Thursday, June 19, 2014


Four years ago, when my advisor first mentioned that I should consider applying for a Watson Fellowship, I smiled and nodded agreeably while thinking to myself, “There’s no way in hell.” The prospect of solo-traveling around the world to undertake an esoteric project in unfamiliar places without the option of coming home for a year sounded…absolutely unappealing, to say the least. It wasn’t a fear of the unknown that fueled my inhibitions, exactly—I had spent a year abroad attending a Japanese high school without my family or any previous Japanese language training—but rather the anticipation of the loneliness that comes with being a cultural outsider. Don’t get me wrong, I had a terrific, life-changing time in Japan and quickly acquired substantial Japanese language skills. I was never homesick, but despite 24/7 immersion I often felt acute loneliness, like I was superficially within a community, yet remained constantly on the fringes.
[This is visually depicted in the Japanese character (uchi) meaning “inside”—it’s literally a person () within an established boundary and implies inclusion in a community. By contrast, the opposite of uchi is soto (). Soto means outside and has implications of exclusion; “foreigner” aka 外国人 is literally “outside country person,” or as it’s often somewhat informally/crassly contracted, 外人 –literally, “outside person.”]

I am deliberate. I like plans, and I like the feeling of thriving within structure, even if the structure itself I find abhorrent and oppressive.  So while many would immediately jump at the chance to even be considered for an award that liberates them from the routine of academia and urges them to explore uncharted territories, I quaked at the thought of setting my own agenda (or even abolishing the concept of agenda as I know it). But I also believe that success comes from showing up, even if it means showing up for opportunities that aren’t immediately knowable or defined. So I applied for the Watson, along with other graduate fellowships that are certainly much more clear-cut in their intentions than the Watson—Marshall, Rhodes, and Fulbright. Certainly, the application process was grueling—distilling myself and my ambitions and my expected future contributions to the global community to one thousand well-chosen words, and then articulating and defending them over and over again with higher stakes each time. The writing and editing of those essays, coupled with the mock and real interviews, required more introspection about what I wanted for my future than I had ever mustered in the years preceding. I had convinced myself that my goal was to win a fellowship for graduate school in the UK, and my advisors believed in me—it seemed within the realm of possibility.

Therefore, I was devastated to get agonizingly close to winning one of these highly prestigious and highly structured UK fellowships, and then find myself rejected again and again and again. It felt like I had constructed an ideal on paper that I couldn’t deliver in person, and after a while I wondered who I had been kidding. By the time the Watson interview came around in early spring, I was disillusioned with the fellowship process; I resigned myself to the reality that my attempts to be smooth, polished, charismatic, and well-spoken in the interviews only begot inhibition and felt inauthentic. I wanted to produce an idealized version of myself on command, but in trying to force what I thought others wanted to hear and expected of me, I was repeatedly shooting myself in the foot.

With no false airs of sophistication or debonair left to put on, I entered my Watson interview strangely liberated. All I had left to offer was my own genuine self and perspective—liberal doses of dorky free association about Western classical music history and Chinese regional politics and all. Of course, “just be yourself” is a mantra that peppers pre-interview pep talks, but sometimes it’s just really hard to believe that your own quirks and bizarre interests will serve you best in such situations, and prove attractive to an interviewer. As it were, my interviewer was a film score composer who was only too thrilled to talk about studying Sibelius’ orchestration, and whose own Watson recommendation letter writer was composer Alvin Lucier. For once, the interview felt not like an examination, but rather like a naturally flowing conversation between equals about the nature of cultural pluralism in music, music’s role in forming a collective cultural identity, and how music-making fosters a collaborative approach that can be applied across disciplines. My answers to his questions were insightful and well-reasoned (I thought to myself at various point throughout the interview, “Where are these answers coming from?”) Our conversation was fascinating and esoteric, and made me excited about my own project in a way that for the first time overshadowed my misgivings.

Still, finding out I had won was surreal and brought up mixed emotions. After four years of anticipation and four rejections, it didn’t immediately sink in that I had achieved this goal. I skipped class (something I never do) and went to the Wellesley Director of Fellowships’ office and cried. I didn’t feel any feelings of celebration; the anticipation of loneliness and struggle overwhelmed me, coupled with the knowledge that my mom would have to confront her strong qualms about my safety abroad. I felt guilty for my reluctance, knowing that there were many who would be unreservedly thrilled for such an opportunity, and that so many had supported me through the process.

That evening, I called a Wellesley alum who had been a Watson Fellow about ten years ago and told her about my reservations. She confirmed that indeed, going on her Watson year was the loneliest experience she had ever had in her life. "But," she said, "there were also incredible moments, like when I had the chance to spin silk with the man who makes silk for the Empress of Thailand." (Her Watson project had been studying the spinning of fibers around the world.) Her advice and insight was logistical ("You can always change your itinerary. You can stay months longer in a place than you planned if you want to, or skip a country completely") and candid ("I wish someone had told me that just because you're traveling, you don't have to wear ugly clothing. Make sure to bring clothing that makes you feel sexy, or at least confident. Not too sexy.") In hearing her speak frankly about the ups and downs of her experience, but especially about the moments that made the year tolerable and worth it, I started to conceive of my own project in a whole new light. The fear about loneliness remained, but I started to focus on the aspects of the project that had excited me in the first place--seeing places I had always wanted to visit, focusing solely on making music and writing for a year, getting the chance to play with these guys--

And suddenly it didn't seem like such a bad gig after all.

Now, I've spent the last few months talking to my friends, professors, Peace Corps volunteers and diplomats in Azerbaijan, musicians who studied and traveled in Indonesia, journalists who work in Tibet, and anyone else of whose advice I can avail myself. It's amazing to see the network I have discovered through both careful research and chance introductions. It's not that the world suddenly organized itself around my project, but because I would not have otherwise sought out these people's insights and advice for this purpose, it does feel like the proverbial "sun and stars have aligned." Finding an incredibly generous and kind Wellesley alum in Indonesia or a Czech cimbalom player and violinist couple who are willing to teach me and introduce me to local musicians asserts how interconnected the world truly is, and has given me some confidence that even if I don't have my day-to-day (or even month-to-month) agenda entirely figured out, it's probably going to be okay--and it might even be better that way. I may have brainwashed myself, but hey, regardless, it has been liberating to watch my fears about this project transform into a sort of eager tranquility. I know the anxiety, second-guessing, and even terror will resurface, but for now I am enjoying being at home, and also looking forward to what comes next.