Dear Daughter, Your Mother is a Nerd
My Dearest Daughter,
Today, I called you from Stockholm, after delivering a conference talk about how to make it more safe for people to log in to an app. As you already know, your mother loves programming. So I decided to also talk about it in public because 1. It’s nice to share your knowledge and 2. It’s not nice to just talk to computers all day long. Like granny used to say, computers make you bald and the evil spirit living inside the screen will possess you and turn your eyes into bloody red. She said that too about ATM machines.
Anyways, when I called you, I felt like crying. But I didn’t because there were five other people in the speaker room and I didn’t want to freak them out. I just smiled while listening to you talk about your favorite KPop girl band, telling me that it’s ok if you don’t get to watch their concert because 250 euros is ridiculous for a mother to spare. I’m glad you know.
The tears I was holding back were tears of joy. You see, I was thinking about the time I was the same age as you are now. A fourteen year old Filipino girl living in a 36 sqm apartment that can barely fit a family of six. I know it seems small, but it never really felt that way. To me, home was the best place in the world. Tatay and Nanay worked hard together to send us all four kids to good schools. They didn’t even do that absurd thing that many parents did, like tell their children to study hard so they can repay them later once they found a job.
They said that education is the only gift they can give and it’s for us to decide what to do with it. Back then, I would have traded school for a lifetime supply of Hershey’s chocolate bar, the latest model of Barbie sneakers in rainbow color and a trip around the world, including Lego Land. I’m glad they said no to that. Or maybe not. I still can’t decide.
Your grandparents have given us so much more than education. It’s impossible to list them all. But they have also given us strange things. One time, Tatay came home with a screaming yellow electric guitar, which he got at a bargain shop while walking around in China town. What’s odd is that no one in the family knew how to play. It was hanging on the wall for a few years, mocking us of the musical curse that afflicted us for generations. Until one day, I decided to pick it up and teach myself how to strike a chord. I sat outside, day and night, under the warm summer sky, learning from a neighbor on the street. After a month or so, I could play it good enough to scare the cockroaches away. I was so proud of myself.
In 1996, my parents bought what could have dragged us to the brink of bankruptcy and potentially doomed us to a dreadful destiny of forced child labor. They bought a personal computer. Yes, a brand new 286 tower with 4 megabytes of memory that ran on MS-DOS. The thing occupied a fourth of our apartment. I don’t remember the specs much and I still don’t know where they got the money for buying a computer. But they sure worked hard for it. I just know that my brother needed it for school and that I was under no circumstances allowed to touch it. If my brother found a single crease on the white plastic cover that protected the massive grey box, I better hide to the nearby planet where he could never find me.
I will never regret breaking that one rule. Oh hell I broke it every single day. So here I am now, travelling to places I only used to dream of, sharing ideas that ignite my curious mind. That’s all because after all these years, I still see myself as that ignorant girl who doesn’t know how to play an instrument nor turn on a mysterious, forbidden machine to life.
But I learned. And kept learning.
Like me, I’m sure you will encounter silly reasons that will discourage you from your pursuits. And I’m telling you now that half of them exist in your head. I know you’re a brave person, but if you ever find yourself facing a difficult challenge, like public speaking or building robots, I hope you’ll somehow remember my motherly advice.
Have a sense of humor. When someone tells you bogus statements, like you’re a girl, you’re poor, you’re brown, you’re short, you have flat nose, and therefore you can’t be that smart, laugh. That person must be joking. If he or she is serious, then laugh even more, because that person is the joke.
Don’t hide your flaws. You know what’s more terrifying than failing? Failing in front of others. That’s why in programming, nothing hurts more than when other people find a bug in your work. So practice making mistakes in public until it stops hurting, but most importantly, until you don’t make the same mistakes. I promise you, those same people will be the first to applaud when you succeed.
Be stubborn. Whenever you hear yourself say, I don’t know how to do it, do it. Just stay away from anything that explodes and you will be fine.
Stay human. Most humans don’t like working all day long. We like to watch ridiculous TV shows. We paint our eyelids psychedelic gold. We consume sugar because it tickles the tiny holes on our tongue. When doing a challenging task, it’s easy to forget that the world revolves around our simple needs. It’s a noble goal to revolutionize our ways for the better. But if we forget the basics like laughter, love and togetherness, then what will be the meaning of all our work?
My dear daughter, don’t ever be scared of pressing a button or hitting a key. Go ahead, entangle the wires and play with the strings. For there’s no monster inside the box. Only possibilities.