Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Version

My roommate moved out on Saturday. Every time I look over and see her empty desk, her empty bed, it makes me feel a little sad. This past year, my first at university, has been great and surprisingly and wonderful, and I feel--cliche though it sounds--as though I am a different person now from when I started, and that the improvements that have been wrought can be traced back in great part to the people I've met. Especially my roommate.

At the end of the year is a natural time to get introspective. I've been thinking and talking to people about how we think that we've changed over the year, and how it feels as though I am a different iteration of the self instead of a later update on a previous version.

Here we go. In case you couldn't tell, I'm bookending the year: self-centered posts at both beginning and end.

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I've Been Thinking - the Narrative
Baby you've got faith in a smile I think others would kill for
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At my dorm's banquet, I received a superlative, which was "Kindest." This bothered the hell out of me, for a few reasons. First of all, it is untrue. Google defines kindness as "the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate." This is too vague a concept and what I feel that I have, which is mistaken for kindness, is something far more particular. This year, I've been trying to be more emotionally available and supportive of the people I care about. I have failed at this consistently, in a thousand ways, but I am making progress.

This is not kindness. This is attempting to treat the people I care about in a way that accurately reflects how I feel about them and how important they are to me. It is personal, it is based entirely on whom I like, and I was irked that such a thing was shared as my "defining characteristic" to the dorm.

Second, I don't like the connotations. I've been trying to break the smiling mirror for years now, trying to turn "niceness" into something more genuine, that doesn't feel like selling my soul, and "kind" != "nice" but it just sounds really passive and weak. Of course it isn't, and of course it's a shame that softer skills are not valued more highly, but I still don't like it.

Third, in the title of "Kindest" I see neither my personality nor my character. One of the things I've wrestled with since coming here--a struggle that everyone I've talked to here has empathized with--is redefining who I am when the identity I had in high school, "the smart kid," is stripped away. Academically I am doing well here, but it isn't something at which I stand out and it isn't something to which I can pin an identity. What am I then?

I've been asking a lot of my friends how they think they have changed since the beginning of the year. We've all felt the angst of having the "smart kid" part of our identity modified, and the general consensus is that we feel as though something else, something more personal, something deeper, is emerging.

I think that I tend to act as a ground wire. I am calm (in fact, something new this year is that I am more comfortable expressing when I am happy) and low-energy, and the one time I brought up race and had a very productive conversation about it with two of my cis het white male friends was basically the only time I've instigated a conversation that has the potential to be controversial.

(It was exhausting, but I am glad I did it.)

Another aspect of my character that I think is becoming stronger now is that I like being in positions of power and using that power to take care of my people. It's been hard for me, this year, being incompetent and lacking in skills and value to offer, when in high school I was lucky enough to be in the role of a mentor to several wonderful underclassmen. But it's been helpful, being back in an inferior position--being reminded how important it is, once power is attained, to use it well.

I've had a lot of mentors this year. My roommate. My other friends, at times. My RA. Upperclassmen in various organizations and teams to which I belong. The grad student who supervised my research this quarter. My major advisor and other professors/faculty/staff both in and out of the department. I am grateful to all of them and I cannot wait to pay it forward. The dorm I'm living in next year is over half freshmen, and I really want to meet them and hear about them and offer what help I can to smooth the transition to college.

This desire for Nicomachean magnificence/magnanimity, for benevolence, is not new. But I think that in high school, when I put all of my effort into academics and maintaining this image of myself as the "smart kid," I just did not think very much or very often about helping other people--taking care of them, helping them, being emotionally available to them. The calmness is also not new.

So what is new? What makes me feel as though I am someone different now?

I think that my capacity to have fun has increased a lot. A big part of this is thanks to my roommate, who finally got me to go dancing in Winter Quarter. In high school I always said that I didn't dance, and the dancing that occurred then is indeed not enjoyable. But contra, swing, waltz--new doors are opening, new worlds, and I'm looking forward to continuing to improve at dancing. I am currently a very boring lead and I want to fix that.

Being in band has also helped with the ability to have fun and enjoy the moment. The character of the LSJUMB is notoriously quirky and weird and crazy, and I still don't feel as though I really "fit in." But it is fun to rock out, to dance around foolishly, to play loud music energetically, and to do that without feeling embarrassed. Of course it takes time, but I knew it would. I didn't *really* *enjoy* band until, I think, Big Game. But now I do enjoy it, and I think it requires a different sort of mindset.

One other huge difference between the me of now and the me of the beginning of the year is that I feel less angst about the future. Of course I do feel angst, and job anxiety consumed me for most of Winter Quarter, but now I know what I am doing this summer and I'm a lot more confident in my ability to adjust and adapt to different circumstances. I will gain more empirical evidence about the veracity of this feeling over the summer.

At the beginning of the year, I was entirely untested, with no track record of anything worthwhile. I've tried to hit the ground running this year and get involved in interesting projects, and while I could have done more I have a lot of experiences that I did not have before that are building my confidence in my ability to function once I leave school.

In high school I said "I don't know how to cook" as if it was a point of pride. But now I'm learning, and I'm seeing that my resistance to traditionally feminine things such as dancing and cooking and wearing dresses is foolish defensiveness.

My identity is also more secure, though of course this will always be under construction. I ended a relationship, thus proving to myself that honesty is more important to me than avoiding awkwardness. I came out to myself and to many friends that I am asexual. Next year I am going to be fully out to my dorm. I declared my major. Very early in the year, I called out one of my friends for calling me a "ninja" just because I am quiet and Asian, and I'm becoming more brave about calling out other problematic statements.

I am still trying to figure out how to interact with my parents without feeling defensive and as if I have to fight to be recognized as an adult, capable of being my own person. After a conversation with my sister last week, I am considering coming out to them--but am not at the point yet where I would actually do it. I'm still not confident enough in the angry music I listen to to play it for my friends regularly.

I think I have left behind some of the things that used to define me. I am no longer as stoic or as reserved or as disciplined as I used to be. After a grueling Winter Quarter I am putting more of a priority on mental, physical, and emotional health, and making sure that I do fun things, that I relax. I am more comfortable expressing emotions, especially positive ones, and talking through larger issues with select friends instead of trying to brush everything off. Being aware of the fact that my default is to come off as a robot, I am trying to be more open than in the past.

Before I started school, a current student offered the advice: Be vulnerable with people. Vulnerability is scary and certainly not trivial to offer. But I have people I trust and I am learning that I can in fact lean on them.

In short: I am learning, slowly, in this new version of myself, to trust people and to take care of them. This, perhaps, looks like kindness.

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