noticed that I signed my birthyear instead of the current year, and they teased me about it. I felt embarrassed and I got mad. In turn, they got mad at me for taking it too seriously. It felt demoralizing to lose control of the situation, to be painted as this goof, then a brat.

These two images of the self – the one we envision, the one envisioned by family – are not altogether independent nor irreconcilable, of course. But I think the external image held by family appears to them as more true because of its basis in history, whereas our internal self appears to them only as a tiny slice of what they believe to be true. In other words, the image we cultivate and present to the world is inevitably, constantly, and fundamentally challenged by family.

But how well do they know us, really? I’ve seen my family about three or four times in the last four years. They don’t really understand what I do, workwise. And they’ve met only some of my friends, fleetingly. Our daily realities are just so far apart, and not only geographically.

The dynamic works both ways. There’s a reason why we prep ourselves before spending extended time with family. We anticipate what is to come, because we too have fostered an image of who and what they are. We too fit their present self into a far greater narrative of what we “know” them to be – interacting on multiple levels, across myriad moments. And because of this, we not only confirm our vision and our narrative but project those outwards.

In my junior year of high school, I retook the Scholastic Aptitude Test but received a disappointing score. I got home and told my mom, and her face said enough. Before she verbally reacted, I left the house and drove around for hours, going nowhere, avoiding confrontation. It was the environment she had fostered. …Asian parents.

There’s more to it though. The relationship between the images, which interact and are inextricably linked. The fact that we can have so little in common yet still retain an elemental, intangible bond in which family appears as a reflection of our own self. The subsequent effect of seeing in someone the traits that are so familiar to what we see in ourselves – good and bad, only far more exaggerated, or at least far more obvious.

One Christmas, short on ideas, I found a little holiday gift pack for my sister: a stuffed penguin, hot chocolate mix, and marshmallows. Completely independent of me, she – needing a gift for an exchange at her friend’s party that year – somehow ended up buying that very same pack at the very same department store.

Family thus forces us to reflect. Even if we acknowledge the biased lens through which we see ourselves, we look and make ourselves out to be an improved specimen, a 2.0. Because to see any alternative suggests something far worse – a hypocrisy in which we can recognize the flaws in those who reflect ourselves the most (even if in an elemental, intangible manner) and yet choose not to address them, in effect turning our backs to self-betterment.

My mom’s martyrdom, her hard-headedness, her pettiness and long-memory, her judgmental nature and fear of so many things and self-doubt and need for validation. The way she sees love, the way she has to be all-in. All of that is me.

It feels odd, the whole of it. Perhaps the lack of choice exacerbates the frustrating, difficult, infuriating moments, with an undercurrent of feeling that we cannot be comforted, let alone rescued, by the simple recognition of agency, of effort, of desire – as we might with such moments in the context of friendships or partnerships. In contrast, family, in all but the most extreme situation, exists unquestioned and unchallenged.

A good friend made fun of me harshly at a movie theater because I thought that Finding Forrester was non-fiction. He was tactless; I was embarrassed.* I went off to the bathroom to get some space. But then I got over it. I had to, enough at least to drive him home. That’s the best analogy I have for family. Family is stuck in a car together.

*It is kind of funny to reflect on these things that seemed to matter so much in the moment.

So we question and challenge by other means. We make less effort to suppress our frustration. We act more pettily, brushing aside the image of the self they present and imposing the grand narrative over them – their every action thus a confirmation of what we already know to be true. We push a little harder understanding that there is an element of non-choice to the matter. We take family for granted.

Then again, I don’t have a relationship with my dad, so I guess family can be a choice too.

Family is difficult. It seems to get moreso. But maybe that’s just me.

Revisiting the Doctorate

When I first floated the idea of going to graduate school, I was a third year in college, visiting one of my teaching assistants at his office hours. His office was literally the size of a broom closet, and he had to pull chairs out into the corridor for us to have space to chat. I felt a bit embarrassed for him. Anyhow, we got to talking, and he asked about my post-graduation plans. I hadn’t thought about it much, so I threw out some generic answers, including graduate school – almost on a lark. His reaction was swift. Grad school, he all but admonished, was not to be taken lightly. I had to be passionate about the subject, the field. It was, he impressed upon me, not a casual option.

Looking back, the encounter was a microcosm of the graduate school experience: a myth about the purity of research and pedagogy, characterized too often by an inflated sense of importance and very real flagellation, hierarchical to its own detriment. These were traits perpetuated across the whole of the enterprise. Academe’s worst qualities seemed to manifest especially in the social sciences, comprised of far too many self-righteous individuals who had something to say about every aspect of society while lacking the basic social skills to actually exist in it.*

*I was once subject to a chain of emails in which graduate students struggled to get past the pedantry of naming a union (let alone forming one), because the word “union” had connotations to be argued over, just as “collective” did, or “association,” or every other word in the world.

I lived, as you might surmise, a normal existence even as a graduate student. Of course I had stressful days and weeks, especially as deadlines loomed. But I never felt snowed under the way many of my colleagues seemed to, my life far from the manner in which they presented their existence, as Sisyphus perpetually pushing the boulder uphill. I don’t know whether I was balanced or apathetic; perhaps both. But I progressed through the program, passion be damned. I managed to watch an obscene amount of movies, hold season tickets to my baseball team, take extended summer road trips. It was just more school.

I did attend conferences, managed to publish once or twice, but unsurprisingly, I never was the model academic. I did not network at these conferences, did not succumb to the ‘publish or perish’ mentality. I secured a couple of external fellowships, but never did transition neatly into a tenure-track position at a research university – despite what my adviser so clearly hoped and inelegantly (even unprofessionally) pushed for. I resisted. Even now, I continue to find myself, seemingly further and further from academia. My ability to finish the degree seemed to be a victory for normal people.

It’s difficult to overstate how little difference the doctorate makes in my life on a daily basis, even as I recognize its role in my career path. On rare occasion, I might chat with someone and learn they had begun the process and moved onto something else, or are just now considering going down that route. I might encounter people who look at it with a sense of reverence; this includes a supervisor who had a obvious chip on his shoulder about not having the degree himself. In such circumstances, I find myself asking what the degree means to me. I think about whether I would recommend the pursuit to others, and – ultimately – whether I regret that seven and a half years.

I find it difficult to believe that an individual with newfound knowledge would have no second thought about their actions in almost any circumstance – a conversation, a relationship, a career choice. But regret is a strong word. I wonder whether having regret entails envisioning a completely altered existence, a la Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, or whether it represents a lone item of change that can be isolated from a life otherwise left untouched. I make that distinction because I need it. I do not regret pursuing my doctorate, but I would never do it if I had known then what I know now.

I do not regret because I grew up in graduate school. After a miserable four years in college, it was as a graduate student that I found my self-worth again. I became comfortable with who I was, even found some people who liked that person. I gleaned a genuine sense of accomplishment from the work, through shallow measures like departmental and school recognition, but also through regular interactions with students and colleagues and professors. I finished on my own terms, as I mentioned above – a balanced individual. And I have been able to shift from that pursuit to where I am now.

But I would never do it knowing then what I know now. I might have pursued a masters, and nothing more, knowing that the difference between it and a doctorate is all but negligible outside academia, easily overcome by real-world experience. I would forgo a degree that leads to a career path that promises no job security let alone a job, that ignores geographic preference, that bleeds over the notion of balance. I would turn away from a degree that means so much only to such a narrow community, driven by those who are all too eager to feed into its esoteric and self-sustaining nature.

In retrospect, my teaching assistant had it almost right. Passion about the subject, the field, might really be necessary – but not for graduate school per say. Clearly I’ve proven him wrong on that front. But I think it helps in the long run, in academia. It sustains people as they trudge on, through a game that never ends, a ladder that keeps climbing. There’s delusion in that passion, for sure, righteousness too, maybe pure survival sprinkled in. But there’s also genuine belief, the kind I never had. Whatever it is, it’s something to hold onto as the environment – anachronistic and unwilling to change – envelops their lives.

I have my degree. I have no regret. But I would not do it knowing what I know now. It makes me wonder whether I was simply not smart enough then to fail.

(Photo by GregsWikidContributions, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Whole Wide World

In the midst of my grandmother’s final days, I couldn’t help but think about how different her life had been from mine, how everything she had been through had made things possible for me, my sister, our cousins. I received the news of her passing in Porto, on New Year’s Day. It pained me to be on the other side of the world, away from family in both the US and Hong Kong, away from friends even. Yet at the same time, I thought about how far we had come, as a family, that I was able to be there, a spur of the moment trip to Portugal over my holiday.

My grandmother never left China, never left Hong Kong really. Growing up, even after my parents moved with me and my sister to the States, our vacations were rare, and quite modest. A few road trips to Las Vegas and San Francisco, once to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. Our big getaway was New York and DC – to deal with immigration paperwork. That was the extent of it. My parents always provided for us, and I never was left wanting of anything. But luxury was unknown to us: we rented instead of owned, moved around a bunch to save. And we rarely traveled.

I was at a museum in Paris when I received what turned out to be my last call from my grandmother. I was spending the holidays there with my best friend – she a half-Spanish French native whom I had met in Tokyo. About a week later, I reflected on the moment, the trip, and I thought too about my last couple of months working in Geneva. I had been to Brussels and Rome, spent a weekend with a good friend over in Barcelona. I didn’t think about this in a self-indulgent way. Rather, I thought about the fact that I was able to see so much, and experience so much, on behalf of my grandmother, on behalf of my parents.

I never once took for granted what I had gained because of my family’s move to the US. Still, I don’t know that I ever envisioned what my life was going to be like when I grew up. Until the point of graduate school, I never really thought about what my life could be like. Even as my personal travel expanded, it never quite seemed like real life. Things only felt different, I think, when it was my studies – my work – that opened up the world. Conferences in Chicago and New Orleans, in Seoul and Berlin. Field work in New York, Geneva, and Vienna. The world simultaneously became bigger and smaller, less bounded but more accessible.

I have admittedly struggled with expat life at times, as has been well documented on these pages. These recent weeks in particular have provided plenty of triggers. Missing the holidays, the milestones, the passings. Just watching La La Land this past weekend, and seeing the spirit, the hope and beauty, the melancholy of the city I grew up in, captured onscreen – it made me yearn for life back “home,” for the experience of being there. But I don’t think I would prefer that alternative, don’t think that I would be happier being in LA, or even the US. In fact, at this stage of my life (however long it may last), I can say resoundingly that this is not the case.

Perhaps it has to do with my tendency to settle, to be comfortable. Even in Japan, in a shoebox apartment with a modest fellowship stipend, with no hope for professional progress and almost no love life, I was a little too content. Maybe the inherent discomfort of being an expat is the very thing I need then. A friend suggested once that expats are people who are in search of something, who lack something in their lives. I suppose I’m still  searching. But what I’ve found so far has propelled me a bit in my life, has challenged me in ways I could never have conceived.

The people I’ve met – they’re the core of it. I have learned so much, from one-off dates and fleeting encounters, but especially from the kindred souls I will forever hold close to my heart. I have a friend in Hong Kong who still tells me regularly she misses our days as graduate fellows in Boston. A Japanese friend in Singapore who checked in on me every time he was in Tokyo, even if he had to meet with luggage in tow. The couple who I spent a full week with in a studio in Paris, nonstop, on their holiday; the aforementioned best friend who took me to all her family functions. They are in my life because of a confluence of coincidence*, but also fundamentally because I moved from comfort.

*”Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world”

When I told my mom about my trip to Rome, she asked how long the flight was from Geneva. She asked a few more questions about Italy  – something my sister and I both picked up on. They, along with my brother-in-law, were to visit me in Switzerland later this year. After the conversation, my sister put Rome and Venice on their itinerary too. I think about that, and the hundreds of places my sister has been to in her life. I think about my mom, a homemaker until we moved to the States, who then – and to this day – would have to wake up before the crack of dawn six days a week for her blue-collar job. And I think about her being able to see Italy and Switzerland and France and Japan.

I think about my grandmother.

Leaving Los Angeles was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Being an expat continues to be the privilege of my life. I know it. I just have to remind myself of it sometimes.

(Photo by bm.iphone, uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Writing It Off

I’ve never been a great writer. This is not false modesty, as a quick read-through of this blog will demonstrate. My prose is fairly unimaginative. My vocabulary is limited, especially given my level of educational attainment. I have a tendency to ramble, to fall into familiar traps, to rely on certain crutches (the list of three, for instance). I’d like to think that I’m a fairly effective writer though, certainly a functional one. But given the nature of what I generally produce, it does seem a tad ironic that so much of my life has come to revolve around the written word.

I have been prone to a fair amount of self-reflection lately, evidenced by the last few entries. This is due to a number of factors, including my presence in Japan, the impending occurrence of my 31st birthday, and several other life developments. Regardless, I was being introspective the other day when the question that will likely define my life suddenly became quite apparent to me. I suppose I had long known the broad contours of the query, but the simplicity and clarity with which it exposed itself in that moment was quite striking, and unlike anything I had ever experienced.

The question is thus: “What can I write about that will allow me to support myself?”

I currently write for a myriad of reasons. I write as an outlet. I write aspirationally. I write professionally. The act of writing itself is irrelevant insofar as it is omnipresent in my life. The problem is that the reasons for which I write have been utterly disconnected as they pertain to what I have produced so far.

I don’t know that I’ve ever mentioned this before – a revealing silence – but I am an academic by trade. I spent over seven years in graduate school for political science, completing a near 300-page dissertation about the institutions that govern nuclear weapons. It is often assumed that either extraordinary passion for or intellectual interest in the given subject are prerequisites for such an undertaking, though I would argue that a dissertation – like anything else in school, at any level – can be treated rather like homework; the only distinction being scope and motivation.

Regardless, I have managed to be a somewhat effective academic writer.* This is not insignificant, as few career paths related to the PhD do not include a substantial written element; thus, the ‘publish or perish’ refrain. There are books, articles, grant applications, and research proposals, ad infinitum. Alternatives might include government jobs as a policy analyst, research-based positions at thinktanks or NGOs, consulting work at a number of firms. The style of the writing might vary, but the substance for me likely would not.

*Not necessarily a successful one. My future past August is entirely up in the air.

I write also in my spare time, satiating my creative interests. I have blogged on and off for over a decade now, with past endeavors not too far removed from this current iteration. Still, it’s difficult to envision it being anything more than a hobby. I do not have the desire, perhaps the discipline, to blog regularly. I am of the Julie Powell mindset (“I could have a blog. I have thoughts”) but have not developed anything resembling her focus or mission. No, I prefer to write generally, at my convenience. And all external obstacles aside, such an approach is not conducive to being a full-time blogger.

In the last couple of years, I have taken to writing via the Twitter format. I utilize my account almost exclusively as a comedic outlet – writing primarily to amuse myself. While I harbor no delusions, I do hope, of course, that my content will reach beyond my small group of followers, that mine will become more than a grain of sand lost among the site’s infinite expanses. I strive for this, even as 1) the amount of white noise on Twitter makes that possibility nearly unfathomable, and 2) I remain quite wary of the irreverent nature of my online persona bleeding into my professional life.

Essentially, this is my life then. The answer to the defining question will not be settled in the short term. But this last year has made me all too aware OF the question, and of the need to try and answer it. The conundrum is simple: I write about everything else because I enjoy it. I write about nuclear weapons because I have been effective at it. But that market may not be there beyond August. And even putting that aside, that the market has dictated my career so far, my life, may not be good enough anymore. I’ve got an in-progress screenplay to prove it.