May 1, 2013

KOH: Wrong in All the Right Ways

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“I got hurt in the Cornell game,” writes Erich Segal in Love Story. Of course, Segal’s protagonist is a Harvard hockey player mulling over a dismal outing to the “wintry wilds of upstate New York,” but allow me to wilfully ignore this. I’m glad Cornell was hard, because it’s too easy to confuse comfort with happiness or meaning. I’ve had three relentless and stunning years, one of them at the helm of the arts desk, and I have survived to say: Anything can happen. Don’t ever write off anyone, especially yourself. But before I continue my descent into sappy clichés, I’ll invoke Stephen Fry’s wisdom:  “I am a cliché and I know it … but, it is my story and worth no more or no less than yours or anyone else’s.”

I’ll relate the travails of my freshman year because graduation columns tend to only celebrate the awesome. I want to say to anyone who isn’t (yet!) having an awesome time: You’re not alone, and you will survive. Don’t lament the lives you didn’t lead. As you find yourself, learn to accept yourself, too. As P!nk has said, “you’re wrong in all the right ways.”  Away from everything I’d ever known, I had the freedom to question everything, even the religion I’d grown up with.

I came to Cornell dazed, hopeful and terrified. I’d spent my whole life in Singapore (“you’re Singaporean Singaporean?”), and it took me some time to appreciate how, under the all-encompassing term of “international student,” there are different degrees of foreignness. As a freshman, I found Morrissey’s words searing and amusing — “shyness is nice, but shyness can stop you, from doing all the things you’d like to.” But it only made me self-conscious when 30 seconds into nearly every conversation I had, I would be asked where I was from on account of my mysterious accent. (I can completely identify with Sofia Vergara, of Modern Family, when she talks about the impossibility of mastering the American accent). And what was this discordance that I felt with so many classes and so many people? Some kind of existential crisis, personality flaw or culture shock? How, if ever, would I fit in and stand out? How could I be myself when I didn’t know who I really was? All around me, everyone seemed so confident, so purposeful. They knew what to say, what to join and where to go. I was not having the time of my life and honestly, I was really guilty about it. I was in a great school on a great scholarship that came with a job I saw as meaningful and essential  — what shouldn’t I be happy about?

In a way, The Sun saved my life. It taught me to be relentless and fearless; you kind of have to be if you’re writing about shows you know nothing about. I joined The Sun my first semester, excited about snagging a press pass to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra show, for which I wrote a mystifyingly brief review — at 281 words, this was about 400 words shy of the required length. In the three years since, I have come to understand a little more deeply what it means to fall hard for something. This is probably uncharacteristic for an arts writer, but my defining moments have also been my quietest. I have stood in the hallowed presence of Marcel Duchamp’s “La boîte-en-valise” (“Box in a Suitcase”), Tibetan religious paintings and Rembrandt etchings — and then tried to say something intelligent about them. As I ventured into the Johnson more and more, I started to question why I was moved by what I saw. So I started taking art history classes. That was the start of a series of fortunate events that have led to my acceptance to graduate school, where I will study visual anthropology.

So, I am going to give these last words to the people at The Sun who continue to show me how much bigger the world really is:

• The impossibly cool and immensely talented arts staff writers and illustrators. Special thanks to Zander, Santi and Rachael for working on my columns.

• The always fearless 130th Editorial Board.

• The Arts editors who came before, and taught me so much: Peter and Ruby, James and Joey. I will always be in awe of all of you. The arts editors who came after: Sam and Arielle, you are perfect. Well, almost. Your sense of adventure will take you places.

• My co-arts editor Zach: I don’t even know where to begin. It’s been exceptional working with someone who cares so much. If I watch a movie — any movie — and start tearing up before the opening credits are over, the fault is completely yours.

So, this column, which I’ve literally spent two days writing, hasn’t turned out as I’d expected. I was going to make it far more exciting and heroic. But most goodbyes are imperfect, anyway.

A final note on leaving. This is mostly directed to seniors who wonder if they’ll be remembered after they leave. My sophomore year, I encountered two especially striking works of art: The Chinese contemporary artist Song Dong writes his diary on stone with water. In Bihar, India, women still engage in Madhubani painting to celebrate special occasions and festivals. To make the vivid, geometric patterns, the women smear paste made of powdered rice on canvasses, cloth or newly plastered walls. The painted prayers (to borrow Stephen Huyler’s phrase) last for days; the water diary entries last only for hours. But they were there, once, and maybe, that’s all that matters. As Huyler observes, “it is the moment of creation, the intent of the heart, that is important. Art, like life, is considered transitory.”

Original Author: Daveen Koh