on the failure to fail

Two weeks ago, I had my first classes at McGill University. It is a gorgeous, sprawling institution located in Montréal, a city in Canada’s province of Quebec. (Took me a while to get that sentence too – geography eludes me.)

Introductory day was spectacular, setting my existential crisis into motion. I walk into morning class to be greeted by a course syllabus with no exams and massive class participation. Anyone who knows me recognises my enthusiasm for group work. And a poster exhibition worth 40%. What? But the module is on the sociology of science! I’d be a fool to let that go for some adjustment issues.

Three hours later, I am late for a seminar because it is a 15-minute hill away from the second lecture, and also because of my abysmal time management. (There’s no way around either.) I awkwardly fumble for a seat at the makeshift discussion space, made up of four rectangular tables aligned such that sixteen people can stare daggers at each other simultaneously. Sixteen. The instructor is devastatingly charming, up to the point he casually mentions that everyone in class will inevitably and individually lead a class discussion. You could pull that phrase apart into single words and I’d be as horrified. Individually / lead / class / discussion.

I share my personal difficulties with being nervous in social situations with two friendly classmates, as they walk me to my fourth and final class out of goodwill. They are mildly sympathetic. Or not. Could I chalk it down to cultural differences or personal weakness? I have no answers, and it doesn’t matter.

I attempt to strike a conversation with an aloof, if cordial, student seated beside me in the lecture theatre. She doesn’t catch my accent half the time. It’s fine. I won’t be seeing her in the next lesson, or the next, or any of the following lectures really. We sit in silence, and I make a comment on how the theatre is packed.

She replies: “Ah, don’t worry about that. The numbers start falling off in a few weeks.”

Me, intrigued and dumb: “Why? Is it because they drop the class?”

Her, blandly: “No. They just stop coming.”

well, there’s that.

I leave the theatre confused by my professor’s rambling on development, colonialism, and what the definition of “betterment of society” really entails. I am emotionally and socially depleted, and I don’t have anyone to go home to. To mitigate my nagging loneliness, I go searching for John William’s Stoner near my place as an alternative to the more scandalous books I currently possess. It’d be easier to read in public. There, on level 2, an older man’s fingers dance across the piano at an adjoined café as mine run across pages and glossy covers. The book’s not available.

On my way home, I ruminate on why I’m so worried about my performance when I’m being graded on a pass/fail scale. I could even get away with missing class occasionally (obligatory disclaimer: not that I intend to). The answer, introspectively derived, is that it’s not only my performance that I’m worried about. I’m worried, and I always have been, about how others perceive me. And that is inextricably intertwined with my fear of failure, in the words of my lecturer on human motivation. To be precise, it would be inaccurate only to say that I want to do well; it’s more that I can’t accept not doing well.

I am positively sickened at the prospect of sitting in a group discussion feeling like I’m the only one who hasn’t done the reading. That happened on the second day of class, actually. I forgot to read one paper in advance, I admitted it to the four other girls I was grouped with, and the discussion promptly continued as if Thanos had snapped his finger and scattered my humiliated ashes to the wind. For all I know, half of them didn’t do the reading either, a suspicion that was highlighted when they went off-topic multiple times. But I still hated every moment of being in that situation. I don’t know how the exchange student in my group last semester back at NTU managed to pull it off (not reading any assigned articles), though I do know I did not hide my contempt for him.

don’t do shit, get hit.

I recall one class presentation where it was readily apparent to me that I was putting out inferior work. Relatively speaking, at least, because the bell curve dictates that one’s work is judged only against the performance of compeers in the same module. Standing under the watchful eye of the lecturer and classmates, I remember thinking, why are you guys paying attention now of all times!? I was wringing my hands desperately, looking anywhere but at the lecturer (and the other students too) in case they discovered my incompetence.

Throughout the ordeal, the irrepressible urge to simply up and bolt out of the classroom held me hostage – a classic flight response to a situation rapidly spiraling out of control. Thankfully, I was too petrified to budge. It was not a good day. Failing is an incredibly noxious sensation that I don’t have the resources to handle.

The problem, then: isn’t failing a necessity for growth?

I can’t bring myself to relax now, because I’ve never allowed myself to under equivalent conditions. I’m deeply terrified of mediocrity, and my talent is escaping from that inevitability.

Still, I’m learning. I missed one day’s worth of class earlier this week. (Obligatory disclaimer: whoops.) I’m telling myself it’s okay, even if I didn’t understand half of what the lecturer said in the class on development today. (At this point, I’m inclined to think it’s him and not me.) Even if I don’t have anyone to help me catch up on the content. I will get through it as I always have. There will be no caveats here, only a commitment to self-acceptance. After all, exchange promised to be a time for growth. I’m going to make the best out of it – even if it means pulling apart and rebuilding myself in the process.

excerpts, #2

— That time you looked at me, regret splintering within your distant gaze, you said you remembered everything. But did you really? What I remember is that exhibition, where time was represented as unbroken swirl. Past, present, future: they fuse as chaotically as the particles of the universe. And if you stand inverted facing those waves that outline our memories, a new perspective comes through each time.

You can say it again to me — everything, all over again.

penis envy

Especially at the peak of puberty, I used to wish I had been born a boy instead. In those years, that desire was fuelled by curfews and a classic catch-22 cast upon me by my parents. The conundrum was as follows: to protect myself from being attacked out there by males, I should find a male chaperone. If that seems logical to you, think harder. Never mind that historical romance novels inform me that chaperones are a dated concept that belong to and should remain in the 19th century. On top of that, boyfriends (a version of a male chaperone) were disallowed, because my parents believed boys were distractions. (They were right on that one, and they still are, but that’s besides the point.)

Granted, those were abstract principles and were not implemented to fundamentalist extremes. I was still allowed to leave the house alone and have fun in a mixed school. Still, as an example, my parents – particularly my father – distrusted my first boyfriend (and me), while simultaneously conceding that they had to entrust me to him. I am unable to comment on whether they would have approved the subsequent ones because I stopped updating them, LOL. As a side note, even now it seems to me the concept of female sexuality is still actively resisted by the social mass, at least back at home. We want love, but the love we demand should be chaste… according to society (and men)! Step outside your allotted boundaries, and get struck out.

Either way, my left-wing identity strengthening with education further fanned the flames of my frustration. My budding sexuality was the gasoline. As far as my young, female, feeble mind was concerned, men were allocated disproportionate privileges that I was in turn denied. If only I had not been born a girl, I rationalised, those illogical and unfair restrictions on what was most important to me – freedom and control – wouldn’t exist. Perhaps because I was powerless to do anything else at that point, the most viable strategy to compensate for my perceived helplessness was simply to wish I was a male. An awful strategy, by all means. But we move on.

That pubertal penis envy faded as I grew older, more gender-appropriate desires blooming in its place to mask its putrid stench. The liberal female empowerment phase happened. But recently it’s been coming back to haunt me. For all I know, it never left. As if this remission is my surrender to the recognition that women are indeed the second sex.

The trigger? Being a minority.

To coexist in a sphere where men dominate, trying so hard to get noticed, starting to wonder why the conversation is happening with everyone except you, and whatever you say echoes off the walls against the impassive silence of the others who won’t even meet your eye because you make them uncomfortable, and starting to think you’re better off being quiet. The discomfort that hangs in the air, because my existence as a woman, and all the social baggage that this master status entails, overshadows all my interactions with members of the opposite gender. (I haven’t even gotten into intersectionality, currently very much salient as I type this from a place where I’m in a minority group.)

Your presence is noted, but not acknowledged. And the thing about privilege is you can’t explain it fully until you realise you don’t have it: for example, I can relate somewhat to Chinese privilege by drawing parallels to male privilege, but what about my Chinese male friends?

I wish I could brush this feeling off by simply tacking a “grass is greener on the other side” sticker onto it. And I know some people who would argue to that effect. But to say that would be to downplay the reality of the lived experience, mainly my own here but definitely shared by others, that feeds into it. I’m not saying men don’t have their own unique set of problems. But ultimately it’s important to realise that there are hidden power structures (gender, race, disability, among others) that pervade and colour our everyday experiences of living, and we don’t always get to be on top. In classic sociology terms: if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. (Note the absence of the woman!)

Do I still wish I had been born a guy? Sometimes. Would I necessarily have a better life? That I don’t know, though I’m guessing it would be statistically easier to achieve. In the meantime, I would do better to stop the self-loathing and focus on elevating my group as a whole instead.

superwoman

That day I was alone and sobbing, I thought of my mum. If only she was there with me, I wouldn’t have been that wreck crying in a public place. Superwoman, my mum, would hold up the sky if it was crumbling for me. She can achieve impossible physical feats, like breaking that plastic piece holding a new pair of socks together with her teeth. Of course she has psychic powers too: knowing my latent eczema would flare up in the blistering cold, she supplied me with the weapons that were moisturising creams. I returned one to her, but guess who likely needs more? She always masks her concern under her prickly exterior – her affection only manifests in her regular reproaches of my careless behaviours. Yet I remember the quiver of her voice and her lovely face as she struggled not to cry the last time we separated at the airport.

And that was only for six weeks, not six months.