Today I want to write about something that is a bit more personal than most things I write. It's something I think about almost every night when I slip into bed and often fall asleep with these thoughts in my head. Relationships.

I remember how it felt in high school: having a year long crush on the same guy and wanting to be in a relationship - mostly for the sake of being in a relationship. Things felt like they would be so much better and happier if someone cared for me romantically. My self-worth was so defined by the way that others saw me, particularly boys. If boys didn't "like like" me, it meant something was wrong with me. Yes, in retrospect, it sounds horrible, but let's be honest with ourselves, a lot of the time that is how we felt. I hated feeling that way, I knew it was wrong, but I craved attention from a guy. I wanted to feel wanted in that way. Yes, raging hormones and the whole adolescence ordeal was happening too, but I never really thought much about the physicality of a relationship - how incredible it felt to be held in someone's arms, to hold someone in yours, and feel intimacy that was unlike any friendship. Wanting something I had never had before was difficult because I didn't know what exactly I wanted, but also easy, because without it I wasn't missing anything.

And now here I am - out of an almost 3 year long relationship, laying in my bed every night, and craving what I once had. This is both difficult and easy too but for the opposite reasons - easier because I know what I want from a relationship now, but difficult because I miss having it. It's not like high school anymore, thank goodness, because men will never again create my definition of myself. But it feels like a more mature of everything I felt in high school. I especially miss the intimacy, which I suppose makes sense since my top love languages are physical touch and quality time. It's strange - I crave it, but I don't ache for "love" like before because I can live off of the emotions and feelings in my memories. Memories are truly a powerful thing; they make you yearn, fill you with nostalgia, but their emotions are satisfying. Or at least, satisfying enough for now. I'll be patient, really, but I still worry about finding someone who will live up to these standards in my head. Ironically, even though being in a relationship taught me to stop being so idealistic in my standards for guys, learning from things that went wrong also raised my standards in other ways. I guess these standards are more mature and realistic. They're about communication styles, love languages, and lifestyle habits. It's really most important just to be honest with yourself about whether those things are there or not.

Anyway, I guess I'm just feeling lonely more than anything because I don't have friends around right now or a job to keep my mind busy. It's weird remembering what it feels like to have so much free time... I don't like it. Give me productivity or give me death. Just kidding. 
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This title is relevant in so many different ways right now.

I'm sitting around at home, job searching, watching TV, wasting time. You know the feeling we have during college when you wake up on a Monday morning and you know your week will be productive in one way or another because you have classes to go to and extracurricular meetings to attend? You wish that you had some time just to sit back and relax. Well, I'm relaxing now and it is driving me CRAZY! It's not like I'm a workaholic who needs to be doing something all the time, but after a week or so of watching nonstop TV, I feel like I need to be filling my time with something else. I've started drawing again, started reading books, going to the gym, but what I really want is 1) a job acceptance, 2) medical school acceptances, 3) friends in Austin, and 4) somewhere to go. I have my sister, yes, but I miss having friends - college life. Maybe this is withdrawal I'm feeling - the urge to download Tinder just to have someone around here to talk to. I don't think I can go without friends here much longer. Being stuck in the middle of college and a job/medical school is surprisingly draining and mind-numbing. I've gotten mad at my mom the past two days for super dumb reasons, and I feel like some sort of intense restlessness is developing inside of me. It's frustration with myself for feeling like I should have a job by now and not knowing if my personal statement was good enough and not putting myself out there enough - it's reflecting off of everyone else. Ironic right? Graduate from Duke, and then feel inadequacy. It's hard to tease apart my confidence and my inadequacy. Stuck in the middle. Ugh.

Well that got deep fast. Another thing that I've realized since I've been back home is how I've become stuck between these adult and kid roles. I just got out of being a kid, but I still remember exactly what it's like. In trying to solve the problems between my parents and my sister, I'm forced to pick sides, but how can you pick a side when you relate to both of them? Let me give you an example: my sister wants to wake up at 1 pm every day because it is her summer vacation and that's what all of her friends do. My parents think that is ridiculous because you're wasting the entire morning sleeping. Don't get me wrong, I slept until 1 pm many days in the past 4 years, but I agree that there are so many things that can get done in the morning if you don't sleep until the afternoon. I remember wanting to wake up late on weekends and summers in high school, but my parents waking me up with loud music and vacuum cleaners at 9 am. How do you appease everyone? You don't. You get stuck in the middle and everyone hates you. Just kidding, but really, being the oldest child has its own challenges, especially with the 6 year age gap I have with my sister. My sister who just wants to text her friends all the time, wants to Skype in the middle of the night, doesn't want to practice her instrument, doesn't want to do the dishes. It's difficult to oppose my now "adult" instincts and remind myself that I wanted all the things she did when she was her age, but I turned out fine. Well, mostly.

In other news, I started watching The Flash. The guy is really cute. Story is not bad. It's a bit unsettling how many guys I follow on Instagram just because they're attractive - Ryan Reynolds, Grant Gustin, Wesley Chan, Grayson Allen, Colin O'Donoghue, Justin Baldoni (but he doesn't REALLY count because he's basically the most incredible person in the world). See, they're not just attractive, they have so many other talents going for them. Sigh, y'all just think I'm shallow now, don't you?

Peace out.
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Not even going to pretend like I too busy to write for four months; I really just started watching too much television...

So welcome to summer y'all, hope it's going really well for you so far. I've honestly been putting off writing about graduation and things ending because I know I'm going to get nostalgic and cry if I think about it too much. I didn't really say a true goodbye to anyone because it doesn't feel like this is the last time we will see each other. This country is big, for sure, but we find ways to get around to see the people we care about. Plus, technology is so developed now that you can always feel connected to your friends in some way or another. When I graduated as a senior in high school, I cried whenever I heard "Friends Forever" by Vitamin C. The difference between then and now is that I really think I'll be staying connected with people in college, whereas most of my high school friends have lost touch. College is where you change, and sometimes the friendships you thought once made sense don't seem to once you've fully grown into your own skin. That's certainly how I felt. I think my emotional college song has got to be "See You Again" by Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa. I cry every time. 

After our final performance in Zhuhai last summer, I posted a blog post with these words at the end:

"People often don’t realize how much work and effort goes into making a performance happen, not just a task list, but also emotional investment. When you put the label “final” on the performance, signaling that something wonderful was coming to an end, it adds a whole new layer of emotions like longing and despair and sadness. I want to remember this final performance not only for all of the confidence and talent it showcased from the students, but also for this bittersweet feeling that makes me want to cry, but also smile. I don’t think this performance is an end, but rather a means for our students to be motivated to push themselves more out of their comfort zones. There is so much about this program that is not “final” in the most literal sense."

I have to say that it's a parallel to how graduation felt. I can't wait to see what incredible things my friends have in their futures, but it's easier to think about it as a new beginning rather than an ending. We are constantly preparing for the next performance in our lives whether it be medical school or a job interview or getting married. Every performance has emotional investment; it isn't a frozen pizza you throw in the oven, but the culmination of delicate knife cuts, careful seasoning, and a beautiful presentation. Every new step should be something we are proud of. I'm proud of learning everything I did at Duke and graduating a month ago. But sometimes it is frustrating, because we just want a break from preparing! You think a gap year means you get to take a little break before applying to medical school, but in fact you're busy at work on a personal statement the week right after you graduate...

Sometimes the preparation and journey is just as enjoyable as the end result. In the case of cooking, which I have been doing a lot of recently, this is certainly the case. I've only recently started letting myself experiment with recipes and new foods, and it has been incredibly therapeutic, the preparation even more than the eating itself. I even decided to start a food blog to log my foodventures. Cooking is really an art, and I've always loved the creativity and personality that the arts let us shine through. But I feel about cooking how I feel about dancing: I honestly love it, but I don't think I've had enough guidance to have the finesse that I want. I don't mind the working hard at it bit, but finesse is quite expensive and time-consuming. If I'm going to medical school, I don't know if I'm going to have the cash or time to pursue these hobbies further. 

Which brings the question, do I feel this way about medicine/why do I want to be a doctor? Yes, I just wrote my personal statement on it, and it is both of the things I just mentioned (expensive and time-consuming). I made a metaphor between dance and medicine in my statement - how there are tasks to get done, but they are incomplete without compassion and heart. Yes, I want to go to medical school to find finesse in a career that will help make people's lives better, hopefully. But if you ask me for the moment I knew, or for one distinct answer, I really just don't know. I just know it feels right. How do you put that in a 5000 character statement? I don't want my career to be about me; I've never wanted anything to be just about me. It's about sharing any talent I might have with others, and that's how it has always been. I cook to feed others more than myself, because the fulfillment comes from big smiles and the "mmm" sound of satisfaction. That's what I want from medicine. Fingers crossed that someone wants me back.

So back to where I've strayed so, SO far from: graduation. Commencement itself wasn't very heart-wrenching because a group of 2500 of us were just namelessly sitting in the morning sun in Wallace Wade. The neuroscience graduation was more personal; I was prouder to be leaving as a neuroscience major with distinction. All of graduation weekend, I only cried once - when I was leaving my roommate Yolanda for the last time. Usually if I think about something sad or emotional hard enough, I can get myself to tear up, but this was real, pouring down my face, tears. I wasn't thinking about the memories we had together, I just knew I was going to miss living with her the way we had for the past four years. Four years! Some people can't even make it through a year with the same roommate. I was lucky enough to have four years with her. Now if that's not a lifelong friendship in the making, I don't know what is. 

Whenever I look back over a period of time like college or high school, I most regret not taking better advantage of the opportunities I was given. It's like I made lemonade out of the lemons, but I could've made an even more delicious lemon meringue if I worked a little harder. I could've done this extra volunteering or shadowing or extracurricular. But like they say, in the end it doesn't matter and I'm sure things will be okay moving forward. If I think about about every semester of Duke on its own, the negatives seem to be the first thing that come to mind. Sophomore fall I fell into a sophomore social slump. Junior fall was an emotional roller-coaster because of my first time planning the Dhoom Awaaz performance. Junior spring scandal after scandal disconnected me from a positive Duke environment. But when I think about my time here overall, I think it was pretty incredible. We won a goddamn national championship. I went to China. I LEARNED stuff. I'm more qualified to do stuff now, and that's pretty incredible. The "satisfaction of competence" is pretty wonderful. Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. 

I don't regret anything in my social life nor my relationship, because they made my Duke experience incredibly valuable. Friends that offer to bring you chicken soup when you're sick (lookin at you Yolo hehe) and stay up until 4 am listening to you rant and support you through everything. I was blessed. I'm going to miss my dance team -- there's rarely the opportunity outside of undergrad to be part of that kind of team, especially when you're off to medical school. We never had drama, only love and fun and laughs. Some tears, yes, but ones that we wiped away for each other. Those freshmen and sophomores especially - Raj, Emily, Wendy, Wenfei, Deeksha, Cheenu - have grown such an incredible amount in the short amount of time I've known them, as dancers, as leaders, and as people. I will never stop thinking of you guys as my little brother and sisters. You have such greatness within you - make sure Dhoom gets some of it! Also please add me to the new Groupme...

There's a lot more I can reflect on, but for now I'm going to head to sleep. I watched a lot of TV today, and I really need a job soon. What's new?

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            There once was a beautiful maiden who lived in a small cottage in a small town at the edge of the kingdom with her father. They had little money to spend on extravagance, so they made their living by knitting hats and selling them to traders that came through the town on their way to the royal palace. One day when the girl was out to the market, a proud and arrogant queen came by their cottage to buy a hat for her son, the prince. She had heard this cottage had the finest craftsmanship of all in the kingdom and thus demanded that the father hand over his most beautiful hat that had taken him seven years to make. The old man hesitated and timidly asked if he could receive some payment for the hat that was his prized possession. The queen was outraged and turned red with anger. “How dare you ask a queen for payment? I’ll show you what it means to talk back to me that way!” The queen was trained in magic and put a spell on the cottage that froze it in time. The clock stopped ticking, the water stopped dripping and the old man was frozen in his tracks. The queen took the beautiful hat and said,
“No one will ever be able to undo this spell.
To do so he’d have to find the pygmy tree,
And complete the tasks the tree asks of he,
Or not for seven years will this curse reverse,
But no one knows this but me, me, me!”  
            When the maiden returned to her cottage, she found everything very still. When she saw her father was frozen and unable to move or speak, she sunk down to her knees and began to sob. At seeing such a beautiful girl cry, two mice crawled toward her and told her they had heard the queen say how the spell could be undone. The maiden vowed not to return until she had found the tree that could save her dear old father.
            She set off into the forest to find the pygmy tree. She searched long and hard, walked for miles and miles, but could not find any tree that looked unlike all the others. When night came, she thought it best to rest so she could search again the next day. The next morning, she again searched long and hard, walked for miles and miles, but could not find any tree that looked unlike all the others. When the second night came, she again thought it best to rest so she could search again the following day. The third morning, as she awoke and began to search, she saw a small tree in a clearing in the forest that was surrounded by a magical glow. She approached the tree and asked, “Are you the pygmy tree?” The tree shook and extended its branches and said, “I am the pygmy tree. I know the queen has put a curse on your house, and I will offer you a spell to undo it if only you complete for me three difficult tasks.” The maiden promised she would do anything to remove the curse. The tree said to this,
            “If this is so, then first fetch me the apple from the highest branch of the tallest tree in the forest. Only if you can do this, can I help you lift the curse.” The maiden was shocked to hear this task, for there was no chance she could reach the highest branch of the tallest tree. She sat and she wept, until a bird flying through the forest heard her cries. At seeing such a beautiful girl cry, the bird found the highest branch of the tallest tree, and brought the girl the apple in its mouth. The maiden thanked the bird and brought the apple back to the pygmy tree. The tree was impressed, and asked the maiden to complete a second task.
            “You have done well, but now you must find me the stone as pure as gold from deepest, darkest hole in the forest. Only if you can do this, can I help you lift the curse.” The maiden was shocked to hear this task as well, for there was no possible way for her to climb back up once she had gone down the deepest, darkest hole in the forest. She sat and cried once more, until a mole crawling around the forest heard her sobs. At seeing such a beautiful girl cry, the mole crawled into the deepest, darkest hole in the forest and brought the girl the stone in its mouth. The maiden thanked the mole and brought the stone back to the pygmy tree. The tree was amazed she was able to complete such a difficult task, and asked the girl to find one last thing.
            “You have amazed me with your ability, but now you must do the most difficult thing of all. Bring me the heart of the oldest rabbit in the forest. Once you do this, I can help you lift the curse.” The maiden couldn’t believe her ears, for this meant she would have to kill to save her father. She sat and cried, trying to decide what to do. At seeing such a beautiful girl cry, the oldest rabbit in the forest told her that she should take his heart because he would die soon regardless. The idea of killing the rabbit was unthinkable to the maiden because of how pure she was of heart. He assured her that she was indeed worth the sacrifice and cut out his heart so she could take it. The maiden wept over the loss of the rabbit as she brought the heart back to the pygmy tree. As she placed it down next to the apple and golden stone, winds started to sweep around the tree and surround it in a white fog. Once the fog had cleared, the girl saw that the tree had disappeared, but in its place stood a tall man wearing a cape and hood. He said to her,
            “I am a wizard from a far-away land. The queen turned me into a pygmy tree when I visited the palace for she was threatened by my magical powers. By bringing me the apple, the stone and the rabbit’s heart, you have saved me.” The maiden replied, “But what of the rabbit? He sacrificed his life for me.” The wizard was kind so he said, “For your pure heart and his bravery, I will bring him back to life and give him the gift of youth.” The wizard said a spell and the oldest rabbit in the forest that had died came back to life and became a young rabbit once again. The wizard then said to the maiden, “You have saved me so I will give you a spell to lift the queen’s curse. When you return to your cottage, touch the front gate with two fingers and say the words,
‘Abble, babble, friends below and above,
Free my home from stillness so my father I again may love.’”
The maiden thanked him and hurried back to her cottage to free her father from the queen’s curse. She stood at the front gate, touched it with two fingers, and repeated the spell the tree had given her.
“Abble, babble, friends below and above,
Free my home from stillness so my father I again may love!”
            Suddenly, the cottage shook slightly and the girl heard her father call out her name. She ran inside and embraced him. At that moment, the prince of the kingdom came into the cottage in search of another beautiful hat for his brother. His mother, the queen, had told him of a tiny house at the edge of the kingdom where she had gotten one for him. Right as he entered, he saw the young maiden and was overwhelmed by her beauty. He proclaimed that they marry at once and took her back to the royal palace with him. They were married with great festivities and splendor and lived together happily for the rest of their lives. As for the queen, the wizard she had turned into a pygmy tree returned to the palace and turned her into a mouse to forever scurry around in the courtyard. While many thought the queen had left the kingdom on a long trip, she stayed in the courtyard for years, eventually gobbled up by the royal family’s cat. 
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It's only half past six and I had already started pulling ingredients out of the cabinets to prepare to make what needed to be a dinner beyond the regular vegetable stir fry and rice or quesadillas that I put together most nights. I was having trouble deciding where in the process I should be when he arrived. Should I be pretty much done and have the table set and ready? No, that would be incredibly formal and leave no room for cute, awkward small talk. 

I paced back over to the refrigerator, clutching the handle and deciding whether to open it again or not. Should I start when he came so we could talk while we cook? No, I invited him over so I should at least be headed in some semblance of a direction by the time he gets here. I opened the refrigerator door and pulled out the mushrooms, tomatoes  and all the other vegetables I had bought the night before in anticipation of this dinner. I knew exactly what the menu was going to be. I had spent two hours on the Food Network website the week before looking up perfect date foods. Hopefully nothing would take me by surprise, but in cooking new recipes, it seems like things always did. 

As my hands mechanically began to wash and chop the vegetables one by one, my mind drifted, thinking back to when we had tea at the local coffee shop. For six dollars he paid for our tea that I could have made equally as well, if not better, in my own apartment... But "casual" first meetings are usually better conducted outside of personal dwellings. It's more about getting a feel for first impressions, finding out what you have in common, and deciding if the person is someone you would be interested in pursuing further. 

He had told me about his interest in photography and how his parents had him have an annual photoshoot for his younger sister while she was growing up. He showed me some of the photos of her -- colorful scenery, rich, natural lighting, and an adorable model. I was thoroughly impressed. I had told him about my passion for dance and how I couldn't imagine my life without it. He smiled at this with a smile that reached his eyes. He said he was a dancer in college too, though he hadn't danced much since then. It had been an important part of his life back then, but things got busier as he got older. Typical growing up stuff. 

I put the chopped tomatoes and peppers aside and started on the green onions. 

He was genuine in his laugh and his compliments and his interest in me. He had a way of making me feel comfortable to open up even though I had just met him two weeks ago. He dressed impeccably and with a unique style, a delicate cross between classy and cool. He was calm and relaxed when he spoke, but still made jokes and had depth in his laugh. He was everything I had been looking for, but I knew from experience not to get my hopes up too soon. I looked forward to getting to know him more, and I hoped that he did too.

I put potatoes in the oven to start baking. Done with all the prep work, I washed my hands and glanced at the time. I only had an hour left until eight. It seemed like such a short time, but I knew my stomach would turn a million times in those sixty minutes. I went into the bedroom to change into the dress I had picked out for tonight. It was a navy blue shift dress that I intended to look elegant but still casual enough to wear it well without any shoes. I carefully retouched my makeup from this morning, adding some extra color to my eyes and lips. I'm not one for half hour makeup routines, but they say it should just accentuate your features so I just put on whatever kept my face looking natural. 

I checked my phone and saw a text from him reminding me playfully that he was bringing dessert so I shouldn't worry about it. He had said it was something he was famous for among his family and friends. I was intrigued as to what it might be. It made my heart jump that he could cook too. 

I put on some of my favorite pop ballads at an ambient volume on my speaker. That and the low yellow light of my lamp would set a nice mood in the apartment --  casual but with a clear intent. I headed back to the harshly lit kitchen and started sautéing the onions, tomatoes, peppers and spinach, adding a nice array of spices and herbs that would elevate their flavors. I had bought a bottle of red wine a few days before that a friend had recommended. I put that on the counter and figured I would ask him to open it, to prevent myself the embarrassment of being unable to. 

As I started to mix together my filling and stuff it onto the portobello mushroom caps, I remembered that he'd probably ask to help out if he cooks at home, and that'd be a good way to keep things light and casual before dinner. He could help with the salad -- an easy, non-messy part of any meal to be a part of. As I put the tray of stuffed mushroom caps into the oven, I heard a knock on my door. I quickly washed my hands, smoothed my dress, and fixed my hair. I took a deep breath and walked over to the door. No matter what happened, I was sure it would be a great night. 
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The end of the semester draws near and I'd like to talk about and reflect on this semester, the most important aspects of which have been dance and the f-word.

Have you ever been so passionate about something that your heart wrenches every time you hear bad news about it? That your eyes have welled up with both tears of happiness and pain for it? That you can't imagine what your life would be without it, but you've definitely had moments where you know things would be a lot less complicated if your life was without it? This is how I feel about dance, a sentiment that I've shared before, but seems to grow stronger every semester that I dance with my family called Duke Dhoom. My parents think it's silly to be this emotionally attached to something or someone, and yes it probably is, but becoming passionate about something is like falling in love: you don't plan for it and it kind of just happens on its own.

This semester has been my favorite on Dhoom since the four years I've been at Duke for two primary reasons (but many more beyond that): 1) I felt like I had a family who weren't just the people that I danced with, but also the people that I shared some of my deepest feelings with. Each person on my team has such a unique, bright personality and I'm so glad I got to know every single one of them. This past Saturday, I was at a performance my sister was doing with her dance school, and just as the first group of little kids started dancing, I felt tears start to develop in my eyes. I cried, because I missed my team! It sounds so silly because I'd only been gone from Duke for a day, but the universality of dance and how it brings us all together made me miss them. The way we've been there for each other like no Dhoom team ever has before, whether it's for heartbreak or new love or adjusting to college life or physical ailments and illnesses. I'm hoping these guys will want to stay friends with me much longer than after I graduate ;)

2) I felt myself grow as a dancer and a leader. Not that the past two years haven't helped with that, but running this team more or less on my own this semester showed me that I have the capacity to create something beautiful of my own accord. I've become so much more confident in my choreography, in the way that my body moves, and in what I suppose has become my style. I've watched dancers on Youtube and my incredible dancer friends in person for the past few years and been able to see a recurrent style in their movements. Finally a fellow team member told me some of my choreography was "so Sonal," and I think it meant a lot more to me than she knew at the time. I love that I don't feel like I need to hide my energy anymore. I remember distinctly at the beginning of the semester when the new Edens studio with the full open glass wall by my dorm first opened that when I went in there by myself just to choreograph or dance, I would be really self-conscious of people watching me and seeing as I experimented with the music. But now I go in there and I dance freely and hope people see me and can feel what I'm so excited about. It feels like growth, and that's such an important thing to have in a passion.

Sometimes I just know that if there were money in dance, that's what I would be doing. Not that I'm becoming a doctor for the money, but if I were as passionate about something in medicine as I am about dance, I think I would have a lot less trouble getting there. Probably not a lot less since it is grueling, but definitely a little less. With all these good things, I've also had a lot of dance downers this semester that I'd love to write about but your impressions of me might change if you hear all the curse words I've used over the course of the semester... Let's just say that when someone tries to take away from or put down and condescend something that I've worked so hard to build, I am not going to be a happy camper about it. Shoutout to my team and main man from keeping me from killing anyone.

And then occasionally I take a step back from it all and try to remind myself that Dhoom is only a part of my life for another semester, and there should be things higher on my priority list than it, but sometimes it's hard to put them there. For example, the f-word. Did you guess the right one? The future, of course, what else is there? It's a hard conversation to have with anyone: friends, parents... significant others. Ding ding ding. It's so difficult to keep up with time because it will never stop going on. I think, If I could have a wish, maybe I would wish to freeze time for a while so I could just take it all in, but then I realize that even then would the freezing time time be counting down. We must make big decisions in the midst of other big decisions, never knowing what is right or what the f-word will bring. We have to work really hard to get anywhere, don't we? Plus, we need to pretend to know what is right for us until we realize that it is or it isn't. Doesn't make sense? Yeah it's all kind of a blur to me too.

I kind of wish someone could just tell me what to do, where to go, and what will be good for me in life. I wish I didn't have to suffer so much emotional turmoil just to see everything go down the drain in a year or not. I wish I wasn't battling sides, unable to speak with the truth and honestly that would set the knots in my heart loose because that might also lead to closed doors. If I could, you'd probably understand a little better what I was actually even talking about right now. Snaps if you feel.

Anyway, bed for now, try to actually do some work for tomorrow. Peace out.

Also below are some of my favorite photos from Awaaz this year. Can't believe I just completely stopped putting photos in these blog posts...

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Okay, it's been so long and I have so much to say that I think I'm going to have to separate my thoughts into three different posts. I've written only twice this year which is ridiculous, but I'm hoping to start doing it again because I've thought about doing it every week but something else has occupied my time. First it was China, then it was MCAT and now it's adjusting into life as a senior in college.

This one's going to be about China.

Going to Zhuhai for DukeEngage was one of the most incredible experiences I've had in my life, and the reasons are threefold. First, it was my first time out of the country on my own without my parents and it gave me a chance to explore and discover a place in my own way, at my own pace. I wasn't touring, taking photos constantly (though some of us were heh), or seeing what everyone else sees. I got a chance to understand the day in the life of a resident of Zhuhai (体验中国人的生活). I had a sense of independence and freedom to do what I liked and nothing to hold me back but my own fears, which I tried my best not to get in the way.

Second, I was able to practice my Chinese everywhere that I went, and it felt like my two years of learning the language actually meant something. When I was able to have meaningful conversations about religion, US vs Chinese economics (sort of), food, college life, and Chinese philosophy (though this was mostly me listening) with my host family, shopowners, and my students, I felt so incredibly happy. Speaking and understanding a language that you didn't pick up as a child subconsciously but rather spent hours of effort in practicing in class is so much more satisfying. While it was frustrating at times when my host mom spewed out sentences of Chinese that I did not understand at all (简直外星人的说话!), it was those moments that I learned the most from. If Chinese was just a class I enjoyed before going to China, it truly became a part of me once I went to China. I've had dreams in Chinese, thought of words in Chinese before I could think of the English translation, and accidentally spoken Chinese words in a completely non-Chinese conversation. You could say I've really embodied the 中国话 hehe.

Third, I was able to interact with people across the world from me and make my world feel just a little more connected. I mentioned this last time, but putting names and faces to at least some of the nameless, faceless population of Asians across the world made me feel a little more worldly. My host mom is someone I will never forget because she believed in my Chinese even when I hardly understood what she was saying and she treated me like a part of the family and gave me all of the comforts she could in her home. Our students were so great, especially one class that I had on Tuesday afternoons that was always excited to see me. My English classes were fun, but more than anything I loved dance classes in the evenings. We started with 40 students and trickled down to 15, but those 15 were so committed, enthusiastic, and they really worked hard for our final performance. I remember how nervous some of them were just as we were about to go on, and how energized they were once they had performed. It made me so incredibly proud. It reminded me of how I feel after every dance performance that I do and while it's a stressful feeling, it also feels like you're ready to prove yourself to the world. It was amazing to be able to bring that feeling to our students. More on this and my experience in Zhuhai you can read on the blog I wrote over the summer for DukeEngage here: https://sites.duke.edu/dezhuhai2015/author/sg220duke-edu/. The one on the final performance is probably the most meaningful to me so I'm going to be weird and quote myself.
"People often don’t realize how much work and effort goes into making a performance happen, not just a task list, but also emotional investment. We were all stressed and nervous because we wanted our students to succeed and for an audience to see them at their best. When you put the label “final” on the performance, signaling that something wonderful was coming to an end, it adds a whole new layer of emotions like longing and despair and sadness. I want to remember this final performance not only for all of the confidence and talent it showcased from the students, but also for this bittersweet feeling that makes me want to cry, but also smile. I don’t think this performance is an end, but rather a means for our students to be motivated to push themselves more out of their comfort zones. There is so much about this program that is not “final” in the most literal sense. Inspiration is like a drop of acid in water — once it’s there, you can’t take it away."
My whole experience made me really reflect on DukeEngage's tagline of "Challenge yourself. Change your world." They say that the reason they chose to make it "change your world" rather than "change the world" is because we have to change ours before we impact anyone else's. While I'm under no impression that a group of Duke students going to a foreign country will change the way that the world turns, it gives us an experience that, in some cases, leads us to think further about world issues and perhaps pursue them in the future. It still bothers me a bit though that a program that is meant to provide service focuses so heavily on personal growth. That is actually one of the biggest things I got out of my program, in fact, but the Thanks a Million reception DukeEngage held this week for celebrating a million hours of service left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth, and it wasn't because of the food because that was actually quite delicious. It's great that we're celebrating the service that Duke students have done since 2007, but something seems incongruent in celebrating what we give others while stressing what we do for ourselves. It comes back to the uneasiness of having privilege, and I'm not really sure where to go with that.

Switching gears a bit, I didn't mention this as one of my reasons, but the biggest impact I brought back with me from China was probably Chinese tea culture (中国茶文化). It sounds kind of silly, maybe, but I became totally obsessed with tea in China. Before, I would drink chai on occasion with my mom, in which she adds both milk and sugar. My host mom drank tea with me almost every evening and it was something I looked forward to from the moment that I got home after a long day at No. 9 Middle School. As I've told friends time and time again, it's not just the warm, soothing essence of the tea that makes the experience so incredible and comfortable, but also the way that it is drank. A host prepares the tea(泡茶)and constantly pours and refills it into the small cups (杯子) that each person has. Not only does your tea not get cold because it's constantly being reprepared with hot water, but there's also something so personal about needing to engage with another to have more. It's a comfortable way to have discussions and catch up and you're not just sitting on opposite sides of a table sipping from your own cup with a tea bag in it. Fresh loose-leaf tea, 特别是红茶, makes me feel like I can take a deep breath and relax from everything that is stressing me out. It's like meditation almost, hard to describe in words, but something that if you really try to feel it, I think you definitely can. Tea has had such an influence on my life since this summer, both at home where my parents love and miss drinking tea with me everyday and at school where I've already had some really wonderful conversations with my roommate and others over tea. I definitely invite anyone to come over sometime to have tea with me, because I would really love to do that!

I think I've gone on for long enough, so I'll end here by saying that this post by no means describes all the things that I've felt before, during and after my trip to China. People will ask me how my DukeEngage experience was and I usually say incredible and a couple of lines on what I did, but it's so hard not to go out into a full fledged explanation of everything it has meant to me. I especially thank Hsiao-mei for organizing such an incredible program that stretched all of us past our limits and pushing us to learn things about ourselves that we wouldn't have otherwise. She had me run a group discussion and MC for a performance that we had which were both nerve-wracking, but very rewarding in the end. I really also thank all of my team members, who all played such a vital role at Zhuhai and had an impact on me as well. I have so much to learn from every one of them because we all come from different social backgrounds but were able to come together toward a common goal. I recommend DukeEngage Zhuhai to everyone, no matter what your major is or what your plans are for the future, because I'm positive you'll learn something about yourself and about the world you're in on the way.
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