2017 Year-End Reflections

I kicked off this year with the ambitious goal of writing at least one thing, in any format, per week. A few months in, I realized this was putting too much pressure on myself. I also started to think more seriously about writing a novel, and I wanted to focus on it exclusively.

Two concept pivots later, the novel unfortunately took a backseat to a soul-crushing, five-month job hunt. My discontent with my day job reached a point where I was crying every Sunday night about having to go back to work in the morning, hopelessly pessimistic about my career trajectory, and constantly angry. I submitted over 50 applications, reformatted my resume twice, e-mailed one faceless recruiter after another, had innumerable phone calls, had 10 video or on-site interviews, and received 21 rejections. I learned New York is full of shiny start-ups “disrupting” the way you make financial investments, order food, reserve physical storage space, manage retail inventory, continue education, and get someone to clean your apartment—all online, mostly from your phone. The “Uber” of this, the “Facebook” of that.

In November, shortly after I tendered my resignation without a solid contingency plan—goes to show how unbearably toxic that environment had become for me—I received an official offer of employment. It was from an up-and-coming company that actually seems to be doing something real, has a robust and amazing product, and has tremendous potential for further growth. I accepted immediately, with the most excitement and optimism I’ve ever felt about my career. I am no longer working in the same role as I did for the past five years, which is somewhat scary, but hopefully I won’t ever be turning back.

2017 was an exciting and gratifying year in other ways, too. Friends had birthday parties, got engaged, completed graduate studies, got promotions and new jobs, and launched new initiatives. I had the honor of attending not one, but two vibrant, exuberant Indian weddings. I did my first (and only, for the foreseeable future) short story reading at a Brooklyn bookstore. I joined an amateur orchestra that will be performing at Carnegie Hall next year. I heard amazing musical performances by Yuja Wang and the New York Philharmonic, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and Hans Zimmer. I stopped using paper tissues and switched to handkerchiefs. I traveled to Colorado, Dallas, Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles, Olympic National Park, Cherry Springs State Park, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mexico City, and Mumbai. And I got engaged!

I made a more earnest effort than ever to seek out new stories and characters, especially from people of color and other marginalized voices—something I plan to  continue in 2018 and beyond. These were in the form of wondrous, awe-inspiring books:

  • The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu
  • The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
  • Sour Heart: Stories, by Jenny Zhang
  • The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past), by Liu Cixin
  • Her Body and Other Parties: Stories, by Carmen Maria Machado

thought-provoking independent theater productions:

  • In Full Color
  • Blackout
  • Say Something Bunny!

and fascinating exhibits at the:

  • Guggenheim (NYC)
  • National Videogame Museum (Dallas)
  • American Writers Museum (Chicago)
  • Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago)
  • Museum of Broken Relationships (Los Angeles)
  • Future of Storytelling Festival (Staten Island)
  • art museum in Mexico City whose name I’ve sadly forgotten.

Next year, I want to be better and more proactive about maintaining friendships. I want to keep growing and learning, and help others do the same. I need to get back into writing (again). And I want to tick off some not-so-fun items that have been on my to-do list for an embarrassing amount of time, such as deep-cleaning areas of my apartment.

Happy New Year, everyone! Let’s make it a great one.

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Creation Story

Yesterday, I had the honor and privilege of doing a reading at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop. My friend Eileen curated the event, which was about using fortune cookie slips as writing prompts. I got to share a stage with several incredibly talented, inspiring, humbling Asian-American writers (including Eileen herself)! Here is the short story I wrote for the occasion.
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Identity

When I was twelve, I entered what I called a “quarter-life crisis.” My math wasn’t bad; I was simply convinced I wasn’t going to make it into my fifties. Like most humans on the cusp of teenager-hood, I struggled with questions of identity and purpose. My mother emphasized school above all else, implying that I was either a good student or a waste of life. Teachers, on the other hand, cautioned that we were not our grades, standardized test scores, or audition results. No doubt this was intended to be reassuring—but to me, it was terrifying.

I thought I might be able to define myself with a career, but I never had a firm idea of what I wanted that to be. I toyed with pursuing music, writing, pharmacy, mathematics, law, astrophysics, firefighting, and more. Nothing stuck. People close to me have probably gotten sick of hearing me talk about Sylvia Plath’s fig tree so much, but it always resonated so powerfully with me, and still does. It made twelve-year-old me profoundly nihilistic. What was the point in trudging forward in nebulous blackness, toward more of the same? Wouldn’t it be better just to end it all now? Who would care about this loser who would never amount to anything?

If academic skill didn’t grant me purpose, then I needed some deep introspection to find something that would. Fearfully, I concluded I had nothing else going for me. I wasn’t the cool kid who always came up with fun ideas and got invited to everyone’s parties. I was a condescending asshole to kids who didn’t coast through classes as effortlessly as I did. I wasn’t the nicest or funniest or trendiest, or even the smartest. I had trouble maintaining my own opinions and wants, collapsing instead like an ironing board in the proximity of others’. I also had palpably abysmal self-esteem from believing myself ugly. I didn’t think confidence or lack thereof could be so obvious to others, but when a friend walked up and told me out of the blue one day, “Hey, you’re beautiful; don’t forget that,” I realized with a stab of embarrassment that my eyes told their own pathetic story in large neon letters. I hated being inside this skin, I didn’t talk to my family, and I didn’t want anything to do with anyone. I was an existential nightmare and waste of life.

It lasted for nearly ten years. And still returns for a periodic haunt.

When I started working full-time, I felt better. I like the feeling of productivity and contributing to a collective. Even if I didn’t genuinely enjoy it, I think it would have at least kept my mind too preoccupied to tip into the darker stuff. But Fight Club and anti-capitalists tell us we are not our jobs, either. We are not our mortgages, furniture, or kitchen appliances. Plus, work has been distressing lately, to the point where I’m questioning everything and feeling broken. So now I have two problems:

  1. I still don’t have a sense of self outside of work.
  2. When work goes poorly, my sense of self begins to dissolve again.

Harry Potter suggests that identity is a choice. You are in Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin because that’s what matters to you and that’s what you strive to be. This feels one-dimensional to me, however. I’m a lot more than a character trait. I’m also a lot of things that I don’t care to make into a Big Deal or factor into Who I Am. I can’t even test consistently into one Hogwarts house; it’s always a toss-up between Ravenclaw and Slytherin.

Are we to be our experiences, then? I don’t want to be my depression, androgyny, or queerness. I don’t want to wrap my identity around being a former smoker, drug user, alcoholic, and rape victim. But in a weird way, I sort of do. Two of my friends went out for dinner today to talk about mental illness and writing. Hey, I know about those things and would love to talk about them, too, I wanted to say and invite myself. I held back because I didn’t want to issue a “claim.” Tons of people take these sorts of things and are wildly successful at deriving artistic inspiration from them and making names for themselves, but I don’t want the labels. Maybe what I really want is the sense of community around pain and conflict, without having those seep into my individual self. Maybe it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome, too.

I’m not supposed to be my job, but I loved it, and now I don’t know what I am without that love. I do have a stronger personality now: wiser, bolder, kinder, more equitable, more caring and generous, and concerned about what’s best for the big picture and the long term. I am a writer, musician, gamer, exercise enthusiast, and significant other. Most days, that feels like enough. When put to text, it certainly looks like enough! I’m still figuring myself out, though. It’s been a long, arduous journey of healing to get to this point, and I’ve still got a ways to go.

Jobs

I had a hard time understanding work when I was a kid. Not the semantic meaning of the word, but what people actually did when they were “at work.” My father has been a pharmacologist for over twenty-five years, but he didn’t tell me his title until I needed to enter his occupation for college applications. Until then, all I knew was that he worked at a drug company. I jokingly wondered if that meant he was a drug dealer, but knew he was too nerdy and goofy for it to be true. Whatever he did, he seemed to have a lot of free time. He liked looking up NBA statistics and potential universities for me to attend. Since the office was less than twenty minutes away, he frequently came home for lunch and a nap. My one memory of Take Your Daughter to Work Day consisted of a hazy image of a dry-ice freezer and little else.

The jobs I understood reasonably well were doctor, dentist, teacher, firefighter, musician, actor, athlete, chef, and taxi driver. My mother said I was too squeamish around blood to be a doctor, though I didn’t consider myself so. Musical employment was too capricious and therefore out of the question. Instead, her dream was for me to be a lawyer. I didn’t feel particularly enthused about this because I didn’t know what it entailed on a day-to-day basis, and she couldn’t say, either. So I went through high school and even college trying to get through classes just for the sake of getting through them, with no end goal or career trajectory. The concept of life after school confused and terrified me. 

Unsurprisingly, then, my first job out of college was at Starbucks. For a year, I wrote orders on cups; “hand-crafted” lattes and Frappuccinos; and plastered on a smile in the face of complaints, insults, and demands for free stuff. I heard one could make a good salary after a few years of climbing the store ranks or transferring to corporate, and wondered dully if this was going to be it for the rest of my life. One supervisor who was a couple years my senior had already been with the ‘Bux for six years, supporting her disabled mother and sister on this income. A middle-aged woman joined the team when she lost her office job and the recession made it too difficult to find a similar replacement. Another barista had worked there for three years, quit to pursue a dream, and returned a few years later when it didn’t work out. 

These people were hardworking, bright, hilarious, passionate, and team-oriented. Their struggles, and those of other colleagues, inspired yet frightened me. After an insular, middle-class upbringing and expensive liberal arts college education, this was my first time really getting to know folks like this. We were all in this together, dealing with this job that was far from ideal. We just didn’t know how else to pay the bills, get affordable health insurance, and make it to the next month. Survival had never felt so overwhelming. It was eye-opening, to say the least. And though it was embarrassing to have my own naiveté smack me upside the head, I was extremely grateful for the experience. 

I got a massive break when one of my closest friends gave me a life-changing opportunity that set me on a career path I could actually feel excited about. For the first time, I felt a drive to succeed for my own sake, not for the amusement of besting others. I had tangible goals and felt capable of contributing something real to a business. I finally felt worthy of ambition. With this job, I was busy, productive, no longer on my feet all day, and making an annual salary that would have taken multiple barista years combined to match. For this, I will always be grateful to my friend.

The thing about ambition, though, is a tendency to feed on itself. The more I learned and achieved, the more I knew I still had much to learn and achieve. Once adrift at sea with no concept of what land looked like, I soon not only found it, but wanted to leave my personal flag on it and even reshape it. I started experiencing brief spells of discontent, doubt, and obligation regarding my career path every few months. I wondered if this was truly the best application of my talents, if I was truly helping anyone. The scope of responsibilities and accomplishments felt trivial. My employee presence was merely a cog in a colossal machine, a voice shouted into an abyss. The money was never enough. I should have been an engineer. I should have been a doctor. 

Two weeks ago, I attended a Meetup about colonization of digital spaces and structures, hosted by the group Ethical Tech. The panelists led a fascinating discussion about a broad span of topics, and it was one of the best Meetups I’ve attended to date. The gist was that modern technology has been trending white, male, and English-speaking. How many of the rest of us feel empowered and helpful in the industry? How does this affect potential development, innovation, and contributions from others? How does this distort other cultures and worldviews? What can we do about it? Does it really matter? As I walked to Penn Station after the session, my head swam with insights, reflections—and renewed guilt over the nature of my full-time job. 

When did you become such a capitalist drone? admonished my inner social justice warrior. All you’re doing is helping big corporations save some money so they can get even bigger. 

It doesn’t have to be such a bad thing to enjoy this kind of position, another side retorted. People should contribute to the betterment of society however they can. We’re not all cut out to be protesters and rioters. Right now, your job gives you free time to push social messaging through your writing. You’re gaining experience, influence, and wealth to use someday to effect more powerful change.

Not like those social justice groups have been offering to hire you, anyway, a drier voice remarked. 

The existential unease has been harder to shake this time. I guess what it comes down to is: do you work to live, or live to work? I’ve grown to prefer the latter, so it pains me to feel my work isn’t meaningful. One of my patriarchy-smashing, anti-capitalist friends from college would say, “You are not your work. Productivity does not equate to happiness.” Oh, but it does—at least for me. It’s wild, how much of a role jobs can play in people’s self-esteem, happiness, relationships, life goals, and more. When I think back to my aimless days, I’m surprised and pleased by how much I’ve changed. Yet there are still days when I feel aimless in a different way. All I want to do is change the world, you know? 

Pressure

I have a difficult time knowing when I cross the line between self-discipline and being overly tough on myself. I was raised to believe that anything is possible when you try hard enough, and I derive genuine happiness from feeling “productive”—a dangerous recipe for stress, impatience, sleep deprivation, and a frustrating inability to relax. Sylvia Plath’s proverbial fig tree speaks volumes to my perpetually anxious self. So much to do and learn; not nearly enough hours in a day, or days in a lifetime.

Years ago, I wanted a senior position at a start-up company whose imminent IPO would make me a millionaire. On the side, I wanted to be a writer, data scientist, programmer, electronic music producer/DJ, singer-songwriter, celebrity gamer, poker player, photographer, weight lifter, and marathon runner. Preferably all at the same time, with a bustling social life to boot. I also liked cooking and cleaning my apartment frequently. Every day after work, I stood at a crossroads with an overwhelming number of to-do items and only a handful of hours for tackling a single one. I knew it was crazy, but I needed to do everything and embody this overachieving ideal built up in my mind. If other people could juggle multiple major endeavors, so could I.

Last year, I decided to focus on writing. I have still been pursuing other hobbies and interests, but to a lesser degree. I enrolled in a twelve-week writing workshop at the local county college, rebooting the creativity engine. At the beginning of 2017, I vowed to post an essay or short story here each week. Much more reasonable, right? But now I have missed three or four weeks, and I am beating myself up pretty hard for it. Things have been ramping up at work. I have been spending more quality time with my boyfriend and his family. I have been traveling, attending talks, visiting museums, reading, and watching films—all experiences from which I seek storytelling inspiration. Are these positive signs of a more balanced life, or pathetic excuses for slacking off from a simple goal? My answer fluctuates with the time of day and my mood.

I think I am finally ready to start working on a novel, but is that merely another excuse for not writing any more weekly essays? The weekly essays have been a challenging yet satisfying exercise. I would love to keep them up for the rest of the year, and a big part of me feels like a failure for stopping them a third of the way through. However, I am excited about this novel idea and I want to give it an earnest shot. Maybe once I finish it, I can finally ease some pressure off myself.

Regardless of what happens, hopefully you’ll hear from me again soon enough.

Mortality

Last year was an especially bad time for my dust and pollen allergies. Every morning, I would wake up exhausted from a night of grabbing tissues for my alternately stuffy and runny nose. I would feel as if I hadn’t had a sip of water in days, even when I’d had a full glass right before going to bed. My throat was constantly sore, and my skin itched and peeled all over. I tried running extra laundry cycles, scrubbing and rescrubbing my floors and surfaces, installing an air filter, and adjusting my diet—all of which only marginally helped. When I finally went to the doctor, she told me it was “just allergies” and to take allergy medicine every morning. Almost immediately, my symptoms stopped.

The most bewildering part of all this, and the reason I didn’t try taking allergy medicine sooner, was that this was happening in March. Allergies were nothing new to me, but typically they weren’t triggered when greenery was still struggling to reemerge from the last grey clutches of frost. This is my life now, I thought dully as I continued to pop my daily Zyrtec well into October. As with the onset of puberty, something in my body had changed forever and I simply had to deal with it.

Two days ago, I went to the doctor again for an annual checkup. “There are some abnormalities in your blood work,” she said in greeting as she entered the room and took a seat before me. I was taken aback. I had in fact noticed some minor issues or changes, but dismissed them as inevitable side effects of aging. In the two seconds before her next sentence, my mind fluttered frantically from one conjecture to another. It’s cancer. I’m a mutant. It’s Zika. The lab couldn’t even identify my sample as human blood. Then she said, “You have hypothyroidism,” and the pieces clicked into place. That explained the variation in bowel movements, feeling of dryness, and struggle to lose weight despite cutting my caloric intake and going to the gym five days a week. Now I have to take medication for this every morning for the next three months, and then follow up more blood work and another doctor’s visit to see if my thyroid gland has gotten any better. If not, this will be yet another uncooperative corporeal component to deal with for the rest of my days.

This is the beginning of the end, I thought during the drive home. As human beings, we are naturally concerned about mortality and tend to say this about a lot of things that make us feel old. When we stop running around, jumping, and skinning our knees with reckless abandon, and instead start calculating odds and assessing risk before acting. When we can no longer drink all night and wake up energetic and hangover-free the following morning. When a childhood friend has a baby, gets a divorce, or passes away from a heart attack. When friends and family move away, lose touch, and move on. When kids born in the year 2000 can drive. Hypothyroidism is hardly cause for doom and despair—especially when it’s as mild as mine appears to be—but it means more pills, restrictions, and yet another speed bump on the great slowdown.

Yet these days I find myself able to reflect on beginnings of ends with a lot less bitterness and franticness, and more serene acceptance. It helps to recognize and remember all the positive changes that have transpired among the negative ones. I’m no longer perpetually depressive, anxious, angry, self-hating, or meek in the face of bullshit. I’m much more confident and focused on achieving personal goals, which I never used to have at all. Most importantly, I don’t dwell on regrets for hours a day. If this is what approaching mortality means, it’s not necessarily so bad.