Take Five with Marina Chan ’17

Marina Chan
Marina Chan ’17 recently completed an internship in the Performing Arts Department at Asia Society after returning from a trip to China to trace her roots as an adoptee. Chan will continue work with Asia Society through a series of collaborative events she initiated with the Barnard Theatre Department that will run from this fall through spring 2019. The series will feature panels of artists and scholars discussing Asian and Asian American identity and global performance, and the issues that Asian Americans face in theater, film and TV today. As a Dramatists Guild member, Chan is excited to have more time for playwriting as well as her other arts — music, dance, acting — to help further her vision of one day combining them.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

You’d think that a Brooklynite wouldn’t be quite as excited, terrified, in disbelief — the whole shebang — as, say, a freshman moving all the way to NYC for college from across the pond. But hey, I still had to move across a river! No, I actually have no excuse: Morningside Heights and Columbia were a part of my life before I even knew what college was. Growing up, the Korean restaurant The Mill (with its delicious bibimbap) was a family go-to on Sundays after my piano lessons nearby. One Sunday after lunch — I must’ve been in second or third grade at the time — we decided to walk on campus and sit on a bench, where I did some homework. I knew where I was, my mother being a Barnard alumna, and yet as I scanned the grand, bustling campus — mysterious, with its entrancing controlled chaos with who knows who walking in every which direction — I distinctly remember wondering, “What is this place?” Clearly — or so it seemed — each person knew precisely where they were going. I was in awe.

Fast forward 10 years and I still had that same awe, only now combined with incredulousness (even after Deantini reassured us that “it wasn’t a mistake”) and a bit of fright, too — especially anticipating how I’d fit in, realizing I wouldn’t be one of those students who knew exactly where she was going. I was planning to explore the arts in a variety of forms, far from the more expected path of say, econ or poli sci. But as soon as I arrived on campus and an enthusiastic senior helped me bring up my stuff (there was a lot), all doubts faded in light of embracing a new environment and new friends, with fascinating backgrounds, interests and aspirations, each as down-to-earth and anxious to befriend as the next. Before long, I felt at home away from home and comforted too: if I really was set on taking a winding road, one perhaps less traveled by, what better place to start than at the College, with its unique, historic Core?

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I don’t think I’ll ever forget “Furnald 7,” which already by sophomore year had become iconic and nostalgic for us. We were pretty much a ready-made group, with the addition of two students who got wind of us during NSOP and immediately identified as honorary members. We were far from a clique, but open to all and also respectful of the few on our floor who didn’t want to participate. But if you did, “Furnald 7” promised good company and laughs — and even much-needed goofiness at times, our lounge’s Arrested Development poster being the perfect testament to that. Quick sidenote: that poster stayed with me through college. For senior year, before hanging it up in my suite’s living room (three of our five suitemates were Furnald 7 residents), I had it framed in Brooklyn, only to get it back with Arrested Development actor Michael Cera’s autograph! (Turned out my family’s framer is also Michael’s.)

On Furnald 7, most of us lived in singles and oh boy, did I love mine: clean and bright, the perfect size for one, AC and a campus view. We knew how fortunate we were, certain that Furnald was the best housing option, period. For me, “move-in day” was only the beginning — I’d continue for the next few weeks to furnish, decorate and tweak my room to make it as homey and personalized as possible. While not as quiet as had been promised (our floor being abnormally social for Furnald), this very contradiction proved beneficial: there to ensure I didn’t forget how to socialize or take a break from studying was Sarina Perera ’17, to whom I owe my biggest thanks! Lucky for us, as soon as we discovered we were next-door neighbors and even had rhyming names, we knew our friendship was meant to be!

What class do you most remember and why?

There is one course that, in 50 years, will probably remain my automatic answer to this question, and that’s Contemporary Civilization. The course impacted me so much that, for one of my two senior theses — this one being my passion project — I wrote a play, Elizabeth’s Wonderland, which incorporated many CC philosophers reimagined as various Alice in Wonderland characters and was conceived as the culmination of my undergraduate career. In retrospect, this is a bit ironic considering that CC, with its terrifying reading list, was the one course I dreaded with tears after it was too late to rescind my college decision. That trepidation wasn’t for naught — CC was one of the most intense courses I’ve ever taken — but the saving grace was my professor, Nicole Callahan ’05, TC’17. I’ll be forever thankful to her for guiding us through even the most obscure passages, as well as the extensive range of profound philosophical, moral, religious, social and political questions the texts brought up, creating a foundational lens through which to challenge our current day and age. Somehow, Nicole made the rigorous workload and the nights that were really mornings feel completely worth it.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I had a few! One was the Union Theological Seminary’s Burke Library, which remains a little-known secret, just far enough from the main campus to stay discrete and uncrowded. The library’s main reading room is spacious, with Gothic windows, but I actually preferred the nondescript second floor, where I could almost count on getting a six-person table all to myself. What’s more, there’s a divider between every table, creating the sense of personal alcoves, so I was able to snack, power nap, even practice lines out loud for a theater scene without bothering others or feeling self-conscious. The Master Control room at WKCR was another fave place. I spent many a morning, afternoon and night there from freshman through junior years programming classical music shows, including the most-cool Saturday Night at the Opera. Despite the stress I sometimes felt ensuring a smooth run on air and attending to protocol, there was something so peaceful and rewarding about sitting in Master Control, listening to classical music and knowing that my curated program was being appreciated by others in the tri-state area.

My favorite exterior spot has to be where I decided to spend part of my last night/morning at Columbia: the left buttress of Low Library’s portico, overlooking the campus toward Butler. I’d made it a point to finish all my packing by dawn so I could take in the campus one last time, just as I had as a child, only now before all the hustle and bustle. Quiet, composed, humble yet dignified, Columbia, I swear, changed colors as the sky did, from dark to glowing blue, with tinges of pinks to purples, and the windows of Butler and John Jay reflecting gold as the sun rose higher, until the sky was finally bright. It was magical, and in that hour, I honestly felt that I had never seen anything more beautiful. My time had finally come to bid this place goodbye, but with new tears pouring down my face, I realized that I’d just discovered Columbia all over again.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

My immediate response is “nothing,” since I feel I had a very fulfilling college experience, with all the expected and unexpected highs and lows. In hindsight, you’re probably doing something wrong if you don’t hit several handfuls of difficult times throughout your Columbia career. Maybe it’s clichéd and easy to claim in retrospect, but from my own experience, I really did find that I learned most from the hardest times, not only about how to pull through academically, but also things about myself on deeper levels than I’d discovered or had to dig through before: my values, outlook on life, inner rhythm and innate resources (intellectual, emotional, psychological, maybe even spiritual). So I wouldn’t necessarily do anything over, especially since I owe the best decision I made at Columbia — and the best outcome — to the biggest curveball I was thrown, at the beginning of my last semester: a problem with my playwriting thesis that led to my decision to write a second playwriting thesis, under the guidance of my dear professor Hana Worthen.

Then again, certain advice and wisdom internalized at the onset might’ve lightened the pressure, surprise and/or regret I sometimes felt, e.g.: It’s useless comparing yourself to others because it’ll always be apples to oranges, so don’t worry about what others are doing and don’t be jealous; instead, use what you admire in others to inspire you. There are only 24 hours in the day, so the more you take on, the less time there’ll be to focus on any one thing. Trust your approach: quality before quantity. Enjoy essays, they’re like puzzles — and leave time to edit! Everyone works at their own pace, so embrace yours. Weaknesses are never weaknesses, but simply areas that can be improved. Take advantage of office hours. It’s OK to ask for help. Accept mentors. Treasure each day — the four years go by quickly. Chillax — in the big picture, you’ve got time. Be a good friend, and good friends will come to you (but don’t be shocked if someone has truer colors to reveal). Be there for others. Take things, including yourself, a little less seriously. Laugh. Work hard, but also make room for play!