Reflections on Try Harder!

Reflection

When I was a senior in high school, a documentary film crew showed up to my AP Physics C class. Debbie Lum, the director, announced that she and her team were making a film about the students at Lowell High School. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would be interested in a film about us, but Debbie seemed kind. She’s soft-spoken, had a short bob at the time, and is Chinese American. I had never met a filmmaker, let alone a female Chinese American filmmaker, so I was intrigued. I agreed to be filmed.

It’s been four years since then and Try Harder! has finally been let out into the world. To be a subject in a documentary film is already a rare experience, but to watch the film four years later, to watch others watch the film and be affected by it, and to realize that this film has a life of its own, is truly special. This film has drawn back the curtains on the college admissions process and how it shapes students’ lives, and hopefully, my story and my friends’ stories have taken off the blinders on people’s eyes and helped them glimpse the reality of the expectations that come with the process. 

I’ve watched the film several times, spoken on a few panels and read articles that have described me as a “Lady Bird” and a “ruthlessly self-disciplined all-rounder.” All this over the backdrop of graduating from college, arguably a scarier transition than graduating from high school. This film, a snapshot of who I once was through the eyes of someone else (as my friend Shelly put it). This year, a juggling act of multiple post-grad life paths. I can’t help but think about who I am through all of this, what my identity is, if it is anything, how it contradicts itself, changes over time yet stays the same, bends to forces yet remains true.

I spent senior year of high school in a flurry of AP classes, extracurriculars, school events and college applications. Debbie and her team were there in the background to capture many moments, both the mundane and the memorable. They filmed me hitting forehands on the tennis courts, scooping ice cream at Polly Ann’s, getting my ears pierced at Haight Ashbury Tattoo and Piercing with my friend, Wenting, and taking prom pictures with my date, Josh. More soberingly, they were there when I opened most of my college notification emails. In between scoops at Polly Ann’s, I checked email after email from Ivy Leagues, none starting with “Congratulations!”

I have a lot of sympathy for myself at that age. I was chasing after a goal that wasn’t truly mine. Growing up, I remember being able to list most of the Ivy League universities by the time I was in middle school. My parents often mentioned to me rather causally that these were the colleges I would be applying to. For many of the extracurriculars I pursued, I can’t quite remember whether it was out of interest or whether it was because I thought it would boost my chances at admission.

Upon first impression, this is a very shallow way to go about life. When your One Big Goal as a high school student is to get into a good college, it can feel as if your life is a plug-and-chug math equation, where if you add enough AP classes and plug in a few extracurriculars and take it to the “unique experience or extenuating circumstance” power, you end up with an acceptance letter that seems like the right answer. But where do I fit into that equation? Does a jumble of activities and classes add up to an identity? What I realized after watching the film was that my identity at the time was inextricable from the college application process. Perhaps that’s what’s so terrifyingly liberating about graduating from college—there is no “life-after-college application process,” no stereotypical student that you need to be in order to “get into a good life,” and therefore your identity can be whatever you want it to be. Life is just a series of decisions that you make, and the college decision just so happens to be the first Big Decision in many students’ lives, which makes it all the more stressful. It’s a decision that feels tied directly to your identity, since the college you attend for the next few years is now the second thing you share with strangers after you tell them your name. But, just because it’s the first major life decision does not mean it’s the only near, and certainly does not mean it’s the most consequential one.

Although I probably developed imposter syndrome in high school (after becoming the captain of the tennis team despite not being great at tennis but thinking it would look good on my college applications and joining the newspaper not because I was passionate about journalism but because a college counselor my parents were paying unnecessary amounts for told me that I needed something “unique” for an Asian student to put on my resume), I’m actually incredibly grateful for all that I did and all that my parents pushed me to do. I learned about what it means to be a leader as the captain of the tennis team. I rekindled a joy for writing and surrounded myself with passionate, creative students as the news editor for The Lowell. Regardless of whether or not I knew what I was doing, or whether I even fully understood why I was doing what I was doing, I learned. Like harvesting apples, I picked a basket of experiences, some that I enjoyed more than others, and I went back to those that I enjoyed more and continued to pick from those trees. And, I figured out that it’s the harvesting that’s the best part, not the part where you write an application about harvesting a great apple.

While watching my own scenes in Try Harder!, I only had negative judgements to make about myself. While watching the scene where Debbie asked me to tell her the colleges I was applying to and I matter-of-factly respond with a list of all the Ivy Leagues, I thought, “What a pretentious snob.” I don’t know what Alvan, Ian and Rachael had going through their heads when they watched scenes of themselves, but I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we definitely cringed hard. What I soon realized though, was that I was the harshest judge of myself. Sure, I was intense in high school and had big goals, and the articles about the film definitely captured that, but I was the only one judging high-school-Sophia as if she was actually an asshole. Upon sharing this thought with Hanna, a close friend, she dished this piece of wisdom: cringing at who you were four years ago is a sign of growth. Especially if you were in high school four years ago. How can you expect your previous self to meet all of the expectations you have of yourself now? How can you ask your previous self to think and act with the same level of self-awareness that you currently exist with? You should relish in your growth instead and give your younger self grace. And if younger you is the same you as you right now, which it is, that means that you should always give yourself some grace.

All in all, I am incredibly grateful to Debbie and the team for capturing my senior year and for telling this story. Try Harder! manages to cover a lot of ground—it’s a film about striving for unlikely goals, about a stressful life experience, about minorities and their idiosyncratic versions of this experience. I appreciate that I became, in a small way, part of a crescendo of Asian American stories in popular media. I appreciate that high school students can maybe see themselves in my shoes and know that everything will turn out fine. I appreciate that I’ve had such a unique lens through which to reflect on how much I’ve changed over the years and how much I’ve stayed the same.

To echo a letter that I wrote to Lowell students who’ll be watching this film, when I was a senior in high school, I had no clue what I was doing, what my goals were, what was driving me or who I wanted to become, even though I thought I knew. After college, I think I know myself a little bit better now, but in many ways, I still don’t have the answers. And that’s totally ok. These are things we’ll take the rest of our lives to figure out.

Frau Leman

Travel

It is a privilege in this age to know personally the human whose hands molded, cut, forged and fired the items that we hold dear to us. Mass-made objects hold no meaning but their function. The more hands it takes to assemble them, the less consequential these hands are to the end user. As I’ve become more aware of the detriments of most of humankind’s capitalist, consumerist habits, I’ve found more joy in seeking out objects that serve as a material connection between myself and the maker. When an artisan puts intentful thought and care into their craft, each piece is a part of their story and a gift unto the receiver. I received such a gift from such an artisan during my time abroad in Florence. 

Dear Los Angeles,

Reflection

Dear Los Angeles,

I should have written this months ago, but I think the fact that it took me this long says something about how strongly I felt about you and how compelled I was to reflect. As in, I feel strongly that you—sprawling, suffocating, and shallowly pleasing mostly because of Instagram-able gentrification—are not the right place for me. Though I have found a few gems scattered across the city?region?blob?, they are not nearly sufficient to counteract the whole unsavory experience of being in LA.

Venice Photo Diary

Travel
From the Ponte dell’Accademia, a view of the Canal Grande, a highway of boats and the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute in the background

Venice, despite being quite completely consumed by tourism, is one of the most magical places in Italy. I’ve always loved the pairing of city and sea, and Venice is just that, with none of the beach in between. Some narrow streets lead you directly onto the water, the shadow of the buildings cut by a sudden bright openness. Gondolas drift lazily, but the gondolier is anything but lazy, perched on the stern, skillfully cutting and dragging the water with his oar. What I savored most was not my own visit to Venice, but instead how it lured my imagination towards Venice-past, a time when the city was untouched by hoards of foreigners and Venetians simply went about their lives, sailing to and fro with family, friends, and lovers.

Florence: Week 4

Travel

Sept 16
late night thoughts

will globalization affect Italy in the same way that it’s affected the United States? with products being produced all over the world becoming taken for granted? here everything is so rooted in Italianness, it’s such a young country, the development of Italy as a nation only really starting with the end of WWII

facetiming my friends really has been such a game changer, i can’t believe i never really thought to do it until now. it makes me so elated to just spend an hour or two catching up with them and hearing about what’s going on in their lives. 

Florence: Week 2

Uncategorized

Sept 2

Today was my first day of class, as well as the first day I actually had a little bit of time to myself. All of my housemates had 9am classes while my first class started at 11am today, so I stayed in the apartment a little while longer in the morning. It was nice to have the place to myself, but I also felt restless, and as soon as I left for class, I realized why. Strolling through the city alone, I realized how much I missed just walking by myself, window-shopping, observing, taking in the streets of the city, which is something I do often at home. My Google Map of Florence is speckled with saved locations that I want to try, shops and restaurants that I hope will turn out to be gems of establishments. I hope to be wandering around more often, on my own especially ⁠— it’s a personal space that I’ve been missing

Florence: Week 1

Travel

Aug 24
Pre-departure

I’m not usually a fan of the hours before a flight, especially since I’m the kind of person who doesn’t usually feel much excitement about the upcoming trip until I have literally landed at the destination. Sitting on my bed at home, going through my mental packing list over and over even though I’ve packed for trips so many times, always feeling like I’m missing something. I suppose that’s the anxiety of being in between. Even though this time around, I’m leaving for a trip that I know will change my life, in a city that I’ve only heard wonderful things about, I still feel apprehensive, not quite sure what do with myself … so I hope that my mood starting off this trip isn’t indicative of how my study abroad experience will turn out. I hope that the beauty of Florence will shoo away my sadness over leaving home and entering into a long distance relationship

Pictures, from Cabo

Travel
San Jose del Cabo // Baja Peninsula

Chileno Bay

If fineness of sand is any indication of the age of a beach, then she was a young one, speckled blush and beige, waiting for the waves to smooth out her edges. She was a beach that never saw the sunset in all of its glory, only able to catch its muted afterglow. We sat, sand seeping into the pockets of our denim shorts. The tide came steadily over bare feet, unsurprisingly cool at first touch, then warmer at each arrival.