Thursday, June 30, 2011

Love me for the whole package that I am

When I was traveling in Tamil Nadu, India, my local friends in Chennai told me I was a genius.
Their argument was that I knew several languages, had a Ph.D., could take good photographs, and perhaps most importantly, I learned Tamil which many of them didn't know.
I told them I was definitely no genius, and that in many aspects, I wasn't even close to their standards. My friends were mostly artisans who made a living selling their craft, and therefore became masters in their respective arts. There was Sushil who was good with beads and necklaces, Jogi who carved wood and sculpted stone, Prakesh who won awards for his beautiful palm leaf carvings, Pramod who sew bags (you definitely couldn't tell from looking at him haha...with his beer belly and what not), etc.

I don't think I am stupid, and I certainly never thought I was smart.
I am quite a silly person, really. I did silly things, many irrational stuff, and then when it was best to be irrational, I was too rational. I am quite silly in those ways.
Whatever I was, however others choose to describe me, I have always liked myself.
No, I am not self-obsessed [though once in a blue moon I do look into the mirror and go 'ah hello handsome~'].
I just feel good about myself--my receding hairline, my aging skin, my voice with such a narrow range, my 185cm height, my feminine hand gestures when I give a speech and that I can't whistle or wink sexily.
I am very happy with myself--my easy take on life, my 'who cares?' attitude toward issues that I can't control, and my 'I would do it even if nobody else wants to' approach to many challenges.

Still, there were times when I felt as if I should, or could have been better.

I was a Ph.D. student, and my responsibility as far as my sponsors were concerned was to do good research, to make the most productive output from their financial and intellectual input. One of the most useful advice I received was this golden line: "From now on, nothing else--not your grades, not the courses you take, not the diplomas--matters anymore, only the quality and quantity of your publication. Publication is your currency as a grad student and as a researcher."

So for quite sometime, I judged myself in that light. How many publications could I churn from my Ph.D.? How good were they? Good enough for Science, Ecology Letters or Ecology?

In my department, there was no lack of outstanding graduate students based on publication and quality of research. Stretch out a weenie bit to include the Ecology and Evolution group, the CPB group and the Animal Behaviour group, and WTH~~~!! Everywhere I turned, there was one grad student who was more than qualified to don the crown of "Genius".

For me, there were surely many moments of guilt. When I left the building eager for two hours of badminton, I saw my colleagues working. When I was watching Netflix on my bed, I imagined my colleagues ploughing through their data and doing crazy meta-analysis. When I was enjoying a book on "Tigers in India" in the library, my colleagues were sweating in the field gathering data.

By the time I published my first paper, one of my cohort members had already published two with more in prep/in review. And I wasn't slow by any standards, just slow by theirs! Hahahaha.

My supervisor never once nudged me to work harder, never once told me that I could do more. He seemed to know how I worked, that I myself knew what was in store for myself, and for that I was very grateful. Even though he never questioned my work ethics, I myself did. I wondered then, just as I had wondered more than once since I returned here, "Could I have done more and better research? Was I slacking? Was I not good enough?"


The answer to my questions was a definite YES.

Of course I could have improved on my research. I could have dedicated more time to it, and easily churned out at least two more papers (no kidding). It was all in my mind, I could vision it. In that sense, I was slacking because I wasn't doing the best I can to be a 'productive and good' grad student.

And following the same train of thought, I came to the same conclusion every time. Then, and now.
I am what I am.
I am not one who is motivated by channeling all his effort into studies/research, and not even into teaching which is easily my first and foremost love.
I like to do many things at once, and I find no waste in not pursuing any of them to their ends.
I am certainly not the best researcher out there, and I never aimed to be, if only because it requires too much sacrifice of other wonderful things in life.
I like to think that I am a good teacher, but I will never be the best, because of the same reason above.
I am however, without doubt, certainly and surely, the best me you can find out there.
I am one whole package which cannot be taken apart and assessed individually.
If you are going to judge me, you better take me as a whole, else you would just be wasting your time.
[though most would be content just to admire my looks]

A while ago I wrote the piece below:
你说  你爱我
没有我 你不知怎么活
我说  我也爱你
只有你  我一切都给你
可是  告诉我
关了灯, 另一些不在了吗?
一切,  是现在的一切

Most might think it was inspired by a love relationship. Well, it was, partially, but even more so by my thoughts when I compared my life to those of my colleagues.

Sometimes we are envious of others, though we have so much that others envy us in return.
Sometimes we are ashamed of ourselves, though we are so beautiful to many others.
During those times, we ought to slap ourselves across the face (HARD), and appreciate ourselves for the ugly short man that we are.
Oops, I meant myself.

I miss my Rajastani friend, Sushil. I hope he is in good health, and that he's enjoying time with his wife and son. I remember the first time I walked to his stall where he sold his craft, days after I had befriended the other artisans. He looked at me and said "This is the first time you come to my shop and talk to me." I didn't know why, and I still don't, but I felt so much sincerity in his voice, that this guy was just waiting in silence for me to talk to him. I liked him immediately, and we had many many more wonderful chats after that.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

3 nice conversations make a nice day

Today was an interesting day.
It was a very nice day, for a guy.

I had lunch with a colleague, and he invited his friend. His friend turned out to be a common friend of ours...somewhat. Okay, I was stretching it a bit. She worked as a waitress at a restaurant that my close friend and I used to go often, even after we broke up. So she knew me and my close friend. She had a lively adorable personality with an adorable face to match. Lunch was very enjoyable, with my colleague sharing with us his immense knowledge on different cultures, and she and I sharing our travel stories and experiences of migrating/living overseas. Lunch took like 1.5 hours longer than I expected, also because my colleague took us to check out the decor of Tower Cafe, quite a unique cafe in Sacramento, but I very much enjoyed the time spent with them.

Back at work, I was tending to my insects (oh, united again with my beloved bigeyed-bugs...this is awesome joy itself!!) in lab and started chatting with an undergrad assistant. She worked with me last year, so we knew each other very well. In other words, we understand each other's sarcasm and way of speech well. It was after 5.30pm, and we were the only ones left in the lab. I stayed back because I had insects work, and I had a dinner appointment later at 6.30pm downtown anyway. She stayed back because she was a workaholic. I asked her about her boyfriend, started boring into the details of their relationship, and we got some funny lines going. She shot back at my own romance stories, congratulating me on a new adventure, and suggested that perhaps a girl liked me because 'you played smart in badminton, you had a strategy...'. That was her way of trying to cheer somebody up. It was just a 20-30 minute long conversation that carried on as we both slaved away on our insects, but it was very enjoyable too. I definitely missed such conversations with them. Them being my research team members of several summers. Oh, those long drives up and down I-5 filled with unbelievable romance stories and discussions of 'what if...'!

6.30pm rolled by and I biked over to downtown, to my favourite Chinese restaurant in Davis. I tried to control the number of visits by limiting it to at most twice per week, but days before I go, I already knew what I want to order. Red bean black tea is definitely on the list. Waiting in front of the restaurant, I was very surprised to find at least 5 Zelus renardii nymphs on the plants outside the restaurant, and was so keen on finding more that I didn't notice my dinner companion had showed up behind me. Well, she was 3 minutes late! After ~8 months absence, the waitress recognized me immediately. She asked where had I gone, and said 'hey, you still like our red bean black tea!' No kidding. On my way flying across the Pacific Ocean, that red bean milk tea was on my mind. This friend with whom I had dinner with was a relatively new friend. Very new friend actually--we haven't spoken for more than 5 minutes before this, but I guess we do share some common background and we never lacked topics for good conversation. There were two very cool things that I found out over dinner. 1) She speaks my dialect, and that is rare among young people, even in Malaysia, not to mention here in Davis; 2) She actually has quite some similar views/thoughts with me. One thing that surprised me was when she asked me how did I finish my Ph.D. in 4 years instead of 5, she listed some possible reasons: fast-track program, easy program, hardworking etc...but she never said 'smart'. Most people always say 'wow, you must be very smart'. When I asked her why she left out 'smart' (yeah, I am so egoistic) , she said it was because she doesn't give much credit to intelligence, that she believed that hardwork can compensate for lack of intelligence, that hardwork will eventually lead one to success. I definitely share the same idea, and personally, I am not so happy when people praised me for my intelligent instead of my hardwork, especially because I lack the former and I do have some of the latter. After listening to her answer, I regarded this friend in a new light.

So I had enjoyed three conversations with three very different girls (and interestingly, of increasing age in the same order too). It was a nice day.

Oh, should add that my research started today, finally! And I got to practice some Tamil with my close friend and her Indian housemate. Life is good.

An assassin bug adult found in my garden, Malaysia. Not the species I studied, but heck did they look alike (other than coloration)! And this assassin bug preyed on the adult of the beetle I plan to study. Promising!

Monday, June 20, 2011

There and back again

I am back in the place that changed my life. 
A wonderful place.
More than once I had asked myself if it was the weather, the trees, the tranquility of the place that was somehow dynamic and vibrant, or was it just the people?
Yet the answer matters not, for one way or another, it doesn't change the fact that I really love this place and all that it entails.

It is now getting warm here, and soon my fieldwork will bring subject me to conditions drier and hotter than those in Malaysia. Others might complain, but not me. There is much to be enjoyed in this place, and the searing heat of a wide-open cotton field in summer is itself a valid entry on the list.

I am very glad to have made it in time to attend my friends' commencement. I skipped mine, giving little appreciation to the hardwork invested in my undergraduate education. Back then, I'd rather return to Malaysia earlier with my mom. I was happy for my friends though. They certainly tossed their hats into the air with much more enthusiasm than I did during my Ph.D. graduation! Congratz to them. Now please contribute to better our country!

A friend who did her Ph.D. commencement told me before the event that she felt normal. She was worried because she wasn't excited. I told her that I was like that too--too many affairs to deal with leading up to the commencement that one really had no time to be excited--but during the commencement, she would pick up the emotions. And she did. Sitting in the hall among a couple hundreds of graduating graduate students, many of whom invested much more time and energy than us did, it's difficult not to be moved by their tears and disbelief painted across their faces. I remember that a woman who sat two rows in front of me broke down and cried, needing her professor who was sitting beside her to calm her down. More powerful than Oprah, I guess, as I haven't watched Oprah before.

My first few days back here were surreal. Walking on the same streets that I thought I wouldn't see again for some time, eating at the same restaurants where I had several of my 'last' conversations with dear friends, and being back in the same lab that I left hurriedly just half a year ago. That moment standing at the junction of Sycamore Lane and Russell Blvd, waiting for that familiar traffic light to turn into the much-missed green bicycle, that moment was utterly unreal. I felt as if I shouldn't have been there, but I was there.

Within a few days of my unexpected return, and particularly after I ran my fingers along the shelves of the university library and walked across town alone at night, I seriously asked myself why I left in the first place. This place is undeniably more comfortable than back home (but not home itself of course), and professionally speaking, this place is Mecca for my field/industry. 

Rationally, my decision to leave was a foolish one, especially since I had a job offer for two more years here. Personally, I knew that that it couldn't have been otherwise. If I had not left, if I had stayed on for two more years, I doubt that I would still have the will to leave. McGill University was an excellent school too, and Montreal was beautiful--crude and elegant, just the way I like it--but I left because I didn't want to risk my roots growing so deep that it hurts to unroot them. My family, and all my very beloved friends back home, they played a huge role in luring me back. To jest and curse in a slang known only to my highschool friends is definitely every bit as priceless as the independence and freedom I can find here. However, there is something more, something bigger, something more ambitious, something that I must do.

The thing is, UC Davis wasn't always as great as it is now. It took many people and at least two-three generations to build UCD and Davis to be what they are today. Heck, UCD is even older than my country. If every Davisian had left Davis to carve a niche in Oxford or Harvard, we wouldn't have the UCD which we are all so proud of today.

Thus, the least I can do is to try. To try to pave the road to a future UCD in my country, to build an institution better than UCD in my country. I cannot just give up the idea without trying, can I? Well of course I can, but that wouldn't be me. 

I am very happy to be back here.
I am also very glad that I left here.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

On May 21, 2011, my friend Sinclair tied the knot with his wife, Fui Fen.

[Well actually they registered a few days a earlier but held the dinner and the Chinese wedding ceremony on May 21.]

Since I was the most handsome one among his friends who can talk on stage (even this is debatable), he invited me to be his Master of Ceremony (m.c., or emcee) of his wedding dinner. A month before the wedding dinner, over a yumcha session with Sinclair and FuiFen, they also asked me to be his band of 'brothers'. I eagerly agreed because it's always very fun to be a 'brother' hahaha. I asked, and FuiFen confirmed that many of her 'sisters' were still single and available. I sure on la then.

Time flew by and only in the afternoon of May 21 did Sinclair and his sister-in-law, Mei who was the event manager, had the time to give me their feedback on my script. Thankfully they were graceful enough with my self-claimed "very funny" script and only made several recommendations. I adopted all their suggestions...kan bukan my marriage, but Sinclair's?

But back to the morning of May 21, the process went like this. First the bridegroom (Sinclair) and his band of brothers departed from his house to the hotel where FuiFen and her relatives and 'sisters' were waiting. The idea is for Sinclair to win over his bride at HER place. Winning typically means that the bridegroom has to complete a barrage of tasks set about by the bride's 'sisters'...and typically the bridegroom does little, leaving his 'brothers' to bear the brunt of the women wrath. Fortunately, the bridegroom is the one responsible for giving angpow (money) to the 'sisters' and then later get to kiss the bride while his jealous brothers look on. After that, they have a tea ceremony there where the newly weds pay respect and gratitude to FuiFen's relatives/elders. Then the whole procession heads back to Sinclair's house where a similar tea ceremony is held but for Sinclair's side of the family. Then in the evening, a wedding banquet is held where relatives, friends etc. were invited. I was the emcee for that banquet.

It was a very fun morning that day, mainly because the challenges that the 'sisters' set out were very fun and appropriate. Chinese like to play with words that sound nice and give blessings to the newly weds, and the games incorporated those. We the 'brothers' had to imitate doll-like poses that were very intimate, drink from a cup with a 2m long straw (that failed) etc. We also had to pick up the key to the bride's room from inside a bowl, using only straws (that also failed and post-game discussion and attempts suggested that it wasn't possible, at least not within the time allocated). It was very hilarious because the 'sisters' did a great job organizing it and we brothers really played along.

Throughout the morning, FuiFen would ask me loudly and publicly "Eh, which of my jee-mui you like? Which one caught your eye?" .........and when I spoke to any of her 'sisters', FuiFen would saunter over in her gown and asked LOUDLY "So, you like her?".........................

In the end I told FuiFen "you like this keeping on 'stabbing' (插住晒), I very hard to cari makan."
And to my horror, apparently most, if not all, of the sisters knew of my background and my single and available could only imagine what else did FuiFen tell them....

I arrive about 1.5 hour before the wedding banquet started. I had only put on a tie once and that was ~4 years ago for my sister's wedding. Dad and mom both forgot how to do it, so I had to ask Mei, Sinclair's sister-in-law to do it for me LOL. Embarrassing. I checked out the stage, the mic, the lighting,,,everything looked good. I tested the sound projection, and realised that I can't swing my head when I talk into the mic because I must talk INTO the mic otherwise my sound fades off. Darn, I am an animated speaker, it would be hard to control.

About 30 minutes after the scheduled time, the guests have all arrived. 30 minutes late is considered good in Malaysian Chinese banquets...shame on us. I got on stage and began my show.

My script was all English but I realised that most of the guests were actually aunties and uncles gossiping in Mandarin, Hakka and Cantonese...darn. Anyway, I tried my best to liven up the atmosphere but after the first half, I knew that the energy from the audience was quite low! I quickly asked around for advice. My new friends, the 'sisters' (which also included two guys actually) gave me a few tips and some good support. Mei said I was doing great, but if I really want to energize the crowd, I had to engage them via games or stupid questions like "How's the food? Good?"  [Later at another unrelated performance, the emcee also said that for Malaysian stage, it's typical to ask the crowd "sudah makan? lauk sedap?" LOL].

Need to ask them the food good or not ar? Somemore got to ask "If good, then clap hands lah"...haha... BUT Mei gave an even better which we played out to its full effect.

Right before Sinclair popped the champagne, I suddenly asked him to STOP! Then taking the mic out of the stand and into my hand, switching over to Mandarin, I asked Sinclair to prove that he loves FuiFen. I engaged the crowd, getting them to give suggestions on how we could test Sinclair. You could literally see their eyes opened wide with energy at the mention of 'game we can use to play with the bridegroom" ! An uncle suggested that Sinclair do push-up...well, in the end I settled for singing a song on one knee. Ah Seng, the A/V guy suggested we do "Yue Liang Dai Biao Wo De Xin", that ageless song that everyone knows. Sinclair asked me to remind him of the lyrics, but in my excitement (read: nervous) I myself forgot the lyrics hahaha. As I was pondering, suddenly Sinclair started singing, looking into FuiFen's eyes with passion.

OMG!! He really did it!

The crowd roared, applause went crazy, and yes, the crowd was energized.

All in all, I was very happy with how things went that day. I mean, it was a very merry occasion and everything went smoothly. I myself was very honoured to have been part of my friends' celebration, and on the side, I made like 20 new friends that day (I went into the whole event not knowing anybody other than Sinclair and FuiFen).

But if you ask me (that is if you are my future wife), I would rather not do my wedding like this. I usually don't enjoy Chinese wedding banquets because most of them don't really focus on the newly-weds and don't make it an emotional enough celebration. Somemore I don't want large banquets where everyone becomes less significant...yet if I do hold a banquet, my students alone take one/two table, my primary school friends one/two table, highschool friends X tables, colleagues ...I think don't count relatives pun I can fill 10 tables, that is if they can all make it lah hahaha. Scary leh.