The Null Space
Mathematical rambling to the void.
Things I wish I knew as a first-gen academic.
(March 30, 2023)
When my mom found out I wanted to switch my major to mathematics, she didn't talk to me for a day. The silence treatment wasn't out of anger, I think. She needed time to find the right words to - without discouraging me - describe her gloomy image of a math major. This was a difficult task for her. For once, she had never met a successful mathematician, and more importantly, I would be heading into uncharted territory: academia. My dad is the first one in his family to obtain a Bachelor's degree right after the Vietnam War, and I'm the first one in my family to obtain a Master's degree. Additionally, my family was living under the Ontario poverty line, so I would have no safety net if this whole math thing didn't work out. We all thought the only career path for me was to be a professor - I wasn't looking at jobs. I just knew I liked numbers and funny-looking greek letters.
Luckily, with the help of many people along the way, it ended up working out okay. While I will always pride myself on "figuring it out" by myself, the whole process felt like throwing things to a wall until something sticks. So here I am, giving out big-sister advice to no one on the internet, in hopes of making academia a little more accessible to someone out there.
Plans change all the time, but always come equipped with plans B and C. Try to diversify your coursework earlier. I wish I had done another major. Mathematics is a powerful tool, while another subject (finance, marketing, etc.) provides contexts in which you can use that tool.
Be selective with who you surround yourself with. Being a minority in mathematics, it was inevitable that I ran into some ignorant comments such as "I didn't think you are smart until I saw your grades" and unsolicited opinions about my appearance. It's easier said than done, but ignore them. Don't be afraid to leave. Don't be scared of being alone. Having the right people and a good support system improves your studies significantly - it just takes a little bit of time to find them.
Do an internship. Not everyone goes into academia after a math degree. In fact, not a lot do. An internship would have made job-search much easier for me. Another example of why you should diversify your interests.
Graduate school at the Master's level is what you make it to be: Before you let some internet ranking decides where you study for graduate school, think about what you want out of the program. Ideally, you would like to be as productive as you can be: getting internships, publishing papers, etc. Will your supervisor help with that goal? Does the program have the right kind of support for your research interests? Do you work better in a small lab or a big lab?
That is it for now - I will update this list when I have more ideas. My Master's degree was a privilege that wouldn't have been possible without my parents, friends, and my supervisor. The odds were not in my favour - but they made it possible. I am forever grateful for this experience.
Are you also a first-gen academic? Feel free to connect with me, and for more resources, check out the lists below!
Resources for current Western students.
Natural Sciences and Engineer Research Council - Undergraduate Student Research Award (Summer research scholarships - paid)
Western Undergraduate Student Research Internships (Summer research scholarship - paid)
Directed Reading Program (During the year - unpaid)
Global Undergraduate Awards (Thesis competition)
Fields Undergraduate Summer Research Program (Summer research - unpaid)
Philippa Fawcett Internship Programme (Summer research - paid)
NSERC CGS-M (1-year scholarship for Masters' students)
OGS (1-year scholarship for Ontario graduate students)
Beef - A24's Take on Asian Rage and Depression
(Spoiler Alert. TW: depression and suicide)
Don't let the silly trailer of Beef fool you. This show will break you into a million pieces with its heart-wrenching characters and then heal you with its well-executed humour and incredible writing. Beef's treatment of Asian representation is incredibly humane - they shape each character with such care and compassion, which brought me to tears after decades of seeing Asian rage portrayed so one-dimensionally in media.
The show follows Amy and Danny. Amy is a successful Vietnamese-Chinese American entrepreneur with a perfect family. Her husband George is the son of a famous artist and together they have June, their daughter. Danny is a Korean American handyman and mechanic with a failing business. He lives with his distant brother Paul in a rundown motel that used to be run by his parents. However, they were deported back to Korea after the illegal baby formula import operation run by Danny's cousin, Isaac, was busted at their motel.
Amy and Danny get into a road rage incident in a department store's parking lot, which results in a car chase that destroys someone's property. The TV show follows their attempts to deal with their lives while seeking revenge on the other person.
Sounds silly, I know, and the show is silly. However, the show also brings up topics like generational trauma, depression, and rage.
The day the road rage happens, Danny tried to return many Hibachi grills to the department store, but he forgot his receipts. He left the store with the grills in frustration. When I first watched it, I turned to my brother and announced that Danny was trying to scam the store by tag-switching. Why would anyone try to return that many grills? That scene skillfully told me everything I need to know about Danny; he is struggling financially and he makes a lot of poor decisions. This narrative holds true throughout the show. Yet, my heart sank when I got to the last episode: Danny bought that many grills to commit suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning.
"It's like the world wanted me gone".
Indirectly, I was a part of that world that wanted him gone. Beef is written as an invitation to interact with it, to imagine yourself in it, and to feel for Amy and Danny despite their flawed and, at times, evil characters. I also feel the pressure Danny feels to take care of his aging parents. I also feel the scarcity mindset that poverty leaves behind like Amy. The sinking internal conflict about money that follows when everyone around you tells you to "do whatever" and "money doesn't matter", while the scars of poverty had not yet healed - I feel it. This reminds me of a conversation I had with someone.
This person is an international student. He was complaining about extending his work visa. "I understand - we had to wait for 5 years for our PRs." - I said, in hopes of relating to him. "You don't understand - You are a Canadian citizen, everything got handed to you on a platter". I felt unseen, that my struggles and my parents' sacrifice were seen as "easy".
I felt like we deserved it - all suffering, hatred, and heartbreaks. All of it.
I also feel for Paul - his yearning for success and to prove himself, and his pain when he was ignored by the whole world.
One particular scene stuck with me. Danny snuck into Amy's house for a party. Thinking he wants revenge, she asked why he was there
"I just want to know if, you're like, happy and shit. "
"Why do you care?"
"I just want to know if I've got to get where you are."
"Everything fades. Nothing lasts. We are just a snake eating its own tail."
This simple dialogue shows Danny's attempt to feel hopeful and Amy's existential crisis. This is a conversation I have with myself often, seeking hope and doing my best not to let it evaporate. What is the point? At first, her daughter June was Amy's solution, but she quickly found out even children's love is conditional.
Is serving others around us the point? Is it God? Is it money? Is feeling happy the point? What makes you happy? Do you want a new house? Or travelling? Then you must need money, but then are you materialistic? Are you a bad person for wanting money? Do you want to help others? But then your motive for helping is to make you feel better about yourself? Is it ethical? Is it selfish? Does academic validation make you feel happy? What if you are no longer good at your thing? What if the entire world tells you that you are bad at it? What if you are actually bad at it? Why do you want to be good at school? Do you want a good job? So you want money? Or do you want to do research after school? So you want to help others?
How do you feel happy?
This show left me with a million questions that I have no answer for. I saw a little of myself in Amy and Danny, and I know my fellow Asian immigrants will too. I highly recommend this show. Every dialogue, every action, and every character articulate my own personal Asian rage so well, with so much empathy and compassion. I felt seen.