Should we have “safe spaces” for “stupid questions”?

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The phrase “safe space” has been tossed around liberally for the last few years. You’ve probably come across it if you belong to an institution like a university or other large organization that values diversity and inclusiveness.

A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability. – The Safe Space Network

Safe spaces are intended for people of an oppressed minority to feel like they won’t be judged. They’re for people to freely express stories of their lived experiences. Examples of safe spaces include gay-straight alliance clubs in high schools, sexual assault survivor support groups, and mental health communities. It’s important to note that anytime I’ve been in spaces like these, often a facilitator will remind us that there is no such thing as a truly safe space because one can only control so much.

As people who care about oppression, we put a lot of effort into reaching out and supporting oppressed minorities. However, after the results of the 2016 American presidential election, I’ve been spending more and more time thinking about the people we haven’t reached—that is, the people who genuinely don’t understand certain social issues. I’m talking about people who don’t think feminism is necessary in 2016, who think Black Lives Matter is racist against people who aren’t black, or who don’t understand what being transgender means.

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There has been speculation that the reason Trump got voted in as the next president of the United States is because this group of people have felt ignored in the recent years. Apparently, working-class white males have been disillusioned by governments who seem, to them, to be giving too much of the country’s resources to historically oppressed minorities, such as blacks. I doubt any of these people would openly support the Black Lives Matter movement. I also doubt these people truly understand how and why that movement came to be.

Now, changing people’s minds is challenging. Many people are so dead-set on their worldview, it’s impossible to change their minds. But there are also people on the fence, who, say, may have heard about Black Lives Matter but haven’t thought much about it. They may see and hear both sides of the argument and see logic in each, but haven’t made up their mind. These are the people I believe need reaching out to. They may not necessarily be part of an oppressed minority, but they may be in positions of power that could help oppressed minorities.

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I’m sure we’ve all met people who are on the fence. They hear about social justice and feminism, for example, but don’t quite get it. Yet. They often have questions, and they’re often scared of asking these questions for fear of ridicule, or for fear they’ll be branded a racist or sexist or whatever. They’re afraid of being preached to when they genuinely don’t have adequate education on a subject.

There’s a belief within the social justice community that allies should educate themselves rather than put the duty on someone else, but information isn’t as accessible as we like to believe, even in this day and age. The Internet is full of information, yes, but it takes time, knowledge, and experience to sift through this information. After all, you can read feminist stuff by a teenager on Tumblr (which you should take with a grain of salt) and also feminist academic essays on JSTOR (which you may need help understanding).

And within social justice spaces, there is a range of opinions. If an on-the-fence person reads a very radical opinion and doesn’t have the context for it or doesn’t know that alternative less-radical opinions exist, they may come to believe that that opinion is held by all in the community and give up on the community altogether.

That’s why I wonder if we need a new safe space, a space where people can ask ignorant questions and not be disparaged for them. And these questions will undoubtedly be uncomfortable. For example, many people don’t understand how two women can have sex, and thus dismiss female same-sex relationships. Places online have tried to explain, such as this Buzzfeed video, but in a roundabout way that appeals more to the eye-rollers who already know how it works rather than the genuinely ignorant. Watching/reading these explanations, those who are aware of the issues can laugh cynically and collectively at those who are ignorant in a “wow, some people really don’t get this” way, but that’s not effective activism.

Of course, there’s a difference between a genuinely ignorant but curious person and a troll. I can imagine ally-to-be safe-spaces as breeding grounds for trolls to ask uncomfortable questions for the sake of making people uncomfortable, or showing up just to argue. Somehow, we’ll need to make the space safe for allies-to-be not only from condescension of their ignorance but from disingenuous trolls. And frankly, I’m not sure how we can do that yet.

Still, I do believe serious outreach is needed. It’s time we talk to the privileged and the misunderstanding public. What do you think?

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Everything is problematic. Write about it anyway.

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It would be no surprise to those who know me that what drives my work and what I write about are issues I am passionate for. Whether that’s creating visibility for Asian characters or giving queer folks happy endings (things I care adamantly about), what drives us as artists is deep-seated care for real-world ideas.

Whether that be injustice or beautiful music, passion for something in “the bigger picture” is what drives us. And there are many things wrong with the world today. The 2016 presidential election. Mental health crises. Islamophobia. Transgender rights. War. Zika. There is no shortage of things to write ardently about and with fervour.

And yet, mistakes happen. Last summer, I was enrolled in a children’s literature class and read books on kids in poverty, trans kids, kids who are disabled, etc. It seemed like no matter how well-intentioned these books were, the class always found a flaw in them. Granted, many were written decades ago and the world has become more cognizant of the nuances of social issues. But knowing that good intentions can backfire gave me quite a bit of fear. What if I want to write a story with a meaningful intention, but it ends up more problematic than helpful?

Last semester, I wrote a short film about a trans kid. I was very committed to the story, and I knew it was an important story, but as someone who isn’t trans I was afraid I would make a discriminatory mistake somewhere. So I went to a forum (r/asktransgender) and posted a brief summary of the premise there. Much to my relief, the overall response (from people with real trans lived experiences) was positive and encouraging.

But I know the story can’t be perfect. Those r/asktransgender folks never saw the finished product (and neither have I, I don’t have the financial resources to make this film–just yet)! But if and when the finished product does come out, no doubt will I expect feedback, positive and negative, about how I handled the subject matter.

I expect that feedback. And I’ll accept it. After all, there’s always more to learn, and always an even better way to do things.

The truth is, everything is problematic, at least on some level. Do it anyway. Push the envelope. Tell the stories you want to tell, to the best of your ability. If you have good intentions, people will see that.

Oh, and never underestimate the value of running things through an expert in the subject matter! Even if it’s your lived experience, you might not be an expert, you know. I’m Chinese-Canadian, but honestly I only know my own lived experience as a Chinese-Canadian. I could sure use some additional education on the matter.

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How I Chose My Pen Name: On Racialized Names and the English Literary Canon

I’ve always been a little sensitive as to how “Asian-sounding” my name is. “Li,” after all, is the most common surname in the world, and is almost iconically Chinese. Growing up, the books I read and the movies I saw with Asian names attached to them were almost always exclusively about “Asian issues.” This gave me the impression that Asian writers can only ever write about Asian Issues and nothing else: no medieval adventure stories, no detective stories, nothing “normal.”

The truth is, being sensitive about the other-ness of my name was a form of internalized racism. “Li” was something I was ashamed of, or wanted to hide, or at the very least—something I felt very disconnected to.

My experience with Asian Writers Can Only Write Asian Things was just one tiny fragment of contemporary racialization. As a UBC English Literature student, racialization in literature is blatant and alive: we are all obligated to study a certain “literary canon” that is overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual, economically privileged, and male.

Read the rest of this post on the UBC English Student Association website.

I Googled how to spend the holidays

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Holidays are weird. You spend entire semesters and working seasons gunning for ’em, but when they finally arrive and it’s suddenly super quiet, it’s like “now what?”

I had a reeeeeeally stressful semester. I definitely believe I deserve a break. But after bingewatching through three television series I felt antsy and, well, kinda trash for all that bingewatching. At the same time, though, doesn’t everyone deserve a break just to be trash? Isn’t that supposed to be *good* for you, even? So I asked Google questions about the holidays. You know, to save you some precious resting time.

“How to spend the holidays”

Google knew I felt guilty for doing nothing, so the first article was a WikiHow on “How to Spend the Holidays Productively.” Only things that caught my eye here were using holiday cards and get-togethers to network. These left a weird taste in my mouth. Moving on…

“How is resting healthy”

To relieve some guilt for doing nothing, I wanted to know if doing nothing is indeed good for you. The first link that came up was from the Daily Mail, so my optimism waned. However, there was one link from Mental Health America. Ah yes, this one had CITATIONS.

Release the body’s feel-good hormones—serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin—and lower the stress hormone, cortisol, by petting a dog for 15 minutes.9 (citation for nerds)

Great. Now all I need is to get a dog to make sure I secrete the right hormones to have a productive rest this holiday season. Cue Christmas wishlist item for the last 22 years of my life…

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“Christmas is overrated”

A bit of a cynical thought, but after 22 Christmases on this planet things start to get old, especially when your mum has been using the same Advent calendar since you were in elementary school and doesn’t even bother to put up the tree anymore.

Maybe I should just spend the holidays reading snarky articles put together by Millennials in list+gif form. Sure enough, the first link that popped up was Buzzfeed.

Then, I found a blog called Single Black Male by some guy named Slim.

I know that for many of the men I see, the stress is because they’re trying to conquer one of the many “moments of truth” of relationships. What exactly are the other “moments of truth”? Oh, that’s easy. I’m talking about birthdays, anniversaries, and Valentine’s Day. These are the special days that we’re supposed to remember and cook up some thoughtful and/or costly gift that tells the other person where exactly they rank in our lives . . . Maybe we should change the name of these “moment of truth” or special days to Make Up Day 1, 2, and 3. Why? Because if we shine on these days it can make us feel better about all the things we didn’t do the other 362 or 361 days of the year.

Good points, Slim.

In the more impolite region, Adam, a “television and internet writer” (yay, my species) has a wonderfully snarky and hilarious article from 2009. He talks about why he hates Christmas music, looking at Christmas lights, and watching people go at Christmas shopping like “robots.” Some highlights:

First off, to the people who talk about Christmas during the summer, Fuck you. Take your bullshit and spew it someone else that finds gorgeous summer days and rays of sunshine annoying.

Another reason why Christmas annoys the fuck out of me, is the aforementioned Christmas Creep. 3 days after Halloween, I saw like 14 commercials for Christmas. Hey dick face department stores, we still have Thanksgiving to celebrate before your stupid, soul swallowing holiday becomes the main focus.

The only thing more annoying than Christmas music are the people who get excited because a musician they like are putting out a Christmas album. Listen idiots, there is literally no difference between the N’SYNC Christmas CD and the Justin Bieber Christmas CD. Just as there is no difference between your IQ when you were 14 and when you’re 27, you tasteless shell of a human.

I’m sure one day, I’ll have the money to buy all these people nice presents, but by that time, I’ll probably have a snot nosed little mouth breather for a fucktard kid that I have to spend all of my Christmas money on, lest he cry and scream the same way my ungrateful ass did when I was a kid. God, Christmas is annoying overrated.

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Have a restful holiday, folks.

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When you’re feeling down, look at the stars

When I was 16 or 17, I embarked one of the most memorable trips of my life as part of a Commonwealth leadership program called the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. It was a 4-day, 3-night canoe expedition in a place called Pitt Lake.

Our supervisor was quite impressed by our group’s strong paddling skills, and this, combined with fair weather, let us wander farther than our original route. We paddled all the way to the northernmost tip of the lake body where there was no sign of civilization at all. No more lakefront beach homes and pleasure boats—just forest, rock, and silence. The “campsite” we stayed at, Vickers Creek, had no amenities whatsoever. We dug our own toilets and boiled water from the creek. The atmosphere was made eerier by a plethora of abandoned rusted furniture and old bullet cases strewn across the shoreline.

But when the sun went down and darkness draped over the site, the sky was washed with the most beautiful display of stars I had ever seen.

If you’ve done true stargazing without any light pollution, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, stargazing in a completely dark place literally looks like this:

Exactly like spilt milk.

It was in this moment that a thought came to me, a thought that would resurface for the rest of my life: looking at the stars, I realized how damn small we really are. Just like how this cool series of graphics shows, we are nothing but blips on the universe’s timeline, and the universe is nothing but a blip on the timeline of the grand scheme of things. In fact, within the observable universe, we might as well be nothing.

Lying on that shore, 17 year-old me thought: why the hell am I so worried about everything?

You would think I’d be enlightened by that thought by now, but I no, worry still plagues me. Everything from what I should pack for lunch tomorrow to what I’m doing with my life. Of particular, something that worries me every day as a twenty-something young adult is whether I’m hitting my milestones on time. I worry a lot about being “normal” and being “behind” on accomplishing certain things in my life. Each year I push back the ages I believe I’m “supposed” to get married and have kids and afford a house.

But why cry over spilt milk?

Several weeks back, an old friend from high school and I reunited in the parking lot of our former high school. We sat and lay on our skateboards and watched the sky. There was plenty of light pollution so the night sky looked more like the bottom half of this picture:

Still, alone in that parking lot, far from any main roads with a majestic Pacific Northwest rainforest right beside us, we got very contemplative.

My friend remarked at how she felt done with the young person’s life. She wanted to finish her master’s degree, get a stable job, and settle down into a quieter life. I remarked at how I was intensely anxious about not having had a fulfilling youth. Unlike her, I didn’t move away for university, so I still feel like a child with years of exploration and adventure ahead of me. I don’t think about settling down. At all.

So I went down the spiral again of obsessing about being “late” to everything . Society tells you there is a “normal” timeline to getting stuff done—you get married at this age, have kids at this age—but so far, this timeline hasn’t been working that well for me.

Then I looked up at the sky, and I remembered that night several years ago at Vickers Creek. I was alone, in the real wild world, far from this oppressive society we have built to tell us to do stuff at certain times… And my friend said: “You shouldn’t care.” And I thought: yeah, why the fuck should I? Society’s timeline is nothing in the timeline of the universe. It’s a thing we’ve made up, not even as a human species, but (for me) as a specific cultural community in the western world of North America. Why should I conform to something completely made up? Fabricated?

You go at your own pace. You do things according to your own timeline. Because at the end of the day, you only get a small blip of time in the universe. Make that blip yours.

On pseudonyms and non-English surnames

For a while I used a pseudonym, “Tawney K.” The “tawney” came from reading a poem back in Grade 12 where the colour “tawny” stuck to me. (I’ve since forgotten what the poem was called). The “K” comes from the name of the main character of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” and is also the main character’s name in Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite books. I know, it’s all pretty pretentious…

I chose a pseudonym because I really really dislike “ethnic writing” and the baggage that comes with having an “ethnic” surname. When I was growing up, all the authors with ethnic surnames had books attached to them that had to have some ethnic edge. I can’t tell you how many Coming To Canada To Build The Railroad And Endure Racism novels I’ve seen attached to people with Chinese surnames. I thought: why can’t a person with an ethnic surname write about a “normal” book for once? Like high fantasy? Or a detective story?

As I’ve gotten older and learned more about history, I’ve come to appreciate more the importance of storytelling from the real perspectives of lived experiences. I can see the importance of Coming To Canada To Build The Railroad And Endure Racism stories. I’ve realized what I thought as a kid to be a “normal” story was something middle-class, white, North American, and Western. And really, there’s no evidence that that is a “normal” story.

But at the same time, I’m still a little alienated by these stories because my family, incidentally, did not belong to the wave of immigration often fictionalized and immortalized in mainstream Asian-Canadian/Asian-American historical fiction. And not all Chinese-Canadians do.

Where, then, was my story?

My story was loudly absent during my childhood, but it makes me smile to know that it’s (slowly) getting more visibility. Shows like Master of None and Fresh Off the Boat directly star Asian-Americans in contemporary settings, in stories I recognize and relate to.

Still, there is something about putting my non-English surname on an English-language publication that, well, kinda “others” me. Maybe it’s all in my head. After all, there is nothing strange about my writing in the English language despite my non-English background. I was born, raised, and educated in an English-speaking country after all.

What is this dissonance I feel then? Why do I feel that if I attach my name to a work of literature, that piece of literature has to do something for the culture of my name? Like I have to “represent” something, “tell” people something. Be a mouthpiece. Do some activism, even.

To fully give this topic justice, I would have to write way more than a blog post. But I think the bottom line is this: the Anglicization of non-English surnames is, well, kinda problematic, if you look at it from a historical lens. It’s a remnant of colonialism, and it fails to translate the nuanced meaning and history of the surname at the very least.

Of course, I recognize the impracticality of walking around without a surname whilst living in my English-speaking corner of the universe. Some things are status-quo and you just can’t change them.

But you can change what you decide to attach to your work. Some authors use pseudonyms, J.K. Rowling being one of the most famous ones. Her pen name Robert Galbraith was “was kind of a basic desire to distance this persona as far as possible.”

I realized I wanted to use my Tawney K. pen name to distance myself as well, and as a way to distance myself from my cultural background. My non-English background isn’t something I chose and I remain having mixed feelings about it, having been grown in a completely different (western) atmosphere. To be honest, I don’t know if I can identify with my surname as much as I could identify with an English surname.

But my cultural identity remains, for better or for worse. And, the older I get and the more I educate myself about my cultural history, colonialism, and the colonial reverberations that run through my family (my parents and grandparents grew up in colonial Hong Kong as British subjects—not citizens, there is a difference!), the more I’m willing to draw closer to my surname.

The fact that it is an inaccurate representation of my real surname in its native language remains, however. That is why I have since opted to stylize my name as “Surname-First English Given Name-Middle English Given Name.” While preserving the Anglicized spellings, this re-ordering at least preserves the traditional Chinese ordering of surnames-first, followed by one- or two-character given names. It’s tough straddling multiple cultures as a first-generation citizen of a family with an already-existing history of colonialism. But names are more than just words. Even Romeo and Juliet knew that.

Why we’re obsessed with labels

When I was around nine years old, I developed a very strange habit. I did certain actions in even multiples and in a specific order before going to bed. I was obsessed with cleanliness, and I had recurrent thoughts I couldn’t get rid of. For no reason, these rituals would change or I would add more intricacies to them, and even though I knew very rationally that this behaviour was irrational, I kept on acting on my compulsions for fear that something would go horribly wrong if I stopped.

I never met a psychiatrist. I never told my parents. In fact, I tried very hard to hide my weirdness, because that’s what I thought it was—weirdness. Eventually, the anxiety waned. It wasn’t until many years later, in my late teens, when I started reading about psychology, that I realized this childhood experience wasn’t weird at all, but was actually similarly experienced by others. It was a legitimate thing. My behaviour was made up of textbook Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder symptoms.

Finally, I had a word to describe something I had until then believed been unique to myself. And with that word, I could talk about my experience.

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What am I trying to get to with this story?

The feminist and LGBTQ+ liberation movements have an ironic contradiction in that they advocate for the doing-away of existing systems, such as binaries and words, yet are seemingly obsessed with language. Every day, it seems, I learn a new word. Gone are the basic categories of “gay,” “straight,” and “bi.” Now we have grey-asexual, aromantic, pansexual, gynosexual, androsexual etc. So why are we so obsessed with labels? Why do we say “don’t label yourself” and come up with a new plethora of labels all the time?

Labelling people is potentially harmful because humans don’t fit into nice little neat categories. Somewhere along the line of LGBTQ+ history, someone figured out that many people aren’t just “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual.” Human sexuality, and human experience, for that matter, is more nuanced than that. Instead of being exclusively attracted to one sex or equally attracted to both, our sexuality can be understood on a spectrum. Hence a lot of people prefer to think of themselves as somewhere along the Kinsey scale.

But the Kinsey scale negates people who are asexual and also non-binary people. Hence we have come up with terms like “pansexual” to describe attraction to all genders, not just male and female. Meanwhile, “panromantic” describes romantic attraction, not sexual attraction, to all genders.

The more we learn about the human experience, and how wide-ranging it can be, the more words we use to describe it.

But here’s the caveat. If the human experience is so wide-ranging, diverse, and unique to every individual, we cannot possibly find a word for every single thing.

It’s like music genres. Yes there is rock, pop, classical, and hip-hop, but there’s also hardcore, softcore, skate punk, ska punk, black metal, death metal, and heavy metal. But at the end of the day, doesn’t each band have their own unique musical style?

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Travis Wise CC by 2.0

Labels do have a purpose though, and I think that purpose is similar to my experience with OCD. Labels give you a way to talk about things, and to find other people who have experienced those things, or even just find out other people with those experiences actually exist and you’re not alone. Many LGBTQ+ people, for example, can remember a point in their life when they hear about the label they fit with most for the first time and have a lightbulb moment. “Hey! This fits me! This is me!”

Reading about OCD gave me a sense of legitimacy. That all the bizarre stuff that happened to me wasn’t just something I made up because I was “crazy.” Realizing that this phenomenon of being meticulously obsessive was a thing that exists enough to have a label gave me an enormous sense of relief.

Of course, I identify with many labels, and I have mixed feelings about many of them. For example, I don’t know if I should identify more as a Canadian or a Chinese-Canadian or a Canadian-born Chinese (CBC). Similarly, words like “queer” have a long and complicated history with a multitude of polarized opinions.

Words are interesting, and while it may seem like we can do away with some of them, remember that a word always exists for a reason.

Walter Mitty and Living to the Fullest

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a visually astounding film. In the story, a middle-aged, single man, Walter, is stuck in a humdrum job working with negative assets at LIFE magazine. He dreams of adventure, but has failed all his life to find it. Finally, a lost photo negative probes him to travel the world, from the mountains of Iceland to the mountains of Nepal, in a frantic search for something seemingly more than a negative.

A fictionalized motto of LIFE is repeated throughout the movie. It sounds quite nice, and it goes like this:

To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.

Sounds pretty nice, eh?

Unfortunately, the film has mixed reviews and for good reason. It’s a bit overly-romantic in its find-the-meaning-of-life way and, if you’re interested, CreativeIndie covers some problematic aspects of its message here.

Still, it’s a pretty killer quote, cheesy as it sounds. And it made me think what my life manifesto should be.

Because that’s the meaning of life, you know? You have to define your meaning of life.

I’ve been mentioning that I’ve been experiencing a bit of a quarter-life crisis lately. Yeah, okay, so I’m not that old, but my impending mortality is a reality, and I have to figure out what to do with the next 50 or 60 years on Earth I have left for me.

This is what I came up with:

To discover.
To connect.
To feel.
To be afraid.
To create stories.

…interlaced with pictures of Iceland because it is beautiful and you should watch the movie just to see it.

To Discover

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I’m a big fan of the idea that what we know is barely anything and to know more is to feel more, understand more, and appreciate more. Having just returned from a brief academic exchange to England, I am now humbled by the truth that there is an enormous world out there, brimming with worldviews, perceptions, values, beliefs, and experiences just waiting to be discovered, explored, and understood. And I only went to another western English-speaking country. Think of the difference if I’d gone to South East Asia. Or Africa. Or even the Arctic tundra of my own country.

We have to define our own methods and goals of discovery. What treasures are we looking for? One of my closest friends, who’s the nomadic backpacker type, firmly holds the philosophy that she’ll never visit the same place twice. That’s her way of ensuring she’s always finding new and novel sensations, sights, and perceptions.

Personally, I haven’t set the parameters of my own discovery yet. I know I want to live for extended periods of time in different places, try my hand at different jobs, and be more open to chatting with people very different from myself. And, of course, read tons of books and listen to tons of music and bring myself in contact with tons of art. Because it’s important to see how different people express themselves. And also the intersections of our experiences.

You can vow to never taste the same beer twice. Or never read the same book twice. Or do something completely different like talk to a new person every day. The point is, the world is a library, and in our brief lifetime it’s in our best interest to check out as many books as we can.

To Connect

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This is the most challenging one to me, because I’m not a very sociable person. In fact, I’m rather introverted. While it’s not that difficult for me to make casual friends and acquaintances, genuinely connecting with people is another level. But it’s magical and it’s worth the effort, to be honest.

The older we get, the more complex our personalities, and the more difficult it is to find real connection, but that doesn’t mean we have to stop trying. I think simply putting ourselves in a place where connection can happen is a big favour to us, because genuine human connection is a wonderful thing. It’s built into our DNA. Otherwise, why is it that singing and dancing around a campfire still fills us with utmost joy?

Having grown up a little more, I’ve realized that finding connection is also knowing when not to pursue connection. I think many people are still in the “high school mentality” of wanting to validate themselves in front of people they think are cooler than them. (Or maybe that’s just me. Huh.) Anyway, it’s important to know that not everyone is obligated to like you as much as you like them, and likewise, you’re not obligated to impress everyone. Don’t waste your time on people you don’t connect with and find the ones you do.

To Feel

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To feel is to simply let yourself be affected. This ranges from love and ecstasy to heartbreak and melancholy and everything in between. Why let yourself feel the bad things too? Because it creates empathy.

Empathy is what connects us together. So by allowing yourself to feel, and by feeling, you know you’re doing “to connect” correctly. You also know you’re doing “to discover” correctly because it means you’re finding things that are actually impacting you.

Empathy also lowers our tendency to judge others and create an us vs. them mentality. Sometimes we put value judgements on other people and their experiences simply because we haven’t walked in their shoes and felt what they’ve felt. By allowing ourselves to feel instead of think, by giving way to our emotions, we come a little closer to understanding and appreciating different life experiences.

It also works both ways. By figuring out what impacts you and why, you can apply this to effect good feelings in others. Make the world around you a happier place. At least just a little.

But at the end of the day, human emotions are beautiful. (I mean, think of all the poetry and music dedicated to love and sunsets). Allow yourself to feel beauty, inspiration, and everything in between.

To Be Afraid

Why be afraid? It’s a bad thing, isn’t it?

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Well, I believe that extraordinary things happen when we are afraid. It is when we are uncomfortable, in a foreign place, dealing with new challenges, that our true potential shows itself. Being afraid kickstarts our creativity and problem-solving skills. And when we mess up in the face of fear (which we often do), that is when we grow and mature.

I wondered for a long time why I was such a more interesting person while travelling abroad, and that is because at home, I’m not afraid. Abroad, I am. Giddy, ignorant, and curious, I wanted to see everything, hear everything, taste and explore. And so doing, I learned many hard lessons and got rewarded on the way. I also discovered what I was capable of (and not capable of!).

To Create Stories

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This one’s a little different in that it goes two ways for me. As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to tell stories, whether in the cool places I find or the unique experiences I undergo. I’m always looking for ingredients by observing the world and trying to pin down into words exactly what is so fascinating about our lives. And to do that, I have to go out and live and do all the above things: discover, connect, feel, be afraid.

But for everyone else—and it applies to me, actually—creating stories reminds me of Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother. He tries to make every night “legendary” by always convincing his friends to do something crazy (often in an inebriated state). Creating stories is about making memories, living a life now that will make you sound awesome in front of grandchildren. Living with no regrets.

And it’s hard. We chicken out all the time. Most of us want to stay comfortable, stay home, Netflix and chill. But I think if you are actively pursuing the other stuff on this list, stories will come. And it’s not instant. That’s something I have to constantly remind myself. I feel that I’m more of a talker and a walker, because I understand what I have to do and how to do it but it’s another step to take the courage and actually carry it out.

Guess that’s what life is for then: carrying things out. Onward.

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Post-Travel Identity Crisis Follow-up Post (Study Abroad reflections pt.4.5)

So it has come to my attention that my previous post, “A Post-Travel Identity Crisis (Study Abroad reflections pt. 4)” was terribly written as far as my blog posts go…and meanders quite a bit without having much of a point. This post is an attempt to rectify that.

Climbing ancient Roman ruins. (PC: K. Lowman)

Climbing ancient Roman ruins in Colchester, England, UK. (PC: K. Lowman)

Bottom line is, studying abroad and living abroad for a long time when you’ve grown up in the same place all your life makes you question who you are. I have a close friend who was born in Europe but grew up in Canada and then went on exchange in Europe again only to question whether she was truly North American or actually European.

I have it a little easier—I was born and grown in Canada so I’m comfortable saying I’m 100% Canadian. Although my folks are from Hong Kong and I am not the expected white Canadian most non-Canadians imagine Canucks to be, I still identify as an overly-apologetic mickey-drinking tuque-wearing cold-loving Canuck. I loved my time in England and may even move there someday, but to be honest I’d never call myself “British.” (If you want to read more about my identity as a Canadian child of immigrants, read my Children of Immigrants series).

More than who you are culturally though, I think my post-exchange identity crisis can be summed up by the following points:

  1. Being in a foreign place motivates you to get out of your comfort zone and accomplish more. Whether this be out of fear or out of excitement I have no idea. But I was not alone. Many people abroad with me felt braver, more sociable, more welcome to risk than they did at home. You realize you’re capable of much more.
  2. There’s a sense of disillusionment when you get home and you no longer have this motivation. I think it’s because home gives you a sense of satisfaction and safety that you subconsciously don’t want to ruin. I wrote a post on this regard on how I miss being the person I was when I was on exchange.
  3. You think you’ve seen all types of people, but abroad you will meet even more people and get to know their stories with an intimacy and an understanding you never expected. And this is humbling and perhaps the one of the most rewarding experiences you can get while on exchange. You get to submerge yourself in a culture and see it from the inside, see how it really ticks. And that challenges you to question your preconceived values and beliefs, about other people and yourself.
  4. Seeing all these possibilities, you start to wonder if you’re that complete after all. Before exchange, I had a pretty good idea of who I was. I am yea tall, have this colour hair and that colour eyes, am interested in such-and-such hobbies etc. Coming home, I’m not that sure anymore. After experiencing #3 and just meeting tons of people, I feel inspired to emulate admirable traits I’ve found in others I haven’t known existed before. And then I’ll have to figure out if I can even pull that off…
  5. I’m having a bit of a quarter-life crisis. This is more personal, as I never moved away from home and lived in a dorm for university like the stereotypical college experience. (I live at home and can commute to campus in 10 minutes.) I had a taste of “stereotypical college experience” living in a dorm abroad, and it brought to light exactly how much I missed out, and how much I could have grown, potentially, if I had had that experience. What kind of person would I be now if I’d taken that route? Would I be much different? More mature? Less? It depresses me a little, knowing I can never go back and do a first year as a wide-eyed 18 year-old again. But it’s no use dwelling on the what-may-have-been; rather, we must use look at the what-may-come.

Yeah, I’m a bit of a late bloomer, and honestly, I think I’m hitting a “turning point” in my life right now after this exchange adventure. I’ve been doing a lot of questioning, introspective thinking, philosophical musing…that sort of thing. This further drives my point that studying abroad is not about finding yourself. Rather, to find ourselves, perhaps we must lose ourselves first. And only gather up the pieces that truly matter, the pieces we really want and need.

A Post-Travel Identity Crisis (Study Abroad reflections pt.4)

How much are we a product of our influences and our heroes, the social groups we belong to, and the social groups we want to belong to? I hope I find some camaraderie through this post. It’s a bit of a meandering post and ends in a thing about youth, but anyway, enjoy my thought dump.

Cromer Lighthouse

After the hike up to Cromer Lighthouse. (PC: M. Pluskota)

Truthfully, this post doesn’t have much to do with the studying abroad series I’ve been writing the last while, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I’ve gotten back.

You must hear all the time that travelling opens up your perspectives. I’m tired of repeating this cliche, but it really does. Seeing different places and faces lets you appreciate the diversity of people out there. For example, I live in an immigrant-heavy coastal city where practically everyone I know has been on a plane and a different country because they were probably not born in this country. However, while abroad, I learned (quite surprisingly) that for many of my fellow-study-abroaders, this was the first time they’d ever gotten on a plane, went to a different country, or had their passport photos taken.

And the more people you meet, the more lifestyles you encounter that are different from your own, the more you start to question who you are.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately on the things I do and why I do them. I do things because I enjoy them…right? Or do I do things because the people in my immediate surroundings are doing them. Even worse, do I do things to fit in, to look good in front of a person/people I’d like to accept me?

Thinking like this makes me scared, because to be honest, I do take part in certain activities to appear a certain way or please a certain group/person. I think we all do. It’s how we get validation and a sense of belonging, to an extent.

(Generalizing immensely), I feel that most groups of young people are either very sociable and outgoing individuals that prefer activities like going to parties, or more introverted individuals who prefer a quiet night of conversation with intimate friends.

In my experience, it feels like you either have to belong to one or the other, but not both.  And having dipped in both types of these groups, there is definitely a stigma both types have against the other. People who like to party tend to see people who don’t as nerdy and boring, and wonder what the fun is in that. People who prefer staying in see people who party as unproductive time wasters not doing their livers a service, and wonder what the fun is in that.

I hope I’m not alone in admitting that, depending on my mood, I like both—to an extent. This became especially clear during studying abroad because I had more opportunity to spontaneously go out. At home, going out is something laborious that I kind of dread, and last year I would have considered myself a quiet and stay-at-home person. But while in the midst of random dorm parties in England, I’d think to myself, “Hey, this really isn’t all that bad.”

On some days I’d want to let loose and go to a loud place, talk loudly, and enjoy a highball. On other days I’d rather snuggle up with a few close friends and watch a movie with a hot drink. And that’s where my identity crisis lies—in each of these spheres, I feel, well, incomplete. In the first scenario, I feel that I lack an important sort of social intimacy, the kind you can’t get at a loud club. In the second scenario, I have a restlessness that I should be doing something more than just sitting around.

Am I supposed to pick one social-culture and commit to it, or find a social-culture exactly like myself? If it’s the latter, I haven’t found a group like this yet. I feel like a floater, floating between personalities, floating between spaces where I feel comfort in one moment and discomfort the next.

I don’t know how to answer my question. Maybe I have to do the thing where I hike out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights and get to know myself. Or maybe, as I’ve disclaimed, I’m making massive generalizations that are uncalled for, perceiving people as more polarized than they actually are. But a lot of social interaction has to do with perception, right? And this is what I (perhaps in a skewed way) perceive: a general sense of un-belonging, of something-missing-ness amongst other humans—and consequential identity crises.

Like I said in a previous post, I felt like a different person on exchange, willing to take on more things than I usually do. Now that I’m home, am I still that person? Honestly, I’m not sure.

Or maybe people are fluid. We change by the day and by the decade, and between the hours of the day we adapt our behaviours accordingly.

Or maybe I’m just growing up and changing and finding my niche. Just a year ago I was definitely not the person I am now. Just a year ago I expected to stay in Vancouver for the rest of my life, get a career here, and eventually earn enough to buy a house maybe. Now, in February 2016, after coming back from exchange, I want to live in a variety of places. I’m thinking of moving to Scotland for a year or two. I’m thinking of doing more travelling after that. I’m thinking of doing more physical things, whether that be outdoor adventuring or working in a forest doing manual labour. I’m thinking of becoming a barista and meeting a hundred different people each day.

When I was in England—probably due to living with a dorm of eager students several years younger than myself—I was reminded of the newness and wonder of being young. Having been in university for some years now, I’ve started to move away from youthful idealism towards a more adult-like seriousness when thinking about life. But while I was having adventures in England, watching my first-year roommates move out for the first time, seeing the excitement and anticipation in their eyes, I thought: “Hey, youth doesn’t have to be over. I’m still only 21. I’m allowed to make mistakes, explore, and discover who I really am.”

And I don’t think we should stop doing that. Ever.