Tag Archives: fear

One Year Later: Let’s Commence Again

As many have become aware over the past few weeks, it is graduation season. Commencement speech after commencement speech have appeared in articles and newsfeeds and have been short linked on all sorts of social media. But I have never found much solace or inspiration from these speeches. Many sound repetitive, filled with the same sorts of hackneyed phrases and messages. Very few are even memorable, save for the ones delivered by the very celebrated. I barely even remember the one that was given at my own graduation, being far too occupied by the stifling heat and self-inflicted high-heeled discomfort.

Though the entire blame cannot be placed on the speaker or the occasion itself. How many graduating seniors look back and think about the knowledge and wisdom imparted to them on graduation day? More likely, alumni-to-be are more focused on texting their parents about where to stand to get a good picture of their walk, already jaded by the numerous ceremonies the week of graduation puts them through. Some might be excited by visions of what their adult life is going to look like, how much of a difference they’re going to make. Others are still in a state of disbelief that it’s over, or fear that they still don’t have things figured out.

The whole occasion is no conducive to receiving advice, no matter how well phrased or well intentioned. In some senses we are simply too young and too inexperienced to appreciate the gravity of the wisdom that is being passed down. In others, the accomplished speakers are too removed from the very specific experience of newfound adulthood in today’s society to give concrete enough advice to make a difference.

Perhaps these words coming from me hold no authority. I was not someone who ‘made the most’ of their college years whether making the most of it meant partying a lot, or stacking up professional experiences on your resume, or majoring in something that would actually get a job. I majored in Comparative Literature, one of three students to in my year. I halted any extra curricular activities my junior year of college. I spent my summers waiting tables and binging Netflix. I graduated from a good university wondering what I had done for four years and asking myself whether or not I had done college right.

Those are no longer the questions that plague me one year out. I have long put them past me as things I cannot change and would do better not to regret. Instead, one year of being in the big, scary, ‘real’ world have given me a whole new set of concerns and questions.

How do I deal with a future rife with uncertainty, uncertainty that instills in me such fear as to make me second guess every decision I make from choosing a career to what I have for lunch?

It is not such an unusual question for a young person to ask themselves, thought it demands a very personal answer. And though I might not have made money, or held a job in the past year, or did anything outwardly productive to society to give me any sort of authority to give advice, I did come a little bit closer to my answer.

My answer lies in the fact that I don’t think I failed enough as a child. I think childhood was too easy for me.

It’s not that I was spoiled, and got whatever I want (though I was a bit of a daddy’s girl), or that I didn’t challenge myself, but more that I never wanted something enough for the failure of obtaining it to matter. In fact, I can only remember two times in my short 23-year old life where I failed enough, hard enough for it to matter.

The first time was in sixth grade at dance tryouts. As the youngest of three sisters, all who danced, I thought I was a shoe-in for getting in to what was perceived as the ‘cool hip-hop’ dance, despite the fact that I was in sixth grade and at the very bottom of the dance totem pole. I picked up the choreography well, I even knew the choreographer somewhat. I had it. I was so sure. Sure enough and eager enough that on the day that audition results were posted, I arrived at 7:30 in the morning, 45 minutes before classes started to see and celebrate my success. But my name was not on there. Of the list of 15 or so names, “Emily Lin” was not one of them.

I remember standing in that hallway, between the locker rooms and the dance studios, staring blankly at the bulletin board first in disbelief, then in disappointment, then in shame. I remember reading and re-reading the list before the reality dawned on me and brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know what I did for 45 minutes after that before school actually started. I don’t remember if I had told anybody about it, but I remember that that was the day I discovered I was not a great dancer.

That experience in sixth grade would go on to inform what I did with dance all through middle school, high school, and even college. I was forever the decent dancer. One of the only two seniors in the junior varsity dance team because I was good, but not good enough. And the dancer that was in the front for performances, but always on the side, not the center. That day, in sixth grad is when I learned not to want dance too hard, else risk failure and welcoming those feelings of disappointment and shame again.

The second was in college. My freshman year was probably like many other peoples’ freshman years at a prestigious university. Used to being a big fish, used to being the smartest and most capable in the room, I vastly underestimated the college scene. That was made abundantly clear when, on the same day, two papers were returned to me bearing C marks. I am Asian. I had never gotten a C in my life.

Unlike with the first instance, I remember quite clearly what happened after the fact. I cried on some steps in a back alley on campus. I cried, and I thought myself a failure, and I seriously considered transferring schools. This is not a story people are unfamiliar with.

What I did next was go to the bookstore and buy a bunch of university merchandise which, in my mind, solidified my commitment to the university because, how embarrassing would it have to be to explain why I had so many t-shirts, shorts, and a blanket from a school I didn’t graduate from.

It was a wake up call for me. It told me that if I would have to try harder and take things more seriously than I did in high school if I was to succeed. But the thing is, I didn’t want to succeed for myself. Not that I didn’t want to do well in school, only that the thought of not doing well in school was never an option. Doing well in school merely represented the baseline of what was asked of me, not something that I wanted to do for myself.

So I did well in school. I graduated with honors and an award and a fancy diploma larger than the average size and written entirely in latin. I graduated and then the world asked me what I wanted out of life. For the past year, I have had no answer. Or perhaps, I had an answer but didn’t want to let myself want it enough.

Because wanting something is hard. Wanting something introduces the possibility that you won’t get it. And the more you want it, the more devastating it will be when/if it doesn’t happen. But wanting something, wanting something for yourself is a certainty that you can hold on to in the face of uncertain future.

Unlucky for me, I had so internalized the failure of sixth grade that I have kept the question of what I wanted at bay out of fear of failure. So I say I haven’t failed enough, not as a child, not as a young adult, and not as whatever it is you want to call me now at 23. I say I haven’t failed enough because I am scared, practically paralyzed by fear of uncertainty and of failure to actually pursue what it is that I know I want. I say I haven’t failed enough because it took me a full year of feeling like a failure to finally accept wanting something and all the possibilities it brings with it.

More lenient interpretations of my life post-grad will say that I am being too harsh on myself, that the first year out of college and in ‘adulthood’ is almost always a shit show of uncertainty and fear and learning how to “adult” for the first time. It would optimistically tell me that I still learned and grew a lot not only in this time but also throughout the journey besides those two times; it would tell me that I am now not just older but also wiser, etc etc.

I concede that, yes, the first year out of college does have a tendency of being a shit show. If anything that is one of the most important things to keep in mind as eager wide-eyed graduates step off campuses this summer. And that, yes, I have learned and grown despite not contributing anything. However, I still maintain that more failure earlier on in my life would have given me a better constitution for dealing with life and its demands. I want to think that it would have given me better self-assurance to tackle these questions without right answers.

I cannot speak for anyone but myself when I say that the thing that I would have wanted to hear, one year ago on my graduation day is not that I should be fearless, or that I should go ‘set the world on fire,’ persevere through struggle, or about how fortunate I was to have completed my studies. Rather it is this:

Want something, invite failure, and through doing so, make progress.


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Starting late elementary school I realized how privileged my life was, how many opportunities I had and the fortune of my existence. Upper middle class expatriate kid living in Singapore, attending the biggest overseas American school, without want of food, shelter and comfort leaving me the ability to want for money, clothes, toys etc.  And there was a period where I was wanting everything, caught up by prosperous times for my family and the materialistic culture of Singapore that I was buying and eating my way through who knows how much on a weekly basis. All I could think about, even after I had purchased something was how much more I wanted.

I like to think that phase of my life has passed and I’ve moved up a rank on Maslow’s well-known hierarchy. Now my knowledge of Maslow’s hierarchy is fairly limited (whoops not paying attention in class) but I’m going to broadly claim that at the top of this pyramid is self-realization, actualizing one’s full potential and as I see it satisfaction if not happiness. These past years it is this apex I’ve strived for. Trying to suss out what makes me happy and what doesn’t has been no easy task, hell even just trying to define what exactly ‘happiness’ is has left philosophers and theologians stumped for how many years now? No doubt there are many ways of attaining this goal. According to Maslow, a person needs to gain a sense of belonging and love before truly self-actualizing. But what happens if achieving said sense actually hinders my progress to the top? Of late I’ve been thinking about what would make me happy, belonging and love wise and have come to realize that following this yellow brick road may lead me to my own emerald city and home, it also happens to run almost directly counter to another hierarchy.

Okay, maybe it’s not quite a hierarchy but the progression of the emancipation of women has somewhat followed a series of steps akin to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The difference is, at least for me, I’m not certain what the apex here looks like. What does equality of the sexes look like in today’s society around the world interacting with religion, values and governments? Regardless, I fear that this potential path that has flitted in and out of my head for the past couple years will cause stagnation in my own progression towards ‘an empowered modern woman’ (not that I know what that looks like anyway…).

Like, what if what I want is to find someone to spend the rest of my life with, have my two point whatever children and pass the days, for lack of better word, domesticated?

The word, ‘domesticated’ in itself comes with some unfortunate value judgments and connotations. Pets, subordination and being put down come to my head quite easily. Yet there is still something very attractive about the simplicity of domesticated life. The easiness of ‘just being a housewife,’ of making finding a nice boy who will provide for me my only priority is just so damn tempting. I realize that ‘just being a housewife’ is nowhere near this rose colored view I’m painting. I admit, my view of this lifestyle is not anywhere near accurate. Really it seems like I’m just running away from the responsibility of being a real person (read: adult) with responsibilities, deadlines and taxes, oh my. Because if I were being honest (I am!) my forays into the domesticated world have been less than savory and given these experiences there should be no reason why I would want to become a simple homemaker.

By forays into the domesticated world I mean my interactions with my mother. And now I’m going to be really awful. I confess, I view my mother as a negative exemplum. In other words, I don’t want to end up like her; it is perhaps one of my biggest fears. She is someone I see as being deeply unhappy and unsatisfied with her life. And because I see her in the light of a homemaker, I associate the two. It’s like she got married, had kids and became unhappy. I probably shouldn’t have phrased it like that giving the impression that these are a series of cause and effects. There’s no way of telling really, but I’m just stating what I see to be the facts.

It’s ironic, then, that I would want to replicate that kind of lifestyle. In my idyllic emerald city, my romantic fantasy, I marry my ‘first love’ and settle down to a quite home grounded life. One part of myself is disgusted, scoffing that a) there’s no realistic way this could happen, my first love has come and gone, b) there’s no way I’d find a partner anyway (fingers crossed she’s wrong) and c) if I did find someone, such thinking is antiquated and lowly. Another part wonders if I can’t prove myself (and maybe my mother) wrong and do this kind of life right. Other parts question where in the world this desire came from, whether there’s some sort of identifiable ‘mother’ gene in women, if consciously choosing this path is really stagnation or progression.

After all, isn’t this whole emancipation of women thing supposed to be about letting women take control of their lives, deciding for themselves what becomes of their existence? Should I find myself in a position where I am able to make my own decisions about how I live my life, without society or some perceived patriarchy influencing my decisions, doesn’t that represent some degree of ‘empowered modern woman’?

I can’t justify my thoughts this way, rationalizing running away from my problems by deeming it my choice as a ‘modern woman’ (again, I’d like to emphasize how much I have no idea what that means) while simultaneously seeming to both desire and reject the lifestyle of many women around the world. I want to apologize now for the statements I’ve made thus far about my mom and homemakers in general. I’ve used the word simple and easy to describe a life that I know is nowhere near that. Responsible for keeping a household, raising children, rearing people who are going to go into the world heavily influenced by you is no easy or simple task. I apologize, these words come from a place of insecurity, fear and jealousy.

Insecurity because I have no idea what the future holds and as much as I’m trying to grab on to it with both hands and steer, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’ve lost the reins completely. Fear because I not only imagine myself as trying and failing but also continuing to fail and fall into a giant pit of unhappiness and regret, having made nothing of the privilege and potential I so fortunately had. And finally jealousy because a good, happy, healthy domesticity is what I want. Some place to call home and have that really be home.

The idea of what a home or family means has changed a lot in the past few decades. No more are the happy, church going families of 50’s America and no more are the big ‘three generations under one roof’ families of old China and Taiwan. Now we have worldwide families and global households which, to me, mean one of two things. Either the family is super tight knit despite the distance or their not tight at all and cause distance. I hear stories from professors, parents, parents’ friends, even friends who have grown up in a more traditionally suburban American household, of being a couple neighborhoods away from your grandparents, having distant relatives in the area, actually knowing your cousins, being friends with them, big family reunions and family inside jokes.

And I want that. I want a little domesticity in my life.

Note: sorry if the stuff about Maslow is a little befuddling , I had intended on integrating the concepts better but I didn’t have Wi-Fi at the time I was writing this in Starbucks and it has sort of veered in a different direction so, meh.

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