Limbo

There is a nine-day break between the end of the Dutch Culture & Language orientation and the actual start of the school year, and the landlord has just kicked us out of the temporary housing to make room for incoming students. Up until this point, only students from the UC campuses were living in the dorms – the other international and Dutch students hadn’t moved in yet.

Getting kicked out isn’t too bad. At least it gives us the excuse to travel and have sleepovers in other people’s rooms. Even the common living room is full of stranded students.

I’ll be out of the country for a week, but I’ve scheduled a few posts in the meantime.

 

Goedhart

Or “good heart”, the name of the man who gave us directions to Lombok, the multicultural district of Utrecht. Before I can even say hello to him, he asked how he could help — and this just through eye contact. He ended up walking with us for thirty minutes. Seventy-two and retired twice — first when he was sixty and working at a water management plant in Surinam, and second when he was seventy and moved with his wife to the Netherlands (her wish, he says). Seventy-two and no cane, and with wrinkles that almost made a permanent smile. Seventy-two and yet, looked fifty-two.

“Oh, I’m also learning Hindu now. I like world languages.”

Sometimes I wonder if people who are named after different virtues like Patience or Faith actually live up to them, or if they’re so self-conscious about whether their actions line up with their name that they either hold themselves up to superhuman standards or give up entirely. I wouldn’t know, but it seemed like Goedhart took it in stride.

The people I’ve met here in the Netherlands so far are very kind, as are many other people in the world. Being named “good heart” isn’t a requirement for being a decent human being, but it doesn’t hurt.

how to get around town

I asked the shopkeeper if he had any advice for a new bicyclist in the Netherlands. It was rush hour, and the traffic was intimidating.

“Uh, just go.”

Before this I had spent most of my time on the sidewalk, not knowing where the bike lane started or where the bike lane ended, and scurrying to the side whenever I heard a bell or someone calling. Bikes here have the right of way, and you’re expected to move the hell out, not the other way around. I’m eyeballing this, but the number of bikes on the road at once outnumber cars and other vehicles by at least 50:1 in Utrecht. Biking back in UCSD was nothing compared to this.

And as unhelpful as I thought the shopkeeper’s advice was at first, there really was no other way to learn how to bike around town, other than following the Dutch bikers and doing what they do. When to pass a cyclist, where to turn, where to stop, or even when to ignore the streetlight — although it’s a good idea to err on the side of caution for now.

The same applies for learning a new language. Sure, there are textbooks and language tutors available (and the Dutch people I have met so far are more than happy to demonstrate the correct pronunciation of the word), but the bulk of the learning will still be my responsibility.

Learning by doing is proposed as the cure-all for any sort of ignorance a person may suffer from. And while experience may be the best teacher, her lessons don’t come without a cost. I could cause a pile-up on Janskerkhof. I could feel like a fool when I ask someone hoe gaat het, or how they’re doing, and I can’t understand a single part of their response. 

But it’s better than the alternative — instead of hiding behind what is comfortable or what is known, dodging every bike and wondering what it would be like to zip along the road so graciously, you could actually find out for yourself.

The lure of a fresh start.

The fact that no one in the Netherlands will know me can have some interesting implications. There are no people to remind me of the past. Any person I’ve known in my life, friend or foe, will be living nine time zones away. This means that (if I really wanted to) I could forge a new identity. I can become whoever I want. I can be the stud I’ve always wanted to be. The man who can command the respect and attention of any room with his stories, and inspires others to live out theirs. The man who moves mountains, saves orphans from chemical fires during the day and returns home to give his momma a kiss good night.

(The Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign comes to mind).

But it’s not that simple. Character is built slowly — grown and cultivated over a long period of time. The same character and attitude that has guided me in past decisions will be there to guide me in the Netherlands. Any personal change can only come about after acknowledging, processing, and ultimately, accepting my past. Otherwise, I’ll just be in a perpetual state of running away from my problems. Then, travel, which is so often lauded as a way to discover the self, will just be another coping mechanism with which I can avoid whatever bothers me.

Being in an unfamiliar environment can accelerate this desired growth, but it’s not the magic bullet to instantly becoming the kind of person I want to be. It’ll take time, but I feel that things have a way of working out as long as I put my mind to it.

That being said, I still welcome the change of pace.

Oh, what am I saying? I’m so excited for this opportunity. I just thought it was necessary to be mindful of a potential pitfall such as this.

A quality of academic writing I never appreciated:

Whereas the professor is obligated to read through ten pages of whatever crap I scrambled together three hours before the deadline, you, the reader, do not share that same obligation. If whatever I’m writing has moved through my bowels twice, the reader can just move on and carry about her business.

So while I don’t get graded on this, it does mean I need to be more vigilant about what I post — first, so I don’t waste the reader’s time, second, so I don’t feel guilty about wasting the reader’s time, and third, so I can enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done (however I choose to define that).

“Don’t Fear the Internet” — HTML/CSS

Even though computer science is a requirement for cognitive science majors at UCSD, I still find it intimidating. Especially how missing a single semi-colon or bracket can make the entire code go haywire — or even worse (depending on how you look at it) — when the code works, but not the way you want it to. If anything, it helps me appreciate how the human brain is capable of making so many decisions and predictions with incomplete information. Sure, it’s error prone, but at least it won’t collapse like the computer. Still, just as how a blank screen in Microsoft Word reveals the holes in your concentration, broken or messy code can hold you accountable for the flaws in your own logic.

Luckily, there’s a whole slew of resources out there in the internet to make the process of learning programming more approachable (the number of accessible choices can be overwhelming), and there’s one I want to recommend today: Jessica Hische & Russ Maschmeyer’s Don’t Fear the InternetIt’s a fun seven-part video series on the fundamentals of HTML and CSS, featuring lively narrators, cats, and hamburgers. It’s the best presentation I’ve seen on the subject, and is perfect if you’re just getting started.

If HTML programming were a hamburger.
If HTML programming were a hamburger.

“You must love the math.”

A reflection after finishing the Math 10 sequence at UCSD — my least favorite sequence, despite the interesting professors who bring it to life.

It’s the first day of class, and in walks the math professor, Dr. Stevens. We exchange the usual pleasantries (and by we, I mean her and a hundred blank stares), and with students either scribbling everything down or taking it as a free pass to zone out, she offers advice her own professor gave years ago:

“You must love the math. Call everyday, and treat math as if a lovely lady to woo.”

Ten weeks later I ended up with a C+. It would take another quarter before I pulled my head out of my ass and realized that it was not enough to call. If I was going to have a memorable and meaningful conversation with math, my mind had to be in it. Opening the textbook and drilling the homework problems would not be enough, and neither would all the office hours in the world if I mentally checked out the moment I left the room.

Which begs the question — why was I so loathe to put my mind into math in the first place? Was it because I found it boring? In a sense. I mean, I wasn’t dreaming about integrals and differentiation at night. But more so because it came with the threat of failure. Math was my weakest subject back in high school, right behind Spanish. I even flunked it in eighth grade, but the teacher took pity on me and gave me a D- instead (which, surprise surprise, didn’t feel any better). Quite the drop from a person who used to sweat over anything less than an A.

Perhaps the most frustrating realization was that all this took a lot more work and effort than if I had just done it “right” the first time — that is, seeking to understand why a problem is so, rather than plugging and chugging an answer and calling it a day.

Love for math can’t be forced. And relying on validation from good grades as an indicator of self-worth comes with its own set of problems. But knowing when to quit and when to push forward is essential to learning and deciding priorities in life, and this is a time when I quit too early.

 

Still not a fan of integrals.

Friction while writing, and how to deal with it

I’m noticing a bit of resistance from myself while writing online. It’s as though I’m filtering myself before even typing a single word. When writing in a journal, I can blabber on for pages at a time. Thirty minutes on an average day and I am greeted with filled pages on whatever I chose to dump that day. Nobody’s there to look over and judge me, to say that I’m using too many adverbs. But writing online, it feels as if all of the world’s eyes are on me — which is silly, because I can count the number of readers in one hand, half of which includes my mom. And yet, I still feel paralyzed by that thought.

Writing posts online (even if the fingers on one hand surpasses the number of visitors to this blog) forces me to hold myself accountable for my writing. If I write a steaming pile of shit, that’s my name attached to it. The opposite is also true — if I write some literary gold, my credit will be attached to it, too — but human insecurity is making it tougher to consider that possibility. Or rather, that’s just the reality of doing any sort of work: I’m going to suck at it for a long time before I get any better. 

Ira Glass talks about this in his video, “Storytelling”, and how when starting any creative endeavor, there will always be a painful gap between what you know is objectively “good” and valuable (your taste, your ideals), and what you are actually creating at the time (your work). And that the only way to close that gap is to keep creating.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BI23U7U2aUY

Ira Glass’s “Storytelling”, illustrated.

Glass speaks of this through the perspective of storytelling in his radio show, but the same principle applies to any sort of creative work.

The key then, would be to push through despite the desire for perfectionism. To continue to write — even if the work comes out bland and wilted at first — out of nothing else but the desire to become better. Better at presenting ideas that can change the world, and better at connecting with other people, on and off the computer screen.

 

The sketch above was created Doug Neill, teacher and illustrator. You can check out his other work on thegraphicrecorder.com.