I am Pizza Rat

If you haven’t heard of Pizza Rat, you’re probably living either under a rock or a dark subway stairwell – not unlike Pizza Rat herself*. Pizza Rat went viral yesterday when someone took a video of her dragging a large slice of pizza down cement steps leading to an underground subway station in New York. The video is hilarious, and was instantly shared and viewed millions of times by the social media generation loud-and-proudly proclaiming, “Pizza Rat is me!” – mostly because who would waste a slice of pizza? (Probably me.)

But Pizza Rat spoke to me in a deep existential way. Maybe it’s because I, much like other millennial twenty-somethings like me, am also trying to drag a “slice of pizza” to satiate a hunger of some sort. Pizza Rat is the epitome of millennials, stuck in their post-college quagmire of limitless – yet somehow limited – opportunities.

I was born to parents who didn’t have the opportunity to choose their future. Two engineering degrees and one arranged marriage later, they decided to raise their daughters with an overdose of choice. My sister and I got to choose where we went to college, what we studied, and whom we married/dated. One of us went on to live a well-adjusted life, studying a sensible vocation and settling down in good time. One of us, and you know where I’m headed with this, ended up “following my dreams,” making my way through an artsy bachelor’s degree and an MFA that rendered me, in my mid-twenties, lost and confused, and to a great extent, unemployable.

At the time of this writing, Pizza Rat has over 2.5 million views. I myself have contributed about a hundred views to that video. But while my friends and boyfriend, and probably all of the internet, watch that video and LOL, there forms a lump in my throat that I find impossible to swallow. I watch as she drags the slice determinedly down two stairs, each time the slice proving too heavy for the tiny creature, but not insurmountable. Until finally, she gives up and disappears down the bottom. But something happens in the final second of the video. The tiny, pointed nose and beady eyes reappear behind the cement stairs. She stares hungrily at the slice, that unattainable goal. In that millisecond, I picture myself in that rat. Staring at my dream of being fulfilled and happy, the dream that I dragged down two college degrees and countless sleep-deprived nights, the dream that suddenly feels too big and too heavy and too impossible to drag down the side of the subway stairs into the darkness of my soul.

Then suddenly, the video ends and I’m thrown back into my real life. The countless versions of my overqualified résumé stare back at me. I feel my heart sink. I close the windows and gaze at the generic sunset scene on my laptop screen. I re-watch the video. After about another twenty views, I begin to wonder about that abrupt ending. What happened after we were cut access to this rat’s story? Did she disappear, leaving her dreams behind? Did she come back and take another go at it before abandoning the slice forever?

Or did she take a little break and return, rejuvenated, to grab at her slice with both sets of teeth, giving it all she had in her soul no matter how tough it got, and make it all the way back to the darkness of her home, where she enjoyed the whole slice, relishing every single bite, knowing that she had been knocked down, she had been stepped on, but she had earned every single bite of savoury success?

We will never know if Pizza Rat was successful in realizing her dream of a hearty meal, but I know that she taught me a lesson (which I mostly made up because, let’s face it, she was just a hungry rat), that will stay with me long after she stops being viral.

*Yes, I think Pizza Rat is a she.

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Lost & Found

Year One.

I was lost. Literally. It was my second day on campus. I had attended the international students’ orientation which, on the map, was less than a mile from my apartment. I stood at an intersection, debating which way to go, knowing I had a terrible sense of direction (literally and metaphorically), without a smartphone to guide me because I had just landed in August and wanted to wait until Octoberfor the new iPhone. I played a little game of “you first” with a driver at the intersection, the concept of “right of way” still so alien to me, the alien non-immigrant in this country. I shouted out, “Please go, I have no idea where I’m going.” I was rewarded with an annoyed sigh and a whoosh of tires. I obviously hadn’t met Los Angeles drivers before.

My first screenwriting class went pretty much the same way. Having been raised on a solid dose of bad Hindi movies and worse Hindi television, I was clueless. Everyone else had either been in the industry for a while, had been writing screenplays since they were teenagers, or had been obsessed with Hollywood for a long, long time. Me? I had written short stories, watched Friends, and coolly decided I could write for Hollywood. It was a harsh wake up call. I spent a rough night googling every name mentioned that day, trying to cram everyone’s résumés and credits into my still-jetlagged brain. I didn’t even think about the fact that I had literally no idea how to write a screenplay. I was lost, again.

I thought about home a lot the first few weeks. About how easy it was to just walk up to a stranger and ask for help. About how it had been so easy to do well without trying too hard. About how everyone had expected me to be successful, but I still felt like a fraud in my heart. About how I didn’t want to let anyone down. There may or may not have been one too many tearful nights. But I pulled through. Don’t give me any credit though.

Just after I had sent off my application on November 1st 2011, I started prowling the internets, looking for clues about when I could expect to hear back. I stumbled upon the studentfilm forum and joined a thread following the application process for the UCLA MFA programme. It was thrilling to be a part of a secret group with a shared experience. To those that don’t know me, I’m not the most social person and I’ve always had trouble making friends. But in that group – strangely – I felt at home. It is no surprise to me today that the people that I met in that forum, online, before I knew any of their names or what they all looked like, are some of the best friends I have ever made in L.A., and in my life. These are the people who defined my life at UCLA, and in Los Angeles. These are the people who pulled me through – one word at a time, one script at a time, one piece of life-affirming advice at a time.

studentfilmforum support system + honorary member Kiley.
studentfilmforum support system + honorary member Kiley.

There is something about having friends who have gone/are going through your same journey. I didn’t feel the need to explain. I didn’t feel the need to hide. My “weirdness” was appreciated and understood. I spoke to people who finally understood the vague abstracts in which I had always thought my whole life. Through them I learnt the fundamentals of friendly competition, of generosity of spirit, of creative compassion. I learnt that writing is a lifelong struggle. That “kill your darlings” wasn’t just a cute, quaint expression. That being truly helped is opening myself up to questions that I was maybe not prepared to answer. That I will have to tear apart and stitch back pieces of myself with every word I wrote. That it was all okay when I had amazing friends who always, always, always had my back.

Of course, I still felt alien, I still missed references, I still don’t really “get” Beyoncé. But, surrounded by these guys, I no longer felt lost.

They made it easy to be found.

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Dreams, drama, and one too many drinks. Spring Break ’13, Malibu with my most favourite people of all.
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‘Repeat after me, “I am not suckatude.”‘ My writing therapist.