100 Days of Happiness: Balancing familiarity and novelty

[TLDR: This summer is amazing because I get to take on an entirely new industry through my internship at Microsoft while keeping good ol’ Mount Rainier (and all of my old friends) close by. Cheers to bridging the fun and familiar with experiences to grow – how often do we get to experience all of this at once]

6/24/17 – I love this summer – I mean, I remember 9 months ago when I decided that I needed to do something important with my time. I had always applied to so many internships and jobs, but nothing ever panned out until a few months ago when Microsoft decided to take the chance on this little public health major – plot twist, I convinced them that I was worth keeping around and I just finished the second week of my internship (and they are committed to helping me learn the lay of the land of a tech company, but still be a student intern who is still trying to find mentors and role models).

I never thought that the pieces of my life would fit together in such a beautiful way (I love my major, internship, and city, and I get to share all of this with my best friends) especially because I spent the first 2 years of college falling apart and the rest of my time putting myself back together in a more authentic way. I saw one of my high school friends today, and it was conformation that we all project perfect personas of ourselves on social media but there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes. And I am definitely guilty of this too – I’ve been putting up perfectly edited, brightened, and saturated photos on social media and only hitting the highlights even though I struggled to believe in myself and the things I could create. I struggled to remember that I was worthy of love and relationships that elevated me and opportunities to grow, but I’m starting to recognize that these are things that I will keep fighting for. But getting the opportunity to work at Microsoft this summer is confirmation that things are headed in the right direction, and I’m on my way to finding a fulfilling career that makes me want to jump out of bed in the morning. And I’m also on my way to finding people who are worth my time and will listen to me share my story – I’m smiling more than ever, jamming out to Drake to Frank Ocean and listening to wistful love songs, and learning to celebrate my success with others and have genuinely difficult but important conversations. It’s important to remember that to have a friend, you have to be a friend and that you shouldn’t surround yourself with people who need to dim your light to shine brighter. So, I will try to remember that it’s OK to drop toxic relationships and make time for people who are worth it.

I’m so glad that I got to reconnect to old and new friends because I’m proud to know them, and I hope that we can keep building each other up. This 80-degree weather is one of many signs that summer in Seattle is here to stay, and I’m loving every single moment that’s filled with belly-busting giggles as well extremely vulnerable conversations – get you some friends who can do both ❤

100 Days of Happiness: An attitude of gratitude

5/20/17 – Well, it’s 1:04 a.m. and I’ve spent most of today standing around so cheers to this one and precious life full of people that I really, really love. I accomplished a lot of things so I’m going to get through all of this before I fall asleep

My first victory was getting out of bed before 8 a.m. today, mostly thanks to my roommate roasting me with sarcasm. I managed to shimmy out of the covers and get dressed so I could grab some soy milk from Safeway and whip up a vanilla soy latte and a scallion pancake, all before 9:30 a.m. I went to my User Research class’s quiz section and made a new friend and learned about different ways to visualize data and write survey questions that could be compared and analyzed further. I met someone who was really passionate about user research and is taking a course about it in the spring. I talked about my internship at Microsoft and was proud as fuck because I got it with zero connections but because I worked really, really hard and have spent the lat 2 years developing strong writing samples that I’m proud to share – and I’m not going to be quiet about it because I don’t have to, and the right people will be there to help me celebrate.

Then, I headed up one floor to Mary Gates Hall to meet my supervisor for a feedback meeting about CLUE. My supervisor was really shaken about a conversation he had with a student in General Studies 101 (an academic support class for students who are on probation or need additional support with developing skills related to studying and time management), and my co-worker took the time to stop him and ask, “is everything OK?” Although I’ve struggled to get along with this person in this past, it was a reminder that they really were trying to care about all of us – she saw a moment to check in even when my supervisor had verbally said he was fine. That’s really important, you know? I need to remember to be patient with people and recognize when they’re trying their best because I would want others to do that for me.

Afterward, they handed me a stack of evaluations that students I tutored had filled out throughout the quarter, and I had to stop myself from crying as my eyes read over sentences about how I was “perfect,” had genuine energy, cared about their needs and provided specific strategies for improvement. And then they read the feedback from my peers about how I spend time trying to make relationships with my peers, am curious and strive to establish rapport, validate student’s concerns about writing, and clearly value my work and wowwowowow I strive to embody all of these qualities but I didn’t realize that anyone would actually feel this way about me? It’s yet another reminder that I am in the right field and considering that I love what I do every single day, I’m gonna roll with it.

Then, I found my lovely friend and watched a lot of my friends share their research at the symposium. Although I am not heavily involved in research myself, I love that my friends are able to teach me things and get excited about their work – and I love that I can repay them with genuine questions. I love that I have people that I can stand really close to and look into their eyes and talk about how all public health clubs are the same. I also love that my friends are so committed to making their research accessible to the general public and are willing to use emojis to do this – hey, you’ve got to keep the audience in mind!

I’m also glad that I was able to take pictures at the SMAHRT researchers, and I love that I could bring my friend to see their projects because she really valued their work, especially in a field of research that was so new like social media.

I’m happy that I saw an old friend and, after a really long time, was able to talk to her about everything that happened. I realized how much I do matter to the people in my life, I was talking to my other friend, and she said she wished everyone knew that they mattered to someone – and I wish that too. Although friendships can shift and morph and people grow up, I hope that we can still keep our ties and figure it out.  In this conversation with my friend, I realized just how much we had grown up in the last 2.5 years, and I think we forgot to acknowledge that. Here’s to more communication about my needs and valuing people and their time and remembering that it’s important to try to see others – I guess I’ve spent most of my life being afraid that my relationships can be such a source of joy so, in a way, I’m afraid to let people have so much weight on my happiness because I’m OK with losing friendships as part of the process we call life.

But I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to value relationships and people and friendships all while creating meaningful work and getting baller grades. And I hope that I can spend more time doing that.

And lastly, I’m thankful for friends who will help me reflect on all of this, and who are proud of everything I’ve done. I’m so glad to see so many people who make me smile, even when called Corn or Ryan (it certainly takes inclusion to a whole new level), and commentary about how slavery is not a thing of the past. I love lovely friends who while lie on the floor and listen to Justin Bieber and remind me that I am a precious jewel who is always worthy of people’s time, but always has a lot to learn.

100 Days of Happiness: Cheers to the weekend

4/15/17 – Things to be thankful for include nice boys who follow me on Spotify, fun parties where I can make the choice to drink and be confident in my decision, coffee machines that save me $$ everyday, honest posts about proving people wrong, and being wrapped warm blankets next to heaters before midnight. Today, I spent the day with Dorothy, Marisa, Carol, and a few other friends during an 11-hour excursion to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, and the bright blooms and excitement of my friends made it a day to remember (and a nice reminder that’s it OK to just have some fun and not crack open a textbook on a Saturday). We even waited 50 minutes for some blueberry cheesecake and almond pistachio ice cream (totally worth it), and managed to over 1,200 photos in one day (shout-out to golden hour at a farmer’s market that you visit after parking on the side of a highway – some memories just can’t be recreated or explained fully). We spent the whole car ride home jamming to Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber, and early 2000’s hits, and I found myself beaming more than ever because I got to spend my evening with my two favorite Husky 100’s who refer to me as “Microsoft” in celebration of a $21,000 summer that I’m still trying to believe is mine. But hey, my writing skills and commitment to turning my weakness into a strength and supportive friends who remind me to push push push helped me get here, and I ca own that. And despite that 7:20 a.m. wake-up call that occurred after a drunken night with some very special friends, I’m still smiling.

Oh, drunken night, you ask? Haha I guess that might warrant some explanation. So, Clayton, Dana, and I all embarked on round 2 of that party last quarter, and you already know that I was hoping to make some memories with some of the most important people in my life at the moment. For a recap, I still identify Jordan’s last party as one of the happiest memories I have to date. Clayton and Dana and I all bonded over our shared post of OChem and our love of Public Health (or lack thereof), and I spent 4 hours talking with Clayton and thinking of making out with him but thoughts aside, we had a good ass time and I was genuinely happy.

So, I guess I hoped that Friday would be a repeat in terms of fun and memory-making – and if you’re wondering about how successful the night was, please note that I got his number and I did so quite smoothly aka I inquired very directly 😉 Also this memory is too good to spare any details but it’s also 12:11 a.m., but I’ll do my best so this post jogs my memory at a later time. We all made cookies for the party since the task was to bring something with a multiple of 7 (the other option was alcohol, which Clayton certainly fulfilled by bringing some white wine that he liked. I told him that he has to bring alcohol that I like next time aka based on the bottle aesthetic and OMG I’m grinning ear to ear and biting my tongue because this was so cute and damn I think I can flirt if the time and momentare right). After baking our cookies and compiling them in a tin, we were off in the whip aka Clayton’s car. Clayton and I started the night together, which began with some conversation and the question, “I’m gonna get a drink. Do you want some?” In this moment, I decided that I trusted Clayton and Dana and the situation so I was ready to say yes. Also I’ve never said “yes” so fast in my life so that’s nice 😉 So, I might have gotten a little tipsy and Clayton could say the same (he did say this), and we ended up being a lil’ flirty and talking about a lot of things and jamming to the music and resting our heads on each other’s shoulders for a little bit too long. Honestly, my favorite part was him stumbling over and slinging his arm over the back of the couch and saying, “I’m drunk.” And, I’m pretty sure I said “me too” so that’s nice. I really enjoyed myself, and it was a reminder that I can get back in the game or just be friends and have fun either way. I might have stumbled on the way to the bathroom and had to give myself a pep talk in between some comments about my fly eye makeup and mascara combo but overall, I enjoyed the night. It’s a reminder to surround myself with people who always care and blurt out statements like “I follow you on Spotify” from Clayton without even knowing how much that means to me, but always demonstrating that he cares about me. I think it was a night worth smiling about, just because it’s fun to vibe with people and vibe on the couch and hold someone’s arm without thinking twice about it (and have feelings of genuine affection be reciprocated).

The grand finale (of Winter 2017)

Well, I have finally returned to Federal Way, I’m packed for my trip to Greece tomorrow, and all of my files have been consolidated on my computer in case I ever need to consult my Public Health notes (not likely, but we’ll keep them around) – it looks like winter 2017 is officially coming to a close. This time last year, I was a Biochemistry major (but was hoping to apply to Public Health) and was taking some of the most difficult courses of my college career and feeling profoundly disconnected from them. At the end of that winter quarter, I had just finished my hardest class ever (the second class in the Organic Chemistry series), crossed my finger and toes and hoped that I passed by some miracle in the form of a TA taking pity on me, and jetted off to Toronto for a wedding/family reunion. That was one of the most difficult quarters of my life – all I can remember from that time is darkness and constant thoughts about how I would make it out alive. I thought that choosing a different career was a sign that I was a quitter who would be taking the easy way out, so I powered through and waited for the day that I could fill my days doing fulfilling work. Still, I managed to make it with the help of some wonderful friends, 10 p.m. coffee runs, and a whole lot of writing as a form of self-care – and, thankfully, most of those people from this time are still in my life and make me better every single day.

In some ways, this quarter feels similar. It was profoundly difficult, but not for the reasons I expected. I decided to take CSE 143, the second class in the introductory programming series at the UW, and I knew that if I passed, I would receive elective credit for my dream major, Human Centered Design and Engineering. I often say that taking CSE 143 felt like a full-time job, and it really was. I spent hours in the study center, never skipped out on my 8:30 a.m. quiz section, and rallied every single person I knew with a CSE background to help me make it through those weekly assignments. Although the problems we solved were certainly interesting and challenging, I knew from the very beginning that I didn’t seek a career in programming, so I struggled to motivated to do it. How purposeful can it feel to make a program of 20 questions when I could be writing articles about gender disparities in STEM and the need for great mentorship? Regardless, I knew this course was a stepping stone to my future career, so I couldn’t give up. But when the person that I thought would be there to help me the most left my life, CSE seemed to go from a manageable class to a TKO for my GPA and me, and at first, I didn’t see a way that I could make it out on my own.

So, what did I do? I fought harder. I’m always been incredibly fortunate to have amazingly selfless people in my life who stayed up until 1 a.m. helping me understand the difference between stacks and queues or understand how to compare strings, and these people showed up for me time and time again (both emotionally and in the context of CSE – shout-out to wrong turns that lead to the right people and friends who want to see you become your best self) ­– it took an army to get me through that class, but we did it. Now, I might even understand the benefits to each data structure and how to write recursive solutions ­– if only I had a method that could proofread my essays 😛

But CSE wasn’t the only difficult thing in my life this quarter. Maybe it’s not fair to say this, but falling in and out of love was a rollercoaster that I don’t want to ever ride again. It started out in the most promising way, as if it couldn’t get any better. I found myself smiling a whole lot more, finally understanding what Ed Sheeran and all those sappy love songs were really about – but aside from all that, I saw the relationship as a consistent good thing that I could count on. But then it ended as quickly as it started, left me aching and broken even though I put up the front that I could never be affected by someone in such a profoundly negative way. I remember wondering how I could survive it, as if every semblance of self-doubt that I had about my ability to have a successful relationship was true, as if it was my fault my bad my inability to get it right, even though I had taken this chance despite all of my fears. I listened to “Show Me Love” by Chance the Rapper and hoped that I could hold back any ill-wishes, hoping that I would not be broken at the feet of a neglectful relationship that I had mistaken for the love I thought I deserved. This was only week 3, and I couldn’t imagine what the rest of the quarter would look like for me.

But in the aftermath, once again, I turned to my community and writing for strength. I transformed the saga of my relationship, the one that had been associated with hurt rather than healing, into a story that I could tell to others, one that would leave them gripping their seat as I weaved the narrative that revealed my resilience and ability to forgive. In these moments, I realized that I was the narrator and had ownership of how I presented my story, so I was determined to make it a good one. I took to the margins of pages that turned into word documents full of poetry and honest assertions, hoping that writing what tugged at my soul would help me see a point where I was my own again. In all honesty, I’m still working on fully embracing self-love as a core value. Part of me still blames myself, as if I could have prevented it by loving harder or deeper or given more than I tried. But, this wasn’t me, and I deserve someone who loves as deeply as I do – rupi kaur reminds me of that every day.

I learned to tell my story not only in the secret of my notebook pages but in ways that I could share with others. I performed in the Blank Monologues and shared the windy journey of norming and reforming my identity, as influenced by my Pakistani culture, Muslim religion, and influence of society’s (and my mother’s) perceptions about my body and what would make it beautiful and acceptable. I was able to come out of my shell and tell the whole thing with more honesty and resilience that I ever thought possible – and the people who mattered showed up and supported me every step of the way. I even shared my writing with people in my classes, and I was amazed at the way that other students identified with my work and were able to laugh, cry, and grow along with me as I touched on themes of identity and cultural appropriation and struggling to find a house that felt like a home. In my most vulnerable moments, my community was there to support me exactly as I was. I also continued to write for The Daily and covered events about indigenous feminism, a program that supports economically disadvantaged and educationally underserved students who dream of becoming engineers and supporting their families, and a performance showcase that I’ve written about every year since I was a freshman – and I even landed them front page. I created a portfolio about my leadership development that I can share with the world, and I committed to honest reflection that acknowledged my growth and the ways that other people have helped me get here. These are the most authentic pieces of my story, and I’m learning to celebrate them with others.

This quarter, I got to say yes to my dream major – Human Centered Design and Engineering. I can’t even believe that I get to say that: I am going to be an engineer. I get to use technology for social impact and put people first and revolutionize the way that things are done right now. Moreover, companies and places like Seattle Children’s and Microsoft are looking at my work and saying “we want her.” Students at CLUE are requesting me and thanking me for my feedback and advice and support on their personal statements and PhD dissertations. My friends are thanking me for sharing my story and encouraging them to keep fighting every single day.

I can’t believe that I get to bridge engineering and writing and accessibility through mentorship and higher education, which is what I have always wanted to do. Now, I get to take classes like “Intro to User-Centered Research” and say yes to my dream internship and learn how to be a better writer and designer and mentor and friend, which is something that I’ve dreamed of doing my whole life. I get to be somebody that I needed when I was younger, and I think third-grade me, the one who wondered if I would ever find my passion, would be proud to see who I’ve become. I think I’m very proud too ❤

So that’s winter quarter in a nutshell – a whole lot of struggle and survival despite it all, thanks to amazing people who have validated my story and identity every single day. I’m hoping that some of the changes from the quarter will continue in the future – making time for self-care through running and writing, being unapologetic about my story and identity, and valuing the important people in my life. I will keep searching for things that help  me feel alive.

In short, this quarter was a lesson in abandoning the shallow and easy and learn to build up a more resilient and vulnerable form that I’m proud to be. I returned to my passion for writing and storytelling and mentorship while trying all the shit that scared me i.e telling the story of my identity on a big stage /  taking classes that forced me to learn how to code smarter and think like a real programmer (damn I can frick with those data structures now) / confront my privilege / take a chance and apply to my dream program (and say yes – this girl is going to be an engineer) / engage with the people in my field, apply for my dream jobs that were way out of my league but trying anyway / and identify the values that I’m grounded in (my money is on inclusion and diversity as values that underpin my work, not just buzzwords for your quota).This is such a beautiful and precious life full of amazing people and conversations that helped me see myself a little be more clearly, and I’m will end this quarter in the same gratitude that I started with  ❤

The Blank Monologues (2.11.17)

Well, I did the thing ­– in other words, I just finished my third and final performance in the Blank Monologues. I would describe this event as a night of storytelling related to identity, resiliency, and ownership. For the past three nights, I shared my honest and unfiltered story on the stage of the HUB Lyceum and people I knew (and people I didn’t) laughtd and cried and snapped along. My story is valid and deserves to be heard, and I can’t believe I’m making my freshman year dreams coming true. I really am here, living to fight another day. Thanks to my brown skin and religion and self-imposed identity crisis and shitty break-up and damn good friends for giving me a story that’s worth telling.

I can’t believe that I was picked to share my story, and it’s especially crazy because I almost walked away from the interview process. My entire life, I felt like my experience wasn’t valid or nuanced or painful or real enough. I thought that I didn’t have anything worth talking about, that I wasn’t important enough to share my authentic story. But now, I realize that my story and the stories of people like me have often gone untold. Narratives about emotional abuse and eating disorders are often told by white females, and narratives from people of color struggling with this are often silenced or unheard. I am proud of myself for being so vulnerable and sharing without any of the B.S. or sugarcoating. Our narratives deserve to be heard, and you cannot silence the people who are not afraid anymore. We refuse to be silent

In the process of understanding my own cultural, ethnic, and religious identity, I searched for moments and people that would help me honestly answer the question, “what box do I check?” I was able to share my story resilience and survival, and no one can take that away from me. To everyone that came out or texted me supportive words or reminded me that I am indeed valid and important, I say thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am so thankful for the people in my life who have always reminded me that my experience matters. To the people who told me that my story was inspiring or that they resonated with anything I said, know that those comments mean the world to me –  my goal was to positively impact at least one person, and it means everything that there are people out there who are connecting with my story. You are beautiful and wonderful and valid, so don’t let anyone talk that away from you. Know that I will keep raising my voice for you, and I will always be here if you need a source of support ❤

I don’t really know who I am but in this moment, I feel strong and proud and all of the words that I’ve always wanted people to associate with me. I can’t believe I got up on stage and unapologetically told my story (although I did make some jokes that didn’t really land, but there’s nothing new there lol). I am grateful for this day and this opportunity and this sense of validation. Maybe I really don’t need any editing after all.


Norming and Reforming My Identity:

As someone who lives on edges and borders of this world, I struggle with my identity on an everyday basis. You’d think that picking a word to associate with who I am would be easy because it’s all about the way I see myself, hence the term “self-identification” – there’s no way to get that wrong, right? I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at checking a box, thanks to all those demographic forms I’ve filled out when applying to receive scholarships or jobs or internships. I am Asian (in case you were wondering), but there’s a little bit more to my story. Both of my parents are Pakistani born and raised so those are definitely my roots, but I haven’t spoken Urdu regularly in years and can’t even say Asamalaikum, the term for hello, without a hint of an American accent, and I haven’t visited my ostensible home country in years. Similarly, I’m Muslim but don’t really fulfill that good girl image where I cover my knees and shoulders for the sake of modesty – for those of you who find my collarbone so distracting, I think we have bigger fish to fry.

So, the world has provided me all these terms that, in theory, should help me check the right boxes. At the same time, words like “Asian” and “Muslim” and “American” that capture my objective reality have never quite done it for me, especially as my identity has shifted over the last few years. When I went to high school at a private Catholic institution that was 15 miles from Federal Way, the city I have always called home, nobody looked like me. I was once tried to count the number of South Asians that I met during my four years there, and I ended up with … 2 people including me. I don’t really think anyone tried to talk about diversity because that word didn’t fit comfortably in our mouths. It was hard to take pride in my colorful culture because I didn’t really know how. I sported elaborate mehndi and glittering outfits during 5 day celebrations honoring the sanctification of marriage meanwhile others are sporting $5 henna elephants to match their bindis in preparation for Coachella – just a side note: if you want to take parts of South Asian culture like the jewelry and my “beautiful tan skin that you long for” – yes, someone did say those actual words to me – why don’t you take the oppression and struggle and all the pieces of myself that I will never fully love? Thick lashes and beautiful wedding pictures aren’t the full story.

So, I’m in this space where don’t have the community, words, or awareness to know how to take pride in my culture that was so often exploited and appropriated when it was convenient for others. I also spent a lot of my time not really fitting into the boxes of other people’s perceptions either. For the first 17 years of my life, I was used to being told that I looked Indian. When I tried to correct people with the phrase, “Oh no, I’m Pakistani,” most people gazed back with a slightly confused look and asserted, “isn’t that the same thing?” I mean, Pakistan and India hadn’t been the same country since 1947 and they are completely separate in terms of ethnic and religious identity and demographics and resources and industries, but here was this person telling me that none of that mattered. Was the way that others perceived me more important than my self-perception? I honestly stopped picking a fight and began to just shrug in agreement.

Other than bragging about how I hadn’t gotten sunburned in years, I didn’t really embrace my brown skin and often removed myself from the culture. I refused to speak Urdu at home, skipped out on family get-togethers with the age-old excuse of studying for upcoming tests, and pretended that I was a soft-spoken girl who didn’t dream of working at Google or creating a start-up that bridged the need for emergency mental health resources with machine learning.

And then, enter my religion, which is the other salient part of my identity that’s difficult to avoid discussing, especially when you grew up going to Christian schools and avoid pepperoni pizza and conversations about the wonders of bacon because, newsflash, you can’t eat it. It took me a really long time to say that I was Muslim out loud because I just wanted to avoid conversations that attributed the actions of extremists to all followers of Islam. In reality, my religion at its core believes in spreading peace and joy to others. My grandmother raised me for most of my life, and I honestly think that every good quality I have comes from what she taught me. Because of her faith, she was able to love deeply and profoundly for the people in her life. She had prayed every for my health and safety every day since I was born. In my mind, my grandmother embodies Islam and its values.

But, other people didn’t always see our religion the same way. I remember when one of my high school’s midterm extra credit questions stated, “what was the ethnicity of the group that bombed the twin towers?” and the overwhelming response was “Muslim.” Can you believe that? As if our college prep education hadn’t taught us basic history of this great country that we celebrate with our normalizing holidays like Fourth of July, as if the glint of red, white, and blue in the sky somehow represents what it means to be citizen while masking the stories that lie on the backs of the immigrants who helped build it.

At the end of the day, I’m not Pakistani enough to fit in with my family members who can easily identify their home country and find strength in religious beliefs. But I’m still not American enough because I’m growing up in this post 9/11 world where the word “terrorist” and “Muslim” are frequently associated in news briefs, and I felt like those negative perceptions are projected onto me as an individual. All I wanted want to find some words that felt like home without having to question it.

Somewhere in between these struggles to understand what box to check, I think I started loathing my culture. I didn’t really resent it in its essence because I care about the strong values I’ve developed. What I do resent a little bit is the way that I see my body, as if it was some vehicle that I could change in order to get respect from others. My mother grew up hating her brown skin and any extra fat on her body. So, I hated mine as well and tried to fit the definition of an American cisgender heterosexual woman in an effort to make it easier to interact with the world. Internalizing these the beauty standards imposed by my mother started from a young age, but in relatively innocuous ways. My family has terrible genetics and high incidence of chronic diseases like diabetes, so we had to make deliberate choices to prioritize our heath. My mother has pioneered our family’s effort to eat better and we traded the white rice for brown rice and learned to eat one vegetarian meal one week. In the process, my mother also learned about all these “fabulous” substitutes for butter like applesauce and yogurt and sour cream but somehow, everything she made was light and fluffy as ever. I thought this rhetoric of health was a way that we could live our best lives was a fair one and, for the most part, it was.

But then, these conversations started to take a turn. My mother’s questions shifted from asking me to take second helpings of pasta to asking me to list everything I had eaten that day (and snacks needed to be included in this tally). She inquired about how many times I had exercised that week asked if I had looked into calorie counting apps because apparently, they’re a dream. She asked me if I should really be eating that much – I asked if she could be any ruder.

Frankly, it wasn’t her fault and I don’t think I can get mad at her for doing this – In my culture, as a woman, your weight is everything. If the saying is that you’re worth your weight in gold, then we hoped we didn’t strike it. My mother had so much more to be proud of besides her physical appearance: she was a respected doctor and mother who defied the odds and earned the respect of all my peers, and I had never seen someone with so much drive and self-discipline in my life. But still my mother put her worth in that number on a scale and hoped that, in the process, she would be respected and valid in this country and the spaces she inhabited.

So, this story of self-loathing and never being able to reach a goal weight that inched lower and lower with every check-in didn’t start with staring at pictures of Teen Vogue wishing that I could look like Lindsey Lohan and all those Victoria Secret models. It started with me looking at my mother eating one yogurt with granola all day after exercising for 3 hours, and being proud of it.

And at the end of the day, I was left with one notion: if we couldn’t control our skin color and the way people saw, we could at least control our body proportions.

The story turned the way it often does – I became obsessive about exercise, as if running could help me reach some prize in the form of respect for myself and others. Comments about how I ate too fast or too much echoed through my mind, and I could barely think of what I’d have for lunch without asking myself, “do you really deserve to eat that?” as if this being that I so often neglected needed to earn something as simple as food. So, I broke my body in the hopes that I could build it up into something better, but better only meant thinner and that extra small skirts with an elastic waistband could be loose on my hips.

This breakdown in my self-perception was echoed by the breakdown in my relationship with my mother. Our dialogue became curt and quick until her only comments had nothing to do with my perspective and thoughts and everything to do with the way I look. Your skin is terrible, you’re eating too much, and have you exercised today? You might want to think about running twice a day. I’ve heard that results in faster weight loss.

It’s been hard to find self-acceptance because I spent most of mu time looking for it through others. I sought it from friends and peers and family, hoping that their words of encouragement about looking good in a particular outfit could serve as validation for skipping meals and choosing gym visits over opportunities to see friends. Because the heavier my weight on the scale, the less validation I received from all the aunties and uncles who couldn’t even remember my major but could surely remember my former physique.

Still, I had to learn how to norm and reform my identity, and understand that this world wasn’t really made for me. I remember the age of would you rather questions, and the hardest one was if I wanted to be intelligent or beautiful. Of course, I value intelligence and the ability to challenge people’s perceptions and develop language for my values, but I had always wanted to be beautiful – but, beauty by what standards? Selectively picking up pieces of my Pakistani culture that fit into the American perception of beauty, but deleting everything that wasn’t desirable? They wanted the tan skin but not the oppression, the long lashes but not the hair that grows in every other place – I was an artifact and they took the pieces that suited them best, so I was left in this perpetual state of in-between and I just wanted someone to tell me that I made sense – or maybe that I didn’t need any editing at all. But if I could change this outer shell and receive some semblance of respect from others, I guess losing my sense of self was a sacrifice worth making.

Somehow in between the high school to college transition and the opportunity to grow on my own, I did learn to celebrate who I am. I think this started to happen when I began to self-identify as a strong, something that I had always wanted to be. I looked back at my life and these difficult moments where I could have let other people’s negative perception break me, but they never did. I was still here, living to fight another day, as if my ability to thrive despite it all was the most beautiful act of resistance. My motto is that today is about survival, and tomorrow is about resilience.

It took me a while to realize this, but I think I was given everything I need to heal and survive. I firmly believe that life throws the worst curveballs in the fucking park, but I have the power to overcome them. I celebrate my story by owning my skin and the thick hair that grows on my head and my face, by acknowledging my sheepishness in the face of intimidating situation, and by recognizing that the demographic box for “Asian” never quite does it for me. I am learning to actively share my story, call people out on their assumptions, and surround myself with people who appreciate and respect my culture in its purest form, not a token that fulfills a diversity quota.

But I don’t think I got to this point alone – I had spent most of my life shutting people out, and  I thought that silence was survival. But I realized that relationships really matter, and there were people who could help me see myself a little bit more clearly. I swear, my favorite thing in the entire world is when someone looks at me and says, “how are you doing?” and is ready to take on an honest answer. I am beyond thankful for the people in my life who can do this for me, who have taught me how to love deeply, to forgive those who have harmed me, and who help me remember that I deserve to be here. In some ways, I still interact with the world as somewhat an outsider, but one who is more aware of privilege and the struggle faced by people of color like me. My culture’s and religion’s values – not of a specific body type but ones of resiliency and empathy and selflessness – now govern the way I interact with the world.

As a community, we’ve been hurt before but we need stop fighting; this fiery spirit cannot be easily quenched. I remember the day that the election results came out and how I spent most of the day hoping that the descending rainfall could disguise the tears on my face. I wept for the past and the future, for all the stories my grandmother told me about moving to Pakistan when soldiers forced her to flee India and how she refused to look them in the eye, and then when she came to America 20 years later. What was that struggle for if we had a president who didn’t want us here?

Well, newsflash: we aren’t going anywhere. Because even if I don’t perfectly fit into all the boxes of my culture, I know that we are part of a collective community that will always find strength and value in my experience.

So, what was my identity? It was all of these things that made me colorful. It was the flowy Pakistani shalwar kameez embroidered with elaborate gold thread that I wore, the curries and kebabs with 5 star spices that would make any cook at Thaiger Room cry, the inflection in my voice when saying words like “Pakistan” and “Dubai” – these are the things that help me feel the most like myself.

But even if I could find peace with my ethnic identity, I still had to reconcile this war with my body. I don’t think this came all at once, but it got easier. I soon realized I was tired of censoring myself and my diet and my thoughts. If I could learn to love my thoughts and values, then surely if I saw a fucking donut, I could eat it. I don’t know if anyone completely overcomes thoughts of disordered eating, and I still have days where I want to throw away all the progress. But I’m learning to choose my health and be gentler with myself and somehow, things started to turn around.

Still, there’s a moment that feels regressive. I try to avoid going home to see my parents, but winter break is always on as regularly scheduled programming. We were all eating dinner as a family, and I use that term loosely, and I was getting tired of my mother’s comments about how being 105 pounds will solve all my problems and maybe salad was a better choice than that bread. I remember snapping at her and saying: “You know, I used to be anorexic, and I don’t deserve to feel inadequate just because we don’t fit into the society’s normative perceptions of beauty.” Until that point, I never said the “a” word out loud, and my first reaction was one of pride in myself for acknowledging this past experience and owning my ability to move past it. But that moment was short-lived because my mother scoffed at me, surveyed me up and down, and responded with, “how could you be anorexic and look like that?”

Honestly, there’s not a single day that goes by that those words don’t echo through my mind. It’s safe to say that, in the aftermath I cried a lot, wondering if all the hurting could heal, wondering if my journey to get to a place of self-love was lost thanks to one comment. I think my body is just waiting for me to love it again, to feed it good things and take it to new places with good company.

It’s hard to deal with emotional abuse at the hands of a family member, especially in my culture. I’ve always been taught that family is everything, and mothers are second to God. There’s a parable about a man who carries his mom through the entire pilgrimage of Mecca to repay her for all the suffering she’s endured as a mother. When asks the prophet if he’s repaid his debt, he is told that he has only repaid his mother for one night she endured with him in the womb. Some story, huh?

Sure, I could never repay her for all the sacrifices she made as a mother, but I wasn’t sure if I could forgive her for all the damage she’s left on my psyche and self-perception. I was good at giving people the benefit of the doubt, and my dad tried to remind me that she didn’t mean what she said: she was just looking out for me, and I didn’t need to be so sensitive. I mean, they were just well-intentioned words and she was my mother, after all.

When the whirlwind of words and people fade after fragments of past moments settle around me, I’m left asking myself: what do I do now?

Do I self-identify as broken and unmendable or as resilient, someone who can define myself outside of other people’s perceptions? I don’t know if I have all the answers, but I do know one thing: I have fought every day to survive and I will keep fighting until I learn to love the parts of myself that will never be validated by others.

So, how do I survive? A lot of different ways. I’ve realized that getting through this life starts with survival in small ways that mimic a return to normalcy. I recognize the blessings in the forms of wonderful friends who will let me send novels over text, in notebooks pages full of brightly colored ink and blatantly honest assertions, and moments where I look at a cake pop and say “treat yo self. And while you’re here, get a latte too.”

I was born and trained to be a warrior and a storyteller, and my past cannot change me – this is how I choose to self-identify, so you can fuck your little bubble sheet that quantify my demographics. Maybe you should diversify your answers to encompass everything else that I am: resilient and vulnerable and fucking proud to be here. I think it’s okay that the good moments don’t last forever. It reminds me that I’m a fighter. As I continue to face obstacles, I will remember that everything I encounter is nothing compared to the things I’ve survived. It’s never too late to start over, and maybe I can become something greater this time.

Lots of love ❤ Aleenah

100 Happy Days: An exercise in self-care (1.29.17)

I should probably be doing CSE right now, but I need to dedicate a few minutes to active reflection – but if this a tool for survival and resilience that empowers me, it must be worth something. This is how I take care myself and put together the pieces again

I suppose this has been a theme all quarter, but a lot has happened in the last few days. I went to a party with my friend and strived to serve up my best look consisting of a fuzzy pink sweater that was softer than a baby feel-it book, a bright pink lip, and a black velvet choker that harkens back to my interest in music of the pop punk persuasion but always leaves me feeling more confident than ever. In between moments of awkwardly skirting around strangers and twiddling my thumbs, I managed to make a really good friend that I could talk to for hours. The evening’s events served as a sign from the universe that it’s OK to move on – and maybe it’s OK to have a little bit of fun amid the hustle.

I finally read my monologue out today, which might be my greatest action of resilience and survival. My friend said she liked the way I integrated facets of my identity and intersectionality. This whole experience has been extremely cathartic, and I feel like I’ve rebuilt myself into the most resilient form. I am so so so proud to me here, surviving and thriving as a Pakistani Muslim woman. God bless friends who will let me share and cry and be 100% real about this story that I’ve waited to tell. Maybe I’m not worried that people will see me as broken because I know that I am not – I am strong, and I see myself as a whirlwind and empire that cannot be easily teamed. So, here’s to moving onward and upwards. I wish I had more to express but right now, I feel at peace with the momentum of my life. I’m really glad I took the leap and decided to share my story on that stage, and I hope it makes at least one person feel less alone.

In other news, I’m still struggling to identify my purpose at this university and beyond, and I think that’s why I often come off as “confusing” or “unfocused” in my long-term pursuits. I can identify the connections across public health and higher education and human centered design and engineering (long story short, I want to use technology for social impact and start proactively solving problems by looking at entire populations as target groups, and identifying tangible solutions that address their needs, all while engaging in an iterative design process and putting people first), but those bridges aren’t always evident to others. As much as I love HCDE, that’s enough because I have to fight for it and essentially prove my worth, all while competing with other students who want the same thing. I’ve read so many personal statements in the last 25 days and it sucks to know that I could help someone get in and effectively take a spot that I want just as badly.

So, I see a lot students fighting for majors and careers and lives that they’ve dreamed about their whole lives. There must be someone else out there who sees a button that says “future engineer” and longs to make that phrase reflect their reality. It’s so hard to be a STEM student at UW because you have to prove yourself at every step, and its’ hard to feel like you’re valid enough. As someone who has changed my academic trajectory quite a few times, I understand this struggle from every angle and I’m left wondering “what do I do now?” What’s my role? As one person, can my voice be enough to empower people with these struggles? Working on this direct to college admissions model could be one way to use my voice. I do engage with students in everyday ways and strive to help them feel valid, but I struggle even more know that some kiddos have to compromise on their dreams because they’re applying for their third choice major and their financial aid is running out and golly, all they ever wanted was to be an engineer – who thought that a broken system could be the only thing standing in their way, one that asks for specific and eloquent rationale and related experiences but will ultimately reject them because of grades and, in feedback sessions, claim “we just didn’t think you could handle the upper division courses.” It’s tough when you’re fighting every day to feel valid and you don’t quite fit into any box perfectly but you’re asked to craft perfectly poignant personal statements about a career in computer science when you’ve never gotten a chance to really dig into the reality of a discipline.

Maybe I’m finally reaching a point where I’m ready to take action, to create the change and start the conversations I needed to hear, one where exploration and curiosity are encouraged. I want to empower the fighters and the dreamers who are still going after what they want despite it all. What needs to change first? Is it the language, the approach, or the methodology of how we support pre-engineering and pre-med students? I’ve spent most of my time in the back of advising offices wondering how much I can do. For now, the question is: what do I do first?

~ Song of the moment: I Come Apart featuring the line “separate the highs from the lows” and “I come apart – you keep it together”

100 Days of Happiness: High standards / being in the right business (1.23.17)

I am convinced that magnum ice cream bars and baked goods smothered in pumpkin butter on the counter can fix just about everything. It’s 12:48 a.m. and I’m exhausted but my heart (and stomach) are so full. I’m feeling all the right ways, working hard at work worth doing and all of the pieces are falling into place the way I would like. I am so thankful for this day and this life, and I will try to remember this feeling when pangs of nostalgia come over me. Like Rupi Kaur said, losing you is beautiful sad all at once. But hey, I don’t have to lose our conversations and insights – we still have all of that. I’m thankful that I have a deeper understanding of the disciplines that my students want to enter, and I can confidently reference operating systems and machine learning without a sheepish side glance. I’m glad that I can hold people to high standards and keep them accountable for the effects of their words. I have never stopped being an empire, and I will not shrink for people who aren’t worth it.

I’m thankful for friends who remind me not to look for fulfillment in people who can’t provide anything but neglect. I deserve to surround myself with people who give a shit, and I’m lucky to have people are unapologetically real about how much I deserve from others. I always strive to create room for my ideas and thoughts, so maybe he’s in need of some space this time.

Today, I managed to help my friend craft a final draft of his Husky 100 app, all while commuting between Seattle and Bothell, conducting meetings for work, and completing interviews for my articles. It was so empowering to help another respected student leader tell their story, and I’m glad that I could repay him for all the Math 12X help I received. Ultimately, his essay managed to capture his three-dimensional personality and involvement, and I knew that he was a Husky 100 all along – I just wanted his essay to reflect the nuance and passion of his story. I hope that he was proud of the final product, and here’s to seeing both of our names being announced as winners of this award.

Musings: You should diversify your answers

I think I’m feeling pretty good about where everything is in my life. For example, my leadership development class focuses on making meaning out of my past leadership experiences so I just completed an exercise where I reflected on some key learning experiences, what I did, and why they mattered to me. It was surprisingly difficult to talk about the personal impact of these times because I’m used to making a laundry list of my duties and relating them to job descriptions, but something about this felt more organic.  Additionally, my applications for Human Centered Design and Engineering and Husky 100 and my talk for the Blank Monologues are asking me to reflect on what I’ve done and what I plan to do through storytelling. I think it’s a good sign that my values align with those of these programs, and that I’m encouraged to be the best version of myself. I’m still working on the goal of intentionality and recognizing the interactions between all these areas of my life, so hopefully I’ll keep developing self-awareness and learn to listen to my own intuition.

In my public health class the other day, we were asked to identify our race in 3 different ways – one was based on the census survey from the 1970s, one was from a 2000s survey, and one allowed us to fill in the box with a self-identified identity. It was amazing to see the diverse answers from Thai to Vietnamese to Pakistani (holla’ at the motherland), but the best response was the following:

You should diversify your answers.

As someone who constantly struggles to fit into the boxes prescribed by society, I agree. There are so many rigid definitions about the roles we have to play to be successful and valid, and maybe if we made a little bit of room, people like me could feel a little bit more confident. I know I have something good to offer the world. I’m like Emma Stone in La La Land, chasing my dream but wondering if I need to abandon it for something more adult-like. By doing so, I might feel like my long-term goals are my valid because I’m currently floating between higher education, user experience design, and writing. I’m always trying to do the right thing and somehow getting it all wrong because I really want a steady job but in reality, all I really need is to feel like the work that I’m doing matters. I just need to work harder, right? But at the same time, my life seems to lack direction and if physics taught me anything, it’s that work is force through a distance so I need to know where I’m going – and I don’t right now.

100 Days of Happiness: Being whole again (1.17.16)

1/17/17 – It’s 8:17 a.m. on a Tuesday but here I am with a mini reflection. I’ve recently realized how significant relationships are but even more than that, I’ve realized that some people come into our lives as temporary soulmates and even if they can’t take off their coat and stay the night, they can still profoundly influence our lives for the better. When I say soulmates here, I don’t mean it in the sappy Nicholas Sparks way – I’m not searching for eternal romantic love as I did when I was 13 and fawned over Zac Efron. I’ve realized that some people have come into my life at exactly the right time and helped me recognize my self-worth or survive tough things. They’ve helped me self-identify as strong and capable and resilient in moments when the letters ‘c,’ ‘s,’ and ‘e’ threatened to tear down any inkling of confidence I had left.

Maybe we are given all we need to take on life’s U-turns, and I hope to keep meeting the right people in 2017. On the way to class, I thought about my high school best friend. Although we didn’t stay friends forever, she taught me how to live a little in a time when I didn’t really know how to define myself outside of a transcript. She taught me to love profoundly and was patient with me as I discovered new things like football games and awkward Homecoming dances and crushes that might like me back for once. My other friend has taught me how to forgive despite the hurt, and her unconditional love and loyalty makes me wonder if I will be able to trust anyone in that way.
Ultimately, surround yourself with people that build you up, and recognize that resiliency and survival and becoming whole again do not have to occur all at once. We are all healing from our past and maybe one day, we’ll realize that we’re always helping others do the same.

Keep searching for people who make you feel whole again.

100 Days of Happiness: Finding a sense of direction (1.4.17)

Well, I guess lil’ debrief never hurt anyone so here I go. I think I’m feeling pretty good about where everything is in my life (well that’s not 100% true but all things considered, my values of reflection and self-awareness are reflected in my work). For example, my leadership development classes focuses on making meaning out of my past leadership experiences so I just completed an exercise where I reflected on some key learning experiences, what I did, and why they mattered to me. It was surprisingly difficult to talk about the personal impact of these times because I’m used to making a laundry list of my duties and relating them to job descriptions, but something about this felt more organic.  Additionally, my applications for Human Centered Design and Engineering and Husky 100 as well as my talk for the Blank Monologues are asking me to reflect on what I’ve done and what I plan to do through storytelling. I think it’s a good sign that my values align with those of these programs, and that I’m encouraged to be the best version of myself. I’m still working on the goal of intentionality and recognizing the interactions between all these areas of my life, so hopefully I’ll keep developing self-awareness and learn to listen to my own intuition.

In my public health class the other day, we were asked to identify our race in 3 different ways – one was based on the census survey from the 1970s, one was from a 2000s survey, and one allowed us to fill in the box with a self-identified identity. It was amazing to see the diverse answers from Thai to Vietnamese to Pakistani (holla’ at the motherland), but the best response was the following:

You should diversify your answers.

As someone who constantly struggles to fit into the boxes prescribed by society, I agree. There are so many rigid definitions about the roles we have to play to be successful and valid, and maybe if we made a little bit of room, people like me could feel a little bit more confident. I know I have something good to offer the world. I’m like Emma Stone in La La Land, chasing my dream but wondering if I need to abandon it for something more adult-like. By doing so, I might feel like my long-term goals are my valid because I’m currently floating between higher education, user experience design, and writing. I’m always trying to do the right thing and somehow getting it all wrong because I really want a steady job but in reality, all I really need is to feel like the work that I’m doing matters. I just need to work harder, right? But at the same time, my life seems to lack direction and if physics taught me anything, it’s that work is force through a distance so I need to know where I’m going – and I don’t right now.