Monday, September 30, 2013

Congratulations & Condolences


It's not that I'm not grateful but somehow there is a pang of bitterness that comes with winning the Freshman Prize Debate. Don't get me wrong, I could not be happier and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have such a great support group of friends that helped me win the prize. And I most definitely am not trying to diss anybody who participated, we all did our best and I don't have any right to lord it over anyone.

Yet every time somebody congratulates me I don't quite know how to respond except rejoice and feel that I'm supposed to be a lot more ecstatic about my speech. 

I spoke against the motion which was that responsibility ends at our borders. I used the example of the Westgate Mall Kenya massacre to demonstrate how our world is so interconnected that it was impossible and immoral to shirk from our responsibilities to every citizen of this Earth. 

But there's the problem, see? I used the Kenyan massacre. I distilled the tears and blood, the troubles and tragedies that affected real people into some simplistic didactic takeaway about the world. I felt almost soiled as I was speaking the words, like an actor wearing a blood-stained shirt and winning a prize for his performance, except that the blood was real and belonged to someone who had to die for him to win. 

The night before the debate, I had just attended a candlelight vigil for the victims of the massacre. A few Yale students had been personally affected. The ceremony was simple and solemn, but heartbreaking. It kept me awake, eyes staring at the ceiling for hours on end. It was all too real. 

I had grappled with my feelings when I spoke the words to my speech. I tried to attempt to express my sorrow and my empathy, I tried to do justice to the victims of the massacre and honor their memory, I tried to bring this great message of caring for one another, but everything seemed to fall short. My words felt hollow and meaningless. I felt like that politician who only appears at televised funerals during campaign season and who pretends to eulogize people he does not even know for publicity's sake. 

I consider myself an introspective person. I try to reflect on what I am doing, how I am doing it and why am I doing it every once in a while. And all the while, as I looked back upon that Freshman Debate, the prime motivation in place was simply to win.

How often do we, in the face of glory, forget the real impact of the issues we debate? How often do we reduce lives and livelihoods to plot devices and rhetorical questions? Is this what politicians do?

What does it say about me as a person?

I'm afraid I don't have any answers. All I know is that somewhere, while I'm eating away the hundred dollars someone is suffering from the very incidents I mentioned to win a prize with.

"My condolences."

Sunday, September 22, 2013


"Why are you so nice?"

"What do you mean?"

I turn around, carefully peeling off the price tag to a gift I had just bought. Two friends had just turned 18 and earlier during the day I had stopped by the bookstore to get them each a small gift.

"Well, it's not like you have to do this."

I pause, finger nails still futilely scratching at the Great Gatsby soundtrack CD case. I'm not exactly the best with compliments or positive comments of the sort. I grew up in a culture where the default response would have been to vehemently deny such a statement in a perhaps superficial sense of humility.

"Well.. They say generosity is a form of power." I deflect the statement.


I wave goodbye as I twist the doorknob and leave the suite. I thought I had been terribly clever to quote Frank Underwood from the HBO series House of Cards. But as I delivered the presents, wished the recipients a happy birthday and returned to an empty suite, I pondered. I felt oddly happy despite having spent quite a bit of money.

The next day one of my suite mates had an intramural ping-pong match. I had missed the previous match and I had promised myself that I would make time to go and see him play. So despite the fact that I had a paper due in a few days (or maybe because of the fact, since I'm such a procrastinator, haha!) I went ahead and watched the match. It was a close fought, intense battle of stamina, strategy and plain old sweat. In the end my suite mate didn't win, and was pretty upset about it. He had initially been 7 points in the lead for the final set, so he was understandably rather disappointed in himself.

In the wee hours in the morning when he was sound asleep, I wrote some encouraging words on a few Post-It notes and included some Latin quotes since he was very much into ancient civilizations and languages. I distinctly remember going to sleep with a huge smile on my face.

Why bother? Why expend the effort?

I've been thinking about it a lot these past few days. And I think perhaps I know why. All of us here are leaving our homes, our families, coming to a new, exciting and unfamiliar place. I am 9387 miles away from my home, my family, my countrymen. I have never been to America before this, and now voila, here I am, this clueless guy from Malaysia whose conception of America is a hodgepodge construction of headline news and Hollywood movies.

Perhaps then, in the process of trying to find familiarity and comfort in this country, I have also come to grips with certain ideas. The other day as I was talking to someone, I told them I was going to back home to get a rest. The reply was "Oh you're flying back?"

It was then that it dawned upon me, so obvious yet so easy to miss. L-Dub suite C31 is my home. Ben, Miguel, David are my brothers. The people in Berkeley are my extended family, and heck all Yalies are some weird distant cousins or something. It sounds cheesy, but as I come to the realization that this is where I will spend the next 4 years of my life, it cannot be truer.

I'm sure in the course of the year, I will find people I don't like. I'll probably have an argument or two with my suite mates. We will all have our pet peeves with each other and at times we will not want to talk to each other. But that's what being family is about. That's why I will make time for my suite mates. That's why whatever the case is, if someone needs a shoulder to lean on, someone to lend an ear, I will try my utter best to be there.

I've made mistakes with my real family. Being apathetic, throwing tantrums, being inconsiderate and self-centered. I'd like to think being thrust into this whole new environment is a chance for me to make it up, to become a better family member and better human being.

Generosity has power. But perhaps not the kind of power imagined by Frank Underwood. It has the power to make bonds of friendship, to brighten a person's life, to lift somebody up when they are down.

Generosity has the power to create family.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Yale's Got Talent (Or Not)

I can't say I never expected it. I mean, heck I'm in one of the world's top institutions ( some might say THE top) jam packed with some of the most talented, intelligent and dynamic individuals from all over the globe.

Just in my dorm there are insanely brilliant people. There's my suite-mate Miguel, who can dance salsa, play the saxophone, whistle as if he is playing a musical instrument (he can do vibrato and I tell you he brings whistling to an art form), act in comedy sketches and to top it all off is incredibly nice and funny. Oh and did I mention that he has won like a hundred science prizes and is working as a research assistant to Professor Nenad Sestan and Professor Pasko Rakic who was one of the people who founded developmental neuroscience by publishing the first description of neurogenesis in the subventricular zone. Yeah I have no idea what that means.

There are absolutely stunning singers, brilliant debaters, humorous improvisational comedians and just plain simple geniuses. 

And then there's me. Plain old KJ. 

So I can't dance to save my life. Miguel tried teaching me some salsa the other day and in the end I decided I'm better off eating salsa than dancing salsa. I'm not exactly musically inclined either. I used to think I was when I was like 12, randomly serenading people with Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On until one day somebody in the next room wondered out loud whether somebody's radio was broken. 

Sports? A few days ago I was walking down some steps (4 to be precise) down from my dorm at L-Dub and somehow tripped over thin air and ended up on all fours in front of my Freshman Counselor's room. Thank goodness nobody saw that, at that time I was wondering whether to just pretend to be drunk ( because that would so much less embarrassing) if anybody were to chance upon me. 

At an incredibly imposing 166cm ( yes I am still holding on to the metric system!) and with a muscular 6 in 1 pack, and a mild allergy to tequila, I am definitely not going to be a frat star anytime too. 

I did however think that I could speak and act. But turns out everything is relative and I'm much better at acting up than acting. Oh well. I guess that's it for me then. 

I feel like I'm in America's Got Talent and I'm the odd guy that everybody ends up laughing at instead of laughing with. 

But what the heck, if I'm going to be odd guy, I'm going to be the best odd guy ever. Barbecue sauce milkshakes, disturbing Herman Cain doing his business in the toilet, mauling Single Ladies, bring it on Yale!

The cast of Yale's Got Talent. Yeah that's me creating the business cycle represented  by male's height. I'm in the recession part of the graph.