Don’t work. Avoid telling the truth. Be hated. Love someone.
-----Written by Adrian Tan, author of The Teenage Textbook (1988), who was the guest-of-honour at a recent NTU convocation ceremony. This was his speech to the graduating class of 2008.-----
I must say thank you to the faculty and staff of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information for inviting me to give your convocation address. It’s a wonderful honour and a privilege for me to speak here for ten minutes without fear of contradiction, defamation or retaliation. I say this as a Singaporean and more so as a husband.
My wife is a wonderful person and perfect in every way except one. She is the editor of a magazine. She corrects people for a living. She has honed her expert skills over a quarter of a century, mostly by practising at home during conversations between her and me.
On the other hand, I am a litigator. Essentially, I spend my day telling people how wrong they are. I make my living being disagreeable.
Nevertheless, there is perfect harmony in our matrimonial home. That is because when an editor and a litigator have an argument, the one who triumphs is always the wife.
And so I want to start by giving one piece of advice to the men: when you’ve already won her heart, you don’t need to win every argument.
Marriage is considered one milestone of life. Some of you may already be married. Some of you may never be married. Some of you will be married. Some of you will enjoy the experience so much, you will be married many, many times. Good for you.
The next big milestone in your life is today: your graduation. The end of education. You’re done learning.
You’ve probably been told the big lie that “Learning is a lifelong process” and that therefore you will continue studying and taking masters’ degrees and doctorates and professorships and so on. You know the sort of people who tell you that? Teachers. Don’t you think there is some measure of conflict of interest? They are in the business of learning, after all. Where would they be without you? They need you to be repeat customers.
The good news is that they’re wrong.
The bad news is that you don’t need further education because your entire life is over. It is gone. That may come as a shock to some of you. You’re in your teens or early twenties. People may tell you that you will live to be 70, 80, 90 years old. That is your life expectancy.
I love that term: life expectancy. We all understand the term to mean the average life span of a group of people. But I’m here to talk about a bigger idea, which is what you expect from your life.
You may be very happy to know that Singapore is currently ranked as the country with the third highest life expectancy. We are behind Andorra and Japan, and tied with San Marino. It seems quite clear why people in those countries, and ours, live so long. We share one thing in common: our football teams are all hopeless. There’s very little danger of any of our citizens having their pulses raised by watching us play in the World Cup. Spectators are more likely to be lulled into a gentle and restful nap.
Singaporeans have a life expectancy of 81.8 years. Singapore men live to an average of 79.21 years, while Singapore women live more than five years longer, probably to take into account the additional time they need to spend in the bathroom.
So here you are, in your twenties, thinking that you’ll have another 40 years to go. Four decades in which to live long and prosper.
Bad news. Read the papers. There are people dropping dead when they’re 50, 40, 30 years old. Or quite possibly just after finishing their convocation. They would be very disappointed that they didn’t meet their life expectancy.
I’m here to tell you this. Forget about your life expectancy.
After all, it’s calculated based on an average. And you never, ever want to expect being average.
Revisit those expectations. You might be looking forward to working, falling in love, marrying, raising a family. You are told that, as graduates, you should expect to find a job paying so much, where your hours are so much, where your responsibilities are so much.
That is what is expected of you. And if you live up to it, it will be an awful waste.
If you expect that, you will be limiting yourself. You will be living your life according to boundaries set by average people. I have nothing against average people. But no one should aspire to be them. And you don’t need years of education by the best minds in Singapore to prepare you to be average.
What you should prepare for is mess. Life’s a mess. You are not entitled to expect anything from it. Life is not fair. Everything does not balance out in the end. Life happens, and you have no control over it. Good and bad things happen to you day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Your degree is a poor armour against fate.
Don’t expect anything. Erase all life expectancies. Just live. Your life is over as of today. At this point in time, you have grown as tall as you will ever be, you are physically the fittest you will ever be in your entire life and you are probably looking the best that you will ever look. This is as good as it gets. It is all downhill from here. Or up. No one knows.
What does this mean for you? It is good that your life is over.
Since your life is over, you are free. Let me tell you the many wonderful things that you can do when you are free.
The most important is this: do not work.
Work is anything that you are compelled to do. By its very nature, it is undesirable.
Work kills. The Japanese have a term “Karoshi”, which means death from overwork. That’s the most dramatic form of how work can kill. But it can also kill you in more subtle ways. If you work, then day by day, bit by bit, your soul is chipped away, disintegrating until there’s nothing left. A rock has been ground into sand and dust.
There’s a common misconception that work is necessary. You will meet people working at miserable jobs. They tell you they are “making a living”. No, they’re not. They’re dying, frittering away their fast-extinguishing lives doing things which are, at best, meaningless and, at worst, harmful.
People will tell you that work ennobles you, that work lends you a certain dignity. Work makes you free. The slogan “Arbeit macht frei” was placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps. Utter nonsense.
Do not waste the vast majority of your life doing something you hate so that you can spend the small remainder sliver of your life in modest comfort. You may never reach that end anyway.
Resist the temptation to get a job. Instead, play. Find something you enjoy doing. Do it. Over and over again. You will become good at it for two reasons: you like it, and you do it often. Soon, that will have value in itself.
I like arguing, and I love language. So, I became a litigator. I enjoy it and I would do it for free. If I didn’t do that, I would’ve been in some other type of work that still involved writing fiction – probably a sports journalist.
So what should you do? You will find your own niche. I don’t imagine you will need to look very hard. By this time in your life, you will have a very good idea of what you will want to do. In fact, I’ll go further and say the ideal situation would be that you will not be able to stop yourself pursuing your passions. By this time you should know what your obsessions are. If you enjoy showing off your knowledge and feeling superior, you might become a teacher.
Find that pursuit that will energise you, consume you, become an obsession. Each day, you must rise with a restless enthusiasm. If you don’t, you are working.
Most of you will end up in activities which involve communication. To those of you I have a second message: be wary of the truth. I’m not asking you to speak it, or write it, for there are times when it is dangerous or impossible to do those things. The truth has a great capacity to offend and injure, and you will find that the closer you are to someone, the more care you must take to disguise or even conceal the truth. Often, there is great virtue in being evasive, or equivocating. There is also great skill. Any child can blurt out the truth, without thought to the consequences. It takes great maturity to appreciate the value of silence.
In order to be wary of the truth, you must first know it. That requires great frankness to yourself. Never fool the person in the mirror.
I have told you that your life is over, that you should not work, and that you should avoid telling the truth. I now say this to you: be hated.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Do you know anyone who hates you? Yet every great figure who has contributed to the human race has been hated, not just by one person, but often by a great many. That hatred is so strong it has caused those great figures to be shunned, abused, murdered and in one famous instance, nailed to a cross.
One does not have to be evil to be hated. In fact, it’s often the case that one is hated precisely because one is trying to do right by one’s own convictions. It is far too easy to be liked, one merely has to be accommodating and hold no strong convictions. Then one will gravitate towards the centre and settle into the average. That cannot be your role. There are a great many bad people in the world, and if you are not offending them, you must be bad yourself. Popularity is a sure sign that you are doing something wrong.
The other side of the coin is this: fall in love.
I didn’t say “be loved”. That requires too much compromise. If one changes one’s looks, personality and values, one can be loved by anyone.
Rather, I exhort you to love another human being. It may seem odd for me to tell you this. You may expect it to happen naturally, without deliberation. That is false. Modern society is anti-love. We’ve taken a microscope to everyone to bring out their flaws and shortcomings. It far easier to find a reason not to love someone, than otherwise. Rejection requires only one reason. Love requires complete acceptance. It is hard work – the only kind of work that I find palatable.
Loving someone has great benefits. There is admiration, learning, attraction and something which, for the want of a better word, we call happiness. In loving someone, we become inspired to better ourselves in every way. We learn the truth worthlessness of material things. We celebrate being human. Loving is good for the soul.
Loving someone is therefore very important, and it is also important to choose the right person. Despite popular culture, love doesn’t happen by chance, at first sight, across a crowded dance floor. It grows slowly, sinking roots first before branching and blossoming. It is not a silly weed, but a mighty tree that weathers every storm.You will find, that when you have someone to love, that the face is less important than the brain, and the body is less important than the heart.
You will also find that it is no great tragedy if your love is not reciprocated. You are not doing it to be loved back. Its value is to inspire you.
Finally, you will find that there is no half-measure when it comes to loving someone. You either don’t, or you do with every cell in your body, completely and utterly, without reservation or apology. It consumes you, and you are reborn, all the better for it.
It's a truth universally accepted that the humanities are on a steep decline. In 2009, William Chace, the current president of Emory College, president emeritus of Wesleyan College and an English professor, wrote an impassioned article in the American Scholar on The Decline of the English Department. Four years later, things have gotten much worse. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, national publications like the New York Times, and Harvard publications all have lamented the fall of the humanities.
As someone with a degree in English, I wanted to provide my perspective. I arrived at Harvard with a background in science (shocking, I know), studying Higher Math, Chemistry, Physics and History for my A-Levels. I had spent every summer of high school in a lab, doing research at Singapore's prestigious Institute of Biology and Nanotechnology (IBN), then the National Technological University (NTU), and going on to present my research at national fairs and international conferences. Then, something happened. In my final year, I won an international writing competition, ranked first in history and general paper (English) in several examinations, and thought, hey, this is fun! So yes, I could've pursued a more "useful" major at Harvard and graduated in 3 years. Instead, I decided to get my ass kicked for the first year and a half in government and history classes, finally switching to the English department and never looked back. In fact, I never took any math or science classes beyond the requirement. I graduated from Harvard College last May with a BA in English, job offers in finance in the United States and Europe, full merit scholarships to top masters programs in Europe, and a spot at Stanford University Graduate School of Business for their MBA Class of 2018. The point of this rant is that all hope is not lost for the prospective humanities major, but it is not easy.
Here are some of the cons.
1. Nobody outside of the US understands your major
If I had a dollar for every time someone expresses incredulity at the mention of my major, I could probably finance my MBA degree. Why on earth would anyone go to Harvard to study English? More than a few Vietnamese people have taken this to mean I was studying English as a second language. I suppose I needed to improve my familiarity with prepositions and stuff. My sister often says, not ironically, that my only career option is to become a teacher. And anyone who knows me knows that I have none of the patience or compassion that is required of the profession. Even my parents didn't know I majored in English until graduation. I hated having to explain to acquaintances that Harvard is a liberal arts college that does not offer any vocational training. For years, I flip flopped between saying "political science" (which doesn't exist at Harvard) or "economics" just so I didn't have to give any further qualifying statement or embarrass my parents.
Even in Europe, no one understands the value of an English degree outside of the relevant industries. During my finance internship in London, the other interns were either doing master's in engineering or master's in math or some other legit-sounding things. Sometimes I felt a bit like a joke and a charity case.
2. Few people in the US understand your major
(Unless you want to become a teacher, a writer, an heir of some sort, or a trophy wife)
Too much has been said about the untenability of a liberal arts degree in these times of economic uncertainty. Science majors (the "real" ones, psychology majors can go sulk in a corner with the humanities bunch) think of you as full of fluff, lacking substance, lazy, stupid, incompetent in math (but what are calculators for??), unfairly benefiting from grade inflation, and possessing only the ability to bullshit our way through life. How else would a lowly English major land a job in finance and/or consulting and/or making any real contribution in life?
3. The job market is tough
The sad reality is that the publishing industry is struggling. There are few jobs, even fewer well-paying jobs, for aspiring writers and editors. Many of my friends, academic superstars and brilliant writers, are doing internships after graduation. Unless you're amazing or amazingly lucky and well-connected, you probably are going to have a hard time finding a way to feed yourself after graduation. This is when I hate Sex and the City because it paints an entirely unrealistic picture of a columnist living in an Upper East Side apartment by herself with a walk in closet that is fully stocked with designer labels. No, that does not just happen unless your last name is Trump or Rockefeller or something.
There are jobs in finance/consulting, but as public sentiment increasingly turns against liberal arts, hiring committees also grow suspicious of a philosophy guy wanting to go into banking. Also not helping your cause is the Obama administration's constant fanfare for STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math). You, the only liberal arts kid at every job interview, are perceived as full of fluff, lacking substance, and lacking any direction in life. (But seriously, which 20-something aside from the computer science people know what they're doing with their life? Because I'd like to meet you.) Or you must have been high on something during your undergraduate years to go for liberal arts when everyone and their mothers and YOUR mother and the president is telling you to suck it up and do applied math. 4. You've got a shot in hell at those "prestigious" deferred admission programs at HBS and Stanford
There are only so many times HBS could publicly enunciate its preference for STEM majors, which accounted for almost half of 100+ HBS 2+2 admits. In a program that explicitly says it targets non-business majors, business and econ majors make up 19%, while liberal arts and humanities are a mere 17%, and that is including the math/english double majors. (People do that, as it turns out.) See? You're even less desirable than the people they SAY are undesirable. I think the number was even sadder last year.
Stanford admits some 30+ college seniors per year for its program, so nobody has a real shot, but it helps if you do physics or something.
5. For international students, you've got a shot in hell at a work visa There are a very limited number of work visas for people with a bachelor's degree in liberal arts, so good luck getting one. Not all majors are created equal in the eyes of the USCIS, and to quote Friends, there's rock bottom, fifty feet of crap, and then there's you. Okay maybe that's an exaggeration but I love this line! So the truth is that if your post-college goals involve working in the US, better switch into STEM now.
Baring a major shift in public opinion, you need a lot of tenacity, willpower, initiative and extremely thick skin to persevere in your liberal arts education and find a good job after graduation. But in my experience, after having to fight against so many things and doing some major soul searching questioning whether to dump English and head to the Science Center, I become a lot more mature and assured that my education would, in the long run, make me a better human being. It also makes for a pretty good answer to the question "So, English? Why do you want to go into finance?"
I would pick English again if I could. The truth is, I loved the education I've gotten at Harvard, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I learned to communicate and comprehend. I became more sympathetic and socially aware. I refuse to believe that if I had picked, say, Chemistry (I used to love the discipline and was on the Olympiad team), it would have better prepared me for whatever career I choose, especially when I have no intention of becoming a scientist. I wouldn't have become more analytical, or more quantitative, and as someone who has struggled a great deal writing a paper on philosophy, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the humanities as fluffy or easy. I probably wouldn't have been any better off at the job search, despite what many would have me believe. Maybe I would have done well as a STEM major, maybe not, but I would have been that much more miserable rotting in a lab and solving equations.
But here's the caveat, I could afford to be an English major without any intention of being a full-time writer because, in many ways, I am privileged. My test scores (SAT, GMAT) and high school record prove that I'm not quantitatively challenged, which, in turn, helped when I wanted to find jobs in finance. The Harvard name on my resume, coupled with a decent GPA, means that most employers across different industries were willing to give me the time of day so I could explain why I had wanted to study English. I could afford to come to college without any real concern about my employment prospects because my parents had never pressured me into finding a job right after graduation. My high school and Harvard education were fully covered by scholarships, thus I was never in any financial quandary. I could study whatever it was that I liked, that I had deemed to be personally fulfilling. Finally, I had always planned on going to graduate schools, either to study law or business, so a more "frivolous" undergraduate specialization was somewhat justified. Now that I had to sit down with my sister, who is less inclined toward the quantitative subjects and graduate schools, and carefully plan her college years in order to make her as viable a candidate for employment as humanly possible, I realize even more how privileged I have been.
I would admit that in more desperate times (such as when I got the boot from a top consulting firm, or was waiting to hear back from HBS and Stanford and feeling my glimmer of hope dimming), I had harbored ill will at the fervent, seemingly global, endorsement for STEM majors. I find it rather unfair and unfortunate. While many STEM undergraduates do turn out to be brilliant scientists, many do not, and the birth of many brilliant writers and the future Faulkners and Hemingways could be thwarted just because they were pressured into thinking that science is better for them. (My favorite Philosophy professor has a Master's in Math, and another English professor whose class I took majored in Econs and worked in investment banking before he realized that he just loves to read.) Imagine how dull a world it would be if there were only scientists and mathematicians! I read recently that some half of the world's most successful hedge fund managers had a bachelor degree in the humanities (so do Hank Paulson–former US Secretary of the Treasury, Mitt Romney–founder of Bain Capital, etc.) so I am not convinced that STEM is the superior choice for anyone unless the person is genuinely interested in STEM, or plans to pursue a career in research or academia.
(Let's not forget that Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bradley Cooper were all English majors. It is my biased view that we -that's right Matt and I share a pronoun now- are better looking than average!)
But at the end of the day, I would never dismiss the importance of STEM, even though I would not choose it for myself. My dad has a PhD in mechanical engineering, and many of my friends are brilliant STEM majors who would no doubt make many real, tangible contributions to the progress of our societies. The point I'm hoping to put across is that those of you who are interested in pursuing the humanities should not be discouraged from doing so because of "practical" reasons. Yes, there are many challenges, but what you get in return is well worth it. The things that I have learned, and I have no doubt you will too, are immeasurable to your progress not only as a future member of the workforce, but also as a human being.
I read a great article today in the Atlantic, dated June 2009, about the psychology of happiness. It's certainly not an original topic. Men and psychologists have pondered the question of what makes us smile and feel contented for a long time, probably since the inception of the human race. The elusive "pursuit of happiness."
This article is less a study of happiness than a profile of one of the longest-running studies of wellbeing: a project following a group of male Harvard sophomores since 1937. The project, which is called the Grant Study, keeps the identity of its participants under wraps, although a few names, including John F. Kennedy, have been revealed over the years. What's interesting about this project is that it doesn't aim to draw the line between unhappiness and happiness, between mental disorders and normality, but instead presents them as interweaving. In fact, we all experience episodes of varying lengths of clarity and breakdown, and what determines whether our lives are overall not tragic is the process of adaptation.
It's an interesting read. I've always had an interest in the study of people. Maybe I should have pursued Psychology instead of getting freaked out by a dismal midterm grade and hightailed out of that Dan Gilbert class.
Anyway, here's the link to the long article and an excerpt I found particularly relevant and amusing.
"Why, [George Vaillant, the project's curator,] asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?
In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.
To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”
I fly a lot. Asia, Europe, America. It has often been said that my life revolves around airports, and it's not an overstatement. Every time a plane takes off and the PA starts to play that same boring safety precaution tape, one thought runs through my mind: What happens if this plane crashes?
I imagine that I would be quite indignant, as someone who is sort of competent and possibly over-ambitious. I would think about all the millions of dollars that I have yet to make, all the staff of my future multinational conglomerate that I have yet to terrorize, all the lives that I have yet to change. Look at all of that lost potential! This men's world would never know what this little woman is capable of, and that's a real shame.
I imagine that it would be a pity. I'm still so young and there are so many things in life that I have yet to see. Countries that I have never visited. Boys who would never make my heart flutter. I have yet to have that perfect kiss. I have yet to know what love is. I had heard about it, the things it does to a person, and I always wonder when and how it will happen to me, and whether it would be worth it if you know it'd be so fleeting anyway? There are so many things I have yet to discover.
I wonder if it would actually matter all that much, if this plane never lands. Beyond my family, whose lives will be affected? I have touched very few, if any, lives. I have accomplished very little. I have yet anyone's heart. You know, some people think my life is so desirable. Younger girls come up to me and swoon, with blushed cheeks and hurried breaths, how much they want to be me. "Look at all the things YOU have!" But really, once that naive adoration washes away, and it will too quickly, what remains? I'm too flawed and quite insignificant in the larger scheme of life.
Poof! Maybe that's all it takes.
I close my eyes as the wheels spin faster and I'm catapulted into the air. I wonder if this is one of those commercial flights that never reach its destination.
Les temps est une invention des gens incapables d'aimer
(This is an exercise to rewrite the ending of Jacques Prévert's poem for my intro French class.)
Déjeuner du matin
Il a mis le café
Dans la tasse
Il a mis le lait
Dans la tasse de
Il a mis le sucre
Dans le café au
Avec la petite
Il a tourné
Il a bu le café
Et il a reposé la
Sans me parler
Il a allumé
Il a fait des
Avec la fumée
Il a mis les
Dans le cendrier
Sans me parler
Sans me regarder
Il s'est levé
Je l'ai regardé
et j’ai réalisé à quel point les choses avaient changé. Il a bu son café avec
du lait et du sucre. Il a rajouté un sucre avec sa petite cuillère. Mais il
n'était plus la même personne.
Il a finalement
fini par dire : «Je reviens tout de suite, je dois aller à la salle de
Nous nous étions rencontrés
l’année dernière dans ce café à St. Germain des Près. J'étais une étudiante en échange
universitaire et c’était à mes yeux le Parisien classique. Il avait pris un
café au lait avec plusieurs sucres et j'avais mangé une salade. Il avait
remarqué que je buvais du café noir et m'avait demandé si je voulais un peu de
sucre. Je lui avais expliqué que je préfère les saveurs amères. Il avait vite
remarqué mon accent américain et nous avions commencé à parler chaleureusement.
À première vue, il
était charmant et sociable, mais il était mystérieux aussi. Nous avions
longuement bavardé et nous étions finalement devenus amis. J’avais d’abord eu
l’intention d’être son amie car j'étais nouvelle dans cette ville et je voulais
un guide touristique. Puis, j’avais très vite eu envie de lui faire confiance.
J’avais réalisé qu’il ne serait pas juste un garçon avec qui je m’amuserai mais
quelqu’un à qui je pourrai me confier et donc un ami.
Nous avions donc
été pour une année de très proches amis, parfois même amants occasionnels, tels
deux jeunes fous dans la ville de lumière et d’amour.
Et finalement, on
s’est retrouvé de nouveau ici. Il a repris du café. Je n’ai pas mangé ma
salade. Tout était différent. Il m'a aimé une fois. Je suis partie avant son
retour. Je me suis faufilée entre les voitures sous une pluie d’hiver sans jamais
me retourner. La pluie tombait sur mon visage et elle avait un goût d'eau
I'm somewhat of a serial dater - I tend to date many people at the same time, but nothing seems able to last longer than a few weeks. Some fizzle out into benign friendships. Others, I just forget to return their calls and answer their texts.
If you were to position yourself at the receiving end of my conversations about the boys, you would soon realize that they seem pretty much clones of one another. There is a definite prototype: a tall, pretty narcissist with great hair, an inclination to treating girls like they're disposable, and an above-average dose of "confidence." The thing about dating these guys is that they simultaneously spoil you rotten about what to expect from guys, physically at least, and make you so cynical about human nature and relationships in general. This subsequently leads to even more dysfunctional pseudo-relationships.
Anyway, these days, as "age" is catching up to me, I start to think about the "perfect guy," the one who would make me want to settle down and not act like an immature brat any more. I mostly believe that such a person doesn't exist, hence monogamy and the idea that there's "one" person for everybody are patently doomed to fail. I've come up with a few criteria for my ideal man.
- You're tall. By which I mean at least 5'11, 180cm tall. I suppose girls like tall guys in general, but growing up with a tall-ish dad who is always head and shoulder above his peers makes you have rather unrealistic expectations regarding height (Turns out, they're REALLY short. He's okay tall at 174cm or 5'9). Also, almost all of my close guy friends (with the exception of 1) are at least that tall. I'm thinking you being shorter than all of them does not look good on me or bode well for your confidence.
- You have a pretty face. Like, if I can imagine you as a pretty girl, you're golden, think Leonardo di Caprio circa Titanic or Jonathan Rhys Meyer when he's not being a giant douchebag. Actually, I think Leo is a God no matter what time frame it is.
- You have an okay body. Obviously, it'd be best if you have an AMAZING body but no one is perfect and I'm willing to compromise. I've gone over the body vs. face debate many times in my head, and I think the scale is tipped in the face's favor. I mean, it's not like I could have a conversation with your abs at dinner. I'd readily have a fun fling thing with a tall, ripped, but funny-faced boy (less American football player, more soccer player/swimmer), but for that one perfect boy, I'm looking for the perfect, pimple-free, God (or Goddess?)-like face, provided that he is not noticeably fat and makes me feel like I'm a bunny going out with a whale.
- Nice hair. I've recently realized that I'm obsessed with a nice head of hair on boys. I mean like long-ish, wavy, Patrick Dempsey-quality hair that flutters with the lightest of breezes. A buzzcut is fine for a fling (I'm not a fussy flinger), but I do love running my hand through your hair and not feeling like I'm being stung by an army of ants, or - this would never happen, please God - like I'm petting a baby's bottom.
- Some stuff are implied: nice smile (which means your teeth aren't too messed up - I have learned a couple of years ago that this is a distraction I am not able to get over), nice eyes, basically, nice things that come with a pretty face.
- You have to be intelligent, at least enough so I could respect you. I don't talk about "intelligent" topics very often - that's what classes and essays are for - but I can be incredibly snobby about my intellect. You need to at least match mine. You don't have to go to Harvard/Yale/one of those schools but you know how some boys just cringe if the girl standing next to them does. The insecurity is a turnoff. Finally, I know I talk about boobs and celebrities more than anything, but if you dare insult my intelligence I might gouge your eyes out. (Seriously bro, are you kidding yourself?)
- You're funny. Everybody loves a funny guy. But sometimes guys think that they're funny when they're really not, and that is like the grossest thing ever. Especially because I think I'm pretty funny, and when you fake funniness and/or try to upstage me with your lame ass comments and quasi-jokes, I want to punch you in the face.
Also, I'm a sucker for sarcasm and dry humor, think Chandler Bing/Matthew Perry. Drools.
- You're okay with me having a bunch of guy friends that I'm close to, and go out with periodically without you. (Seriously I have problems with my mother, and I'm just more of a boy essentially so it's easier for me to hang out with them. It's primarily not a vanity thing.) Jealousy can be cute but if there's a real chance that you might actually kill me and my friends, it is not okay. So I guess you need to be secure and chill.
- You're okay with my vast array of issues and screw-ups, my issues with intimacy (dysfunctional parents and 7 years and counting of living by yourself in different parts of the world do that to a person), and the fact that they will drive us both insane for a little while. You're patient when I work out my issues on my own schedule.
- You're okay with the fact that I can't cook, don't like cleaning, have a million of opinions on everything and am never going to be the quiet girl sitting in the corner. You're not going to go all patriarchal/traditional "family values" on my ass because there's a good chance I will bite your head off.
I guess the last three points are a long-winded way of saying that you should accept me for who I am, and be patient with me while I work on my shortcomings, which I am well aware of. I mean, the problem is that even though I know I'm a deeply flawed human being, I'm also sufficiently arrogant that if you dare criticize me, I might go psycho bitch on you and we'll have bigger problems than my inability to cook.
The final point is that you must be aware of the fact that I might have these semi-psychotic outbursts which would make you hate me, hopefully momentarily. I suppose that is what happens when I fluctuate between (over)confidence and insecurity, self-love and self-doubt - I go crazy once in a while.
Some things are nice to have but not absolutely crucial:
- I like it when you take care of me, or attempt to. I'm incredibly stubborn and I've always been self-sufficient, but it is nice to feel like the barely-5' tiny person that I actually am once in a while, especially when I'm falling all over myself drunk. I will probably refuse your help anyway, but I don't hate that you offer.
- I like it when you put me in my place sometimes and tell me that I'm being an unreasonable brat. I will fight back and say that I hate you, which I probably do for those 10 seconds. As much as I am all about the "female power," I like a strong guy who's not a pushover.
- I like it when you show emotions. Mind you, Sex and the City's Steve, who cries every five fucking seconds, is an absolute no-no. My dad is 60 and I've seen his tears twice, when his dad died and when I left for Singapore. But when tall, strong, arrogant, pretty boys show emotions, it's kind of hot and moving.
I think the conclusion is that I'll find myself alone with dogs, a closetful of shoes and very expensive bags.
FINALLY figured out how to incorporate this Blogger account with my main Gmail account - okay, so it was the second time I attempted such a thing, but at least it was a successful venture.
The good thing about having a blog like this is you have a record of your thoughts and emotions over the years. Sometimes I click on a random month and I'm much entertained by my 17-year-old self, all naive and getting worked up over the most childish things. The bad thing about this is reading all those posts from five years back and realizing that you haven't changed much. It's the same bullshit over and again: I have problems with my mother (well this has been the theme since I was about three years old). I don't trust people. Most people will either stab you in the back or let you down, and therefore should not be trusted.
(Recently, a new theme crept in: I love Europe.)
Certain things seem particularly hard for me, like trusting people. I suppose a stormy relationship with your mother does wonders for your subsequent relationships with women. Every girl is a mere projection of my mother and every trait that I hate about her: the excessive sentimentality, the crying, the dependence on men.
Then, you add a contrasting relationship with a loving, but mostly absent, father, with insanely high expectations ("a 98th percentile? Why not 99th?"), an alcohol problem, and the inclination to material incentives and what you get is a rather fucked up, frequently confused product with major trust and intimacy issues.
There's a French saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same. (I was going to quote the original sentence but that seems rather pretentious considering that I speak three sentences in the language.) I wonder if this is always going to be my life - changes in latitude, not attitude. That is such a depressing thought and I feel like I need a drink. It's 9:56AM.
I apologize for the lack of activity on this blog. Partly, I'm too lazy. But mostly, since Blogger merged with Google, it keeps asking me to sign out of my Gmail and sign in to my blog, which was registered eons ago under a different email account. This is actually a pretty annoying and tedious process, especially when I'm also having five Gchat conversations with people over very important topics such as which Mulberry bag to get. Okay so the conclusion of this paragraph is that I'm an extremely lazy person who perhaps spends a tad too much time on Google products. Just a tad. (I have however been updating Tumblr rather frequently! Such a feat.)
Anyway, updates. I've been in London for two months now doing an internship that I had secured via the Center for European Studies at Harvard. I've also spent my weekends in Germany, France, and Spain. I guess I just can't stay away from Europe. It's funny how when I was little, I always dreamed of going to the States. When I was actually there, I kept running off to Europe. Perhaps it's a manifestation of my never being contented with what I have and always wanting more.
Or perhaps I just really like the attention that comes with being perceived as "exotic" in Europe. Exotic! There's something I've never heard before. When I was in Vietnam, I was one in forty million people who basically look the same. Half of my secondary school homeroom class (of 50) have my last name, and three girls share my first name. There are a handful of kids in the entire school with my exact same name. I then moved to Harvard, where you can't swing a purse in the Yard without hitting at least several small Asian girls. But apparently, being a fair-skinned Asian with an American accent (and a rather "interesting" personality?) makes one a rare breed. Throw in "Look at the freckles on my face," and "I speak German" and I'm practically a white tiger in the zoo. Though I do like being different so I'm not complaining that much.
London has been amazing, save for the godawful weather - apparently the worst they've had in a century or something. It hasn't stopped raining in about a month and a half. In approximately 10 days when the Olympic Games start, this already-overpopulated city is going to be taken over by mobs of tourists, sports enthusiasts, and patriots who wear their flags on their cheeks. I'm going to run the risk of getting squashed on the train, in shopping malls, and basically everywhere else. I've never been a fan of crowds, or people in general. This is why when people gushed and squealed at my mentioning that I'll be spending the summer in London - "Oh my god, you're going to get to see the Olympics!" - I squinted my eyes and smiled hesitantly. For the record, tickets for the Games are about as hard to find as hair on Bruce Willis' head - and I had checked every country for which I could produce a legitimate residential address. I also checked Yemen, as an homage to Chandler Bing.
But enough with the whining, the city is actually a lot of fun and just breathtakingly gorgeous for those 20 minutes in the day when it's not pouring. (Check out my photos on Tumblr, Instagram and Facebook!) The bars are incredible, the shopping overpriced but great, and the gorgeous view that you get on the side of every activity that you do is just icing on the cake. As I bar-hopped, I have so far run into the Jonas Brothers, Liev Schreiber, and a litany of soccer players whom I shamefully do not recognize. (Since moving to Singapore and then the US, there hasn't been much opportunity to watch the EPL, you see.) (Also, a couple of self-proclaimed European tennis players. I don't know if I trust them but I sure trusted their biceps.) I can actually imagine myself living here, though maybe not so much in the summer, and definitely not during Olympics seasons. Oh and all the amazing Asian food!! I don't see myself as very much "Asian" at all but I do love the food. I can have sushi/bibimbap/Vietnamese vermicelli/pad thai every day, a couple of times a day.
Some stuff has happened as well, which I'll probably be more comfortable discussing in about a month when I'm away from London and able to gain a level-headed assessment of things, and when I'm not using the company's computer during work hours. (In my defense, it is Monday and I need something to pull me out of the post-weekend depression.) My beloved MacBook Air is basically out of commission aside from playing music and videos, since I spilled my favorite champagne over the keyboard and I was told that I'm going to need to change the entire topcase. I don't know what "topcase" means exactly, but I know it costs about £400 so I'm putting off repairing it until I'm home and my dad can pay for it. At least the laptop died in a classy fashion, drowning in French champagne and all.
A friend commented that I'm doing London "as well as humanly possible" and it made me laugh. I guess I'm becoming an expert at short-term "vacations" in Europe - I have an idea of what to do to have fun and how not to look like a tourist (especially not the cliched Asian tourist with a massive camera and an assortment of sun-shielding facilities). Though the thing about having a lot of fun in a place you know you're leaving, is that what do you do when you actually have to leave? My first instinct is always to reach for a bottle of wine and remind myself that I'm coming back to the old continent in a couple of months or so. My god, the concept of time is so depressing. Sometimes it feels like I just landed at Heathrow a couple of days ago.
On a related note, I took a long weekend two weeks ago and visited Denia, reuniting with my two best friends from Munich. Then, it struck us in a flash of amazement that the last time we were all together was about a year ago in the Netherlands. A year! Twelve months, 365 days. It was nice to see how we all meshed together perfectly like nothing has changed and no time has elapsed at all. We made plans to see each other again, in twosomes, at various points over the next year. As two of us shared a parting meal at Burger King at the airport (I think they have amazing burgers and you can't judge me), we thought about the near future, with marriages and kids and life inching in, and agreed that we should try to meet up at least once a year. But this was perhaps the last time we would all be together, carefreely and backpackingly, as college kids in Europe. Transcontinental friendships - there is something incredibly posh and inexpressibly melancholic about them.
It is funny how people you have known for a mere couple of weeks could become some of the best friends you have. You banter like you've known one another your whole lives, and you
could trust them with anything. This is monumental for me especially because I don't make real friends easily even though I could fake comfortableness in just about any situation.
Ultimately though, I don't believe in forever. I don't let myself believe in grandiose promises. I make plan B and plan C so I don't have to rely on anyone. I don't expect anybody to come and I never expect anyone to stay. Is that self-sufficiency or jaded cynicism?
Truth be told, I've always preferred doing things alone, like going to the movies, shopping, sitting at a coffee shop and doing work (well, people watching and doing some work). Here's why.
I believe that movie-watching is inherently not supposed to be a social act. As much as I love you, chances are, I don't want to hear your commentaries. (Unless it happens to be: "Matt's hot." In which case, I agree, so we need to stop talking about how hot he is and watch him in action.) I don't like it when people cry during sad movies or scream during scary ones. I don't like it either when people laugh at inappropriate moments, and there are some people who just HAVE to laugh all the time. Not charming, no. When I'm watching a good movie, I'd like to be alone with my thoughts and emotions. I don't like to break down in public, so crying on an airplane during "Everybody's Fine" was not my most favorite moment. I do, however, like talking to friends before and after the movie, so the best arrangement would be to split, then regroup. You go watch your action flick or chick flick or whatever, I'll watch whichever movie I feel like watching at the time.
Shopping is just easier and faster when done alone. I don't like waiting in line for 45 minutes to change and then another 30 minutes to pay at Forever 21. I like it even less to have to wait for you, too. Sometimes I spend $200 on a pair of shoes. (I'm stressed. I've had a rough week. I feel lonely. One of those reasons.) Your judging eyes (I know you don't mean to) make me uncomfortable. You want to check out Wetseal. I really don't. I love Zara. You think it's pretentiously European. So there, I'm mildly annoyed. You're mildly annoyed. We should just set a time and do our own shopping and meet for dinner.
I like studying alone because it's just more comfortable that way. I only like the sound of my fingers jabbing on the keyboard. I don't like blasting music when I'm also having to read Chaucer. I think you seem "cooler" and more mysterious (therefore cooler) when sitting alone at Starbucks with a book in your hand, barely reading, mostly people-watching.
When I was in high school I used to avoid doing things alone (or being seen doing things alone) at all cost. I thought it was lame, and that I was a social butterfly who had a reputation to uphold. Being alone is for losers. Turns out, there's a difference between being alone and being lonely, the latter, fortunately, I've hardly had to deal with.
In the spirit of full disclosure, however, I will say that I've managed to go to the movies alone once. There were three other people in the theater and still, I was subconsciously a little afraid of looking like a friendless loner. Today, for instance, I didn't go to the Chanel trunk show despite really wanting to because there was no one to go with. I've never eaten alone in a restaurant. I've never gone to a bar alone. Fundamentally, I still prefer doing these things alone, so I watch shows on my computer with a box of takeout Pad Thai. I guess I still care about the appearance of things. I guess I still need to grow up.
I wrote this a while ago for The Crimson's special issue for freshmen. I heard it was published, because some people have talked to me about it. I'm not sure, I never see the final product. So whatever, here it is. It's supposed to be an advice column-type thing, though I'm not quite sure I was the best person for the job.
It’s ironic that one of the most favorite activities during Camp Harvard is to ridicule Love Story, the classic romance film. If Ryan O’Neal and Ali Macgraw could see us right now, they’d probably give us the finger. Not only because we laugh at them as a yearly ritual, but mostly because love? At Harvard? Please. The whole thing was clearly a joke.
We've all heard it, ad nauseam: There's no dating scene at Harvard. This is true. On any given weekend, you’re more likely to end up face down in a communal sink, puking out every last bit of that classy Rubinoff and coke than enjoy a casual date with somebody. At a place that’s so famously overcommitted to everything from finding the next Pi number to saving Africa, dating and romance and love seem to have fallen out of our collective bucket list.
Naturally, there are the exceptions to the rule: the “married” couples, the über-hot girl with a new “boyfriend” every other month, the dysfunctional “relationship” with a not-so-secretly cheating partner which the other tolerates out of fear of loneliness. But for the most part, Harvard students suck at dating.
My theory is that this is because we subconsciously self-sabotage our love life. Let’s call it the Harvard Syndrome. We're used to being successful and strong and invincible. We don't like to reveal our vulnerability or show signs of weakness. The antithesis of all this is being in love with someone without knowing for certain that the person feels the same way. The universal fear of rejection is heightened at Harvard because rejection is such a foreign concept to us. When have we ever not gotten something we wanted in life?
Besides, one of the greatest things about Harvard is that it offers you so many opportunities. When you get to choose between a) making friends with heirs of industries and future rulers of the world, b) rubbing shoulders with celebrities and heads of states, c) running your own club to pad your resume, or d) going on a date with someone who might break your heart, you rarely pick the last option.
Let’s also remember that in high school, when the world at large learned how to date, we were learning our third foreign language. If only there were a Wikipedia or JSTOR article under the title "How to Date at Harvard." Maybe Greg Mankiw or Dan Gilbert could create that course.
That's not all. People at Harvard have incredibly high standards. Why should we settle for anything less than fairytale perfection? Reasons not to date run the gamut from the anatomical to the hereditary to the hysterical. He's too tall. He's not tall enough. He's too WASPy. He’s not WASPy enough. One of his teeth is awkwardly positioned. Switch all the gender pronouns and what you have is a messed up pseudo- dating scene.
Like many Americans, Harvard students say the word “love” often. Shoes. Kittens. HUHDS’ red-spiced chicken breasts (which is drenched in tabasco sauce and kind of gross, if you think about it). We love everything. Yet, it’s so hard to make ourselves vulnerable to falling in love with another human being, in the romantic, all-consuming, can't-live-without-you sort of way. The paradox of dating is that if you aren't open to being hurt, you'll never be open to being happy. The question at Harvard is that why should we subject ourselves to being hurt, when we could be successful and fabulous instead?
If you seek happiness in a more libidinous sense, it’s not that hard. If you're a girl: put on a revealing dress, walk down Mt. Auburn Str. and hit on the first drunk guy. If you're a boy: Ditch the khaki pants and tennis shoes combo, get a haircut, put on some deodorant, and wait patiently for your chances. Unless you happen to be European or an athletic recruit, you can't rush these things.
But it’s hard to find love and meaningful relationships in this corner of Cambridge. Everything that makes Harvard great, makes it hostile to romance. Even when you do find someone, it's hard to maintain the bond given how occupied with saving the world you both are, and the fact that there are over 3,000 other choices living in proximity. This is why your chances of surviving as a couple increase if you both live in the Quad.
However, once every blue moon, a certified Don Juan falls for a nubile young thing. A Rhodes scholar slash football player marries his high school sweetheart. Couples get engaged on graduation day. Magic does wear crimson sometimes. So have faith. Put yourself out there. Say yes to more things than late night munchies at the Kong. Stop fixating on his overgrown nose hairs. Cry a little, and love a little. Just please, don't get a venereal disease in the process.