On gratitude

A snapshot from a recent solo trip to a beach village in Kent. I have not mentioned this below, but cross-country trips make me feel more alive. I am lucky to have taken one.

Hi! 👋

Long time no see.

I hope you’ve been well during this unintentional hiatus where my data visualisation work has either been dictated by my “real” job or by five-minute charts that I don’t think are worth sharing (yet). I’ve been busy trying to sort out my future, and as you can imagine, that leaves little room for proper brainstorming …

This weekend, however, I’ve had a little time. I’ve tried to make a tradition out of writing about thanks around this time of year — this is the week when, in Beijing a number of years ago, there was a flurry of snow near where we lived, and when, on the anniversary of that hushed snowfall, I celebrate another year of life. Of course, American Thanksgiving has just passed by (a holiday whose historical ramifications must be acknowledged), so that’s a good reason to reflect too.

The problem is that I am not good at following traditions. I wrote a 50-item list of gratitude exactly four years ago to fulfil the requirements of a high school English assignment, and though I now can’t bear its naïve and convoluted tone, it did set the process in motion. Then, presumably being too busy to be thankful, I waited until 2020, when I compiled a shorter list to mark my entrance into adulthood, packing it with irreverent, sincere, and academic items alike. That was an important year to mark my great privilege.

This time around, I feel less enthused to make a list. I checked London’s weather forecast today to learn that snow was predicted to fall on Saturday morning, so I set up an early alarm on that day and planned to move somewhere different to do my work. I have pleasant memories of London snow, having incessantly videotaped the descent of its hardly noticeable fractal messengers outside my student accommodation last year to show my overseas friends. But then, checking the forecast again this evening, I saw that things had changed; it was unlikely my favourite weather event would be happening this week, and I didn’t know what to do with myself.

It’s just snow, I would normally say, and nothing like the kind that falls in Switzerland where I’ve heard it swaddles the ski resorts and you can’t see anything else. But I need a reason to get up in the morning these days. The evenings are long, the daylight is eager to distance itself from our company, and I have the on-and-off feeling that my workload is too vast to be worth making a start on. So maybe that’s why I’m forcing myself to make a list this year — to remind myself of the hope held by the days ahead. Most human endeavours are selfish, after all.

  • I’m grateful for the opportunity to be challenged. My degree, my work, and my living circumstances are not easy, despite the abundant gifts they bring. On my BSc, my preconceptions about the ease with which I can make claims about data and my belief in the vague benevolent forces of “global health” and “development” have been questioned, and these are crucial questions to ask in a year when I am making decisions about my future path. My part-time work at the data visualisation software firm Flourish requires me to bring my most original ideas to the table and keeps me in constant awe of my colleagues. Finally, my majority-Mandarin-speaking flatmates keep me on my toes, stretching my listening comprehension so that I don’t forget my half-mother-tongue.
  • I’m grateful for the distance between the places I need to be. For the past two years of my degree, I have always been either a ten-minute walk from a lecture theatre or a few metres away from joining a Zoom session, but this year, it can take me half an hour (still a short timespan compared to those who truly commute) to get to university. This means that I choose to attend only the events that matter the most, and that I can get excited about them while getting there and reminisce about them while getting home. That extra effort is meaningful to me, and I enjoy walking even when I can take the bus because it clears my head.
  • I’m grateful for the opportunity to tell stories with data. When I was first required to make charts for my volunteering work, I became inwardly frustrated iterating my work over and over again with colleagues because I couldn’t seem to get the visual messaging right. A few months later, I created a video detailing the impact of COVID-19 on the UK population, including some personal stories to balance its data-heavy format. I then received a message from someone I barely knew saying that one particular slide from the piece moved them to hopeful tears, and (perhaps subconsciously) have been moved to continue that work since. I am thankful for the reminder that that message has given me, and for the resources that enable me to collect, wrangle, and visualise data.
  • I’m grateful for stories told by people I have never met. Among the diverse types of media I consume, I would like to highlight two examples that I have enjoyed the most this year. The Splendid Table is a food and cooking podcast that interviews chefs in their homes, at their restaurants, and travelling around the world, and the bright voice of its current host, Francis Lam, is frequently blasting in my ears when I slice my own vegetables and set up for a stir-fry. And I recently discovered the music of Gregory Alan Isakov, a South-African-born folk singer-songwriter based in Colorado, which is in turns vulnerable and powerful and has the greatest lyrical brilliance I have ever encountered. It’s perfect for long road trips and evenings at home alike.
  • Finally, I’m grateful for what stays the same amidst trials and change. Despite being apart for years, I can still listen to my mom apply moisturiser in the mornings by gently slapping herself on the cheeks and hear my dad’s periodic bellowing renditions of the only two songs he learned with a vocal coach — those are my reminders of home. And I can laugh and complain and revel in the streets of London with my friends just as I did the first time we came together — the only difference is that this year, I hug them all the more tightly.

Well, that turned out to be my shortest list yet. Thank you for reading. 💙

You’ll get more dataviz content soon!

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she/her. Population Health student @ UCL. Perpetual dataviz nerd. Published on Towards Data Science and UX Collective.

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Yaning Wu

Yaning Wu

she/her. Population Health student @ UCL. Perpetual dataviz nerd. Published on Towards Data Science and UX Collective.

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