Friday, June 24, 2016

Spring 2016/Sophomore Year Reflections

In the previous post I already went through some of the questions that stood most prominently in my mind this past quarter, so I'm going to combine the Spring 2016 and Sophomore Year (2015-2016) posts. As I start writing the post I don't honestly know what the second part of that means, because the first two quarters the biggest influence on my life was the people I was living with in my dorm, many of whom I have not seen since the middle of March. Wow. Three months ago. Unglaublich.

This past quarter, because Berlin is Berlin, I've been thinking a lot about personal and collective responsibility and guilt. The need to remember the past, even or especially the parts that are shameful. The need to not get so lost in the past that the present does not get taken care of. I am ashamed that I only volunteered twice this past quarter, and only once pertaining to refugees, although I have known for months that the situation is severe (although the number pressure is down because of increased barriers to get to Germany). But I am glad that I did volunteer, if only once, because small actions are still actions. Going between the personal and the global perspective can lead to mental fatigue without anything actually having been done: either you are solely responsible for saving or damning the world, or nothing you do can ever matter. Both are false, of course, because of course one can always do more, but there are real, material differences between doing a little and doing a little more.

My university has been in the news a lot the past month because a student (who is in my year) raped an unconscious woman last year at a party and recently got a pathetic sentence of six months. People exist who support Donald Trump. People exist who look at the recent massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and see "radical Islam"--and the Senate has blocked attempts at passing gun control legislation. Is the news always getting worse or have I just started paying more attention?

Thinking about the trajectory of the whole year--there's nothing original or unique about this. Sheltered kid goes to college, starts thinking about things they have always taken for granted (who they are, that the world is safe and just), those things crack apart. Somehow in all of this an adult emerges who is capable of being an engaged and responsible and honorable citizen. But this is the first time I have undergone this, so it feels original and unique. As if no one else has struggled mightily to dig their head out of the sand; as if no one else has lain fevered upon a tile floor on another continent and realized that they are not only less of a woman than society would demand, but that they are in fact no woman at all; as if no one else has been unable to continue conversations because they could feel themselves getting angry past the point of reason and were shocked to realize that they cared so much about anything worthwhile; as if no one else has written their life, disguised in the struggles of a previous century; as if no one else has asked themselves the questions "who am I" and "who do I want to be" and been sorely disappointed that the answer to the former is so far behind the latter.

But this is what I've been thinking through and about this year. Gender is a big one. At the beginning of the year, at the sophomore welcome event for my dorm, I said that my pronouns were "she/her, but actually they/them would also be fine, if you want, sorry, I'll shut up now" and then struggled my way through a conversation with a then-not-close friend while wanting to crawl underneath the picnic table and disappear. There were days when the fact that some of my shirts button right over left bothered me, and there were days I wanted to tear out my internal organs because they are a betrayal of who I am. I am a lot more comfortable in my gender identity now--even if I don't necessarily have a specific word I'd use--even if the discomfort with my body and my socially perceived gender remains--I have not thought of myself as a freak in months. I still need to think about my relationship to masculinity and to femininity, because I have been guilty of internalized misogyny in the past and I don't want to throw women under the bus.

Race is always at least partially on my mind. The two quarters I was living on campus I had a lot of good conversations on how different POC groups can do right by one another. Since coming to Germany I haven't had such conversations, because the racial dynamics in such a homogeneous country are different and the problems are different in ways that I haven't thought about as thoroughly because I haven't been living with it as long. Talking about race with white people is still something I struggle with (and it seriously compromised one of my friendships for a while there in the winter); talking about race with other East Asians who don't think racism applies to them, who probably think the term "model minority" is a compliment, is in some ways even more challenging. Related because of the way religion is racialized: Islamophobia is something I've been thinking about more and more since living in Indonesia last summer. Mostly shock at how pervasive it is and how quickly people will fall back upon it at every opportunity.

I've been missing my dorm pretty badly, on and off, since I left the US. I do not regret going abroad for an instant, because I think this experience has been really, really good for me, but there's a big difference between thinking about these things on my own/reading opinions on the internet and sitting on my floor drinking tea with someone around whom I feel entirely safe. In some ways the progress I was making on openness and being a good, supportive friend has been suspended, because how can I be there for someone when I'm not there?

Academically, fall and winter were a lot. Spring quarter was much more relaxed, as abroad quarters are supposed to be, which I appreciated and which makes me concerned for how junior year is going to go because once I get back, it's civil engineering all day every day. At least I've only become more and more convinced that this field is the right one for me.

Because spring quarter was such a sharp break in my routine, it hasn't quite sunk in that the school year ended a couple of weeks ago. But it did, and I am halfway through college, and I don't know if it feels as though I have a lot of time left or none at all. I'm turning twenty in a matter of months. At my age Octavian was already at war. Which, I suppose, should make me grateful that my transition to adulthood is more gradual. I can afford to make mistakes, to take things slowly; I can afford a learning curve. Onwards, then.

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