Sunday June 19, 2011
By RICHARD LIM
Although often subjected to social isolation and unkind depictions in movies, nerds are comfortable in their own skin and making a name for themselves.
THE school playground can be one unusual setup.
Covertly observe the students and one will spot the different personalities at work and how they come together – or not – in the socialisation process.
Athletes or bully boys will be their usual raucous selves, the more artistic ensemble will spend their time drawing pictures in the sand while there are those who frequently alternate between the two.
Each delight in the convivial company around them and with so much going on, one could easily forget to observe the odd few who hug the shadows.
Enter the nerd – generally accepted to be intelligent people who prefer introspective pursuits to the company of others.
Although not always the case, nerds are often portrayed as socially and physically awkward, bespectacled, and having a single-minded interest – to the point of obsession – in tasks and fields that are obscure, novel, or simply too complex for the “mainstream” society to understand.
Indeed, Hollywood is not kind to nerds, but cruel scenes of mock and ridicule play out in real life as well, and a number of the self-professed nerds interviewed for this story confess to have been subjected to acts of moral abdication.
One such individual is Show De Yang, 19, who is set to read Mathematics at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom (UK) this September.
The impending move, he says, is akin to redemption for all the isolation and stick he received in primary and secondary school for being “too square”.
“I know I was different but I really wanted to have fun with my classmates and know them better,” he said.
“I got jibes all the time and people would call me ‘kaki bangku’ or worse.”
Hanif Dzulkarnain (not his real name) recounts a period of his life where he dreaded going to school.
“I would ask, ‘How bad is today going to be for me?’ each morning as my father drove me to the school gates,” recounted the 26-year-old.
Equipped with the ability to devour books and the carriage resembling that of a doleful stork, Hanif was bullied to no end and at times, things got physical.
On one occasion in Form Two, Hanif found himself tied to a pole while the perpetrators – classmates whom he regarded as his friends – photographed him in his tormented state.
The photos subsequently found their way to nearby girls’ schools in the district and Hanif endured the ignominy of being labelled “that nerd who was tied up” for years.
Hanif later suffered a breakdown and although he has gotten his life back on track, the scars remain.
Bridging the disconnect
Empathising with those who suffered abuse, International Medical University psychologist Alexius Cheang Weng Onn believes that the inability of nerds to connect to the mainstream is the result of a two-way disconnect.
Part of the reason, he feels, is the way nerds are wired and a burning desire to be normal may not be enough for them to integrate them.
“A great deal boils down to the way nerds think,” he said. “Mathematics, the sciences and computer language are based on logic and governed by set parameters but human interaction isn’t like that.”
Cheang added that social interaction may be confusing to nerds as the very train of thought which brought them unparalleled academic and professional success falls flat when it comes to relationships.
And at times, this can lead to them withdrawing more.
Providing an example, Cheang explained how he observed the nerd’s dilemma first hand without divulging the names of his students.
“Class was ongoing and a girl – not a bad looking one – was seated in front of the nerd who found his view blocked,” he recalled.
“He told her, ‘Move your head… your hair is too big’. He said it loud enough for the whole class to hear and he was being serious.”
The lady was, of course, offended and it wasn’t long before the nerd realised that his classmates were sitting away from him and looking at him funny.
After some probing, he realised that they felt uncomfortable around him and he was distraught as his actions did not stem from any ill motive.
“The way he saw it was simple,” said Cheang. “He was blocked by an obstacle and it had to be removed.
“His mistake was that he failed to take the feelings of others into account and he made a conscious effort to communicate better from then on.”
Apart from the nerd’s inherent wiring, Cheang said society had a part to play and a problem surfaces when the greater community writes off the nerd prematurely.
At times, this is down to the nerd’s quirkiness or eccentricities, say, for example, an insatiable obsession with numbers or flair with a Rubik’s cube.
“Unlike sporting success, solving a Rubik’s cube in 20 seconds appeals to a far smaller group of people and few would deem that to be desirable,” added Cheang.
“The skills involved in solving the cube could bring the nerd success in the future but until that happens, most would write off his ‘achievement’ as unnecessary and frivolous.”
Rise of the nerds
Despite this, Cheang genuinely feels that there is no better time to be a nerd.
Turning back the clock to the days of the nascent computer industry, Cheang argued that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were probably labelled as nerds who chose to waste their time on circuit boards and chunky bits of plastic.
That is, until they revolutionised the world with a multitude of Apple products.
“People don’t realise the extent to which their lives rely on nerdy achievements in mathematics, physics, medicine and computing, among others,” said Wong Leong Khim, 19, who has secured a place at Oxford University in the UK to study Physics.
“The design of our cars and airplanes, the way our illnesses are treated, the food we eat and the way it is distributed are all dependent on some real number crunching.
“As nerds are responsible for so many things, it makes sense that they should receive great reward.”
Wong’s argument is best exemplified by the success of Amy Cindy Chyao, a 15-year-old sophomore from Williams High School in Texas, the United States, who picked up the top award – and US$75,000 (RM250,000) – at last year’s Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).
Her work: Improving photodynamic therapy by using nanotubes to target internal cancer tumours.
In this light, it goes without saying that nerds are by far the richest people in the world.
Wayne Rooney may be earning £250,000 (RM1.2mil) per week doing what he loves, Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page are worth a nifty US$19.8bil (RM60bil) each.
Doing the math, Rooney would have to play every week from the year 1200 or thereabouts to break even.
Put in the amount of hours the world’s top footballers have to spend on the training ground – or the injury table – and suddenly, the nerd’s life seems pretty enviable.
In a nutshell, this would mean putting up with bullying at the school playground and being “square” without any dates for a few years before coming up with some computing code which revolutionises the world.
Although the genius of the athlete and artist still inspire, their contributions have been reduced – in a way – to mere content which is made available on the worldwide web.
To highlight, a footballer’s kaleidoscopic moments are handily found on YouTube and pictures of Salvadore Dali’s works of art can be sourced from Google Images.
Those who control the content – by creating the platform through which it is disseminated – then, are in control and there should be no surprise where the nerd fits in.
Balance in life
The success stories above give hope to Show who has never entertained thoughts of shedding his nerd tag.
“I am comfortable in my own skin and face it, I am a nerd,” he said.
“I may look and act the part – and be perceived differently – but if being a nerd means I’m always determined to study and excel, I don’t mind being one.”
Counting down the days to his Cambridge adventure, Show is relishing the opportunity to emulate his idols Isaac Newton, Andrew Wiles and Stephen Hawking.
“I have an opportunity to change the world through Mathematics and I’m keen to seize it,” he continued, his ambition unraveling.
“Ten”, is his unequivocal reply when asked to rate his level of nerdiness on a scale of one to 10.
Although he has no regrets, Show admitted that he has slowly come out of his shell over the years in an attempt to integrate into society.
His Sputnik moment, he said, came during his A-Levels days at Taylor’s College Subang Jaya where he was further exposed to the socialisation process.
“I was much more introverted before but I feel my self-esteem increased in college,” he said.
“People judged me for more than my looks or the way I speak and I joined friends for movie and badminton sessions.”
The encouraging snapshot of Show’s social life improved is however, interrupted by the reappearance of his inner nerd.
“I also play computer games at a nearby cyber café and I sometimes visit a music school to play the piano on a pay-to-play basis,” he added, perhaps forgetting that the indulgences are rather non-social.
Perceptibly exuding a greater desire to integrate, Wong takes on a Jekyll and Hyde role in his social life to balance his inner nerd.
His mantra: Normal by day and nerdy by night.
“I can’t deny social conventions and I appreciate balance in life,” he said.
“I agree that we should not change who we are to fit in but at the same time, we must be receptive towards others.
“I guess I’m only really nerdy when I’m on my own.”
In hindsight, Wong’s inner nerd was quite a late bloomer, making an overdue appearance in Form Four when he was exposed to the higher levels of Physics and Mathematics.
Dissatisfied scratching the surface, Wong went the extra mile and this continued in college.
“I found A-Levels to be quite one dimensional and I religiously followed online lectures from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” he said.
“They helped me understand Newtonian mechanics more and I could correlate the concepts of motion, acceleration and force to rotations and black holes.”