Turning 22

Today marks 22 rotations around the Sun for me.

Since I'm graduating soon, the end of this year, I wanted to reflect on my life so far from day 1 at college up till this point.

I entered INTI Subang college in Jan 2019 with my best friend from high school. We both dreamt of working at FAANG companies in the US, and share the same passion starting a company until today. I still remember the first orientation day, I went into this big hall filled with rows upon rows of students fresh out of high school, each with their own unique passions and dreams. I remember feeling anxious and alone until I saw a familiar face in one of the seats at the back.

W convinced me to join the American University Program Club as committees, and I'm grateful he did. All of us in the committee became good friends. We took classes together, had lunch together at various places in SS15, and crammed for exams together at the one-floor library. We would go out for movies, have kbbq buffet together, celebrate birthdays at the mall. I remember spending a lot of my time in the freezing computer room at the library, writing medium articles and doing assignments. I remember stay late till 9 p.m. making decorations and preparing for our Halloween event.

Then in 2020, COVID hit and the familiar faces became pixelated and their voices became digital. I never had to take a 1.5 hour train ride every day to campus anymore, but not being able to be around them anymore in person was sad.

Now, we're all split and we don't really keep in touch anymore, but it was a point in my life where I was healthy, and I will always remember it fondly.

I took a gap semester after finishing up all my units at INTI in Summer 2020, and I spent my time completing online courses on R and Machine Learning and reading fiction books. I enjoyed the time with my family at home. I did a lot of home workouts, I went out for jogs, I could spend the entire day just reading a book, and I was able to pursue what I was interested in. I distinctly remember reading a few pages of Crime and Punishment every night at 12 a.m. before bed in the living room, eating digestive biscuits with hot soy milk, sucked into the compelling world of Russian literature. I barely had any social interactions with people other that my family, but as an introvert, that worked out well.

Then, Jan 2021 came, and to say my life changed is an understatement. My life was struck by a disease that slowly ate away my health, physically and mentally. I went through physical turmoil, psychological torture, and experienced utter helplessness in search for a cure to the suffering.

What I initially thought was just a minor issue with my body turned into an (now almost) 3 year fight against GERD.

After the medicine from the first clinic didn't work, I went to a second clinic, and a hospital, and it was a slow realization, as I switched from one medicine to the next, that what I have is chronic.

The first big change was my sleep. I slept flat initially and was having burning sensations in my chest and breathing issues. I played the cover of "Green Eyes" and Okinawa by 92914 every night to sleep because I couldn't stand the pain. I found out that I had to sleep at an incline, and it's been that way since. You can imagine the discomfort of not being able to lie down flat, it's torture. It's like not being able to take in a deep breath, or an itch that you can never scratch. I envy people who lay flat on the ground at parks, can you imagine that?

The second biggest change was my diet. I slowly realized the amount of limitations placed on my diet as days turned into weeks, and into months. My two favorite things at that time: green tea and chocolate was out of my life from that day. Anything with pepper is off limits. I could no longer drink ice cold carbonated drinks on a hot day. I couldn't take sips of alcohol or eat mandarin oranges during Chinese New Years. No more fried chicken from Texas Chicken. No eating the crispy skin on roasted pork. And so much more. At that time, I lived on a diet of thin-noodle soup and fish paste which my mum made most days at home. It became my favorite food.

The third was my fitness. I couldn't exert my body the same way I could before. I no longer had the freedom to push myself physically, to go for jogs that made me feel alive and out of breath. All I could do was pedal the stationary bike in my house at a suitable pace. My body has been deteriorating since then. Aside from the occasional bicep curls that I can do, and that time I tried to lay down to do a bench. My body can no longer perform the way it used to.

Basically, I could no longer do and eat 90% of the things I could before.

I went through all this at that time, while taking midnight online classes in from ISU Spring and Summer 2021.

My friends never knew about my condition, and I spent most of my time home. It felt like I was battling this alone.

I was switched several kinds of medications for months, and was recommended antidepressants to treat anxiety, because it's one of the triggers for GERD. Even though they relieved the symptoms, it was still creeping there. I was just never the same. I had to rely on these pills to keep me functioning, they literally reduce the amount of acid being produced in my stomach.

I'm grateful for the support I have from my family to help me deal with the disease. I thought about how much worse it would be if I had this disease, but not have caring parents or the financial capabilities to seek health care.

In August 2021, it was time for me to fly to the US.

My best friend decided to stay in Malaysia, while I fly to the US with two of my other friends and my sister. When I first arrived, it felt nice. I've been stuck in my home for more than a year, and now I'm in a new environment with new people. I remember orientation where groups were formed, names were exchanged, and dozens booths with free stuff, the grass and the sun. I felt more free, even though I was still trapped in this body.

I wasn't very socially adept, and I spent a lot of my time with the friends that I came here with.

Living with J was stressful, and only nice 20% of the time. Maybe some of his actions shaped me the way I am today, but I believe you can help people improve without making them feel bad about themselves. Denigrating others and placing that much unnecessary pressure on someone is not right.

I had my first interview from the career fair, and then my second interview got pulled because I wasn't a citizen. From then on, I realized how hard it is for international students. I started fervently applying online in hopes of getting lucky. I did a lot of one-sided interviews, and continued with interviews as I was back Malaysia during winter. I don't remember much about what I did in Malaysia but it probably involved seeing doctors.

As I got back to the US in Spring 2022, I was told I got the offer for one of the companies. They wanted me to start asap. But because of the "no working in the first two semester of arriving in the US restriction" for F1 students, I couldn't take the offer. It was really defeating.

My health also got bad to the point where I had to get a medical reduced course load because I could not swallow food at all. I also found it hard to breathe. I arrived for a week and I already wanted to go back home.Eventually, medicine got me back on my feet for the time being. And it was during this time when I fell in love with hackathons. I did them back to back on weekends, and I loved the thrill.

The highlight of 2022 was my Tesla internship in Summer 2022. A big part of who I am and what I want today stems from the experiences I had and the people I met in the bay area. Even though I didn't like the work I did the most, being in California expanded my horizons. The world felt really small in Ames, IA. In California, I felt like it was what I was missing the whole time. I felt like I belonged. I had dozens of new experiences and made some of my closest friends during that time, albeit I did had to take PPIs the entire time to sustain myself, it made me feel like I could still live a life with GERD.

In Fall 2022, I was living in a new apartment. My sister helped move us out of that prison over the summer and she had to face the attacks and rage of J. It significantly improved my living conditions and it's something I should be more grateful about.

I grew really depressed at this time. I felt like I was trapped in Iowa and wanted to go back to California. I realized how little this place could offer me. There's no where I can go besides the library to do my work. It's the same restaurants with sub-par food. And I couldn't fill my time with gym or any kinds of sports. I began to resent Iowa. I missed not being able to go for trips to the beach, or take the train to SF chinatown, or just be around my friends. I felt like coming to ISU was a bad decision. I should've had more agency, instead of applying here because my friends were doing it too.

I started another round of internship hunt, in hopes of getting a better position in California. I stopped my medication and my condition worsened. I also started to develop really bad skin conditions (genetical) that felt like another punishment on top of GERD, and it was a lot to bear. This skin condition made me fear sugar and foods with high GI index. My food options was constrained even further. You can imagine how hard it is to avoid sugar in the US. Everything I buy in grocery stores, I look at the "Total Sugar" amount.

I've never had confidence with my smile, because it's been crooked since I was in high school and I've dying to get it straightened till this day. And this skin condition just made it worse. I felt really uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt like I'll never be able to be with someone. That I was a deformed and unlovable. It was really hard to internalize why this was happening to me. GERD is very likely genetical, and this skin condition as well. Ever since these two disease started to consume my life, my relationship with my parents were challenged. It's really easy to blame others for genetical diseases, even though they had no part in causing it, I just have no where else to direct it too. Face time calls with my mom always revolves around the issues with my body and nothing else. I don't want her to feel bad or worried, with me being so far away, but I just can't help it. I can't fake being ok, cause I'm not.

This condition also made me get really paranoid about sweating. So all this just felt like everything was getting worse. It feels like it's going downhill ever since 2021 and I notice a pattern of issues just arising in my body.

Finals were done and the early internship hunt was not a success. After the semester ended, I visited Tokyo (it was really fun) and went back to Malaysia in the winter.

When people talk about going home, they talk about all the food they get to eat, the friends they could see again, and the health checkups to make sure they're prepared for the lack of health support in the US.

When I went back, it was largely about dealing with my stomach and skin conditions. I had to meet with a Korean doctor with an Oriental medicine background every week. My skin condition was serious. It was weekly sessions of just delivering pure and raw pain and psychological turmoil. I was being tortured for something I couldn't control. I already had a condition that has no cure (without surgery), and with this on top of it, it just felt like I was cursed. It felt like God hated me. I did another GERD scope, which the conclusion was basically I developed a Type I hernia from doing situps and I just have to deal with that with strong medicine and lifestyle changes. Not very helpful if you ask me.

I did get to eat some of the food I enjoyed, got to see my friend group from college. One month passes by really quick.

I came back to the US and endured the cold, freezing weather of Iowa again, and started Spring 2023. The cold aggravates my symptoms, it squeezes my core. I can't wear clothing that's too tight cause of my skin condition. I felt broken.

I started attending a Chinese church at this time, and they provided a lot of support. The elderly people were super kind and caring, it felt like home. I stopped going church in 2022 because the bigger churches felt so lonely, and the disease was really shaking my faith. It was hard to accept that God would place this on me. It's easy to say suffering builds tolerance, and it makes you stronger, and you will come out of this a better person. But I'm going through all this right now, living it day by day, at this very second, it's still there. When will it end?

My skin conditions came back in March and I had to take antibiotics. I went through a lot of discomfort. I hated my body. Eventually the antibiotics helped and things started to look better. My colleague reached out to me and asked if I wanted to go back to the team for the summer. I failed Glassdoor's 3-round interview, so going back was the only option.

Summer 23. It was really nice to be back. I got to see old friends and make new ones. I went for a lot of AI events and hackathons, it felt unreal being in the same room with CEOs and YC founders, sitting at the same table with stanford Ph.D. students, and staying up all night at the ferry building in San Francisco for my app to be presented and awarded. I went to my first american party (and another one later on), although it was more like a networking event since everyone were interns. My parents came to visit for 3 weeks and it was nice driving them around to touristy spots, and eat good food. They liked it a lot, especially since I was paying for everything. I felt like an adult for the first time. It was 14 weeks filled with adventure, thrill, and lots of networking. I'm a little more confident in speaking now, although still trying to be less awkward. During this time, I got back on PPIs cause it started to flare up, but the in-house Tesla doctors told me to stop taking them, because my bones will break easier due to the side effects of long term PPIs. I was worried. So I switched to something else that was less effective, but less harmful. I eventually stopped taking them when I felt better.

Leaving California again was hard. My old friends came back full time, and I felt like I was delaying my life. I also had only one more class to graduate, and I was contemplating a lot about coming back to Iowa. But now I'm glad I did. I was really burnt out in California, and never took the time to rest.

Fall 2023. The first few weeks being back was hard, I felt really bored. Not because I didn't have anything to do, but because what used to be 8 hours of work, and then outings and events after work hours and in the weekends turned into 2 hours of classes a week.

I got a chance to visit Toronto in September for the Airflow summit. It was my first all-paid-for conference and it was fun to say the least. I got to meet two of my friends from last summer. We caught up with dim-sum and hotpot, and I'm glad I got to see them again, and hope to in the future. I walked around UofT, saw a protest, and got to meet interesting people.

Lately I've been busy applying to grad school with my best friend from college. He never got to come to the US and now I'm hoping we go to the same grad school and work on our company together. I've been doing hackathons again, writing articles, working on side projects. Having more time on my hands is a curse and a blessing. A lot of the work is intrinsically motivated.

I don't see my friends as often anymore cause we don't take the same classes. We just celebrated one of their birthdays and it's nice to be able to sit down and have dinner with them. It almost feels bittersweet. 2 years passed by quickly. I start to remember all the dinners we had together, the assignments we worked on, and the discord calls. I don't know where each of us will be next year.

My skin condition came back this month, and it killed me. I had a lot of breakdowns this semester. I would sit on the carpeted floor in my bedroom just spiralling and tearing up.

It hurts in the shower, so I blast worship music and sing in the bathroom to deal with the pain. I feel anger, sadness, disgust all at the same time. I've spent days crying in the bathroom saying I can't take this anymore.

It's scary to not feel comfortable with seeking healthcare as an international student because of the cost. Apparently I was dealing with my condition using the wrong methods (which seemed right at that time), and it was making it worse. Now I'm left with bandages and ointments and antibiotics every day, in hopes of a fast recovery for my Boston trip.

So that brings me to today.

I had a good birthday celebration. I spent it with people I love and care about. I got wishes from my close friends, and it made me realize how blessed it is to have them in my life. And how much I appreciate them being in my life.

The past 2 years of my life has been revolving around these issues, these rules that helps avoid triggering these diseases, and it's still hard for me to accept it.

I stopped medication a while now, but my symptoms come and go, the most frequent one being the heartburns that induces asthma like symptoms and the stabbing pain in my lower-left abdomen. And the occasional sore throat and ulcers at the back of my tongue. I wake up feeling horrible, and never well rested, and I can never figure out if it's because of my conditions.

I'm terrified that this is my life now and I hate this life. I'll never be able to life like a normal person. I won't get the chance to be drunk at parties. To bar hop with friends late night in NYC. To just be able to try out new foods and desserts without worrying about whether it is worth the risk of utter pain and maybe cancer or my skin condition developing. To backpack across europe and go on crazy hikes. Doing fun and dumb things that a young person in his 20s get to do. To get married and have kids. To just be.

My mom keeps telling me to focus on what I still can do, and it's not a lot. I try to see a silver lining, but it's suffocating to be in this body. Most days I can distract myself with writing, coding side projects, with good kpop music, but at the end of it all, I'm still sick. When it's quiet and I'm alone with my thoughts, I'm consumed with fear.

I was asked what did I learn from this condition that I have today. Here's my attempt at answering that.

I learned that my faith wasn't as strong as I thought. It's easy to believe in God when things are going well. But when you're struck down with diseases and your health is stolen away from you, like Job, can you still sustain? Will you hold strong in believing, with no guarantee that things will be better? Right now I'm still battling with this.

I learned that in tough times, it's so easy to spiral in circles and not see a way out. It feels like everything is closing in and this is everything, and it's forever, that it won't change. With issues that takes time to heal, where progress is not immediate, it's hard to visualize that things do get better. Under duress, my brain focuses on the current too much. I've found that talking to people helps, and I'm the kind that would rather suffer in silence than ask for help so it's been challenging. Or talking in the third person, and rationalizing through the situation and repeating "It's going to be ok" and "This is not forever"

I learned that there are issues that people are facing that you can't see. People see me and think I'm healthy and fine, and I'm not. I'm disabled. So it's better to be kind to everyone, even when I'm in pain, I try to make other people's lives better. I'm still selfish at times, especially with my family, and that's something I'm working on.

I learned that gratitude is essential to deal with big life issues, and might be the precursor to radical acceptance. If I was more grateful with what I do have in my life, if I'm around people I love, these issues fade away. It used to be all there is, it clouded my thoughts, but through gratitude, it becomes smaller.

I'm going back Malaysia after graduating to hopefully fix most of my health issues.

I suffered through the whole ISU experience in hopes of achieving the FAANG dream, and if not that, I could've went back to Tesla. It would be a nice life still. But I can't.

Here's hoping that in the midst of suffering and despair, I see a way out of it.

People say I sound dead and tired, and I honestly don't know whether I was like this all the time, or the accumulation of suffering over years that rendered me like this. People say suffering builds strength, but it seems to just be making me worn out and tired. Maybe I'm just not strong enough. I find it hard to garner up the energy to do things nowadays. I'm just tired of everything.

I thought a lot about how to continue living a meaningful life in the face of trials and tribulations. How to live when you're limited in so many ways and life seems to be working against you. When things that used to provide joy are off-limits. When a basic need like health, something a lot of people take granted for, is not met. And there's little you can do about it besides medicine, where you suffer the side effects later on in life. A life time of medicine.

But who knows. Maybe I'm just overthinking things and being emotional as a 22 year old who's never faced big life challenges until this happened to me.

I know life is never fair, and life is suffering. And I like to believe that God only places as much suffering in your life as you can bear. He also places people in your life to help you get through them. So far, I feel less alone.

Maybe I live with this disease for the rest of my life, but I adapt and it could still be meaningful.

Or maybe years into the future, I'm healthy again, looking back at my life in my early 20s and remember only the good parts.