goodbye, hello

thoughts, reflections, & a farewell to my gap year

My year began with an email after a 9-mile run in 100-degree weather, in a life consumed by uncertainty, in a place I never want to return to. It’s still a bit surreal to think about everything that one email led to, but I guess there was just a brief spark at the end of the dark tunnel and I followed, guided by a single flash of either a vision or a dream until I found the light. And now I simply seek to make sure that the light of the past year never dims.

I’ve told Josh that it seemed like the stars aligned for me in that particular moment. It was a struggle to get to China mid-pandemic, yet certain things happened exactly the way they needed to, in a fashion that seemed almost too smoothly to be a mere coincidence. Sometimes, I almost felt as if my arrival in Shenzhen was guided by some sort of invisible hand, a hand that swept away obstacles in a godly stroke as it pushed me towards some particular, unknown direction. Sometimes, I felt that I was destined to find myself in that city, to experience some kind of singularity that would change me forever, because, after all, it took an entire pandemic for me to get there, right?

I did not find myself. In fact, I became lost in a maze of light and chaos, in which the paths that I had originally sought with such conviction looked like narrow divergences bordered by concrete and silicon. The direction I was headed to blurred until I was simply a wandering dot, continuously absorbing and metamorphosizing in accordance to my surroundings but forever in search for that light at the end.

the lights of shuiwei

I will never forget the lights of Shuiwei, a village that never slept, a bustling alcove inside a city of glass. Alleyways of bars and breweries, littered in between shao kao, tang shui, and midnight hotpot. Vicha, where I chatted outside with strangers – wearing my pink bunny ears from the bar crawl – the night before my trip to Qingyuan. Brass House, where we were always served shots of caipirinha upon arrival, where one could enjoy an immensely satisfying mortadella sandwich every Wednesday night, and where I spent the final night out with coworkers post-goodbye dinner. And of course, Mambo, the Mexican-style bar across from Curry Curry where I occupied countless Tuesday nights playing Secret Hitler, Contact, and Exploding kittens, where I felt that I could start to fit into the fabric of city life as more than just an observer.

I like to think that the night of the Shuiwei Bar Crawl changed me, not in the destiny sense that I had previously described, but refracted my mentality just the right bit to perceive the world a little differently. Or perhaps it was the beginning of the change, a kind of bizarre superhero/villain origin story that one cannot comprehend the significance of until much later. But maybe it was just the thrill of it all, the first taste of those midnight lights and wandering souls that left me longing for another shot.

When I left Shenzhen I was scared that my life would never be that exciting again. Now that I have left Beijing, I worry the same.

new beginnings

The first time I stumbled into Penghao was on Chinese New Year’s Day. It was not until a month later that I would return and start volunteering regularly, but perhaps that initial visit symbolized something. I’m not a superstitious person by any means, but the fact that my first exposure to a place that would change my life was on the first day of the new year is quite an interesting coincidence (and in a year full of curious coincidences too, for that matter). In Chinese, we would call it yuan fen. A cross between chance and destiny. And perhaps it was. That day might have marked a new beginning of sorts, a post-Shenzhen beginning through which I transformed into something even more unrecognizable from before.

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been more than seven months since that day. It’s hard to grasp the number of things that have happened, the highs and lows captured in a vividness enough to color the dullest canvas. But art can only do so much to imitate life, and it is impossible to fully preserve the essence of a moment, to grasp onto that fabric of space-time that flows through your being but disappears the next instant.

… And this is why an indescribable sorrow accompanies each passing of time. Because some things are meant to be temporary, yet they will be perpetually memorialized in my mind – haunting, torturing, reminding me of how things had once been.

the burden of memories

Memories are a curse. There’s something about the way I feel and the way that I remember that enslaves me to the past. It’s not necessarily a romanticization of prior eras, but rather an innate refusal and inability to forget. I remember everyone and everything, each detail of each interaction – the things that others have forgotten and the things meant to be forgotten. I remember the dates, the times, the causes and effects, the color of someone’s shoes and their mismatched pair of earrings, the way they ordered their coffee and the exact words they spoke to me before I left. I remember the feel of the wind on the rooftop of Penghao when Wenqiang took a photo for me and Yangyue. I remember Will offering me a piece of beef wrapped in mint before he even had a chance to try it. I remember the first drink I shared with Weimin and the rhinestones on Fanfan’s shoes and the shape of the clouds the day we took Salem to the vet for the first time.

And they haunt me. Every night, I am flooded with memories. I am exhausted but unable to sleep, drowning in fragments of the past, remembering each interaction, each word, each person and what they mean to me – replaying, reliving, wanting to stop but unable to. Because going through these moments over and over is my obsessive way of preserving them, enabling some kind of control over their longevity. Because, I simply don’t want to forget. Memories have become a burden, symbolizing my attempt to eternalize things that could not be eternalized – and this burden will only get heavier and heavier with time.

When can I stop? How will I stop? How do you preserve these fragments without being consumed by them?

on fragments

There’s a part of me that fears change. Like many, I am the physical embodiment of Newton’s 1st law, the object that likes to remain at rest, bound by routine. Occasionally, I take a step out of my carefully crafted calendar, relinquish my grasp for control for a brief second, but I always return to a more stringent state of being, as if fearing what maelstrom I might unleash if I let go for just a speck.

But perhaps it’s the temporariness of happy times, the brevity of these fragments that have pierced and altered me that have implored me to cherish them even more. When I close my eyes, I see flashes of that rainy night outside Xiao Yun Nan when we danced in the sprinkles on the way back to Edith’s house. I see the colors of mine and Xiaoyun’s matching dresses when we ordered the blueberry cocktails from Aotu. I see the ripples in the waters of Houhai and the color of the sky when we went paddling right before the thunderstorm and the quote that Xiaohui wrote on the walls of the bathroom before he left.

Almost falling Christophe at last reaches the bank, and he says to the Child:

“Here we are! How heavy thou wert! Child, who art thou?”

And the Child answers:

“I am the day soon to be born.”

I fear not the inevitability of change but rather the uncertainties it may bring. I fear that the fragments that follow will not be as vivid, that I will once again be chained to the sheer boredom of conventional routines, that my change for the better was a mere consequence of the environment and I will return to ground state, as if none of this had ever happened.

I was never drawn to the idea of tattoos until this past year. And now I have this past year imprinted on my back. Because I suppose, if memories begin to fade and I gradually return to the person I despise, at least I can look over my shoulder and have a reminder of what’s important, of the light that I had once experienced.

in it, not of it

I enjoy wandering around the city, observing the daily lives of people in a mix of fascination and envy. There’s something hypnotic about human life – family, relationships, simple pleasures and daily frustrations – that fills me with both scientific curiosity and an odd sort of yearning. I once wrote that I felt like I had lived life without actually having lived, that I let experiences pass without feeling the fabric of a moment. In my wanderings, I was a forever observer, like curating a piece of canvas but never a part of the painting itself. In it, not of it. That seemed to be my relationship with the world.

It may still be. I do not know what the future holds, but I feel that for the first time, I experienced what it was like to be a part of this world, to be a stroke on a canvas that I had only admired from afar before. Perhaps that is the biggest takeaway of this journey. To have lived. To have, for once, felt the immersion of space-time and the whimsical nature of human interaction, to let myself be transformed for better or worse.

I wonder if this was the greater purpose that the invisible hand had guided me towards, that this series of coincidences actually meant something. Or if I am just overthinking, like always, attempting to find meaning in the most arbitrary of things. Again, I do not know. But even if I am not of this world, there was a world that I am a part of. There are now things that I can look back upon, threads that connect me to a place in time during which I was content with my state of being. And I suppose that is enough for now.

I will forever be that moth, pursuing the light for warmth more than luminosity. So here’s to transformation, to metamorphosis, to the lights of Shenzhen and Beijing and the people and the memories and the fragments that have grounded me to this world. Here’s a goodbye and a hello.

coffee, cats, and spilled cash

Prompt: What are your favorite places to study? Take some photos and tell us why you like to study there. (Chaos option, from

Back on campus, the answer to this question would be: literally anywhere that is “sittable” and has WiFi.

But being on leave, moving to a country that has been back to normal for over a year, and developing a caffeine addiction (which ironically did not happen at MIT) has given me… bougier tastes. Gone (for now) are the days of cramming for a midterm outside 26-100 or psetting on the floor of a tattoo parlor waiting to get my third cartilage piercing, for I have managed to condition myself to only be able to remain productive at a café in the accompaniment of an overpriced drink. Oof.

So, I suppose, this post serves both as a description of my favorite places to study and a review of some of my favorite coffee shops in Beijing (overpriced drink included). Enjoy, and may your caffeine addiction be kinder to your wallet than mine has been. 🙂

  1. Phenix Café

First on my list is Phenix, possibly the café I’ve most frequented since moving to Beijing. I like Phenix mainly for its location in the Wudaoying Hutong (a semi-touristy alleyway of scrawny artisan shops, cute cafes, and too-hip-for-me livehouses), its ample amount of natural light owing to the large, casement windows, and its creative selection of seasonal specials, which the owner enthusiastically describes to each customer. Its tables are a little small for my liking (I have found that many coffee shops in China serve more as gathering places for afternoon tea rather than places to work, which may explain), but there were usually few enough customers for me to shamelessly place my drink on the adjacent table as I set up my CAD-friendly workspace.

wudaoying hutong after an afternoon session at Phenix
yay for natural light!

The owner, a friendly middle-aged woman, enjoys giving recommendations based on a customer’s preferences and often solicits feedback after they’ve had a try, and, I, intrigued by the creative process, have had many chats with her about how she comes up with new drinks. So far, I’ve tried their Thai soymilk and oat lattes, the seasonal wine Americano, and, most recently, the mung bean and oat latte (which tasted just like the mung bean flavored popsicles that I ate as a child).

mung bean and oat latte
wine americano

I especially enjoy stopping by Phenix on Friday afternoons, where I would finish up my week’s work to the melody of Japanese music coming from an anime-themed tea stand across the street (occasionally becoming distracted by passerbys outside the window). I would then stroll down Wudaoying – window shopping the latest pottery pieces or vintage finds – before heading to my evening part-time at the Penghao Theatre Café to start baking the weekend’s desserts.

Though it remains questionable how much studying I actually get done at Phenix, I look forward to my visits as a welcome into the weekend and its associated adventures. (Plus, one can argue that studying people and new recipes still counts as studying, right?)

2. Stillwater

A couple of blocks south of Phenix, in an even more traditional but rapidly gentrifying part of town, is Stillwater, a hutong courtyard café famed for its impeccable aesthetics and diverse selection of high-quality roasts. The owner had transformed the traditional Pekingese courtyard into a sleek but vintage roastery, complete with a koi pond and a rooftop terrace overlooking the busy streets of the Drum Tower district. As a result, this place is a little wang hong (“internet famous”), which means that it is almost always crowded and you can usually find people snipping away with their cameras in overly-staged and cringey poses while pretending to sip on the coffee they ordered solely for the way it looked. (sorry, I’m a little peeved).

stillwater’s courtyard (on one of the rare empty days)
stillwater’s rooftop terrace! a nice place to chill but no outlets unfortunately

The coffee here is pretty decent though, which is why I keep coming back even with the crowds and photoshoots. I usually order a dirty – a double shot poured over cold milk – which bears a very unique, layered look and distinct flavor profile (imagine not only tasting the layers but the temperature difference as well). For some reason, this drink is especially popular in China and different coffee shops will develop their own unique versions, such as the coconut milk dirty, citrus dirty, and even sesame paste dirty (in the true spirit of the city, as Beijngers love their sesame paste).

this is what a dirty looks like. (the typewriter is pretty representative of the cafe’s overall aesthetic tbh)

When I want something that’s a bigger bang for my buck (dirties come in notoriously small cups :/), Stillwater’s iced orange Americano – Americano mixed with freshly squeezed orange juice – is always a favorite, particularly for the hot summer days.

But until I myself can master the dirty, my wallet may need to keep suffering. 

3. Zarah

good coffee and a not-so-good book

Right across the street from Stillwater is Zarah, a spacious courtyard with an unusually high frequency of foreigners per square meter. Their drinks are overall pretty mediocre, but I have become taken with the Vietnamese iced coffee, which comes with its own metal drip filter for you to complete the process of dripping, stirring, and pouring. I usually avoid overly sweet drinks, but the combination of the aromatic dark roast with a generous helping of sweetened condensed milk satisfies both my caffeine and (recovering) sugar addictions – a perfect glass of stimulation as I begin an afternoon of rigorous mouse-clicking.

I usually alternated between Stillwater and Zarah when I’m in the area, but I would say that, despite Stillwater’s aesthetics, I preferred Zarah’s environment more. It was more spacious, had more natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows, and had the kind of staff who just left you alone after you’ve sat down (a good thing, in my opinion). There are also a lot more people on their laptops (possibly due to the western vibes of the place), so I feel more comfortable simply ordering a drink and sitting for the entire afternoon.

4. DF Coffee at Tsinghua University

Ah yes, finally a place that doesn’t make my wallet bleed. Of my four jobs, the one that most closely resembles a “full-time” position is my work as a research assistant at Tsinghua University, which I have engaged in since moving to Beijing in February. So, of course, I have my go-to café on campus for when I need to escape the hectic environment of the lab and simply find a place to sit and focus.

the view from table 26

DF (which stands for du feng, or “solitary peak”) appeals to me because it has all the necessary components of a café (large tables, decent wifi, a quiet work environment, and a bathroom that doesn’t require me to walk through three buildings to get to) but without the price tag, which is quite rare in China, even on college campuses (the bathroom part is usually the dealbreaker). I would order the cheapest drink on the menu (an Americano for 12.75 RMB, or about two dollars) and literally sit there for the entire day, taking full advantage of the staff’s generosity towards broke college students looking for a place to study. Many blog posts, CAD designs, cover letters, and lab meeting presentations have been created at table 26 – my favorite spot, a window seat with a view of the terrace outside. And I’m pretty sure the staff now know me as the girl with the pink hair and iced Americano, which is kind of endearing in a way.

5. Penghao Theatre Café

And finally, home.

I’m not sure why I included Penghao on this list because it is probably the place where I find the most difficult to study simply because of all the distractions I more than willingly engage in, but it deserves an honorary spot I suppose.

taken in the library when i was procrastinating on work

As I have described in past posts, I stumbled upon Penghao while wandering about the city with a friend on Chinese New Year Day (it happened to be the only place that was open, because my dear friend/boss did not go on vacations) and started working here early March. Penghao was the first-ever privately-owned, nonprofit theatre in China, providing a stage for development and an artistic environment for many amateur and professional performers in the city. It’s also just a great place to be, whether to attempt productivity in the library, enjoy a breeze on the rooftop terrace, or sit and chat with the staff who have since become my family. You can usually find me at the bar counter as the aspiring barista (my latte art has been described as “abstract expressionism”), occasional bartender (thank you, MIT Cocktail Club), full-time cup washer, and self-proclaimed pastry chef.

from left to right: Salem, Elizabeth, and October (ft. a stray that we feed)
Penghao’s rooftop on a sunny day

If you are truly looking for a place to study though, I recommend stopping by Penghao on a sunny afternoon, ordering a cup of coffee with a slice of Susan’s Special (a different flavor each week, depending on my mood), and spending a few quiet hours in our cozy, well-lit library (well stocked with books of all genres, but especially western philosophy, if you’re into that). When you need a break, play with one of our three cats (Salem, October, and Elizabeth) or step up onto the terrace to bask in a view of the rooftops of old Beijing. Afterward, enjoy an evening performance inside the smallest theatre in Beijing (86 seats, to be exact) and stay for a drink at the bar counter. We’ll give you a discount if you share your story with us.

Sound like a plan?


Though I pray that I can successfully readjust to MIT’s “pset on the spot” culture, I’ve enjoyed being able to slow things down for once and measure productivity beyond numbers and stats. For a long time, I have been conditioned to associate studying with anxiety and fatigue, but I think I’m gradually learning to view it as a gentler and more introspective process — something to look forward to, especially with some coffee and a view. 🙂

things that keep coming back

Prompt: What are you currently frustrated by?

I wasn’t sure if I was going to choose this prompt because there was nothing in my life that I was frustrated enough to write a blog post about (or rather, no frustration of the appropriate size to fit into a blog post…), until approximately 24 hours ago (as of 7/23).

Nanjing – the historical capital of China – has been on my bucket list for quite some time now, so I decided to take a few days off work this week to pay a visit, hoping to become a bit more cultured on the Chinese history that I never learned in school. Well… COVID strikes again. There was a small outbreak of cases (17, to be exact – miniscule by U.S. standards but very, very bad in China) at the airport, which, by the next day, had escalated into a semi-lockdown of the city and a mass testing campaign. The government plans on testing all 9 million of its residents in the next few days, and anyone leaving the city must show proof of a negative test.

Within a few hours, it seemed like the city had transformed into a ghost town. Despite the fact that the outbreak was nowhere near the city center, crowds thinned, restaurants emptied, every establishment required the presentation of a green health code (a personalized QR code that tracked your location), and everyone suddenly put their masks back on. Even for a city that’s 80% vaccinated, there existed that signature sense of Chinese caution that never ceased to both impress and slightly unnerve me.

After confirming that the regulations were indeed true, I paused my city-wide exploration (after purchasing a red bean bun on impulse because I was frustrated), found a place to sit down (a staircase outside the red bean bun shop), and desperately searched for a hospital in the area that offered same-day results, because I feared that staying for an extra day would risk further lockdown. After a couple of rounds of phone calls, I managed to find a place that could produce results in the afternoon if I got tested in the morning. But, of course, I was too optimistic. I woke up at 6 am, waited in line for 1.5 hours with (what seemed like) every single resident/tourist in the area, witnessed a physical fight over line-cutting, just to find out that due to the large volume of samples to be processed, results would not be delivered until the next morning the earliest. RIP.

So, I extended my stay at my hotel, told my boss that I would be missing yet another day of work, and began hourly checks of the news to make sure that the places I visit don’t suddenly become middle-risk areas (which would likely mean quarantine when I get back to Beijing).

banana latte and manga! (dogs not pictured, sorry)

And now we wait. I am writing from a café with shelves full of 80’s manga and an episode of Pokémon being projected on the back wall, sipping on a banana latte while the owner’s two giant corgis sleep on the floor beside me (and refreshing my online health record periodically just in case they decide to release the test results early). Slight anxiety aside, I guess this isn’t too bad?

I’m sure I would look back and realize that this entire ordeal is not that serious (and being stuck in a city for one extra day isn’t even too much of an inconvenience), but I guess this frustration ties to a greater frustration I’ve been feeling lately – of where exactly the balance lies between security and freedom. China’s stringent policies and closed borders have allowed me to enjoy life this past year in which the pandemic is merely an afterthought, and I realize that frustrations such as the one I am experiencing right now are a small price to pay for general safety and peace of mind. Yet it’s a bit unsettling how much of my personal information is readily available – and how easily this information can be used against me. One QR code can track virtually everywhere I’ve been, and I could be denied access to public facilities or quarantined against my will for seemingly mundane reasons. People here accept it, and many have started to embrace it after seeing the state of the pandemic in the rest of the world, but I don’t think this is something I can ever get used to.

Hopefully, I will be safely back in Beijing by the time this blog is submitted, and I can check “stuck in a city during lockdown” off my China bucket list. But for now, let me continue to be salty and sweaty (did I mention that Nanjing is known as the “furnace of China”?).

yesterday yesterday

Prompt: What happened yesterday?

If the day officially began at midnight, then I started off yesterday (7/25) at a coworker’s house for a movie night after we finished work at the theater. There, we absentmindedly watched La Haine (during which I attempted to practice my French listening skills while everyone else deciphered the poor-quality subtitles), feasted on junk food, and bantered over who was going to take the morning shift tomorrow. After having my cab home canceled three times (perks of living an hour away from city center), I crashed at another friend’s house, borrowing an oversized t-shirt and a sketchy pair of slippers.

mornings at Phenix (guess which blog I was writing)

The next morning, I attended a Zoom meeting at the only café in a 2km radius open before 10AM (another reason to love Phenix! I got the coconut milk dirty this time), spontaneously purchased a 50rmb (7USD) dress at a street stall to change into, and waited at the theater for a friend to join me for lunch (making an experimental mango milkshake for a customer in the process).

We decided to go to a popular Mediterranean-style brunch place in the hutongs but found out that there was a one-hour queue, so we settled on a dim sum restaurant next door, ordering the beef chang-fen (rice noodle rolls), feng zhao (chicken feet), turnip cakes, and yun tun (wontons tossed in onions and sesame sauce). It was too hot to go anywhere else in the afternoon, so we just headed back to the theater, where I won a game of chess against our chef and failed at latte art for the 500th time.

Later in the afternoon, when there was some downtime, a couple of us headed over to a weekend street market to visit a mutual friend, who was selling desserts from her bakery. There, I purchased another pair of earrings (someone please stop me), won some fancy-looking lip gloss from a raffle, and sampled homemade matcha wine and turmeric oat latte (of which we decided to try replicating at the café, but were dissuaded after checking the price of turmeric extract).

we love street markets
a pretty but pricey turmeric oat latte (featuring my friend’s newly painted nails)
blueberry cocktail with a side of blueberries

Taking advantage of the lack of events at the theater that evening, we left work early to go to Aotuspace, an independent art space nearby that hosted periodic exhibitions, film screenings, and private events. The place was pretty empty that day though, so we just hung out by the bar and requested four different blueberry-flavored cocktails from the bartender (another friend). Mine was rum-based, with crushed blueberries, lime juice, and cucumber juice – a little on the tart side, but I like it. We spent the rest of the night simply drinking and chatting about life, playing rounds of would-you-rather and f-marry-kill in between deep conversations about goals and future plans – basking in the few remaining days in which we would all be together.

twinning with aotu’s lighting (ft. my 7 dollar dress)

Eventually, it was time for me to leave, and I cabbed back to my house far away – reluctantly, as always – because I still had my regular work tomorrow, and freedom like this was only reserved for the weekends. I ended the day in bed a little dazed and little sad – the familiar feeling of every Sunday evening. 

I know that it won’t be long before I must say goodbye to days like yesterday and the people who made it special, so even writing this post fills me with bittersweetness. I think I’m starting to realize how temporary some things are, and I’m discomforted (and also a little scared?) by how much something so temporary can affect someone so much. I don’t know if it’s just the way I feel things, but each happy memory seems to be followed by an intense and prolonged period of nostalgia, so much that I begin to fear such cherished moments. Because I know that I won’t be able to make them last forever. Because I’m forever chasing after time, attempting to grasp onto snapshots of happiness but simply left with the burden of memories (a burden that will only get heavier).

But to end on a positive note, I’m glad that I got to experience days like yesterday, and I’m glad to have found this temporary family and this temporary home. I may carry this bittersweet nostalgia for the rest of my life, but perhaps this is a weight that I don’t want to forget.


in honor of 21 revolutions around the sun

It’s been a year since I celebrated my 20th birthday in quarantine, during which an order of takeout and a brief trip outside marked a significant disruption in the dreary and monotonous six months of isolation. Now, one year later, in a life that could not be more different, I’m attempting to grasp my thoughts but finding it harder and harder to stitch together the pieces of memories and emotions that constituted the past 12 months. If each element were its own discrete dot that one connected into a picture, then each dot seemed to be continuously metamorphosizing, creating a chaotic and ever-changing projection. And so sets the theme for my monthly wall of text — an endeavor to capture a snapshot of this current image.

I remember reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis in AP Lit senior year. I didn’t think much of the story back then, besides being somewhat amused at Mr. Herrera’s fascination with monsters (Grendel, Frankenstein, we deciphered them all…) and contemplating how writing about the “reduction of the individual in society” could earn a 5 on the exam. Yet, like a cockroach (reference intended), the tale of Gregor Samsa’s transformation into the monstrous vermin would creep towards me during the darkest of moments in quarantine, as I’m about to embark on my third depression nap of the day or as I lay awake at in bed at 3 am drowning in whispers of anxiety. It was as if I, too, had metamorphosized into some kind of monstrosity, struggling to even drag my chitinized body out of bed. I became Gregor, arthropodic legs and thorn-like antennae emerging from my thorax as family members watched on, indifferent, reproachful of my lack of smiles.

It seems that most of us emerged from the pandemic a rather different person, weathered by pervading uncertainty, a warped sense of time, and just a shadow of what experts now refer to as PCSD (post-COVID stress disorder). I often reflect on just how much was lost — collectively, psychologically — how we would carry the weight of 2020’s shattered memories on our shoulders as we attempt to move forward. Will we feel just an acute pain or an everpresent, chronic, sore?

But recently, I have been reflecting upon the gains as well, for I suppose nothing is a zero-sum game. I could not help but think about how weird and surreal it is that without the pandemic and those six months of dread, I would have never ended up where I am now. If the first six months post-March 2020 represented a Kafkan metamorphosis, then the next nine months felt like a metamorphosis in a biological sense. I have grown, and dare I say, transformed, as a person in ways that I never could have within the bubble of MIT, not unlike a moth emerging from the cocoon, drawn to a light that it cannot identify.

Perhaps I have isolation to thank for my sudden desire to abandon my innate introversion and experience the world, or my dear mentor Josh for continuously reminding me to put myself in “weird situations,” but 20 has been a year in which I have tried my hardest to live outside my comfort zone. I have begun to view people as a compilation of stories waiting to be read, gaining new perspectives and friendships alike as I uncover each new chapter. I have lived the opposite of what I’ve been taught, telling myself that it’s okay to open up and peer out from the shell that I’ve been constructing for the past twenty years, that it’s fine to relax and enjoy the view even when I’m burdened by the pervading need to find purpose. But perhaps the view is the purpose? Perhaps the people, the stories, the metamorphosis from robot to human is the purpose that took an entire pandemic to achieve?

I don’t know anymore. Sometimes the shadow still lingers and I still find myself triggered by random things like sourdough bread, Dalgona coffee, and the words “unprecedented circumstances.” Sometimes I revert back to Gregor Samsa, suffocating inside a hardened exoskeleton. But sometimes I find that I am actually content, not happy (for happiness is still too strong of a word for me), but simply content, satisfied with the state of things for the first time in forever. Sometimes it still surprises me how things ended up, how one desperate email to an MIT alum during an especially dark day led to all of this, and all of this showed me that the world was more vivid than I had imagined. And I could actually fit into this vivid imagery, somehow, just a bit.

Back when the pandemic first hit the US, I wrote about our final days at MIT, where I likened the disruption to my professor’s description of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics: “Nobody wins and everyone dies.” Nobody wins because energy is conserved, and everyone dies because the entropy of the universe always increases — it was inevitable, just like death. This bizarre metaphor has since ingrained itself into my philosophy, and I have gradually learned to throw all of my expectations into the void and embrace the Kafkan view of an absurd, entropic world.

So what have I become? What am I becoming? Better is all I can hope for.