the persimmon tree

02 Dec 2013

the Persimmon Tree

A few years ago, when I was a grumpy senior in High School, the beloved Magnolia tree in our backyard, source of pink blossoms, rambling branches to climb, and many childhood memories passed away. In its place, my parents went to an Asian nursery and brought back a Persimmon tree.

The tree was thin, crooked, and distinctly budget. Maybe there was some haggling involved. I didn’t like it. I wanted a cherry tree, with fluffy pink blossoms. I wanted an apple tree, something that smacked of wholesomeness and Americana. Instead, my parents got something “Oriental”, that I argued had no retail value when the time came to sell our little house and yard (a low blow, since both my parents and I are firmly attached to the idea of growing old in the same place).

The first year in our yard, the squirrels ate nearly all the blossoms. They bit off many thin twigs and branches, leaving a massacre on the grass. What was left turned into small hard fruits, and the wrist-thin trunk sloped to one side.

I went to school. I didn’t call very much, and I forgot about our tree and our backyard.

But my parents took care of the tree and it grew into a beautiful little thing. Now it bears dozens and dozens of fruit– more than a couple of empty-nesters can eat. The pretty orange persimmons hang like Christmas globes on the small but staunch tree.

By nature there are two types of persimmons– astringent types, which unless utterly ripe to the point of bursting, leave a nasty “furry” feeling on the tongue, and non-astringent types, which can be eaten at any stage of ripeness, always lovely and mild. Our little tree is non-astringent. The fruits are always sweet.

Every Thanksgiving now my parents bring a bucketful to my aunt and uncle’s house, and I take the leftovers back to school. When my mom was a child, persimmons were big and squishy and plentiful and overlooked as a poor man’s fruit. Everyone wanted red American apples and bananas that were yellow. The grocer would say, these bananas have been on a plane– now, have you been on a plane? because a little Chinese girl isn’t much more than a banana. Now, I savor them, a day at a time, to make the harvest last.

Each one reminds me of my parent’s love and my roots– that I am not as American as apple pie, but that the fruit is sweeter still.

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talking to dad

25 Nov 2012

This Thanksgiving dinner, something miraculous happened: I finally felt smart enough to talk to my dad about science.

Now, granted, lest you think I have uncommunicative parents, my dad has been trying to talk to me about science since birth (at 5: do you want to build a computer board with me? now wouldn’t that be fun? me: no! i want to play with Barbies). However, it took me a full 20 years of life and 2 and counting years of Ivy league schooling to finally, finally know what he was talking about.

I feel like this monumental event speaks volumes about a number of important things.

First: that barriers to entry and barriers to culture in science, especially computer science, are, as previously suspected, very very high. I talked a little bit about the use of jargon and how it can discourage many new learners before, especially newcomers and women. Keep in mind that my dad is probably the nicest guy I know, and extremely enthusiastic in trying to get his children to be interested in his work, yet previous to this fall, even when I had been coding for more than a year, it was still intimidating and tough to talk to him about my work.

Second: on the power of being a role model and a huge influence on one’s life without ever telling someone what to do. Growing up, I spent a great deal more time with my mother (who didn’t work) than my father (who is a night owl and worked way past my elementary school bedtime). Neither of my parents told me what I should study or what sort of career to pursue, and my dad especially never tried to push any sort of academic dogma on me. I always felt that he was incredibly smart but that coding and computer science were something I had neither the aptitude or interest in: plus, since my parent did it, it must be, in some way, decidely uncool.

Fast-foward 20 years and he has two daughters in the hard sciences: one is a ph.d student at Princeton and another in Columbia engineering school. It’s especially fun to see how much my area of interest turned out so similiar to my father’s work: both of us are either studying or working in the field of Natural Language Processing, and in fact, I am taking a class under the direction of one of his former colleagues during the glory days of Bell Labs. Note that, being stubborn and independent, I never, ever talked to my dad much about what I was studying at school or doing at my summer jobs. He didn’t suggest NLP or AI to me; I just sort of fell into it, and loved it. An anecdote to the power of being a good role model. (Cathy talks a bit about a similiar topic on her great post, on the making of a girl nerd.)

Or, perhaps the apple really does never fall far from the tree.

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22 Nov 2012

Every day I am thankful but some days I forget.

It is easy to forget and attack the day in steely resolve because life does not take so easily to being loved. We wish for her to be always apple-cheeked and rosy like the girl next door of our childhood dreams: forever preserved in our imaginations, she never loses her temper; her skin always porcelain and clear.

In reality this is not so. Life, she is complicated. When she frowns upon us it is not always the pout we wish we could adore. There are times when she rages and the rage is geniune, full of hatred, bigotry, and fear. She is full of angst and her complexion polluted by man. She is fickle, she smiles upon the beautiful and the wealthy, and she is unfair: unabashedly so.

Still, we would not have it any other way. (Save, maybe, for the extremely uncreative or extremely boring.) There is no great art without an element of tragedy; there is no great genius without a touch of insanity. In its greatest imperfections and frustrations, Life is most human, most poignant. Only chaos can give birth to a dancing star.

Every day I am thankful for a million different things: a list that could be processed across a dozen parallel computers and still take more than seconds to complete. I can’t always recite them but I know they are there. These are just a few.

I am thankful to have a wonderful, caring boss at my work study job who bakes the whole office cake and lets us all know that there is still a place for Southern hospitality in a no-nonsense, metropolitan school.

I am thankful to have parents that are open-minded and loving: it is their eccentricities that make me unique.

I am thankful to have a sister who is my best friend that I talk to everyday just like in books.

I am thankful to have best friends who are like sisters (and brothers). They keep me afloat and are great fun to boot.

I am thankful to be privileged to attend this University; flawed though it may be at times, the knowledge and opportunity is unsurpassable.

I am thankful to have found a field of study that challenges and never fails to fascinate me. I am especially thankful that academic grades are relatively irrelevant in this field.

I am thankful for my good health despite my sleep deprivation and correlated penchant for caffeine and sugar.

I am thankful to wake up in the city that never sleeps, where even shopping for groceries could have taken place in a movie. I never fell in love as a teenager and the City is my first.

Above all I am thankful to be able to put my thoughts into words and those words on a page. This is, perhaps, as Aristotle suspected, what really makes (wo)man (wo)man.

Happy holidays. Take care.

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