Nowhere Near Completion: The End of Summer

Of all the words buzzing around my still-embryonic and, thus, still-optimistic thesis research – which, now, can be best characterized as a heap of mistreated books, fingertip-oiled keytops, and looseleaf essays-that-I-should-have-read-electronically-but-printed-so-I-could-scribble-academic-nonsense-on-them – there are a few that linger a bit longer, that resonate in a higher register: “flesh,” “horror,” “freakishness,” “alterity,” and, perhaps most prominently, “grotesque.” Throughout my studies, this has been the undergirding term, the concept that has pulled my ideas, observations, and farfetched considerations up from vague abstraction to (marginally-less-vague) clarity. It has not only unlocked doors for me; it has thrown doors open, pried them away from their rust-laden hinges, crushed them into shards and splinters and assorted debris.

To be sure, there is a sort of commonplace assumption about the “grotesque,” that it encompasses all things distorted, depraved, and/or demoniacal, and such an assumption is not entirely wrongheaded. Upon hearing the excessively grisly details of Robin Williams’ suicide, for instance – details, I might add, that specified the late comedian’s precise posture at the time of “death-via-asphyxia” and previous attempts at self-harm – a family member of mine remarked, with a generous helping of disgust in her voice: “How sickening. How grotesque.” This usage, while admittedly atheoretical, is not too far off the mark. The “grotesque” is that which causes us to turn away, to shut our eyes, and sometimes, if it is especially potent, to scream out.

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A Meditation on Culture/Internationalism

Drip.

I sigh as I brush my damp hair out of my eyes.

Drip.

Another sigh.

Drip.

“Where’s that sound coming from?” My hand moves to my forehead again as I get up from my prone position.

A flash of light. The sound of rain pattering violently on tile.

“Ah.” I shuffle wearily to the window. “That’s where the drip came from.”

“About time,” my mom grumbles in Chinese. “Typhoon was supposed to come three days ago. Three extra days of pre-typhoon stuffiness.”

I start making my way up the stairs. “You want me to close the bedroom windows?”

“Yes, please.” More Chinese.

A few moments later, and I’m standing in front of my bedroom window.

I run a hand through my hair again as I stare out the window. Rain is lashing down everywhere, turning the nearby creek into a mess of concentric circles and the bright red lanterns into soggy balls of maroon.

These are the Septembers that my parents grew up in. Torrential rain punctuated with interludes of sweltering, humid heat.

I look out over the darkened street.

This was the life they lived. Simple childhoods by a crook, catching dragonflies and toads, collecting cicada pupae for traditional pharmacies, steeped in a culture that defines them and, perhaps, could have defined me.

I sigh again. My parents, caught up in the massive chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the cultural dark age that accompanied it, rarely brought Chinese culture into our family. And so, despite spending most of my childhood summers and the last five years in China, I am still staunchly American—with a Chinese ancestry. My parents taught me to question, to criticize, but never really got around to sharing what they had been like, how their families had lived.

So it’s not surprising that I was a bit out of my element living in China. My Chinese was, to say the least, choppy and accented, and I could squeak out barely a few phrases in Shanghainese, a dialect that should have been my native tongue.

Suddenly, the Asian-American identity that I’d carefully crafted was no longer relevant. To my Chinese relatives and friends, I was an American, a foreigner. At best, I was a “banana”–yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

But, as I’ve only just realised, I’m quite okay with that. I was never going to quite fit in in China, nor, with my wanderlust, any place else that I decided to live. My time overseas meant that my experiences no longer quite meshed with those of Asian Americans, Californians, or even Americans as a whole (pardon my sloppy generalisations here).

I have friends who I care about, a college community that I respect, and goals to realised. Maybe I’m naively delusional, but for now, that’s enough to keep me going.

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Ode to Table Manners

While I was abroad I was lucky enough to see a lot of great music, at a lot of great venues, in a lot of great cities. Dance music is much more mainstream in Europe than it is here and I took full advantage. I even managed to learn the difference between house and techno (don’t quiz me on sub-genres). But I also learned that there is no sound system big enough to fill the very special place in my heart that belongs to Table Manners.

Let me explain. Since the first Tuesday night of all time, Pomona students have been gathering deep in the student center basement to do what we all do best: dance. Genres are flexible. Beer is free for those over 21 and so inclined. Sometimes the back wall even lights up (weird, huh?). It’s the best night of the week, hands down.

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Good Vibes

Warming up

Warming up at the ABT studios

Today marks seven weeks of my marathon of dance intensives this summer; I spent three weeks at the American Ballet Theatre in New York and next week I will finish my fifth week at Foster Dance Studio in Chicago. ABT’s curriculum was heavily focused on ballet technique; we rarely ventured out of the bun-head realm. But at Foster, our classes include jazz, modern, and contemporary technique, in addition to daily ballet classes. Ballet comes with an extensive set of challenges. Tendon pain and sore muscles are no small burden to bear when you’re trying to achieve a triple (or quadruple) pirouette. But contemporary choreography comes with an entirely different collection of aches that I am not nearly as familiar with. My knees are bruised from all of the tricky floor work we’ve done, and my back is crazy sore from choreography that requires arabesques wacked to 180 degrees.

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#tbt: Study Abroad

It’s only been a month since I returned to this side of the world and already I am wondering if Study Abroad actually happened. In Los Angeles, it’s hard to believe a place like Cambridge even exists. But it’s time for me to reflect, now. And where better to do so than publicly, on the internet?

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Receptions Galore in DC

Cheesing with Kerry in the background

Cheesing with Kerry in the background

There’s so much to do in DC — for tourists that is. Personally, I think I’m a local by now, having spent 10 weeks in the district last summer, a few weekends throughout the school year, and three weeks this summer so far. With that being said, it should almost be a given that I have been to the White House (both outside and inside), the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the zoo, the museums, you name it. Yet, it’s always surreal to casually walk a few feet away from the house and office of the Leader of the Free World. And that’s exactly where I went on my second night in DC (I was too tired from moving in on the first night).

There are some advantages to living at the George Washington University (GW):

  • It’s in a convenient location; same district as the White House and only five minutes away walking distance from the State Department where I’m working, so you bet I’m leaving my place at 8:55 am every morning.
  • You’re surrounded by hundreds of other interns from all over the country, so it’s easy to make friends.
  • An (overpriced) Whole Foods and the Foggy Bottom metro station are both a block away from my dorm.
  • The AC.

Don’t get me wrong though; there are some not-so-pleasant parts of living in a dorm that was built in 1945, like:

  • Everything else.
  • But specifically, leaky pipes in the bathroom that dripped some sort of murky water all over the bathroom sink and floor, and caused the lights to go out for a couple of hours.

But thank god I’m only there for a total of nine weeks, so I’ll survive.

Honestly though, I haven’t been spending much time in the room since there’s so much to do and see, both on weeknights and weekends. Whether it’s a talk, networking reception, or sight-seeing, there’s always something going on. I have gone to a couple of receptions and networking events by now. I actually met a Pomona alum earlier in June who is now a grad student at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. My office (Global Partnerships) hosted a reception in mid-June at the World Bank to celebrate the launch of its mFish partnership, a new initiative that aims to make fishing more sustainable and improve the lives of fishermen and their communities by developing practical solutions that use the power of commercially viable mobile technology. This was in recognition of Secretary Kerry’s “Our Ocean” Conference which dealt with a set of actions (sustainable fisheries, marine pollution, ocean acidification) that the US government intends to undertake and to pursue with other nations and stakeholders at the international level.

The more memorable events have included seeing Secretary of State John Kerry speak (twice!) in the Ben Franklin room at the State Department. The first was a celebration for LGBT pride month and the second was at a reception to celebrate the groundbreaking for the USA Pavilion at Milan Expo 2015, the next world’s fair that will focus on food security. Standing only a few feet away from Kerry, and even Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives, was such a surreal experience for me, and I even had to pinch myself every five minutes to make sure this was real. I’m sure Kerry got tired of me taking 50 pictures of him while he was on the podium though.

Chipotle at Pride

Chipotle at Pride

I also attended my first Pride Parade in June and that was definitely an interesting experience. Besides getting beads thrown at me, or snatched in front of my face before I could even think about grabbing them, I enjoyed the solidarity of the over 150,000 people there and local and national LGBT-friendly organizations represented on floats and marches, especially the Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies and Chipotle ones.

While Claremont’s a great place to be, there are also many advantages to living in a city, whether it’s DC, NYC, or even Philly. I definitely have been taking advantage of my time here in terms of both enjoying the summer and networking, and look forward to see how many pictures and business cards I’ll have my the end of my time here.

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Discarding Convention: Embodying the Liberal Arts

We, earnest advocates and defenders of the artes liberales, are destined for a crossroads; whether it is acknowledged or avoided or completely suppressed, it is there before us – a critical intersection, where all undergraduates invariably converge, where the “real world” becomes visible on the L.A. horizon.

Some Pomona students – those of optimistic tendencies – imagine this as a borderland between the authentic and the artificial, a transitory threshold on the way to boundless opportunity and sure-fire success. Others, whose tendencies will speak for themselves, view it as a sort of job-seekers’ purgatory: unemployed revenants wandering here-and-there, the musty, acrid smell of your parents’ basement, the ground littered with instant-coffee-stained classified ads. Indeed, it is a bleak picture.

This crossroads, if not already piercingly apparent, is the post-grad job market, an ever-encroaching denouement at the tail-tail-end of the collegiate dramatic arc. Fortunately, for me, a nail-biting senior, there is still plenty of time to plan and prepare, to brace myself, and, as my own experiences will attest, the Career Development Office does a highly commendable job of assuaging the symptoms of I’m-not-quite-sure-what-I-want-to-do-yet asphyxiation. However, almost more important that determining an appropriate career path is learning how to take the first step on that precipitous road and, moreover, how to do so with resolve, with gusto, and with your integrity and ambition intact.

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Scared on the Front Desk

Ah, the front desk. I have an interesting relationship with the front desk at the admissions office. Juanita, the receptionist at the front desk, truly makes it look easy. She is so calm transferring calls, greeting people and filing paperwork. Going into the summer, I knew I’d have to work the front desk a couple times when Juanita is on vacation. It seemed simple enough. At least, Juanita made it appear simple enough. In the first couple of weeks of orientation for the job, we learned how to transfer calls, how to greet people, and how to generally appear to have things together. I felt like I was ready to go the first day I came to the front desk.

I was terribly, terribly wrong. My first day at the front desk, I think I dropped three calls, was incredibly inarticulate when greeting people and was on the verge of a mental breakdown. Most of the time, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just start smashing the phone until it stopped mocking me. Whenever I saw the red flashing buttons on the phone, I felt like I was in a scene of a horror movie. Every time I dropped a call, I assumed the worst. “What if that was Obama on the phone? Or the Dalai Lama?” Most of the time when I drop a call, people generally call back. But, even when they do call back, I feel intense guilt.

On this emotional roller coaster, my colleagues came down to check in on me from time to time. I think some of them had legitimate concern for my health. Yet, others simply laughed at my misfortune. I won’t name any names, but let’s just say it hurt me more than they could ever know. The only laughing that should be happening while I am at the front desk is my own laughing. Even if it is a laugh of insanity, it should be the only laugh allowed while I am at the front desk.

Now, every time I’m not working the front desk, I thank my lucky stars. Every day, I make sure to tell Juanita that she is THE BEST, because I have no idea how any person can do that job as calmly or efficiently as Juanita does it. Whenever I come down the stairs, she has the biggest smile on her face even though she has 3 different calls coming in, AND on top of that, she makes sure to tell me to eat my fruits and vegetables with every meal. If there is a Juanita in your life, make sure you tell them that you love them every day. I know before I had to sit the front desk, I had no idea how difficult the job was. Some superheroes just keep it on the down low, I guess… though I see right through Juanita’s disguise!

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Made in L.A.

Last fall, I took one of the weirder classes of my college career, “Performance in Contemporary Art.” Twice a week, I would bike down to Seaver Theatre and participate in a two-and-a-half-hour workshop led by a guest artist. One time we made puppets. One time we re-enacted our past deaths in tableaux. One time we embodied spirit animals and I (a tiger) ate my professor (a bird) for lunch. Each afternoon was a different perspective on contemporary performance practice.

My class was lucky to get a taste of the L.A. (performance) art scene, which most visiting artists seem to think is thriving, and even intimate, despite the size of the city. Our professor, Mark Allen, runs an art space in Echo Park called Machine Project, where he collaborates with lots of the people he brought in to work with us. When my class visited, the space had been made up into a convenience store-cum-cave-come-burlesque theatre. Another time, I popped in to see some drone music.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “Performance in Contemporary Art” since I have been living in Downtown Los Angeles. I think it really inspired my creative thinking, both about art I make and art I see or otherwise experience. Since then, I have become increasingly interested in working in a group to make and experience things (I even think about a career in arts education, sometimes); indeed, many of the artists we were working with do collaborative projects.

One of these artists is Emily Mast, whose work I was lucky to see last week when I went to the Hammer Museum to see their biennial “Made in L.A.” The whole exhibit was a real testament, I would say, to the weird and exciting work being made here. One of the vague themes of the biennial was objects, it seemed to me, which I found fun because I’ve long been interested in the sheer volume of things that fill our world. But I particularly liked Emily’s piece because it worked to say something about the human body’s relationship with these objects. Lucky for me, I get to return to the Hammer throughout the summer for more!

P.S. Check out some of Emily’s videos here: https://vimeo.com/user2170220!

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If You Give a Mouse a Lysolecithin Injection…

She may lead you to a cure for multiple sclerosis (I work with female mice).

The world of scientific research captivated me the summer prior to my first year at Pomona College. I found a summer research internship through the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to gain first-hand perspective with a research setting. I worked my mentors to investigate drug combinations for T-cell leukemia. It was an eye-opening experience — my first exposure to scientific academia, cell culture techniques, and the collaborative nature of a research lab. It was perhaps the experience which single-handedly culminated to my declaring a molecular biology major at Pomona.

For this summer, I wanted to continue looking into research that had relevance to the health professions. In particular, I was seeking neuroscience research. Ever since a horrifying experience of a close family member battling, and ultimately losing to, a vegetative state, I wanted to be a pioneer in the research and combatting of neurological disorders. I ultimately decided against studying neuroscience at Pomona because I felt that a broader degree would be more applicable, but I felt that I could find neuroscience exposure through summer research experiences. After contacting several professors at the University of Chicago (a comprehensive research university located close to my home), I was thrilled to be given a research opportunity by Dr. Brian Popko, one of the leading experts on myelin research.

Where I work!

Where I work!

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