Today I caught myself being isolationist. You know the kind of attitude people have when they're willing to help, but you know it's grudging? "All right, hurry up so I can get back to my work!" This is the first time I can recall myself considering, if only for a brief second, helping others to be a less efficient use of my time than something else. At the same time, my time really isn't all that valuable. I'm a lowly undergraduate, and not a particularly skilled one at that. So I don't want to jump out with suggestions on How You Can Make Better Use Of My Time. That's arrogant and just plain silly.
I don't ever want my time to become so valuable that people treat it as such. Sometimes I feel guilty at asking professors and TAs for help (and I know I'm not the only one) because they, this amazing and brilliant person, is stooping to reiterate blatantly simple concepts because I was too lazy to get them through my thick skull. I'm also pretty sure that people feel guilty asking me for help sometimes. I used to do a better job of hiding my exhaustion, but I'm starting to slow down in my old age. :) I admire that our professors at Olin are willing to waste their time on us, and that they don't consider it a waste at all. In fact, I'm astounded by it, because sometimes I can be a real inconsiderate idiot. I want to be like our professors someday. I want to never be too busy or important to help anyone with anything
From past experience, there is nothing that makes good teachers happier than working on a well-made bug report (for any topic, not just programming). If you know exactly what is stopping you, have a clear and specific request, have already explored all avenues you can think of, and can communicate this in an extremely concise manner, then they'll love you. Even if the trouble is "I'm lost and confused and don't know where to look, and I'm hyperventilating!" you should say so and tell them what you've tried. Why are you lost? Is there anything you are not lost on that we can use as a starting point?
Second item. I've been shifting to a nocturnal cycle lately, and I've got to say that if it weren't for the fact that I actually have things scheduled in the mornings (and shouldn't be sleeping through them), I'd enjoy this very much. 5:30-10:30 am seems to be my best down-time, which means reading and sleeping; I'm not tired, I get work done, and I just feel good. I wonder if I can manage this schedule for real somehow. How important is it to be in sync with the rest of the world, anyway?
My parents would complain.
Another thing that's been on my mind the last few hours is Chinese culture. I'm of Chinese blood. There are traditions, customs, and cultural restraints involved in living that sort of heritage, and I do many things to please my parents and older relatives (filial piety is a big deal). When I'm with them, it's not a problem; I'll respect their wishes, for the most part, and do whatever little things they'd like me to do, like wearing red on a birthday or burning incense before our ancestral shrine.
The question is how much of this I'll carry over when I don't have to do it for them any more.
Specifically, when a grandparent dies, you're supposed to wear only dark colors and white for the next 100 days. No bright colors.
Now, I have a closet full of almost entirely brightly-colored things. I really don't like wearing lots of dark clothes. And to be perfectly honest - and I feel awful saying this - but that tradition carries no meaning whatsoever to me. It's not a rebellion thing. I don't want to not care, but I don't care. At least not enough to wear dark, if it were left up to me.
But it's not just me. My parents expect me to do this; so do my aunts, my cousins, and my grandparents. I know that when I'm home, I'll be wearing dark. When I'm in the Philippines with my grandparents for winter break, I'll be wearing dark. They wouldn't be mad if I didn't continue at school; they would understand and be ok with it, but they would be disappointed in that terrible sad way.
I'm a firm believer in only carrying out actions that you believe in. Don't carry them out just for someone else. The only way I can justify this is by saying that I believe in honoring the wishes of your elders, and so if they request something I do not necessarily believe in, I will carry out that request to honor their wishes and fulfill my desire for filial piety. It seems a rather slippery argument, though.
Incidentally, I'm wearing a bright pink shirt as I write this. I guess we'll see how it goes.
I do want to take a moment to remember my Guakong (Fookien Chinese term for your mother's father), because I'll forget this as I grow older. His name was Herminio Lim.
He was the oldest child in his family and grew up during WWII, living in the Philippines during the time of the Japanese occupation. He was smart. And I mean smart. He taught himself how to read and speak English by going through old newspapers at night. He taught himself art. He taught himself everything; he had to, because he never really went to school. Instead of going to college, he worked to put his 9 siblings through university. He sacrificed his chance at a future so they could have theirs.
I admire that. A lot. I don't think I could ever do that.
My brother Jason and I, as two of the three eldest, are among the very few of the 14 grandkids who can remember him as someone other than the wheelchair-bound old man who, through Alzheimer's, slowly lost his ability to recognize us, and who, through Parkinson's, slowly lost his ability to go out with us.
I knew him as a very different person when I was small. Summers when I was little were Guama and Guakong time. Spring started when they flew in from the Philippines, and summer ended when they flew back home. Mom and Dad would pick them up from the airport; when Jason and I saw the van pull in, we'd run out and help them bring their luggage to their room. (We never called it the guest room; it was always "Guama and Guakong's room.") They always had presents.
He was a normal part of my life back then, and I'm grateful for that. I'm thankful that I had a time when seeing him wasn't a special occasion. I'm thankful that I could, when I was little, just sort of assume that he'd be around. Guakong was curious about everything. He read incessantly and drew when he wasn't reading, and picked up random things and just kept them in his room and desk drawers. His space was just crammed witih random stuff. According to the stories my mom and aunts tell, I'm a lot like him. When I was small and would pick up certain books and ask questions in a certain way, mom would ask me whether I was turning into Guakong.
The way he drew was very different from the way I drew; while I was still struggling to put lines into my mental image of a thing, he was laying down detailed patches of shade and color that somehow fell into a picture of whatever he was looking at. I do know that watching him draw that picture was what triggered the realization that you didn't have to make a drawing look like an object - you just sort of drew, and if you put down what you saw, then it'd come together in the end. It changed the way I sketched. I still try to draw like that today.
When I was little, I wanted to learn how to do tai chi like Guakong. He tried to teach me a few times, but I was too young to understand. I thought I'd wait another seven, eight years and ask him again when I was a teenager. I'd be grown enough by then, I thought, to be a good student to him. I'd be able to learn from him as an adult, not a child. When you're a kid, you know intellectually that people grow older, but you still believe somehow that all the adults in your life are going to stay the same, at least until they watch you grow up all the way.
Things do change, though. After a while, they stopped coming to Chicago in the summers. The last time he came to Chicago was to watch me and Jason graduate from middle and elementary school, respectively. We started going to Seattle to see them instead. And that was normal. We'd go to their apartment and walk along the streets of Seattle to the waterfalls and art displays at the convention center. Later, Jason and I would push him in his wheelchair to see the paintings, and that was normal too. Things become normal very quickly to you when you're a kid.
The memory of Guakong I least understand but most cherish is from when I was about seven years old. I'm usually a late sleeper, but that morning I'd gotten up early, during that time before the sun's really woken up and the light still has that faint smell of dawn. I padded downstairs in my pajamas, and there in the back yard was Guakong, doing tai chi in the morning fog. It was just the two of us awake. The colors were vividly muted, and he moved through them with such grace that it seemed perfecly natural to be doing it - an old man walking softly on the cracked cement of a suburban Chicago backyard, floating slowly through time while most of the city was still asleep. I remember watching quietly through the window for the longest time, not wanting to disturb this time where he was. At some point he must have realized I was watching, I know; at some point he must have come inside, and everyone else must have woken up, and we must have had breakfast and gone on with our lives. But I don't remember that part. For me, the memory ends with watching my grandfather and the morning, moving in the sunlight, dancing together and waking up the world.
This, I think, is how I will honor him. It's something I've wanted to do for more than a decade now. I will learn tai chi, I will learn it properly, and every time I practice, I'll remember.
And I'll be wearing a brightly colored shirt as I do.