P for pink or powerful or… both?

An article about Serena Williams wearing a bodysuit for her French Open return turned my eyes to my own tennis outfit. Sometimes I wear shorts, sometimes a skirt (more precisely, a skort). A skirt? I can already see my old friends raising their eyebrows. Ever since I graduated from high school, where I had to wear my school’s uniform skirt, I’ve never bought a skirt for work or casual occasions. Then, I became hooked on tennis and bought my first tennis skirt. Looking at myself in it in the mirror, I liked the person in front of me. She looked professional, active and feminine—the whole package I wanted to have but couldn’t with a regular skirt.

In her book My beloved World, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “I am a woman; I do have a feminine side. Learning to enjoy it would not diminish any other part of me,”  We shouldn’t be forced to choose between feeling good about how we look and doing our jobs well—whether it’s making history-making decisions or firing off some powerful forehands. We can have them all. We should.

Today, I wear my favorite pink Under Armour T-shirt and a tennis skirt. I may not look aggressive, but my shots are. Feminine qualities are not limited to “delicacy and prettiness.” They also include competency and competitiveness.

female-tennis-player-silhouette-image-3Image source (URL)


Book Review: How Democracies Die


The thesis of How Democracies Die is simple and profound; democracies collapse when mutual toleration and institutional forbearance, none of which is found in the constitution, are neglected.

Two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. Mutual toleration refers to the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern (102) … institutional forbearance can be thought of as avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit. Where norms of forbearance are strong, politicians do not use their institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it is technically legal to do so, for such action could imperil the existing system (106).

The essence of these two norms is the effort to acknowledge one’s own biases and limits in understanding the entirety of an issue. We think as much (or little) as we experience. No matter how much I’ve studied an issue and whatever academic credential I have, I’m just one of the blind men touching an elephant and unable to imagine other parts. I can begin to fathom an issue only when I become curious about what I haven’t seen. What erodes democracy is the arrogant assumption that I know it all and best.

The same principle applies to people. Each individual has multiple identities and cannot be reduced to one. Someone on the other side of the aisle could still be a friend, just like me and one of my tennis partners, who is a Republican. On the way to a court and back home, we have talked about various political issues and had our differences, but our conversations never spiraled into fiery arguments. I would have ignored him if he was just a Republican, but he’s not; he’s also a kind friend, a serious learner, a mischievous brother, and a competitive but cheering tennis player. I’m willing to listen to him and even found some of his thoughts illuminating.

One more thing about the book. Notwithstanding its appearance, How Democracies Die doesn’t read like a political science book. It is extremely accessible and replete with world-wide, historical and contemporary examples. Some authors are gifted that way and I’m very jealous of them.

Some other quotes from the book:

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With my mom from DC to Grand Canyon to the Rockies

On the way back to DC alone, I put my earphones on and turned on Podcast. Then, I realized that I hadn’t listened to it for the past 12 days. Not only Podcast, but also my laptop and music, all of which have filled up my time and space as if they couldn’t be left vacant, were not with me during this trip with my mom from DC to Grand Canyon to Canadian Rockies. For 12 days, we never ran out of things to talk about, walked around holding hands all the time, took pictures and cherished every single minute together. It was also a new, a little bit uncanny but satisfying experience to see my mom comfortably relying on me (it was my mom’s second visit to the U.S. and she doesn’t speak English). I guess I grew up enough to be able to care for my parents, although I am still a baby to them even when I become a grandma.

Day 1-3 in DC: “Visiting my daughter” was the phrase my mom memorized and practiced over and over again before boarding a plane to DC from Incheon, South Korea. Handing over her passport to the CBP officer, she blurted out the phrase and swiftly gave him the invitation letter I wrote for her trip as if she didn’t want to give him a chance to ask her anything in English. The officer, who by the way looked kind according to my mom, skimmed through the letter and then looked at my mom. “Georgetown?” He showed four fingers to ask her to scan her fingerprints and that was it. “I worried for nothing,” she grinned. I did too.

Among the U.S. cities she visited—New York and Boston in 2014 and DC, Las Vegas, and Seattle this time—she said she liked DC the most. I knew that she wouldn’t pick New York; she flipped out when she saw a mouse in a subway station there. Boston was too cold for her; she couldn’t believe that she needed a coat to attend the Commencement. On the other hand, the walk around the Mall and toward the Lincoln Memorial was pleasant and she liked a clear sky and a lively atmosphere.


Day 4-7 in Las Vegas and Grand Canyon:

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Day 8-11 in Seattle, Vancouver and Rocky Mountains:

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Day 12 in DC: Back to DC. Alone again, but with lots of precious memories with my mom. And with the courage to mute the voice of self-doubt, stop being shy, and venture beyond my comfort zone; the vastness and magnificence of Grand Canyon and the Rockies somehow scared off my used-to-be mighty inner critic that has shackled me.

Throughout this whole trip, I was with two entities that are the warmest and most powerful in the planet—my mom and Mother Nature.

A short visit to Boston

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Boston holds a special place in my heart not because it is the city in the U.S. I lived for 7 years, spent most of my 20s, grew up as a scientist, got my academic credential, and had my first job. It is because I met here in Boston highly intelligent, ambitious, caring and lovely people around whom I can afford to be silly and playful.

It was exactly four years ago when I presented my Ph.D. work and received an Outstanding Student Award at the NEBS annual meeting in Boston. Four years elapsed, and the Ph.D. candidate at that time became a professor and was invited to the same meeting as one of the speakers at the career panel discussion. It was an honor to attend the same meeting in a different capacity, but it was also a good reminder that I should strive more to grow up intellectually and professionally. Changes in the title are easy to see, but without changes within the person—her brain and heart—they mean nothing. Kaitlyn, let’s not forget that.

1hr 57min 23sec


13.1 miles (or 21.1km) in 1:57:23.

To be honest, I don’t like running (surprise!). However, I run a couple of half marathon races every year just to prove to myself that I could do it and to feel the achievement at the end the race; post-race soreness is a sweet reward I enjoy and it’s satisfying that I did my three-day share of exercise all at once. Then, while looking at my second best record ever, I found another reason for running the race.

The result is something truly measurable. A number down to second level. 1:57:23. Period.

As a teacher, it is my job (and a dilemma) to quantify things that are not quantifiable: students’ assignments, presentations, participation, etc. There are no two students whose backgrounds and/or interests are the same. Different student groups have different dynamics and ideas, thus they produce totally different but equally enthralling products. I do my best to grade their exams and assignments fairly using rubrics, but I don’t know if the grades I am giving out do full justice to students’ efforts and how much they cared about learning. Grading is never easy and will never be.

1:57:23. It’s refreshing to see an assessment that is unequivocally determined, simple and straightforward.

Why tennis?

After watching me for more than a year playing tennis almost every day and remaining enthusiastic about it, my friend Anh asked me “what about tennis makes you crazy about it?”

After a long, haphazard answer to it, I summed it up in a satisfying way. “It requires a combination of power, speed and control.”

Thinking back, I realized that’s the kind of person I want to be. I want to be a person with determination, who also understands and values the power (and weight) of words. I desire to be someone who seizes the opportunities, rather than waiting for them to come. I would like to be a person who respects the boundary between people and knows her limit in experiences/perspectives so that she never judges anyone in haste.

Maybe that’s the reason I love tennis 🙂



The magical power of old friends

Old friends have a magical power. When they are together, no matter how far they were apart in time and space before, they stretch out the ephemeral present moment to the point that now it can be loaded with years of past and future. Their past years had little overlap. So will their coming years. However, their separate paths enrich their friendship, rather than eroding it.

Maybe a good friendship is more like buttons than zippers. We don’t need to be together all the time to maintain a lifelong friendship; we just need to spend some time together here and there. While a missing tooth breaks a zipper, separate paths are inherent in a good friendship and they allow two friends to complement each other.

My middle school friend Haneul came to DC to visit me on October 10, 2017. I don’t even remember when we saw each other last time. Was it 2010? or 2011? I spent the whole Sunday with her and she transformed my ordinary Sunday into a very special day.

We often judge the quality of time by how much we accomplished during the time. Sometimes (or more often than you think), what matters is whom you spent that time with.