On magic

05 Apr 2018

I think about magic often, and what that word means to me.

I think that magic means that something occurs, and we do not need (or really want to find) evidence of how it occurs. Magic means that the emotional truth of the occurrence is enough.

Cambridge is a place where atheism can feel like the predominant religion. There are not many people who are outwardly religious, although they might be inside.

But every time I had an appointment to see the ear surgeon, a man would sit across from me on the bus, urgently crossing himself, clutching rosary beads. He was not an old man and not a very young one either. Maybe in his thirties, slightly overweight, wearing brown leather shoes, a black peacoat, and on some days, a blue collared shirt, which is how I noticed that his eyes were blue.

In other words, he looked perfectly ordinary. The only reason he stood out because his prayers were so fervently strong, and everyone else on the bus was so mindlessly in transit.

Every bus ride I took, he would take too, even though the appointments weren’t all at the same time. He would sit, mumbling to himself, crossing himself, praying as the sun streaked through the bus and people bumped and jostled around him.

I live next to a big, beautiful cemetery. The first time I wondered if he was a priest and he was going to a funeral to lead a service. I grew up with so little concept of religion, even as an adult I’m not sure if all the words I just said are the right ones for that sentence. But he never got off at the cemetery.

The third time I shared a bus with him, I decided that it must have been more than coincidence. I eyed the man on the bus, and followed him ten steps behind as he took the subway, in the same direction as me, from Harvard. I sat with him in the same train car, but not in the same row, so that I could peek at him in my periphery.

I expected him to get off at MGH with me, because where else could one go in such feverish worry if not a funeral or a hospital?

But he didn’t.

After I got better and no longer needed to go to the hospital every week, I often wondered who he was praying for. But I never asked him or even spoke a single word to him, although we made eye contact once. The eye contact was neither warm nor suspicious, it was simply weary.

I thought that he might have been a magical creature and when you see a magical creature at work you should not stop to question their magic. I thought he might have been praying for me.

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Originally posted on Medium.

This is Mayfair Street in Northeast Philly.

It looks like any other street in the city, with little row houses packed together like sardines. Not unlike the Philadelphia row house I spent the first year of my life in after my parents immigrated from China to the States.

But if you squint at the vines crawling on the wire fences, you’ll see that there are bitter melons hanging off the vines, not just purple morning glories.

Yesterday morning I woke up way too early and hesitantly joined my sister and her friends to Get Out the Vote in Pennsylvania, a “battleground” state. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate approaching strangers, least of all to ask them to do something.

The day started off slow, with the sun beating down on a unusually warm November day. Most people were at work, and once a little boy peeped through the blinds — only to bolt the door shut.

Halfway down the street, I knocked on a door and an older Asian gentleman answered.

When I began my spiel, he gestured with his hands. Expected to be waved away again, I began to back off.

But when I leaned closer, I realized what he was saying was no to English, not no to me. Unfortunately, he began speaking in Cantonese, a language I don’t know a word of. As a last ditch effort, I tried to ask him if he’d voted in my third-grade proficiency Mandarin.

He replied!

Mr. Lee* (whose name I learned at the polls) told me people had been knocking and calling all week, but not a single person spoke a word he could understand. He tried to vote this morning, but it was too confusing.

He went home.

Did I know who he wanted to vote for, I asked? He did.

“The Woman,” he said.

Reluctant to abandon my check sheet of addresses and names, I called the voting hotline. Did they have translators at the polling station nearby? No one who spoke Chinese, no. I could, however, help interpret for a voter, and accompany them to the polls.

Ten minutes later, we walk together to Creighton Elementary School. Along the way, he tells me a little bit about his life. It’s isolating to not speak English here, but he’s too old to learn. Mr. Lee casts his first ballot, and we both get an “I Voted” sticker, me for the ride.

On our walk back to Mayfair Street, I ask him if any of his friends need help too. He calls some friends he can think of, but most of them are at work at this time of day.

A young woman in a Cal t-shirt runs past and he shouts her name and they start chatting faster than I can understand for a few minutes. Excitedly, she turns to me, and then runs down the street. “Let me just grab my ID!” she says in Mandarin.

Together, I go with her again to the polls — but unlike with Mr. Lee, there’s no time for small talk. Hurry, we have to walk fast, she says. She works 8am to 8pm so there’s no time for her to vote, but she managed to get someone to cover her shift just now. I add another sticker to my shirt, to the smile of the polling volunteer.

                                   Picture from Equality PA

In more than three hours of walking and knocking and trying to come up with a universal language with the people I meet, I’m able to help three voters make the long journey just a few blocks away.

For a scientist who is used to observing human behavior through “big” data, three seems like a defeatingly small number. But in terms of human lives, it is infinite.

Yesterday I was reminded that despite all the observations we can do from 3,000 feet, it’s important to get on our feet. Not only to be reminded of what’s at the heart of it all, but because many issues are impossible to comprehend without knocking on the doors of strangers.

By meeting potential voters like Mr. Lee, I realized that there was a real shortage of interpreters in Philly, especially for Asian Americans. Later, I learned that this has been a contested issue in many districts since the 2014 midterm elections.

Although Election Day was only a single date in the calendar, I have spent the past two years analyzing, speculating, and writing about the elections during my Master’s degree. Yet I rarely discussed politics outside of my circle of friends and colleagues.

If data science is about the art of drawing patterns from numbers, there is a stronger and more difficult art in drawing the human stories out of data. Although the introvert in me wishes to disagree, there is no way to write a story without looking at another human being in the eye.

In times of disappointment, when it seems so hard to move the needle forward, find solace and meaning in the words of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. She reminds me of my purpose:

“To pursue the human project — which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization of others.”

* Name has been changed for privacy.

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My newest writing piece: a profile on Pulitzer-winning data reporter, coffee-addict and Bostonian Matt Carroll!  His story is being told in Spotlight, a movie that has rave reviews and is in theatres now.

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Living in Holland

09 Jul 2015

Eight days before my twenty-third birthday, I embarked on what can only be described as a truly magical journey to three completely contrasting cities: Reykjavik, Amsterdam, and Prague. Along the way, I met a number of fascinating characters– some of them related to me. Here is an excerpt of my great aunt’s life, which she handed me a photocopy of on my way to the airport leaving Holland. 

* note: interactive version cross-posted on FOLD, a new publishing platform made by some friends @ the Media Lab.

Living in Holland

(a completely unbiased autobiography

written by my great-aunt Lenore

for the AWCA)

I am Cantonese but was born in Shanghai, then and now the most cosmopolitan city of China. Already at birth I was touched by the American brush. Both my parents had studied in the States, my dad receiving degrees from MIT and Case Institute and my mom from Columbia University.

There were seven of us, four girls and three boys. I was ‘sister three’… and we were naughty. One day, to give you an example, our gardener was taking a nap, snoring with his mouth open and we put a spoonful of salt on his tongue. My mom scolded us… severely I might add.

After the happy years trouble came, first, the Japanese occupation and then, finally, the communist takeover. We had to flee and since my dad was Minister of Transportation, he had the use of a government plane and we escaped by flying to Taiwan just in time. This all happened a few months before I was supposed to graduate from high school. Fortunately the government in Taiwan granted my diploma, which enabled me to go study in Michigan.

I enrolled at Michigan State University and turned into a party girl, within the limits of decency. Although I didn’t study too industriously, I succeeded in becoming a member of Pi Mu Epsilon (mathematics honorary), Iota Sigma Pi and Sigma Delta Epsilon (chemistry honoraries).

After obtaining my MS in Physical Chemistry I was ready for the world. But was the world ready for me? I decided they and I were going to find out, but in a somewhat warmer climate than Michigan. Go West young woman! I descended upon innocent Seattle (those were the days) and by my first day I had fond a small apartment and a job at the Analytical Department of the University of Washington. All I needed was a husband. So, I spent my weekends dancing and dating (Sleepless in Seattle). The Chinese boys didn’t want me. They want their women, demure, soft-spoken and obedient. A loud-mouth like me was out of the question. So, I had to turn to other prey. At the foreign students club, Cosmo, I cornered Jack Wiegman, a student at the School of Communications, and made him my husband, like it or not.

After he graduated, we moved to New York, where I found a job at my mom’s alma mater, Columbia University. After only one year, out of the blue, I was approached by American Cyanamid, Princeton, NJ, who invited me to an interview and then offered me a position as a research chemist. I succeeded to invent two chemical processes. My boss quickly put his name to one and the other one I was forced to sell for the generous sum of one dollar.

My husband was transferred to Amsterdam and so I was back at point zero. I decided to interrupt my career by having a son. However, when he was two and an intelligent big boy, I felt he was ready for kindergarten and, for me, it was time to resume my career by joining a division of the Dutch Akzo Chemical Corporation in Amsterdam. To put it mildly: I didn’t like it at all. Fortunately, after almost two years, opportunity struck by way of an ad for a position as a research chemist at the Dental Materials Science Department of the University of Amsterdam. Thanks to my work in the States I was chosen among 40 candidates to become Hoofdmedewerker which you could roughly translate as Associate Professor. This you could call the turning point of my life. I came up with two more inventions but— it’s an old story— the head of the department tried to usurp the credit. I fought all the way to the Board of the University and won, but, of course, I had to move. I joined the Electrochemistry Department where I started in a PhD program. In 1979, I obtained the degree with the thesis “The Kinetics of the Hydration of Calcium Sulfate Hemihydrate and Cement, investigated by an Electrical Resistance Method”. (Wow)

To complete the bragging: I am listed in the Marquis Who’s Who in Science and Engineering (US) and also in the International Biographical Centre (Cambridge, England). I also have been a long-time member of the ACS (American Chemical Society).

Six years ago I suffered a stroke. Since then I’ve been confined to a wheelchair.

Now, I have time to catch up on reading and to play with my grandchildren who live in the same building, a canal house on Keizersgracht. And then, of course, there is the AWCA of which I have been a member 29 years.






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There is something about Trains that I Like. Out of planes and trains and automobiles they to me are the most romantic. Nine-eleven sort of killed flying and even before that I always hated being in the air. What a cruel trick this was, I thought, as a child, to call it flying but being so utterly trapped in my seat, the opposite of free.

Cars were nice enough; I just didn’t like driving them. It was as if all the worst stereotypes joined forces (Asian; woman; short-tempered; small) and at 5’1” I could barely look over the steering wheel clearly. Once I had a conversation in the basement of a boy I convinced myself I loved in high school, about what the spirit of a car looked like. The beer was brown and in a glass (this was in the end of college when I first learned that beer was meant for a cold tall glass) and he said the spirit of a car in its highest form was a thing of beauty, because really, this was the spirit of a free man. And when you drove that car, really, you were just taking that thing of beauty where it wanted to most go. I thought that was fine as long as a thing of beauty was driving the car itself and I was free to look at both.

But trains. Trains were lovely because you were always moving but you never had to worry about how. There was something blue collar about them and it was great; you ran down the stairs in Penn Station onto the platform with all the hordes of tired businessmen with their beer in brown paper bags the smell of artificial butter popcorn in the air; shooting the shit with the conductors, sometimes jolly more often tired. And best of all you could look out the window and see the grass roll by; it was best especially in New England when the leaves changed and when you rolled past Connecticut dreaming of what doctors and dolled-up wives were behind those white picket fences. Then you thought it would be nice to be invited somewhere fancy for a change because then you could wear sparkly things like the best of them and be admired, but you were raised too pridefully to ever desire such things. To be rich. To be a decorative. It was folly.

And you were always going somewhere. I am talking only about American trains, I can’t speak for any other kinds. It was the American train I loved with those dreams of railroads and going to New York with just a backpack, a handle of bourbon in it and a note from your sweetheart. Maybe going up North through Appalachians and all you had was some E.E. Cummings with you and some pen and paper to write the next big thing. You with all the drunks and suits and so long as it wasn’t St. Patrick’s day on the New Jersey transit it was all beautifully coarse. It was so Americana; and this to a little Chinese American girl was somehow the best thing of all, even if the Amtrak was making nothing but debt and really the tracks weren’t very safe, and no one could afford a damn ticket anyway.

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Today, for the first time in years, I picked up a copy of the newspaper in the morning.

I didn’t buy it from the drugstore, like my dad would on Sundays when I was little. And I didn’t pick it up from the driveway, like I would have in high school, shaking off condensation from its plastic wrapper. Instead, I had literally picked up off the desk of another, when I saw it lying there. It wasn’t even fresh news; it was from last Wednesday, and he in turn had gotten it for free at the student center.

Still. It was attractive all the same, that copy of more-than-Yesterday’s news. I slipped it under my arm, and went out the door. I took it with me, on the subway, and felt more Manhattanite than I had ever felt in my life. Here I was, boots and all, on my way downtown for a coffee meeting, and here, by my side, was the New York Times. When i got to the cafe, I realized that I had gotten ink all over my fingers. I had forgotten that newspapers smudged, and it gave me a secret joy.

In 2014, it is widespread knowledge that newspapers are Dinosaurs. Printed news is rapidly going extinct and the new forms of Media that replace it suffer from existential and identity crises. Is longform a thing of the past? Is there even a need for Journalism School? Will it all just be listicles from here on out? (If so, I’m moving to Walden Pond.)

I maintain that there is, and always will be, a need for well-executed, professional Journalism. Whether or not there exists a profitable market, however, is another question. How do we ensure the financial means to support the field?

It’s a good question, one that neither I nor anyone else that I know of has the answer to. The transition from paper to digital isn’t a simple transcribing from one medium to the other. Profit models do not translate. Most significant are the psychological shifts that occur. Newspapers, and their institutions, are built on history, legacy, and tradition. By decentralizing news distribution with the internet, the castle collapses.

When you remove the physicality of the paper, you remove its nostalgic power. That is a great power, and it should never be underestimated in the human psyche. Turning the pages, familiar faces smile back– Dowd, Bruni, Bittman, Wells, bringing me back to familial scenes of kitchen tables and coffee. Jumping over paywalls, those same names feel antagonistic and elitist on the web. Whereas I would easily pay a dollar or two for a fat stack of paper, the Internet, with its culture of free information, incites the hacker in me to do everything in my power to take what I can.

Opening the paper on the subway is a symbol, one that denotes a certain level of education, class, and age. It is a desirable thing to own. On an iPad, a phone, or laptop, all of that is lost. It could be the Post, it could be Ulysses, it could be Fifty Shades of Gray– who knows?

The newspaper from WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 2014 sits beside me still, keeping company with the coffee that has long grown cold. When I finish writing, both of them will go into the trash.

“All the News That’s Fit to Print”, it says, somewhat forebodingly.

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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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Nowadays it is conventional to believe that emotional eating is unhealthy, but the truth is that emotions are so strongly mixed into every ingredient of a meal that the two are inseparable.

Why is it that our memories of eating are often so much stronger, more vivid than our memories of anything else? First-grade strawberry birthday popsicles. Peanut-butter-and-jelly, half thrown away. Turkey for Thanksgiving, and then cold turkey the whole week after. I don’t remember, really, what dress I wore to the birthday; I don’t remember what I did after lunch in the cafeteria, and I can’t recall that year whether or not Grandma was at our house.

It’s not simply that perhaps I have an irregular preoccupation with food; there are for certain a great deal of people with less interest than I in cooking and dining, but then again also a great deal with more. Eating combines the physical with the social, with which the emotional is undeniably inextricable. Food memories are persistent because they involve strong stimulation of all five physical senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching) all centered around a social function or a cultural dictation; eating a meal is both an event and an action and an indication. The food we eat (along with the food that we do not permit ourselves to consume) form little landmarks in our lives.

On a cloudy, chilly, groggy Friday like this, I pull out the warm memory of a feast at summer’s end. It nourishes my soul. It grounds my mind. It pulls me from the dark, floating, philosophical clouds above, to the concrete, Epicurean joys of physical Earth.


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Recently, this little comic from the Oatmeal, titled “The Terrible & Wonderful Reasons why I run Long Distance” popped up on several friends’ newsfeeds.

It’s a very good piece, and if you are a runner yourself, or maybe a biker, or maybe a swimmer, or maybe just a person, or maybe even a cat of the internet, you should check it out. With the simplest of drawings, it captures very well the essence of an amateur runner.

I myself don’t run in the way that the narrator of this comic runs. I run when it’s nice outside, I run when I’m frustrated, I run when I’m angry, and I run when I’m lost. But I run very rarely, and never do I run fast enough, or long enough, to reach euphoria. My running is always solo, always complentative, and never has it silenced the noise in my head. Very often, it smoothes tangled knots out– if only by virtue of making myself feel healthy and sunkissed again.

Recently, I started dancing again. I’ve been dancing since I was five. When I was three, I watched my older sister’s ballet performance and begged my mom to be onstage, too. I love to move, and I love to dance, and in a way dance is a healing process– after 10 years of competitive gymnastics, I love the feeling of being onstage without having my every step marked by point deductions.

In a moment of sheer luck, I’ve discovered a rare gem: the Manhattan dance studio that is relatively affordable, air-conditioned, spacious, and most elusive of all, not filled with judgemental, competitive, rail-thin preprofessional teenagers waiting to eat me up.

The dancers at this studio are very talented. The instructor is friendly and experienced. But best of all, this class– twice a week, an hour-and-a-half each– whips the my ass. And it also whips my abs, and my arms, and my calves, and my thighs, and most importantly, my brain.

When I enter the studio directly after work, there’s a million thoughts running through my head. Is it bad that I left work before 7? Did I slack off too much today? Will I finish my summer project in time? Do I need a Ph.D? Am I ever going to be a good scientist? Is the world driven by chance or does it have a telos? Is it possible to be both intellectually conscious and happy?

But twenty minutes into class, I’m struggling just to breathe, as this killer warm-up asks me to do thirty more sit-ups, forty more crunches. Bass beats rivet off the ceiling, and sweat drips off my nose.

“I’ve always considered the question to be ‘Why am I alive? Why am I here? What’s the point of me? And to that I say: WHO CARES! FORGET THE WHY YOU ARE IN A RAGING FOREST FULL OF BEAUTY AND AGONY…THIS IS BETTER THAN THE WHY. I run because I seek that clarity”, says the little stick figure in the Oatmeal comic.

There is only one reason why I dance. I want, I crave, I need a better way to express myself. (Sometimes, I wish I could sing louder, clearer, just so I could belt it out like Christina Aguilera in Burlesque at the end of a long work day in my little-town-accidentally-sexy waitress outfit. And then become a professional performer with Cher.)

I’m not a great dancer, by any means. Sure, I can bust a few moves at a party. I’m relatively in shape, I’ve been dancing a long time, and most of all I Love it With All My Heart. I’m a slow learner, I’m a little off-beat, but by show time I’m giving it my all.

Sometimes, dancing makes me feel very small and adolescent again, while I watch the slim beautiful girls at Barnard and Columbia in my dance group rule the stage with their wonderful years of ballet training and their illuminating stage prescence. And when that happens, the voice of my fourteen-year-old self is telling me again that I’m not thin enough, not blonde enough, and just so damn awkward.

But goddamit, sometimes I like that. Sometimes it’s good to worry so much about things that my Computer Science classmates would find trivial, to feel small and nerdy and inadequate again, to feel the ruthless female competition of beauty and grace. Sometimes it’s good to want so much to be good at something that isn’t just a desk job.

It’s a struggle, and so much work, just to be able to express one-tenth of what I want to say in my movement. But in that moment when I’m finally on the beat, and not stumbling over my own feet, I never feel so much alive.

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manhattan musing #1

17 Dec 2012

Sometimes I think to myself, wow, I am a lucky girl.

To be a young student in Manhattan: to have had snippets of summer, to have been to secret speakeasies and after-hours parties at the MOMA, to have taken the cab and the subway in the wee hours of the morning, to sip cocktails under a different age.

We do not have much in the way of savings but there is nothing richer than the culture of the metropolis, nothing more luxurious than the gold of youth.

Yet, we could be old and still chic. There is nothing preventing us from being so in this great city but our own monotony. We could be grand, we could have dinner parties. We could own even more black dresses and cynicism than we do now. We could never have everything; we could hardly have the rent. But we could have our pride.

These are the stuff of sweet memories, one day we shall recite to our children. Perhaps our first love will sway, but for now, we have never before been so alive.

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