On the First Week of College

I am 18 and three-quarters years old, and for the first time, I think I have moved. I say I think because I can’t be entirely sure. Half of me is rooted in California: clinging to my teddy bears in the attic; taking an afternoon nap with my stupid cat; burrowed between the fibers of my favorite coat — the green one that was too heavy to pack. The other half has just been deposited in New England, largely undefined but rapidly developing. In the course of a single week, I got a new address and the intuition of which way to turn to reach the nearest grocery store, gym, or late-night dinner spot. A Connecticut P.O. box. A four-year-long time to fill with secret study spots and intramural sports and unusual classes. The “move” has turned me into a drifting guest in my own world: I have no roots here to tie me down.

I have found it both natural and uncomfortable to feel overwhelmed by my own emotions while settling into the new. When I — at least, the person I was at home — am thrown into an entirely unfamiliar world, I struggle to place myself within it. Surrounded by buildings and people and smells that do not yet comprise my identity, my self and emotions feel fragile: who am I in this new place? My kneejerk response to this would be me, of course; the same exact person I was at home, just displaced by 3,000 miles. But, as I discovered in the first week of college, my identity and my home are intertwined; it seemed nearly impossible to separate one from the other. Instead of detangling my identity, I temporarily left it behind and slipped into the shell of a generic freshman. Playing pretend is always less painful than confronting your own self.

The life of Lea — no, of generic freshman #2343 — was defined by an un-centered core and hollow interior. Her job was simple: she filled her schedule to the brim, piling into rooms filled with so many voices so that she didn’t have to listen to her own self think. She repeated the comforting I’m-from-California-it’s-so-great-to-meet-you until it became numbing and habitual. Her chats with family were nothing short of generic. It was easy to follow the footsteps of this skeleton of a human being, ignoring my home-identity crisis. I was afraid of the pain that the mixing of my worlds — my past, my undefined present, my home, my self — would cause.

Deep down though, I suppose I wanted the worlds to melt together, no — I wanted them to collide into a brilliant, wholesome mess. Or maybe I needed them to stay separate in order to preserve and protect the life I had been living. Either way, the question of how to carry home — if at all — into a foreign place was imminent, and while I think I was always leaning towards a collision of worlds, I was afraid to let it happen. After all, collision means change, and change is frightening. I use the word frightening because the unknown is a partially irrational, partially in-your-head kind of fear. Perhaps you could liken the emotional state to watching a thriller movie: though deep down you know that a) there’s nothing to actually, deeply fear[1] and b) in a short-ish period of time, things will feel fine again, you’re so deeply engrossed in your thoughts that it’s hard to think about anything else. A key difference, though, is that the emotions are responses to real life — your life — and are thus magnified tenfold. For weeks, I was resolute on distracting myself from this fear, even though I knew that at a certain point, holding back such an array of emotions would become an impossible feat.

This is why I cried one evening, in the middle of a library coffee shop. The friend from home who I was meeting there reminded me of the comfort of the world I had left behind; his familiar smile chipped at the emotions I had kept under lock and key, triggering a deluge of my most intense feelings. It was the beginning of the messy collision that I had been both wanting and fearing — and it felt fantastic. It felt deep and overwhelming and warm. In that moment, I cried about the fact that I had to walk forever to get to a bathroom on campus, because I didn’t know where to find the closest ones; I cried because my schedule was up in the air, and I could not control it; I cried because I was crying — perhaps the first happy tears I had spilled in a while.

I think most of my fellow freshmen experienced this moment at one point or another. The circumstances were different, but the sentiments the same: each of us was scrambling to find a replica of “home” in a foreign world, when sometimes all we wanted to do was crawl back into the comfort of the good old original. Or as my suitemate put it, sometimes “college sucks.”

And sometimes it really doesn’t. Sometimes the Nutella-to-bread ratio at brunch is just right, and the conversation with my fellow freshman as we compare professors after class is just funny, and for a moment — a fleeting, forgettable moment — I feel like I’ve found a comfortable little nook in the world. Five weeks in, these moments have become frequent; this must mean I’m growing some flavor of contentment, or perhaps learning to re-establish the stability I had found at home. It seems ironic that the same messy collision that had made me fall into a deluge of tears has become my strength to embrace myself in this foreign world; perhaps I needed to fall apart before I could rearrange the pieces of my identity into a new mosaic of myself — a little more abstract, but equally me.

I will be the first to admit that my sense of belonging is fragile. I wonder if, no matter how many friends I make and classes I throw myself into, if my new address will ever be home. I’m worried that when I return to my family in California, I will feel like a guest in my own house. My mom recently removed the carpet from our kitchen and replaced the creaky dining table chairs with new ones; I hardly recognized the room when she sent me a picture. I know they’re just chairs — and even though I grew up in them, I’m certainly not mourning their departure or upset about their replacement. I am more worried about smaller things changing, and I won’t be able to put my finger on what is different. Maybe I will search through my entire kitchen for the salt shaker, only to find it had been moved to a new cabinet after so many years; or maybe my parents will laugh at an inside joke from months ago, and I’ll sit next to them with a blank expression. Maybe I’ll reference something they had never heard of, and we would spend more time explaining than talking.

Something tells me this won’t be the case. I by no means deny that life will change (or that I will be able to keep track of the salt shaker’s location), but I’m too close to home — to the people that fill it — to ever let it drift beyond recollection. From now on, maybe home will be a little more fluid, defined by my mother’s voice over the phone rather than the smell of her cooking. The snapchats my dad sends of goofy chickens will make me grin in lieu of his constant stream of jokes. Through packages and skype sessions and texts in between, I hope at least a part of me will feel like I never left California.

After years of feeling at home and a couple weeks of feeling exactly the opposite, I’m confident that will always be true.