This was written almost a week ago, so I figured I’ll post it up, too. I’ve of course tweaked and edited it now, but the fact that it’s been sitting as a draft… Can’t stand it, as usual. This is perhaps my favorite part and phase thus far; so defining, until now. Sometimes I think here’s when and where the story really starts – definitely my favorite. Every moment becomes me, indeed it’s true.
Of course freshman year turned out to be a surprise and the dorm life was horrible – plus I’d basically grown accustomed by then to my social awkwardness and sometimes-hermit ways – and I’d foolishly entered not knowing that the university runs on the quarter system and is really known for it’s co-operative program or specifically, 6 months internship fitted into the academic year, alternating between two consecutive seasons. I won’t lie, the quarter system freaked me out and when I was told I could not go home for summer unless I added another co-op cycle to my academic path, I tried very hard not to break down. Of course I did, which was eventually why I’d agreed to the addition of another co-op – though this turned out to be the best decision, quite frankly – in order to be allowed to return home as planned in the summer.
I was badly homesick and honestly, embarrassingly sometimes so ‘fresh off the boat.’ I won’t even attempt to deny it and remember the many events and things I’d said in which my roommate then had laughed at me and what she deemed as my ‘international’ antics. Plus, I am a practicing Muslim girl who had heard plenty about Islamaphobia. Needless to say, although this part of my identity is most significant, I’d hidden it hardest I could to the common crowd and new found friends.
In the beginning, I found no solace either in the small community of Malaysian students for many reasons; things I’d expected to explain to American friends were being imparted to these individuals instead. Everything I did or did not do was a racial thing – i.e. Malay, which is what I identify myself am – and it mattered none, exactly like in college, that I’m half-Chinese or that I’ve a sister-in-law (now two) who is Chinese. This racial acceptance seemed impossible and after awhile, damn annoying. I can’t remember how many times I had to drive home the point that one of my two best friends is Chinese and that yes in fact, I have dined in her house so many times, even prayed there whenever I come over to hang out because we’re childhood friends stretching 15 years now. Here I thought I had left that racial hell-hole, only to jump right into another one. Social life-wise, no surprises, I wasn’t making friends as easily as I’d thought and wished, thus most days were spent eating alone. Coming in as a transfer student also meant being off-schedule not only in terms of curriculum but clearly, as I came to learn through many lunch hours spent sitting by myself, friendship circles too.
Everything about here felt wrong; all the wrong reasons, the outcome of a mistake. A rushed decision, more specifically, and for what reason? All because I was so desperate to get away. American dream, what did you say? Did I hear that?
Reality came crashing in, silent and sure, without pity nor empathy.
Loneliness hit a high and my roommate turned out to be not-so-great, constantly bringing guys into our extremely compact dorm room and unabashedly engaging in some bedtime activities late at night with the guys, when she thought I was asleep. I wasn’t and needless to say, I’ve been scarred since – I don’t care what you want to do with whoever, but don’t do it when I’m in the room! I was not making much progress with friends, Malaysians and locals. The school is actually a commuter school more than say, a state school where there’s more campus life, thus trying to get involved in clubs of interest required more effort and networking than I’d thought, as well. The school spirit is there, but it isn’t obvious.
As previously mentioned, I’d also transferred in during winter term and this was of course, the year Philly was struck with a record-breaking blizzard. School had to be shut down for two days and being stuck in a dorm with very little food was horrible. The cold, the inches thick of snow, the constant dryness – everything to me was terrible, nothing seemed to be on my good side. The only thing that was, unlikely as this may sound and funnily, was grades. When winter term finally wrapped in late-March mere days to my 19th birthday, I had scored 4.0 and couldn’t wait for the spring break.
I’d joined in on the seniors’ plan of an extensive road-trip to South Carolina, simply because I had no other plans. It turned out to be a mixed bag; except for Housemate #1 then whom is a year older than me, everyone else were significantly a few years older and everybody was yes, Chinese. I’d thought that it would be seven days of crazy explanations as usual, but it turned out to be a rather memorable trip. I remember them surprising me on the night of my birthday, gifting me with a t-shirt from Ben & Jerry’s because I’d confessed to liking ice-cream. That was sweet and though there were ups and downs in my time with them then, I remember this outburst. On the last day of spring break, after having crashed at one of the seniors’ place for the weekend – damn dorm rules, kicking students out during break – I’d reached an angry breaking point. Everyone has limits and I found out at that time, for the first time – so do I.
I remember waking up at 8 AM, grabbing my jacket and small netbook then, the cold weather be damned and sat outside of a coffee shop. This was the period when Third Sis and I often spoke and I’d called her on Skype then to rant, frustrated to the core at their ignorant mentalities about race and religion in Malaysia. And they’re Malaysians! Where does one draw the line in ignorance and not knowing? 18, 19 years spent in the motherland, supposedly intermingling with folks of other races… Isn’t it? Shouldn’t it? It was bizarre to me that I was like an alien to them, this new species they’re trying to unravel and discover when we’re not only from the same friggin’ country but with some of them, even the same friggin’ hometown and near-neighborhoods. How the hell could our mentalities, exposure and perspectives be so glaringly opposites? I’d just about shouted all these, not caring that people probably thought I was crazy, which at that time I probably was. I vented to her for two straight hours, confessing that having to sleep another night in the apartment, as grateful as I am for their shelter, was too much.
Then of course, I remember this one the most. So vivid, this particular scene, one night in winter 2010 during a Skype conversation with Mum – I’m terrible at video chats personally, I can’t stand the face-to-face direct eye contact required – and in tears, I’d finally mustered the courage to ask this and mean it, “Can I please transfer out?” Seconds later, I was bawling.
Here’s the thing you’ve to know about my mum: she’s no-nonsense, no-tears kind of woman. She hates it, in fact. She has her reasons and totally justified too, but emotionally I am nothing like her – through and through, my heart is from dad, this fragility and overemotional self. Unsurprisingly, she being the forever-tough-cookie, would have none of it. I was forced once more to suck it up and learn to deal.
When life gives you lemons, do you make lemonades or harvest for more lemons? Is the glass half-empty or half full? It’s your call.
I realized that I could either be miserable for the remainder three years, or learn to love it. If the situation isn’t going to change – one must then change with the situation, adapting as necessary in order to survive. Just like love isn’t a sure-fire thing that can only occur in specific sequence, likewise is happiness. At that time, I was still a reluctant engineering student, struggling so much in trying to like the classes I was attending despite doing well in them and the one class I looked forward to, English, in winter term I kept being identified as ESL without being able to even make a case for myself first.
I hated everything about… everything then, from my major to my classes to my no-friends self to my ridiculously racist Malaysian community and friends and the no-privacy, shitty dorm life. I hated everything, honestly and most of all, I hated the school. Forget Ivy League, I’d stooped so low just because I’d wanted so badly to make it Stateside, was what I thought.
But this thought, it persisted. “If the situation isn’t going to change, what can be done?” Eldest Sis had questioned one time, pausing before providing the answer, “You either continue sulking, or you learn to change with it. It’s your call.”
“Don’t think, just do,” became my new life-motto. Every single time that familiar feeling of fear of the unknown and of unfamiliar territories made an appearance, I pushed myself to do it anyway. I decided I needed a change in lenses in the way I was viewing my current friends and circles – I could remain angry, or educate them about the things they didn’t know about myself, Islam, the cultural versus religious misunderstandings that are common in Malaysia and pick up some cues about them, too; it would be two-ways, this learning curve.
If there was something I wanted in college or classes but did not or could not find directly, then I made active efforts to sought them out. I learned to email people – professors, TAs and more – to obtain answers. I disregarded everyone who eyed me the moment I told them I’m an international kid, thinking surely my English is mediocre because I’m ESL – honest to God, I hate this label and acronym until now, no matter how true it may or may not be – and thus, proceeded to prove my worth in the language and writing by submitting an essay to the school’s university-wide writing competition and tried out for a green grant.
At the end of spring term, I found out I’d won first place for the competition in the creative nonfiction section, awesomely pocketing $100 and was granted the $1000 grant, which unfortunately I could not cash out as it went straight to the e-bill – in other words, benefiting the sponsor.
Friends-wise, I learned to distance myself from the Malaysian crowd. I’ll be honest – I didn’t like Housemate #1 much then, finding her no-nonsense attitude and incredibly scientific mind – though ironically, she’s a business major – too rigid for me, forever stuck in a writer’s reverie. I did not hide my religion and religious practices with them, including her, but could find no common ground or opening in trying to discuss something so abstract. It’s ironic at that time, I thought, she’s a devout Taoist and thus, abstain from beef just as I don’t take pork …and yet, my not eating pork was always A Thing. Following that vent to Third Sis, I stayed away from her and the rest of them. What I craved the most then was deeper conversations but it felt like no matter where and who I tried with, they never came. It’s not like I was making friends very much then, but I learned that no company is better than bad company. I learned to spend time by myself, which turned out to be my most favorite thing until now.
I gave myself little leaps, small goals and treats.
Every Friday, I made a point to devote the day to myself – headphones in my ear plugged to the trusty old iPod I’d since thirteen and wearing my favorite red polka-dotted loafers then, I would take endless, long walks alone for hours to no end until the sun set. I went from Old City to University City, walking the entire 30 blocks by myself and music to keep me company. It was only then I’d learned about shuffling songs and loved the randomness and that feeling of not knowing what the next song will be; will I love it? Will I hate it? I learned to find happiness in little things, mundane every day perks.
Loneliness no longer felt foreign, replaced by the secret thrill of being alone.
As I’d attested, I’ve never been a Skype person and my family, they’re frankly so scattered and difficult to catch that Skype conversations – even now – are far and few in-between. My roommate had thankfully moved out by then and I had the entire room to myself that spring term. I got off the meal plan too, and thus was learning to cook. I’d invested in some good pots and pans and loved spending those Friday nights – when the dorm would be quieter because of course there would be house parties everywhere but there in the dorm – trying to come up with a new food menu. I had no one to impress except for myself, so I cut myself some slack many times whenever my attempts turned out to be less-than-stellar.
Very soon, I started to count down to the day when summer would arrive and I could finally go home but in the meantime, I allowed myself to be patient with myself. Sometimes I spent time writing, most times I mulled. Sometimes I cried, other times I entertained shadows in the dark. Mostly, I listened to whatever my heart and mind were saying, thinking and feeling. I felt like a phoenix – burning in flames, only to reawaken from the ember every single moment.
Then like with everything else, good or bad, things come to an end.
Summer came, allowing me to finally make that long flight back home. I’d been so happy to come back but a few days since being back, I found myself bitching about so many things; nothing seemed to feel right. Being at home felt suffocating, the constant company incredibly annoying and get-together with friends were stale, boring or like time never ticked by. I grew to hate friendships in which the time gap felt like it never took place; it did, damnit! was what I had in mind, at the end of another strenuous dinner get-together.
It took me a while to realize that that first six months had actually, in fact, been so defining. I didn’t notice at first, but the hints kept appearing, my pre- and post-Philly lives so polarizing. When it finally hit full-force, it was because I realized that my best friend and I seemed oddly mismatched; the air was awkward between us. Both of us have always valued honesty in this friendship, being able to say and confess anything and everything to each other – especially about one another – and suddenly… repeated stilted silences. Hesitance. She’d been growing up plenty then too, struggling with trying to make it to medical school and mostly, trying to fight against demons of negative words from so-called friends and relatives who kept telling her she wouldn’t make it because she’s always been a pretty girl and not much else – so, so untrue – and dealing with a broken heart, too. Needless to say, both of us were at the peak of metamorphosing and could see little else but ourselves. It was a period when we didn’t want to listen to each other – we had so many worries of our own, for goodness sake! I came home from the date with her – the most anticipated, when I was in Philly – feeling strangely empty.
We tried a second, third time and yet, the stilted silence and awkwardness kept persisting. Where she was battling outward and inner demons, it hit me then that I no longer struggled with the latter. My self-confidence and more significant than that, self-worth had been restored, though at the expense of a more tinted jadedness in outlook. I’d matured some, I believed. Frankly, I’d also grown cocky. I never thought this would happen and I’d definitely never thought that the past six months were actually impacting and defining.
So when this realization finally hit, slowly and surely, that I am now a little bit more grown up and a lot more different – no longer the girl I was, so timid, insecure and pushover and yet not quite the former superstar I’d always believed myself to be in high school. A wholly different girl now and whatever she is, one thing is certain – I felt assured about myself.
When this realization finally hit home, I cried. I’d come home as a different person.