2008-01-28 • Volume 2 • Issue 4
A “Have to Be There” World
By Courtney Ng, Mary Dozier, Tiffany Gill, and Anastasia Alex
Thin newspapers can only mean one thing: suburbia. During high school, to probably no one’s surprise, I was bored of my small town. And while the citizens were not all the same, the routine of school and friends was. By the end of my senior year, I was so ready for college that not even a single butterfly irritated my stomach until my parents and I pulled up to campus on August 18, 2007. The amount of people in colorful t-shirts waving their arms around and cheering was a bit overwhelming. Now I think I was more embarrassed about being a freshman than I was nervous about arriving at my new home.
After the summer camp feel of O-Week (I admit it was the best damn summer camp I’ve ever attended) passed and I started school, I already felt at ease. The freedom of college, as cliché as it may be, cannot be over-exaggerated. I’m talking about the not-answering-the-phone-for-other-people, putting-laundry-off-until-you-can’t-stand-the-smell, determining-when-going-to-class-is-unnecessary kind of freedom that is so refreshing after some many years of being a kid. So when I finally returned home after my first semester at Rice, I felt a little trapped. I cannot explain how appropriate the grayness of Cleveland seemed to match the lackluster “friends” that were also returning there. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves while they were away, but their crazy stories were neither as rich nor as colorful as promised. No matter how great of a story-teller you are, the little things—those late night debates about whether or not hard-wood dorm rooms are better than carpeted ones—cannot be explained to their fullest. When you’re living a “have-to-be-there” lifestyle, catching up with others isn’t as thrilling as you thought it would be.
And then there’s having to answer to about a million Greek relatives asking the same questions: “Do you like school? Is the food good? Did you miss us?” Most people want to hear the usual answers: “Yeah, it’s weird to make new friends; I really miss your home-cooking; I’m having a hard time adjusting to the workload.” They want to feel fully engaged in the conversation and also reassured that their vast life experience lets them tell you that “after the first semester you’ll get over all that.” I had to politely shut those expectations down for an obvious reason: I love Rice. However, I cannot truthfully say I didn’t miss that family frenzy that has characterized my life for so long.
I’m not claiming that I want to divorce my parents and burn all my bridges to those at home. Familiarity is a comfort in its own right. Still, nothing can compare to this new life I’ve created by attending a university. I do want to go back home, just not all the way.
A lady at church asked me when I was going back to school after Christmas vacation. I responded, “I’m going home this Friday.” Home? A year ago my home was where my parents were, be it our house in Highland Park or a condo on the beach. I came home to my mother’s open arms and my father’s smile of approval. Last August, my home made a permanent shift from the house of my parents to the halls of college.
For Christmas we traveled up to a small farmhouse in central Missouri, the upstream nesting grounds of my grandparents. I spent a week surrounded by relatives who love me unconditionally, but by the second day I had to hide away in tears; I was no longer used to the constant criticism and subtle insults that comprise the eternal game played by my family. In my months at Rice, I had gotten used to a very unique environment. Indeed, I cannot recall a single incident of ever been discouraged or criticized by anyone the entire semester. In high school, I possessed a paranoia of being disliked. I had this insane notion that my friends weren’t really my friends; they were just too nice to tell me the truth. I was scared to be myself. I lived my life in constant fear of disapproval from everyone: my parents, friends, and teachers.
After all that has happened this past semester I have come to realize that I don’t fear being unloved anymore—my newfound friends never hesitate to remind me of their affections and of how amazing they think I am. For the first time in my life I am free to be entirely who I am and I am accepted, even loved, for who I am. I do not have to fight any preconceptions or memories of myself from a decade ago. No one here remembers when I messed up in the first grade play or how isolationist I was in ninth grade. No one here cares about anything but who I am in the here and now.
When I first came to Rice I desperately missed my mother for the little things, like having someone to hug. I became a huggy person out of a missed love for my mother; I have stayed a huggy person out of a present love for my friends. A common misconception is that kids go off to college to figure out who they want to be; I have had the blessing the go to college to discover who I have been all along. I am going home in two days. I am going home to Rice.
My high school is located at 345 Chambers Street, New York City, NY. I say that because after returning home from my first semester at Rice, the gritty city blocks leading to that unmistakable 10-story building seemed strangely unfamiliar to me. It was as though I had never been there before nor spent four long years in its midst. I passed the afternoon strolling its monochromatic halls, dishing out more love (some of it genuine, some forced) than the “Free Hugs” campaign. I absorbed views of The City from its windows that had once been the backdrop of countless long days, petty dramas, and meaningful memories. With the exception of some new faces, it was almost exactly the same as I remembered, but somehow it felt wrong to be there. Nothing had changed, and yet everything felt different. Because I had changed, I was different.
For a short while, I felt like a stranger in my own home. The New York accents of my family and friends were suddenly so grating on my ears. I had never before noticed the exaggerated ways in which they asked for “a glass a wooter” or complained about the “hahribble” service. I could only barely stifle my laughter as I watched my cousin grow increasingly frustrated while playing “Rock, Paper, Scissors” in Brain Age II on her new Nintendo DS. It kept saying it couldn’t understand her while she screamed “RAWK, Paypa, Scizzas” so emphatically into its microphone.
The most frustrating experience while being home, however, was my inability to articulate what the past four months have been like to my friends and family. The simple question, “How’s college?” left me speechless; I ran through every new aspect of my life in my head, trying to come up with a response that was both accurate and brief. Oftentimes, all I could muster was a simple, inexplicable: “Great.” Maybe it’s the fact that I had nothing to say that signifies an endeavor well begun. I think that the scope of this new world I now inhabit has become such a huge part of who I am that asking me about college is akin to asking: “Who are you?” I can only hope that by the end of these four years, finding the answer to that question will seem slightly less daunting.
I felt similarly estranged being back on the streets of New York City, but to a much lesser degree. Perhaps it is a city that never stops changing. It is perpetually tearing itself apart and giving birth to new versions of itself, to the extent that even native New Yorkers feel as though they are being reacquainted with an old friend every time they step outside their doors. I found returning after four months of living in Houston akin to the experience of getting back on a bike after taking a hiatus from riding for a few years. I wobbled precariously trying to remember how to navigate the streets without being pummeled by traffic and feisty businessmen struggling to keep warm in the 40 degree weather.
When I first arrived in Houston, I never would have hesitated to take on a person who was criticizing my city as dirty, dangerous, or overcrowded. I would have explained how much there is to do and see, how much culture and liveliness exists in such a dense, glamorous, and diverse place. Yet now that I have lived at Rice and seen the calm and safety of residing on a college campus, I realize that New York is not the perfect place I once imagined it to be. Though the spirit it embodies is incapable of existing anywhere else in the world, it is only fair for me to acknowledge that there are some virtues of Houston, and I’m sure of all other places, that could never be encapsulated by New York’s skyscrapers and masses of people. One of those qualities, I admit, is a heightened level of compassion and hospitality that is almost nonexistent in New York. I realized upon returning home that I missed the ability to safely offer a smile to a stranger in passing, or the extra “How are you today?” that the kitchen staff in the servery extends each time I swipe my card.
Still, I love New York. I always have been and always will be a New Yorker at heart. Perhaps what has truly changed is not what lies at the center of my identity, but the places to which my heart pumps its blood: the veins that now stretch farther West than ever before, the limbs that push my feet onward and my hands to pen and paper. These are the parts of me that, though they may not have shaped my core, are essential to molding my future.
There’s a strange feeling in coming home after being away for a few weeks or months. Of course, I experienced that before coming to college when I spent a couple of summers at an academic program about an hour from my house. However, coming home from college is different. Suddenly, I’m not really sure of my place with my family. In high school, it was simply a matter of getting back into the swing of things before the semester started. Now, I don’t have a clue where the boundaries are or what they expect of me. I just hang in the balance for a few weeks until I can go back to Rice, where I make my own plans.
I remember some silly clichÃ© about coming back to a place that hasn’t changed so you can see how much you have, but what place doesn’t change? The small city I live near is definitely evolving. An old pharmacy, Ideal Drugs, has been changed to suit a different type of generation. It’s now called Ideal HealthMart. We finally got a Walgreens and, to the great joy of our large agricultural population, a Tractor Supply store. Since it is now legal to sell alcohol in my parish (Beauregard Parish, formerly the last dry parish in Louisiana), several of those charmingly trashy beer stores have sprung up in DeRidder. Even my tiny, closed-off community is growing up. Heavily wooded patches of land have been cleared out to make room, undoubtedly, for some wonderful new buildings. The newly built sanctuary of my parents’ church is already reaching full capacity most Sundays. My high school is no exception. Although I went to a public school, most of the students were very conservative and, of course, country. It’s still like that for the most part, but there are some definite changes. Boys are growing their hair to extreme lengths, girls have black fingernails and thick eyeliner, and kids are making out in the bleachers at basketball games. It is, most assuredly, quite different.
Some things are obviously just like they were when I left, it just took coming back to realize them. My hometown is painfully boring, especially compared to Houston. The people there are much more closed-minded and conservative than I once thought. I knew DeRidder wasn’t the most accepting city known to mankind. (It was once in the Guinness Book of World Records for having more churches per capita than any other city.) However, it took a very interesting family drama to make me realize just how caught up people get in the demands of a small-town society. Yes, there are good things at home, but it’s definitely not the place for me anymore. It never really was.
I’m not really sure I liked going home. I suppose now that I’m back here at Rice, I can say that it was good for me. I reestablished a connection with some really good friends, and this time I’m certain we’ll keep up with each other a little better. I had some time to myself so that I could actually think for a second or two—sometimes that’s hard to do here at Rice, as much as I hate to say it. However, I think it’s going to be quite a long time before I figure out my new role at home. I’ll probably be trying to avoid excessive visits to my hometown for the rest of my life.
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