Spring Cleaning: April 9, 2012

I can't remember where I was on New Year's Eve or Thanksgiving this past year. I can't remember what I was doing at this hour two nights ago. But some days stick out in my memory eccentrically, and in the past few years, many of these dates have been in April, May, and June. April 9. April 15. April 19. April 24. May 4. May 18. May 27. June 3. June 4. June 5. June 25. June 29. A little weird, to be sure. But so am I.

I'm hoping to spend the next few months on this blog with posts reflecting on the things that happened on those days, many of which in the past three years. Since I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, it'll be an exercise in exploring and reminding myself just how far I've come. I'm calling them the Spring Cleaning Reflections, and they're going to get vulnerable. But spring has arrived, and it's time to clean house. I'm ready to let go of some old stories, and, if past experience serves, the only way I can do that is by writing them out to make them lose their power. If I can just get them to paper, I'll be free.

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On April 9, 2012, I handed in my senior thesis at Princeton, and the experience was cathartic. I'd worked myself to the bone on the thing and it was the culmination of all I'd done with China and Brazil throughout college. It was unique and well-written and even won a prize. It remains my very best original academic work. But I remember feeling very empty after the I handed in my thesis. At the time, I couldn't figure out why I felt that way and wrote it off to what others were calling thesis "post-partum" depression and coming down from my sugar high from the macarons TFC had gifted me from Laduree.

I now understand the reason behind the feeling of emptiness: the moment I handed in my thesis was the moment I realized how little of a life I had cultivated for myself at Princeton outside of my work.

I hadn't had the college career I'd imagined for myself. I was exhausted 90% of the time, napping in the middle of the day just to make it from 7AM to 11PM. I was a tour guide and an a cappella singer and a co-op member, and by the grace of God, I was handling tour shifts, cooking shifts, late-night rehearsals and busy performance schedules while managing to raise my grades out of the trenches created by my erstwhile life as an electrical engineering major.

What time I had after studying, sleeping, singing, and cooking, I spent numbing out, mostly by watching television. It was Grey's Anatomy before Chinese quizzes on Friday morning, Glee and Gossip Girl with TFC while drinking bourbon with hibiscus flowers on his futon in Scully, and Mad Men and The Bachelor with RPM in the co-op (RPM kindly humored me on the latter). In retrospect, I know I was doing the best I could, considering I was killing myself slowly with every bowl of pasta and Kashi cereal.

Throughout my four years, I was struggling to do the whole, "learn from your peers" thing. I couldn't let go of my obsession to be the smartest person in the room. When you're at Princeton, clearly that's not going to be possible. While I knew how ridiculous the obsession was, I couldn't help but nurse it. Therapy and mild antidepressants couldn't lift the shadow of my insecurity.

Messed up as I was, I saw my peers as competition first, friends second. I think Chinese classes reinforced this negative mentality because teachers were strict, encouraged rote memorization over creative expression, and reduced our value in class to a point value on a test. Basically, Chinese gaokao culture trickled down into my every morning at 9 or 10AM for two-and-a-half years.

I felt especially uncomfortable around anyone who was an engineering, economics major, or computer science major because I thought they were better than I was, that their mettle allowed them to stick out the curriculum while I copped out for a major where I thought I'd be happier and perform better (which I was and did, though getting hired would prove a nightmare. More on that for the post about June 25).
At any rate, I remained hellbent on trying to be a special brand of smart in a school full of geniuses. But five minors and a summa cum laude later, I didn't feel any more whole.

It didn't help that three of my four years in college were spent in codependent, long-distance relationships, and parts of my fourth year were spent taking scraps of intimacy wherever I could find them.

While I wasn't physically up to a whole party scene, I wish I'd tried to meet more people. I should have taken the plunge and gone out once a month to the awkward shuffle that was Prospect Street on Saturday night. I didn't realize then that I owed it to myself to be present in college. I'm not sure I knew what being present meant. I certainly didn't know how to show up for conversations with women without comparing myself to them and how to show up for interactions with men without fear and ultimately pining for the emotionally-unavailable ones who were in or humoring a relationship with me from a distance.

But in the spirit of presence, time to get up to speed with the moment that inspired this post:
Two weeks ago, my lovely friend LL, whom I've been mentoring throughout her upperclassman academic life, submitted her senior thesis. A comparative literature major and Chinese student like myself, she has a very different path from mine awaiting her post-graduation that will be wondrous all the same.

I cried four times over the course of interacting with her thesis. The first time I cried because I had promised LL that I'd do an 88-page stylistic edit of her thesis and ended up having to get it done in one day while hungover. The second and third times were when I read the paragraph in her acknowledgments directed at me and her thank you note to me in the mail.

The fourth time, I cried for myself. While I don't get to relive my college experience, I do get this opportunity to finally, finally be grateful. For having a mentee who is going to crush it in the real world. For having a treasure of a friend who knows and appreciates me well enough to write me a handwritten letter of thanks. For the catch up game I was able to play in securing some exceptional friendships in my final six weeks after my thesis was in and even in my first year out. For college it having unfolded as it did, perfectly imperfectly as it did.

I wouldn't be where I am on this personal growth journey without it.