“What are you doing this summer?”
“Oh I’m going on this Maymester where we’re doing this thing called Bookpacking. So I’ll be in Louisiana. It’s like my dream vacation and something I’ve always wanted to experience—so I’m pretty excited for it.”
Instead of giving myself a chance to truly envision what this fantastic experience would look like, I merely blurted out the response given above to anyone who asked what I would be up to during summer. From when we registered for Spring classes in October 2017 until a couple days before the trip, I couldn’t find a moment to truly prepare or reflect upon the excitement, worries, or hopes for the trip because of the busyness of my sophomore year. Even as finals were ending just a couple weeks ago, I would talk to people about it as if it were a distant dream.
The experience only became reality when I woke up at 3 a.m. on May 12 to meet up with everyone at the airport at 5:30 a.m. It seemed like a disillusioning dream since I had just experienced the merciless, sleep-depriving nights of finals, and I was just beginning to settle back into the comfort of my own home. All of a sudden, I’m in this new home on Grand Isle.
While Grand Isle was definitely nothing short of grand, relaxing, and peaceful, it was also nothing like I was used to. This entire trip in itself is something I am not used to. Traveling outside of California is new. This is only my third plane ride in my life. I have never been away from home for more than a couple weeks. Where is the South? What is a bayou? How do you eat crawfish? I’m all of a sudden around a group of strangers 24/7. On top of all that, I have never had so much fried food consecutively. And I mean, I feel like there was only fried food on this island.
The island was beautiful,
but I began to miss the people I love the most.
I remember, as I was packing a couple days before the trip, I really didn’t want to experience anything other than the comfort of my own home and time spent with people I already know and love. I loved being able to sleep-in and talk with my mom for hours over some freshly brewed hazelnut coffee along with baking, crocheting, and catching up with friends—doing the little things that make life enjoyable. It was truly a breather from the fast-paced city-life of USC. The thought of a new adventure might have sounded exciting, but I was worried that the trip might make me even more tired than the semester made me feel. The thought of socializing with new people constantly, unbearable humidity slowly melting me away, and pesky mosquitos sucking the life out of me sounded anything but relaxing. In theory, traveling, reading, eating, and exploring with an intimate group sounded like a wonderful and enriching experience, but I couldn't help but to worry that perhaps this was not the right experience for me right now. It’s been a long, hard semester and I just wanted to go home.
Something that surprised and comforted me, however, was the 13 people traveling 1,935 miles with me. Going into this Maymester, I knew no one. A couple days before heading off to Louisiana, the thought of not knowing anyone was quite frightening to me. However, the dreadful experience of meeting at LAX at 5:30 a.m., piling into a van for several hours, and being in a new place brought us together. I quickly realized that everyone surrounding me was so unique and friendly, and our team dynamic has been awesome and surprisingly smooth. Despite my fears of feeling exhausted by traveling, it’s been a great balance of work, play, and rest.
Part of the work during this Maymester has been to read books. The Awakening is what first caught my attention to this trip. I had read it before in high school and still consider it to be one of my favorite novels. It was one of the first pieces of literature that I marveled at as one that boldly defied the culture it was written in. Reading about the warm Grande Isle waters and experiencing it in real life just made the book so much more lively. Aside from experiencing the descriptions and setting in real life, I resonated with a deeper part of the novel. Like the title of the novel suggests, the main character, Edna Pontellier has a personal awakening where she ultimately dares to defy her role as a high-class woman married to a Creole man. While there are many more layers to her character, her journey of slowly discovers who she actually wants to be is one that I feel like I can identify with especially this past year.
There are a lot of images, faces, or reputations that we tend to give people, especially at USC. Like any other social or educational institution, it exists and is even encouraged. In the context of grades, extracurriculars, and all other resume items, ultimately, it doesn't matter. In a seminar Professor Chater led, he mentioned how the culture of French living is to live in a manner in which they strive to enjoy the little things in life. "Laissez les bons temps rouler" or "Let the good times roll" is what they like to say. Spoiler alert: Edna dies at the end of the novel. And as a reflection of anyone’s deathbed, the last moments remembered aren’t the 4.0 GPA, the hours I've worked, my social media credibility, the things listed on my graduation sash, or the possessions I purchased. Obviously we should all work hard and try our best, given that our role is to be university students, but I’ve learned again and again, and especially my sophomore year, that I should never neglect those “little things” that bring life joy.
This semester my academics were a lot harder than they had been before. I was also participating in a couple of extracurriculars that I was passionate about at first, but ended up turning into a chore, yet could not let go of because it would hurt my pride. The overall load of the year was weighty and taxing and probably more than a person can handle in a healthy manner. Catching up with people and being invested in the lives of others is really important to me, but I would pack my schedule with so many activities that it was difficult to meet with them. I would sleep even later than I had to, even though I was exhausted, just so I could scroll through the depths of Instagram. Instead of reading my Bible and journaling, I’d end up feeling even more tired from the previous night, skip class, and end up frantically trying to finish an assignment right before my next class. It was a total mess. I’m sure a lot of other tired and burnt-out students can relate.
Toward the end of the novel, Edna quoted Mademoiselle Reisz, an older character in the novel and a somewhat friend to Edna, a phrase that stuck with me: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” Realistically, it’s hard to have it “all," especially as a college student. The world says having it "all" looks like an awesomely perfect resume better than the next guy, while still being a healthy and well-rounded person. Of course I would love to succeed and be involved in all the amazing clubs on campus while excelling in classes, being the best friend, and getting an ample amount of sleep. Who wouldn’t want that? But I think the profound wisdom from this quote that helps define a fulfilling college life is to challenge the idea of what it means to “have it all.” To have an unconventional and counter-cultural version of "having it all" represents that bird with strong wings. People will tell me and have told me that my career aspirations aren't "big enough", I'm "wasting time with friends", or just "get good grades and you're set." But to me, that's not having it all. Personally to "have it all" looks like this: loving and serving others, spending quality time with my friends and family, and passionately live life.
To live in this manner can be hard, especially in the university setting. Even summers can be tiring because we’re expected to build that resume, pursue research, or at least have proof that you’ve been productive, or else you’re doomed. These aren’t inherently bad, but when they become the object of existence and purpose in life, it truly isn’t worth living for. To defy these imposed expectations, moreover the easily adoptable attitude that comes with it, can be difficult. Going against the norm as the bird Reisz describes requires determination and constant reminders of what is truly important in life. This was something I was relearning at the end of the semester in the midst of my tiredness, my change in career goals, and my failure to be there for the ones that I love.
So what am I doing this summer? I’ll be at home with my family, trying to make up for lost time due to school. I’ll be hanging out with friends, and supporting them through all the amazing things they’re doing this summer. I’ll be taking a class in Sign Language so I can learn to be more immersed in Deaf culture. I’ll be working at Kumon in my hometown and be reunited with the adorable kiddos I taught back in high school. Last but not least, I'll be reading books and learning new things about myself and the world around me as I experience a new city and its rich culture. This summer, these are my “little things” that will bring me joy. Laissez les bons temps rouler.