The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

the-brief-wondrous-life-of-oscar-waoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the highly acclaimed multiple-award winner, is incredibly intricate under the surface of its seemingly playful tone. By exploring the immigration of Oscar’s family, Diaz interweaves the themes of racial identity, Dominican male stereotypes, the pride as well as price of being oneself, fate and curses, the nasty legacy that Trujillo left in Dominican Republic, love, home, freedom, and ultimately what it means to be American.

I was particularly interested in the use of language in this book. Boy, Diaz does not shy away from obscenities. Other than the change of narrators in each chapter, there’s also a fairly intimidating amount of Spanish throughout. Diaz is witty and humorous. I had some good laughs. Beyond his writing style lie some serious questions that people often seek answers to. It’s a book that makes you chuckle, tear up, and ponder at the same time. It’s so close to real life that it’s comical and tragic at the same time. It’s one of my favorite recent reads!

“There was the initial euphoria of finding himself alone at college, free of everything, completely on his fucking own, and with it an optimism that here among these thousands of young people he would find someone like him. That, alas, didn’t happen. The white kids looked at his black skin and his afro and treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You’re not Dominican.”

Oscar’s life was a continual struggle of fitting in, seeking love, finding and losing himself. As an overweight and extremely nerdy Dominican male, Oscar never met others’ expectations and was made fun of his entire life. He fell in love again and again but only to be slapped awake every time. He couldn’t find anyone to understand him, not that he really understood himself either. Doesn’t he sound astoundingly unlucky?

The white kids judged him by his skin color, and the Dominican males saw his nerdiness and blocked him from their clan. What’s Oscar’s identity? He was a little bit of everything but not entirely anything. His final letter brought tears to my eyes. He was a boy who had high hopes for life but never found a place where he belonged and could call home. Continue reading

Finished My Last Preliminary Actuarial Exam!

After 4 years, I finally finished all five preliminary actuarial exams and on my path to obtaining my Associate of Society of Actuaries (ASA)! I’m still waiting to find out the result of the last exam, but boy am I glad that I’m finally done! It hasn’t been easy, as each exam was highly mathematical and each took hundreds of hours to study for. Having started taken them in college, I have juggled between studying for finals, later having a full-time job, and reading thousands of pages or exam manuals.

It’s all been worth it now that I’m finished! Good thing I enjoy math and dealing with numbers, definitely wouldn’t have made it this far otherwise.

In celebration of math and numbers, here are a couple fantastic Ted Talks on math:

Math is Forever is my favorite talk on this topic. It’s humorous and fascinating. Mathematician Eduardo Sáenz de Cabezón attempts to answer the question “What is math for?” He depicts the beauty of math by pointing out that the truth in math is forever.

A Love Poem for Lonely Prime Numbers is an entertaining and lovely poem by mathematician and poet Harry Baker.

The Psychology of Your Future

The gist: We often underestimate how much our future selves will change. We tend to think that we’ve recently become the people that we were always meant to be and value “now” the most until it becomes the past.

Dan Gilbert talks about our misconception about the power of time. While the past has proven that we’ve all been constantly changing, we are still inclined to believe that future changes will slow down, if not stop completely. Dan calls this the “end of history” illusion.

While our favorite bands 10 years ago might not matter as much to us anymore, we believe that our dream vacation now will still be our top destination 10 years from now. But in reality, our values, preferences, and even personalities all change over time. It is true that the changes tend to slow down as you age, but we are never in a state as stable as we believe ourselves to be in.

“It’s as if, for most of us, the present is a magic time. It’s a watershed on the timeline. It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.”

This quote really hits it home for me. Every few years I look back and marvel at how much I’ve changed. Yet I still find myself waiting to reach that point in life where I finally have it all figured out, all pieces of my personal history have come together, and I have become the person that I will be for the rest of my life. But experiences have taught me that it’s never the case.

Changes in the past don’t bother us; it’s the unknown in the future that we cannot, or refuse to, imagine. But they are inevitable. One of the most calming things one of my friends has said to me is, you may or may not be at the same spot a couple years down the road, but you are exactly where you are supposed to be now.

Your Body Language Shapes You

The gist: Not only does our body language influence other people’s judgment of us, it also shapes how we see ourselves. 

From the studies Amy Cuddy has conducted, people’s postures affect their hormone levels, thus influencing their decisions and performance. For example, power posing for 2 minutes before your job interview can make you feel confident thus more likeable. Basically, you can trick your brain into performing in your favor.

To be honest, I’ve had my doubts about these psychological “tricks.” Sure, telling myself I can do it definitely will make things magically easier. But for the past few months, I’ve been carrying this routine where I look into the mirror every morning and say to myself, “I’m happy; today will be an awesome day!” Sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? But it starts off my day on a positive note and sends me off with a bright attitude. This is Amy’s point. It’s not about changing the situation you are in, but rather to change your perspective and attitude, which might then change the outcome.

“Don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it.”

In response to the popular saying “fake it till you make it,” Amy tells a poignant story about one of her students at Harvard to illustrate her point: you can’t stop when you “make it,” you have to keep “faking it” until one day you realize that you’ve actually become it and that you don’t feel like you are an impostor anymore. Even when you are scared to death, keep telling yourself that you are supposed to be here.

Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes. Sit up straight, walk with your chin up, smile. Feel good about yourself so others can feel good about you. It’s science. Your body language affects your testosterone and cortisol. And many desired qualities–confidence, composure etc.– are controlled by exactly these hormones.

Use your body to make positive suggestions to your mind, configure your brain, and internalize it until you actually become it.

East of Eden

east-of-edenThe only other John Steinbeck’s book I’ve read is The Grapes of Wrath, which was a required reading in high school. It would’ve been impossible for my 16-year-old to imagine reading another one of his books voluntarily. But hey who would’ve thought? A few years later I not only have read one but also written a blog post about it!

Two characteristics of East of Eden that stood out to me were its timeline and amount of details. The novel, set between the beginning of the 20th century and WWI, spans across several generations, resulting in an intertwining and complex story. Steinbeck describes the characters with such great details that you feel like you know them as real people around you by the end of the book.

Through the history of the Trask and Hamilton family in Salinas Valley, East of Eden explores themes of freedom, love, acceptance, and the limit of lies and evilness. My favorite character is Samuel Hamilton, the old wise Irish man. He’s intelligent and calm, able to see the bottom of many things but hardly speaks his mind. As Lee, the similarly wise Chinese servant, describes him, he is “one of the rare people who can separate [his] observation from [his] preconception.” While most people see what they expect, Samuel sees what it really is.

Cathy, on the other hand, is an extreme character in my opinion. Even though Steinbeck began the introduction of Cathy by saying that some people were born monsters, I still find her actions beyond horrid. It’s fate’s cruel joke to make Adam fall for her. He’s so kind but too naïve. He creates a perfect image for the woman he loves. He never sees her, only his creation. Continue reading

Our Buggy Moral Code

The gist: We have strong beliefs in our intuitions even when they are wrong. Our attitude towards cheating varies a lot as certain conditions change. We may not be as moral and rational as we think.

“We have very strong intuitions about all kinds of things –our own ability, how the economy works, how we should pay school teachers. But unless we start testing those intuitions, we’re not going to do better.”

Most of us would say that we are good people. But to what extent are we honest? Are we affected by outside factors? Dan Ariely talks about a series experiments that he conducted to explore people’s notion of morality. Here’s what he found:

  • Many people cheat, but by just a little bit. We choose to cheat at a low degree when we can benefit from it without changing our impressions of ourselves. Dan calls it our “personal fudge factor.”
  • People cheat less when reminded of their morality. This is why we sign honor codes before taking exams in college—it shrinks our fudge factor.
  • When distanced from the actual money, we cheat more. Most of us wouldn’t take even 10 cents from a petty cash box, but taking a pencil from office is suddenly okay because it’s not actual money.
  • When we see someone from our own group cheat, we cheat more. Humans tend to act as a group thus are highly influenced by the environment we are in. Sometimes it’s not even peer pressure; we just conform to a certain action without realizing.

So how does this all link to real life? Dan mentions the stock market: what happens when people call money “stock”? How do people react when they see other people’s behaviors around them? It’s all in our buggy moral code.

The Noticer: Sometimes, All a Person Needs is a Little Perspective

The NoticerI started reading the Noticer because it was recommended to me a few times by various people. The story was surprisingly simple. A mysterious old man named Jones goes around and touches people’s lives with his wisdom on gaining perspectives. To be honest, I didn’t get the feeling that it was “one of the best books ever” or even a “must-read” like many reviewers have said. The lessons in the book were great, but I have definitely read similar things from other places before. That being said, there are still some good pointers in the book. It’s a very short and simple read, so give it a shot and see for yourself, maybe you will have a difference opinion!

 “The way we feel loved is usually the same way we express love.”

If you are a verbal person and express your love for someone by telling them, you will expect the same from others in order to feel loved. But we often forget the obvious fact that we are not all alike! Your loved one might not be as verbal but expresses love in some other way—making you breakfast, for example. But since you speak different languages of love, you might misunderstand each other and feel unloved.

The solution to this problem is to think from others’ perspectives. This is the same as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. The lack of communication often leads to a waste of effort trying to understand each other and costs relationships.

“Well, that’s why smart people get tripped up with worry and fear. Worry…fear…is just a misuse of the creative imagination that has been placed in each of us.”

Some people say that they can’t focus because they worry too much. But worrying is focusing! It’s just focusing on the wrong things. Fear for the unknown future consumes lives. Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the future, but human natures leads us to imagine the worst scenario possible. Optimism, on the other hand, is the best attitude one can have towards life. But of course it’s easier said than done. Especially during hard times, it takes not only a bright attitude but also real courage to keep a smile on your face.

What Jones is saying is that we should spend the energy we otherwise spend on worrying on the good things we have in life. Once we focus on those things, our heart would be filled with gratitude. It’s a waste of our creative imagination to doing something that does nothing but stressing us out. Continue reading

Are we in control of our own decisions?

The gist: We are not as ration or in control as we think we are with our decisions. We are constantly and unknowingly influenced by how the options are presented to us.

“…If we understood our cognitive limitations in the same way that we understand our physical limitations, even though they don’t stare us in the face in the same way, we could design a better world.”

We tend to think that we are blessed with rationality thus must be able to make appropriate judgments based on our preferences. But that’s just not the case. Dan Ariely uses a series of cognitive illusions to show that half of the time, we really don’t know what we want!

One example he uses shows that people’s choices of agreeing to organ donation are largely dependent upon what the default option is. Some might say, we choose the default because we don’t care about this. But Dan says that it’s the opposite. It’s because this subject is so complex and difficult that we don’t know what to do. Under such circumstances, we just pick whatever was chosen for us. What an interesting point—how often are we guilty of this illusion? How often do we just go with the default because it’s easy?

The newspaper subscription experiment shows that we are especially susceptible to the way options are laid out when we are unsure about our preferences. In other words, unless you are absolutely sure that you only want option A and hate option B with passion, your final choice can be greatly influenced by the presentation.

Of course it’s not realistic to completely avoid cognitive illusions. After all, we are just humans. But like Dan said, being aware of our limitations is crucial to designing a better world.

About Time

2014 has been such an eventful year. I made many international friends, graduated from college, moved to San Francisco, and started my first real job. To start off 2015 in hope of another great year, I want to write a post on one of my favorite movies.

“I just try to live every day as if I have to deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.”

Not going to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but the gist is that the ability of time traveling gives Tim, the awkward ginger guy, a lot of hope in life. He was able to go back and forth and make situations “better.” After a few years of practicing his talent, Tim started to see that things actually aren’t that easy.

I love the final recipe of happiness that Tim’s father gives him: stop time traveling and live life like a normal person. Life is made of everything that happens in it–all the emotions, happy or sad; moments, picture-worthy or seemingly trivial; and the people you encounter, friends or strangers. It’s always a trade-off when you go back to “fix” things. As you change the course of life, you are always giving something else up. So don’t look back and savor every moment as it is.

The second piece of the advice from Tim’s father was to “live everyday again, almost exactly the same, the first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us from noticing how sweet the world can be; but the second time, noticing.” The gorgeous train station, the friendly smile of the cashier, poking fun at the angry boss–he saw everything with a bright heart and at the end of the day he was able to call it “a very good day actually.” That was also my favorite scene in the movie.

The final scene reminds me of how Morrie in Tuesdays with Morrie describes his day if he were given one more healthy 24-hour day. It’s ordinary and peaceful, doing everyday things with people but appreciating them. When people say, “well I can’t live every day as if it was my last day cause I can’t just ditch everything and go crazy today”, I think they are getting the wrong idea.

Ever since I studied abroad in England, I started to really realize how crucial and great it is to live the moment and notice the small beauties in life. Even though it’s sometimes easy to forget that as the busy city life drags me right into the whirlpool. I try my best to be like the new Tim.

To end this post on a lighter note, here is my 2nd favorite scene. A bit stereotypical and exaggerated, but it’s hilarious!

 

Looking for Alaska

looking-for-alaskssaPudge is a teenager with a not-so-interesting life prior to attending this boarding school in Alabama. Soon he was surrounded by teenagers who take on life passionately, recklessly, and fearlessly. Pudge made friends, whom he went on adventures and pulled ridiculous pranks with. And there was this girl, Alaska. She was mysterious and energetic, like a hurricane. Unexpectedly, Pudge found much of his life at his new school evolving around Alaska—her hilarious ideas, moodiness, and sometimes wild behaviors.

Through the twists and turns of Pudge and his friends’ time together, Looking for Alaska takes the readers on a somewhat confusing roller coaster ride. I found myself thinking “What’s going on??” a few times during the book. It’s a page-turner that you cannot put down until the mystery is solved at the end with the climax.

“You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.”

Alaska’s goal was to find a way out of the labyrinth of life. Sounds a bit ambitious for a teenager, doesn’t it? But she’s got a point here. Too many people are living for the future. Teenagers dream the day they are away from home in college; college students can’t wait to be done with school work for good; and working people live for the weekends. Everybody knows to enjoy the present, but it’s also so easy to begin thinking about how great an alternative situation would be when you get there one day. But the future, not to sound morbid, might never come for all you know. Have dreams, but don’t let them become merely hiding places from the present you are in now.

“That is the fear: I have lost something important, and I cannot find it, and I need it. It is fear like if someone lost his glasses and went to the glasses store and they told him that the world had run out of glasses and he would just have to do without.”

An ordinary teenager coming from a regular family, Pudge never thought that one day he would be robbed of something so precious to him and left struggling to piece his life back together. It’s such a frightening thought: something extremely important to you is irrevocably lost. And the worst part is, you never thought you would one day lose it. But life throws you curve balls sometimes. This might be the moment when Pudge grew up: realizing that, unlike glasses, there are things in life that he will lose and have to live without. Continue reading