Today's letter is a little different.
Most of you don't know me or my background. I'm going to write about me a little, because it's unavoidable when I explain what drove me to tech.
I didn't go to school for Computer Science. I come from a background in English Composition and Education. In the "before-times," I wrote the International English curriculum for a boarding school in Beijing, China.
The short version of the story: I was on holiday outside of China visiting family and friends when the pandemic hit. My return flight to Beijing got cancelled. I've been living out of a suitcase and a backpack for the last ~17 months.
It's been hard. Like, really hard.
My career evaporated before my eyes. I've (vainly) tried to get back to my belongings and life in China.
But at a point, I had to make peace with loss, take inventory of my surroundings, and decide what I was going to do.
I looked around me and found a backpack full of books, a suitcase full of winter clothes, a small bag of toiletries...
...and my laptop computer.
I asked myself: "What can I do with this?"
Here are ten answers to that question, more or less, given that situation (and how they led me to tech).
1. I never store belongings in closets, on clothes hangers, or in drawers anymore - my bags are always packed
I'm learning what "home" means in a visceral way, and I'm still evaluating what the term means.
I miss it: taking the elevator to the third floor of my Beijing apartment and fussing with the sticky lock under the dim, flickering hallway light in front of my door.
I miss it because once I was inside, I was home. I was safe. I could change into comfy clothes and sprawl out on the couch. I miss the days of leaving evening dishes until the morning, because they were my dishes in my space. I miss turning the lock on my door and only opening it if I wanted.
Since January 2020, I've had to pack up my suitcase 10 different times to go somewhere else. Being constantly on the move is mentally and emotionally taxing, but when I reflect on what I've gained and what I've lost, I see the virtue of frugality.
A foldable toothbrush, a set of sortable clothing bags, a first-aid kit, miniature toiletries tucked neatly into a red zippered canvas: these are the items that fit into my suitcase. They're all I can fit; they're all I can afford; they're all I need.
There's a collection of books on my desk in my office in Beijing. Most of them are academic, littered with sticky notes and marked with highlighters. They cover pedagogy, approaching English from a non-native learner's perspective, and addressing one's own biases as a native speaker.
There's a collection of novels on the bookshelf in my bedroom too -- great books: Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
It's a shame they're collecting dust.
I still love to read.
But when I buy a book these days, I give it away when I'm finished because great ideas are meant to be shared, and even if I wanted, I couldn't bring the damn book with me anyway.
If it's really good, I'll buy a digital copy later.
The week before I left Beijing, a Chinese colleague gave me a fantastic Christmas gift. It's a graphic novel, written in Mandarin, in both Traditional and Simplified characters, about Buddhist thought. It's titled "放下是舍更是得", which means "Letting Go is Gaining More." I brought it with me to read on the plane out of Beijing, not knowing I was letting go of everything I was leaving behind.
Gift-giving is an integral part of Chinese culture, and I've learned a lot about what giving meaningful gifts means.
If that book is the last gift I ever receive, my heart is full.
I still read it with a kind of desperation, in part because I'm still learning the language in which it's written, and partly because, through pandemic times, I'm drawn to it's lessons like lightning to a rod.
The more I learn, the more I code, the more I give, and the more I let go of things I can't control, the more content I am.
One of my greatest fears when I started teaching was when my students would expose a gap in my knowledge or understanding of my own field. I used to feel like I needed to answer every question if I was worth anything as a teacher or as a writer. I'd get so desperate to have an answer, I'd start prattling off an ill-formed explanation before the entire question had even left my student's mouth.
The result was always hopeless frustration.
The more I taught, the more I was able to accept that I don't always need to have the answer to questions immediately. Sometimes it's better to fully listen to the question.
I mean, carefully, intently listen to the question: it's structure, it's wording, the rationale behind the question.
And sometimes its okay to admit you don't know the answer, write a note, and come back with a well-researched answer later.
Over time, "unanswerable questions" became my favorite part of teaching. People are so much more interesting when they come to you from a place of curiosity than when they pretend to know everything, and when I listened to a student's question, I'd learn so much about them.
When I could return a thoughtful answer later, we all learned.
Everyone had questions when Covid-19 broke out.
I shouldn't have been shocked that so many people leaped at the opportunity to insert quick, ill-formed answers, because I've been that person and I know why they feel like they need to do that.
I've since taken to coding, and I don't pretend to have the answers, but I always have a notebook and pen nearby.
When I was in college, I used to think "learning" meant reading complicated texts and asking unreasonably big questions about those texts.
When I started learning Mandarin and teaching English, I realized learning is more like repeated blunt-force trauma to the head.
More than anything, it's about repetition and consistency. It's about starting small, building up, and returning to the small principles for review.
Sometimes you'll easily master a word or phrase or grammar rule. Sometimes they just won't stick.
But if you're willing to keep making mistakes and learning from them, no matter what you're studying, it will make sense eventually.
In my post-pandemic life, I've found that learning to code flexes those same "brain muscles". I don't get frustrated as easily because I pick appropriate goals that I can replicate, and I make sure I code every day for as long as the day allows.
"We're not accepting applicants from outside of China at this time."
I can't tell you the number of times a great job interview has concluded with those words in the past ten months.
I don't know how I would have survived had I not given myself the permission to be patient with the process of rejection since the world closed down.
But that patience was permission-giving as well. I had permission to learn new things: more Mandarin, art, and now web development. It's an enduring kind of patience that I bring into the workplace, because I trust that I'll learn what I need to learn in the time I need to learn it.
In the first few months of the pandemic, I was stranded on an island off the coast of Thailand (a long story for another time).
I met an old Austrian man there named Werner.
When ferry services got suspended, a group of Brits, an Italian, and myself were discussing what the suspension might mean for travelers and transportation of goods. The conversation was a bit unnerving, so I tried to calm things down by suggesting things would be fine.
Werner interrupted me.
"I was three years old when the Nazis raided my family's factory and stripped it beam-from-beam to make weapons," he cried. "Things are fine now, but what will people do when there's not enough?"
I shut up and listened.
He told me his story about fleeing Austria for South Africa after the Nazi incident, where he later became a businessman with a reputation for driving around in his flower-painted Volkswagon Beetle.
"They called me the last hippie in Pretoria," he said.
Thanks for the title of my first novel, Werner.
"I don't understand the world now," he continued. "You have your smart phones and smart watches and social media. You put up all these pictures, and I think you have such beautiful lives until I meet you. I don't understand why young people lie to each other on the internet. This world wasn't built for me."
When he finished talking, I gave him a hug and went back to my room to take notes.
Three months ago, I was walking down Phillips Avenue--one of the main streets in my hometown--on a Saturday evening. A homeless man bundled in scarves stumbled towards me.
I did something impulsive. Going against everything my parents ever taught me about strangers, I hugged him tightly for a few seconds and said, "I love you, man."
He didn't say anything--just nodded for a moment.
He was drunk.
But so was I.
He was homeless.
And so was I.
I make a point to find reasons to love people these days.
During the Spring semester of 2020, I taught 14 kids in Beijing from my computer over a spotty wi-fi connection at a youth hostel in Thailand.
Though I'd written their curriculum in conjunction with TOEFL preparation materials and high school graded novels, all of our learning materials were locked inside our school in Beijing while they were locked down at home and I was stuck in Thailand.
I still taught three hours of class everyday. I spent nearly every waking hour of time outside of class preparing materials for the next day's lessons--reading materials, quizzes, review texts, instructional videos, animated shorts. I did all of it.
I remember constantly thinking if only I had more time to prepare.
A funny thing happens in a time of desperation.
You rise to the occasion.
I won't pretend like I optimized every day.
But I was present, and I showed up with materials for my students to learn.
And I learned too:
I learned how to use rudimentary animation software to help explain complex rhetorical ideas.
I learned how to integrate ClassDojo into our routine to manage my classroom, accept homework from students, present learning materials to them, and all while largely circumventing the Great Firewall of China.
I remember signing off our Zoom meeting on the last day of class and weeping into my hands.
Though I look back on the experience now through a healthy lens of what I learned, I still remember feeling like nothing we had done during the semester was enough. None of it was planned. How could it have been?
When my company gave me the news that China wouldn't be accepting teachers who were outside of the country for the fall semester, I wept again thinking, why did I try so hard?
I've asked myself that question over and over again in the months since.
I keep returning to the same answer: I'm a helper. I want to help people. Even though I don't have much, I have a computer, and I will do anything I can to help people.
The homeless man.
I can help people with tech.
Maybe you read these ten perspectives like a random assortment of items, dear Coder. Or maybe you read them like an algorithm, as though one shift in perspective invariably leads to the next.
Sometimes I feel like I've been changing in a random, chaotic sort of way, because it took a painstaking amount of self-reflection to find the words to examine the changes in myself and print them to the page.
But once they hit paper, I take comfort in reading them algorithmically. I observe and sort how circumstance acts upon me and how my reactions shape my circumstances. I find power and edification in observing my rational behavior, even thought it felt impulsive when it happened in real time.
As coders, I think we take similar comfort in receiving an open-ended set of objectives and organizing them on a blank canvas in a way that others can read.
And I think we take comfort in knowing others will understand and value the things we make.
Maybe that's the theme: comfort in organization, comfort in making things for people, comfort in listening, refactoring, and sharing without expectation of anything in return.
That's the gravity of coding.
And I suppose that's where my meanderings end today, Dearest Coder.
As always, godspeed in your keystrokes.