Thursday, November 13, 2003

What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

I'm in the wrong line of research. What I really want to do is feed beer to dogs.

There was a time, if you'd asked me, I'd tell you I wanted to be a rock star. It started as a joke at first, because, you know, why not. As it happens I think I've only used that answer here in the US. I wished I'd used it way back, when I was still in Malaysia. Being a late-teenager in a semi-urban setting in Malaysia, as it happens, probably isn't too different, in many respects, from being a teenager anywhere else. People would ask you want you wanted to be, and you were, like 17, maybe 18... something young. Your idea of planning for the future was what you're doing for lunch that afternoon. 'What do I want to be?' you'd think. Well, there was the good answer, the one that'd do your parents proud.

"I'm going to be an lawyer/brain surgeon like my parents always wanted me to. That's why I applied at *insert name of reputable institute of tertiary learning here*. I just got accepted last week, and I'm really looking forward to it."

Then there was the reasonable answer, the more likely one, and also the diplomatic one if the person you were talking to happened to be an aunt and uncle, because heaven knows they don't want you one-upping their kids too much, but at the same time you wouldn't sound like the kind of relative they'd want to disassociate from.

"I don't really know yet. I've been accepted into *insert name of institute of tertiary learning that any kid could get into provided his or her parents were willing to forego a vacation to Europe, or two*", and from there I'll try to figure out what interests me the most."

And that left open the possibility you'd pick something non-threatening like engineering or architecture, something your aunts and uncles wouldn't mind too much. And I guess I relied on the second, more reasonable answer for a while. Then I actually got into the American Twinning Programs at Metropolitan College in Subang Jaya, where I took a lot of classes, and learned many things, which would actually point me on the way to my future vocation. One thing I learned was I was no good at calculus. I already knew I sucked at Add-Math, back from my misguided days in secondary school, so it was no surprise. For a while though, I held out my hopes for calculus, because this looked like a new kind of math. There were all kinds of things I'd never heard of, like derivatives, and integration, and imaginary numbers. Cool things. Then as I got deeper and deeper into it I just realized these were the same things I'd learned in Secondary school, except they were easier back then and all the terms were in Malay. Then I started sucking at calculus the way I sucked at Add-Math, and it all went downhill from there.

But I did kinda like the programming classes, where you actually got to see things happen on screen after you typed out your program. It was like watching a mystery unravel... there was a sense of pride in knowing you'd made the computer do what you'd wanted it to, that you'd solved a puzzle with this tool. And that's what any interesting profession is, at least for me, a series of problems you've never seen before, and you've got tools to solve them and you get to see results. Except that's what math was too, so I don't know why I sucked at it. I hated it by no means... I was just bad at it. I guess I couldn't handle the heavy theoretical nature of math.

I needed to see results in the real world. Something needed to pop or fizzle or sit in place or run in circles, whatever. I always felt more comfortable when I could picture a result in my mind. But with math, all the answers I got are either numbers or equations made of numbers and letters signifying numbers you don't know. Oh dear. And those results may mean something someday but for now there is no context for those results. And those results became hard to remember, because I couldn't tell if they were important or not. It was like saying 'amen' at the end of prayers offered up in a Catholic church during mass, when some of the people who prayed were way across the room and I couldn't hear what they were saying. They could've been praying for their sick child or world peace which are good things to pray for, you should say 'amen' to that, but they just as likely could have been praying that Alien vs Predator doesn't suck when it opens next year or that cows fall from the sky, wearing parachutes. I didn't know. I just said 'amen' because everyone else in the room said 'amen', as opposed to giggling or gasping in shock.

And that's kinda like what math was to me. I learned the steps to getting a particular number out of a particular problem, as it says on page what-and-what of my textbook, and then I wrote down the steps and then put that number or equation down at the bottom of the page. And I was kinda happy everytime I got the right answer but if I looked the whole thing over, trying to divine some meaning from the long mess I'd made (my handwriting wasn't all too good... still isn't), a voice at the back of my head would sometimes ask, "Why'd you just do that?" I didn't always know. It was purely a matter of faith, a lot of times, that being able to solve those problems would come in handy in the future. Hey, I'm all about faith. I just had problems mixing church and academia back then.

But I loved solving problems. Which led me to believe I'd make a good engineer. So I started telling everyone "I'm gonna be an engineer." After a while, I can't quite remember when, I modified that to "I want to be an electrical engineer." I even started taking ECE courses when I got to UT, just to squelch any doubts or thoughts that perhaps I was really going to switch to orthodontics at the last minute. Still, though, whenever someone asked "So what are you studying at UT?" (and I met many of these people thanks to my association with the Navigators), and I told them "Electrical engineering", they would sometimes say "So, you want to be an electrical engineer?"


'Why do they ask that?' I'd think to myself. 'I mean, what does he expect me to say? "No, actually I want to be a rock star"?' And so sometimes I did say that. Jokingly, of course. But the more I thought about it... the more I realized it wasn't such a stupid question.

Did I really want to be an electrical engineer? Well, I didn't not want to be an electrical engineer, but that's not the same as wanting to be one. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a big part of me did want to be a rock star. I did want to write songs and get up in front of lots of people who would stand there, and cheer, and listen to my song, or sing it with me. Why not? So what if I was in the engineering program... if the question was what I wanted, then "I want to be a rock star" was as good and honest an answer as any, and maybe truer than others.

So I started meaning it when I said I wanted to be a rock star, and I think people started picking up the vibe that I wasn't joking, exactly. And word got around. And people started wanting to hear me sing. And they started asking. And asking. And then when I promised I would sing for them, they started reminding. And reminding. So Finally, one cold October evening last year, I gave a recital of the songs I written, at Dee's house, for a small gathering of friends (about 20 or so), and they liked it, and I appreciated them for that. I think, then, I stopped saying I wanted to be a rock star, because I already felt like one.

Nowadays nobody asks me what I want to be anymore. I think it's because most people assume that since I'm 25 with a masters in EE and all, I'm already an electrical engineer. I don't mind that one bit, because that's what I am and I'm proud to say so. I'd like to think, though, that there's one or two folks who liked my amatuerish and somewhat vainglorious performance so much that they'll always think of me as (in Matt Forsythe's words) Bernard: Poet of the People.

I'd quite like that.

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