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  • Anna Au

The girl can dream

I like structure, certainty, and the pursuit of such. I will be able to find answers and solutions if I follow the science with perseverance and ingenuity. Scientific evidence will not change no matter how a person feels about it. This was the kind of certainty that sparked many dreams in the little me. Holding on to this spark, I chose the science track in secondary school. It was definitely a foreseeable calling for me and I knew studying science would me happy. The desire to know and learn is ingrained in me at a molecular level. My curiosity guides me to seeing the deeper layer of matters. That fuels my pursuit of every opportunity. I live and breathe the spirit of science. That is who I am.


But I did not make it my mission to become a scientist from the beginning. I wanted to be many, many different things. How did I grow into the person I am today? Where does my boundless curiosity come from? That is the story of the girl who dreams of impossible things.


Alice in Wonderland

Most of the books I read as a child were made into movies, probably because these books are still relevant to the contemporary context and are considered to be classics. The first classic title I accessed is Alice in Wonderland. I believe I was five or six years old when I first read Alice in Wonderland. It was an abridged, illustrated version for small children. This is also the first book I received as a gift, so it archived a lot of childhood memory in addition to the story itself.


I still do not know my parents’ true motive of choosing this book for me and I doubt they had read it themselves. What I am sure they know is that Alice in Wonderland is the story of a girl whose adventures may or may not have been her dreams. Since the long-term love-hate bitter-sweet relationship between sleep and me is a very well-established fact known by my parents, my surmise is that they thought Alice and I were both young girls who had trouble sleeping and Alice in Wonderland and I would be a perfect match? I have no way to test this hypothesis because I do not think they remember this particular book amongst the many books they bought me. Yes, I was a privileged child to have my own collection of books.


I was reading Alice in Wonderland. The book was a thin paperback, colourful with beautiful illustrations. Enthralling was not an adequate word to describe the story. It raised my curiosity up to be one of my most defining traits. I saw myself in Alice and I imagined myself as Alice in the story. Alice’s fate and my fate were one and the same. I wanted to turn the pages so, so badly, but my fingers lingered and caressed the pages, carefully perusing the illustrations and the words and hoping the story would never end.


The story ended on its last page, but I turned back to the first page and revisited everything from the beginning. The rabbit, the rabbit hole, the potion, the cake, the Cheshire cat, the caterpillar, the tea party, the mad hatter, the roses, the Queen of Hearts, the Knave, and so on… You know the drill. I did not understand the indications, the metaphors, or the plot of the story very well when I was little, but at that moment, I was reborn in the fantastic world of impossible and curious things.


I wanted to become more.


I stepped into the unknown.


I created my adventures.


Little Women

Alice in Wonderland is the original call for adventure in my never-ending story with words. I love this book so much, but you may be surprised that it is not my all-time favourite – Little Women is. It is the book that shaped the core that grew to be the person I am today.


My primary and secondary school prioritized the classics in its curriculum and Little Women was elected for grade three students. That was the setting of my first access to this book. I did not enjoy Little Women at the beginning because there were tests and quizzes which required regurgitating the contents of the story on pieces of paper. It was a chore. What redirected my course was the call for children’s review of a book of one’s choice from a newspaper.


The nine-year-old me was incognizant of such a thing as book review at the time, so, me being me, I read and re-read the activity details and chased down my limited sources for explanation. I was an annoying child. I would not rest my case if I did not get a reasonable explanation for my inquiry like an annoying mosquito out for blood. I was every grown-up’s worst nightmare incarnated.


As soon as I understood what book review meant, I thought, “OK, I can do that.” I clipped the participation form from the newspaper and tried to pick a book. Little Women was laying on my desk. It was just there. I felt a pull deep from within and I reached for the book. This time around, Little Women’s influence crept up on me when I revisit the story for my little project.


My review was very short. There were, perhaps, five sentences. I remember I wrote something like this: my takeaways from the book was to learn to give, follow one’s passion, and be resourceful. Those were exorbitantly uncommon usage of words for a small child, or were they really? When children express what they think or feel, they should be taken seriously because their inner workings can be surprising and inspiring to many grown-ups. Anyway, although I did not win the contest, I did mean what I wrote and that is still what I stand by to date. That is how transpiring the influence of a great book can be.


The second time I read Little Women, I saw undeniably the astonishing Jo March in me. From the hot-headedness, passion, self-awareness, aspirations, to the daring soul to defy conventions, and to the undying love for writing, Jo’s story is the story of a version of me. It unfolded as I turned the pages one after another. Later I learned that Louisa May Alcott’s own real-life was her inspiration to write Little Women. She created complex three-dimensional characters in her work and Jo is the projection of a version of herself. Someone, somewhere, somehow, is in concord with what I felt and how I was. Her story and the work of her imagination lit up my inner light. I felt validated. I wanted to pursue my dreams. I began to understand that I am the hero of my story and my journey matters.


I began to emulate what Jo presents – the girl who is determined to succeed despite all and any odds. I wanted to be a writer. A writer who writes great books that transpire space and time. That was the first time I explored what I wanted to be. I started with small things like letters and daily musings. I did not have a schedule; I wrote when the stream of inspiration flowed. There were occasional boulders in the stream. Well, you might think that the boulders were the obstacles. No, they were turning points where I reassessed where and how my writing would flow. Writing assimilated to be a part me like it was always there and it was only waking up from a slumber.


Of course, reading was still a big part of my childhood. I ventured to the school library and the public library to look for fictions beyond the school curriculum. I also discovered another great Anthropocene creation – bookstores. I remember saving up my pocket money to buy books not in the library collections, but that is another story for another time. Ever since I began writing, I did not see reading the literature in the school curriculum as chore. I was heavily exposed to the classics, including The Secret Garden, Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, Rebecca, Silas Marner, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Woman in White, the Sherlock Holmes stories, the works of Charles Dickens, and sonnets of William Shakespeare, etc. I imaged what I would do if I were the characters in the story. What would it be if the contexts were different? How would I reimagine and reinterpret the story in the contemporary life? It was not unlike film and series adaptations of well-established works of imagination now that I am thinking it out loud. Overall, I did enjoy the literature class and the classics shaped my worldview of liberal arts, but Little Women’s influence seeps much, much deeper than other books.


Somewhere along my childhood, I lost my copy of Little Women, but it has always been on my mind. I bought a copy of a special limited edition that came in a lovely design when I was 22 years old. Ever since this copy was in my collection, it has been an essential item of mine and I bring it with me no matter where I my story continues.


Science

Spoiler alert: I did not become a writer-writer; I became a scientist.


I decided to become a scientist in my first science class. I was 12 years old.


In my first science class, I was introduced to the scientific method. I was fascinated by science and its structures and explanations and (un)certainties and how much human beings’ life has changed with each discovery. I imagined what my scientific discovery would be. I imagined the endless possibilities. I imagined how I would find the missing links and pieces. With the frantic brainwaves, I had a major enlightenment – I love solving puzzles.


Science was the perfect puzzle. I followed my curiosity and I chose the science track.


But does it mean I gave up on reading or writing? Absolutely not. What that actually means is that I expanded my bookscape. In my teenage, I developed an affection towards the genres of science fiction, crime and detective, and even fantasy like the Harry Potter series. I saw myself in Hermione too, needless to say. She is the savant whose desire to know never dwindles. She holds true to herself and makes the right decisions even it is hard. I took this to the core to what defined me and I made it my principle to use my intelligence and knowledge for good. (Also, when in doubt, go to the library!)


These books mostly involved finding answers or solving mysteries which is quite similar to what science is. And I kept on writing as well. My creative outlet kept my brain active. I more I wrote, the more I realized science is a dimension of creativity on its own merits too. With a set of conditions or limits, scientists use their ingenuity to make the most out of an experiment to test their hypotheses. They pay attention to details that are seemingly indiscernible by the untrained eye. Isn’t noticing and understanding phenomena also a process to discover inspiration though? Curiosity and creativity are truly symbiotic.


Years past and I went to college to study public health.


And the rest is history.


Dreams

Curiosity and creativity raise me up and drive me to greatness, but all began with access to books with characters who are a lot like me. I am able to dream of impossible things and make them come true because the impossible adventures in the stories inspire me.


I am fortunate to have access, but some are not.


Imagine how many more people would have the chance to grow into the best version of themselves if they have access like mine to see themselves represented in diverse works of imagination.


Wouldn’t a world like that be a better place?


At my college graduation. Gosh, I was so young.
At my college graduation. Gosh, I was so young.

Related episode: Show yourself, grow yourself

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