On High School Reunions and Gratitude

Last weekend was my five-year high school reunion, and it got me thinking a lot about the concept of gratitude. 

For many reasons, I was apprehensive about coming back to campus. Towards the end of my senior year of high school, there were unpleasant events that took place that made it difficult and painful for me to think about my high school experience for the past few years. I have found that the easiest way for me to stay focused on my current goals and have the motivation to keep moving on is by pushing away my memories, both the good and bad. However, a couple of years ago, I started working in a research group, working on a project that is important to me and has made me excited about science again. Every now and then, I would have flashes memories of high school that could only be described as fond. I know that so much of my curiosity and passion for science was developed at the school, and those are not things I want to forget. I decided to attend the reunion, because I finally felt I was strong enough to show up, reconnect with some of my peers, and be okay. Revisiting school brought back a lot of the memories, with almost the same intensity as before. 

Before my chemistry class in tenth grade, I always thought of scientists as those socially awkward, frizzy-haired men you always see on television, like the main characters in The Big Bang Theory. I never related to that iconic image, and although I found science mildly interesting, I was fairly certain that I was not the target demographic for professional science training. In my freshman year of high school, just before entering the upper school, my biology teacher told me that she was considering enrolling me in the honors track for Chemistry, something I could have never predicted. I remember standing in her office hours, stunned, when she told me, convinced that she had confused me with someone else. Her belief in me, her recognition of my abilities when I did not believe in myself, was what encouraged me to work harder than I had ever worked before. I fell in love with the class. The bright colors, the neat, balanced reactions, and the physical concepts that, when distilled heavily from complicated mathematical models, seemed rather intuitive and logical. 

Part of why I had such a positive experience is because of my chemistry teacher. She was such an inspiration to me, as a fellow woman in science, someone who was dedicated, organized, caring, and carried a calm authority as she conducted the laboratory experiments. I deeply admired the confidence she seemed to exude; it was something that I wanted to emulate myself.

I often felt that my high school environment was critical and unforgiving. Recently, I was talking to my younger brother, who graduated from my school two years ago, about his experience. He told me that even though he had an overall positive experience at the school, he felt that none of the adults on campus assured him that making mistakes did not define him as a student and that they could serve as a learning experience, something that he only realized in college. Fortunately, I had one person in my life in high school who had told me that, and that was my chemistry teacher. Several days a week, after my AP Chemistry class in my junior year, I would stay back and discuss everything with her, my life, my friendships, my family, and she told me about her experiences. I found her experiences, her strength, and her confidence so comforting and inspiring. She struck me as someone very similar to me, with similar traits of dedication and ambition, but she had wisdom and confidence that I aspired towards. She was like my cheerleader, telling me that I needed to be confident, and telling me that my mistakes didn’t define me, and that what mattered is that I bounced back from them and appreciated what I had learned. In an environment when it felt like everyone was criticizing me, this validation, from someone I admired and respected so much, meant everything to me. It was the most important support I had at the time, my one bubble of hope in what felt like an overwhelmingly stressful environment. 

I acknowledge that not all this is the fault of the school, for there are many pressures, such as the competitiveness of peers and their parents, that contribute, arguably even more forcibly. Many marveled at how tolerant and wise my parents seemed. I have since talked to some of my peers from high school, some of those whom at the time I envied and feared would judge me for my inadequacies, and I realized only after college that the academic pressures they faced at home were more than anything I could fathom. My parents were not those parents. Although they pushed me to succeed, they give me considerable freedom to explore my interests and expressed pride when I worked hard and achieved things. They did not bombard me with overwhelming criticism, and I believe they strove to be approachable. But there were issues at home that were not always apparent on the surface. I did not always feel safe when it came to my immediate and extended family, as the culture of my family clashed with an identity that was not my choice, that I fought to suppress. In school, I always felt somewhat like an imposter. I felt that most of the students I was interacting with in AP Chemistry and some of my other classes saw themselves as “elite” students, something I never identified with. I felt that my successes in Chemistry were based on luck rather than true ability, and I never felt like I truly belonged in the AP Chemistry group. I grew to be too reliant on my teacher to provide me with the safe validation that I didn’t always feel at home, and the validation that I never offered myself, because I was so busy punishing myself. 

What makes this so difficult for me is that although I have harbored negative feelings over these years, how I felt the school and my parents seemed to be punishing me for having feelings that I did not want to have in the first place, how I never felt I had the time and space to grieve the loss of a relationship that was important to me, as I was so ashamed of the very fact that it was so important to me — despite all this, I still feel so much gratitude. While many of my peers in college seem to generally accept that high school was overall unpleasant, and it is tempting for me to agree, it would not be fair of me to do so. Being at my school was so important for my growth as a student, and as a person, and for most of my time there, I loved it and appreciated what I was learning. It is easy to forget these things when my most recent memories of my time there are unpleasant, but retrospectively, it is something that I would like to acknowledge and appreciate. 

I have so much gratitude for the role my chemistry teacher played in my life, despite everything that happened. She was an incredible teacher, one who was able to distill complicated mathematically motivated theories into simple, logical concepts that students without a background in calculus could intuitively grasp – something I appreciate now, after college, more than ever. She was an inspiring role model and mentor, someone who appeared so strong. She was there for me at a time when I found it difficult to approach others. She was incredibly kind, and she went out of her way to help me and make me feel comfortable, both in class, and at the beginning of my senior year. I knew she cared about all her other students as well, and she was and is loved by so many. I still believe that she is kind, despite the unfortunate and complicated situation that followed at the end of my in my senior year. I believe she is kind and good and meant well, and I feel sorry that my feelings and actions caused her discomfort. I am grateful for what she taught me, not only about chemistry, but about life, and about how it is okay to allow myself to embrace confidence and happiness. I have learned that confidence is not about knowing all the answers or expecting myself to perform perfectly, but knowing failure is part of the process and having conviction in my ability, not to perform well every time, but to learn and grow from failures. Just two years ago, I started taking a suggestion she once gave me about making the effort, every day, to write five things that I am grateful for, even if they are incredibly mundane things. This has been immensely helpful for me.

Processing this gratitude makes it so very difficult, because sometimes, it’s just easier allow myself to be consumed with sadness and anger. A huge part of my process has been recognizing that people are incredible, smart, and kind, but also flawed. I have to come to terms with the fact that my high school experience was painful and uncomfortable, but also inspiring, life-changing, the very reason I am embarking on a science research career now, and not something I ever want to forget. I am grateful to have had someone in my life who cared so much about me, even if that caring eventually led her to become overwhelmed. Today, I try to offer my friends and family the same validation my teacher gave me, and I have realized that I don’t need her to be that validating person in my life anymore. I can be that person myself. Sometimes, we have to accept that we will never get the closure we want; sometimes, closure does not come with a conversation. Sometimes, closure involves only internal processing and changing the way we think about things, rather than changing other people. But through that process, we become stronger. We learn that life can be unbearably painful, but the pain is something that we can handle, learn, and grow from, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. 


The Crush I Never Allowed Myself to Feel…Until Now

Nothing destroys self-worth, self-acceptance and self-love faster than denying what you feel. Without feelings, you would not know where you are in life. Nor would you know what areas you need to work on. Honor your feelings. Allow yourself to feel them. ~Iyanla Vanzant

When I first met you, I was amazed. You are beautiful, I can say this without hesitation. I saw the way they all looked at you. The way they rushed to offer you unsolicited favors, the way they desperately grasped for your attention, for your warm gaze to rest on them. But when I spoke to you, I couldn’t help marveling “Who is this person?” You were driven, you were dedicated, you were smart, you motivated, you were curious, you were strong, you were independent, you admitted your weaknesses and you sought to improve them. You had all the strengths that I wanted to possess myself, all these incredible qualities encapsulated in one person. You were too good to be true.

Sometimes I wonder if the universe brought me to you, that your purpose in my life was to teach me something about myself. I remember when I saw you, you flashed me a wide smile, brimming with the confidence and social courage I could never imagine possessing myself. Maybe unconsciously, I knew I was attracted to you even then because girlish shyness hindered me from smiling back. Because when that kid in the front started sitting in my seat, I grasped at the opportunity to sit at the empty desk next to you. A left-handed desk. I am not left-handed.

You were the one who spoke to me first. When we started talking, it just felt so natural. We had some inherent similarities. We shared some of the same goals, the same fears, the same insecurities. Somehow, I knew, in the back of my mind, that you would never feel as strongly as I did. But when you told me you thought I was cool, and that we had a lot in common, that I made you feel inspiration and confidence, I felt a new kind of light happiness, something no words would be able to adequately describe. I hadn’t felt that way in an over a year. You made me happy beyond words, simply by your words of affirmation.

I also lived in constant fear around you. What if you discovered that my feelings were stronger than those of an average friendship? What if the intensity of my caring for you freaked you out, drove you away, leaving me to never experience that light feeling again? I held on, somehow hoping that our friendship was sustainable. I don’t know if you noticed how I listened to you. I hung onto your every word. I tried to assure you that your fears about your inadequacy were utterly false. Every time you vented to me, comparing yourself to others, I held myself back. I wanted to tell you that I didn’t understand how you could compare yourself to them when you were the only one I saw. You were the most beautiful, most ambitious, most self-aware person I had ever met. But I suppressed those feelings because I was ashamed of feeling them, when I knew that you would never return them, and that they had the potential to drive you away from my life.

I laughed when she suggested that the reason I woke up for his lectures at eight in the morning was that I was in love with him. I loved his brilliance, his knowledge, his helpfulness, his patience. I loved the lessons he taught me. I respected him. I respected you, too, but I loved you and only you. I laughed when she said that, staring at the floor and ignoring the fire on the surface of my cheeks. I pretended it was him. I wonder how you would react if you knew it was never for him, it was always for you. Sometimes I wonder if you knew all along, if you knowingly strung me along in a cruel little game, knowing that you only had eyes for others. Maybe you were the one who had eyes for him. But even if so, I cannot blame you. For, assuming that you knew, I am as guilty as you, for I wore my feelings for him openly on the mask that concealed my feelings you, without concern for the fact that he might interpret them as real. It didn’t even occur to me.

It would be so easy for me to hate you. For the pain I felt, for the shock when you abruptly stopped talking to me, for the confusion I felt when you tried to pop back into my life as if nothing had ever happened. The anger I felt when you said “I love you” so casually when those three words meant so much to me. For a while, I almost convinced myself that I hated you. But I know I could never hate you, even if I tried.

Today, almost a year later, I still feel some shame for how I felt. Catching a brief glimpse of him sent me back down that road I have blocked in my mind, for my own sanity, so that I could focus on working towards the relatively lofty academic goals that we shared. But it was easier this time. I spoke up to my support group about it in confidence. One of the facilitators told me something I hadn’t considered before.

“You loved this person, and it might help to honor that allowing yourself to have feelings for this person taught you about yourself. And so even though your feelings weren’t reciprocated, it was the process of feeling that has taken you out of your shell.” And it’s true. I am no longer in denial, and I have you to thank for that.

I loved you. And maybe a part of me still does. I respect that you don’t feel the same way.

I can’t explain the physical relief I feel, admitting that I loved you, remembering the parts of your personality that I admire and love so much, the parts that inspire me, rather than the pain. It is like letting go of the breath I’ve been holding for a year, like resurfacing from the water after trying not to drown. I know that admitting this to myself will help me move on from you.

I admire you and respect you greatly. I have been allowing myself to smile at others, the way I never could at you. I have been channeling the confidence, independence, strength, and grace with which you carry yourself when interacting with others. You have changed me, for the better, in ways that you could never imagine. I am rooting for you. I hope that you find all the success in the world, and I will celebrate when you get there. But more importantly, I hope you find peace with yourself, and maybe even with someone else, someone you truly desire.

You told me that you were grateful to have met me. And I am incredibly grateful to have met you. You showed me that I could still feel, and you have given me the brightest hope. Sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

All in my head

Every so often, you find yourself in a clammy lecture hall saturated with the scent of body odor and a strange mixture of coffee and Windex, and your tobacco-breathed professor chuckles, grumbling something along the lines of “You guys are young – you can afford to pull an all-nighter or two.”

Breathe, you try to ease yourself, as your blood starts boiling, and you can feel the heat rising to your ears.

But you blend into the throng of chattering students flocking their way to the door, and a wave of vertigo hits. Suddenly, the laughter of your classmates seems miles away, and you find yourself back in the disgustingly white hospital bed exactly four years ago, the uncomfortably blinding fluorescent lights, a distant, raspy female voice screaming “Fuck you all, motherfuckers, I ain’t crazy,” and your racing, eighteen-year-old heart, your fluttering eyelids, as the same four words run over and over again in your head in a loop. Please end this pain.

Each of your legs weighs a thousand pounds, but you try to move them anyways and catch up with your peers as they yell over each other. “The midterm was so easy. I just showed up – I didn’t even have to study.” Your forehead crumples without your permission, and you quickly change the direction of your steps, knowing fully well that at any given point on the crowd, you’d be likely to overhear a conversation of a similar nature.

I wish it were so easy for me.

“Oh, stop it! Stop wallowing in self-pity. Listen to yourself!”

“Go away,” you mumble, and you speed up, trying to escape, knowing fully well that your efforts are wasted. “I’ve got enough to deal with as is without your shit.”

“As if,” she scoffs. “What, do you think of yourself as some war hero? Do you think anyone will buy that bullshit?”

You open your mouth, but quickly close it again. Her lips curl triumphantly, and she wraps a thin, icy arm around your waist. You begin to shake violently, and then your body freezes. You want to protest, but the waves of exhaustion are overwhelming, and every cell in your body is screaming, let it go.

She leans over, bending over you and moving her lips just above your ear, so close that each word leaves a burning kiss, branded onto your skin. “Just know that you’re never really alone. You always have…me.”

“Great,” you mutter, your low voice dripping with sarcasm, but your body has given up. Your legs give in, and you feel yourself sinking into the ground, into the depths of her cool embrace. Your chest heaves as sobs start to build from the pit of your stomach. You try to suppress them, but she rubs your arm, whispering, “No. Let it happen.”

And the inevitable happens. Eyes turn toward you, some with mild curiosity, some with a hint of pity, and most with impatience as they hastily look away, change direction, and rush forward and away to avoid the discomfort that you can’t seem to stop yourself from spreading.

“It’s best this way,” she whispers, still caressing your arm and shifting to allow your head to sink into her chest. “They’ll all see you for what you are,” and she dropped her voice to a low hiss, “Pathetic. Incapable of taking care of yourself. A baby. But at least you’re not living a lie.”

She ran her fingers through your hair, seeming to rejoice at your uncontrollable shudders. Then her voice changed, and her words had an almost deliberate hint of tenderness. “But you’ll always have me. Everyone else will come and go, but I’ll always be here.”

Your sobs become more and more violent, and you try to struggle, but she tightens her grip, squeezing your shoulders almost to the point of pain.

“But,” you gasp, and you take a deep breath. Then, you open your mouth, and whisper, “But they want to h-help me.”

“Help you?” She throws her head back with a raspy, harsh laugh. “Why would anyone want to help you? No one even knows I exist.”

You quickly look around in desperation, and her eyes flicker with amusement. Your arms are pinned down to your sides, frozen in her imprisoning embrace. You widen your eyes and scan, looking for someone, anyone, to help you break free. Help me, you plead with your eyes, knowing that your efforts are futile.

“Give it up,” she said dismissively, a small, wry smile twisting her face. “They barely even know you exist. And it’s better that way. Remember what happened last time you tried to tell someone?”

“But,” you gasp. But the color is returning to your face, and, miraculously, you have a morsel of strength remaining. But you know you have to save it for later. You have to catch her off guard. 

“But, what? They couldn’t handle you. But who can blame them? I mean, look at you. You’re a mess.”

“P-people like me,” you protest. The shaking is starting to subside, and your hands start to clench involuntarily into fists.

“Yeah, like you,” She scoffed, and her eyes glinted. “Have you noticed that the only people who still talk to you are the ones you lied to? If they knew who you really were, no one, I repeat, no one would want to deal with your bullshit. Who would? You’re a worthless piece of shit, and you’re lucky enough that I’m kind enough to stay-”

“I DON’T NEED YOU! If being with you is the only option, I’d rather be ALONE!”

You expect her to tighten her grip on you, but you suddenly hear a thump, and a second later, you feel a searing pain in your head. But you now have more control over your body as you pull your head off the concrete and gingerly peel your body off the ground, rolling up and looking around.

She’s gone.

But you begin to regain sensation in your legs, and the day seems a little less dim as you take a few steps and realize that you’re not completely incapable of walking. You quickly raise the side of your hand to your eyes to brush away the stinging tears, and suddenly the trees and buildings come into focus.

She’s gone.

But you don’t feel alone.

You begin to fixate on little things, like the way the wind rustles as it tickles your neck, and the birds are chirping a little louder, and the trees look a little greener than they did yesterday, and the sun seems to be visiting a bit more often these days. And for a moment, it doesn’t matter.

You can manage now.

You may never be able to prevent her from coming back, but you can manage. You can learn how to challenge her.

Her words are not always true. They are only true if you become them.

Why? A question for office hours, but not for mental health

Almost seven years ago, I was a freshman in high school (and typing this makes me feel extremely old), and we were making our course selection for sophomore year classes. Although I was, for the most part, a diligent and hardworking student, I was by no means excellent, and although I enjoyed school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was taking regular classes, unlike most of my seemingly brilliant friends, who were taking honors classes and were doing math that I would only begin to dream about understanding in college.

But one day, to be precise, February 19th, 2010, everything changed. I was visiting my biology teacher, Ms. Wolchok, in her office to obtain her signature approving me for the regular Chemistry track. Being somewhat uncertain in my own abilities, I was slightly anxious that she would end up placing me in in a remedial class. This silly fear stayed with me as I handed her my course sign-up sheet, with a shaking hand, and she said, “Honey, I’m a little bit on the fence about you.” My heart dropped, until she said slowly “I’m considering putting you in the honors Chemistry track.” Me? Honors Chem? I thought it must be a joke, and I was waiting for someone to pop out and yell “April Fools!” But Ms. Wolchok continued to tell me that I had been doing very well in her class recently, and that she thought I was becoming more comfortable with science. She told me that if I wanted, I could do well in Honors Chemistry – that, because other students had more experience than I did, I might not end up with the best grade, but I would learn a lot.

Ms. Wolchok might not remember me, but her words of encouragement mean more to me today than she could possibly imagine. The fact that someone else recognized my ability when I couldn’t recognize it myself made me excited to learn science with an enthusiasm that I had not had before. Although the later years of elementary and middle school had squashed the fun out of science by introducing exams, in Honors Chem, I actively defied this mentality. I managed to regain my childish curiosity about science – I marveled at the beautiful colors and bubbling test tubes, tried my best to understand not only the what and how, which was required for exams, but why, why certain equations, laws, and predictions work, and where they came from. My free time became full of chemistry jokes on the internet and youtube videos of fancy chemists performing explosive reactions in fancy laboratories, and chemistry became the subject and inspiration of all of my drawings.

It also helped that my teacher, a young, enthusiastic, small woman who was extremely organized and hard-working, was remarkably similar to me aside from one key quality: confidence. Although I was extremely hesitant to acknowledge my own abilities and was often plagued with doubts, I admired that she seemed so sure of herself in every movement she made. Having her as a role model encouraged me to work harder in Chemistry, and I wanted to achieve the skill and confidence that seemed so effortless for her. I not only surpassed my own expectations in Honors Chemistry, but I went on to take AP Chemistry, which my school capped at 17 students in my year, and a senior directed study class in Chemistry called Molecular Gastronomy. When I started as a freshman in college at UC San Diego, I declared my major in Chemistry. Beginning in my senior year of high school, I tutored younger students in Chemistry for four years, and as my undergraduate experience is slowly wrapping up, my current plan is to apply to a graduate program in either Theoretical or Physical Chemistry.

It is somewhat strange for me to talk about high school this way, focusing on the positive side of those four years and being extremely grateful for the people who have changed my life forever. There was another side to my high school experience, a side that was extremely dark, extremely isolating, and extremely painful, and took over most of my senior year. But the fact remains that I have learned more from the experience than I can ever express. It gives me chills to think that I was so close to shying away from a class that changed my life forever, and if given the chance, I know I would not change my high school experience for the world.

Towards the end of my freshman year in college, I lost my motivation to do science. Somehow, a combination of the remnants of traumatic events from high school, my dislike for Organic Chemistry and Chemistry lab, the competitive, entitled, grade-obsessed and learning-phobic nature of most of my pre-medical student peers, as well as the UCSD Chemistry department advising turned me off from the subject. In high school, Chemistry was much more exciting, mathematical, and theoretical – qualities that made me rejoice in the subject more so than the practical components. I felt lost and scared, because I no longer had passion for the subject that was once the very center of my existence and was the reason I has the strength to wake up in the morning and work towards my dream. I didn’t know what my dream was anymore, but I knew it wasn’t medical or pharmacy school, or Chemistry research in a laboratory.

The next two years, I tried just about everything I possibly could within my limits as a college student, searching for something that somehow returned the passion I had once felt in high school. I went to Italy to attend a five week program about the Mathematics behind the architecture in Rome, followed by a semester in a new liberal arts college in India, where I took courses in History, Philosophy, and Literature. When I returned, I volunteered in multiple veterinary hospitals and non-profit organizations, and took classes in Biology, Statistics, Creative Writing, Political Science, Business Management and Accounting. There were classes that I found mildly interesting and appealing, but nothing sparked the passion in me. A couple of weeks before my third year of college, I applied to a small college of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and ended up getting in with a scholarship. I spend the entire year in art school, experimenting and toying with the ideas of pursuing with Drawing, Painting, Illustration, Animation, Design, Toy Design, Creative Writing, and Art History and Theory. However, nothing seemed to fit, and I was miserable. I felt more empty, alone, afraid for the future, and devoid of passion than ever before. And I was ashamed to admit that I felt this way, because I had risked everything to come to art school. Because I had changed my major so many times that I was afraid everyone would judge me. Because I was afraid that my depression was coming back, and I desperately wanted to escape its clutches.

However, there was one thing that kept me going. When we had to complete a research project on any possible topic in my Art Theory class, I chose to research science textbook illustrations. My instructor, who was usually extremely harsh and critical, thought my project was brilliant, and she used my paper as an example for the class. One day, after class, she sat me down and said, “Paheli, this is a wonderful college, but it’s not for everyone, and is certainly not going to give you the preparation in science that you want and need. Honestly, I think you would be much better off in a large research university.” My first reaction was indignation. I knew it wasn’t preparation for science – that wasn’t why I had come. That wasn’t what I was aiming for anymore – was it? But how else could I explain how I dreaded doing my homework for all my classes in art school, but I spend hours developing lessons for the high school students I was tutoring in AP Chem, and going over the practice problems to make sure I understood them before tutoring sessions? How could I explain why I’d signed up for an informal online course in Physical Chemistry, and worked on the practice problems in my free time? Finally, my parents, who had long recognized my dissatisfaction, although I was too afraid to admit it, asked me if I wanted to return to UCSD to complete a degree in math or science. They assured me that they would help me find an apartment off campus but close enough, and my mother was considering applying for a job in San Diego so that she could stay with me more often and support me in the completion of my degree – after finishing my degree once and for all, I could think about jobs or possibly grad school – since I knew I had not learned enough science to function in the real world.

I initially looked for a program at UCSD that would be easiest to complete a degree in, and that was similar to what I had already done. I found Earth Science, which was one of the two undergraduate majors at UCSD offered by Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The main appeal of this major was that I had flexibility to take electives in Chemistry and Physics, and there was no Chemistry laboratory requirement. However, the upper division coursework in this major required a lower division Earth Science class, as well as one additional lower division Physics course that I had not completed in freshman year during my Chemistry major. In addition, if I wanted to graduate on time (2017), I would need to take two general education classes over the summer. So I decided to take both of the two summer sessions offered before restarting in the fall.

My first summer session, and first session back at UCSD, seemed extremely daunting. My schedule was 9-5 every day except Friday, with a couple hour break in the middle, and the material would be extremely concentrated, smushing a ten week quarter’s worth into five weeks.  As if that wasn’t enough, before returning to UCSD, I had to go back to my high school to attend my younger brother’s graduation, which sent me on an unexpected spiral of depression against my will. I had no hope of re-sparking my passion for science during the first five weeks for sure – I knew I just had to get through it.

But somehow the spark happened when I least expected it. The first day, my morning Earth Science class was cancelled, so I had an extremely frustrating time trying to set up a meeting with the campus counseling services (as a safety measure), to no success, since I hadn’t paid the fall quarter fees. I began my afternoon physics class extremely flustered and anxious. Since there weren’t many professors willing to lecture over the summer, many of the courses, including this physics course, had grad student instructors. Surprisingly, my instructor was a female grad student – I had grown to expect male professors and TAs when it came to Math and Physics, and, to some degree, Chemistry. About halfway through the lecture, when she was explaining units of pressure, she told a physics joke about the scientists Newton and Pascal. It was a small moment, but it was just the spark I needed, as it reminded me of the countless times in my sophomore year of high school, when I spend hours looking for chemistry jokes on the internet.

Later, when I was feeling anxious about the class and the weekly quizzes, I went to visit my instructor’s office hours, and I told her that I enjoyed her joke. She went on to tell me a popular joke about a spherical cow, and then began talking about her own research, which was about physics applied to neurons, and that she was basically assuming a spherical neuron (in order to simplify calculations). She seemed very excited to talk about what she was working on, and her enthusiasm was infectious. When I left office hours to grab some lunch before class started, there was a new spring in my step – although talking to people in general requires a lot of effort for me, I felt as if I had just taken a shot of five hour energy – I can’t explain it exactly, but I had more motivation to learn than I had since high school.

Although I hadn’t expected to get much out of these summer courses besides prerequisites for my fall classes, I ended up learning a lot. I made a couple of friends in my physics class, one of whom was a math major, and she used to ask “why” questions a lot. Her questions reminded me a lot of the questions that I used to ask in high school, a method which I had quickly abandoned when I began at UCSD, as people told me that I would never pass my classes if I tried to learn everything. Moreover, I had become discouraged and convinced that it would never work, and no matter how much I learned, it would never be enough and would not help me succeed in exams. However, seeing my classmate’s success at asking “why” questions convinced me that it was worth it to adopt my previous method. I saw immediate results, and found that not only did I learn more and perform better in exams, but I felt more fulfilled about what I was learning – it was important material, not just things I was learning to spit out on a piece of paper and forget immediately afterwards! In addition, my instructor’s approach to physics was extremely fitting for my brain’s needs – she combined the right amount of conceptual and intuitive explanations, attempting to bring relevance to concepts in the context of real life, and mathematically based proofs, explaining the origins of the equations we were dealing with. And again, just as in high school, I saw a little bit of myself in her, which encouraged me to further explore the dormant grad school dream I had since I became interested in Chemistry – if she was doing it, and we were somewhat similar in personality, perhaps I had the capacity to do research as well?

As I noticed myself getting inspired and enthralled with the study of physics and its uncanny similarity to the parts I liked about chemistry – the theoretical, mathematically based part, rather than the lab aspect – I kept reminding myself to keep focused on the goal, which was to graduate by the end of the year and get a degree. But what use is a degree if I’m not doing what I love? All the senior earth science majors had the same pitch for the major: you get to go out into the field instead of sitting in a classroom all day and learning theorems. But I knew I was not the target demographic for this pitch because I actually enjoyed those theorems and the classroom.  I ended up considering and reconsidering switching my major to physics several times over the course of the next couple of months, until an advisor finally confirmed my fear that it was way too late for me to declare the major. However, instead of taking the general education class I needed in the next summer session, I ended up taking an extra calculus course, which I didn’t need for chemistry, but was a requirement for any upper division physics courses. After my physics course, I contacted my physics instructor, Sasha, and I told her about how much I had enjoyed the course, and that the stuff she had been saying about her research interested me. She ended up explaining what her research group does to me in person, and she told me that her advisor is willing to take undergraduate interns during the year.

In fall, I was taking two Earth Science courses, and chemistry electives: Inorganic Chemistry and Physical Chemistry, and a Physics seminar. I was excited for Physical Chemistry – I had been interested ever since my high school Chemistry teacher told me that it was the most difficult course she had taken in college, but that it was worth all the hard work. At the beginning of the quarter, it was an extremely difficult and stressful class, and I seriously considered dropping it, because I didn’t believe I could handle the workload.

In addition to my courses, I contacted Sasha’s advisor. His research is on nonlinear dynamics, and he looks at nonlinear systems that range from neurons to geophysical fluid dynamics. In particular, the group is looking at the neurons in this bird called the zebra finch, which is a song bird. They look at the region in the bird’s brain that relates to song production and they have these computer simulations that try to imitate the results from experimental data, which helps model how the neurons are connected mathematically. This has implications in understanding how other animals’ brains work, and also has potential medicinal applications, since they are looking at neurons that are involved in Alzheimers. The work that they are doing is very cool and relevant to almost everything, but it is extremely complex and difficult to understand. Most of the math, physics, and computer/numerical analysis stuff that they discuss at the research group meetings is way beyond me. However, the difficulty makes it very rewarding when I actually understand anything, and I enjoy the idea of being behind the scenes of what seems like such an important and relevant (to many different fields) project. Also, after the first group meeting, almost everything they said went completely over my head. Although Sasha had told her advisor that I was a good student and good at applying math to physics, apparently, I wondered if she had somehow got the wrong idea about my abilities and the scope of my math knowledge. I ended up emailing her and asking how she knew I was “good” at math, since I hadn’t actually done that much math. Her response was the following: “Being “good” at math doesn’t necessarily mean that you know a lot of math or that you even have practice doing it. It’s more of how you approach problems and think about things. You, as a student and budding scientist, ask “why” questions a lot and you want to get to the root of things and figure out where they come from. That’s the right way of looking at things and thinking about things to be good at physics and math. So, embrace it! You might not have a ton of experience, but you are thinking the right way.” (I did copy and paste this from the actual email). It was extremely helpful for me, because it gave me the courage to believe in my methods, even though they are somewhat unusual amongst my peers, and it influenced the way I approached my classes during the quarter.

And boy, am I glad that I did not end up dropping Physical Chem, for multiple reasons. First of all, after the first couple weeks, which were mostly review of the summer physics class but in more detail, we started getting into extremely interesting topics relating to kinetics, equilibrium, entropy, and statistical mechanics, which further confirmed the extent to which I enjoy the mathematical aspect of chemistry topics. Also, my professor mentioned his work in theoretical chemistry in the context of the Nobel prize winners in Chemistry, so I decided to ask him about it after class and during office hours. He ended up giving me some helpful tips about theoretical chemistry – basically, he said it is essentially physics under disguise, but it is sometimes nice because it is less populated than equivalent physics fields (condensed matter physics), so one has more flexibility to choose research topics to work on (in condensed matter, there is pressure to jump on topics that are related to what Nobel prize winners are working on). He also said he regretted not getting more of a foundation in physics, which is influencing me to take more physics classes if I get in (there is limited enrollment), and/or try to learn more physics through the research group and independently. Also, in office hours, my professor worked with me on proofs, and even tried to answer one of my questions through a proof, and gave me the project of finding a counterexample if possible. I liked the fact that he was giving me things to work on that weren’t just for the exam and seemed to genuinely care about my academic career and giving me genuine advice. Just as I had experienced in the summer in Sasha’s office hours, going to his office hours, as well as my Pchem TA’s, gave me a surge of energy unlike any other social interaction. And as a cherry on top of an already beautiful cake, my result for PChem ended up being the best result I’ve ever gotten. This has made me not only more confident in my abilities and the fact that I can achieve what I want if I just put in time and dedication and endure even when it seems extremely difficult, but it also further confirmed that the “why” method actually works!

I ultimately decided to try to apply for a major in Math/Applied Science (I have to apply next quarter), for which I will have to take seven upper division math courses (Math Reasoning, Real Analysis, Complex Analysis, Numerical Methods, and Differential Geometry) and any calculus based physics courses I want, and will have to take an additional year for. I am going to try for Physics (Mechanics), Physical Chem (Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Mechanics), the final part of the Inorganic Chemistry sequence, and Biochemistry. I also would like to take less courses per quarter and spend more time learning and working on research things. As I said, I’m planning to apply to grad school in Theoretical or Physical Chemistry, which seems most realistic and appealing to me at the moment.

Another thing I have realized is that at some point I will have to let go of the idea of learning everything there is to learn and just start doing research, and learn as needed, along the way. That is a scary prospect for me, but I’ve realized that just because someone doesn’t have good grades doesn’t mean they will be a bad researcher, and just because someone has good grades doesn’t mean they will be a good researcher. While classes are about learning things in detail for the purpose of solving problems on exams, research seems to be a completely new, scary ballgame – solving real problems that have no solutions manual – but it’s a risk that I’m willing to take.

For a couple of weeks before the winter break, I noticed myself feeling both anxious and down. I kept trying to think about why, and explain it way. It was because school was stressful. It was because I don’t have that many friends. But soon school ended, and I had people I could talk to every once in a while. And the feeling still wasn’t leaving me. I was feeling extremely disappointed in myself – why is this high school depression coming back now? It will ruin everything! What it the source? How can I fix it? What do I need to change? How can I explain to others how I am feeling?

And just recently hit me that while this “why” method might be helpful for me for academics and trying to understand concepts in classes, it is not necessarily the way to go about emotional things. Sometimes, when I am feeling off, it doesn’t mean I need to change anything. Sometimes there is no reason, or no important one, why I’m feeling down and off. Sometimes, I just need to wait it out until it gets better.

It has been extremely challenging for me to manage college, growing up, responsibilities, schoolwork, and my mental illness. I think many times, people around me underestimate what I am going through, partially because I don’t want to give too much importance to it. I desperately just want to be normal, have a normal life, and I don’t want to be a burden on the people around me. I want to be grateful and focus on the wonderful and beautiful things in my life – the people (and dog) who have stayed with me, the awesome things I’m learning and being exposed to in school, the helpful and inspiring mentors I have, and the privileges I have to live where I live, go to school where I go to school, have a roof over my hear and have the security that I will be able to eat meals every day without insecurity. But sometimes I’m swept over by extreme negativity. And I need to work on shifting away from trying to fix the negativity by changing things and towards sitting through it and keeping my eyes on what is important.

Although I have been feeling down, it’s not the same emptiness that I felt in senior year of high school, freshman year, or in India, or in art school. Although I have a significant amount of anxiety about my untraditional undergrad path, I know that I’m where I’m meant to be and I’m doing what I love most – I have come a full circle and have come back to my first love. I’m now more aware of the specific parts of the subject that I like more and want to focus on, and it feels right. I might be feeling a little off, but I think this is just a passing feeling, and that my enthusiasm from the summer will return soon. I know that I will need to keep working on developing my skills, my persistence, and my self-confidence, but at the moment, I am content with where I am.

This blog post is dedicated to my amazing cousin, Aniket, who told me to keep updating my blog, and would have turned 22 on the first day of the new year. He still inspires me and helps me put things in perspective. 

On Buddhists and Tattoos

As a child, the idea of a tattoo was unspeakable. With an inescapable association to convicts and rebellious teenagers on motorcycles, tattoos represented, for me, a disrespect towards the natural order of society and a disregard for the purity of ones own body. However, as I grew older, I began to view tattoos with a sense of curiosity, even fascination. After emerging from a series of painful emotional experiences in high school, I began to seek refuge through storytelling. Tattoos finally made sense to me on a personal level. Whether they were meant to make a statement against undesirable societal norms, an illustration of a personal narrative, or a marker of ones identity, tattoos spoke to me on a much deeper level in my adolescence.

At the beginning of the semester, I was assigned to read an article called “Ironic Bodies and Tattooed Jews,” by Heather Joseph-Witham, an exploration of the relationship between Jews and Tattoos. Although Jews are traditionally opposed to tattoos, the article interviewed a few individuals who use their bodies as canvases to tell stories about their Jewish ancestors. This article made me curious about the relationship between Buddhism and tattoos.

My parents identify their religious affiliation as both Hindu and Buddhist. Although I grew up reciting sanskrit prayers that were meaningless to me, when I was eight years old, I declared myself an atheist. College was the first time when I began to explore religious philosophies, and Buddhism spoke to me on a personal level. Most of the principles are difficult for me to incorporate into my life, but many of my core values align with Buddhist philosophies.

Last year, I had the privilege of studying abroad for a semester at a liberal arts university in India. One of the people who took me on my first tour of the campus was a member of the  university’s outreach team, Nikita Samanta. Although she does not consider herself a religious Buddhist, she incorporates Buddhist philosophies into her life. She was born and raised in Hyderabad, a city in the southern part of India, and she was first introduced to Buddhism by her sister at age twelve.

When I asked Nikita about her take on Buddhism and tattoos, she said that under the broad umbrella term “Buddhism,” there are many sub-religions. While some sects of Buddhism are highly religious, she interprets Buddhist philosophies in a fairly liberal manner. Using her interpretation as a guiding principle, there are no real restrictions when it comes to sex, alcohol, or even tattoos. She says that people can interpret Buddhism in a way that makes sense to them as an individual, and they need not subscribe to a strict doctrine.

“I have two tattoos myself,” she admitted, “one of the Buddhist chant that is the core of our practice.” Above is an image of the design of Nikita’s tattoo. The scripture contains the following phrase: “Nam myoho renge kyo,” which is Japanese (derived from Sanskrit) for “I devote myself to the mystic law of cause and effect.” This phrase describes the karmic law of the universe, one that has been adopted in American pop culture and persists in our everyday language.

When I asked Nikita what connected her to the phrase, she said that it is less about a personal connection to the specific phrase and more a commitment to Buddhist philosophy. “It, unlike any religion,” she explained, “places the power and responsibility in my hands for my life and everything that happens in it.” The concept of karma, a key element of the Buddhist philosophy, gives her a sense of agency over her own life and keeps her grounded.

Nikita acknowledged that not all Buddhists are as liberal as she is when it comes to the concept of tattoos. While it has become a trend among some Buddhists to get a tattoo of the head of Buddha, in Sri Lanka and Thailand, such tattoos are not encouraged. Nikita does not view Buddha as a deity, but Sri Lankan and Thai Buddhists worship Buddha. With some research, I learned that a British tourist with a tattoo of the Buddha was denied entry to Sri Lanka, and there have been similar threats in Thailand to outlaw tourists sporting tattoos with iconographic Buddhist symbols (Willem Jones and Matthews-Jones 2015: 171). According to Timothy Willem Jones and Lucinda Matthews-Jones’ Material Religion in Modern Britain: The Spirit of Things, the mass reproduction of Buddhist images is not the issue, as tattoos are not unique to modern westerners, but it is more a failure to adhere to the conventional rules of tattoo placement. Based on the Tibetan rules, tattoos must be placed above the waist. Placement on the feet, for instance, shows a disregard for Buddhist customs (Willem Jones and Matthews-Jones 2015: 172)

David L McMahan’s Buddhism in the Modern World discusses the twofold debate about tattoos in the Buddhist community. While some people view tattoos as a permanent marker of their Buddhist identity and a commitment to the practice of Buddhism, others dismiss tattoos as an insufficient substitute for hard work towards the noble path to enlightenment (McMahan 2012: Section 20). While there are undoubtedly some people who get tattoos of Buddha’s head without understanding the implications of their actions, I believe that there are enough people who have informed themselves of the traditional connotations of the symbol, and are reshaping it to fit their contemporary sensibilities.

One of the main ideas behind Buddhism that attracted me was that the root of all suffering is attachment. I think that this is an incredibly powerful insight, for much of the anxiety I face on a daily bases stems from fear of losing what I am attached to. In my first year of college, my roommate identified Buddhist philosophies as guiding principles in her life. “Change is the only constant,” she would repeat to me, chuckling at the irony of the phrase. Nothing is permanent, including the body and the illusion of a sense of self that an individual might face. Impermanence is key to Buddhist philosophy (Gowans 2015: 20). The very idea of a Buddhist tattoo, a permanent brand of one’s identity, is riddled with irony.

Works Cited

Gowans, Christopher W. Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

McMahan, David L. Buddhism in the Modern World. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Willem Jones, Timothy and Lucinda Matthews-Jones. Material Religion in Modern Britain: The Spirit of Things. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.

Letter to Aniket (1995-2016)

Dear Aniket,

Logically I know that you won’t ever read this but somehow in my heart, I still feel like you’ll see this and respond with the good humored, supportive note you always carry with your words.

I’m so in shock and there are tears streaming down my face as I write this. It just seems so unfair that such a kind, supportive, curious, empathetic, beautiful soul could just be taken away so suddenly. That I won’t be able to wish you a happy birthday every New Year’s Day, and I won’t be able to read your response and your wishes for my birthday two days later, that I’ll never be able to read your encouraging words about my writing.

I feel so guilty for taking all your kindness for granted and not talking to you more while you were still here. I just wish I would have gotten to know you even better, because during the few deep conversations we had, it was always so easy to talk to you and you had a sense of maturity and awareness far beyond our years. I have a lot to learn from you.

I just hope that you know how much our whole family appreciates and loves you. I’m starting a new writing project, and because of your encouragement I want to try to write more often, because I feel like if you were still here you would want to keep reading it. I don’t know what else to say but even though we lived miles apart, nothing will ever be the same without you.

Denial: Reflections on the Freeway

You’re just a glimmer on my ring finger.
From the sea of red and white lights flying past me on the 134,
all I see is a glimmer, a sliver of what came before.
Shining modestly through the darkness,
beckoning me forth with a suggestive glance,
breaking through the barricades
I’ve spent years reinforcing to shield my heart from your destructive blades.
I’m gliding past all the glaring headlights but unable to remove you from my line of vision. You’re a tough stain on a white carpet that no amount of whiskey and tears can wash away. You’re in every face I see, your light shining through the eyes of strangers, a chronic reminder of the broken promises and the stories that ended mid