A lot is conveyed through language. You don’t need me to tell you that. Because many of us rely on speech in our interactions with others, we often exploit it to form assumptions about them. Our perceived answers to “How well does this person articulate their ideas?” informs us (although erroneously at times) about this person’s, say, sociocultural background, and it’s thinking about some answers that people probably conjure for me that’s got me feeling down lately. Maybe more than usual.
This is what happens when I speak (especially in class when there are dozens of eyes on me or even one-on-one with a professor when I’m obviously the ignorant one in the situation): I open my mouth; one or two words escape; my brain divides into two parts, one that thinks about what I am going to say next, and the other that thinks, “Does this person think I’m stupid? Is what I’m saying stupid? Does this person think I’m stupid? And if I am stupid, will I always be stupid? Does this person think I’m stupid? Will I forever be saying stupid stuff to brilliant people who can see how stupid I am?”; I stumble on my words; the latter part of my brain seizes the controls over the former; my brain shuts down; and everything goes blank. The desire to communicate my opinions becomes eclipsed by a suddenly urgent need to salvage my sentence on some half-decent note.
Nearing the end of September, Almighty Chem Wizard*, Alex, and I attended this special Writers Fest event at the Chan Centre, which featured author Salman Rushdie in conversation with Hal Wake. (I know, I can barely believe Rushdie was in Vancouver too, and I was freaking there!) After the event, when we were gushing about how intelligent and humorous and profound this guy was, Alex said, “He’s cool because he’s at this level where he talks as well as he writes. It’s like you’re listening to someone write right in front of you.”
I never wanted so much in that moment to be able to do just that, to take all of what I loved best about reading–the diction, the clauses, the syntax–how the careful organization of each of them, and sometimes the deliberate misuse of them, can elicit such intense emotion and debate in and among us–and be able to churn it out so spontaneously, offer it in a medium so tenuous–literally mere reverberations of air–that people would be forced to pay attention to it in a way that’s impossible with text. Much as I love the printed word, there’s something to be said for a form of art that can’t be skimmed, that requires real-time engagement, because it’s not like you can rewind speaking, at the minutest level, a word and have the person not yet hear it.
Long, long ago, I watched a documentary on sand mandalas. A posh voice speaking over scenes of crouching Tibetan monks kept stressing the importance of why the mandalas would be destroyed soon after their completion, almost as if to placate the viewer who would mourn their (tragic) loss, but even as a kid I could never disapprove of the monks’ motives. There’s a lot to be said for work that endures, but the ephemerality of all the rest makes them just as beautiful and just as meaningful, don’t you think? Because when they’re gone, that’s when we realize that we lived in that special, almost miraculous moment in which both our existences collided, and no one else will ever have that experience ever again. And although it’s sad when the things we loved aren’t here anymore, the simple fact that they evoked this pure, earnest feeling in us lends greater credence to their value.
Besides, everything eventually gets lost to the human consciousness anyways.
People are often fooled by high rhetoric. You know how in The Merchant of Venice, when Bassanio is all like, “So may the outward shows be least themselves./The world is still decided with ornament./In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt/But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,/Obscures the show of evil?” when he’s deciding on which casket to open to win Portia’s hand? I totally agree. Yet is it wrong to desperately want this power too, to be able to fool the world with my (currently non-existent) verbal prowess? I admire the people who can speak in class so effortlessly and elegantly, because to me it means that their minds also work that effortlessly and elegantly. Meanwhile, all I’m able to muster is a babble akin to some first grader describing her favourite t.v. show–all superficial: “Um, yeah, I liked the part when Franklin shared with his friend, Bear, because that was the kind thing to do.” Makes me feel like I am a first grader.
Part of what I like about writing is that I get to think it through. I can rise above, say, the limitations of my sociocultural upbringing. I don’t have to be that dumb and dumbstruck student when I can mull over questions as long as I want with no one the wiser, and I can give my response in a well-organized, well-articulated fashion with sources to boot. I don’t have to worry about all the variables that come with the spontaneity of speech. Or maybe it’s true, and my mental dexterity will never match up with everyone else’s, as evident by my sucky speaking and writing, but at least for that one moment, I feel that I get an honest chance to try and be a realer me, a me that deserves to have her opinion heard because it’s a damn good opinion.
Problem is, people don’t communicate through pen and paper 100 % of the time; I know this and I can accept this, but it’s hard to. It is so, so hard. And yet…I can’t seem to shatter this tiny kernel of hope within me that someday, I’ll be able to talk the way I want to. Tl;dr: I wish I could speak like a champ in class and in life.
*Obvs not her real name.
I have wanted to say such words for a very long time.
I have not been brave enough to say these words.
I have not been brave enough to claim that God has power over my challenges – that it has nothing to do with how capable I am or how eloquently I speak on any given day, but rather with the presence of the Spirit in my life thanks to what Christ Jesus did.
Just like coming here gave me a fuller picture of Japanese culture, as if turning off the lights and letting the UV writing that connected all the puzzle pieces shine through – I did not claim my inheritance to His power until I recognized that I could not, and could never, do anything on my own. It is God that gives me the power to forgive others and myself. It is God that gives me the words to speak and the strength to dance. And God’s victory is not the dish of the day – God’s victory is everlasting and unchanging, and I will not be afraid to say it even when every mouth – including my own – is whispering defeat into my ears.
I went to a worship event last week with my youth group here, since it had been too long since I had the chance to pour myself out so freely. Of course, as one might expect of a Japanese crowd, everyone at the beginning felt pretty reserved about raising their hands, falling to their knees, etc. The worship leader (who recently released a single in which my friends were the backup dancers – check it out here) took the liberty of leading us through these typical worship motions, saying something to the tune of, “We’re not worshipping in Japanese culture. We’re worshipping in Kingdom culture!”
When I don’t know where I belong, God tells me, “You belong here, with me. I will give you the words to speak, no matter what language they are in. Now speak for me.”
(Photo is from DH’s Pender Island Retreat, January 2017.)
I remember myself being enamoured by the sea, even when I knew nothing about it.
In kindergarten we were once asked by the teacher what colour water was. Without a second thought, I answered, “blue!” since water in cartoons and Disney movies was always blue. She never really convinced me otherwise, no matter how much she maintained that water was “clear”.
The sea is a mystery to humanity, because as much as it gives life and is full of it, it is also powerful and spontaneous and incomprehensible. As much as we wish we could grasp its vastness and diversity, this is God’s prerogative and His alone. But in together being part of His creation, we are able to share in its bounty and its beauty.
Today, I visited DisneySea with some fellow exchange students. It was the first time since my mother went back to Canada, and the first time I had to commute to and fro between my dorm and Disney.
As I put on my Disney playlist on my way home, I realized something as I listened to one of my most treasured songs.
My favourite princess has always been Ariel. (Maybe not always.) I could relate so much to the way she felt like she had everything but always wanted more – something that her world couldn’t give her no matter how complete it ought to be seen as. She spent all her time exploring, obsessing over the human world, wishing she could be there. And in order to gain what she wanted, she was willing to sacrifice everything – her family, her ties to her homeland, even her ability to sing and to speak, regardless of the fact she was warned of the human world and its dangers.
And isn’t that a little bit like what I’m doing?
I was so loved by the people around me, yet I felt like I didn’t fit in, and I was willing to leave them and everything I knew behind to go to a new place I wasn’t sure about. Even now, I’m not sure – every time I run into a challenge or am asked about “how Japan is treating me”, I can’t quite give an answer.
The grotto of my mind is full of “gadgets and gizmos aplenty” from the place I love. I’m interested in Japanese cinema, Japanese literature, modern Japanese history – and there are some things I know about that I think would startle the typical Japanese person. But in the end a collection of trinkets in a grotto is just that – unsourced, decontextualized information without experience to be grounded in.
I must be willing to lose my elocution in order to be close to the culture I have loved. This means I speak slower, make mistakes when talking and writing, and that in conversation I am sometimes perceived as quiet even though my brain is boiling over with things to participate with. I can say what I want to say, but I’m not native, and sometimes not native is just not enough. As someone who took years and years to get to a point where they finally feel like they can say what they want to say in their native language, this imposed dumbness is incredibly, incredibly frustrating. Add on the fact that studying on-and-off for 10 years should have gotten me further than this, and some days I just want to pack my bags and go home. It’s hard to understand how much it means to be Canadian until you leave Canada.
And in the end Ariel gets the fairy tale ending – her father’s magic powers grant her legs, and she gets married to the handsome Prince Eric, the first person she meets from the surface.
We can think about all the factors that came together and will come together. How many times had Ariel been to the surface in order to assemble her collection? How many times had she gone there and back without seeing a single person? What are the chances that the first man she lays eyes on is the good-looking, rich heir to the kingdom? And if she can use a dinglehopper to comb her hair, how much trouble will she have adjusting to all the other parts of human culture? How much will she be ridiculed by the courtesans around her, even if she is a princess?
Without King Triton and his kingly trident, those of us who aspire to a culture apart from our own have to deal with problems like this. Just like Ariel, we may have a father and a caretaker who urge us not to go, by any means necessary. Unlike Ariel, our caretaker may not employ the entire ocean to implore us to stay, and in song, no less. Just like Ariel, we may be stuck laying at the bottom of a grotto filled with treasure, staring at the white light permeating from the sun’s rays. We may think we are experts without ever having once gone there. Unlike Ariel, aspirations, marriages and immigration are not as simple as a 1, 2, 3 and a “But, Daddy, I love him!” (No, Ariel. You’re in love with his culture and his looks, not the person himself.)
At this point, I can’t say that I have unwavering resolve. Some days are very, very hard, and for someone with my goals and my outlook who came here, I feel like it really shouldn’t be. But – and this point is just like Ariel – if my love and my longing to be here is strong and authentic enough, I will be able to overcome those obstacles. Every time I can’t make sense of a reading, every time someone automatically switches into English because I’m a “foreigner” – even though these things get under my skin and destroy my nerves way, way more than they should (and more often than not), if God has truly put this country, this language, and this culture on my heart, then I know I will be able to overcome it. Since I’m here, I know that He has. And since He has, I know I can.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)
Step 2: Submitting an Application
Some labs will specify what they want in their application, but what all applications boil down to is pretty much this: your transcript (a screenshot of your grade summary off of SSC is fine, no need to pay that fee at Brock Hall), your C.V., and a cover letter.
Most labs require a minimum GPA for you to be an RA (usually 75 % or 80 % and above). If you don’t meet that GPA, you can always try to explain in your cover letter why you might still be an excellent candidate, but please, please don’t photoshop your transcript. You know why.
Unlike what your Planning 10 teacher might have told you in high school, a C.V. is not exactly like a resume. It’s more focused on your academic achievements, and you can get a sense of what I’m talking about by looking up the C.V.s of the PIs you’re thinking of contacting. Yours doesn’t have to be as extensive, though, especially as you don’t yet have your Masters and PhD, ha ha. Stick to the resume rule of being no longer than two pages, and you should be fine. Of course, try to tailor the experience you put on your C.V. to what you think might be relevant for the lab. Previous lab experience is great, but assuming you don’t have that, say, if the lab you’re applying for studies infants and you used to volunteer at a day camp for preschoolers, that’s a legitimate point to note down. At least the PI/lab manager(s) will know that you can interact with people just fine.
Most people forget a cover letter. Don’t! Sure, you can just email a PI/lab manager your transcript and C.V. saying, “Here’s my application, Please consider it. Byyyyeee!!!!”, but why not put in a tad more effort? For your cover letter, you don’t want to write a novel, but you do want to include enough information to convey who you are, what experience you might have that makes you a good candidate, and your reasons for wanting to join the lab. Most PIs should have a website that lists the papers they’ve published. It would be in your best interests to go over some of these papers, or at least the abstracts, and note one or two in your cover letter that you found particularly rad to show that you are actually keen on the research of the lab.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get an immediate reply, or even a rejection! I got every response from no replies (this also happened to my friend this summer, so perhaps this is not all that uncommon) to a kind reply about how the PI whose research I was really, really interested in was actually retired (!) and chilling in Papa New Guinea (!!) to a few requests for interviews. In fact, the first interview I was about to have I never got to go to, because later on I learned I needed a lab for PSYC 366, and the lab I wanted to work in couldn’t accommodate. The struggles of applying to be an RA are like the struggles of applying for a job: people get hired when they have past experience in the field, but how are you supposed to get to that point when you have no experience??? My friends, the tough answer is perseverance.
Step 3: Mastering the Interview
Interviews are conducted differently for each lab. Some questions you might be asked are: What are you planning to get out of being an RA? What experience do you have that’s relevant for XYZ, which is a common RA task in this lab? Are you planning to pursue research further after you graduate? My advice? Be honest, and if you really want to be a part of this lab, let your enthusiasm show! In my experience, this is just as much an opportunity for the interviewer to tell you more about the lab as it is for you to convey why you want to be in the lab. Labs need people to run, and it’s best to know from the get-go whether you and the lab are a good fit. Positive feelings have to be mutual.
Step 4: What Next?
There are two kinds of labs; wet labs and dry labs. Think micropipettes for the former and human participants for the latter. As an RA for either of these labs, you’re likely to start out doing administrative work: cleaning, preparing solutions, booking, data entry etc. Take this as an opportunity to explore the workings of your lab a little more, like the people and the research. Once you get a feel for this, if you’re still pretty enthusiastic about what you’re doing, consider asking the PI to take on more work. From my experience, there’s always room for growth as an RA, even if you are just an undergraduate student. I’ve known RAs who’ve taken on actual studies and had their names included in research papers and RAs who have presented in conferences from BC to Texas. If you’re just starting out, consider presenting for UBC undergraduate conferences like LSURC and MURC.
Being an volunteer RA allows you to move onto other positions in the lab that allow you to take on more responsibility. For Psychology/BNS students, you can apply to be a Directed Studies student through your undergraduate advisor. What this involves is taking on your own research project and writing a paper about it, either for one term or the full school year depending on what you and your PI work out. If you want to be more serious about it, consider becoming an Honours student. Conduct wicked science and earn school credit! If you’re more financially inclined, look into becoming a Work Learn student. Get paid to be an RA!
So that’s a wrap! Before I end off this series, I want to say a few things because I can never stop typing, ha ha. (1) It’s never too late or too early to get into research. PIs/lab managers deliberately seek out young RAs (read: first and second year students), because there is potential for these RAs to stick around. If you’re older, that’s not so bad either; you’ve likely accumulated a lot of experience to help you out with the application process. (2) Most labs seek out RAs at the beginning of a term, and some labs even operate over the summer if you want something to do and have less schoolwork to juggle. Keep this in mind when you send off your applications. (3) Some labs are huge and have as many as twenty RAs, and some are small. There are pros and cons to each of these situations. If one lab doesn’t work out because of the people or the research or whatever, you can always try finding another one. (4) You know, I didn’t expect how much I would enjoy being an RA, but it’s really been an eye-opening experience for me. I hope it is for you too if you decide this is what you want to do.
As always, if you have any questions–or even tips of your own, if you’ve been through this–leave a comment! Best of luck!!!