Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Days of the Apocalypse

 Disclaimer: The following events are definitely not fresh in my mind, but I did promise to write about the Covid-19 Crisis and the Great Campus Exodus. In retrospect, a lot of these events will seem highly irresponsible, overdramatic, and irrational. They’re also probably distorted since it’s been six months (!) But, if you want to get a glimpse of the craziness that was March 2020 at MIT, then gather around and let me tell you a story ;)

People in 2012 thought the ancient Mayans had predicted the end of the world, but little did they know the Mayans were off by about eight years. In early March 2020 on MIT’s campus, students were still reeling from President Reif’s email that CPW was cancelled. Of course, everything was about to get much worse, very quickly.

First, the rumors. The rumors whipped around campus like papers caught in the Macgregor Wind Tunnel. School’s going to be remote. Admin’s going to send us home. If Harvard shuts down, MIT is definitely following. 

Harvard shuts down. 

A screenshot of the announcement is forwarded through email, slack, and messenger faster than the virus can spread. Other scarier rumors follow suit and spread twice as fast. Someone in CSAIL had covid. Someone in Simmons had covid. I heard from a friend’s dad who’s a public official say that Boston is going to shut down the airport on Tuesday, so you need to get out now or you’ll be stuck.

People call their parents and make last-minute plans to fly or drive home. Others are scrambling to find housing in Cambridge because they don’t have a place home. Applications for exemptions to stay on campus are being rejected, even for international students. Dormspamming rules are thrown out the window, and nearly 200 students are replying to an email thread titled, “[Sponge-talk] Has Anyone Received an Exemption?”.

Panic ensues. Packing, crying, hugging, gathering, drinking (definitely not socially distant behavior, but then again, everyone was freaking out). Somehow in the midst of it all, an iconic picture of people hoisting a Purell station gets snapped in Killian Court.

PC: Zidane A. 20’

But let’s back up. Now that the setting is set, I’ll tell the story from my point of view. 

3/5/2020 Email

Effective immediately, if you are planning any in-person MIT event with more than 150 attendees that will take place between now and Friday, May 15, on campus or off campus, you must postpone, cancel or “virtualize” it.

3/10/2020 Email

We are requiring undergraduates to depart from campus residences no later than noon on Tuesday, March 17.

Somewhere around this time, I bike to Supreme and buy three bottles of wine because why not. Nothing feels real. Nobody is showing up to classes.

I feel… deflated? Like I was a floating balloon, but then someone punched all the air out of me, and now I’m falling to the earth in an endless freefall. As a senior, I thought I had more time to catch up with friends and explore Boston. I was perpetually hosed with psets, rehearsals, and meetings, and I kept thinking that I would hang out later, when I had time. Except now, that time had evaporated.

Graduation was also on my mind. I remember in some of my darkest hours (figuratively and literally staying up too late in the night), something that pulled me through was the dream of walking across Killian to get my diploma. Now that dream evaporated, too. 

Why had I worked so hard for the past four years if everything was ending like this? Where were the promised rewards of Senior Week, Commencement, and making lifetime memories?

(Honestly, I still had my degree, I still graduated, and I still see some of my friends over zoom, so I was definitely being dramatic. But, these were my thoughts back then. At least, as far as I can remember.)

The next night, LMF piles into Sarah’s room for a last wine night. I think I played a card game with Jasmine and Uyen. People are stressed, but we’re also together. It’s like everyone is trying to squeeze all the memories and bonding from the rest of the semester into these few days.

3/12/2020 Thursday

Of course, there is a socially distant protest in the Infinite. Students are protesting admin for the rejection of exemptions for international students and others who don’t have any other place to go. 

I attend an early graduation ceremony for Course 3. We take a group picture in the room with colored squares, and we talk to the instructors who’ve taught us for the past three years. Despite their busy schedules, the professors and teaching staff make time for us. Jeff promises to bring us together again, eventually, when it’s safe to do so, and that makes everything a bit more bearable. I almost cry when I realize my lab instructor is giving me life advice for maybe the last time.

LMF scrambles together a senior sendoff for dinner. Instead of senior menus, we have bento boxes that Rebecca, our wonderful GRA, ordered. We dress up, hear speeches, and I have to rush off to Kresge before it ends because MITSO is recording in place of the concert we would have had. But I’m really touched that French House organized this dinner last minute, signed portraits of us (drawn by the artistic Melody!), and bought special desserts for us.

Apple cream dessertWholesome pictures of the 2020s and our GRA.

After rehearsal, I’m back at Next with a few MITSO people in our last post-concert hangout. As per tradition, we’ve ordered Domino’s cheesy bread, and a grad student is shaking his head at the situation and offering his place to stay if anyone needs it. Even though Covid-19 is about to scatter everyone away, I’m struck by how much it’s also pulled everyone together before we all leave.

We call Ellie, who was the MITSO president last year, since she missed the recording. The hangout doesn’t feel quite complete without her, but she doesn’t pick up, and this is why:

3/12/2020 Thursday 10:44PM Text

MIT Advisory: Friday classes cancelled & undergraduate move-out by Sunday. 

If campus was panicked before, everybody is now freaking out. The MITSO gathering disperses as different people excuse themselves to call their parents, and I stumble back to my room because I have to pack. I have two days less than I thought, and I need to cancel my plane tickets and buy new ones.

On Friday, French House has a hog roast. In some way or another, the treasurer has managed to pull the funds from our would-be senior menus together to order an entire hog and its roasting spit, which is parked behind New House and must be watched for about 12 hours while it’s cooking to make sure nothing is set on fire. I am amazed through all the chaos, somehow somebody in French House managed to organize this and make it happen.

It was actually a beautiful day that morning, except for the smoke rising from the roasting hog, which floated into people’s rooms at Next and caused some concern. Thankfully, the smoking stopped after a bit.

Hog roast outside.

That night, the hog is served to the non-vegetarians with gravy. It is delicious, and there is absolutely too much food given everyone is going to clear out in two days.

Saturday is spent packing my things and French House things. During the day, eight people pack into a five-seater rental car and drive across the bridge to DPhiE’s house to say goodbye to Liz. I’m so busy I didn’t have lunch. I threw some leftover pork in black tupperware so I could eat on the way. Liz lived with us freshman year and never left cook team since. When she sees us, she smiles and claps her hands to her cheeks. 

After our goodbyes, we’re back in French House. While I pack, I drink wine. I look at the memories that have accumulated on my wall: various Broadway posters of shows I’ve attended through MIT’s student discount, letters of encouragement and gratitude from my friends, polaroid photos of me and my family line at DPhiE and my 21st birthday with Azzo. I take pictures of all these memories. Then, I tear everything down.

At some point, Kedi says her dad is here and she’s leaving, and even though I swear I haven’t processed what she’s said, my eyes are already leaking.

Someone passes by our room in the hallway, and Kedi goes out and says something like, “Guess what? I told Vivian I was leaving and she burst into tears!”

I say goodbye to my roommate for the past two years. It’s weird to see her side of the room empty, when it was so full of stuff just yesterday.

At night, Alena, David, Jessie, Jakob, Emily, Kristin, and I sit in the quiet lounge. We take a break from packing and watch Princess Diaries and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Of course, Kristin, David, and I sing along to the musical, but otherwise the movie is very strange, especially without Neil Patrick Harris.

Tired after packing, resting on the couch.

Around 2AM, we resume packing everything in the kitchen into boxes. Broadway music is blasting from the speakers, but we take a moment to turn down the music. Jakob switches off the lights, and we gather around the countertop. He torches the leftover alcohol that’s pooled in a bowl. Blue flames with orange tails swirl around each other and fly upwards. There is a moment of silence for… the uncertainty? The end? 

“Au revoir La Maison Francaise,” I say.

“Goodbye French House,” Jakob translates. (He doesn’t know French.)

The flames die, the lights are turned back on, and we continue piling baking supplies, bags of flour, and pots and pans into boxes.

The next morning, I leave. As I pass the Quiet Lounge, I see David sleeping on the couch. I think I went in and said goodbye, but he didn’t hear me, and I didn’t want to wake him, so I left. Sleep-deprived, I board the airport shuttle next to Kresge. As I stare out the window at the receding buildings that have grown so familiar over the past four years, I still feel like I’m half-dreaming. Am I actually awake?

This is my last day at MIT.

My last picture of MIT.

But of course, it wasn’t my last day seeing people. Behold the power of technology (and zoom). Like has been said before, MIT is special because of the people. I’m afraid this ending is going to sound like a Hallmark movie or something cringey emotional, but just because most of French House is physically separated doesn’t mean I’ve never seen them again.

I have high hopes one day in the future, when Covid-19 is just a bad dream, everyone will reconvene in the Macgregor dance room for Diner de Noel. It will be the most outstanding reunion ever, complete with great food and overflowing with nostalgia. I fully expect something grand on the order of magnitude of a hog roast.

I’m counting on you, future LMF.

Monday, June 1, 2020

An LMF 2020 Appreciation Post

AKA a few of my favorite memories

Having just graduated in MIT's first online commencement, I did not feel that much closure to these last four years. I don't think the commencement organizers could have done much differently - there's only so much you can do to replace the feeling of everyone being together in the same physical space. However, the mini zoom celebrations afterward (for me: Course 3, Terrascope, and DPhiE) were filled with nostalgia, goodbyes, and the promise of reunions. LMF already did an amazing job at putting together a last-minute senior sendoff during the insanity of our last days on campus (which I should probably detail in a later blog post, since I guess that was a unique moment in history), but I will add my own post-graduation celebratory post in honor of our class year in LMF.

Here are some of my favorite memories, in no particular order:


Thank you for taking me out to a bar on my 21st birthday! Even though it took a while, since the first bar wouldn't accept your Oxford ID rip, it was a lot of fun. I don't know how it happened, but we coincidentally share orchestra and writing hobbies, which is pretty convenient, except when you send me viola > violin memes. A runner-up memory, which unfortunately I didn't have a great picture of, was that time we played background music for Dolce & Gabbana, and we got paid but one of the managers was pretty rude and snobby, and honestly the entire experience was kind of surreal. Here's to sharing more surreal memories in the future!

Azzo and I out and about on my 21st birthday!


This picture is that day we went hiking in the summer with Liz and Jesse after seeing Tanglewood during a downpour. For some reason, even though the trails were pretty flooded and we were mostly skipping on slippery rocks, it was still a fun trip. I didn't want to deal with uploading a video onto this website, but perhaps my favorite part of the hike was when we had to work together to cross a rushing river by dislodging a tree trunk and using it as a bridge to cross to the other side. I think we were crazy, but it worked. Second favorite memory would probably have to be that time we went to EC and you showed off your dance skills to Taylor Swift. Thanks for being a great friend and president!
David in a yellow raincoat in the woods.


My favorite memories are basically all the LMF trips that you organized. Throwback to our most recent trip in Quebec, which was my first time in Canada. I don't think any of our 2020 trips would have been possible without your amazing organizational skills and Airbnb sightings, not to mention you are the most trusted driver in our group and put together great playlists. Second favorite memory would have to be freshman year when Kedi, Larry, and I went to cheer you on in Terra-hockey and we were pretty much the only people in the audience ("try to do BETTER!"). Good luck in California!

Our senior fall trip in Quebec <3


I could have picked the memory from freshman year when we painted the Tardis door together in old New House, and you had basically painted everything, but because I have better handwriting and apparently come across as more *artsy*, everybody thought it was me. But I decided to opt for an even earlier memory. This was the first time I went to the BSO, and I remember being super excited but also disappointed because a really tall guy sat in front of me and I couldn't see anything. You switched seats with me, which I was thankful for, and even though I joke that you need to work on your personality, sometimes your personality is okay.

Jakob, Mary, and me coming from the BSO.


This is an early memory from the Terrascope spring break trip. Again, I didn't want to deal with uploading videos, but I will forever remember how to eat a taco correctly. Thanks for being a wonderful roommate for the past two years, and I can't wait to visit you in New York and watch Broadway! Another favorite memory (or memories) would have to be interning at Form with you and getting free lunch everyday, or riding in Jarrod's car on the way back from FormFest. Congrats again on Fulbright and your NSF fellowship!

Freshman Kedi and Vivian in Mexico City.


Tragically, I don't have a picture of both of us at Dear Evan Hansen, but the fact that you won the lottery and invited me to come with you like the day after my birthday was one of my favorite birthday gifts ever! Thank you for being sweet and having taste (in musicals and spiciness), and I wish we could have been on the same cook team together. Second favorite memory - beating Zade and Effie at partner hearts haha.

Watching Dear Evan Hansen with Kristin!


This is a photo from the summer when somehow you managed to get free tickets to see a national gymnastics competition in TD Garden. I don't even know how that worked out, but watching the gymnasts perform with you was something I'll never forget. It was crazy to have four acts going on at once, and my eyes couldn't decide what to focus on because everyone was so talented and athletic. Also hearing you fangirl about Simone Biles was great lol. Runner-up memory is probably when we went to see Toy Story 4 for your birthday. Thanks for being such a great friend in LMF and DPhiE, and hope that we get to be roommates next year!

Liz and I about to witness pure talent and athleticism.

Félicitations to all the LMF seniors who graduated!!!

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Summer Quarantine Adventures: the WASP* saga

If we’ve ever zoomed during the day, perhaps you’ve noticed that I’m rocking back and forth on a swing chair on my front porch. I might have even shown you my view, which consists of mellow palm trees with leaves that dance gently in a warm summer breeze. I bet most people see where I am and think, She’s living in a southern paradise. It really could be a paradise -- if only my porch swing was not hiding a wasps’ nest.

If you’re really lucky, you would have seen a wasp trying to enter the pipe of my porch swing. Let me emphasize trying. The wasp, carrying a small leaf, like a peculiar, green gift, readies to return home after a hard day’s work. Unfortunately, the wingspan of the wasp is greater than the diameter of the pipe, so the wasp must, in a leap of faith, close its wings and stop flying for a moment to catch inside the pipe and climb upwards. 

The wasp fails to do this multiple times: it flies full-speed into the pipe, bounces back from the impact, flies full-speed into the pipe, etc ad nauseum. It’s like watching a person ram into a glass door, over and over.

Some people have questioned why I sit on my porch swing despite knowing that there are wasps inside. I am not particularly brave, but seeing these wasps fail again and again at trying to enter the pipe opening, I can’t help but pity them and think they are pathetic. I could ignore them, until the day that I finished my final exam at MIT and ended my student career.

I had submitted my last assignment that morning for 14.03 Microeconomic Theory and Public Policy, and I thought that I would reward myself by swinging on my front porch, enjoying the nice weather, and listening to Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Just as I had settled on the swing porch, however, a black bullet zoomed past me, and I froze.

You see, the day before I had asked my father to destroy the wasp nest after deciding that I could risk terrible, stinging pain each time I sat outside, or I could just not. He, with an infinite courage and nonchalant attitude, drove his screwdriver into the pipe, turned it around, and withdrew, letting scraps of dried, brown paper that made up the homes of the wasps flutter down. He was fortunate that no wasps were home. Then, he sprayed the pipe with bug disinfectant, and for good measure, stuffed the pipe with newspaper so that the wasps could never hope to rebuild.

And so I knew that the wasp that I had just dodged was no ordinary drone wasp, but the wasp QUEEN. While the ordinary wasp was one inch in length, the queen was thrice its size. She had spiny legs and a yellow-striped skirt. Unlike the regular wasp, she flew with purpose, and she was fast, like an arrow that couldn’t miss its target.

I saw the wasp QUEEN, and I heard her. There is a reason that hornets are associated with fury, and wasps are the close cousins (at least in my mind) to hornets. She was practically buzzing curses, and her anger radiated in supersonic waves around her. 

I don’t care what people think about the intelligence of insects, she knew that I was the reason her home was destroyed and her eggs and subjects were poisoned with chemicals. She also knew that the door she buzzed in front of was the door to my home, and I was certain that she was plotting her revenge. She wanted to wreak havoc unto me like I did unto her, which meant that she was planning to attack me and my family and destroy our house.

Don’t ask me how a single wasp could destroy a house - just watch this video

After what seemed like an eternal stare down - me vs. the QUEEN - I held my breath, sprinted forwards, opened and closed the handle in a whirlwind, and exhaled. Not hearing any buzzing, I hurried towards the front window to see the wasp QUEEN ram her body into the door, over and over. It was terrifying, but my family and I were safe. For now.

That was how I spent the last day of class: at home, with my parents, mostly inside. When the spring semester started, I hadn’t imagined that was how I would spend my last day as an MIT student. I remember, after returning from China in January, that my father had suggested I stay home rather than go to school, to save myself from future Covid-19 complications. I laughed. Miss school? My senior spring? Back then, the idea seemed absurd. I thought we had escaped the virus when we left China, specifically when we passed security and everyone in the US airport peeled off their face masks. Rather ironic now, really.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not thankful for my health, my family’s health, and all the essential workers risking their lives everyday. I don’t know when quarantine will end, or what the world will look like after, but until then, I will zoom with friends and swing on my front porch, now that most of the wasps are gone.

Of course, there is still the wasp QUEEN. 

And the wasp saga continues...

*After some online research, what I thought was a wasp appears to be a leafcutter bee. However, I maintain my misclassification to be true to the living moment.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Wales, no whales

French House, sorry for being the cruft on the blog, it’s a habit… (although seriously y’all should blog too… (saying that’s also a habit…))

I’ve been in the UK over a week now. My mom flew in with me, and we spent a few days in the Cotswolds, which is a lovely bit of England full of villages with names like “Stow-on-the-Wold” and “Bourton-on-the-Water” and “Mourton-in-Marsh”, sheep, and clotted cream. We had some hearty long walks through fields with cheese picnics, a few gin-and-tonic permutations, and an exciting day trip to Oxford - the museums are beautiful buildings with seriously impressive collections.

Now I’ve been in Wales for four days. I haven’t seen much of the countryside yet, unfortunately, and the small parts of Cardiff that I’ve seen haven’t been that extraordinary except for the giant castle in park. My mom did spend a day walking around Cardiff before she left and said that it’s a completely crazy city, but apparently in such an unexplainable way that I still have no idea what she meant. I’m staying in a suburb with my school’s math department head, who’s been very welcoming in a hands-off sort of way.

Mostly I’ve been occupied with the school I’m at, and that’s been quite a fascinating experience. It's an urban school with a diverse, largely Muslim, relatively poor student body. My first impression wasn’t great; the building is covered in peeling paint and smells like bleach, and I was seeing it at 6:55 AM, which probably didn’t add any charity to my viewpoint. I’ve learned since that the per-student budget is very low, less than $6,000. And yet all the adults I’ve spoken to - principal, program organizer, the Welsh Education Director that I sat next to at a dinner - after throwing around the words “challenging population”, have talked about the renown that the school has achieved for a remarkable transformation in the last few years. 

This made me suspicious. I’ve been thinking a lot about score inflation since my educational statistics class last semester, and the story of achieving fame for a rapid transformation with an underprivileged population sounds very similar to a lot of the American cheating scandals. In an interesting difference from American educational testing, where schools care most about standardized tests and students care most about SATs and grades, the targets here are more or less aligned: maximize students’ grades, which are determined by a government-mandated combination of standardized exams and projects. So there are very strong incentives for gaming the system, and I haven’t been surprised to see some evidence of sketchy behavior. The computer science teacher keeps doing a shifty-eyed dance of “Well, I’m not technically supposed to help them with their projects, but I figure as long as I don’t touch their keyboard it’s all right”. The music teacher hires her hairdresser to pretend to be an examiner to give the kids some pressure to perform. The school very intensively targets support to students just below a cut-off that the government uses to determine effectiveness, exactly as happens in many American schools. Many lessons are centered on working through practice exams, teaching concepts as they come up. Students take time out of classes to sit mandatory full-length mock exams. And the teachers often assign their students' grades for the government-mandated final projects; with so much at stake, for both the school and the students’ university admissions, I imagine it’s hard to stay objective.

The school also claims to be heavily data-focused, and that seems to be quite true. Students are sorted by math ability into seven or eight different levels. Kids take formal reading assessments frequently; those with difficulties are placed in special support programs, and the number of library books they check out is tracked and discussed at staff meetings. There are charts everywhere showing students’ photos along with their exam performance or other metrics, even in student-accessible spaces - I feel pretty bad for the kids who are in the “High effort, low progress” box in the hallway. I’ve met several staff members whose main job is data analysis. Bizarrely, you pay for the canteen by scanning your thumbprint. It all feels a little invasive, but I have to say that is seems effect in not letting kids drop through the cracks and get forgotten, as I’ve seen happen at my Cambridge school. Every teacher and administrator knows which students are particularly struggling or succeeding.

And I’ve actually been really impressed with most of the teaching and learning I’ve observed. The kids are majorly loud and burst out chatting as soon as a teacher turns around, though a “three… two… one…” usually buys a few seconds of peace. Yet much of the time, what they’re talking about is the material they’re covering. They’re curious and invested in learning, and the math material in particular seems fairly advanced - for example, I observed a class the other day where fourteen-year-olds were studying sampling techniques, which I didn’t encounter until AP Stats. I was particularly amused by a science class in which the thirteen-year-olds were trying to figure out how to set up the scales in their graphs. They were having a hilarious amount of difficulty in choosing the gradations, but they were really thinking about it rather than giving up. My favorite class that I’ve sat in on has been a group of thirteen-year-olds that were learning about symmetry. The teacher convinced them that she’d been a traveling magician on a motorbike with a caravan who charged fifty pounds for her famous paper-folding show; they were like 70% sold… “Miss, did you have a stage name?”. The most depressing class has been a group of fourteen-year-olds with severe disabilities or behavioral problems. It was so clear that the teacher - who was wonderful with the top-level group I’d seen earlier, and who ran the “crowd control” quite well even here - didn’t have the resources or specialized training to teach effectively to that group, that the kids had completely different challenges and levels of understanding, and that many of them were getting nothing whatsoever out of the class.

Lunchtime in the math staff room (closet/“cupboard”, actually) is a riot. In the first three days, I learned my colleagues’ preferred methods for murdering a classroom of children, breakup-by-Whatsapp drama, childbirth vaginal tearing experiences, and quite detailed sexual preferences. The Minister of Education remarked that the Welsh are congenitally nosy, and that seems rather born out. I’m expanding my vocabulary, too - why don’t we have “lush” and “brill” in the U.S.?

Generally I’m quite enjoying it here, and I feel like I’m getting opportunities to see all corners of a school in a pretty unique sort of way; it’s really making me want to take that education policy class at Harvard next semester. The lessons I’ve taught so far seem to have gone over decently, I have a bunch of exciting ones coming up, and I think I’m of sufficient interest to the kids (“Miss, do you know Donald Trump?”) that I might have a real impact. The education ministry is sending in people with cameras to make a mini-documentary about me and the other GTL instructors, which I am not happy about, but que sera...