An Open Letter to a Lost Friend

Dear Lost Friend,

I won’t post your name here because you can definitely see it’s meant for you when you read this. Besides, privacy is important. However, I wish other people could take home a few lessons from our brief encounter so that they would not repeat my mistakes.

It’s been a year since we met over email. I mean, I was so happy that you would give me your personal email address. At that time I was inspired to connect with people thanks to the book “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi. You were what he called a “super-connector”, so it would have been superb to have connected with you. I had high hopes: we might have been able to meet for dinner, we could have exchanged mutually beneficial contacts, you could have been a mentor to so many youths I used to mentor, and we could have made excellent friends because we had several common interests, including mathematics, reading and writing. When I asked if you had Skype, I was on the verge of also breaking my own rules and asking if we could also connect on Facebook and LinkedIn. I usually do not connect over those platforms unless I have met the people in question in person. I was hoping for a real connection, and you seemed friendly up till that point. That I was able to interact with someone whose name I had only known through the news before made me elated.

I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want to interact with me in person, but what I did know was that things took a turn for the worse after you replied “Not really!” when asked if you used Skype. I had no idea why you would suddenly stop responding to my emails, just that being ignored bothered me. I didn’t believe that you would “gossip” — is that too strong a word? — to a mutual friend about my emails — I am not an annoying person to start with, and besides, I’m fine with people confronting me personally if they had a grievance. No need for middle-men. However, I agree with Maya Angelou when she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Except that I somehow made you feel irritated, and I wish I could say sorry for that appropriately. It was in April when I learnt that if I contact someone who does not respond even at my third attempt, I am supposed to stop. Consciously I knew that I had to stop, but I didn’t realise I was still hoping that you would be nice to me until it was too late. I’m really sorry for all the emails I sent off after you stopped responding to me. Our mutual friend never told me was that you would maintain your respect for me if I had stopped writing, and that was what I needed to hear at the time!

You eventually wrote back, sugarcoating it with the pleasant fact that we once corresponded to each other, but the main point was that you didn’t want to hear from me again. I was devastated, not least because you, a super-connector, banned me from writing back even though we have never met in person. What if we did meet in person? What if business brought us together again? LinkedIn keeps asking me if I know you, but I know that you would kill me if I clicked your Connect button. Would you want to slaughter me so that you would feel better? I never wanted or expected our relationship to just end like this. I thought of the dinner we could have had together (because in July you were in my backyard), more books we could have shared, the connections we could have made, plus so much more. All gone because I didn’t see where I was headed.

From my counsellor, I learnt that you intended (and may still intend) to give me a hard time if I reached out again. Since you last wrote back, I have been terrified of trying new things, while I could see that you are still living the life you’re comfortable with, connecting with new people, except that the Follow button has disappeared from your Facebook profile, so you’re no longer open to people who want a slice of your learning. I am now afraid to open myself up again, lest I lose the other person. I also made friends with people you happen to know, and I cringe at the idea of asking them about you. In the past I would be happy to talk to other people, but now I am ashamed of my awkward silence when I come together with other people in maths and otherwise. Some old folks tell me to try everything; I know that if I tried just one thing — writing back, you wouldn’t be forgiving, and I don’t blame you because you’re not of my faith.

I wish we had maintained the friendly exchange we initiated last year. I wouldn’t give up on the prospect that we might meet again in the future and not bring up the past. In the meantime, however, I just want to say that you changed my life forever. I am no longer the happy and confident girl that initiated contact with you. Now I am wary of everything, including mathematics, for fear that I would cause you to further devastate me. I can’t even listen to my favourite energetic music lest I suddenly write back. I might have wanted to get my way in networking, but we both lost in the end. I was too eager to connect, and I lost you.

A belated “Happy birthday” to you and wishing you the best for your further studies. I know you read the two books I mentioned to you. I miss you — the original you last year.



Double disappointment.


First a question I couldn’t answer, then a camp I couldn’t join.

Earlier on: a scholarship I couldn’t win, a sports and a debate team I couldn’t join, an internship I couldn’t land, a story I couldn’t finish, and a boyfriend I couldn’t have.

Feeling like hiding under a blanket, never to resurface again. Rejection hurts so badly.

Envisioned myself an ordinary teacher, buried in an avalanche of meaningless answer scripts, books, meetings and whatnot at 30 years old.

Clawed my skin like X-Men, red-hot blood oozing out like lava, to return to the limelight

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“But Aren’t Maths And Writing Worlds Apart?” Thoughts On Getting Known

The school system has been set up to polarise the sciences and the arts, and more importantly, the elite and the common, while students in their most formative years try to grasp the little they can for their identity and place in society. We all want to burn into our hard drives a short, sweet paragraph to roll off our tongues when introducing ourselves, hoping to get something worthwhile in return. Whenever I mention that I do mathematics, people would cringe, saying, “I’m not a maths person.” But when I added that I write as well, a friend asked, “But aren’t maths and writing worlds apart?”

Last Thursday during a career talk, I spoke briefly before my juniors at The Y.W.C.A. Hioe Tjo Yoeng College (HTYC) on my experience doing mathematics and writing in tandem. Like many newbies in public speaking, I felt anxious for not being the most qualified to speak, as I’m painfully aware of masters such as novelist Keith Mansfield and mathematician Edward Frenkel of Love and Math fame, and I regret missing the chance to become a maths textbook editor as I didn’t intend to enter maths education – it’s a low-demand, high-supply field in Hong Kong, and I would not like to compete where the odds are stacked against me.

Let me show you how I have been integrating maths and writing, and by extension my thoughts on how to emerge from being unknown to being known.

1) Spurious beliefs kept me trapped as an underdog.

When I was small and Christmas trees were tall, I loved writing poetry and enjoyed novels, especially those by Roald Dahl. Like him, I wanted to inspire children with intricately-woven and humorously-spun stories. Yet as I slowly realized that many writers failed, I thought that writers had to be poor. And in the financial hub we live in, poverty terrifies me as my family members had been through such a time. Though I joined literary meetings at public libraries, I was cynical towards organizations who cared about local literary talents – what if we all ended up poor just because of a passion that doesn’t convert into a decent living and respectable identity?

So as an elementary school pupil, I came up with other jobs I thought seemed respectable – fashion designer, flight attendant, lab assistant – to answer the pressing question under Industrial Age thinking, to which Seth Godin attributes in Stop Stealing Dreams the current educational system, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In spite of my ingenious plan to “escape my destiny” as a writer and be a nice cog or bolt in the workplace machine, I have not become any of them.

Firstly, on fashion design, I heard that the fashion world had some issues that sounded unpleasant to me, and I felt that a fashion design course in university or college would ruin my potential. Moreover, although I also like to draw, I have hesitated to use the best known paid design software Photoshop, and missed out on many chances to be usefully artistic.

Secondly, on inflight service, I somehow unlearnt – for fun – how to handle emergencies calmly, and soon I believed it when told I was too shy, panicky and fearful to be a flight attendant. Fun has a way of destroying the road ahead. I am also told that flight attendants are no longer paid as well as they used to be.

Thirdly, on being a lab assistant (as opposed to a real research scientist), I picked up the chemistry textbook first when it was revision time, which eventually led to my first major in chemistry, but I dreaded lab work, lab reports and the risk of dying from toxic chemicals. I started university majoring in Chemistry because it was my only ticket to the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), which boasts the best undergraduate mathematics programme and is one of the two top universities in Hong Kong – the other was the University of Hong Kong.

2) When it comes to finding an alternative element, faith and practice are the same.

In The Element (2009) and Finding Your Element (2013), acclaimed educator Sir Ken Robinson makes it very clear that when passions and talents match, one can live life to the fullest.

Yet neither book existed when I was early in secondary school. In deciding which stream I should take, I wanted one that could serve me well (and with the fear of poverty stalking me, it must pay me well) for years to come. It must also give me a coherent story to tell future generations. (Interestingly, even though I prepared almost everything the hour just before I mounted the lectern on Thursday, my sharing turned out to flow very smoothly. I think I beat a seasoned public speaker who said she prepared a speech the midnight just before her big day!) For instance, even though old boys and girls have done it, I would loathe to switch from “science” to “the arts” because I was doomed by unwise choices to writing, and thus poverty, failure, and a life of repeating “I should have done this back then and I want a time machine so badly to fix it”. I endorse what Margaret Albright said on Forbes recently, “There’s plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but there is no room for mediocre women.” And I did not want to be mediocre – that’s why I tried not to rely on writing for a living.

I had about the same grades in arts and science subjects, doing slightly better in the sciences where answers were black-and-white. Yet what I now consider my element came to me in my first year in HTYC – I topped the chart in mathematics. So I chose the sciences, with additional maths as my elective, and decided to take pure maths in my A-Levels. My school did not offer applied maths. Being averse to maths competitions, I only joined one late in secondary school. I learnt that my peers from other schools have truckloads of trophies and certificates from having joined maths and other contests, and sometimes pictures of contest winners get on the press. I could have had more press exposure if I had joined, but does it matter now that I’ve entered university?

I had done well in mathematics not because of innate talent, but because I dedicated time for it. Hard work turns many people off, but it appealed to me because I didn’t know where I was meant to excel in. If a skill required some hereditary feature I didn’t have, including genes and exclusive connections, I wouldn’t want to be unproductive trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Yet if a skill did not require talent but only time, I would want to delve into it and see if it paves a way for me. Terence Tao, who was known as a child prodigy in maths, mentions hard work. Even Paul Erdős, one of the finest brains in maths, is claimed to have as many unknown maths papers (relative to the general population) as the many who work in mathematical guilds today.

Six years ago, my mother was retiring, and the fear of poverty gripped me again. When I quit my after-school practice to save my parents’ money, I also cut off the water supply to my flourishing plants, including the high-maintenance one called maths scores. Left to my devices, I could not sustain my grades. That was why unlike my proud peers, I didn’t get a chance to enter EPYMT, a prestigious maths programme organised by my current university, to study number theory and cryptography, which piqued my interest in F.4 since I read what Professor Marcus du Sautoy, of the University of Oxford, articulated in Plus Magazine how primes are connected to Internet security and the yet-unsolved Riemann Hypothesis. As I lacked a plan, I also didn’t get to do serious mathematical research – I asked my questions too late into the semester, when it became too hard to turn my grades around. The science-stream teenager confident in becoming a professional mathematician became more of a mirage.

Strangely enough, though convinced that it was the royal road to poverty, I didn’t completely lose touch with writing. Since secondary school, I secretly entered writing contests but never heard from organizers again. Even in maths, I missed the Plus New Writers Award competition hosted by Plus Magazine. I assumed it would run again, but 2009 turned out to be its final contest to date. In university, I wrote an essay for another maths competition in the US, but I didn’t cut the mustard. I borrowed books on novel-writing and joined some writing activities, but a few chapters into my tale I somehow stopped.

I fell short of my expectations because of three things: I didn’t plan precisely what I wanted to be, I wasn’t brave enough to keep doing what it takes, and I even failed to get advice at opportune times. In short, I didn’t have faith. Faith is belief in deft action, and a lack of such action reflects a lack of faith.

3) Watch out for chances and fight for them.

We have been conditioned to think that we must first have a vision before putting everything into practice. This may work for some; it didn’t for me. I learnt to equate faith with practice or plain hard work.

Despite my myriad failures, I watched out for my big break. I realised that I was used to waiting for my chance on a silver platter. I ditched the platter and sought chances on the Internet, starting with websites I frequented.

Plus Magazine publicised the Maths in the City contest, hosted by none other than Marcus du Sautoy himself. Instantly I thought that if I couldn’t be the best in story-writing or poetry, at least I had a chance in maths, and this contest, unlike the Plus New Writers one, did not seem to run annually. After the final exam – in Physics, I still remember – I researched and wrote for two solid weeks on the Hong Kong Space Museum. As I couldn’t find a good public-domain image of the Museum’s egg shape, I decided to take the photo myself.

Somehow, my bet paid off. Overwhelmed by the sudden announcement that I could go to the great and magnificent University of Oxford, I declined because my relatives who lived there had little to live on and I cannot imagine burdening anyone to drive me there. In retrospect, when I entered the contest, I really wanted to see Marcus in person. The fear of poverty at work again, or else I could have asked Marcus more meaningful maths questions.

Nevertheless, encouraged by that success covered by the press, I seized the chance to write for a book when I learnt about a book publishing mentorship programme from the Maths in the City Twitter feed. The other day I looked into my algebra notes and discovered a name, Emmy Noether, that the professor didn’t mention, and I wanted to know more about her. I took a gamble and I am grateful that Suw Charman-Anderson has given me and a few other brilliant women a chance to stand up for our sisters in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Interestingly, as you learn to grab chances and tap into your latent abilities, some more chances follow. As I agonised over the loss of research opportunities, I told several teachers at CUHK Mathematics about my knack for writing. A lecturer asked if I could pen a piece for the upcoming departmental newsletter, and I agreed to an abridged version of my Emmy Noether essay. Moreover, when I sought help on what I could do after graduation, another professor told me that the new Maths departmental website needed a content writer. Despite a falling-out earlier in my studies with the professor responsible for the website, I am thankful he let me in.

However, sometimes I get tense thinking of my next paid assignment once my stint at the departmental website is over. I have entered other writing contests since Maths in the City, and the spirit of having “never heard from them again” haunts me. Who could I look for? Will I, out of regret, hopelessly crave a time machine? Will I get trapped in a feast-or-famine cycle? Will I ever get on the papers again? Will I leave an unforgettably good legacy like great men and women whose biographies I’ve read?

When more chances come, there remains the danger of falling back on the imaginary platter, thus losing out on more chances to succeed had you kept grabbing. No matter how others entice you to think otherwise, and no matter how important you turn out to be, no one can count on blessings, being born with a silver spoon, or having a famous relative to get heard. Instead, we must fight to be recognised for making a difference. To be known, you have to take the initiative, or no one will.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.


Ada Lovelace Day: sponsors needed

Some of you at CUHK and HKU have known that I have written an article on Emmy Noether for the Ada Lovelace Day (ALD) anthology originally to be published last year. Just this morning I got great news from ALD’s founder, Ms Suw Charman-Anderson: the book will be published this year on 13 October, which is Ada Lovelace Day 2015!

As I battle the finals now, do check out this link and let Suw know what you think!

What the carrot cake taught me

Not a math post today but alludes to the truth that “familiarity breeds contempt”. The people we assume to be our worst enemies are often those we spend the most time with.

Years ago I attended a party and I tasted the host’s carrot cake for the first time.

“Insipid” was a complete understatement. It was like pancakes cooked in the grease of French fries. Horrible. Disgusting. Absolutely nauseous. Carrot colour, yes, but it only worsened the taste, giving the sour cause a “noble” vegetarian edge. Eww.

The other day Mum told me she was going to make carrot cake. I thought, WHAT? I HATE IT! But anyway, she prepared the ingredients yesterday, and I complied reluctantly when she told me to help her out. The result?

While we were on our jog, Dad, a connoisseur, cut out the first slice and left nothing on his plate. Then Mum cut it and gave me. I asked for a second helping! It smelt like a field, and tasted like a caky biscuit, the sweetness that lifts the spirits of one who’s down and depressed, like me right now.

Some people have left in my heart a sour, greasy aftertaste like the cake. I forgive them and let them go. This year I had left such a taste in some people – in my quest for friends, I made enemies. To them, I tasted like the party carrot cake: too friendly, too familiar, downrightly yakking around and defying the boundaries of your cliques.

But I know why I hated the first carrot cake. The flour was cheap. The oil was low-grade. The carrots were cheap, and that definitely makes me wonder why the host would want to present to us such a cake.

Mum, however, bought the best cream cheese and butter in the neighbourhood. She also used very fine baking flour and added cinnamon, nutmeg and raisins. The icing included much sugar, and she put lots of tiny, colourful edible beads when she neatly stacked up the three cakes like a strawberry Napoleon.

I know that by defying your boundaries, I turned potential friends into enemies. I baked the cake with lousy beginnings. I didn’t seem to try to understand you, and I regret failing to do so even though I was sure I had known it before entering university.

I need to reconcile with those who have aught against me, because my relationship with God is not right when my relationships with others have yet to be fixed. (See Matthew 5:24.) Those who call me your enemy, please give me another chance.

Yes, I will still be carrot cake. But give the reformed me a try. I’ll taste much better this second time, for instead of the despicable Me as you had bitterly held on to, it is the Lord making me after His own image.

Where’s Podcast Publisher on Mac OS Yosemite?

I used to use Mac OS Lion, and I loved the Podcast Publisher app. In fact during my stay at the i-House in CUHK, I recorded a total of 18 episodes.

I updated my Mac on my birthday last year. But I didn’t back up my podcasts because I forgot that they were there. Now that I need to use the app again, I realised that no one on Google has ever considered the fate of this wonderful app, and now I have to face the brutal reality that my only surviving podcast is my only private film on YouTube 😦

I am so angry right now. It took me a long time to get those 18 records right – one of me dancing to Cantonese lyrics I wrote to one of my melodies, and some of me talking about funny topics. I also sang. It’s a pity I didn’t back up all of my goofs on Youtube, or else I could have re-downloaded them.

Since I have few friends, I’m very much attached to objects, so please forgive me for ranting. For you never know what you have lost until it’s too late.