Brian Chuk. Close Article |
A Superlate Year in Review
March 3, 2019

It’s been a while. I originally wanted to write weekly last year, but a lot came up. Life happened. Last year ended up becoming the most difficult and most influential year I’ve had. But now, I can set aside time for this blog. This will be the first of more posts down the line.

I’m also aware of how late this review is 😊. But I’m happy with it being the first second third month of 2019. That’s okay—I think?

I don’t always like year-in-reviews. I love seeing people reflect on their lives—their accomplishments and their hardships, their goals for the future. But people in tech, especially engineers, tend to approach their lives like machines to be optimized and calibrated. A lean startup, if you will. If you define metrics of success, understand yourself well enough, and continually iterate on yourself after observing your experiences and insights, you can finetune your existence, right? New Years resolutions become mission statements and the months and weeks become agile sprints on a roadmap.

I don’t want that. I get the impulse to do it too; it’s important. But I’m tired of poking and prodding myself like some lab rat in the capitalistic pitfall of “self-improvement.” Staking my self-worth on mainly my productive output is key to misery. I just want to be content. I am enough.

I was in a gap year at the start of 2018 to focus on my well being and tackle a bunch of goals. Mainly, I wanted to travel through Asia while figuring out how to work as a remote freelance developer. I remember, at the start of my gap, shaking with anticipation. I wanted to hit the ground running for everything I was itching to do.

First, then, are a few moments from my year.


Walking along the Santa Barbara beach with M. We watch surfers ride the waves in the distance. The sands swirl in the water around our bare feet, like cream in black coffee. The cliff alongside the beach towers above us, and the roar of the waves are so, so loud. We find some exposed rocks and sit on them, talking about work and routines and complacency with our lives. We dream, of what we could achieve if we took a risk and gave it our all.

Longboarding down the Asheville hills. It’s late. I’m on my way to my Airbnb stay with a Buddhist monk and a couple cats. Today’s freelance office: a large, lush greenhouse I found in the UNC campus nearby. I’m tired and stressed. Working on a project I was way too underqualified for has been taking its toll on me. But longboarding always helps my mood. I reach a straight decline, so I bomb down to build up the momentum to climb the next hill ahead. I think about the work ahead of me, and tell myself to have faith in the process.

Having hot pot with friends in the Poconos. It’s snowing outside. We eat together, talking and laughing. After dinner, E. and I try to start the fireplace—but being city kids—we have no idea how to get the large log to catch fire. So we try all sorts of dumb experiments, using tissues, toilet paper, and wood pellets to stoke the flames. Eventually, we give up and relax in the large hot tub under the balcony.

Watching the mountains pass by on the bullet train to Guizhou with my mom. It’s sort of a scene straight out of those old Chinese paintings with those mountains in the fog. You wouldn’t see where the mountains started or ended—the fog shrouding them is so thick. As we watch the landscape roll by, my mom tells me stories of what we did back in Guangzhou when I was under a year old. I don’t remember any of it. Later that night, we end up in Xijiang Qianhu Miao Village. It’s home to a tiny population of Miao Chinese, yet the village is still so lively as we walk around.

Getting breakfast with S. in Hong Kong. I met S. IRL for the first time last night to split a hotel room with him, and now we’re off to find a cafe. We’re jaywalking through the streets of Wan Chai, every so often gazing up dumbfounded at the skyscrapers looming over us. It’s raining—I can feel it pounding away at my umbrella as we try to find cover amongst scaffolding, balconies, and awnings. We still get soaked anyways. Over breakfast (we order the same things: congee, a pineapple bun with small sandwiches and Hong Kong-style milk tea), we outline all the places we want to explore in the city.

I can’t recall how the conversation suddenly shifted into personal matters, but I remember us talking about the “things good for our souls.” What we really needed to feel nourished and become better, fuller, richer people.

Living alone in Kyoto. For the first time since I left the US, I begin to doubt my choices with my gap year. Am I making the most out of my time right now? Should I have come here with anyone? Was this worth it, throwing away an early start on my fulltime coding career to work on projects, freelance, and wander around the other side of the planet?

I leave my apartment at 4am to catch the sunrise at Fushimi Inari Shrine. You know, the one with all the red torii ⛩? I read that it was swarming with crowds during the day, so the only way to see the shrine completely empty was early in the morning. And it was.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Maybe it was because I was huffing and puffing and hiking up this large mountain the shrine is on. Maybe it was because of the sleep deprivation. But I felt exuberant—almost manic—being there and thinking about how crazy and wonderful the situation I really was in. I was on the other side of the planet, actually travelling through Asia and somehow funding the trip by just freelancing. That’s, like, really cool.

The next day, and every day after, I wake up feeling somewhere in between. A single affirming experience isn’t going to solve all of my problems. I’m still not sure about how to make the most of my trip, and I’m uncertain about where to go next. But I know I’ll be all right.

Wandering in Manhattan with Z. and J. It’s 3am. We’re by the East River, on the swings in a playground. We talk about everything: what we want to do after graduating, where we imagine we’ll live, our childhoods, our ten-year life plans, how we feel about our lives now. We watch a red and white fireboat cruise in the middle of the river. It’s pushing out a perfectly symmetrical V-shape wave as it cuts through the calm, still waters. It’s one of those nights where we stay up until the sun rises.

Hearing feedback from my mentor. It’s not good. It ends up going the way I worried it would. I’m told that I haven’t done enough in the internship. That I’m not qualified for a return offer yet. It’s valid feedback. I could be doing better and I’m getting tied down by issues outside of work. When I get back to my desk, I try to focus on work but I can’t.

Coming back to NYU. My friends and I just finished our Distributed Systems midterm, and now we’re talking about the exam questions, walking down Lawrence Street from campus. We’re on our way to Junior’s, to celebrate making it through midterms. There’s lights strung between the buildings overhead, basking everything in a warm, orange glow. It’s kind of strange saying it, but after being away from college in a 15-month gap I’m enjoying being back. It’s neat to hang out with classmates and talk about basic student topics like homework and finals.

Last Year

I’m really proud of what I accomplished. It felt like an unremarkable year in a lot of ways, and I didn’t do everything I planned at the start of the year, but then when I tallied it all, I did way more than I ever would have imagined.

I travelled around 8 countries in 2018. I spent anywhere between a weekend to over a month in a city, and then I just figured out where to go next from there. Nothing was planned. Some days, I didn’t know where I was staying a week in the future or even the very same night. I went from around the US → around China → to Tokyo. I wanted to go around Japan, but I got invited to a hackathon in Hong Kong with flights reimbursed, so I left to live there for a bunch of weeks. My outbound free flight was used to get to Taiwan. After that, I headed to Singapore and then returned to Japan in order to finish exploring the country. Later in the year, I got to visit the United Kingdom and France.

I just wanted to keep travelling until my savings ran out, but—thanks to freelancing— I never did. I found client leads online, sold myself well to them, and picked up software engineering gigs. I usually ended up with projects that I actually didn’t know how to implement, so I had to work hard to make sure I could deliver on time. Most of my work was done in whatever coffee shops I could find.

All this solo travelling and freelancing has made me much more comfortable with uncertainty. I think I envisioned myself knowing more by the end of this year—but the reality is that I’m just more okay with knowing how little I know now. It’s empowering, being a freelancer. I feel like I have a bigger sense of what I can take on technically. I know I can make a living just fine without needing a fulltime job.

Living abroad gave me more perspective too. As someone who has grown up and lived in New York City for almost all of my life, it was good to explore my Chinese-American duality. I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be a minority in the US. For instance, I never realized how I was used to seeing mainly white people in media until I came to Asia.

I’m more concious of the things I own and try to live more minimally now. I guess that’s a result of living with only one bag during my travels.

The Packlist

When I returned to NYC, I got to intern at Flatiron Health and see what it was like to work in a large company for the first time. I’ve only worked in startups of size <16 before. I’ll write more about my experience there later! I also scored a bunch of new grad offers afterwards and I’m excited to announce that I’ll be joining Squarespace as a Frontend Software Engineer.

Last of all, I graduated from NYU in December.

This year

I’ve set my start date at Squarespace later to this summer, so I’m actually in a ~7-month break. It’s basically a second gap year 😅. I do want to travel a bit more again, but this time I’d rather stay in one country at a time longer and get deeper with learning its culture, history, values, and how people there live. Even after my gap year, I feel like I barely understand anything about the countries I visited because I didn’t stay in one place long enough. The only thing I can say with certainty is that the world is very big.

I’d like to ship side projects of my own this year. Side projects with real (hopefully paying) users. I feel ready; I wasn’t sure if I ever would, but I think last year has provided me with the skills to take it on. I want to create something that I really believe in. Something that has a lasting positive effect for others, even if it’s small for now.

Finally, probably most important, I want to focus more on my friends and family. In a year of solo travel and being busy with school, work, and job searching, I haven’t had much room for these relationships. In a way, entering hermitdom and graduating has worked as a huge social reset for me. Instead of being friends with people simply because I see them often in class, I can be more intentional with who I spend my time with.

Well that’s it for me. If you actually made it all the way down here, thank you! What are your plans for the rest of this year? Feel free to reply privately via email or publicly via Twitter. This blog doesn’t really have a shape or form yet, but I think I’ll just write whatever I feel like talking about. Take care.

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