Throwing a Fist into Thin Air

Sometimes I like to make fun of myself, either through what actually happened in real life, sometimes through imaginary happenings.

I am doing that right now.

When I defended my Master’s thesis, a few of defenses had to postponed, for what reason I could not remember exactly. Perhaps to wait for another female student who when pushed by her professor turned the table onto the professor himself, claiming if she did not pass it was not considered her shame, but the professor’s. Were I the professor, I would have thrown my hands up into the air and admitted defeat. The professor asked a male student and a few other female students to work on the thesis that particular student was supposed to finish on herself.

As a result, my defense was postponed for a month. It was a stressful experience, because you did not defend, you were not considered having graduated. The Chinese defense appeared a lot more serious and solemn than the American style. I am only comparing the defense, not everything that came before that stage. The student had to contact the chair person, which is invited from another institute. You need to send your thesis or dissertation. You had to wait for the chairperson when he arrives in a taxi. There is the secretary. And there are even flowers. It was summer time.

My defense was chaired by a faculty member from the Chinese Academy of Science.

I prepared fully. But came defense time, not many hard questions were asked. I forgot the questions except one. Since the thesis touched upon epistemology, ways of seeing and knowing, that question was put to me by my thesis advisor. Till today I still did not know how to answer the question. It was either too evident or too mysterious.

About the defense, I had expected a hard question and answer session but I felt I had thrown my fist into thin air instead. As a result, I felt kind of lost. I almost felt as if something had not been finished.

I wonder whether it agreed with an American student’s understanding, after I had finished my prelim, my phd dissertation qualifying exam, that professors liked to make students sweat during the process but the final test turned out too easy.

This strategy should work fine. I myself unconsciously use this strategy in my own teaching. If you make students work during everyday, you make sure they learn solid stuff, so there is no need to cram. I once could cram a book in four days, when I was in my undergrad days, got a ninety-plus on the exam, and forgot about the content completely in two days.

I am much older today and I cannot do that again. My brain has now been seriously damaged after the phd, which stands for Permanent Head Damage. Academic jokes carry more truth than people usually accord them.

That, however, is not the main gist of this piece of writing. I am driving at completely different things.

A student’s main task, no matter what stage the education, be it elementary schooling or phd professional development, is to constantly improve him- or herself by doing his or her best in every subject, in every task. I know I appreciate such students when I am teaching. It is always my feeling that even if a student is not that richly endowed by the Holy Creator, as long as he or she does his or her best, no one can point a finger at the student. But if a student is smart but refuses to exert him or herself, that is a completely different case.

Teaching is a very delicate profession. The teacher or professor has to know how far he or she can push. Once someone says nature tells “This far, and no further” when humans abuse nature. After that limit nature retaliates by presenting dust storms, great floods, hurricanes, mountain slides to get back at selfish humans.

I once had a girl student who looked like she had Chinese culture background. The Chinese are famous for being strict with their education. In the first half the semester she did A+ work, always on time. But the second half of the semester everything went seriously downhill. Her work turned into B’s and C’s. I was too busy myself so I never really asked her what really had happened. Did her parents push her still harder? Did something happen in her personal life that affected her grades? Was she punished in a overt or covert way? She was a very good kid. And she was also very beautiful.

Now that I have been through so much in my phd study and after. I kind of vaguely feel what might be the problem. But who knew the ultimate truth?

All through my life I never had one ill will towards anybody. I did not start my life with a silver spoon. If there were silver spoons in the family, I never used them myself. So, they did not exist for me.

My life strategy, I guessed, is to make those around like me, winning recognition. After that, I move on. And usually it was recognition from authorities that I cared for, or the goals I had in my mind for my life. I never cared about peer recognition. I could be a loner and survive well. The exclusion strategy, therefore, really does not work with me.

I am not by nature a competitive person. I just do my own stuff and really do not care about how others would look at it, or think about it, or measure against it.

But then one really cannot ignore how others perceive oneself. If I see myself as full of good will, others are still able to see me as being quite a different person. They might easily see me as dangerous. I do not see myself as being competitive; others can and will see me as competitive and will resolve to gain the upper hand using every way possible. I always see a friend as someone to rely upon. And my experience in that aspect has told me that friends during phd study are at best straws on a high wall swinging with each new direction the wind blows, or at worst they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, pretending to be friends while doing everything they can to hurt you. In this context, the fight for survival is shown in its bare, base true colors. I have been shown humans at their worst. I do not know whether the American culture has the magic formula for exposing humans at their best and at their worst. Or maybe it is because my eyes have been opened a little bit wider than they were while I was in China.

The only thing I have learned in this culture is I go and pursue things I want with strategies, my brain, hard work, and dedication.

However somewhere along the way something went wrong. My trying-my-best-strategy has turned against me. So where I expect support and understanding, I have found they have become a commodity whose supply has become rarer and rarer. They feel like an old friend who the more you wish to see the more he or she plays the coquettish flirt. Till you decide to give them the good-bye forever.

Somewhere along the way something else also went wrong. What seems to be working in my favor turns out exactly working against me. I had a weird feeling of what Kafka has described in his metaphorical castle.

I think I have been viewed genuinely as a threat. I had suspected it was a political frame-up and treated it as a mere joke.

I wonder whether this time the joke is not on me, for I wonder whether some are throwing their fists into thin air. I have never viewed myself as a threat to anyone. I did love someone once. But since it was impossible, it sort of died a natural death.

Everyone lives in the world. No one lives in legends or for something else. Maybe I should feel grateful that I once was regarded as useful. I just did not like that. I did not like what I was told.

What’s the point for caging my mind, or cutting off my head, or putting it under water? What is all this fuss about? Is it just to prove one side always gets the upper hand in an imaginary contest that I have never had a part from the very beginning? Are some members have been throwing their fists into thin air all this time?

Even the final result that both were equal victims in the same snake bite did not change the final result. I had anticipated a change of ways.

No one can hold up something that is intended for more than one. I threw off one once. If the replacement is not better  and uses the same strategy of leaving everything for me to hold up, I am leaving.

The rat has to be caught, and the cat has to do the job. If the cat has gotten its paws in the mud, it has to wash the mud off.


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