New wrinkles, new discoveries: a reflection on life after Yale

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(Illustration by E.T. Monjaraz)

Kerri Lu is a recent graduate of Yale College — recent enough to miss the food trucks, she says, but not the 1 a.m. naps in Bass Library — who wrote about campus life for YaleNews during her student years. She is currently in her second year teaching in the English Department of Chinese University of Hong Kong as part of the Yale-China Teaching Fellowship.

The accompanying illustration is by her classmate, E.T. Monjaraz ’14, who spent a year after graduation as an intern in Yale’s Printer’s Office, and is now pursuing a career as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer, based in Los Angeles.

The other night, I discovered a new wrinkle. It’s short and noticeable, a faint line connecting the invisible midpoints roughly 2 cm above each of my eyebrows. A statement piece.

The wrinkle wasn’t there when I graduated over a year ago. All the graduation photos of me and my roommates smiling into the future are, for the most part, gloriously wrinkle-free. Given my limited repertoire of facial expressions, I have deduced that this new wrinkle could only have been caused by an increase in repeated eyebrow raising due to: a) gleeful surprise, b) amazed surprise, c) gleeful smiling, d) amazed smiling.

After moving 10,421 km to Hong Kong, I suppose finding one small line on my face isn’t such a bad trade for all the glee/amazement-inducing experiences this fellowship and city have given me. In this past year and a half, my body has seen many other changes — many statements in the making.

For one, my hair is much shorter now than ever before. I simply wanted to try something new. It’s the same explanation I give most people when they ask me why I decided to move halfway across the world, to a place where I knew only my co-fellow on the plane ride over.

On most days, I feel taller. Several times during the week, I practice better posture, to evoke confidence in my classroom, where I often teach students only a few years younger than me. During these hours, I have a straighter back and a stronger voice, coming from someplace deeper, more authoritative, emulating my mentors from Yale whose voices still ring in my ears. 

Nowadays, this new voice of mine sometimes stays with me even after class ends, and I find myself being able to project across a large table in a noisy, tented, street-side dai pai dong restaurant. When I feel especially confident, I speak/yell to the local wait staff in still-broken Cantonese. They often laugh. All around me are the clamor of chopsticks against plates and beer glasses against makeshift wooden table, and I realize how much more I’m used to the loudness than before, how nobody asks me to repeat myself in public anymore, whereas I was always too quiet for conversations above the noise on High Street and barely audible in my first three months here. 

Five tables down in this crowded restaurant is where I first asked for the location of the sai sou gan, or bathroom, during my first week in Hong Kong. The waitress gave fast instructions in Cantonese, and in my joy and stubbornness, I simply smiled and nodded, going off to find the mysterious location on my own. I loved the sounds of this new language, foreign yet familiar, a more complicated and incomprehensible version of the Mandarin I speak with family. I would continue asking for directions in Cantonese — and getting lost — for months, discovering some of my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants (and bathrooms) along the way.

The average talking speed in Hong Kong (fast) is only bested by the walking pace in subway stations (hyperspeed). Dance like nobody’s watching? More like, learn to boogie past people like nobody is watching where you’re going. Navigating a busy MTR station during rush hour is truly an art form. I sometimes wonder whether on weekends when I sleep in, the rest of the city assembles to choreograph the precise ways they’ll avoid collisions with each other’s elbows and grocery bags by mere fractions. It is only when I let go of the fear of traveling at the same insane speed as fellow commuters that I’m somehow okay. Only when I hesitate do I expose flaws in the Matrix and am hit by elbows and grocery bags. 

On some days, I’m worn out by this city, as must be the case for anyone living and working in a big city for the first time. My body reacts instinctively to the changing landscapes and shapes around me, other people moving through their day, going on about their 9-7 lives. I start noticing and feeling the collective exhaustion everywhere. Sometimes my back sighs against another in a crowded train car, just barely touching. We stay there, each seeking a vague sense of comfort from a stranger. I withdraw completely into myself, no longer receiving or emitting any feedback, just to let myself breathe.

During these moments, the city feels slow and distant, mere sounds muffled by music, drowning out the metropolitan rhythms that I crave so much when I spend too many slow days at home. I live on a university campus that is set on a mountain, surrounded by water. It’s wilderness, and I love the sheer size of it, the abundance of nature. But on some days, wide-open spaces can be just as oppressive as cramped downtown streets.

A larger-than-life community sandwiched on a small island means very limited resources for most. You simply run out of space: floor, personal, even airspace. The apartments reach sometimes as high as the skyscrapers do — and even then, there’s not enough room for everyone. Domestic helpers spill into parks and busy streets on their day off. People are always asleep in public places.

The same shortage applies to job openings. When I tell friends from Hong Kong I’m interested in staying after my fellowship term ends, their first response is often, “Why? Why not go back to where there are more opportunities?” 

As a Chinese-Canadian, living in Hong Kong hasn’t always been easy. Looking like I belong to the local ethnic majority while feeling very much like an outsider, I end up somewhere in between, unable to access the privileges and excuses of “looking foreign” while not wholly comfortable or confident with being able to “blend in” with the locals. But being uncomfortable is what I wanted — I’ve had many revelations about my own cultural identity and privileges in this past year.

“My self-definition at Yale felt breezy and unquestionable. … I have changed. And with new experiences I am still changing every day.”

My identity feels more fluid in other ways after Yale, with more room to grow. I can no longer rely on my extracurricular involvements to define myself. My self-definition at Yale felt breezy and unquestionable. I’d ring off the same shorthand string of acronyms for clubs and activities each time someone asked me who I was: Pierson, English major, YHHAP, Carillonneur, jS, WYBC wannabe, #1 fan of the YPMB. This Yale lingo circa 2010-2014 was easier to live up to and fill out compared to this messy, work-in-progress teacher-urban explorer I now embody.

The version of myself I constructed at Yale now feels insubstantial and confining. I have changed. And with new experiences, I am still changing every day. Being untethered is terrifying, but more than anything else, it’s liberating. As a friend said to me the last time we discussed our quarter-life existentialism: “Every day feels like a new bildungsroman [coming-of-age novel]!” I couldn’t agree more.

* * *

A potential applicant for my program asked me over Skype last week, “So, what do you do outside of teaching? Did you join any community groups or clubs?” She’s a current senior so she still lives and breathes the Yale lingo.

I think back to the strange and generous life this fellowship and city have given me, the scribbles in the margins that are slowly constructing my own bildungsroman:

Last winter, after a three-hour hike through a quiet, solitary trail with a dear friend, we arrive at the summit, only to burst out laughing simultaneously at the giant plastic statue of three stacked (glazed!) donuts greeting us. 

This past summer, nudging the woman in front of me in line onto the train car, only to have her turn back to glare at me, revealing her baby bump. I can’t say sorry enough and hold back tears for the rest of the ride.

The other day, eating hotpot with some local friends, someone spoons soup into my bowl and tells me to sihk doh di — eat more — and I’m filled with warmth.  

Tonight, I come home to a quiet apartment, with many hours left before bedtime. The living room feels deserted, and I wonder if all my roommates are hanging out without me. A second later, I realize how reassuring my own presence is — how glad I am to just be with my thoughts; how lucky I am to live with close friends. Somehow, with several oceans separating me from the people I love in the world, I’ve learned to feel their presence and to be comfortable with solitude.

I look at the smiling face of the potential Yale-China Fellow on my screen and tell her, “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what this city’s about, and who I am. How it all fits together.”

She nods, but I’m not sure if she understands. I trust that a year after graduation, when she finds her first new wrinkle, or when she starts experiencing daily bildungsromans of her own life, she’ll understand. And she — like me — will know what to do, wrinkles and all.

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