Olivia Wu

When the sky falls


I’ve spent a lot of time
waiting to leave a home
that my parents have spent a life
working to build.

Paper clouds on my window,
reading, browsing, escaping,
losing my native tongue
(except how to order dim sum).

My dreams were anywhere
but here.
I was raised to be more,
go farther than my father
and mother.
I was a balloon
heading up and up and up.

I think I mixed that up
with going so far I couldn’t see
the ground, Icarus –
no, Kuafu –
I didn’t know who that was

I’ve spent a lot of time
trying to go back,
but also staying here –

Finding that
being in between
is not the same as
being nowhere at all.

It’s its own place.

Learning that
when the sky falls
I should take it as a blanket
to cover me.

I learned this from my parents,
along with other things
I’m still figuring out.

aka, “It’s Kind of a Log Story”

Over the past year, The Senior Reflection has helped me explore what it means to be in many places at once. In many ways, I think that this theme is an accurate summation of my college experience. Over the past four years, I’ve been figuring out how to find the intersection of my academic interests – of medicine and education and design and biology and art. I’ve been figuring out how to reconcile feeling the need to be in two places at once – at home with family, in San Diego, or at school, in Stanford – and not feeling wholly present in either. I’ve been figuring out how to balance taking care of others and taking care of myself. College is a crazy and unique place where your entire life is kind of mashed together into a giant shepherd’s pie that you eat much too quickly. Boundaries between school work, social life, and personal pursuits feel pretty flimsy, both in a metaphorical and physical sense. In all of this hecticness, I’m glad that I was able to find some time to reflect this year through TSR.

If you were to know my parents, you would know that they are extremely handy people, masters of the do-it-yourself project long before Pinterest even existed. In the 1st grade, my mom handcrafted a seriously amazing Cinderella costume for me to wear to school. My dad and I would hang out by playing with woodworking projects with trees from our backyard (I’ll talk more about this later, because these memories especially inspired my piece).
Our entire house has traces of their handiwork all around – from the curtains gracing every window to the caulking in the bathtubs to the wooden patio in our backyard. I’d like to think some of their innate creativity was passed on to me – or at least, I grew up around it, so I absorbed it along the way.

In any case, I’ve always loved the arts and being creative, and expressed it in a couple of different ways. I started playing the piano when I was 5 years old, and although some of my passion for it was lost in the stress of standardized music exams, it’s a hobby that I still enjoy and continue to this day. I learned to draw from my mom, and from sitting in on my brother’s art lessons, and from feeling a compulsive need to draw the imaginary worlds that I loved – everything from scenes in books to favorite cartoon characters to card games like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh. On online forums like Gaia, I would barter and trade for virtual items by offering to draw other people’s characters. When I was in elementary school and first learned how to use a computer, I would spend hours painstakingly creating lined notebook paper in Microsoft Word. This paper came with a twist – instead of blue and red lines, I could customize the lines to any color that I wanted! I thought it was super cool, and would print out multiple copies (double-sided!) and give them to my friends. In 7th grade, I was introduced to calligraphy for the first time in summer camp. I loved being able to craft words beautifully, both in writing and in the physical act of writing, and found some use for this talent by helping my high school clubs create certificates and posters. From calligraphy sparked my interest in typography and graphic design. Anyway, I could go on and on, reminiscing about my childhood forever, but that is beyond the point of this reflection, so I will stop here. My summary point to this paragraph is that I grew up surrounded by creativity, and being creative was one of my greatest joys throughout childhood that has continued into the present.

Whenever possible, I brought creativity with me to the classroom. Posters and presentations were opportunities for me to explore my artistic leanings. I would even take pride in how I formatted my papers – how I arranged the headers, creating spacing, and chose a font to write in. Around the end of my sophomore year, I realized that I didn’t want to – shouldn’t want to – let these creative inclinations stay as a hobby. As something that brought me great joy and was also one of my greatest strengths, design was something that I sought to integrate into my future career in medicine. The notion that this was in fact possible was first introduced to me by an introductory seminar I took in the spring – BIOE80Q, Medical Device Innovation. In this class, we learned about the structure of the medical device design industry and tried our hand at designing a few devices of our own. During one of our last lectures, we went to tour IDEO, a design firm based out of Palo Alto. We learned about how they used design and creativity on a daily basis with their consulting strategy. On the way back from the tour, I remember breaking down and crying on the Marguerite. I cried not because I wanted to work for IDEO, but because I realized that I currently was not integrating creativity into my academic trajectory and career path. I realized that moving forward, that was something I needed to do and would regret if I didn’t.

I decided to hold off on declaring Human Biology that year, and when I came back to Stanford in the fall as a junior, I began exploring Product Design and Mechanical Engineering as other paths to go down. I questioned whether I still wanted to become a doctor, a profession whose rigor can often leave little room for creativity. I created multiple spreadsheets with every combination of major and minor possible – HumBio major and ME minor, PD major and HumBio minor, etc. Looking back, that period of time was only a few months, but there was something about being in a place where the default introduction is name, year, major that made being undeclared feel like it stretched for an eternity.

Winter quarter, one week before jettisoning off to Paris for the Spring, I came back full circle and declared Human Biology. My concentration, “Design for Health,” sought to integrate medicine, design, and community health. If there was one most important lesson that I learned from that year, I think it was the idea that I won’t necessarily be able to find my “niche” – but I can carve it out myself. Rather than finding a major that fit my interests, I could bring my interests to the major of my choice.

In senior year, I strove to continue integrating my academic interests. By a happy coincidence, I learned about The Senior Reflection as a result of being a staff member in Kimball, where Andrew Todhunter was the Resident Fellow. What excited me the most about The Senior Reflection was the opportunity to work on a self-directed project where art was the forefront – not a dispensable tool used to benefit another cause.

As it turns out, making art for art’s sake is difficult. I no longer had prescribed guidelines with which to channel my creativity. The Senior Reflection came with a blank canvas for me to write on, and I struggled throughout fall quarter with trying to find a good topic to fill it with. In retrospect, I think that this was one of the most rewarding aspects of the program. To be able to look at my piece and think “I came up with that idea! And I made it happen!” was an incredibly fulfilling experience. Back in fall quarter, my first thought was to jump to something related to medicine, more specifically exploring the concept of “waiting” and differential experiences between the patient and provider. I thought about exploring how things can get lost in translation – literally, with language, but also with differences in knowledge. As I continued to invest more in this topic, drawing sketches and bringing them to workshop, I found myself becoming more detached from the project. I found it difficult to call upon my creativity when I knew I needed to have a deliverable for section that week and would sometimes dread coming to section with nothing to show for that week.

During Thanksgiving Break, I had a conversation with my father about his childhood that cued me in on the topic that I really wanted to approach with this project: family. I feel strongly that the stories of my parents and their ancestors are intrinsically tied to my own; it is impossible to reflect upon my story without understanding theirs. So, when I came back in the last two weeks of the quarter, I threw away the last 8 weeks of work (but not wasted – I think it was important to go through different iterations, even if they didn’t end up in the final draft!) and started on a completely new idea in my written project proposal. I remember struggling to get these thoughts on paper – because they felt so important and so personal, but I had so little time to create them. This was the impetus of the log.

Let’s step back in time a bit. I was born and raised in San Diego (the suburban part), meaning that I grew up in a community that was predominantly Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic. Many of my best friends were also fellow ABCs – American-Born Chinese – and we shared unspoken cultural heritage, traditions, and values. I didn’t think much about the impact that my cultural heritage had on my identity. When I came to Stanford, I was confronted with the feeling that for the first time, I was a minority. I was one of seven Asian-Americans in my dorm. The friends that I had from home were ones that I had known since elementary school, and we knew every detail of the back of each other’s hands. But at Stanford, I was surrounded by people I did not know. I was constantly introducing myself, and along with that, had to find the words to define myself. I became more aware than ever of how I might be perceived by others, and in many ways, I felt like I was fitting into tropes about my ethnicity and gender: Asian, female, interested in medicine, often introverted and more conservative. Feeling an obligation to defy assumptions, I decided not to join any of the Asian cultural groups on campus. I didn’t want to appear “too Asian,” and I felt an integral part of my identity start to slip away. My Cantonese ability began to unravel because I only used it when I called home. I saw important cultural holidays slip by without much celebration.

In my sophomore year, I became a counselor for a program called the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program (SMYSP). The program aims to increase diversity in higher education – specifically in the field of medicine – by bringing 24 high school students on-campus for a 5 week academic intensive. All of the students come from low-income and underrepresented background, and although the focus on the program is on academic achievement, tightly connected to this were reflections on identity development. One of the most important lessons that I learned from SMYSP was the value of embracing your identity and diversity – harnessing your perspective to bring positive change in whatever social sphere you decide to engage in. I began to embrace and share my identity more openly, becoming less ashamed and more proud.

In my junior year, I joined the Undergraduate Chinese-American Association and began playing an active role in sharing Chinese culture with the rest of Stanford campus. This year also marked the beginning of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the campus correspondingly began to shake with voices of protest. I found myself being awoken to a new understanding of systematically perpetuated racial inequity. I saw my academic interests shift to take on a social justice oriented lens, and I saw the need to elevate individual stories that can often be smothered by stereotyping narratives.

All of this history brought me to the piece that I created with TSR. I wanted to share a story – my story, and therefore my parent’s story. And I wanted to share the importance of storytelling. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her inspiring TED talk, “the danger of a single story is not that it is inaccurate, but that it is incomplete.” I wanted to relay how important it is to go beyond the singular story of any culture or person. I wanted to express how relaying these stories helps build resilience – not only for the individual telling them, but also for the community that they are a part of.

While this was my hope, I realize that the impact of my piece may not be what I intended. My artist’s statement sheds some light, but even then, some questions linger. To answer two of the most common questions - and as memory notes to my future self – I have a few responses.

1. Why did you choose to use wood?

When I was growing up, I loved helping out with home improvement projects. People tend to say that “things are as exciting as watching paint dry” ironically, but I seriously enjoyed it. Helping my parents paint and touch-up stained walls around the house was one of my favorite childhood activities. The paint would go from shiny to pearly to matte - so cool! Anyway, I liked building things, and I especially liked working with wood. In particular, I liked sanding wood, wearing down the rough exterior to reveal the natural grain underneath. My dad used to give me bits of wood, sandpaper and wood finish to play with. So, when it came time to choose a medium for the project, my mind immediately gravitated towards wood.

Aside from its childhood significance, I feel that wood is also deeply symbolic of resilience. An incredibly strong organic material, wood also bears the marks of its age – rings that literally mark each year of the tree’s life. The wood that I was able to find was redwood, native to California, and specifically from the Stanford campus. If I were to call two places home, they would be San Diego and Stanford. I felt it as fitting that my wood would have roots in the places closest to my heart. And even in its afterlife, I wanted to repurpose the wood into something both meaningful and useful. After its life as an art exhibit, I plan on turning the piece into a table that I can continue using.

2. What do the dots mean?

I find this question so interesting, because when I look at the dots on the scroll, my mind immediately fills in the details of my parent’s stories behind them. In my interviews with my parents, I heard so many stories, but I knew that I could only ever hope to represent one facet of them on my scrolls. I chose to represent how we experience life and adversity in relation to the people around us.

On the side of the scroll facing away from the wall are the dots inspired by my father’s story. My father was born in South Vietnam, the eldest son of seven siblings. For him, education was not just a blessing, but a method of survival – if he did not attend college in the outside of the country, he would have been drafted to join the Vietnamese army at the age of 18. So, he left the country alone to attend University of Hawaii, where he received a degree in Computer Science. He then moved to Texas, and then to San Diego, where he was find his first job, the same job that he still works at today. A few years later, he was finally able to bring the rest of his family over to join him, and soon after that, he met my mother through a mutual friend. My older brother was born in 1991, and I was born in 1994.

On the other side of the scroll is my mother’s story. She was born in North Vietnam, as the second youngest daughter of second siblings. With violence from the Vietnam War just beginning to escalate, my teenage mother and her younger sister fled to China as refugees, spending two years in a home with other children who had crossed the border under these circumstances. After these two long years – the most difficult in my mother’s life – the rest of her family was able to join them in China. Within the next year, the entire family immigrated to Canada in search of a better life. From there, the family began to grew smaller as siblings began to leave home for marriage or for work. My mother left, too, when she met my Father, moving with him to San Diego after their wedding.

I realize that I won’t always be there to explain the intention behind the dots, but my hope is that viewers will look at the progression and think of their own stories to fill in the spaces. I hope, too, that the piece will provoke people to seek out more stories in the people around them and wonder: What would their scroll look like?

Finally, and most importantly, I have many thanks to give…

To Andrew Todhunter and Sue McConnell, thank you so much for being our fearless leaders throughout this long, difficult, and infinitely rewarding process. Thank you for challenging us to apply diligence to our creativity, to be more critical and constantly seek improvement, and to know the value of working in a community of peers.

To Dr. Catherine Heaney, my scientific mentor, thank you for responding to my work with such positive affirmation and encouragement. Thank you for validating my desire to continue exploring and for your reliable mentorship over the past year.

To Will Meadows, my creative mentor, thank you for being a force of inspiration and helping me believe that anything (mechanical or theoretical) is, as you say, fucking possible. I am so grateful for your belief in me and in my project.

To my friends who supported me throughout this tumultuous year, thank you. Thank you for sitting with me and helping me brainstorm and dissect my thoughts as I struggled to write my proposal in fall quarter. Thank you for continuing to ask about my log even though you knew the answer was that I was continuing to hollow it out. Thank you for taking time, during the busiest time of the quarter, to come out and see the final piece at the exhibition. I could not have done this without your support.

And finally, to my parents, thank you for dropping everything when I flew home last winter quarter to interview you for my school project, and for your vulnerability in sharing with me the most difficult parts of your life stories. I will remember these stories for the rest of my life, and I will carry the lessons I have learned from them close to my heart. I am grateful that I could use school as an excuse to talk to you, but I hope we can continue sharing like this, just because. You are the strongest people I know. I am so thankful to be your daughter.