When a few friends and I walked out of the house this morning, I was taken aback by how many people had already flooded the street. It was 5:30 in the morning—about three hours too early for me to really feel functional. While some of my Oxford friends (read: the more youthful first-years) had stayed up all night clubbing, I had decided to sleep at about 1am and get up with the other Stanford students… that is, until I left my room to go to the bathroom and realized I locked myself out of my room, which meant passing out for a few hours in the library instead before the May Morning festivities.
It’s been an Oxford tradition for about the last five hundred years to spend May Morning (on May Day, or May 1) gathered on the Magdalen Bridge, reveling up at Magdalen Tower as the Magdalen College Choir would sing hymns at 6am, followed immediately by street parades and Morris dancing near the Radcliffe Camera. In Europe, May Day’s roots are in ancient agricultural rituals, which were also celebrated by the Greeks and Romans. The Puritans found it too pagan, and they banned its observance, which is partially why May Day has minimal significance in North America. Back at Stanford, many of my friends will be celebrating today’s “red roots” due to its connection to the labor movement. And this’ll be my first May Day in a few years to not be participating in any sort of workers’ rights movements.
It’s been a full four months since I’ve been in Europe. Today marks the beginning of my fifth month as a visiting student at Oxford, much longer than I ever had expected to spend here. When I made the decision back in February to stay here for Trinity (spring term), I was filled with so much nervousness and restlessness. What if things weren’t going to be as good, as comfortable, as exciting, or as fulfilling as last term? Am I overstaying my time here and is life back at Stanford just moving on without me? The real reason I stayed was to continue deepening the relationships I had been building with people here—what if that just doesn’t happen?
My friends and I weaved our way through the crowds of people on the Magdalen Bridge. We were just aimlessly wandering, unsure of where exactly to go, only vaguely aware that we were actually walking further and further away from the prime viewing spot of the Magdalen Tower. Thankfully, a friend emerged from the crowd, jumping out and grabbing me and excitedly bringing the other Stanford students and me over to where he and a few others I knew were waiting. And unsurprisingly enough, surrounded by my exhausted friends who had been up all night, I felt at peace. It wasn’t the choir or the tradition or the new experiences that made the morning for me—it was spontaneously running into my friends on this bridge packed with people.
All of the fears I had written about earlier were not without reason. And because of that, this term has been an excruciating exercise in tempering expectations, learning to take things as they are, and rediscovering my own agency and voice in a place that isn’t immediately familiar and comfortable. This term has certainly come with its own sets of challenges, most brutal of which have been the carry-overs from last term. Being in a disproportionately racially homogenous university has been emotionally taxing, and every day I miss the Asian American Activities Center and the Pilipino American Student Union at Stanford. Already, I’ve spent far too many nights crying myself to sleep, worried sick about the increasing challenges of home life, often jolted awake by nightmares about my parents and brother. Now five months off my antidepressants, I wake up most mornings anxious and embarrassed, but like I’ve had to do for much of my life, I’ve just had to push through the rational and irrational anxieties.
But in spite of the impossible-to-control backdrop of my life, this term has already been filled with excitement. Since arriving back in England in mid-April after a spring break with my mom in Madrid and Morocco, so much has happened: I went to Cornwall, where all the pasties and mining history reminded me of visiting my paternal grandparents in Nevada City, California. I’ve started to make friends in the current Stanford cohort. I took a solo trip to Amsterdam and reveled in the tulips that were in full bloom. I celebrated the end of my friends’ exams and got to participate in the post-exam tradition of “trashing” my college mom.
In many ways, being here for another term has reminded me of how much I don’t know about this place and its student life and traditions. After all, even May Day is something I’ve never celebrated in this context! But over the past three or so weeks since I’ve been back here with the new Stanford cohort, I realized how much being a returning student changes the dynamic. Much like my time at Stanford, I’ve figured out how to be resourceful and persistent within the confines of this university. My case in point: being one of the only Stanford students who knew there was a ball in my college, I’ve been the public face of facilitating the purchase of sold-out ball tickets for as many of the Stanford people as I can. As one person described me, I’m the “mob boss of Brasenose Ball tickets,” although I personally prefer the term “merchant.” (I really should be paid for all the labor I continue to do for people in this program—including working on planning our garden party—but that’s a separate conversation…) But other than the ball tickets, even just knowing what kinds of events to watch out for—from collections’ cocktails immediately before the term began, to May Day, to Ascension Day—has been a godsend for feeling comfortable this term.
By 6:30, three of my friends and I were enjoying breakfast at Vaults & Garden, a café attached to the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin overlooking the Radcliffe Camera. The sun was up and it wasn’t too cold—surprisingly nice weather for England! You could hear the commotion of Morris dancers in the square across from us, the bells on their shins rhythmically jingling. Eventually, we made our way back to the house, running into more people from both Stanford and Oxford. One of my friends wanted to join the parade and dance in the streets, but despite the energy, the allure of getting back into bed after minimal sleep won out. Although we did stop for tea and croissants on the way back…
I’ve been writing this post as a way to avoid the very depressing memoirs I have to read for my class on violence in twentieth century Europe and experiences of displacement—this week’s theme is the Russian Revolution. I’ve been sprawled out on my bed writing this after trying to catch up on sleep, and in thinking about all that’s happened so far this term, I can’t even begin to express my excitement for my final seven and a half weeks here. Right now, in the middle of week one of the term, I’ve spent afternoons sitting on the grass in the quads, experienced random British traditions, and found the courage to just be bold and make plans with as many of my friends as I can.
There’s a lot that I’m excited for in this next term, but I think Shakespeare best puts my hopes for what the rest of this term will look like:
“As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer”