I realized just now, five minutes ago, that this was my first winter sans winter break. In all fairness, I did have a winter break: a measly two days tacked onto this whirlwind holiday weekend, but four days(!) pales in comparison to the two week or month long breaks I was accustomed to in the past.
It’s strange to think that this time last year, I was moving out of Berkeley. I was eating at my favorite restaurants one last time, packing all my stuff into my dad’s SUV, waving goodbye to roommates and friends, wondering if I’d ever walk the tree-lined streets of Berkeley again. I was so eager to go home and start “real” life, but of course I was still a solid three months away from real life. My parents generously awarded me a two-month trip to Asia for finishing my degree, for which they’d held their breath two years. Underneath it all I was waiting to hear back from the Fulbright commission – if I got it, I’d be off again, living a (government-funded) student’s life abroad under the guise of writing about family history. As long as there was no envelope in the mailbox I was free to travel here and there and delay job hunting.
That was my last hurrah for a while. I spent January catching up with old friends, going to Vegas, baking, reading, lounging around. February and March were spent in Taipei, with short bouts to Hong Kong, Japan and Shanghai. I was happy to be traveling, but at the same time felt something deservedly ominous growing in my heart – that I was somehow having too much fun, and that it was only a matter of time before God said, “I think you’ve had enough.”
I reasoned with myself that I deserved it. But then Karma’s voice came back: “Yeah, but three months? And if you get the Fulbright, you’re never going to find a job. You’re going to tell yourself, ‘What’s the point, if I have to quit in July anyway?'” Karma was right – I was thinking exactly that. But I had gotten past round one – didn’t that entitle me to enjoy some much deserved time off?
Apparently not. The envelope finally came, a slender, pure white “no, thank you,” and had I not been so happy with my situation at home (most of my closest friends had somehow ended up close by), the color and hope I had held onto for the coming year might have drained from my face.
Karma rewards those who actually want the Fulbright (and a slew of other things) for the right reasons. I was, in all honestly, looking to delay “real life” for as long as possible. For all my talk about hating school and the academic life, I was a prime example of what everyone loves about school: I hated writing the essays, yet reviled in the sense of accomplishment they gave when I turned one in. I hated exams, yet loved exam days because they were short and straightforward. Come in, take out pen, write for two hours, turn in. Done. Nothing passes a long school day like a few lengthy exams – you always want the clock to slow down rather than speed up.
But time flies and I am now a 9-5er, or an 8:30 to whenever, as our company goes. I am often too exhausted to think, and it frightens me because I know my job is nowhere near as exhausting as some other jobs. In college people who were only a few years older but who had been working full time for a while whispered to me, “If you’re smart, you’ll stay in school for as long as possible.” I didn’t understand this because I didn’t recognize that school was a haven of sorts – it didn’t matter if you hated what you were studying – your presence there indicated, for most people (unless you were an Asian kid forced into med school or electrical engineering), that you had made the choice. You had somehow found the funds and were there to learn and discover. I didn’t see it that way and instead spent hours in certain classes scowling at over eager students and pompous professors and the false importance both groups assigned to essays and dissertations and exams – who the hell cares who or what influenced Nabokov? Well, I did, sort of, but not nearly enough to think of pursuing a master’s degree never mind a PhD.
Looking back however, it was for me, the ideal lifestyle. I fancied myself a productive person, but school gave me the perfect balance between making progress in my life overall (I was, after all, working towards a degree, however useless it would prove in the job hunt) and doing nothing at all – sometimes, I wonder where the true progress lay: in the hours I spent in class or the quiet mornings and evenings I spent walking through the tree-lined streets? It provided both structure and absolute freedom – I had a community, and yet I was alone. My parents were an eight-hour drive south, my roommates knew not to disturb me if my door was closed, and friends, if I wished to see them, were a text message and then a short stroll away. I could miss class too, and my professors would not care – (the budget cuts cut more than just money).
Call me stupid. No one likes papers and essay tests (With the sole exception of my friend Elena who annotates her books for fun) – but it’s a small price to pay for that balance I so wish I could have now. And looking back, I could have been mistaken for one of the students who cared too much about grades and had doctorate dreams because I was always lingering outside my professor’s office and starting papers early (so I could turn them in early and go home early for Thanksgiving/Winter Break). But I realized that the happiness I felt when I was out of class, browsing through the massive university library at my leisure, laying around on campus near a running stream, underneath a willow, with the campanile in the background was a happiness almost exclusive to my time as a student. And now, at 10:55 PM on the last day of my meager “winter break,” it makes me wistful. Did I squeeze out every last drop?