A year of words, code, and community: 2021 in review
A New Years' Reflection in Five Parts
Hello internet friends new and old! I hope all your new years are off to good starts 😁
Home on break after my first semester at Pomona, I’ve been reading, writing, and building like always. So far I’ve rebuilt my personal website, written about Substack and Silicon Valley conceptions of “cultural class”, summarized what I learned at Pomona this fall, embraced Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing as a personal political manifesto, and binged all of Vincenzo in three days.
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In this post, I want to share broader reflections on the past year. If you just want an account of what I did and where I’ve been, the graphic at the top gives a pretty good overview.
What follows is a journal entry I started writing on New Years Day and finished in chunks over the following week. It traces what I feel are the biggest trends of personal growth I went through in my gap year and return to school, particularly in terms of beginning to understanding what it feels like to take ownership of my life and relationships. A few friends have found resonance with my reflections, so maybe you will too. Enjoy ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ
A last quick announcement: I’ve added my old newsletters dating as far back as October 2020 (they’re pretty fire imo) to this Substack. Check them out on the main page!
A New Years' Reflection in Five Parts
Hello from 2022!
My reMarkable pen being broken, I find myself writing an on-paper entry for the first time in probably months or even years. The last entry in this specific notebook dates back to the end of 2017, a full four years ago. I had just started at Andover then, having spent about as much time there as I have at Pomona now.
A few hours ago, the fireworks went off in the city -- much more mutedly than last year, though maybe it only seems that way. We missed the ball drop on TV and wound up watching Miley Cyrus' New Years Eve party.
I shot off my obligatory messages to my Pomona friend group, to Ally, Tessa, Emhu. On Updately I stumbled across Amy's energetic and ridiculously impressive reflection; on Postulate, while finding a link for another message, I found Caitlyn's unexpected comments on my semester review piece and shot her some Twitter DMs.
At the cusp of a new year, my dominant feeling is one of lightness, burden-less-ness. I've written what I've needed to write, published what I've needed to publish, communicated what I've needed to communicate. The logistically intense travel plans I had hoped to enact are now in limbo on the Omicron-fired backburner. The obligations ahead of me this break are now more ones of passion than commitment, which feels pretty good.
At a larger level, I feel steady at Pomona. To Jacob, Tianlun, Jerry, anticipated visitors of my website, and others I've talked to recently, I feel like I have a coherent picture of who I am and where I'm at, if not where I'm going. It's been at least a little hard-fought for, after a year and a half of bouncing around the country trying to place my upbringing-instilled ambition and curiosity somewhere, arriving at Pomona only at the very last minute. "I'm really enjoying my classes and the new social and intellectual communities I've found, and look forward to continuing to explore," I wrote to Tianlun -- however transient, I'll savor the joy and comfort I have at hand.
This time last year I described the passing year of 2020 as "kaleidoscopic." Personal and career-related events alike shattered ways I viewed myself and the world me, leaving me with broken shards to piece back together along with a whole new spectrum of refracted colors to marvel at.
This past year has very much been about putting 2020's shattered pieces back together.
Out of my bouncing around tech projects and communities in 2020, I found Edyfi at the very beginning of 2021, where I matured significantly as a professional and student. I let go of the high-school-defining need to do and be good at everything, embracing instead Ryan Delk's doctrine of chasing your strengths rather than patching your weaknesses. I found these strengths building software for others' and my own startups, writing features and covering AAPI politics for The Yappie, and churning out a ridiculous amount of personal writing synthesizing conversations and digesting social science readings.
My experiences in 2020 also compelled me to make my last-minute effort to return to a humanities-oriented academic space, leading me to spend the last quarter of the year at Pomona. It's been immensely fulfilling to dive into curiosities about capitalism, media studies, and philosophy (through both classes and participation in activist movements and events) and a good chunk of physics and math on the more rigorous STEM front. That, and to simply have fun and explore: doing drag, taking a karate class, joining the Mock Trial team, writing and building for our student newspaper. Contrary to what I once feared (and to the liberal arts college stereotype), I'm confident that these experiences have strengthened me as a person and aspiring professional rather than slowing me down in any meaningful way.
But ultimately, if my re-assembled pieces form a coherent narrative, it's one that is down-to-earth and in-the-moment one rather than grand and poetic. I wrote this reflection because I made an easy decision to, not because I was overcome with some strong feeling about the passage of time, as had motivated last year's blog post. If anything, this lack of grandiose emotion has been the theme of the past year. It's been a year of realizing that joy comes from the little things: the satisfaction of creation, the excitement of discovery, the people who care enough to talk and cuddle and cook with you, the feeling of looking forwards to the possibilities of tomorrow. Against lofty demands of "greatness", I'm beginning to muster the will to take my own path one step at a time. As I wrote in one of my favorite journal entry-blog posts of the year: "To love the pavement, the trail, the hill up or down in front of you, is more than enough."
I wrote last year's reflection at the very same desk that I'm sitting at now, in the apartment in Morningside Heights my family has lived in for years. Yet today it doesn't feel so much like my home as someone else's home that is deeply tied to me, but that I am ultimately just passing through. When I think of "my home" I think of the Pomona dorm room I've plastered with white board paper covered in project ideas, ghosts of physics equations, affirming quotes, and my friends' doodles. If not as much of a home, it's much more so mine, a space and a community I chose to be in and made my own. It's not just a matter of changing location or simply living on my own; my family has moved around a bunch before and I went to a boarding high school for three years. Rather, it's the feeling of ownership that comes with making my own decisions and living and being surrounded by others doing similarly.
This mindset shift is to be expected: "leaving the nest" is a saying for a reason, after all. But what I didn't expect was for this feeling of ownership to extend far beyond my attachment to home, reaching the people, projects, and everything else in my life too.
Staying with two Andover friends during a visit to the Bay over Thanksgiving break, I was struck by the feeling that much more grounded and in some sense genuine relationships were possible than I previously thought. Our relationships were enabled by our proximity before at Andover and then in California, sure, but they didn't feel nearly as dependent on proximity as friendships previously have: schools, cities, and for the most part friend groups apart, we had still made the effort to come together. More importantly, the new ownership we had over our own lives give new weight to these efforts. One friend invited me to Thanksgiving dinner at his apartment in San Francisco, another to spend the night in the lounge of her Stanford dorm, extending hospitality in a much more meaningful way than inviting someone over to your parents' house. And it's not just about ownership over place, of course: with academic, professional, and social lives to lead primarily with their own rather than their parents' ownership, my friends' offers of their time and energy became newly meaningful too. The result was a feeling I at the time could only call "the second-closest thing to the feeling of family I've had," reflecting that "I feel more grounded than I have in months, two years, like I was existing in a way that could last if everyone and everything else fell away."
Looking back now, there wasn't some specific familial quality to these relationships so much as there was a new foundation of self-ownership that underlay them, which felt so good to me because it empowered me to tenderly lay the roots of my own decisions, relationships, and self-image in this same kind of ownership. My shift from deriving fulfillment from grand narratives and expectations to more straightforward moments of joy can be framed, too, as a movement of taking ownership over my own life rather than unknowingly relying on others' expectations.
I can't float around in in-the-moment exploration mode forever, even if it's self-owned. Far out on the horizon now I can see the eventual need for commitment, something I couldn't even grasp the meaning of until I experienced self-ownership and still don't really understand. But for now the experience of ownership over my life is intoxicating. I can live almost anywhere in the world if I really wanted; I can get to know people in any city or college of my choice. I can spend my time how I want to, develop the skills I want to, work for who I want to. Of course I won't do all these things, but the skyrocketed opportunity cost makes me value the few things I do do, the few places I do visit, and the few people I do spend time with so much more.
The only goal I wrote about in last year's reflection was "to find meaning and fulfillment in life". As in the case of many of my earnest but borderline insensible goals and questions, I'm surprised to find I've made a decent chunk of progress on this one, grounding myself in the individual bits of joy that stem from self-ownership.
The Big Things I yearn for now might be called Purpose and Love. Purpose is Simon Sinek's Why, is my friend's repeated returns to thinking about nanobot biotech because of a traumatic childhood surgery, is the dedication of my editors and interview subjects alike at The Yappie to the AAPI community. Purpose is big ideas that don’t rise above but are rather rooted in, contained within, and created and fueled by lived experience in a way that no abstract desire to solve the world's biggest problems or impact billions ever could.
Love is orthogonal to Purpose, and thus just as necessary to chart out the full plane of existence. Love is unexpected Friendsgiving dinners and Long Cat in San Francisco, is the inspiration Mohammed El-Kurd derives from laughter amidst humorless circumstances, is Revolutionary Joy overcoming Existential Depression. Love is, as Helena Fitzgerald puts it, "where we fail on purpose, defiantly unaccomplished, where we are allowed to be cats all day, looking for soft places, amazed to wake up each day and still be here, the merciful half-conscious moments where we can convince ourselves the world is more than the rustle and threat of money beneath the surface.”
Wrapping this journal entry/blog post up a few days after New Years Day, new stress has built up. Club and job obligations are trickling back in, and the announcement of the first two weeks of classes going online renew the dread of COVID-related uncertainty that I believed would be gone for good by now. Just a few days after I first wrote them down, I find my beautiful narratives of ownership, purpose, and love fading away into the new dark abyss of the future.
So let me forget about the big ideas. Let them be over-optimistic curves fit to discrete data points that have no business being fitted to any continuous function at all. The road ahead still remains, and tonight I will celebrate the words, code, relationships, classes, competitions, and so much more to come.
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