Haniya Khalid

A little bit of everything

Much Ado About Nothing

One of the criticisms I’ve gotten about my blog is that it is too structured, too formal, and not “blog-like”. Even though I write almost weekly, I never fully commit to a stream of consciousness–it’s too free for me. I start organizing my thoughts into themes and genres (often accompanied by appropriate music) even before they hit the page. If they hit the page. Yet whenever I posted something without thinking too much, it was better received by my (small but loyal) group of readers. I’ve made a resolution this trimester to blog regularly, and not think too much about what I will say. This is hard for me, I enjoy preparation and structure. I can also be too blunt and too honest–stupidly so. I am not saying this a backhanded disguised-as-an-insult-but-really-is-a-compliment. I really need to learn how to be smarter about when I say what, and to whom, and so on.  So I guess this is where I’ll start.

Recently I was talking to a close friend about how another, relatively close friend had let me down. As one does when talking to one’s girlfriend, I was expressive and animated and because this was the first time I had even vocalized the issues, I let it all out, not realizing there was someone else in our company. Who, inevitably, and through all fault of my own, told on me. I felt, and still feel terrible, not intending at all to spread ill-will. In retrospect, I am glad I learned my lesson at a (relatively) low cost. My lesson, you ask? Stfu.

I am in Milwaukee for this trimester. No, I am not pregnant, that’s just how my program is organized, split into three assignments per year. “Isn’t it called a semester?” someone snarked this past HR (home return… please forgive all the acronyms, I can’t seem to shake them off), not understanding the basic concept of prefixes. My first was in Boston, and I didn’t really see Boston, not really, didn’t see the Freedom Trail, or Matt, or Ben, or Mindy Kaling. I did spend my Saturdays wandering around Newbury Street and the big green park, but that’s pretty much it. I have family in New Jersey (like every Pakistani you’ll meet) so the East Coast/NY area isn’t super unfamiliar to me. But the Midwest was, once upon a time anyway: home. And I’m back after four and a half years. That’s a long time. I am amazed at how much of Iowa I had forgotten about, or at least let it slip to the back of my mind and just how much it is rushing back now.

Firstly- the air. I haven’t seen much of the world, but never have I breathed air as fresh and crisp as Iowan air. When I had finally adjusted to living in Iowa City, it was the single thing I would miss the most when I was in Dubai, convinced the freshness of the air could solve depression, could solve anything. I took one deep inhale on my first walk from one office building to another, the path covered in the first of the yellow fall leaves, and it just felt so good. So familiar.

My apartment reminds me of Iowa too. It’s strange, the fixtures are the same. The light switches, the door handles, even the carpet. My bathroom looks exactly the same, it’s like a freaking time machine.

I might go back one of these days but a part of me keeps putting it off. Partly because I am tired and it is a four hour drive. And partly because I am always slightly nervous to go see what used to be home but isn’t anymore. You know, like Dorothy, you can’t go home again, etc. etc. I’ve only gone back once since graduation and it was a weird trip. It was the dead of winter first of all, February in Iowa, not so great. It was also a weird mix of intense emotions, old relationships/friendships coming up, fizzling, and so on. It’s different now. So much time has passed I bear almost no recollection of my memories anymore, except in random, tiny bursts. Those are the most jarring. I don’t know what is more painful: having painful memories or forgetting them altogether and then it’s almost like you haven’t lived them at all. The latter is probably the greatest insecurity of any writer, or why we write, it’s our unhealthy obsession with preservation. When I was a child I had a panic attack (I was an anxious, hyper child) in which I thought that every memory that left my head was a chunk of time of my life that I had lost forever. To combat this terrifying crisis (too terrifying for a ten year old), I would painstakingly write down the events of my day onto pale pink post-it notes, in bullet-form, under the date. I learned something strange from this exercise: writing down the events in such a way didn’t do much to preserve the memory at all, in fact, I seemed to become even more disconnected from that day once it was recorded in such a robotic manner:

April 15 2001

-Went horse riding

-Ate Chicken and Chawal For Dinner

-Fought and then made up with my sister

-Finished all my HW

And with this realization came the end of my bizarre obsession. Maybe this is why I write so carefully, not thinking that I’ll ever derive any connection from a recollection of mundane details of my life. I find mundane details of other people’s lives endlessly fascinating, and am especially keen to read about famous minds who journalled obsessively, and fancy myself as someone who will built archives of my journals one day. I am not even close, because I am irregular and neurotic. And scared.

I have been acting like my mother lately, replicating her behavior in our house in my apartment – cooking, baking and cleaning. But absent are the steady stream of visitors, the arguments over AC temperatures and TV volumes, the frustration over too many trips to the grocery store, the rush to the night prayers in Ramadan, the fighting to stay at home and watch movies during the night prayers in Ramadan. The absence is heavy, and I wonder how long and how hard we will have to work to create what our parents created so effortlessly.

And for all the independence and personal space we craved (I am kind of late to the game in growing up, but I think that’s pretty obvious), nothing seems so exciting anymore. The TV remote control isn’t as exciting if no one wants to fight me for it. The personal space is just too much, it’s everywhere, so much so that I am not even that comfortable with my own person. I am in the constant conflict of an ambivert: I miss people when I am on my own but make no effort to meet them (and sometimes even avoid them) because a part of me just needs to be alone and finds the idea of socializing incredibly draining.

It’s a cliche, but you have to travel far to figure out where you belong. Giants In The Sky from Into the Woods always sparks such feelings (don’t judge me- I really like musicals):

The roof, the house and the world you never thought to explore.
And you think of all of the things you’ve seen,
And you wish that you could live in between,
And you’re back again,
Only different than before,
After the sky

Powerful stuff, right? Jack, the Giantess and some prettyyy hardcore Psych 101 happening right here. I wish I could live in between, too, and the sky does change you even if it is in subtle ways.

The point is… well, there is no point. This wasn’t a post about anything at all, with no preceding thoughts, no afterthoughts, just the thoughts themselves as they came, free-flowing and unedited. Much like life itself? I guess. I need to stop trying to make an analogy here. That would defeat the purpose, which is to have no purpose at all.

And because I quoted Shakespeare just because I felt like, and because I can feel the onset of winter coming, here are a few more lines from our favorite Shakespearean Prince:

“Why, what’s the matter,
That you have such a February face,
So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?” 

 

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Within & Without

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I’ve been experiencing some pretty serious writer’s block lately. I can’t pinpoint exactly where my relationship towards writing, blogging, sharing my work and so on changed, but it definitely has over the last few years. I suppose like most changes, it happened in increments– so that’s how I will attempt to break this down.

About three weeks ago I pitched an idea for an app to three people that I had handpicked for their knowledge, taste, and personalities in general. I was nervous because I look up to them so I want them to like anything I’ve invested my time in. I kept my mind open for negative feedback and they didn’t disappoint–calmly outlining everything they thought was absolutely wrong about my idea. When the meeting ended, I thanked them, and I meant it. They didn’t realize that every question with which they challenged me further opened up my inner dialogue (no, not monologue) of how I wanted to archive things: stories, people, facts and more importantly–why? I was put under the clever but stressful why why why test, and while I squirmed my way through the answers I did eventually land on one.

I’m a sucker for archiving things, and I know I’m not alone. Probably one of the last people of my generation to get an smartphone (I got it in 2013, upon graduating university), initially this “collecting” was in the form of magazine cutouts that papered the insides of my closets,  yellowed paperbacks I’ve inherited from my father, maps of places I had visited, quotes I’d outlined, movie scenes that spoke to me, even songs. I never collected clothes, makeup, or “things” as such, not so much out of a disdain for materialism which in all honesty doesn’t even exist, but for a lack of storage space in my tiny bedroom. I tried, instead, to collate and archive ideas, in journals, sheets of printer paper, even MS Word documents. While my bookshelf was often overloaded, the insides of my closets over-lined, I kept my walls and table surfaces relatively bare: my own personal acknowledgment of distinguishing between the space for inspiration and the space for creation. A mood board, if you will– a mood board for potential innovation.

When I upgraded to the dreamy landscapes of Instagram and Pinterest, I continued to do so. But something changed. I was no longer alone. I was now accompanied by peers saving the same images, admiring the same things, a shared nostalgia. For once though, being in the company of others made me feel less comfortable. It certainly made the whole process progressively less enjoyable as the images became circulated, quotes re-used and edited on starry backgrounds (or worse yet, as captions of yoga-beach poses/ coffee and a Moleskine flatlay). I myself am guilty of a flatlay or two, uncomfortably trying to fit into whatever category of social media person I was supposed to be. Maybe the experience, once shared, shed an embarrassing light on just how unoriginal I was. I mean, everybody loves Audrey Hepburn (“but how many of you have actually seen Funny Face?” is a disproportionately feisty voice I silence regularly). Similarly, if previously I had written for classes (yes, I actually studied creative writing in college, a fact I have started re-iterating lately if only as a feeble attempt to emphasize my own seriousness), research labs, or even a local tabloid I interned at years ago, I now “took to the page” on Tumblr.

Around the end of 2015 I deleted pretty much everything. My Instagram, my Tumblr, you name it. This didn’t come out of some kind of thoughtful process of re-vamping my own image, rather, it was a result of a very painful (and in retrospect–pointless) personal experience. Just around this time I had written a blog post for my newly-minted WordPress entitled “The Inverse of Vulnerability”. In it, I spoke about how I had always been open and naturally vulnerable. I was surprised when I attended meditation classes and mindfulness workshops (yes, there is such a thing) how we were encouraged to let loose, let ourselves out, share, be free, be vulnerable when I, as a part of my own healing process, had started to do the exact opposite. I had experienced interacting with people who led me to believe I was too much: too much lipstick, too talkative, too out there, and so on, and two years of back-to-back profession belittling and personal rejection led me to make the choice of zipping myself shut, closing myself off. And so I deleted most of my social media profiles and became quiet (well… as quiet as I can be). I even deleted my post–The Inverse of Vulnerability, in the most meta of meta moves.

My absence wasn’t for long and I returned–in increments. Sometime during winter last year I spoke to a soft-spoken Italian mental health professional in which I pitched my own (not so brilliant) idea that “there was a wisdom to good old-fashioned stoicism”. He agreed. More readings, like Could Stoicism be the New Mindfulness, helped support this theory which was not unique to the world, but completely novel to someone like me.

An important distinction, but one that is often lost, is the difference between sharing content versus sharing personal information, either of which can be blogged, the unique characteristic  of a blog being regular posts or “logs”. Web log. Weblog. Blog. Two people who have successfully capitalized their content-management skills and turned them into enterprises are Tavi Gevinson (RookieMag) and Emily Weiss (Founder of Into the Gloss and Glossier), one taking a more journalistic approach, the other more entrepreneurial.

During the app pitch I was encouraged to try my idea as a blog as my panel saw no value in it actually being a mobile application. I stubbornly held on to my original idea, even though I knew that they were correct in their assessment. In doing so, I realized full well that it came from an unfair bias I have towards blogs and how I tend to think of blogs as being saturated, repetitive and associated with a level of self-promotion I could simply never reach (not even if I take the journey back to being my formerly uninhibited self).  I often ask my friends who have always been incredible writers but do not having professional writing jobs why they don’t have a blog or share what they write. The answer may surprise you (if you’ve read this far–congratulations! You’re probably really bored of your job or you’re secretly very interested in what I have to say): fear. Fear of not being good enough. What stifles most of the writers I know is the realization that they are not near the level of perfection they aspire to be. I include myself in this group and am constantly conflicted between sinking in and putting myself out there. In my last discussion with one such friend, we concluded that all content sharing on social media is fair game or worthy of praise–as long as it is original. I also realized that my somewhat broken-record statement of “blogs are so saturated” is a superficial one, as someone pointed out to me that people don’t just stop writing books because there are too many of them. Blogs are just a new medium, and maybe the traditionalists like myself, are taking some time adjusting to it. At least in my circles, confidence in self-expression seems to fall on either end of a spectrum–but it is precisely that, a spectrum, and here I am, trying to navigate the gradations.

So I might finally muster up the courage to complete the projects I’ve been working on for the last year and a half and just do it, as Shia Lebouf would say, maniacally thumping his fists. Or I may prolong all the projects further, spend another year exploring and learning, and repeatedly asking myself, why?

Why?

Why?

Why?

 

 

 

Does Factory Kill The Magic?

 

My playlist shuffled through and stopped on Viva Forever by Spice Girls. I was immediately taken back to a musty living room in the early 90s, ensconced in a baby pink comforter and completely lost in the visuals of the music video: bright-eyed, animated fairies planting lipsticky kisses on the cheeks of a young, non-animated face. The surroundings were green. They were in a forest, maybe, and the Girls, now in faery-form (it sounds better if I say faery, doesn’t it?) were fluttering around, tiny and hummingbird-like, making some point that didn’t quite translate. It made little to no sense, yet somehow paired with the poppy aaahs of the song, it hit you somewhere; took you someplace. A CGI-fairy-freckle-kissed heaven.What made it, and so many other random memories from our childhood so precious is that as children, we tend not to question things too much. And though analysis can lead to a cathartic A-ha! moment, that warm feeling of when things just click into place, there is a mystery and a magic that is lost when boundaries are completely and finitely defined.

Like going to your favorite chocolate factory.When I eat a Ferrero Rocher, I dont really want to know much about it. I want to peel the crinkled gold foil, roll it into a ball in my palm and pop the whole chocolate into my mouth. I want to bite past the hard, nutty core, into the soft chocolate and let the velvetty flavor hit the roof of my mouth–and then everywhere else. That’s it. At the most, I will turn the dark brown paper doily into a boat, or fill it with paper clips and thumb-tacks and continue whatever it was I was doing before the mini-ecstasy took place. I don’t want to know how it’s made, nor see the insides of the assembly line it takes to drop that one chocolate I ate into a pile of thousands, maybe millions of chocolates that will be distributed around the entire world. That I am sharing this mini-ecstasy with thousands, maybe millions of people just like me. I especially don’t want to know about Jon Doe, and how he works at the factory, or the plant, and starts his day at 6 am to turn on some Vonnegut-esque machine, how my entire mini-ecstasy is his bread and butter. And I absolutely, in no possible way want to know about the calorie content or sugar levels in this tiny chocolate, how much nutritional value it does or does not have. Hec, I do not want to know anything at all. I want to keep the factory, Jon, and any other potentially damaging information (damaging to my ecstasy!) safely away from me.

And just like that, the goofy fun of music videos is pretty much over. I can no longer dreamily stare at Britney Spears’ sparkly green eye-shadow or admire the color-coordinated sets of Destiny Child’s Say My Name without immediately picturing every piece that goes into it: the set designer, the makeup artists (now on Instagram, with their skills and products available for everyone to see), the costume designers, the choreographers. An assembly line unto itself.

Maybe it is more cathartic to understand the breakdown of something if contributes to the buildup of something else, or another iteration of the same thing.

Or maybe–just maybe– there is a sweet spot of knowledge: when you know enough and right before you know too much. And if this sweet spot exists, is it in our control to manage, even manipulate it? And if it is something that we control, then is the resulting magical-fairy-dust-on-your-shoulder feeling as organic as it was in that musty 90s living room? Probably not. It may be worth trying, though- if only to be hit somewhere. Taken someplace.

Ghost World

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About two weeks ago I watched Ghost World for the first time in its entirety. The film, a cult favorite among hipsters and nostalgics, stars Thora Birch and pre-superstardom Scarlett Johansson as two friends navigating their way through late adolescence. I was particularly taken by the movie, not to say I enjoyed it. I didn’t, mainly because it was hard for me to stomach any of the deliberately cringe-worthy scenes with a side-combed, emotionally needy Steve Buscemi, and I barely smiled through the dry, deadpan humor. I could see my much younger self enjoying the movie, laughing at the strangest of the strange jokes in a knowing way: the in-your-face weirdness was right up my 16 year old alley. I was, and still am, a sucker for any movie or TV show where a town is a character “just insist the environment is a character unto itself” I can hear my fellow* English majors say teasingly. I did, therefore, appreciate the attention to detail, the clever, thrifty fashion, and the overall soul in older movies that today’s movies just somehow lack.

What struck me most about Ghost World, was how the main characters–isolated, cynical Enid, and less isolated but equally cynical Rebecca reminded me of me and my friend during middle and high school. Like them, we too drifted through our adolescence in a haze of sarcastic responses and lazy eye-rolls. Individuality bordering on weirdness was greatly appreciated in our world. Normalcy or–god forbid–pep? No way. Get out of here. Cue eye roll.

I met my friend, who I will call A for the sake of this post (and no, that’s not a reference to Pretty Little Liars, because I wouldn’t know, because I don’t watch Pretty Little Liars, you watch Pretty Little Liars), in sixth grade. We connected immediately as eleven-year-olds but were kept at a polite distance due to unnecessary layers in our cliques, layers that were eventually shed as the years passed.

After eighth grade I transferred schools to start my IGSCE curriculum at a new school, one relatively well known for grooming their students into getting stellar, straight A* results. My first day of ninth grade was an altogether terrifying experience for many different reasons: first day of high school, first day at a new school, and to my absolute horror, I was the only student who was not adorned in the schools gray-skirt-and-navy-check-shirt uniform (my parents were oddly laissez-faire about those things, insisting nobody would wear uniform on the first day).  I walked into a classroom and rows and rows of eyes peered back until I noticed A, who to my utmost delight, had transferred as well. Right most row, third desk from the front. Golden brown tan and long, curly ponytail. Uniform, too, I noted enviously. My nervous gaze met her uncomfortable one. Thus began the truly formative years of our pre-destined friendship.

We loved movies and music,  and spent all of our free time huddled in a corner of the classroom listening to Nico  or watching Sofia Coppola movies on a blotchy iPod video. The years went on and Nico was sometimes replaced by Flo Rida, the movies ranged from dramatic period pieces to cultural masterpieces like Eurotrip and we stayed ensconced in our world. It was vivid and colorful and entirely dynamic but only to us, but then, we were the only ones who mattered. Our world was open to some (those who we gave our seal of approval to) and firmly closed to others. As we got older, more depth and deliberation were added to our carefully constructed opinions and interests: cinema, music, fashion, books. Shocking though it seems to me now, but 17 year old me would take hour-long walks listening to Tchaikovsky or Mozart. Man, I was pretentious as effBy the time we made it to senior year, we were impossibly brilliant to ourselves and positively insufferable to anyone who took on the painstaking task of talking to us.

Don’t get me wrong: I still believe creating your own world  out of the things you love is one of the best ways to deal with the not-so-fun real life situations we are all faced with. We managed to fine-tune this skill as a result of our sheltered, private school upbringing, where our bored, restless minds would wander and make us thing and do crazy and creative things. I almost long for those sun-blazed school days where I would sit on the steps reading The Catcher in the Rye while eating an oily aloo samosa with my bare hands. Looking back, what bothers me about our attitudes is the negativity, and I cannot help but wonder if it could have been avoided.

High school was tough. I can never forget that first day of school, when a group of girls gathered around me and asked me who my favorite band was. When my thirteen year old self hesitantly responded “Linkin Park”, I was met with a unanimous groan. Later, I heard a sagely whisper in my ear “Linkin Park is not cool. Nu metal is not cool The Pixies are cool. Do your homework”. And from that day, I did. I quickly got rid of my skateboard and black rubber bands (ok, so maybe they did me a favor) and swore off Nu Metal. I read about the rivalry between Robert Smith and Morrissey instead, and eventually my knowledge grew enough for me to support my own eye-rolling. I became a much more intense version of myself today, now watered down by time, a growing obsession with pop music, and most importantly meeting people  that inspire me who are bright and perfect, but as Judy Blume would say “couldn’t tell their Bach from their Beethoven”. To this date when someone asks me about music I get hesitant to respond, and tend to avoid the discussion altogether. I avoid discussing books too, an area I am more comfortable with than music: no, I don’t like Jody Piccoult (WHAT? she is awesome), neither Paulo Coelho (are you even kidding have you read The Alchemist? I have, and I am not a fan), nor Khalid Hosseini (oh em gee dubble-yew tee eff). I prefer to keep these discussions private, the conversations extended to people I know won’t judge my judgment.

Its obvious now that the cynicism and snarkiness was just a thinly-veiled attempt to mask our doubts and uncertainties. If only we had been told, or had figured it out for ourselves that the doubts were healthy, that asking questions and wondering things, however bizarre or nonsensical, almost always led you to a place of knowledge and understanding. The school itself was not the most diverse in that it only recognized types: the smart kids, the popular kids, or the troublemakers. If you didn’t fall into any of these categories you would slip by unnoticed, especially by the teachers. Me being a bit of a class clown, studious but not Ivy League-bound, friendly but not noticably so, fell into one of those cracks.

I once overheard a teacher remarking on one of the popular kids the morning of our Statistics exam “look at her sleek, blow-dried hair. How does she have time for that? Do you think she will get an A? An A student wouldn’t even have time to wash her hair”. In their incredibly myopic view of us, all of our defining traits were mutually exclusive. I remember years later, being awestruck at the groomed-to-perfection, modelesque pre-Med students at my university in the US: so many sets and subsets I had never been exposed to!

A and I kept growing in our little bubble. The less we  felt like conforming to norms, the less we fit in. The less we felt like we fit in, the more defiant we became. I now see that if somehow been more at ease with my own uncertainty, I would not have been so “above everything”. Maybe I would have cheered a little bit harder during Sports Day, and not ignored anyone who didn’t fit our meaningless, arbitrarily snobby criteria. Some of the people we avoided, the upbeat students who grinned mercilessly before the morning bell, have turned out to be incredibly lovely people. Whose to say they weren’t always lovely? Certainly not me or A, both of us that kept a secret stash of neon-blue mascara in our backpacks “just in case” and decided we knew more about fashion than anyone because we knew who Commes des Garcon was.

A and I have stayed friends, and to this date she might be the wittiest person I have ever met, someone capable of making me laugh out loud from miles and miles away with a single sentence. And I do mean laugh, really laugh, a deep belly laugh reminiscent of our aloo samosa-eating, Nico-listening days.

I can forgive the neon blue mascara and the pointedly nonconformist behavior: we were young. Those days were awesome. What I cannot forgive, however, is the cynicism, the wildly unreasonable bitterness, the positive refusal to be anything ordinary even if being ordinary meant being happy.

A major plot point of Ghost World is the disintegration of Enid and Rebecca’s friendship. At the end of the graphic novel and the movie, Enid boards  a bus that magically appears at an out-of-service bus stop. Fans and critics have long argued if this nondescript ending to an important character journey signifies suicide, an argument that is still inconclusive. The story is an homage to loners though, the isolation you face when your individuality borders on loneliness. If I could meet my 15 year old self now, I’d tell her enthusiasm is a good thing. Passion can be misdirected, so direct it well. Be open to people and ideas. Personalities do not have to be discrete, so do not distance yourself from someone just because they are unlike you. I’d say: cynicism is overrated. Happiness is simply more fun. Also–you are lucky you have A.

 

 

 

 

What Alex Garland Taught Me: Gen X, Gen Y, Thailand & More

Most teenagers have a single paperback that they swear by: their “bible”, if I may, their go-to choice to prop against their weekend morning cereal bowl, every page doggy-eared and covered in bubble bath stains. Mine was The Beach by Alex Garland. I had discovered the copy that I still own at a secondhand bookstore in Jumeirah. It was sold to me by a grumpy old man who seemed to not really believe I spoke English, much less believe that I was interested in collecting old(ish) books. He didn’t realize that in his mildly offensive exasperation at my bargaining tactics (perfectly reasonable given the condition of the book), he was handing me the very book that would define so many things for me. It was published in 1996 and I purchased it in 2003 so it made little sense that I related to it so much: it was the book that emphasized the backpacking culture of Gen X, especially for those whom were adamant to distinguish between traveler and tourist, a necessary distinctionGarland wrote the book based on his own experiences traveling through Asia and living for several months in the Philippines. Until not too long ago, before the internet quickly brought everyone to more or less the same “time” wavelength, the Middle East millennials were always a little late to the party, and it would have been more apt to categorize us as Gen XY.

I loved everything about The Beach: the painfully stylish French youngsters, the hand-drawn maps, the descriptions of banana pancake paired with Sprite (to this day, I find this to be an incredibly intriguing breakfast choice: “one banan pancake and coke, no, sprite”), the secret community, the cricket, and the descriptions of biolumenescence (plankton that glow underwater).  There was nothing literal about the story that spoke to me per se: I was about 13-14, living a sheltered life of cereal bowls and bubble baths and my adventures didn’t extend far beyond the pages. What really resonated with me, however, were the ideologies behind the book: losing yourself, finding yourself, paradise found (paradise lost), allusions to anti-capitalism, and a simpler way of living that was undefined by time or nationalistic identity. As someone who a was unconcerned about either, the motivations of the protagonist made perfect sense to me. Gen X is defined as the generation that followed the baby-boomers, the post-post world war generation. Along with that came a modernist perspective: while generations of artists had revered having an identity or at least searching for one– through war, religion, sex, law, and so on, suddenly losing your identity seemed to be a much more worthwhile venture.

The book was adapted to screen by visucentric Danny Boyle, and it was because of the movie that I developed a desire to visit Thailand during my high school years. This passion was mainly fueled by a single scene. When our hero, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, finally makes it to the beach after a grueling and life-threatening journey, he flops down on the glistening white sand and a look of utter and complete bliss takes over his tanned, toothy face. His movie-magic ecstasy is heightened by the swelling chorus of Moby’s Porcelain, thus planting the arguably unrealistic idea of Thailand in my mind. Moby was always scoring my adventures. Leo was sometimes present.  When I access this ambiguous yet pleasurable part of my imagination, a collection of random images I’ve collected over the years pop up: shampoo bottles from The Body Shop which seem to always have pictures of rain forests on them as a shallow reminder of how “natural” and “outdoorsy” they are, the video for Sand in My Shoes by Dido (GREAT song), or any wooden outdoor shower. It is a fantastical element and entirely non-specific: beachy, happy, free.

 

A not-so-fun fact about this scene is that the filmmakers bulldozed the beach in Ko Phi Phi Lee to achieve a more perfect aesthetic, something that is both environmentally and culturally offensive.

Air travel has evolved very quickly through the years. What was once strongly associated with corporate culture, “businessmen”and glamorous air hostesses (the Pan Am logo comes to mind), rapidly changed as the industry was commercialized. For the 80s and 90s travelers, adventures explored in the book were even less mainstream than the more obscure hipsters of today: the backpackers were fewer, the stories prized and cherished.

Now, traveling is much more mainstream and relatively less expensive. Flights go to a lot more remote places so the journeys are less arduous (do you lose a few degrees of wanderlust if your journey consists of eating stale Emirates meals while watching Deadpool?); yet even so, travel is increasingly synonymous with experience. You haven’t really lived until you’ve traveled to so-and-so country is tantamount to saying you haven’t really lived until you’ve owned a couple of Chanel handbags. The distinction is very clear: there is nothing wrong with liking Chanel, as long as it comes with the awareness that it is ridiculously expensive and inaccessible to most of the world. Somehow, when exhibiting travel, we rid ourselves of the guilt we would otherwise link to “expensive” life choices– this isn’t right, and can be further broken down into much more critical social issues like voluntourism and the driving motives behind showcasing Instagram-worthy lives.

And if there was such a way to assign a metric to ‘experience’, it wouldn’t work. It would be like reducing four dimensions to two: everybody’s story is unique and interesting for different reasons. Where on the one hand Julius Verne told amazing stories about exploring everything from Africa to the Amazon river, William Faulkner found inspiration in his roots in Mississippi, a single place which influenced some of his most important work. Contemporary writers like Zadie Smith similarly write stories that are influenced by locality (NW, a novel that is literally about a postcode area being a great example of this). The greatest example of an explorer of these inside-outside questions was Tolkien, who called himself a hobbit: devoted to his routine, house and simplistic habits. The sharp contrast between his preferences to lead such a life and the grand and epic adventures he wrote about illustrated his own quest to understanding what fulfillment and imagination really meant to ordinary people, and whether physical expedition had anything to do with it at all.

The Beach, which became a cult favorite of the actual Gen X travelers that came way before I even read the book, received criticism for undermining Thai natives by treating them as literary props. Garland argued this in an interview and emphasized the satire by saying that the book was “a criticism of backpacking culture and not a celebration of it”. After years of self-discovery that did not, unfortunately, come from backpacking through Southeast Asia, my perceptions began to shift. I became less dreamy and started to see the depths of Garland’s message. Enough to fully admit that I accept capitalism about as much as I love Sephora, I do not chase experience just to gain experience or to tell a story, and what lacks in a lifestyle I once romanticized is possibly the thing I value most in life: structure. Rigor. Suits (just kidding).

Last winter, I was forced to take time off before the year ended as after that, I would lose all my vacation days. I planned a trip to Thailand (Koh Pha Ngan & Koh Phi Phi), only to back out at the very last minute. It was the tail-end of a terribly shitty phase and my anxiety was at an all-time high. I was scared, more than anything, that I would go to Thailand and not feel anything, that I wouldn’t hear ‘Porcelain’ at all, only deafening silence. I couldn’t do that–I couldn’t ruin Thailand for myself, not after a decades-long relationship. So in a somewhat selfish move, I preserved it. “Thailand” still exists somewhere–on shampoo bottles and in well-edited music videos with random and misplaced waterfalls in the background. I still plan to visit it one day, even if it isn’t where I thought it would be. That’s the good thing about hand-drawn maps: they can always be redrawn.

Deeper Implications of Affirmative Action: Women in the Workplace

Far too many times during my fairly young career have I been told “You’re a female in the Middle East… what do you have to worry about? You check off all the boxes.” Most times I don’t say anything: partly because it is too deep a matter to explain with a single retort, and partly because in a sense, they are not wrong.

I do check off a lot of boxes. During my engineering studies, I was assigned to a team for my senior design project. I was amused to see the group I was randomly selected to join: a female American- Mexican engineer, a female American- Colombian engineer, and myself—a non-native female Pakistani engineer. Many jokes were made (by us!) in the vain of how we were a perfect 8 x 10 glossy—front-page worthy of the admissions catalog. We were the epitome of diversity with our unplanned but nonetheless charming heritage, juxtaposed so adorably with our intense discussions of valves and flowmeters.

It is a debate that has been ongoing for years: does affirmative action disregard unequivocally merit-based selection? In order to conclude a workplace decorum from an area that is intrinsically complex both in definition and application, it is important to look at both the history and the meaning of affirmative action.

“Affirmative action” means positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and culture from which they have been historically excluded. When those steps involve preferential selection—selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity—affirmative action generates intense controversy [1].

An approach deployed to shed a more objective light on a topic susceptible to controversy is by viewing things in a bigger picture instead of viewing the selection process as an isolated incident. Those favoring preferential selection argue that the female “preferred candidate” has either already suffered from, or will inevitably suffer from some kind of discrimination—the very disadvantages she can potentially face is the very reason she is given preference to begin with. Equally, if a male candidate misses out on such an opportunity, the odds will be in his favor in most aspects of discrimination, be it work or otherwise. It’s tricky, however, because both these hypotheses are difficult to quantify.

If one argues “You cannot fix discrimination with discrimination”, then it should be reconciled that you cannot use the same word — discrimination — to describe two very different things. Job discrimination is grounded in prejudice and exclusion, whereas affirmative action is an effort to overcome prejudicial treatment through inclusion [2].

Therefore, while preferential selection that takes into consideration a variety of factors may not be a perfectly robust solution to deep-rooted social issues, studies continually illustrate that it is a practice that does indeed discourage prejudice and its consequently long-lasting effects.

Looks like a rewarding endeavor to me—even if I am not the one benefiting from it.

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Affirmative Action

[2] Journal of Social Issues (volume 52, pages 25-31)

What is Gaslighting and Why Should We Care?

“By dismissing a woman’s behavior or concerns as crazy, we inadvertently take part in a behavior known as “gaslighting.” Named for the classic George Cukor movie, gaslighting is a term used by psychologists to describe abusive behavior where a person is made to feel as though their emotions and reactions are irrational, even (dare I say) crazy. By constantly minimizing and dismissing someone’s reactions, we make them feel uncomfortable with themselves and cause them to start to doubt their own feelings. If they’re being told over and over again that what they’re feeling is irrational or unreal, that what they’re feeling is somehow out of whack, then they start to accept that maybe it is.

Even when it’s not. Especially when it’s not.“

This was taken from a Huffington Post article that is unfortunately, no longer accessible. To be repeatedly told you are crazy or irrational for how you feel, thereby inflicting doubt unto yourself, is a determinant that you can never be vulnerable around that person. Therein lies the a layer of deceit–you cannot be yourself because you are afraid of how you will be perceived by the one you love, and they in turn will continuously question or berate you for it. Emotions need not be labeled as frivolous, being emotional does not mean you are weak. It is important to remind yourself of this: you, of course, being a woman. Being around someone who makes you feel safe is not a literal sentiment; we should be around people who let our emotional trajectories take whichever path feels most organic. In turn, we should be more accepting of the anomalies, the crazies, the breakdowns, the upsanddowns, etc. all those fairly normal things that make us, if nothing else– human.