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.

bibliophilia

Chanced upon this extract in an email from BooksActually. I’m so blown away by its wit that I figured the best compliment I could give the author was to quote it. It’s exactly how I like my reads: social commentary and an exploration of sexuality at once, bundled together via a tribute to literature.

lamenting the lack of private spaces in our country

in order that we will not have to roam
two miles down rifle range in search of dark,
or circle round the lots of kent ridge park
to find a spot; that rooftops may be home
to birds alone, that smokers may have stair-
wells to themselves, that public toilets might
be less mysteriously occupied,
that cinephiles need never turn and glare,

we humbly bid the government to erect
more libraries. Since all books lead to sex,
the inevitable best place to shag
is back against the shelves or on the stacks —
and there, we’ll find our private cul-de-sacs
to make the beast with many paperbacks.

Joshua Ip (in Sonnets from the Singlish)

meta on oversharing

I used to have a (even more) personal blog where I overshared about everything under the sun. I even posted love letters there. Look, I have no justification, but in my defense I thought they were sweet. (Don’t ask me, I’m not telling.) Well, everyone has their big cringe phase. But all good things must come to an end.

A friend asked me why I write. At least part of the reason I do so – though not entirely – is for others to read. Social connection is, quite simply, the essence of humanity. It always has been. For my friends, lovers, peers – for anyone that’s reading. Few things are quite as intimate as reading the stream of consciousness of another person. Especially when pieces are not written with a specific audience in mind: take away the grammar and all that’s left is a projection of the self.

And oversharing is a high. It feels great to be validated by others, even if they’re faceless figures whose existence is represented by a series of numbers. Add to that basic need the technology of instant gratification and you have the billion-dollar industry that is social media. All of it, for us to come to this point where we say too much and take back too little because we can’t anymore.

OB markers and fake news aside, I’ve been told to refrain from saying too much online if only for fear that it will someday come back to bite me. The vulnerabilities that distinguish my person, the arguments that I construct my identity with, and the emotions that tie me to moments of lived reality. Because anything can and will be weaponised against you if you’re not careful – even when you’re careful. I don’t deny it’s true. Yet, if we live like that all the time, where censorship is not merely an external force but coming from within, then we have been defeated even before we begin.

Where would the space left for self-expression be? In a draft hidden away in the unpublished virtual space, or in the dusty corners of the backs of our minds? If it’s not cherished here in the moment, something we’ll never recapture otherwise, where does it go? If social reality is constructed by two or more people, and a secret is not shared, did the latter ever exist?

I write to remember. Each piece is a fragment, a piece of broken glass. Put them all together someday, and maybe I’ll see in it a mirage of the entirety of lived experience, along with the people who mattered to me. I hope it’s a reflection worth remembering.

modern mediocrity

These days a string of conversation I had keeps making its rounds in my head. It winds itself in and out of my awareness, lodging itself in between as it sees fit.

I was speaking to someone I know. He’s enrolled in a prestigious university overseas, pursuing a degree of the future. At that point, he was reflecting on his time there. I don’t remember the specifics, so a lot of liberty has been taken with the exact words exchanged, but the essence is accurate.

Him: … Like you know, it’s not easy. I struggle to keep up with the material sometimes, and projects can be challenging.

My intuition told me he wasn’t being upfront about something, so I probed. Maybe I just wanted to know. There are one too many maybes in this world.

Me: So, how well are you doing among your cohort?

I knew he would’ve delicately sidestepped the entire topic if I didn’t ask – the Asian norm of humility is pervasive. No one asks about a peer’s ranking without expecting to be either humbled or skewered for it. In this case, my question was merely a confirmation.

He looked at me, eyes sharp.

Him: … I’m first.

Then his gaze darted downwards, almost bashfully.

Something about that exchange got to me. It might have been his discomfort. It might have been my own sudden sense of alienation. Either way, that something etched its way into my consciousness, burrowing itself deep in my self-doubt, where it lingers. And the blood from those wounds seep into my thoughts ever so delicately.

Maybe it’s envy.

Have you ever sat in a room and realised you were scraping the bottom of the barrel? I had that experience recently. It shook me to my core: I wasn’t ready to stand face to face with my insignificance and ignorance relative to a group of people like me, much less in the grand scheme of things.

I was told – and I wanted to believe – that just like that senior from my course who graduated with a perfect 5.0, who was extensively painted in the brushstrokes of a model student, an ideal, that I could be the best too. It was almost as if that such a feat could be possible for anyone who made an equivalent effort. It should be attainable, granted I could make the necessary sacrifices.

I’m surrounded by so many competent people I feel like an impostor. Except it’s a little more than that. It’s more of this nagging sense of impending doom in a form of a train charging towards me at full speed where I’m stranded on the tracks, and its name is The Force of Mediocrity.

Maybe it is mediocrity.

What happens when your best is not good enough?

We are all trying, but in this system there can only be a few who make it. What happens, then, to those who are left behind?

chocolate ice-cream

I had an odd experience earlier. I was at a school (Union) event, walking side by side with a friend while slurping a melting chocolate ice-cream, when she suddenly gasped in delight and rushed forward. She embraced a guy who was beaming as brightly as her. In the resultant flurry of happy laughs, I learnt they were old friends who had not seen each other for a few years. They launched straight into reminiscing with great fervour, drifting away into their own corner figuratively and physically.

I was left standing there not quite sure how to react – after all, it was their moment. So, I turned my attention to his friend, who was in the same predicament as me. He had turned his back to me, occupying himself with a performance onstage. Since it was part of my duties anyway, I whipped out my phone and asked him to complete a survey about the event. He politely obliged, before asking a question about the Union, which in turn led me to snap into Student Representative mode and blabber away. He followed with more questions, and I more answers, and so a tenuous back-and-forth was born under the blessing of the music in the background.

Anyone who knows me well enough realises I’m the awkward type. I typically compensate for it by rambling so there are no uncomfortable silences, but there wasn’t a need with this guy. He caught on to the trails in my sentences, added his own flair, and hit them back into my court seamlessly. Earlier in the day I had brushed shoulders with an old friend: yet when we made eye contact, the shared recognition that we had nothing to say to each other hung sombrely in the crowded silence between us. On the other hand, there I stood with a stranger, bantering away.

Still, he didn’t strike me as the smooth-talking, charismatic type – perhaps it was this disjuncture that made our encounter stand out in my memory. We were yelling at each other over the music half the time, yet the conversation progressed organically without me feeling like I had to say something for the sake of it. That and he kept telling me that I had chocolate ice-cream all over my mouth, the mere thought of which continues to make me cringe in embarrassment.

I never asked for his name. He says that since my friend knows his friend, we’ll probably see each other again. I don’t think so, though. But it was fun while it lasted.