Over a year has passed since the inaugural post to this website, and I wish I could declare something here that musicians sometimes say about a hiatus between releasing albums. “I had to live some life between this record and my last one.” Usually they refer to having a child or going through a divorce, which gives them material to create songs. I indeed lived some life, a year and a month or so, and maybe you could say that this and future entries represent some of that life. Nonetheless, no kids and still no relationship to divorce.
I’ve been hesitant to publish a post—I call “personal essay”—mostly because of a matter of branding. Among Facebook updates that are meant to be inspirational, Instagram photos that commemorate/brag about where I’ve traveled, and quotidian Snapchat videos that say, “Hey, I do cool stuff sometimes,” I still struggle to figure out what message I’m trying to convey exactly through the internet. My work as a researcher doesn’t require my having an online presence, at least in a social way. I don’t have fans to reach out to. I do it to connect with friends and family, but phone calls and text messages also accomplish that, and perhaps better.
It’s funny to discuss this idea seriously as if it’s an important component of a career plan. For better or for worse, it’s an important component of how we interact with people we know and sometimes we don’t know, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way or thinks about this type of self-representation often.
For example, my friend and I embarked on a weekend journey eating at our favorite sandwich spots, thirteen in total, across the Greater Boston Area in December, which we named the Great Sandwich Crawl of Boston (#bostonsandwichcrawl). We took ourselves very seriously and relentlessly publicized on social media about our consumerist adventure. My friend, who’s known in her circles as a foodie, received numerous compliments from friends and coworkers, even a week or two after that weekend. We consider the outcome as a success in social media branding. On the other side of our generation’s obsession with the internet and sometimes unhealthy reliance on it for instant gratification, it’s not infrequent that people I know go on “social media cleanses.” I, too, am currently refraining from indulging in social media.
With all of my online platforms, I needed to figure out how I’d use a personal website to represent myself publicly. That is, I wanted to evaluate whether sharing personal stories and opinion-based articles would be productive and meaningful to other people and to me.
Where “living some life” suddenly blurred into “having no life” happened sometime in between reading about post-World War II Japanese immigration into the US and finishing graduate school. Most of my energy last year was focused on the latter, and while I’m currently working on a few projects related to my dissertation research, I’ve had some hindsight to reflect on my last few months at MIT. The final stretch of graduate school was tumultuous. Tumultuous in a technical way that experiments weren’t working (what that means to a scientist is multitude and will be a subject for future writing), and also tumultuous in a human way that I wasn’t prepared for.
Whereas high school and college are opportunities to develop academic and extracurricular breadth and well-roundedness, I echo the words of a number of my undergraduate mentors when I say that going through a Ph.D. program is a narrowing experience. As a student, you’re expected to work effectively on one problem throughout your tenure, and while you become really good at that one topic, you inevitably start to lose sight of other things that are important to you.
I don’t think I’m uncovering anything groundbreaking; MIT is a competitive place. A senior from MIT was crowned champion of the college edition of Jeopardy this past week, if that’s any indication. I appreciate how much scientific discipline I learned, and I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to attend such an acclaimed institution. I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about chemistry and biology. Through all of the intellectual challenges I faced, however, what I didn’t expect to experience was how much self-doubt graduating from MIT would ingrain in me.
Science fosters logic. During a time in American politics where logic is disregarded and even criticized, it’s difficult for me to feel equipped to go out into the world with a doctoral degree in a technical field. Right now, people are organizing “March for Science” events to protect the future of federal funding for scientific research and to inspire popular belief in fundamental principles of the natural world, and I feel lost.
I guess this is a circular way of saying that I couldn’t get myself to keep writing here because I was focusing on one thing, and now I need to start focusing on new things.
One of these new things is that I’m exploring the liminal space between graduate school and employment. I’m traveling to four new countries and countless new cities over the course of three months. A highlight of the past two weeks is that I saw the Southern Cross constellation for the first time. I’m listening to US news and finding comedic solace in podcasts like Call Your Girlfriend. (Their “Cheeto Watch” coverage has become a necessary part of my weekly media consumption.) Making an effort to travel without headphones in my ears—mostly for safety reasons but also for metaphoric ones—I’m constantly humbled by new friends living in countries whose political histories are long and dire.
My goal throughout this trip has been to spend more time with books. Reading and listening to the words of great people, I’m finally able to start writing words of my own. I listened to the audio book of Ta-Nehasi Coates’ Between the World and Me while driving through snowy southern Oregon. I took away with me the sentiment that good intentions aren’t enough. Coates speaks about political leadership that, despite harboring or, at least, claiming noble thoughts, has failed to address historical and contemporary racial injustices in our country, and I reflect on how this idea applies to my own life. During my leadership and mentorship roles throughout graduate school, I held others to high standards just as I commit to them myself, and when the outcome didn’t work out in the way that I had intended for the person I was mentoring, I often defended my position by justifying to myself, “At least I tried,” and in some way soon thereafter, gave up. In some cases, or maybe most, this mentality is insufficient when there’s someone else who is relying on my guidance and doesn’t receive enough to succeed.
Furthermore, much of my most recent reading has centered on my realization that, for the first time, someone I voted for in a presidential election didn’t win. Just as many of my close friends and colleagues, I’ve had to confront my own liberalism. The trite phrase “bridging the gap” is beginning to annoy me now, but I’ve been trying to maintain friendships with people whose political views don’t align with mine. It’s difficult. Reading how people I respect have dealt with animosity has helped me gain new perspectives and, perhaps, ideas for how to overcome challenges of my own.
I write all of this, sitting in a cafe on Salisbury St in the neighborhood (“neighbourhood”) of Woodstock in Cape Town, South Africa.
I write personal essays and have an online presence to connect with friends and family in a way that phone calls and text messages can’t. The most valuable lesson traveling the last two months has taught me is that my relationships transcend state and country borders, sometimes in coffee shops and mostly through computer monitors and cracked iPhone screens. Keeping in touch through writing feels productive and meaningful.
The past year and a month or so have taught me to surround myself with people who motivate me to think more critically. To reframe “sorry for” statements with “thanks for” statements, and to say “and” more instead of “but.” I’ve also learned to be less apologetic for what I believe in. I want to be more transparent, and I want to be held accountable. If you’re here reading this, please hold me accountable. Next time you see me, ask, “What are you writing about?”
As I take the last sip of my rooibos tea and breathe in the summer air of this beautiful city, like a catchy song—again, no headphones—I have stuck in my head a quote by Toni Morrison. “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.” I’ve come to believe that this statement also holds true for injustices beyond racism. I won’t be distracted.