A Book Person on Film

Another season of college applications (this time for exchanges for our mandatory gap year), another flurry of college essays. This one was for Yale.

Write about a book, play, movie, piece of art – anything in literature or arts, classic or contemporary – that has affected the way you think.

I was always a book person. So it surprised even me when I knew it had to be a film. The truth is, I cannot narrow down any commentary on my personality to anything less than ten, maybe twenty books. But there is a singular film I immediately name whenever I am asked which one my favourite is.

I grew up in Eurocentric ‘international’ schools, and consequently had exclusively entertained myself with British and American media. I was never remotely interested in local pop music or TV shows, due in part to my shameful incompetence in my ‘mother tongue’. But the primary reason slunk in the beautiful blonde models plastered on our billboards (even though Hong Kong is 90% ethnically Chinese) and the sense of superiority enveloping the small but significant expat population. I had long internalised the ‘fact’ that Western means cool, and Chinese therefore uncool.

That is, until my parents tricked me into watching 3 Idiots with them. When I found out it was a three hour-long Bollywood film, like in an American sitcom, I groaned and rolled my eyes. See, extrapolating the ‘non-Western means uncool’ sentiment means Asian media can never be as worth my time – the scripts are lame, the actors gauche, the cinematography kitsch. But just half an hour in and I had wept for joy and for sorrow, froze with shock and suspense, and was struck dumb by its profundity and breathtaking visuals. This film dropped some fire wisdom, y’all. Go watch it.

When I left the theatre and Googled 3 Idiots on my father’s phone (I still had one of those indestructible Nokias then), I saw that it was already an immense international success. And like in an American romcom, that was the precise moment a life-changing revelation clicked: non-white people can be cool too. Foreign films can be cool, and not just in the francophone arthouse way. Foreign actors are ridiculously talented at singing and dancing and being hilarious and heart-breaking at once. Side note: Notice how I say ‘foreign’ when I am neither American nor British myself? Sure, Indian culture may not be my culture, but the sheer sensation that was this film ignited a desire to get to know my own culture, and to own it.

The second way 3 Idiots reshaped my self-identity may sound clichéd. A film unafraid to show student suicide and suffocating academic pressure, it was the first narrative to chip away at my belief that only my grades are worth measuring. They were the only area that I could see myself empirically excelling in. I had many interests (horse riding, running, music), but at most I was above average. And in the rat race to the best universities for the best jobs for the best life, it had felt futile to be anything but the best.

“Ever since we were young, we believed that life was a race… Man, even to be born, we had to race 300 million sperm.” – 3 Idiots

Because I knew there are countless people much smarter than me, this sense of futility only further dampened my self-esteem. Sure, phenomena like Harry Potter has lines like:

“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”

But 3 Idiots pierced the viscous film of un-relatability I had not even noticed was enshrouding my mind. It spoke from a culture similar to my own – one in which education is worshipped as the one sure way to success, and parents are willing to splurge inordinate amounts of money on marginally better schools.

Did 3 Idiots magically snuff out all my doubts? No. But fictitious though it may be, it proved how my empirical performance is not the best predictor of my future success. Do something meaningful, and you are successful. And I am confident that in my pursuit of medicine, I will find many things that are meaningful, and achieve them.

On Diversity

Yet another post stolen from a college essay. Two days ago, a university emailed me a stack of essay prompts and forms to complete – just four days before my IB results will be released. Somewhat irritated (alright, very irritated), I thought: Couldn’t they just wait until then? I might not make my offer anyway. Unfortunately, the essays were due this morning, and I was (and am) still in Taiwan without a laptop. I had to resort to using my cousin’s yesterday evening, which refused to run its only word-processing software. Thankfully, our hotel has a working Internet connection, so I dutifully copied the fonts and formats of the forms on Google Drive.

All three essay prompts were maddeningly vague (we only had to choose one). For some friends, this was probably a godsend. But for me, already nonplussed at the idea of actually having to think during my vacation, I was only even more annoyed. In the end, at some hour long past midnight, utterly defeated by the word limits of one of the forms, I simply gunned for the topic that I had already rehashed countless times in my US applications: cultural diversity. At least this university opted for a slightly less conventional direction, asking for both the values and the problems of a highly diverse community, all presented in a specific encounter. It may seem blatantly obvious to inhabitants of cosmopolitan cities that multicultural, multilingual populations face unique challenges, but in the essays that I had had to write so far, a purely positive spin was always expected.

In any case, the encounter that immediately sprang into my mind had occurred during my final year at my English boarding school. On an otherwise unremarkable winter evening, a close friend suddenly exclaimed, “I wish I could visit China!” Without much thought, I automatically replied, “Then go.” “I can’t, they eat dogs there.” Granted, she had never set foot on Asian soil in her entire life. And people do still eat dogs in very few isolated rural regions, despite many residents living in considerably less impoverished conditions. (The practice of eating dogs is a relatively universal characteristic of areas suffering from famines; historically, it has been recorded on all continents, including the Western cultures that condemn it so vehemently today.) It is also true that the Western and international media focus on communities where dog eating does persist, because commenting on the vast majority of the Chinese people’s nonexistent interest for dog meat would not make particularly gripping news.

Nonetheless, I was still caught off guard. I had thought that in such an international environment – our school prides itself on actively accepting 80 strong cohorts representing over 40 nationalities each for every incoming Sixth Form class – everyone would recognise this stereotype as largely just that, a stereotype. Admittedly, I know relatively little about my friend’s own culture beyond the events commonly taught in History and significant enough to appear in the international news. But I like to think that any misconceptions I may have are never founded on something so widely recognised as a ridiculous stereotype that it is now the punchline of countless clichéd memes.

What shocked me even more, however, was when I tried to tell her that no, dog eating is not rampant in China and she retorted, “How would you know? You’re from Hong Kong, not China.” While I appreciate her recognition that Hong Kong and China are not interchangeable, I still felt that as a Chinese national, I was much more likely to have the better understanding of the dog eating situation on the mainland than someone who identifies as a European and who had only ever travelled within western Europe.

So what are the values and problems of highly diverse communities? Let me begin by acknowledging that despite the singular incident mentioned above, I personally experienced overwhelmingly more benefits than problems. Still, spending 24 hours a day with students from backgrounds very different from my own inevitably led to clashes – cultural, dispositional, political… While it was a springboard for lively debates, congregating so many cultures also highlighted unfair stereotypes and inaccurate preconceptions. Almost every cliché that I had heard of was thrown at me during my first term in England. “How is your English so good? You must have grown up in America.” In good humour, I would reply, “Your nation did only colonise us for 150 years.” Another one: “[A friend’s name] is hot for an Asian.” Complete strangers would approach me in the library asking mathematics questions, without even bothering to introduce themselves or ask me what subjects I take. Every interaction enlightens us about another nuance of our cultures’ influences on our behaviours, but they also create opportunities for miscommunication. Such is the dual nature of diversity. And this was only considering a community that spoke a unifying language fluently – in this case, English.

But having discussed both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, it becomes apparent that the ‘bad’ are just stepping stones to the ‘good’. Every (usually unconsciously) microaggressive comment is another opportunity to clarify. Every argument against your nation and culture is another chance to refute, reflect, even be proven wrong. And when understanding cannot be reached, at least we become acutely aware of the pitfalls that we should avoid next time, or the prejudices that we subscribe to too steadfastly. When there is deliberate racism, it builds our resolve. As we navigate the labyrinth of political correctness, we become extraordinarily prepared for our futures as global citizens. And so, while I know I sound terribly cheesy, I still conclude that a diverse community is the best community of all.

The Sea and Matters of Life and Death

Taken from the Little Great Wall (小長城) on Cheung Chau Island.

Two or three weeks ago, I consented to show my college essays to a friend. I only applied to two American universities, so my collection is quite limited. Nonetheless, he still managed to make a respectable handful of observations. One prompt was: what historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? And he immediately asked me why all three events1 mentioned in my response had happened on boats or in the sea. His question kept resurfacing in my mind, because I hadn’t known how to answer – I didn’t notice this connection myself. Just a week after he had asked me, I unearthed a scented candle that I had bought almost a year ago. It is supposed to encapsulate the clear Caribbean shallows. Even more recently, I was dithering over whether to buy a sea salt perfume or a mandarin one, and eventually chose the former. When I told my friend, he laughed. Do you have some Freudian subconscious attachment to the sea? But although it was meant in jest, as he looked around his room, he also noticed tchotchkes that would suggest a tendency towards naval pursuits. And yet, as we considered the possibility of an actual attachment, the edges of both of our impressions of the sea were tinged with fear – of drowning, of the cold, unforgiving depths. So we wondered:

Why does the sea hold such a paradoxical mixture of allure and fear?

The seaside has traditionally been synonymous with endless supplies of freedom, glamorous vacations and luxurious sunshine, at least in Western literature. But the depths, although still breeding fascination in the braver few, usually inspire fear. Could it simply be the dangers of drowning and strange creatures that push us away? Is it just the shadowy line between the shallow and the deep (or the far away from shore) that causes such conflicting emotions? Or is there something more fundamental, fuelled by the dual nature of water itself?

Four years ago, my English class watched Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Many of us pointed out the recurring motif of water, especially in the defining moments of the titular characters’ romance. (They first meet on opposite sides of a fish tank, the balcony scene ends with an underwater kiss, and Romeo ominously falls into the pool when he leaves after consummating their marriage.) When someone asked our teacher why water is so important (Isn’t fire a better embodiment of love and passion?), he smiled. “Ah, because water gives life, but can also drown us.” Even today, I am periodically reminded of his comment – from analysing Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice to reflecting on my trivial preference for sea salt perfumes. Do we unconsciously consider the sea to epitomise the cycle of life and death? Are our inconsistent emotions the consequence of this perplexing juxtaposition?

Perhaps these questions are taking too introspective a step into what is probably a superficial phenomenon. As a young(er) child, I was obsessed with mermaids, sirens and other lore surrounding the vast seas. I printed colouring pages of The Little Mermaid, and read any book mentioning mythical sea creatures. The idea of a secret world, kissing yet so distinctly separate from our own, as familiar as it is unfamiliar, nourished my thirst for something beyond the ordinary. But not too far beyond, like Narnia or Middle-earth. I wanted something almost believable – a world within our world. The mythical creatures aside, it may very well be this partial familiarity that generates so much collective interest in and fear of this 70% of our planet’s surface. While the land also boasts a dizzying amount to study, to comprehend, the sea whispers the additional allure (and repulsion) of a sense of foreignness. And humans, being the greatest extremophiles on our planet (as a Medicine professor at Cambridge once declared), always seek to conquer territories designed to keep us out.

Photograph by Christy Lau.

1For those who are interested, the events were: the abandonment of Mary Celeste, Syracusia’s maiden voyage and the Battle of Red Cliffs.