To Know Someone

How do you really know someone?

How do you define knowing someone — really knowing them?

I can get all philosophical and try to tie this in with all the epistemology argument, but I’m too lazy to do it. Or I can get very joke-y about this and write about knowing someone in biblical sense. But I’m not feeling that cynical/satirical today.

How do you really know someone?

I don’t know the answer to this, but when my grandmother passed away, I felt like I never truly knew her. Though I don’t really know what it meant to know someone, I understand and felt it in my bones and in my veins that I did not know her.

A lot of people equate loving with knowing. It is tempting to do so, but what they don’t realize is that you can very easily love someone you never really know. When this happens it’s the idea of that someone that you love, not the person. This is the recipe for most of life dramas.

And then there’s hate. I think in some ways, hating a particular person is actually closer to knowing them than loving them. I always felt that hatred is such a singular, uncompromising, simple emotion when directed toward one other human being; while loving someone can take so many malleable forms and various manifestations… toxic love, pure love, filial love, romantic love, passionate love, dead love…hatred, hatred toward another is so unique. When you hate someone, you don’t take them for granted the way you do to the ones you love or claim to love. Hating someone requires effort, active participation, and aggressive, exhausting investment of emotion. In some ways I don’t fully understand, I believe that to utterly hate someone means to know them as well.

But then again, I never hated someone this much, so what do I know?

All I know was that my grandmother was the first and probably the only person to ever love me unconditionally. And I had taken her for granted. I had done so all my life.

I don’t know if my grandma had any dreams. I know she had regrets. Many. I didn’t put in the effort to knowing what those were, when she was alive. If I did, would that be enough to know her?  But there must be something more than just understanding another person’s regrets and dreams to actually know them.

She was a wife, a mother, a sister, a grandmother, a woman. She was always a woman to me. She represented everything I did not want to become, but at the same time everything I admired, too.

We slept in same room when I was younger. I used to wake up at night at the sound of her snoring. Ever since we scattered her ashes in the sea, I’ve been having some insomnia problems. Not every night, but some nights. Tonight might be one of those nights.

Also, I still don’t know how to make peace with the fact that I now have to type everything about her in past tense.

Did I fail her by not knowing her? I feel like I knew her enough to know that she would smile and answer “no”.

So, how do you know someone?

If I could anticipate what the other person is going to say in a given situation, do I know them, then? If I knew how to make them laugh? If I knew which movies will stun them, which songs will bring them to tears? If I knew all the childhood stuff they are embarrassed about and adult stuff they dread about? If I knew what virtues are important to them in life? If I knew their vices and their good deeds, if I knew whether they believe in God, if I knew what they thought about death… If I knew their fears and dreams and insecurities and successes and memories and hopes? If I knew what they think and feel about other people?

If I knew that they’d tell me something and end it with “I’ve never told this to anyone else before”?

Would that be enough?

If I knew when they are lying, if I knew when they are happy, angry, sad, disappointed.

If I knew whether they want to be known.

If I knew whether they want me to truly, deeply, fully know them. Would that be enough, then?

Is that how you can truly know someone? When nothing they do, say, think can surprise you anymore but somehow you still want to see, hear, feel them do, say, and think all those things? How do you know whether you even want to know someone? Whether you even should want to?

Here’s the scary thing. What if you truly, really know someone. And then you lost that person – you lost the person the same way everyone else lost someone: you lost them to death, or you lost them to life. When you lost someone to death, everything you know about them is preserved in the past, in memories. There was an end point where you stopped knowing more about them, but you still did truly know them.

Wouldn’t it be more tragic if you lost someone because life gets in the way? Stopped knowing someone because you lost them to life? Knowing that this person who leaves (or you left) continues to evolve, grow, change, to morph into another person you used to know but no longer do.

Have I ever really, truly known anyone? Will I ever?

How would I know if anyone knows me, at all? Will anyone ever?

 “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.

Julie Delpy, Before Sunrise & Before Sunset: Two Screenplays

The answer must be in the attempt.


 

It’s been a while.

Jumbled,

M

Solo Trip, Stangers, and Taking Credit for ISIS’ Eventual Demise

Around the end of last year, I went for an impulsive solo trip to Hong Kong. Just for a few days, I thought. I hadn’t been there for quite a long time. Little did I know I would experience the city in its utmost weirdness or that I’d met some of the most beguiling strangers ever. Some people – you just don’t need to know them by names.

There was a handsome swimming instructor sitting across me at breakfast one morning. At one point in our conversation, I noticed him struggling to understand my English, so I was about to move on talking about a next topic.”No, no,” he said, “Repeat, please. I want to understand. I want to learn.”

There was an American investment banker working out in a park. He declared, “Nah, I love Chinese food in New York better.”

There was an old lady in a museum pointing out to me her favorite exhibition, a room with glass flooring, under which you can see countless broken pieces of Chinese ceramics. “Stand right here,” she whispered, “You are literally stepping on 500-year old Ming vases now.”

And then, there was the girl at the empty pier in Lamma Island. The ferry going back to city had just left; both of us missed it. Under the moonlight, she sat cross-legged, closed-eyed, at the edge of the boardwalk with a bouquet of flowers next to her. After few minutes of contemplating and preparing myself mentally for any backlash (you know, if she was crying or meditating), I decided that I needed to hear her story. What chains of events had brought her to sit on that boardwalk of that small pier on that particular night, creating a view so serene, enigmatic, and surreal?

She said of the flowers, “I saw an old man in the island today selling flowers. He was walking around with no shoes. I followed him around. Then I bought him (slippers) and I bought the flowers from him.” In that one sentence of hers I found an immediate difference between me and this stranger – the old man was in her field of vision. She focused her sight on him and took the extra step. Shame hit me as, truth be told, I saw that old man, too. But he was in my peripheral vision, as how people in need often are. As the saying goes, she brought back my faith in humanity.

We took the next ferry back to the city and she let me follow her to her secret spot on the esplanade. We lied down our backs and till past midnight discussed thoroughly about life, art, dreams, fears, feminism, history, religion, bucket lists, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, the Yellow Umbrella Revolution…

I kept a mental list of moments in my life which I deem Groundhog Day-worthy. This was definitely one of those. I wouldn’t mind reliving those hours on an infinite loop. (Maybe I’ll write about the other Groundhog Day-worthy moments some other times) Also, I have a favorite secret spot in Singapore now, but it was only after meeting her that I actively sought to find one.

The next day was the last day of my trip and she volunteered as my local guide. In one of our conversations after lunch, my new friend asked me if there is anyone I don’t like – friends, colleagues, anyone. I said, duh, yeah, of course sometimes other humans bring out the misanthrope in me. I thought she was just making a way into her venting out her own hated people or something. But then the conversation took a completely different turn and she revealed that there was a spot under some random highway reserved for a few old ladies performing cursing rituals. And she was taking me there.

Thinking back now, my first reaction was to let out a laugh of surprise. (Isn’t it funny that laughing is a reaction to many things that aren’t related to actually perceiving hilarity? Like yawning in dogs could be a sign of anxiety than drowsiness). I mean, going to a shaman to actually perform curse on an actual human being? It was totally absurd to the twentysomething me. Maybe it would be a good idea when I was eight years old and we all played the Pencil Game or tried to knock certain toilet stalls to bring out the urban-legend Boogeyman (Fun Fact: Indonesian version of Boogeyman, Mister Gepeng, directly translates to Mr. Flatface).

But I was game for almost anything when traveling and I was positive this kind of experiences would make for the best stories. When else would I have the chance to see this enchanting, mystical side of the skyscraper-packed Hong Kong? So I followed her to that under-the-highway curse shop.

Under the broad daylight, the place was a major letdown in the bone-chilling-atmosphere department. I could walk past this place thinking it only a congregation of street vendors selling some traditional Chinese incense and other prayers paraphernalia. Upon closer look, though, the ritual itself started to spook me. I could no longer recount the exact steps, but it involved writing the names of victims / recipients of the curse on some yellow papers (already full with Chinese characters and mantra), the old shaman lady chanting some curses while holding those papers and beating it repeatedly with a sole of shoe. She would then “fed” the papers into the mouth of a Tiger papier mâché and subsequently throw all those items into a fire, dramatically. With other sets of paper, the shaman would then lightly hit the body of the person who wished for misfortune of others, saying prayers for their good health, wealth, and strong familial relationship.

Unfortunately, my friend could not translate and explain to me the meaning behind each step of the ritual despite my constant probing. Still, the scene captivated me in its absurdness and the overall sensory stimulation.

It didn’t scare me, until the moment I noticed the other customers – a normal-looking crowd: giggling young girls in pink jeans, a tired middle-aged guy who looked like he worked in an office nearby, some housewives with their bicycles. And the horror struck me. These are the people I’d met on subway, on the street, in the park, in restaurants. In another life, these could be the strangers I met and enrich my travel experiences.

I looked at my new friend and tried to think what sort of grudge she could hold to discover this place in the first place. To whom? Or did she just stumble upon this place accidentally?

All the while I could not think of a single name to curse. Again, the whole idea feels childish and very negative. What good could come out of it? I personally don’t buy in these kinds of supernatural practices, but I wonder if those other customers really, really think they could handle the mental responsibility if something horrible actually happened. Confirmatory bias is real – if nothing happens, then nothing happens. But if in the off chance something does happen to the supposed cursed person, humans would have the tendency to attribute it to the shaman, wouldn’t they? Can they bear that burden? I know I can’t and don’t want to.

So when my turn came, I named ISIS. I wouldn’t mind if misfortune befalls on them. As a matter of fact, I’m taking credit now when the world eventually got rid of them. You heard it here first. (Well, it’s been about six months and they’re still at large.)

My new friend commented on my choice, “Ohh why, you’re too nice.” I think it is wrong to praise someone for not wishing misfortune to fall upon other humans. The absence of evil does not equate good. That modicum of decency should be the bare minimum of everyone’s life principle, I think. Each to his own, I suppose.

By the way, I never knew her full name until we said goodbye. She only told me to address her with a nickname, the same nickname she used for Facebook. I finally found out a few weeks ago, when we needed to make some bookings arrangement for our upcoming trip to Cambodia. Can’t lie – I’m expecting more stories to come out of it.

 

Jumbled,

M

 

 

Ponder and Wonder in Shower #2

There is one superpower which I think most people will think as useless / unnecessary / annoying but I would really love to have: the ability to survive without needing sleep.

I know fatal familial insomnia is fatal (duh) and I don’t want that form of forced, painful wakefulness. No, I don’t want to stay awake under such torturous medical condition. I do like sleep. Who doesn’t love to sleep? To shut off our eyes and drift off to total nothingness (or in case of dreams, another reality) and to wake up feeling refreshed? Sure, slumber is awesome, but I’d trade it off anytime with an additional 7-8 hours per day of life.

The recipient of my imagined superpower won’t ever have to succumb to drowsiness, but she won’t experience the health consequences of insomnia from which normal people suffer. She will be using the extra time nocturnally, peaceful in the silence among the asleep others. She will produce, she will work on all interests, plans, activities that she ever wants to but cannot find the time to. She will read, draw, paint, write, study, think, and enjoy life. She will be essentially older than everyone else her age, because for every extra hour in which her peers sleep, she consciously lives and learns and gains experiences by an extra hour.

Basically, all I want is more time in a day. While time-bending / time-traveling / time-pausing superpower may be a more obvious choice, as a concept it is too complicated and full of hidden potentials and scenarios for my poor brain. And it always, always, always comes with heavy responsibility and comeuppance to the wielder of said power. Due to laziness and half-humility, I feel like there are many others who are less selfish, more intelligent who are deserving of such power.

Meanwhile, for me to reach a level of selflessness and intelligence required to be actually deserving of wielding any forms of time-altering superpower, I need more time in a day to develop myself into a better person. How much more time in a day? Oh I don’t know, probably about 7-8 hours a day.

😉


Jumbled,

M

Ponder and Wonder in Shower #1

So, May the 4th is coming up and it is inevitable that we’re going to see countless Star Wars references. Which made me think. 420 the ‘Weed Day’ was just a couple of weeks ago. Hitler’s birthday was April 20th. There is obviously an epic joke there somewhere, but I can’t think of one. A friend suggested “High Hitler / Heil Hitler” but I don’t know… I thought the Internet could do better, you know what I mean? Haven’t come across anything so far.

Jumbled,

M

A Corridor Full of Doors

I sit cross-legged at the end of a strange corridor.

The wide corridor spans miles and miles and miles from where I sit, my eyes unable to see what lies at the end. Doors after doors after doors, on my left and right, made of magnolia, sandalwood, pine, and teak. Doors on the ceilings and doors on the chessboard-tiled floor. There are doors with broken knobs like those I’d seen in public toilets, doors broken to pieces like one I’d seen in Boo had in Monsters Inc., and Hobbiton doors shaped like perfect circles. There are those weirdly useless doors in taverns of Western spaghetti movies – the doors through which sheriffs made grand entrances. And the hinges of these doors make the worst noise.

All these doors keep opening and closing at such nauseating speed, allowing me to only catch glimpses of what lies behind each of them – snowy mountains, dirty cities, hospital beds, endless fields of sunflowers. To catch with my ears only snippets of conversations, verses of songs, trails of laughs and tears here and there. To smell only bursts of pungent spices, of sea, of incinerating trash, of a freshly bathed puppy. To feel on my skin the drops of rain, flakes of snow, breezes of wind that escaped these doors.

I feel paralyzed, my legs failing to stand up and walk down the corridor and wander closer into any of the door to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel more of what is behind. I feel as If I am ready to sit here at my end of the corridor, for all eternity, exhausting all my senses to catch all these glimpses, all these sensations.

And as I sit there marveled by the corridor full of doors, a cookie materializes on my lap. Written on its surface with icing is the easiest, simplest instruction imaginable in that situation: EAT ME. I take a moment to envy and respect that cookie, a something that knows exactly what it is, its purpose of existing, and what it wants happen to itself. That is, to be eaten. It states that in such a declarative, simple, no-nonsense, I-am-in-charge manner: EAT ME.

I obey and take a bite. Nothing happens. I continue to sit and think and think and think of which doors I should approach first, of how can I go back to enter other doors if I do not fancy the first one, of how I can remember which door I have entered, of how much time I need to spend behind one door before knowing that I need to get moving to another door…

And I sit there, planning and plotting and scheming for the best possible ways to enter all the doors I want to enter, like a mythologized butterfly fluttering in a mysterious algorithmic pattern to most efficiently sip nectar from flower to flower. Suddenly, it seems like the doors start to shrink and shrink and shrink… but I soon realize that it is me who is growing bigger and bigger and bigger.

As I sit there, my body gigantic and my eyes blurred with tears, I see the worlds, all the worlds behind the doors become less vivid and less real and less reachable and… more beautiful.

And I just keep crying and crying and the gallons of my tears drop and drop and drop on the chessboard-tiled floor, morphing into an ocean in which I finally drown, drown, drown.

 


If it wasn’t obvious enough, I just finished reading The Bell Jar and this post is inspired by / ripped off / emulated from that sad, sad, oh so sad passage with the fig tree. 

I recently went to a temple in Bagan, Myanmar, called Ananda Temple which had four different ‘main’ Buddhas for each cardinal direction, the local guy told me each was made of woods of different trees – sandalwood, magnolia, pine, teak. Somehow I wanted the doors to be made of those, because each represent different cardinal direction. (Unfortunately, I was frantically jotting the info down and now couldn’t recall nor read my handwriting about which type of wood was intended for which direction).

And somehow Alice in Wonderland got thrown in the mix.

In addition, I was on bus for about 10 hours today (not willingly but also not unhappily), so I had the luxury of time to read, write, and think. I hadn’t had that for about a month, it feels good.

Jumbled,

M

On Sending Postcards

You remember it only toward the end of the first day. Something about walking back tiredly to your bed-and-breakfast –or whichever cheap place you’re staying for the night – triggers the memory of your to-do-list. Taking a deep sigh, you type it hurriedly on your low-battery phone’s Notepad: BUY POSTCARDS.

As you take a late-night shower, with warm water if you are lucky enough with your choice of accommodation, you forgive yourself for forgetting to buy and send some postcards today.

The next day, as you walk around in the new town, you see a souvenir shop or a street vendor selling postcards. You take about fifteen minutes or longer to make your selection, flipping through almost all designs available, not caring much when the vendor started getting impatient. You hated postcards with corny, neon-colored, big-font words covering up the otherwise great pictures of the city or the landmark. It makes the card looks like it’s designed by your nine-year-old self who just discovered WordArt on PowerPoint.

When you pay the vendor with the foreign-currency coins that are not familiar to you, you’ll take your sweet time – as some vendors love to point out to you.

You then continue the rest of your day. When your itinerary gets more out of shape, tainted with blue smudge from being inside your denim shorts’ pocket for too long, you feel tired and stopped by a café or a pier or a park and finally write those postcards.

And then you’ll realise you don’t have enough.

Maybe you forget your high school friend who lives in the States now. Maybe it’s the old teacher that leave impression in you. Maybe your parents. Or your sisters. Maybe it’s the stranger you met on one of your trips and kept in touch with. Or one of your friends from that time you went for student exchange.

You sit down and start writing and only then you’ll remember the exact people with whom you want to share this experience, this new city, this new mini-adventure via an outdated handwritten medium that will only reach them weeks after you leave the city.

Most people question your anachronistic postcard-sending habit. They love to remind you what year it is currently, as if that strengthens their point. You don’t understand why they bring it up, as they are never are the recipients of said postcards.

After musing for a while, you then realise that you have also forgotten to buy stamps. You sigh again, open up the nasty-looking piece of paper that is your itinerary, and at the bottom of tomorrow’s plan, you write FIND POST OFFICE.

Sometimes, the next day is Sunday and you just curse at your bad luck and go back to enjoying your trip.


 

Jumbled, a Luddite, and yours,

M

Saved by the Bell… Not

When I was probably eleven or twelve years old (maybe thirteen, actually), we learnt about conducting debates (the formal kind) in Indonesian Language class. The details escaped my memory, but I think later on in the semester, we were going to form small groups and conduct non-moderated debates as a final group exam.

I can only comprehend it now, but the reason I was so excited with the idea of participating in a debate was the opportunity to have controversial opinions and speak up about it. Again, I didn’t understand it then, but I was excited because whether I realised it or not, it was a rare luxury for someone whose education by that point in time had been packaged exclusively in Catholic and Christian contexts*.

It also helped that I quite liked the teacher, a tall middle-aged man with big mustache and glasses and deep voice. We had two teachers for Indonesian Language class, one for the rules of language: grammar and sentence structure and poem structure, while this teacher on the application of language, the more interesting stuff: stories and debates and newspaper articles. Try as I did, I couldn’t remember anything this teacher (whom I supposedly quite liked) had taught me, as if all my memories related to him and his class had been erased to make space for this singular incident.

Approaching the end of that Introduction to Debate class, we had listed out the possible topics for debate – capital punishment and cloning and child adoption were there on the whiteboard. He concluded the lesson with asserting that ability to debate with evidences to back up your claim is important when we enter real life, because, “everything, any subject, can be open to debate…”

When he said those words, I felt a surge of strange excitement I still could not explain today. I felt that somehow those words indirectly permitting me to form and own and express my opinion and this lesson was preparing me for that. I experienced this weird moment when I was getting to be happy – not yet happy because he hasn’t finished his sentence, but I was getting to be happy. The only other instance in my life in which one moment invoked that kind-of-similar-but-not-really feeling was the few seconds between me seeing an email from my university of choice and finally opening it.

“…except abortion. No debate about it. GILA itu, orang yang pro aborsi!**”

And then the bell rang.

His lesson was over for the day and he walked out the classroom for the next teacher to come in. I felt like losing mandibular control and remained gaping for a while. I was getting to feel happy and then suddenly, I wasn’t. And now, more than a decade later, I have never forgotten that moment. I couldn’t. The entirety of the scene is too vivid. His strong emphasis on the first syllable of the word chosen to describe pro-abortionist. His deep and authoritative voice. His conclusive tone. His dismissal of possibility of debate on the subject. The finality of it all.

Why?

Is what I wanted to ask. I wanted to raise my hand and asked, because I, the whole eleven or twelve year-old me, could think of at least one reason that the subject could be debated without being “gila”. My reactionary argument was “What if it was choose-the-mother-or-the-baby type of scenario?” Today, I can definitely name more and better arguments. Sarah Silverman’s answer to Bill Maher comes to mind: she never had an abortion. She doesn’t know if she’d do it. Maybe she will put it up for adoption. But she know she will be damned if that prevented her from speaking up for other women’s right to their bodies.

Why?

I didn’t know what I wanted to happen even if I did ask, but I know wasn’t happy with that statement and I wanted him to justify saying it. I wanted to raise my hand and asked but I didn’t. I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t and my inaction will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I interrogated my young self and demanded why she didn’t raise her hand and ask. She said she was scared.

Prior to that day, I was being a smart-ass in History class. I vaguely remembered the teacher was saying something about oversupply of coffee beans during the Dutch colony time and that they had to throw what they had in the sea.*** It made no sense to me and wearing my realist’s thinking cap, I asked in a matter-of-fact manner why didn’t they just store the beans somewhere and hide it until there were demand again and hurrah, they’d be rich. And there was one second of silence followed by a boy who shouted jokingly, “You are so evil you are born to be a corrupter****!” – or something to that effect. The other kids laughed, too.

I remembered that after the laughter died down a bit, the teacher thought for a few seconds and answered that coffee is perishable commodities and such tactic wouldn’t work since it required complicity from a lot of people. I thought that was an okay, safe answer. I was eleven or twelve and did not know what supply chain was. What I knew was that I was not going to a corrupt politician or anything bearing semblance to it.

I was not being evil. I was being a realist and I put myself in the shoes of colonial-era Dutchmen, and could not understand why we (the Dutchmen) were cool with slavery but not with hoarding commodities. I had divorced myself with morals and ethics when making that comment, but of course I didn’t verbally state that caveat. I could see how my peers were somewhat appalled at my line of reasoning, but that incident never led into bullying or anything awful (for obvious reason, a classmate expressing an point of view of an evil capitalist in one boring History lesson was not a scandalous enough incident to be made fun of – I mean, what mean names could they even call me? Coffee Tycoon?).

But I hated that they called me evil for that brief moment. So, I was scared. And I remained scared that day in Indonesian Language class that I would be called evil again. Even more so because, this time, I would have expressed my idealist side. Realist thinking is often cold and clinical; I had that on my side when I was divorcing ethics and morals commenting about those freaking coffee. I was thinking as a corrupt Dutch and I was evil – I can make sense of that.

But, if at that time I had spoken about what I believed (and still do), I would be called evil again when I wasn’t coming from a place of evil. And in that split-second I unconsciously knew that I and my whole eleven or twelve years of living would not be able to argue my standpoint eloquently. I hadn’t even developed a standpoint yet then. I only knew it was a subject. Abortion is a subject and it should be open for a debate.

But, I was scared. I didn’t raise my hand. I wished I did but I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t.

And then the bell rang.


 

I struggled to find a balance when writing this blogpost. I don’t want this post to encompass all what I think about abortion or corruption and less about what I want to say about education. On the other hand, I don’t want to write in such a way that abortion or corruption, both important topics, to be mere vehicles for my self-reflection as well. More than anything, I want to write about my experience being educated, and how those important topics came into play in my education. It is also about me regretting and setting the path to redemption for what I did not do more than a decade ago.

 

Jumbled, yours truly,

M


 

Footnotes

*A little bit of background: most schools in Indonesia from kindergarten to high school were and are religion-oriented. Majority of public schools are Islam-oriented, while private schools, which are fewer in number, are often Christian or Catholic or Buddhist. International schools that I knew of at the time were mostly Christian-oriented.

**”INSANE , that’s what those pro-abortion people are!” The translation to English just doesn’t convey the same emotion.

***I’m not even sure which part of Indonesian history was this, I couldn’t find the record of it anywhere in the Internet. But I am sure this was not in any way mixed up with the limited knowledge I have about Boston Tea Party.

****Corrupter is not a common term used in English-speaking nations as far as I know, but in Indonesia, white-collar criminals with embezzlement, fraud, or other cases of abuses from being in positions of power are often grouped together under the banner koruptor.

 

What if I Ate the Marshmallow?

I often took notice when people said anything that starts with “Even as a child I…” or “Since I was a kid, I…” and then continue on describing rather proudly or contently how, ever since they were little, these people had always held  certain (often laudable) opinions, ideas, passions, dreams, or attitudes that they carry on into adulthood. Did other people notice this?

Not that I thought anything’s wrong with these humans with consistency in their characters. On contrary, they made me somewhat… insecure. And maybe jealous.

Take astronaut and real-life superhero Chris Hadfield as an example. In his memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth that I recently readwhile recounting how the historic moment on July 20th 1969 galvanized his life goal to be an astronaut, the pride of Canada wrote “I recognized even as a 9-year-old that I had a lot of choices and my decisions mattered. What I did each day would determine the kind of person I’d become.” 

MTI1MjE5NzE3MDIyNTQzODQy.jpg
“And I decide that I’m not going out of this spaceship!”

I say this with no sarcasm: that was grand. Maybe his 9-year-old self did not articulate that thought in those exact words, but that boy sure lived by that boss principle and it took him right out of the planet.

Well, I could have taken comfort in thinking that Chris Hadfield is a different kind of human altogether. I might then avoid feeling bad about my younger self for not really having that kind of solid, purposeful discipline to help navigate my childhood and adolescence. I could probably assure myself that I was overthinking everything…

…if I had not known about The Marshmallow Experiment.

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You know, the famous one done in Stanford. No, not the one about the prisoners!
I first came across it in one of my Consumer Behavior lectures. For the uninitiated, the series of experiment was about delayed gratification among children aged 4 to 6, headed by Dr. Walter Mischel. I remembered this study because I thought the methodology was interesting; the researchers put a child in a room with no distraction except one marshmallow on a table. They then told the child that the researchers will go out of the room, and then the child can eat the first marshmallow or they can wait until the researchers come back and bring them a reward for waiting, a second marshmallow. Follow-up studies found significant correlation between the longer delay time to the better life outcomes of the kids, measured by parameters such as SAT scores, BMI, etc. 

Now. Childhood is a blur to me. I cannot know for sure what I would do if I were one of the kids in the experiment. I don’t remember even liking marshmallow as a kid, but would I be one of the kids who give in to temptation and eat the marshmallow? Given how I behave now as an adult, on some good days, I probably would’ve waited for that second marshmallow. But on some bad days, one may be enough. Plus, I think as a kid I might have started having doubts halfway through. What if there is no second marshmallow? What if the person lied? What if there is no second marshmallow and I wasted fifteen minutes waiting for it? If so, when I finally eat that first marshmallow it would’ve tasted awful. (Okay, so I may be projecting my adult’s mistrust and cynicism of the world too much here.)

But you get my point: a toddler Chris Hadfield would have waited, while a toddler me… I have no idea what that brat would do.

In any case, I consoled myself thinking that among those kids who didn’t wait long enough or at all, some of them must have turned out just fine. I could not find any further researches that track on these outliers, the kids who did eat the marshmallow and turned out having good enough, maybe above the median SAT scores? Aren’t they the interesting ones? I like to think that these kids, over the course of their teenage years, for some reason learned to control their innate impulses and beat the odds. They can’t all be doomed to lead less successful lives, right?

I don’t know the answer for sure, but a 2014 (edited 2015) CNN piece gave me some hope:

Does that mean children who can’t wait for two marshmallows are destined to live less fulfilling lives? Not necessarily. “I have no doubt that self-control skills … are imminently teachable,” said Mischel. It all comes down to training your mind to cool its emotional need for something it’s trying to avoid.

In the case of young children, Mischel said the preschoolers who waited for the marshmallows showed strategies that any parent could teach their child. Beyond that, he said, techniques for self-control can be learned at any age.

To clarify, for a devotee of The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight like me, it is strange that something from CNN could provide me with a kind of relief. However, it’s still nice to read that and use it to further strengthen my desire to be defined as a person by how much my worldview, mindset, and overall character have evolved since I was little – instead of by how I had behaved as a child. While deep down, everyone knew discipline is a quality that can be acquired even as an adult, it is nice to hear further validation on that…especially from the man whose experiment incited my worry in the first place.

I can at least have some peace in mind that even if I had eaten that marshmallow, there could be redemption if I willed myself. That my fate was not sealed.


Few years a go, I won a free notebook from a shopping mall prize draw. Whoever designed that notebook put an unapologetic Oscar Wilde quote on its very first page: “I can resist everything except temptation”. It’s a maxim that all shopping malls certainly wish their customers would live by. I thought that was funny.

I decided to use that notebook for my journals this year and let that quote be a reminder of what I don’t want to become.

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Jumbled and yours,

M

The Young, The Lonely, and The Inarticulate

Does the title of a first blog entry set the tone the subsequent posts? I fervently hope not, because this first post is a rather contemplative, melancholic entry.

“The young, the lonely, and the inarticulate” is a phrase in Joan Didion’s Slouching towards Bethlehem that resonated with me. It’s not that I particularly liked the book. In fact, I have not finished it and I don’t really plan to. Other than one disturbingly beautiful yet unnecessarily woeful chapter defending her choice  – or rather, visceral need – to keep writing in notebooks, I sadly could not relate to other anecdotes, characters, and references. As I had somewhat high expectation on the book, this put me into self-doubt mode, as often the case when I don’t feel like finishing a supposedly good book. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to understand it. Maybe I need more practice reading essays. Maybe I quit too early. Well, I think of all of these frequently. But I console myself with a thought that at the end of the day, if life if ever is too short for anything, it’s for books I don’t enjoy.

Now, going into explaining the context or the period of time in which Didion used this phrase is likely not beneficial. I am using three adjectives in isolation, imposing on them my own meaning, relating to them without regard to the author’s original intention. After all, what other three adjectives may identify millennials betters? Even though I, like many other in my socioeconomic group, suffer from the same acute, illusory yearning for uniqueness in my character, a sense of singularity in my whole being…begrudgingly, I feel like I have to admit to myself that when you meet me at any given point in my life since adolescence till now, I would be characterised rather appropriately with one (or more) of these three adjectives.

There was an incident that perfectly evidences the aforementioned statement,  occurred few months back. It was the first face-to-face encounter with a new client with whom I had corresponded probably once or twice. The client looked at me from head to toe while we shook hands, unable to hide the bewilderment, or disbelief, or contempt, or any other emotions that compelled someone to produce such demeaning facial expression. The client then unsurprisingly chose to converse exclusively with a senior colleague of mine. After about only five minutes, the discussion took turn into to their company’s doubt on our company’s extensiveness of experience and expertise, given the relative infancy of the enterprise and of the employees.

“I mean, look at you,” the client let out subtle sigh and smirk while looking at me, a perfect example , “you’re too young to even be in this discussion.”

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Urgh. Those young’uns. 

While I would congratulate myself for maintaining a professional attitude, I can’t shake off the feeling that my muteness was mostly attributable to the initial shock of being at the receiving end of such statement, rather than as a testament to my mature emotional composure. Worse still, I didn’t put forward any word or action defending my youthfulness or my overall general existence there either, embodying The Inarticulate.

I did not expect that during that encounter itself anyone would come to my rescue, especially not a colleague. If I ever get placed in that kind of scenes again in the future, I still won’t and can’t hope for any comrade’s support (I wish by then I will have built up enough ammunition of quick wits to equip me precisely for these situations). Even so, I cannot deny that at that very moment of the incident and some moments afterward, The Lonely had taken over me.

There are more offense and pain that come with being associated with The Young than it is with The Inarticulate and The Lonely. In a way, the latter two are self-produced and reactive, direct results from being labeled as The Young. I have control over both: I can work towards defending myself better. I have since come to embrace and derive pleasure from certain solitude, while still trying to maintain and expand human connections that are worthy preserving.

But The Young is different. It is a throwaway identity affixed on me by others, and in this case plastered on me with a degrading connotation. Ironically, feeling young is something that I cannot remember ever truly experiencing (not in substantial level, that is). When I said before that this word may appropriately describe myself at many random points in my life so far, it has more to do with actual youthfulness in my appearance, cognitive ability, temperament, and social conducts. But the soul – if it indeed exists as a separate entity from the body and mind, mine is definitely not young and never was.

And while I sometimes envy those that represent The Young in positive light – their seasons in the sun, decibel level, carefree attitude, and naiveté…  They always seem at least few light years away from me. I can’t say I have come to accept the ‘me’ who never identify with youthfulness – how can come accept something I have never rejected? How can I, when I have unconsciously been molding myself into The Adult long ago, before I even discovered the allure of The Young? (Whether or not I will succeed in this ‘molding’ process is another matter altogether – I may never fully be The Adult, but again, who is?)

At last, I want to kick off this blog with an expression of hope that the time will come sooner rather than later when I am disassociated from those three labels. And the hope that I will abandon this style of writing in favour of a more engaging one.

In the meantime, my quest for The Adult, The Accompanied, and The Eloquent shall begin.

 

Jumbled and sincerely yours,

M