What I Did in 2023, and Being Asian-American


Tags: yearly-review personal

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On Goals and Identity


My friends often call me goal oriented. I disagree often (they also call me argumentative).

Consider this random article from this hippie clickbait Buzzfeed article that has zero scientific merit but good enough for off-the-cuff conversations with my friends. I don’t identify with a single one of these traits.

Of course, one’s self-perception of personality may often be biased. Others may see me as “persistent”, but I can think of tons of counterexamples where I am not.

Or maybe that I like to learn. That’s always a weird trait to ascribe to people. There are most definitely fields that I couldn’t care learning more about. Isn’t that just normal? For example, I deeply enjoy history and CPUs, so is it not normal to want to know more? And for those that “don’t like to learn”, isn’t it just that they had not had the fortune to discover a rabbit hole they enjoy? Or perhaps the rabbit hole is just an unsexy, unmarketable field and it’s embarrassing to say you love learning about anime.

Anyways. I still don’t know what goal-oriented means precisely. That’s relative according to both of our experiences. Personality is by construction kind of a relative attribution. Your version of “goal-oriented” could mean “enrolling in culinary school with goals of opening a Michelin star”; mine could mean cooking something with more than 3 ingredients.

So anyways here’s what I said I wanted to do last year–

I did not get into grad school, nor finish very many drafts, nor did I even read as much as I did in 2022.

But I did run a marathon. Why? Cuz I turned 26.2 on the day of the marathon, so I thought it’d be funny.

Running, and Hard Things

I actually fell badly at the race start. You can see in some watermarked photos my bloody elbow and knee.

I had started seriously training in late December of 2022 and ran in July of 2023. At peak training volume, I ran 10 straight hours a week (more like 12 with stretching and abs work) and between 55-60 miles a week, and still did leg day once a week. Every Sunday alone I ran for 3 hours and >20 miles. I ran through 3 pairs of shoes.

The amount of time and resources and privilege one needs to set aside 10-15 hours of their week for basically a part-time job is immense (and I demolished many podcasts in that time). Let alone pay money to run? I can do that for free! (Thanks mom and dad).

It sucked. My toenail fell off. I skipped social events so I could run. I experimented with my diet to learn what makes me sustainably energized, knowing if I ate like shit on Saturday my Sunday training would be ruined. Pain, in some sense, for the sake of pain. On reflection, I don’t really know why I did it (ok aside from a stupid joke).

It’s pretty insane, illogical, and pointless, and the hardest thing I’d done in my life. I’d never do it again and I’d never recommend it to anybody and you don’t even get the physical big-muscled ego boost as you would with 10 hours of weightlifting a week and there’s debatable health benefits to extreme running anyways.

And I’m immensely happy and proud I did it.

There’s a reason Alan Turing was an insane runner. There’s an indescribable clarity when all resources are devoted away from your brain and you feel your body’s minutest aspects. It’s not quite runner’s high– I’m lucky enough to have felt it, of which it is similarly indescribable, but I very much feel pain 99% of the normal running times– rather it’s a bit of the dopamine rush when the excruciating pain stops. There’s a serenity that comes after you ran for three hours, a calm after a self-inflicted storm.

I don’t think this pain in the pursuit of a goal is specific to a marathon. I think it’s important to challenge yourself, and to pursue something in the face of dread. The risk of failure and pain is something modernity often keeps trying to minimize, and while I applaud and support a rising standard of comfort, I also think it’s important to do difficult things.

Whether something is “difficult” is of course incredibly relative. I have several friends who ran a half-marathon who look at me with shock– “I could never do that”– and I look at the ultra-marathoners with similar shock. This comparison is a losing battle. The entire point is that you accomplished something you are proud of. That you had doubts, concerns, second-guessing, and soul-searching to think about whether you want it. That’s sorta the whole point.

In some sense, a marathon was just an avenue for me to feel this challenge and confidence in ability, and that even in the event of failure, be it failure in this abstract goal or a permanent injury from training or a bloody fall at the starting line, I would be ok– Just try not to think about it and take another step forward.

Though perhaps I’m still inflicted with Stockholm’s and my brain chemicals are forcing me to post-hoc say I gained something from my harrowing experience.

And Identity

I also joined an AAPI volunteer organization in 2023 called Project by Project.

I consider my heritage very important to me, and the organization is filled with people with similar values. It’s a super great and natural context to create and share stories about Asian-Americanness.

One example: The SF Chinatown is filled with single-room oppupancies (SROs). Very often my org (and many others) volunteers in the area. Someone’s grandpa actually lives in one of those, and once a month we help out at a pantry/food bank, where we gather leftover food in the region and deliver them to these people in the SROs.

You can probably find pictures of what they look like internally, though I have some on my phone as well. They nearly all of them only speak Cantonese, as Mandarin is often a school-taught language and most of the Chinese immigrants were brought over from Southern China + Taishan region from back in the day. It’s always an interesting story, immigrants have.

Solo Trip in Asia

I traveled alone for 5 weeks in Asia.

Many people have relayed the well-trodden pros and cons. On the pros– more freedom, more spontaneity, forced socialization. On the cons– complete solitude, and safety especially in certain regions. But, as with many things, I don’t think you can deeply understand those pros and cons until you’ve done it.

Personally, I had an absolute blast, and I’d do it again.

I think boredom is important. I think being alone forces you to think and observe and absorb and discover and gripe with uncomfortableness. I joked with friends that the sunk cost of a 1000 flight kinda tricks your brain into saying “God damn it I’m gonna have fun and make experiences cuz I didn’t spend a grand just to be alone and sulk.” And I think almost every single day I was there would have been much much different had there been someone else.

In fact, there were a few days where I did meet some fellow travelers, and we did do things together, and it did feel different.

Alone at a bar in Kyoto, I arrived at 8pm as the first patron (because I guess nightlife goes super late), immediately apparent as a foreigner via my accented ohaiyo. The incredibly friendly bartender and I talked/Google translated endlessly about Japanese society and American influence on the region, and China’s growing sphere of influence in Japan as well. Discussed the regions of Japan, local food recs, and even dating culture in the region.

Or, also alone at a bar in Taipei, I met an Australian woman of Chinese heritage who corrected me that she was Australian of Chinese heritage, not “Australian-Chinese”, that such a combination is a pretty American phenomenon, which caused me to reflect deeply on America’s unique melting pot of race.

Conversations like these– getting deep local insights or conflicting worldviews– are much harder to do with even one other traveler. From an internal POV, being alone forces you to potentially seek out conversation and/or look at your environment around you lest your night be boring. From an external person’s POV, you being with another person slightly discourages others to speak to you; you’re already engaged, why take your time? A bartender will be less likely to speak to a duo than a solo traveler.

That’s not to say traveling with others is directly inferior. They’re simply different goals. One forces immersion and introspection, and the other builds upon social connection and shared stories. There is room and desire and need for both.

I definitely had this immersion goal in mind. There’s many narratives about East Asian culture as a whole, and I hadn’t been in 15 years, and I believe that oftentimes we should inform our opinions firsthand and not from stories. Being Taiwanese, I had a certain draw to walk the streets my parents had (both literally and figuratively; I averaged 20k steps a day). To smell and eat the same breakfasts they did; to climb the same mountains they did; to lament the same touristification of the same night markets they did (not that I’d know! Just what locals say).

My dad says that as part of the Great Retreat (what an oxymoron) the people of all the different regions had to squeeze into a denser area on Taiwan, resulting in a surprising amount of variety given its size. The influence of Japan’s rule in the 1800s combines further to create something quite novel.

Other highlights/things I enjoyed–

I’d like to go again.

P.S food in Tainan is better, argue with me.

Goals for 2024

I’ve done a lot of self-discovery and socializing for 2023, though honestly it was a bit tiring. Most of the first half was marathon running, and the second half I did some extensive planning and research for Asia. Volunteering on top of that was just a constant undercurrent. But I do miss reading and writing and playing with tools a good amount. Being a nerd I suppose.

This year’s broad theme might be to try and deepen something. I’ve told a few friends I’d like to perfect a hobby to a level I’m proud of– examples like piano, cocktail making, or baking, or the technical skills and tools that I find cool.

My 2023 goal of doing a PhD is shaking a little. I also think the semiconductor industry is incredibly interesting currently, more so than, say, 10 years ago. My PhD friend (half) jokingly says that I should just do my PhD when investment dries up, given university funding is more stable and the comparative opportunity cost wouldn’t be as much– not a bad insight.

Or maybe I should finally get some discipline on my writing procrastination, given I’m writing a yearly reflection in March :)