Happenings and conversations :)

Hey all :).

I’m so excited to speak with you, because it has been a wonderful past two weeks in terms of conversations. I say two weeks, because I had a plan last week, with bullet points and everything, but then I got caught in a “ooh, something shiny!” moment in paragraph one and veered off into a discourse on communication. Turns out this post is going to be about conversations as well—it’s so funny to me that talking to people is now the most important part of my life. What did I write about before? Did other people have layers and layers of interesting conversations in college?

First, happenings in my life :). Work is moving along nicely! It’s very strange for me not to be learning something new every day at work—I just have things I need to do, and I know how to do them, so it’s all about sitting down and taking the time. I’m working with a first-year PhD student and a post-doc to set up a behavioral study, and we’re hoping to bring in participants next week! I’m quite happy with the division of labor; currently I get to code in Matlab all day, which frankly is my favorite non-learning work thing to do. Funny thing—in my family, engineering/mathematics are the best fields you can study, followed by the hard sciences and then moving down from there—so I always am annoyed with myself that I’m not naturally inclined to engineering. I really don’t thank my environment/genes enough for enjoying coding, since it’s something I value so highly. (And that’s how I know it’s both environment and genes, because if I hadn’t been trying to force mathematics and computer science into my life, who knows where I would have ended up!)

Rowing is happening as well, and makes me so happy. It’s really wonderful to be back on a team again—there are annoying things, but I always get so bouncy just being around other people when we’re about to work out together. Everyone always comments on it—“wow, you’re so excited!” and I can’t really explain it, but I’m almost never as cheerful as I am right before a workout that I know won’t kick my butt. (Then I’m anxious. Flashback to many morning swims :).) But we’re not at that stage yet, so if Cambridge could stop being so windy, we’d be able to get out on the water!

(Digression: it’s also really, really wonderful to be using words like “really” and “wonderful” again :). I’ve been writing graduate school applications, where the strongest you can get is “I am very interested.” I get two “I would love to”s in any given essay, and you can’t even replace that with “it would be incredible if…” etc. because that language is too unprofessional. It is a daily miracle to me when I’m able to read a paragraph out of one of these essays and hear any passion. On the other hand, you learn to adopt your reading style. Scientific humor is the driest humor I’ve ever read, and so very, very subtle—it almost thrives on being accessible only to the niche crowd, and it makes me smile whenever I catch it.)

Water besides, we’ve been assigned to permanent rowing crews, and I’m happy to be in Novice Boat 1, which means I get to do novice races! We have our first erg race tomorrow (ergs are rowing machines) and I’m a bit nervous. The shortest distance one rows in an erg competition is 500m, which takes about 2 minutes, which is like the 200 free in swimming, which is LONG, man. The 200 free was probably my least favorite event in swimming (it’s like the 400m in running—just a really long sprint) but on the other hand it’s great to be pushed again. I was emailing one of the senior rowers a few days ago, when I realized that rowing was just one unending series of squat jumps (… one of my least favorite activities alongside burpees, which are just incredibly painful) and she was like: yup! It’s like doing deadlifts over and over! But I do like deadlifts, and it’ll be good to get some leg muscle instead of building up my arms, and she tells me that being on the water when everyone’s in sync is like no other feeling in the world. I just know that I’m happy to be going into jock speak here (… I speak science, jock, fanfic, Matlab, some Python and Java, French and some Spanish) and being with this community again :).

Grad school apps are happening :). I had an informal interview with one of the professors I’ve emailed, and she’s lovely and convinced me that I might want to head down to SoCal. I’m reminding myself that sleeping needs to happen more than feeling productive, because… well, I’m still recovering from the 5-hour and 6-hour weeks from two weeks ago. I don’t know how people can do this consistently! Well, with coffee, I guess. Coffee and lots and lots of English tea :).

And now we’re moving onto conversations, because there are just so many cool interactions I’ve had. First of all, I love my lab so much. We have an incredible set of talkers—talkers are the people who fill in awkward silences. Silences don’t even get to the point of awkwardness in our lab, because we have so many people who are good at filling in, and they’re good at listening as well. (Sidebar: my favorite is when my lab gets drunk. Then we’re REALLY good at talking, and the more everyone has to drink, the more I can relax because the conversation’s in good hands. And since, for the first time ever, literally no one cares if I drink or not, I’ve come to really enjoy pub nights :).) And then the talking is always so engaging! We’ll often be talking about practical things—like which funding sources to apply for, what talks to go to, how to solve problems we’re wrestling with—which is fantastic. You don’t realize how fantastic this is until you experience the dearth of shared information and advice among peers. We’re also often talking about fun culture things—what we did over the weekend, how our home countries differ from another (dropbears. It’s all about the dropbears), or making jokes and figuring out how to make holograms out of your phone. (Teasing, too: I often get teased about my food, which I agree is very worthy of mocking. They find the fact that I bring buckets of mixed vegetables, nuts, plus a grain base and then eat out of the trough for a few days a nice default humor. Also, don’t put brownies in mugs—mugs are sacred and are only for tea.) And we’re very often talking about science. Evaluating other people’s science, joking about science, daydreaming about how some experiment could be twisted around, just playing with ideas. Everyone’s treated as an equal, questions are encouraged, and it’s all so smart and fun and accepted. Like, it’s not nerdy or “too serious” to branch into research, because they treat it as something fun, just puzzles to stretch the mind, and because it’s interesting and good to find humor and fun ideas in. I’ve never seen science used as a “non-serious” conversation before, just one of many other topics that’s interesting. “Science nirvana,” I mentioned to Tiffany, because the conversation is so smart, but not intimidatingly—we drift into it so easily.

On the other hand, after work last Friday I hadn’t talked to anyone about non-serious topics in a solid six hours or so (…lunch breaks are where the fun conversations happen, otherwise we’re back to communally staring at computer screens [which is fun as well, don’t get me wrong!]). So I biked over to my college, Lucy Cavendish, to work out, since staring at another computer screen while reading on an elliptical often makes me feel better. (What works even better when I feel like this: conversation with other humans. But we can’t have other humans available at our beck and call all the time :P.) However, all of the colleges have porters, who are the (often older white men) who take care of every non-academic thing you can think of in the college. And they’re always up for chatting if they’re not busy. So I spent an hour listening to our head porter talk about how he had renovated his kitchen (it was quite impressive), and looking at pictures of that as well as his motorcycles and cars. My conversational responsibility in this conversation was to sit and listen attentively, and admire someone with enviable mechanical skills and interests. It was interesting and I learned a lot! The differences in conversational expectations were quite humorous, however. I find that with certain people I often run conversations like this, when I’m dominating the conversation with my own interests. As a listener, I appreciate this at times—there are some really interesting and funny talkers in the world, or people I care deeply about, who I just want to say words so I can let it wash over me. Sometimes when I’m the speaker I veer too far in the other direction, and force people to talk about their own interests when they’d rather share a conversation. I think it’s all about finding a good balance for the people and the moment. I do tend to notice that I get caught as a listener in these sorts of conversations with disproportionately older people, and when they’re acquaintances or strangers they’re almost always male.

Another day, I had long-ish conversation with one of the younger porters about dating. My opinion on this in general, male or female: …if possible, could you please not talk to me about dating? I’m not particularly interested, you make me feel guilty by pushing when I have nothing to add, and dropping topics that make others uncomfortable is always appreciated. People will move off most uncomfortable topics, but will oddly persist along the dating and alcohol avenues for quite some time. I had a whole theory, but Tiffany told me I was overthinking it and that people were just nosy. Could be, Tiffany, could be :).

Speaking of, I recently heard a comment highlighting the fact my interests are kind of wholesome. I don’t drink alcohol or caffeine, don’t watch TV, work out for fun, like reading, like doing school, eat weird vegetables, like listening to positive things, enjoy bright colors, try not to be offensive, etc. It wasn’t a negative comment, just a comment. Sometimes I feel… I don’t know, really. I’ve been staring at the screen for a bit trying to figure out what to say about this. It makes me feel young, I guess. But I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of these things, and then I’ll be older with wholesome interests, and more assured about it? Maybe I’m making the comparison because I feel insecure about it sometimes, like it’s a bad way to not fit in, that my vices can come off as more innocent than others’. Something to think about, but not too deeply: there’s always plenty to improve upon, and I am all for any natural inclinations that make productivity and long-term health easier to achieve!

More conversations :). Last Thursday, I had formal hall and sat with the lab and some people on the rowing team. And I love the person I was sitting next too—April, one of the senior rowers. She’s American, and was in the military for a long time before coming to Cambridge for her PhD in her late twenties. You don’t often find military and academia overlap, and we clicked immediately upon meeting a few weeks ago when we got into sports and science discussion. It felt so much like talking to my dad when he visited—just full of experience, knowledge, advice; carrying a fundamental patience and calm in what life has to offer. As a coach, she’s straightforward, but attentive to what people are feeling—firm but reassuring. In traveling, her favorite part about visiting cities is walking around—walking for miles and miles and seeing what she discovers. We agreed to wander in London together. These people are my rocks in life.

I love talking to Tiffany. We skyped yesterday, and we really will be friends forever. There’s just so much that I admire about her, even as I spent most of the time talking a mile a minute at her while she laughed. Listening: that moment when she was telling me about being a volunteer with a patient who died. When she was standing up and down while gesticulating to her stomach to tell me how hernias develop. When she was talking about responsibilities as a medical student to the public. When she was telling me about the colorful quilts of stories that describe a geriatric doctor’s livelihood. Sports, boyfriend, school, Halloween, friends. (She makes me want to be a better person.)

I love talking to Mélys and Madeline, the girls who I met up for scones with two weeks ago and met up with for brunch again. I am completely confounded to why we get on so well. Like, it seems absurd to me that we all happened to sit down at the dinner table one day, we clicked, and then it continues to be smooth and interesting sailing from here on out. I keep thinking: this must be something that can happen with anyone, I must just have to keep on meeting new people; this must be something normal. But it’s special. Just a chance encounter, but conversation is so smooth and dynamic when we’re together. None of my other friendships have been made this way—years of being involved in the same activities or classes, years of acquaintanceship, usually—but this is working, and it’s special :).

My grandmother sent me a letter last week :). She mentioned her book club was reading a book called “Left Neglected”, and asked me if some people really do completely ignore an entire half of their visual field. Yes—yes they do—I love my field and I love studying the brain and mind and we live in the coolest age. And thank you grandma for sending me a letter in my pigeonhole (that’s what they call mailboxes here) on Lady Margaret Road. You always make my day :).

One of my flatmates wants to interview me on her podcast. It is so cool that she’s been thinking for years of making podcasts in order to have deep conversations with other Cambridge students, and then she actually made it happen. She wants to talk to me about my friends’ Asian and Asian-American experiences compared to the UK Asian experience, and my research on learning. I am woefully unprepared, and will sound like an oblivious… American… on the former topic, and will stumble around madly trying to make what is essentially basic research clinically applicable on the latter. I can learn far more from her than she can from me, but she asked, and I’m up for a good try :).

My friend Galen visited me last Friday—a Wellesley friend who’s studying abroad in France this semester. She reminded me to be thankful that English is my first language in a foreign country. We went to a gastropub together and talked about school and people. I’d never thought about some of the perspectives she presented, and we had a great conversation late into the night :).

I had dinner with a Cambridge couple who kindly invited me into their home. I loved it upon entry—Pokémon paintings on the wall, game controllers in cubbies, a nice couch and a table that doubled as a storage locker that doubled as a bookshelf surface. They let me settle on the floor while they perched on the couch and a beanbag, discussing our jobs as students, teachers and software engineers. We’d met by email once—I’m forever grateful to her and her husband’s generosity :).

I had dinner with a Wellesley alum and her family :). Conversation with her and her husband was wonderful—about how Wellesley has changed, the differences between America and the UK, Cambridge over the years, art, music. They were an older couple with kids just a few years younger than me, so it was a familiar environment than one always misses :). I’m so thankful to them for opening their home :).

I went to an International Students Dinner, when we had a lovely lecture about finding one’s higher purpose in life. This dinner was kindly put on by the Christian Graduate Society, but the group is very welcoming to non-religious students, and this particular talk just asked us to individually think about what our higher purpose might be. I don’t know what mine is, beyond a dedication to learning, thinking, trying to be kind, enjoying being happy. But it’s always a good thing to think about—giving back some way, contributing to something greater.

And with that, readers, I’m heading to bed :). Thank you so much for reading, especially since this one’s a long one. I love comments and questions, or directions you’d suggest I talk or think about—so many wonderful conversations to be had, so many realizations to achieve. Hope you have good weeks, and best wishes,

Monica

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