Comforting anonymity

How public buses can act as private spaces

Lately, I have been talking about very “private” things openly in public spaces like the bus.

I spoke about my recent mental health endeavours to friends on the bus on two separate occasions. It’s a conversation that I have purposely tried to have only when I am speaking to a friend one-on-one – away from other ears, with enough space to let myself carefully choose my words to best describe my situation and to reassure my friend that I am moving in a better direction. So, I surprised myself when I found it easy to talk about how my recent counselling sessions have gone, all while I was on a crowded bus.

During the after-school rush, people are standing shoulder-to-shoulder (albeit not pressed together, as Vancouver transit-riders maintain a half-foot wide personal bubble). Pairs or trios of friends that may have departed class together chat about their assignments, while most other commuters silently scroll through their phones.

Faces surround me as I recount how a sense of incompetency gripped me so tightly last term that I was reduced to tears over several papers. Despite knowing that there are eyes that may glance at my face or ears that will hear this story that is really only intended for my friend, I am alright.

There is a comforting anonymity in being one of the many passengers on a busy bus. I share this space and journey with dozens of people, but I feel quite assured that they will never know who I am. They will not see me again. What they hear today they will forget.

I know this because this is how I treat my fellow commuters. Instead of recognizing the person as a distinct individual, their interactions and stories are shelved under wider categories. I’ve written about past cases of my eavesdropping on public transit where I’ve overheard a grad student expressing their troubles and a high school student pressuring their peer. As those posts show, those subjects remain anonymous although I delve into details of their personal lives. Moreover, I could not point these people out in a crowd if I saw them again. To me, they remain representative of broader themes that I see reoccur around me.

And so, as just another commuting student experiencing academically-induced stress on the bus, I remain comfortably anonymous as I discuss one of the most difficult periods I have had to overcome in my life. The bus, a supposedly public space, acts like a private environment where I am able to discuss personal matters.

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She is a millennial

I am working on a self-reflective piece about the features characteristic of a millennial that I display.  Millennials are not only defined by age and studied trends like preferences for career satisfaction over pay, but also associated with other attitudes.  For instance, there is an impression that millennials feel more entitled to things and are less hardworking than previous generations.

My piece draws heavily on personal information that I don’t feel like sharing publically here, but here are a few lines that I thought were vague and humourous enough to share:

“She’s living at home and has a meagre monthly income.  Despite that, you’ll find her purchasing presents for her family and friends’ birthdays in a carefree manner, spontaneously going out for drinks and food with friends on the weekends, and occasionally deeming a $5 cappuccino worth it for a 3-hour work block in a hip café where all comfort for patrons has been sacrificed for “aesthetically pleasing” faux-naturally-shaped wood tables and oddly-shaped stools.  As if public libraries didn’t exist.”

“She’ll be damned if she buys avocadoes for avocado toast, but she’ll be doubly damned if she didn’t snatch up any opportunity to hint to her mum that she adores the combination, in order to prompt her mum to bring avocadoes home in the next grocery run and feed her unabashed love for avocado toast.”

It was fun writing this piece. I usually like to distance myself with the negative stereotype of millennials, but I do display some of those traits.  By skewing my actions towards that end, I reconciled with the reality that I do fall into that stereotype in various ways.

A lot of my writing lately has been about processing things.  I’ve found writing a helpful way of overcoming difficulties.  I hope you are enjoying the ride as it goes.

 

Preferences don’t need validation

“Ed Sheeran is horrible.  Ed Sheeran IS horrible,” the teen in front of me repeats a second time (verbatim), announcing it clearly enough for most bus riders to hear.  He continues to scroll down his friend’s phone as his friend peers over, eager to see where the first teen lands.  “Yeah, this is good,” the first teen pronounces, affirming his friend’s choice of music.  “This is okay.  Mhm.”

A few scrolls later, the first teen hands back the phone to his friend, evaluation complete.  “You should listen to Calvin Harris.  And AC/DC,” he recommends.

His friend nods quickly in affirmation, “Ah, yeah, I’ve heard of him.” His choice of words sound like he’s nonchalant, but as they came so quickly after the first teen’s verdict, it sounded like he was keen to interject into his friend’s review – to prove him wrong.

From my seat behind the duo, I glowered at the first teen.  If only my stare could convert into some sort of slap that he’d feel on the back of his hand.  What kind of friend critiques their friend’s music choice like that, with such harsh words?

Also, to the one being critiqued – I wish you never believe (or quickly overcome the belief of) that your preferences need validation from peers.


 

I wish I knew in high school that was the case.  There were so many things I spent unnecessary time on and so many things I suppressed to make myself acceptable.

One was pop music.  Unlike my classmates, I did not spend ample time in cars listening to hit music stations with the latest songs.  My family instead listened to Chinese radio programming, or if it was music, we would play musicals like Les Miserables and older singers like ABBA.  I also perused Japanese rock (J-rock) as a result of my passion for anime, since they often featured J-rock songs as opening and closing themes.

I could never enter discussions about the music we were listening to without being exposed as clueless about Flo-Rida, Owl City and Rihanna.  I don’t recall if my peers ever made negative remarks about my love for music genres that they had never even heard of, but I’m sure that my preferences for musicals and J-rock were met with silence. I felt like an outsider for not being able to relate to the stuff they liked.

Unlike the teens I observed on the bus, my experience was more of a self-imposed pressure.  It did stem from my surroundings though, as my peers’ discussions informed me what was socially acceptable and what was not.

To rectify this, I started listening to the radio.  Every single evening, as I did my homework, I’d place my Hello Kitty radio by where my head would be on my desk if I craned it over my textbook.  I’d crank it up to a moderate volume that was just loud enough for me to hear, yet not annoy my family, since they were not big fans of pop music.  Soon enough, I caught up, knowing all the lyrics to all the popular songs that would be played at school dances.  I could sing along so dances never got too awkward, what with a bunch of teens straddling the line between wanting to dance and wanting to look non-committal for a school dance.  With my knowledge of the lyrics and the songs, I proved myself up to date with the latest trends.

Another pastime affected by the desire to gain validation was my manga-reading.  I started with manga that was pretty widely heard of in North America like Naruto, Bleach and Inuyasha, but eventually I dove deep into translated manga sites where entire genres of manga with thousands of titles were ready to be read.  I voraciously consumed manga, particularly shoujo manga, probably dedicating at least an hour a day.

I didn’t talk much about that daily habit.  When I did it was because the key figures in our class had gotten into a manga craze themselves, excitedly discussing Death Note or Prince of Tennis.  I got into those two series myself as a result of those classmates.  Their brazen discussions normalized manga and anime as a topic.  Otherwise, my love for manga would also mark me as an outsider.

Towards Grade 11 or 12, I jumped aboard the Hallyu wave.  I became entranced by how the coordinated limbs of K-pop idols moved in perfect synchronization in their music videos and live performances.

Not that I had anybody to express this interest to.  K-pop was not something discussed in lunch times or break times, and so I kept it to myself.  Of course, this was still concurrent with the overwhelming reaffirmations from my surroundings about the supremacy of western popular music, as evident from school dances to the school’s yearbook section on popular culture that focussed solely on western media.

This false perception that my hobbies needed to be approved continued into university.  An experience that exemplifies this, and marks how I began overcoming it, is my first date in first year.  My boyfriend at the time was older than me.  He seemed so sophisticated, mature, and knowledgeable.  Fresh out of high school, I found it hard to believe that I was dating someone like him.

Before we started dating, I didn’t mention K-pop at all for fear that it would make me seem unattractive, although King of K-pop G Dragon’s “Crooked” was my ringtone.  I watched Wes Anderson at his recommendation, although I wasn’t particularly into artsy films at that time – I only enjoyed visual arts more broadly.

I wasn’t tailoring myself to be a different person, but there were certain aspects that I suppressed because I imagined that they would make others think of me as strange.

Please note that he did not at all contribute to my sense of this, and really didn’t give two figs about whether I liked K-pop or not, which I’ll describe later.  The pressure I felt is something I carried in.

I carried this false perception in all the way into our first date.  Once we confirmed that this was going to be a relationship, the first thing I got off my chest was my love for K-pop:

“By the way…I listen to a lot of K-pop.”

I don’t remember his reaction.  It definitely wasn’t anything significant.  Probably acknowledgement, before the topic naturally switched to other things.


 

I think that with that minimal reaction to my love for K-pop, I began to realize that I don’t need my preferences validated.  I also have good friends to thank for, from high school and university, who share in my “strange” preferences, support them or do not think any less of me because of them.

Funny enough, the passion you show towards your interests can inspire others too.  At a trivia game during a recent holiday lunch party, I proudly wore my K-pop fangirl badge, joking that I’d fail all the “Pop Culture” category questions unless it was actually “K-pop Culture”.  This turned out to be a saving grace as one of the questions was about a K-pop boy group that made a splash at the American Music Awards this year.  The tie-breaker round involved having knowledge about one of the K-pop industry’s most famous girl groups.

After I had helped my team win with my K-pop knowledge, a person who I had just met remarked it was amusing to watch me think through my answer to the tie-breaker question.  It involved drawing upon what I knew of the members of that girl group, which impressed him.

Having gone over how preferences don’t need validation from peers, I do wonder whether the experience of feeling that way is necessary.  Nevertheless, it’s a lot less stressful if you can get out of that self- and socially-imposed sensation earlier.

Measuring Fall 2017

How do you measure, measure a year?

I don’t even want to measure the full year because the past four months have been so completely overwhelming on their own.  I may be in the last year of my undergraduate studies, but this term posed new challenges in several areas, putting my abilities to the test.

Academics

It was supposed to be a manageable academic load: I only had three courses out of the five that make up a full course load.  With only three courses, I’d have time to travel to a few conferences and do some extracurriculars, right?

Wrong.  Every paper I wrote this term involved staying up to 4AM the night before it was due.  I had seven papers, ranging from 1000 to 3000 words in length.  The two days I had to head off to an airport were preceded by four hours of sleep as I was attempting to punch out as much of a paper as I could before departing.  I couldn’t manage to submit an assignment before I left so I found myself hammering out a policy brief throughout a darkened plane to Hong Kong, while my fellow passengers snoozed blissfully or lazily pursued movies on their screens.

I found myself wondering why, as I prepared to embark on yet another sleepless night, I found myself in this miserable situation yet again.  I had planned ahead to get work earlier, to manage the deadlines so I could breeze by papers one by one.

There were times when I didn’t follow that plan to the “t”, like when I met up with friends despite knowing that I wouldn’t get any work done in their presence.  But those times helped alleviate my stress.  I found motivation and inspiration to get work done afterwards.  So, where had I gone wrong?

Aside from the stress of managing workloads, I faced severe doubts about my own abilities.  Two term papers were written over weekends of crying.  I was disappointed in my own work and felt like making a coherent argument was an unachievable goal.  I recalled that at the start of this term, I was full of excitement for the opportunity to plunge into areas of interest through those papers.  The prospect of learning more about these areas was as bright and sunny as a quest for gold at the end of the rainbow might be.

The actual process of writing the papers was akin to stumbling through a fog, completely lost.  What was I looking for?  How could I narrow the direction I had in mind into a topic, into an argument, into a feasible I-can-find-evidence-to-support-this argument?  With my late start and slow progress on my papers, I forced myself to spend consecutive days leading up to the deadline, completely immersed in that one paper and nothing else.

Health and fitness

My fitness status currently: dismal.  I’ve felt dismayed ever since I returned from my conferences.  I surrendered workouts to travel and papers, and control over my appetite to mindless snacking.

I did run a half-marathon earlier this term and broke my personal record, but that’s an accomplishment long forgotten.  That was a whole other me in October, who managed a pace of 5 minutes 11 seconds per kilometre for the 21.1km race.  My most recent run earlier this week was 6 minutes per kilometre, and only for a short distance of 6.5km.

I set up another challenge after finishing the half marathon in October.  I wanted to do a triathlon (race that involves swimming, cycling and running).

It didn’t work out.  As a newbie, I followed a balanced plan of training each discipline i.e., sport) twice per week.  Six workouts per week was demanding, for I only trained five times a week for running.  Triathlon training wasn’t something I could just do without much thinking either.  I hadn’t swum in eight years so getting back into it was difficult – I was often exhausted for the rest of the day afterwards.  Cycling was even harder as I had to learn to ride on the road alongside passing cars, and also tried to figure out why I had a persistent shoulder pain (it came from my overly tense shoulders, gripping onto my handlebars for dear life for I still lacked the confidence and skill on the two-wheeled contraption).

If I missed a workout, I would have missed half of the practices for that discipline that week.  With my schedule and energy levels, I couldn’t make up sessions by fitting two into a day.

What convinced me to stop was that I had two falls within a week on my bike.  I’m not skilled, nor usually very alert at 6:30AM when I get my workouts in.  In both those falls, I slid and fell due to poor road conditions (frost or wet from heavy rain) and lack of expertise.

Thankfully, cycling in the early hours of the morning offered one benefit.  There was far less traffic, so I could safely get up, account for my injuries, and slowly head home.

Faith

Catholicism, a lifelong constant for me, is gone.

The irony is that my desire to have a deeper relationship with the religion triggered my departure.  At the start of term, I decided to join a faith study to find a community with whom I could celebrate my faith and learn alongside.

The faith study did teach me about what Catholicism means, boiling down the religion to its core tenets.  When the faith study culminated in a session that asked whether I did believe in those tenets, I couldn’t say yes.  I prefer to keep the reasons why I couldn’t believe in Catholicism private for now, but perhaps I will expand on them in another post.

I suppose it’s not an irony that this happened because of the faith study.  As a result of the faith study, I learnt that I was only floating along in this religion, never engaging with what it means to be Catholic.  If I had never actively believed in Catholicism in the first place, it was unsurprising that I turned away when confronted with the question, “Do you believe?”

So, I walked away from the weekly Mass I had attended ever since I could remember.  I stopped making the sign of the cross and praying alongside my family members before meals.  In the holiday season, I was especially sensitive to wishes of, “Merry Christmas!”  In prior years, I had wished others that as a Christian myself, but this year I only wished that to those who subscribed to Christianity.  When someone inquired whether I was Catholic, I amended my answer from, “Yes,” to, “I was.”

 

September to December 2017.  What was supposed to be a fairly sweet start to the end of my undergraduate studies was instead dotted with crises left and right.

There were many highlights and good things about this term too.  The courses were the best I’ve taken in my degree and the conference experiences were great.

I have chosen to focus this entry on the pits of this term.  It certainly is a product of me wallowing in my miseries and trying to process them by recording them, but I also wanted to share them because I hope to let others who may be experiencing similar challenges that they’re not alone.  Behind every successful paper are long nights in front of the computer or in the library.  Behind the completed race are weeks of training, missed workouts, and discipline.  Behind a seemingly collected face may be a person who is pondering about where to go next in their spiritual journey.  There is so much more beyond the surface.  For me, it has been reassuring to hear from friends and other blogs that I am not alone in these struggles, and I hope this helps others too.

Fine Art Friday: Tsang Kin Wah

I saw OnsiteTsang Kin Wah’s installation piece on the side of the Vancouver Art Gallery earlier this week. It creates ivy-like patterns from anti-Chinese language in 1980s Vancouver newspaper headlines. This quote from the description linked above sums up one of the recurring emotions I have felt throughout this #Canada150 year:

“Tsang’s work combines foul language with beautiful patterns to confront the reality of ignorance that often exists within cities that boast of their multiculturalism and diversity.”

This speaks to Vancouver specifically, but it applies to Canada more broadly.  I raised in Dear Canada on 150 that Canada doesn’t have much to celebrate, even on diversity, which Canada prides itself on.  The anti-Chinese sentiment Tsang’s work draws on comes from the 1980s, but that wasn’t too long ago.  Moreover, it certainly seems to be rising as foreign Chinese buyers are often named the cause of mounting housing prices in Vancouver.  Read here on the rising anti-Chinese sentiment, and here for the apparent links between Chinese buyers and Vancouver’s housing market crisis.

 

Individualization of Responsibility

I took Global Environmental Politics this past term.  It was extraordinarily useful in arming me with the terms and frameworks that explain the phenomenon around me.  The course aimed to explain how power starts, inhibits, affects and influences environmental change.

The concept, “individualization of responsibility”, was one of my favourite terms because it described an issue I myself was wrestling with.  Michael Maniates, who introduced this term in his article Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?, believes that the world is trending towards an individual-based sense of environmentalism.  It means that we understand that individuals hold the key to change, as opposed to groups, communities, governments, or corporations.  Individuals are seen as the ones who can take action to save the world, whether it be through planting trees, riding bicycles or buying eco-products.  This is the logic behind campaigns that promote purchase of more sustainable products: if people change their purchasing decisions, the change in demand therefore causes product or service suppliers to change their practices as well. 

Michael Maniates is disappointed with this trend.  He thinks it shifts attention away from the collective action that is really effective.  I think to too.  There’s only so much individuals can effect by themselves. 

So what if I bring my own mug to my favourite coffee store?  It doesn’t stop the barista from whipping out a disposable cup for the next customer.  Even worse, the barista sometimes has already started writing down my order on a disposable cardboard cupholder.

On top of that, individualizing responsibility is distracting us from the systems that are at fault.  With the perception of the consumer as key to stopping use of disposable cups, it leads consumers like me to expend extra energy to ensure I bring my reusable mug each time I think I will end up at a coffee shop. 

What if, instead of the responsibility of producing less waste at a coffee shop falling to me to bring a reusable mug, it’s the business’ responsibility to operate with less waste, or the government’s responsibility to prohibit consumers and businesses alike from producing waste from non-essential disposable goods?  In another case, what if the responsibility of buying more eco-friendly products that often come at a higher price falls not on consumers?  Rather, perhaps all products should meet higher standards for environmental impact and sustainability, and be available at affordable prices.

This video encapsulates this shift towards an individualization of responsibility.  It features Lauren Singer, who runs the Trash is for Tossers blog on living a zero-waste lifestyle.  The shift is when she says one of the things she’s learnt from living zero-waste is that instead of looking to governments and policy-making as a way to effect change, she sees the huge potential in individual actions. 

This is troubling for me, especially since I believe that Singer had an honourable mission (her story inspired me to change some of my practices as well).  I do support her decision to live zero-waste to reflect her desire to protect the environment, because I think it’s worthwhile to change your personal lifestyle to reflect your beliefs. 

However, I do not think that personal lifestyle change is a better way to effect change than collective action.  Singer doesn’t explicitly say that urging government action is not the most effective solution, but the promise she found in individual action conveys a sense that individual action is the way to go in contrast to changing government policy.

Never forget that there is so much more we can do together to enact change on a wider scale.  Focussing on what you do in your personal life overlooks the root causes of problems.  In order to respond to lack of supply, to respond to ineffectual laws and enforcement, to motivate stronger ambition for environmental goals, we need to organize together to change our community, city, province, country, corporations, institutions and cultures. 

The Racer, Part 2

Alternatives to racing I

I tried interval training for the first time a few weeks ago.  As you may know, I’ve been running for a while and have done a few races.

Interval training is very different from how I used to train.  Previously, with little guidance other than training plans found on the internet, I was running prescribed distances at a steady pace.  In interval training, you run at your goal pace in short, manageable intervals (usually one minute or so) with rest periods in between.  This supposedly helps your body acclimatize to your goal pace.

In this way, interval training is not about finishing faster than the last one.  It’s about consistency.

I definitely was caught aback by this difference.  The audio guide (from Nike+ Run Club – Nike+ apps rule my fitness life) for this interval training session that I was following called out in the very first interval to cease from all-out sprinting.  This surprised me as I realized that I unconsciously was doing exactly that.

Alternatives to racing II

A friend of mine and I were bemoaning the difficulties of writing papers.  Typical arts students.

I always manage to turn things in on time.  I cannot bear to take deductions based on lateness, rather than my skill.  So, it boggles my mind when I hear of others like my friend who knowingly turns things in late.  To her, the paper was not ready, so she didn’t turn it in until it was.  For her, the greatest challenge when writing papers is bringing herself to finish it on time.

“But why?” I demanded to know.

She replied that she’s not sure herself, but perhaps it’s because she lives life a little slower.  I can see that as a viable reason – she has told me about how she’s noticed certain trees on campus look particularly beautiful at sunset, and eased the speed that I would have gone at during our meetings by taking time to talk about things that aren’t on the agenda.  Things such as school and family, which are in a way just as important, because it’s brought the two of us closer and thus made the meetings much better.

I walked by one of those trees she talked about, albeit early in the morning instead of at the end of the day.  I chuckled as I eyed the orange leaves, drooping slightly with dampness, thinking to myself that it did look as gorgeous as my friend described.