St-St-Stuttering!

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. 

How to Get Into Research Part 1: Preamble

Last year on Imagine Day, I sat through one of those “Welcome to your major!” talks that my undergraduate advisor was giving to the newest cohort of Behavioural Neuroscience (BNS) students. One of the points I remember distinctly from his presentation was when he talked about his own experience as a UBC BNS student and how he had entered the program with absolutely no plans to go to grad school. He’s a professor now, so I guess you know what happened next.

“I highly recommend you take on a Directed Studies project,” he urged us several times throughout his presentation. “It will be a worthwhile experience.” For me, who still wasn’t so sure how I felt about this “Holy crap–I actually switched majors” thing, factoring a Directed Studies course into my immediate academic plans was just way too extreme. Other people, real BNS students who got their major right the first time around, got to have this mythical experience of working in labs, not me, the quasi-BNS student.

I forgot how doubtful I had felt about getting involved research until recently. A fellow research assistant (RA) in my lab had mentioned how pursuing a Directed Studies project had never seriously crossed her mind, because she had always thought Directed Studies students were too smart–smarter than she could ever be, at least. Which is totally false. She’s one of the best RAs of the team, I kid you not. But you know what I’m getting at, right? Oftentimes, the biggest obstacle standing in your way is yourself.

So if you’ve been thinking about getting into research (or whatever it is that you’ve been wanting to do, as I’m about to dole out some pretty general ~life advice~) and yet feel kind of nervous about it, just know that if you never put yourself out there, even if it’s at the risk of rejection, you’ll never get to where you want to be. Everyone has a beginning, and you shouldn’t compare yours with someone else’s middle. Try out new stuff! That’s part of the uni experience. If you don’t like it, move on. At least you know. And if you do happen to like what you got yourself into…Well, maybe some attentive students will be listening to your presentation on how you got to where you are in the near future. ????

Okay, so enough of my “You can do it!” spiel. Time for the good stuff. You’ve decided that something new you want to try out this year is to work in a lab. (Maybe you’re dead-set about going to grad school, maybe not. Maybe you’re just trying to figure out what you want to do with your degree, and this may be just the opportunity that will help you narrow down your goals.) What now? Obviously, you have to find a lab first. In the next post, I’ll go over what I learned applying to be an RA for different labs, and hopefully some of what I’ve written will help kickstart your dazzling new future in research!

\(^-^)/

Goodbye, Summer

Taken at UBC at the start of the summer. Can you guess where it is?

This summer has been so different from the other summers I’ve had.

I didn’t enrol in a course this time, which logically makes a lot of sense but is still a point of insecurity for me. I hate the idea that I’m slacking, but I know there are limitations to my abilities to excel in a course and devote my time to other just as important means of gaining experience. (Yeeeaaaah, I’m a course fiend–there, I’ve said it.)

I did some of my usual stuff: volunteered a the hospital, went to festivals, visited the typical cool spots in Vancouver, chilled at the library (ha ha, yeeeeaaaah, I’m that kind of nerd)…

But I also took on a bunch of new responsibilities that challenged me and made me reconsider what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go in the next few weeks, the next few months, maybe even the next few years.

This summer, I interned for an online magazine, I volunteered for some labs and a program that seeks to educate kids in science, I got hired at a bookstore, I went to China for the first time with my family. I met new people, and some of them, as this summer draws to a close, I might never see again.

I also lost a few opportunities taking on too much beforehand, and at times still regret it. I dealt with some devastating news concerning friends and personal health scares. My fears on how I am an utter moron (because yeeeaaaah, I have low self-esteem sometimes) couldn’t be trampled despite everything, and I went through a couple of bad days. I noticed a bitterness in me that came with the sunshine I always pine for come winter, and for once I missed the calm that comes with the rain.

And of course, there was always the occasional lazy day in which I did nothing at all. And that was nice.

It has been a long and eventful four months. I don’t have any epiphanies to share, because now more than ever learning has become a gradual and tumultuous experience for me rather than an earth-shattering “Eureka!” moment (although I wish, heh heh), but I appreciate the challenges that I took on and overcame and even those I’m still in the process of overcoming.

As a student, the start of September is more like New Year’s than actual New Year’s. I am fearful and excited as always for what’s going to come next, wondering how I might be able to sustain this feeling into the school year of trying to be someone worthwhile.

How was your summer, folks, and how do you feel about this upcoming winter session? ????

Lessons Learned From an Opera

Or more to the point, lessons I learned from playing an opera.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that in the past, playing in the orchestra has majorly stressed me out, made me feel intimidated and incapable, and my fear of ensemble playing even drove me to a panic attack this January. However, with the help of mindfulness classes and gaining experience playing the opera, I’ve learned a lot. I just finished playing another orchestra concert last Friday and the whole process was much smoother, less nerve-wracking, and actually fun.

The first thing I realized was that everybody is here to learn. Not everyone is going to hit every note at the first rehearsal, and there’s a decent chance no one will even notice if you mess up. And there is a definite chance that no one is going to hate your guts if you mess up. We’re all students – making mistakes is part of learning! If you do make a mistake, it’s your job to figure out why and fix it for next time, but beating yourself up over it is totally uncalled for.

Another thing I learned somewhere along the way is to not take criticism personally. If the conductor tells you you’ve done something wrong, it’s simply because you need to fix it for the sake of making the ensemble sound the best that it can. It doesn’t mean that the conductor hates you, or that you’re a horrible person. The key word in “constructive criticism” is constructive.

Feeling intimidated still? Don’t! The next thing I learned was to play confidently. Playing confidently, even though it seems scary, actually helps you play better. And being too scared to play loud enough isn’t a way around your fear of someone hearing you play something wrong; you’re actually not doing your job if you can’t be heard when you need to be. Breathe in, say you yourself, “I can do this! Anything can go right!” and let the music flow. It’ll come right out.

And finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions. I sat in on a Vancouver Symphony Orchestra rehearsal this Sunday, and they just pipe up with any questions they may have right away. It’s better for everyone if you can clear up any confusion from the moment it arises. If you’re not sure if you should ask the conductor, you can always start with your section leader. (Story time! During the last orchestra concert, I was having trouble hearing from where the harps were set on stage. I emailed the conductor and talked to the stage manager and it got cleared up! Problem solving for the win!)

Basically, it gets better with more experience, and also with a more objective attitude. Stay calm and believe in your capabilities and you’ll be fine. After all, what’s the best that could happen?