Woe

I feel like I’ve written more than I have in this past school year than I have in my entire college career put together (minus this school year, that is – if not that would be mathematically impossible, or quite simply, illogical). This is due to a combination of my thesis, my two fiction writing classes, my creative nonfiction class, and my writing portfolio. I think I had intentionally saved these ‘fun’ writing classes for the end of my college career. But here I am, week 5 into my final semester, feeling completely drained. So I guess in hopes of restoring some writing inspiration, I come to my free and open writing space to write whatever I want – void of constraints of fitting into a theme, a genre, an audience – and perhaps I can start writing something for myself again.

Somewhere in the process of this mass churning of creative written work, I started to feel like I’m telling the same stories over and over again. I’m talking about the same things over and over again. I keep thinking about how I have pieces that are already good written – so I guess I’ll workshop them instead. But workshopping has been a complete nightmare. My eyes run over the word imprints on my screen over and over again and they all sound the same, they all sound bland, they all sound set in stone, as if there’s nothing I can do to change any of it. I’ve done the thing where I pull up a blank document beside a written work and rewrite like that because it’s easier to omit than to delete. It works, sometimes, but these days I find myself falling into the lazy rhythm of simply retyping what I see because it seems easier that way. Sure, I make minor changes – I delete an ‘and’, add a ‘but’, shift a comma – but these are such minute changes that aren’t enhancing my work in anyway. Polishing my sentences is not something I should be doing at this stage of my writing – I need to feel free to move my ideas around, tear them apart and piece them together in different places, throw some ideas out for good, and attract bigger, better, and stronger writing.

But I keep holding on to these pre-written ideas – thinking that there must be some value in them simply because I produced it at one point. They’ve become precious to me, even if it’s terrible writing, and I keep holding on to them, thinking that if I dig deeper perhaps I’ll find gold. Yet I’ve gotten so sick of re-reading these works that maybe I just need to toss them out and start from scratch again.

 

NYC again

There’s something about New York City that brings out the small in me. The immensity of the city consumed me when the bus dumped seventy of us on some remote street in the city walled with snowbanks. The lights in the luggage compartment in the rear of the bus went out as the bus driver was unloading it and she lifted her hands up in resignation. An 8-hour journey had extended into a 10-hour one when the bus’s defroster broke and everyone was stuck uncomfortably close to one another in an overheated bus for two hours, discussing possible solutions, such as walking the rest of the way (we were still 1.5 hours away) or sprinting across the highway and jumping a median to the shady inn on the other side of the road. The four middle-aged women in front of me were entertaining to listen to – “Next year we’re driving to New York for our yearly trip”, “We’re too old for this!”, “David asked if we’re still going to come visit”, “We’re going to need a whole bottle each when we get off this bus” – each sentence punctuated with laughter and pleasure.

No wanting to wait for anything else, two passengers whipped out their cell phones to use as flashlights and started planting luggage after luggage into the snowbanks because there was no other room on the street. My thighs were shaking in the cold. They were the only part of my body that only had one layer protecting them. The overheated bus had made me forget that it is still cold outside. I grabbed my luggage and started making my way down the street confidently, half trusting my gut, half following the crowd. I needed to walk about twenty blocks in under thirty minutes to make the 10:47 pm train to Mount Kisco. 10pm and still bustling. New York City. I wanted to run but I couldn’t. The sidewalks were covered in black slush and giant puddles. I watched the wheels of the luggage of the people in front of me carve out curvy parallel lines in the slush. My brand new boots slipped on the sidewalk so I started taking each step with extra precaution, stomping down a little harder than necessary while trying to maintain my speed, lest I miss the 10:47 train and have to wait in hustle of Grand Central for an hour. I didn’t slow down as I bumped into the lady in the red coat. New York City. I’m making the 10:47 train. I felt braver because I had to be but I also felt small. Small next to the crowd spilling out of the theatres, small next to the people dressed like cowboys for who knows what reasons, small next to the people who are in the city for a fun Friday night…

I felt sweat beads forming around my forehead wrapped in my thick headband, my scarf moving out of place. I hated how all my belongings were behind me, out of my sight – some on my back, some attached the handle which is attached to my hand which is stretched out behind me. I was paranoid that suddenly my zipper would break and all its contents would spill out and be stomped on by the crowds. I was afraid that someone had taken something out without me noticing. I marveled at how I could now ignore the bright lights and sounds and cut through Times Square without looking twice at anything.

Everyone else seems so much more important here. So much more purpose-driven. And I found myself yearning for the quiet that flat, farmy Ohio had. The first time I set foot in New York City in my puffy white coat three years ago, my heart raced and my lips curved into a smile as I stood still and looked around, excited by the activity and splendor of this city that I had spent all my life watching on a screen finally come to live.

I made the 10:47 pm train with two minutes to spare. As I started stripping off my many layers of warm clothing on the seat next to me, I took deep breathes, feeling proud that I had successfully bought the right train ticket and found the right track in less than a minute. I felt myself growing as I realized with what great ease and lack of hesitance I had maneuvered around the city. The well-dressed man in a trench coat swiping at his phone didn’t intimidate me. The eccentricly dressed young adults talking in loud voices didn’t intimidate me. Maybe I’ll be okay after all.

Not Traveling

I hate traveling. Yes, I’ve spent a good chunk of my time in the past three years getting from one end of the world to the other just to see my family members. Ridiculously long plane rides with over 30 hours of travel time is something I’m really good at. But I hate traveling. I hate sightseeing, I hate tour buses and tour guides, endless pictures, souvenir shops that sell identical cheaply made Statues of Liberty and paying entrances fees to see some famous poet or writer’s house. Everything looks the same. Display sections of some fireplace roped off in rustic dusty buildings with tourists crowding around it with their smartphones or fancy black cameras. It’s all the same. Every place holds a superlative – the tallest, the oldest, the earliest, the newest, the smallest, the shortest – to promote itself as a place worth spending time and money in.

There tends to be a constant stream of proof on my Facebook feed that all my peers are travelers. It definitely provokes some envy – I want to see Paris too, I want to hike that beautiful mountain too, I want to eat cricket quesadillas too, I want to be cool too. Despite that, I can’t deny the fact that I absolutely hate traveling. I don’t deny the value of travel – it is inspiring, eye-opening and expands one’s perspective. It allows one to see how there is so much more beyond ourselves and that it is naïve to think that only I matter. Therefore this expectation of it being life-changing has been imposed on it. It has been put up on such a high pedestal that choosing to not travel has become this deplorable thing.

When I was presented with the opportunity to study abroad (well, study abroad from my current study abroad) in my junior year, I was highly encouraged to take advantage of it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, it’s a wonderful experience, you’ll be foolish to not go. I half-heartedly looked into the program offered by universities in England and decided based the fact that some of my scholarships were non-transferable that it was simply not going to happen. All I needed was an ‘acceptable’ reason to not go (‘I hate traveling’ clearly did not pass). I found one and presented it immediately to all the travel-encouraging people.

I’m fully aware that I chose to spend my university years in a foreign country. It definitely reflects the value that I find in pushing our personal boundaries and placing ourselves in an (initially) uncomfortable situation. My time in Kent has been invaluable and an incredibly important part of my life. A lot of this has to do with the people that I’ve met here who have moved me deeply that I can’t imagine life without them. However, I’m also inclined to believe that this will be the case regardless where I spend my university years because I am a young adult and I’m in an extremely formative period of my life. I truly believe that despite my physical location, I will meet people who will impact me deeply. I will meet people who I can’t imagine life without. Getting my Bachelor’s degree in the United States is simply a more glamorous means of gaining such experiences. It makes my time spent mindlessly scrolling through Facebook pages a more ‘feel good’ one because I don’t left out of this whole ‘travel and see the world’ spiel.

I think we fail tragically to see the value of simply staying put. It is easy to be excited and inspired when our senses are constantly being stimulated with fresh and new things – that castle there, this garden here, that museum there, this mountain here, that famous food there. And this is all wonderful and admirable. But what about those who lack the opportunity to ‘see the world’ or what about the ones like me who simply don’t care? What about the ones who have hung around with a place, a person, a community because they find value in what others see as old and boring? Finding joy in the walk home that you have already taken 500 times is precious.

I’m most certainly not condemning those who love travel. It is also easy for me to say that I’m not interested in it because I have already done some of it myself. I understand many people’s desire to get out of their hometowns to see the world beyond their own and I think that that’s great and that they should pursue it. All I want is for people to not look at me as if I’m a fool the next time I say that I simply want to stay put.

Coasting

I’ve been riding Ezely’s bike higher and higher each day, determined to finally be comfortable with riding a bike at the “right” height which will efficiently use my muscles and energy. Where summer camp memories are formed and “best friends” are made, personal space is something that exists in a very tiny bubble which you have to actively chase after. Therefore I’ve taken to riding from main campus to outpost, moving through the webs of light cast by leaves on the towering trees that embrace the bumpy path; farther and farther away from the world that I am constantly tricked into believing that all that matters in my life solely exists there. The serene beauty of the woods still makes me stop and stare. I think about how I wish I could sit under a tree and read and write and be “one with nature”. But then the bugs circle and bite and itch and I remember why air-conditioning is still infinitely better than being outdoors.

Riding to the top of the hilly path to outpost always makes me feel more confident and powerful than I actually am. Partially out of breath from the ride up, I would get off the bike and spin it around with my hands still on the handlebars. I would look around myself and take deep breaths and be hyper aware of the lack of other human sounds, sometimes reacting overly sensitively to a bird taking off or a squirrel scurrying up a tree (Jonathan and I were watching Lost two weeks leading up to camp). Whenever I’m poised on the bike ready to take off, I imagine myself to be that kid on TV who just took up a dare devil challenge such as climbing over the fence and taking on the Beast to retrieve the Baby Ruth baseball. Although in actual fact my “challenge” is probably nothing but part of the biker’s everyday life. And then I bounce onto the seat and coast, sometimes going down a little too fast for my overcautious heart that I find myself squeezing and letting go of the brakes over and over again – you must slow down if not you will crash and they will find you only when it’s too late – no, don’t be a sissy, that’s why you’ve only been to the ER once when you were 5 (which in my mind means that I’m inherently uncool). I take deep breaths as I hear the birds chirping mingled with swooshes as stray hairs stick to my forehead. And within the split of a second I think to myself for the first time in a while – maybe I can actually do this.

Then the front wheel glides over a smooth rock planted in the muddy ground and I have to keep pedaling again.

Masuk bakul, angkat sendiri

…literally translates into “enter basket, lift yourself“. 

Motivated. Strong. Energetic. Responsible. Fun-loving. Individual. Aspiring.

Words of self-promotion are so over-used and contrived. Somehow along the way, we’ve been told that’s what employers and school admissions are looking for. But really, that’s how everyone describes themselves in these painful personal statements. How else are we supposed to do it?

Extremely unmotivated part of the crowd. Prefers lazing around on the couch reading and crocheting over traveling to see the world or being social. Hates fun and prefers mundane everyday conversation. Only thinks inside the box and does what has been done. Extremely boring and lacks creativity. Cannot catch or throw a ball to save my life.

I would hire some who has the guts to submit this as their personal statement. I’m so bored of filling up form after form and writing statement after statement about why I deserve this scholarship/job/position. People are supposed to decide whether or not we’re worthy of something valuable based on the good things we say about ourselves? I feel like my self-perceptions are somewhat inaccurate – but then again, see the irony of that statement? I suppose that that’s what recommendation letters are for. But really, they are simply echoes of what we have said about ourselves.

One of the top in _______. Creative. Intellectual. Inspiring.

And even in interviews, we present ourselves as if we have it all together. How we can turn our weakness into our strength. How we can handle difficult situations professionally and solve problems quickly. How I’m different from the ten people before and after me. It seems like all we do in these applications is present the best version of ourselves. And I’m skeptical about how often this version of myself ever surfaces. Probably only when I’m curled up crocheting, having ice-cream, and watching TV with Fuzz on my lap. Which I imagine is not exactly the ideal working situation. Most of the times I’m just doing whatever I can to try to hide my tiredness and crabbiness. Until I decide whether or not to take up tedious grad school applications, I will suck it up, complete my Thesis Fellowship application and forget about how I’ve just described myself as an outstanding individual.

Heart

It is really easy to feel incredibly homesick as I read about the upcoming elections (polling day being less than 2 weeks away) and realize that as I finish up my Bachelor’s degree in this foreign country, I will not be able to cast my vote this time round. I will have to wait another five years. I wish I had the means to fly home to vote but being the rule-follower and planner that I am, doing that on such short notice would simply be a nightmare. That, and you know, that money to buy a plane ticket thing. My heart aches as I feel the geographical distance between me and home more than ever. As I realize that my fellow Malaysians are dead serious about change that needs to sweep the nation for revival, I feel a tinge of regret that I’m so far and separated from all that’s going on. Well, yeah, I know can pray and so on, but my heart aches to be home to cheer, to watch in anticipation and held breaths, to do my part, to simply be part of this historical movement which I pray with all my heart will not see an end, ever. All I can do to participate is glean information with my face stuck to a bright glowing screen. That can be so lonely.

I want to be with my family. I want to be with the ones I love. I simply want to be home. And what home is to me has simply been folding into greater complexity with each passing day in the US. Home no longer simply means KL, although it will always bears a heavy weight on it.

And it is in moments like this that I sigh with gratitude and relief and unseen tears that I have not stopped feeling and caring.

Un-smoking

Have you ever felt tired, a little bored, excited and good all at the same time?

When I took Intro to Creative Writing my freshman year, I didn’t feel this mysterious sense of connection with the rest of the class as I’m currently feeling with my Fiction Writing I class. Throughout my entire college ‘career’ up till now, I’ve never been real friends with my fellow English majors. Sure, I had friends who ‘happened’ to be English majors, but none of them were friendships because we’re English majors. Up until 2 days ago. Isn’t it strange how sometimes within 2 seconds of talking to someone, you are able to tell if you are going to actually be real friends with this person or a mere acquaintance?

In my efforts to step out of this box that I believe I’ve been scratching at for a long time for a way out, for 10 minutes, I became a part of something new today. I stood in a circle of smokers, not smoking next to the other only non-smoker in the group. He told me that this isn’t even stepping out of the box, this is simply peering outside my own box into someone else’s box and that somehow this peering would lead to something greater, something better. I tried to not feel awkward. It was bright. I squinted my eyes. I pulled up the sleeves of my hoodie to my elbows and then pulled them back down the next minute. Rinse and repeat. I’m not sure if it was because the wind was getting chilly or if I was simply looking for something to do with my hands. I wondered why none of the regulars had brought up the fact that they had a new addition to their group – a non-smoker girl who writes stories that are too sweet for their tastes. I felt incredibly out-of-place as I listened in on their conversation about which of us would most likely be a gangster and who has never been in a bar fight. Maybe they felt like it was so strange that I was there that they decided to not even bring it up. Or maybe he had warned the others before hand. Later that day during French class he told me that their “Post-Fiction class smokers” conversation was not up to standards because the stories that we had read for the day were also of inferior quality. I’m not sure if I should join in on next week’s sessions. Would he invite me again? Would it start getting less weird? But then again, there’s only 2 more weeks of class, exactly 6 more periods of Fiction Writing I with Prof. Lyons. Despite being quite fed-up with school work at this point, I’m leaving this semester, no, this fiction class, with a small sense of regret, wishing that I had been bolder in getting to know these people outside of the pieces of their souls that they had handed out to the entire class to poke, to pick and to tear at in the form of their short stories.

It is 12*C outside and both my room windows are open. The heater is turned off, I think, unless my other housemate turned it back on, yet I’m feeling a little too warm and a little too tired. 

My body has a severe reaction to alcohol and I’m not interested in smoking. What’s left? Drugs and gambling? How else am I to be a great writer? Perhaps without any of the above but a healthy dose of depression and aging. Now who would like to be a part of this journey? I don’t think I would like to do grad school. Sure, I’ve barely done any research. Sure, I’m half-making this decision based on my current emotions and state of mind. Sure, I’m not even 22, I don’t know better. But that’s also why I want to wait tables for a year, work on a farm, collect my own eggs, make my own butter, own a haven which provides a steady supply of beverages, muffins, kittens, yarn balls, crochet hooks, knitting needles, well-worn out books and pockets of space for writers and readers alike to retreat into. Chargers for the soul.

Coffee spaces

… are where work is done, pastries and beverages are enjoyed, ideas are exchanged, smells and laughter are shared. I think it is the steady stream of people that come and go that attracts me to these places despite my lack of tolerance for coffee. Well, and also their usually wide selection of other yummies such as hot chocolate, caramel apple spice and sour cherry muffins. In the span of the 3 hours that I have been here, only 2 other people have been here for as long as I have been or longer than me.

I peeked at a particular girl who sat just beyond my computer screen about once every 2 minutes in the span of that 20 minutes she was there with her friend. I was unable to shake the feeling that she was that girl that I had asked to lunch once during my freshman year. We were in the same communications class. Extremely pretty and fresh faced with perfectly manicured eyebrows. Everything about her was always in perfectly neat order and that’s what intrigued me about her. Yet that one lunch was exceedingly awkward. The conversation felt forced and I started to feel foolish. My hopes of finding a good friend in her (because I had none in the US then) were extinguished. It was quite disappointing.

The man to my left is in a blue and grey snowflake sweater. I wonder what he has been working on and why he chose to leave his residence to come here and hang out. More than anything, I think we come out for the community, for the camaraderie that fills the air due to the very fact that life is taking place in front of our eyes, because it can so often wither and diminish in the darkness of our own rooms. It gives us space without isolation.

I spilled my water just now. Thankfully away from myself and my laptop. The two men within 3 feet of me did not react, perhaps afraid to acknowledge the slight embarrassment I felt for being so careless. Doesn’t laughing at your own mistakes make it more bearable and less painful?

Isn’t it strange how so many different individual lives fit so well in one space, for that span of – oh who knows, 15 minutes to maybe even 5 hours. And then everything shifts and rearranges. In fact, every time a customer walks through that door with that panel of glass with the company’s logo etched on it, everything shifts and changes. I imagine in my mind something seismic taking place. A bit of life has been invested in this space. It is permanent. It is valuable. It is big. Yet why do we feel like we have to remain strangers and ignore this fragment of life?

I think we fear that if we opened up ourselves to more life, we would see more horrors and fatigue and despair, and that’s well…not desirable. So we keep moving on. We shut our books and pack up our bags and throw away our coffee cups and simply abandon that bit of life that we just shared with 15 other strangers because, well, we have accomplished the purpose that we came to this space for – to get work done, to meet a friend, to discuss business. All these things done in hopes of simply being better.

Maybe I should smile at that boy in the snowflake sweater.

Alone

Taken from The Daily Post: When was the last time you felt really, truly lonely?

I have sat down and attempted to answer this post at least three times in the past few months but simply couldn’t come up with something that truly answered that question. Surprisingly, leaving dorm life took away almost all of my loneliness in Junior year so far. In fact, I’ve come to covet time alone in the house and rejoice when I find the house left for me to enjoy all by myself. When I read Tabby’s post recently talking about how it can feel very lonely to be a Malaysian studying abroad, I truly empathized with that and am finally able to put into words my most recent lonely experience.

I’m tired of explaining things; of having to explain what kiasu means and what on earth bak kut teh is. Words describing home and even personally experiencing the taste and the atmosphere of home can only do so much. 19 years of my life was spent in what home was then, not what home is now. I can only attempt to share with my friends these experiences that I forcefully duplicate in this Western world. Sometimes everything just seems so contrived. This gap seems to be impossible to bridge. And it is tiring and sad when I realize that this exists between me and some of the most beloved people in my life now. There is only so much that can be done to close this gap. At some point, tasting nga koo and describing my high school days will simply turn into meaningless words and tastes. They will simply be one more thing to add to the list.

It really does matter

There’s something quite degrading about the state that crying puts you in. You sob uncontrollably, lose your breath and you become capable only of speaking phrases in between violent hiccups and gasps.

I recently had a moment where I realized how incredibly naive my supposedly “mature” notions were. I was left staring at my red eyes, taking in the realization that being different and strong headed is really not that important after all. And the humbling reality that what other people think really does matter, despite what our individualistic culture tells us. Doing something just because other people tell you to can be a pretty good idea sometimes too.

新年快乐吧! 依然想家.