a flag for montezuma.

it’s approaching a year. i count ten more days until the day a year ago, when i bundled into the back of my parents’ rental car, suitcases rattling in the trunk while we watched the tip of the castle grow smaller and the waving hands of my friends blur away. all this time, there’s been a red flag decorated with a white bauhinia shoved in one of the pockets of the suitcases. an extra. or one i saved for the day i can catch my breath again, away from the dusty, dry, oxygen-thin air.

it’s around this time of year when students start receiving their flag orders. or start writing on them – discarded sharpies littering carpeted floor among metres of colourful fabric. perhaps clothes strewn around with them, to be packed in suitcases or boxes or brought to the auditorium to join heaving piles of thread to be picked up by others or stuffed in garbage bags to be donated. books, binders, and loose pages of notes pulled out of shelves, finding refuge in every corner of the rooms. papers and notebooks stacked, ready to be burned.

the last days of the academic year, just as the weather warms, always make me nervous. the frenzy of packing and last minute errands mask the sentiment of loss. i realise that again, now two states away, in college, with different people, trying to fit everything into a few suitcases, boxes, baskets. surrounded by disarray. when tension bubbles up my throat and my hands jitter as i shove clothing into suitcases as fast as possible, i don’t think about what this means. i don’t think about the people i won’t see again. the people i talked to, but never became closer than a nod and a quick hello in the hallway. the people i wanted to become friends with but was too afraid to. the people i stood next to, brushing our teeth in silence. remembering tears i couldn’t shed last year watching car after car leave from the space between kili and chum, watching people with tear-stained faces exchange long hugs and last goodbyes through my own dry eyes.

only this time, i have no flags to write. the heavy feeling of nostalgia and things-not-done settles in my chest.

the truth is, montezuma, i still don’t know how to think of you. not what, but how. and it’s going to take many more years until i can fully understand whatever happened in the two years, from the interview where i sat stammering in front of the national committee, to my last morning in las vegas, bringing my family to charlie’s (which i’d never been to before, with my friends). how do you piece together a “uwc experience”? how do you hold it in your hands and inspect it when it was all too fleeting? when people ask what uwc was like, i dodge anything concrete, because uwc was not concrete for me.

“the uwc experience is what you make of it.”

“everyone’s uwc experience is unique to them.”

“uwc is for a certain kind of person.”

and then i’d add on, “i don’t know if it was for my kind of person.”

the truth is, montezuma, even though i wanted to detach myself from you, i know i still care deeply about my two years with you. it shows when i unfold the flags i received from my friends and reread them; when i wash my sweaters inside out because the printed designs of the elephant and the lettering of ‘kilimanajaro’ have begun to crack under the stress of college-issued laundry machines; when i find myself revisiting kpop videos that we pored over to learn for f.e.n.d.; it shows when something inside me lashes out in opposition when my parents mournfully say they regret sending me there – knowing i could have done so much better academically in hong kong, for returning home more withdrawn than before, more irritable than before, with a cynicism, an apathy and a lack of motivation they had not observed in me before. it was a failure on my part. the desire to break away from the previous me, the kid with a one-tracked mind to academic ascension and an idealistic future, to the uwc of firsts – of trying everything, of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, of doing things i otherwise wouldn’t have done. they didn’t have to be in conflict, not zero-sum, but somehow i tried to do both and ended up somewhere in the middle, unable to balance two types of success; not wanting to take risks or do new, unfamiliar things, always choosing to return to my books; and then pushing them away with the excuse that uwc is so much more than studying. the tug of war ended in the same position it started. nowhere.

was it then a waste of two years? it would only be a waste if i kept on seeing it as a waste.

did it derail the path i was going to take? yes, it derailed me from the naive aspirations of my fifteen year-old self, infused me with new ideas, new possibilities, concerns that had never troubled me before.

now, i prefer to place uwc in the grand scheme of things. it’s easier than trying to dissect uwc in isolation. i’m still trying to figure out how uwc shaped me in the context of my new life, things i recently discovered: a renewed love for studying societies and cultures (todd’s the best) – but not through anthropological lenses but sociological ones; a renewed love for creative writing (although parris would’ve cringed at my lack of uppercase letters and terrible punctuation), a newfound love for disney songs and mainstream musicals (sorry ron), a newfound obsession with hair product and headbands and rolled-up jeans, and other newly discovered identities. each of them, baby steps to figuring out what uwc is to me.

this time last year, i was stepping gingerly around open suitcases and flags and binders and notebooks and clothes and garbage bags thrown all over the floor. second-years, so ready to leave, but not ready to say goodbye. first-years, looking forward to the summer, but unsure of what they’d return to in the fall. i can imagine my co-years, in scattered corners of the globe, reminiscing or trying to forget.

i don’t regret uwc.

it has given me perspective. it has opened doors to paths i never considered. even as a shell of myself, it made me feel alive. and that was enough.

i wanted to validate my sense of self-worth with college. it was a mistake.

It has been a couple of days since I received my last college decision, so I think I am sufficiently level-headed to blog now.

This post is pretty self-explanatory.

Tl;dr I applied to colleges to validate my sense of self-worth, and it backfired on me.

I applied to college for all the wrong intentions, and karma came back to haunt me. I overestimated myself and applied to elite colleges which left me stranded with an empty wallet. Then they came back to say I was not good enough. It should have been obvious from the very start, but when you hear success stories of people with lower grades and SAT scores being offered places to these colleges, you instinctively think to yourself, “oh hey, I could probably do this.”

We are told from the very beginning that the admissions process is a holistic review from your transcripts to the person you present in your application, so we all knew that our scores were only going to mildly impress them in the beginning. With the personal statement, they told us to be genuine. My character is not the kind of person colleges are looking for, but I tried anyway. When I showed my essays to my college counselor, she said with her characteristic cheery optimism, “this is great, but colleges might think you are still like this.” There are struggles we have overcome; there are struggles that we haven’t. My introverted nature is simply something that I have not been able to paint over with pretense. In this world, introversion is a weakness. In this world, being socially timid is a weakness. In some people, these weaknesses are not easy to overcome. Colleges tell us to apply and be genuine, but they look for a specific type of personality. The type who can mingle, the extroverted ones, the type elderly people will feel comfortable around, the type who can pull off the “how may I help you, sir?” smile with little effort. I am not that type of person. I cannot pretend to be that kind of person. I might have been able to bypass this requirement if I had won a global piano competition, or made some rare scientific discovery, or invented something to ferry elderly people to the bathroom easier, or performed open-heart surgery at the age of 14. But I am an ordinary person. I play an instrument, but I am not a prodigy. I get decent grades, but I am not a genius. I am not as special as that 5% of the applicant pool that is admitted. Why did I think I had a chance?

At a school like mine, where students are selected in an application process akin to college application processes, there is a sense of achievement having reached a place where students from 70+ nationalities congregate and discuss topics from politics to sustainability to social inequality etc. I am also constantly surrounded by a group of people who are extremely intelligent,  who are amazing poets, writers, musicians, athletes, or had impressive resumes from their past lives as thick as a novel. In other words, the sense of normalcy is skewed here. When I first arrived, I wondered, why did the Hong Kong national committee choose me? Why did I receive this opportunity over some of my friends, when they are so obviously better qualified for this kind of environment? I still have not figured it out. Here, it is normal to apply to at least one Ivy League. Most people applying to the UK apply to Oxbridge. I applied to Ivy Leagues and Oxford. Needless to say, I was not offered a place at any of those elite institutions when the end of March came around. But a number of my classmates and friends were admitted into the Ivy Leagues or other elite institutions, such as M.I.T and Stanford, and being a part of the group who aspired to get into these colleges but were unsuccessful is a reality check, a slap in the face followed by a jeering voice saying, “did you really think you were so special just because you got to go to UWC?”

I did not apply to the Ivy Leagues because I really thought I had a chance. I applied to the Ivy Leagues to measure my self-worth.

All college admissions are a gamble. If I was admitted, I would have something to prove to myself that I did belong at a place like UWC. I firmly believe I still could have gotten into the colleges I was fortunate enough to be offered a place had I stayed back home. But coming to UWC made me feel like I had to apply to an Ivy League school, which was a step higher than the schools I were aspiring to back home. If I had been admitted to an Ivy League, it would reinforce the sense of pride my family back home had in me going to UWC. If I had been admitted, it would justify all the time and effort I put into my IGCSEs, then my IBs, then my college applications. If I had been admitted, it would have proved that I deserved to be at UWC. I was there when my friend opened acceptance letters from Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard. I was there when he came into my room to tell me that he had been accepted to Stanford. He was also there when I opened my rejection letter from Yale, and got waitlisted at Cornell. I was extremely happy for him; I know he will continue to be absolutely fabulous wherever he decides to go. But in that moment, we were shown such a large difference in our achievements and our abilities, for a moment I almost doubted, am I even qualified to hang out with this guy? Relationships are not based upon which schools we get into, but let’s admit it, we all compare ourselves to one another, and we all wonder when we look at these achievers, why am I so hopelessly mediocre?

Even though everything is over and done with, I still ask myself, what could I have done to get admitted? What did they have that I did not? Did my application not reflect the strengths that I possess, or does it mean I must change as a person? I was reading an article recently that argued where you go to college does matter, but not for the reasons we think. About a third of all CEOs are apparently graduates of elite institutions, but it is not because they graduated from elite institutions that they were able to rise to the top, but because the college you go to reflects the person you are. So, those who go to Ivy Leagues have already become amazing people by the age of 18, and thus, they have success in the future. Does that mean that, as I am now, I am not a person worthy of success? If that is the case, then in what ways must I develop to become a person worthy to the admissions offices of the Ivy Leagues and of success?

Obviously, college is not the end of the road, nor will it absolutely determine what the rest of my future will look like. But college decisions hurt, and I know that some of my friends have had it even worse than I did, but this has been weighing on me for a while, and I just wanted to get it off my chest. Moral of story: Do not attach your self-worth to a college.

I have great options for next year, and I look forward to wherever I go in the fall. I hope my co-years feel the same, and I wish every single one of you the best of luck.

average sounds like profanity to my ears.

I realise that it is very difficult for me to talk about my life, my identity, my background, on an essay (*cough* college) of which the sole purpose is to compare the life that I would very much to like to fabricate (though I am rather dubious of how well I would pull it off), to the lives of my peers who came from more obscure parts of the world, who have had more unique experiences, more arduous or fascinating backgrounds, more exceptional talents, more eloquent arguments, more captivating opinions, more of this, more of that… It is difficult for me to keep typing, as I sit on my bed, cross-legged, in sweatpants which I purchased from some flea market, and an overworn ‘I [heart] HK’ T-shirt that I wear only as pyjamas to prevent being ridiculed for ‘superficial patriotism’. It is difficult as I look over to my two roommates’ sides of the room, both hailing from conflict zones, both who went through troublesome processes just to get a US visa, while I waltzed through immigration with my Canadian citizenship. As we prepare for college, I am repeatedly reminded of how average my existence has been. The college counselor makes us do this exercise where we list everything we know about ourselves, and it starts off fine: Hong Kong-nese, middle-class, nuclear family, privileged, healthy, average student with average grades, who had an average number of extra-curriculars (but otherwise did not bother to join other clubs) had an average (if not small) number of friends, played two musical instruments like the average Asian kid, went to pleasantly average schools that my educated and well-off, but not rich, parents could afford, did some hours of community service like the average high-school student, average this, average that. Yes, I am sure colleges would be very interested in me. And like the average teenager, I lace everything with sarcasm.

I imagine whoever’s reading this article right now would be thinking, “Ugh, this kid sure is self-deprecating. This world is full of attention seekers.” Perhaps. But really, I am just using my life as an example. Say, in reality, I am ranting about how ridiculous the process of applying to colleges is, or how the existence of an ‘average’ person is overlooked, (invisible is the word I am looking for), compared to underrepresented or the fabulous, or how frustrating it can be sometimes to be labeled as ‘average’ and then be ignored, or to be labeled as an anomaly, and be despised. I wonder whether people realise how lonely it can get. Do I make an effort to be average and invisible? Perhaps, yes. Well, not really, no. I am a hypocrite. I want to be cooler, less awkward, more fabulous, more outgoing, and maybe throw in some fake, tragic background that one reads about in the novels, but without experiencing the tragedy because I do not like pain. Actually, fantasising about secret, tragic backgrounds is disgusting. People who are suffering through painful and difficult things must be repulsed at the idea of fetishising over a tragic hero. I suppose being privileged, but not-cool, socially awkward, reclusive, and distant is just how it is. I cannot strike up a fake smile because fake people scare me, and that would mean I would fear myself. Forced conversations take up so much energy. I cannot shut up when conversing feels genuine and natural, but forced conversations never go well. “Hi. How are you…” and silence. It takes a moment to realise nobody is paying attention, but the embarrassment stays for the next half hour. Then I pity myself for being so quiet, and invisible, and a hermit. And then I realise that compared to other people, nothing really bad has ever happened to me, and I am just average after all, and my self-pity and complaints about life do not really have much substance because I am far more privileged than half the world’s population, and I really should quit feeling so self-important, as though my feelings are actually significant to the next person, as though you are supposed to be reading them now, though you can really just close this tab and do something else. And then I just feel average.

Now average sounds like profanity to my ears.

coffee

there is the red that appears

so very sinister against spartan white.

as it forms in perfect circles

fluid drops of both thin and clear,

flowing thick and red,

sometimes merging

like cancerous cells that evolve,

like bitterness that grows

which seems to never cease.

but why do they seem to be

upon a closer look

like rose petals showering the tiles.

yet the hand that flings

the petals to the ground

with a burning rage

so strong

so fearful

now tousles my hair affectionately.

still now I cringe

shrinking from such hand

one I cannot trust,

lest I cannot predict.

for today I cannot tell

as one can never do

whether rage will blind love

or love will quell rage.

 

the word ‘future’ hurts my brain.

So I suppose I have reached the age where adulthood and the future seem rather imminent. I used to have an idea of what I wanted to do with my life, where I wanted to go, where I wanted to end up, what work I would spend the rest of my life slaving over. I was meticulous at planning, pinpointing it down to the very last detail. In order to achieve whatever plan I had for my life, I strove to be an overachiever so that I could set every single cog in the machine the correct way to make sure nothing would ever interrupt this ambitious grand plan of mine. So a year has passed, and now I attend a different school. I have been exposed to new, exciting things. The people I meet tell me about a whole world out there that I have yet to explore. They criticise the education system that we so readily endorse, a system that we unconsciously encourage by submitting to it, not resisting. I like to think that I have matured. As people grow, they also develop new perspectives or reflect on and revise their old ones. I like to say to I do not think the same way anymore.

But now I really do need to start thinking about my life, college, work, and all I have been pulling up are blanks. Ask me where I want to apply to for college, and my reply would probably be, “Um… Everywhere?”. I used to dream of Ivy Leagues in my sleep. Thinking back, those dreams were all in black and white. Was it a healthy existence? I would forego sleep (and I still do) to perfect my assignments, make sure I had every last word of those wretched Biology definitions memorised only to forget them all right after the exam, pore over ten years of past exam papers. Just who was I trying to please? Society? Perhaps. Somehow, the only way I felt I could validate my existence to the world was through the numbers that were written on the top right corners of my exam papers, the numbers and letters written on the report cards my parents so eagerly opened, achievements that were acquired through grit and misery. We no longer get an education for the sake of learning. We go to school so parents can shove their children’s stellar report cards and certificates in other parents’ faces. I go to school so my report card can be one less thing I have disappointed them in. This pathetic little me still exists, though I like to separate her from the me that would like to punch the entire system in its ugly, leering face. Does my higher score make me any more intelligent than the student who is standing next to me, despairing in his ‘just-average’ score? Probably not. I have a tendency to do very poorly on IQ and aptitude tests (flashback to year nine insight tests), so yes, I am proud of the diligence that bestowed achievements upon me that exceeded what individuals of my reasoning ability would normally be able to achieve. But I regret my negligence of everything else, myself, my well-being, whatever relationships I might have had, and everyone around me. I do not want to see others in the same position I was in, struggling to prove to the world that they are of at least some worth, forsaking everything else and proving nothing at all. Just how screwed up would the world be if our worth was measured by the results on some exam, or how famous the name of our alma mater is?

I pity employers who judge the competency of their employees by the name of the college they went to, but nevertheless, that is apparently how our miserable world functions.

No, mother. I do not want to get into Harvard. Yes, I know Harvard has the ‘best’ law school, but no, I do not want to be a lawyer. Yes, I know Harvard has a great name, and it would look fantastic on my resume, but I do not think I am cut out for Harvard. I do not think I will be happy there. Why is that so ridiculous? Potential? Please. I think another decent liberal arts college would suit me far better. Highly ranked? How about William’s? Or Wellesley? No? Why not? Are you saying employers do not hear of these schools? You think going to ‘small’ liberal arts colleges will ruin my prospects of employment because they are not as famous as Harvard? I thought we were discussing the best kind of education for me, not the best name. Wait. This is my life, and my future. No mother, I do not take for granted the money you ‘invested’ in my education. I am not throwing away the opportunities you gave me, but I just want to live simply and decently. I do not need to be some hotshot lawyer to make a living for myself. Provide for my family? Wait. When the hell did I ever say I wanted children?

There is something inherently wrong in using the words ‘investment’ and ‘education’ synonymously, or when ‘wasted opportunities’ are a bigger loss than trading away happiness and well-being, or when ‘potential’ to be somebody society values more is more important than what you actually want to be. If you have children, please do not be that parent.

As much as I want to rip apart the education system, if I resist it now, society will tear my life apart because that is just how cruel the world is. Let whatever divine entity up there help me use whatever grit I have left to change the way education is now as a cog in the machine.