The Spirituality of a Slovenian Spa

Comments 2 Standard

* Names changed, as usual.

For most of the spring and summer, I’d been looking forward to my time in Venice, Italy, as a three-week break from traveling the United States for my independent research project on educational mobility. Or at least, that’s what I told my advisors, my classmates, my family, and my friends when they posited the completely crazy, totally out-of-left-field idea that maybe, just maybe trying to travel to about twelve different states in the span of about six weeks. (That number bumps up to thirteen if you include Oklahoma, which I didn’t stop long in, per se, but drove through on my way to the Texas Panhandle after being re-routed.)

IMG_4117

Inside a church in Slovenia

Turns out, rapid travel is pretty tiring. It’s something I wrote about in my last blog post about Venice and New York, where I found so much magic in the quiet, simple moments in each place. But now, with only about three days left in Italy, I can definitely say that I’ve found peace and rejuvenation.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” — Audre Lorde

Spirituality and travel go together. It’s partially why I’m reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a Beat Generation writer whose travels heavily influenced his eventual turn to Buddhism (as chronicled in The Dharma Bums, which takes place after the events of On the Road). My friend Jackie* and I have laughed a lot about how this specific leg of our travels—the Veneto region of Italy—feels an awful lot like the beginning of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Except that it’s mostly been “Eat Eat Eat” instead. There’s no real time to progress to the third part of that book title—”love”—but there sure has been a lot of time for deep spiritual connection and personal contemplation. It’s just that I didn’t expect so much of that to be in coastal Slovenia.

IMG_3951

Piran, Slovenia

I embarked to the coastal Slovenian cities of Piran and Koper for about three days total at the beginning of this month, which was when I posted my most recent blog post on Venice. The purpose of the trip was to understand how cities outside of Venice were influenced by the Republic of Venice, and after stepping foot in Piran and Koper, it was pretty clear that these two cities on the very small strip of coast that Slovenia has were very Venetian in character.

IMG_3973

Streets of Piran

IMG_4114

The city center in Koper

IMG_4280

Excavating in Torcello

I’m not gonna lie—Slovenia ended up being my favorite piece of these past three weeks altogether. Koper and especially Piran had all the character of Venice, but with more open space, fewer people, places where we could actually swim, and so much less humidity. It was perfectly timed, too; our excavations in Torcello, which is an island near Venice that’s still in the Venetian Lagoon, came right after returning from Koper, and there’s no way I would’ve survived the heat and exhaustion of an archeological site if I didn’t have the time to rest beforehand.

Jackie and I made the single best decision of the entire trip: going to a spa together. We found one in Koper that was about €40 per person for 150 minutes in a private spa room, complete with a hot tub, sauna, shower mister, and a few bottles of Prosecco. Our professor, Krish, had told us about how great Slovenian spas are; apparently, because salt mining was a major piece of industry in Slovenia, the spas are wonderful, although you’d have to be naked (unlike Italian spas). As it turned out, the spa Jackie and I went to in Koper was less Slovenian—the name “Veneziana” should’ve tipped us off on that—but considering we only knew each other for two weeks, avoiding full-frontal nudity was probably for the best.

IMG_4137.jpg

IMG_4138.jpg

Those two-and-a-half hours were some of the most restful, rejuvenating, and reinvigorating hours of this whole last year. Jackie and I had brought our books with us—for her, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (she’s an English minor after all), and for me, On the Road—but the two of us ended up not spending any time reading since we were so busy talking and really getting to know each other at a much deeper level. We spoke about everything: past loves, our aspirations for life, our visions of how we want society to look, and the pains of losing a friend. That hottub became a site of deep spiritual and emotional connections, where two wandering souls were finally able to come together and begin wandering together.

It’s cheesy, but getting to know Jackie here in Europe has been so incredibly special. Our paths probably wouldn’t have converged on campus—she studies psychology while I study anthropology, our social circles are fairly distinct, and the areas that we devote our time and attention to on campus are different. But starting this spring, after she returns from studying abroad in Madrid and I return from studying abroad at Oxford, we’ll be working together on one of our shared priorities: improving mental health and wellness at Stanford’s campus. The way I see it, my time at Stanford is not just about learning material; I’m here to assemble a team around me. And Jackie is someone who I’m so excited to be working with through the future, as well as just having as a friend!

IMG_4220.jpg

Jackie and me in Pellestrina, Veneto, Italy

The next day, we left Koper and returned to Venice. But before we left, we made sure to eat well, including having some delicious Thai food made by a woman who served as a cultural food ambassador for Thailand! Since coming to Venice, a lot has happened. We helped out with an excavation for three days in Torcello, where one of us in the group found an infant skull. That was pretty freaky… especially since we didn’t expect to find any actual human remains and had been joking for the past week about our trip not being complete unless we find a human skull (be careful what you wish for!). I spent a morning at a cemetery. And I started working on my final paper for this class: an examination of the exertions of state power and the development of biopolitics in the Republic of Venice, using the Jewish Ghetto as a case study.

IMG_4460

Feltre, Italy

Right now I’m in Feltre, which is closer to the Alps. I’ve been sitting outside at a café, drinking an espresso and letting the cool breeze cleanse me. It’s been a pretty emotionally draining last couple days. I’ve been having trouble shaking the weird realization of my mortality after seeing that human skull. Going to a cemetery the next day didn’t help. I had a painful falling out with someone dearly important to me, and I turned to the friends closest to me for comfort—the time zones don’t help, but the love and support they’ve given me have only solidified my belief that I’m assembling the best possible team around me I could ever have. I’m incredibly proud of how I handled the whole situation with a sense of dignity and grace that was consistent with how I believe people should be treated, even when that same respect and kindness is not reciprocated.

IMG_4468

My brother is in the hospital for pancreatitis. He’s been so kind and loving about trying to make sure that I don’t worry from 5500 miles away, but it’s hard not to be worried about him every waking minute. I’ve been visiting quite a few more churches, and every time I go, I make sure to light a candle and say a prayer for both him and me.

Before I know it, I’ll be back in the United States. I’ll be making a return to New Jersey to visit Whitney again (who made an appearance in my post about New York City). It’s been a whirlwind of a trip, and it’s not even over! Truly, it’s been such a clarifying experience already. But until then, I’ll just continue sitting here, in Feltre, watching the rain and finishing my espresso.

Finding the Magic in Simplicity

Leave a comment Standard

* Names changed.

Last week, I got to witness something truly magical. It was an early day for me, not by choice—I had just flown from New York City to Venice, Italy, the day before, and the jet lag had really affected me. I had trouble falling back asleep, so around 5:30am, I pulled myself out of my bed, threw on some clothes, and wandered out the front of the remodeled, twelfth-century monastery where I was staying. Venice was still asleep, so it was just me on the streets and a few workboats on the water.

And that’s when I saw it: the sun rising over the lagoon. I sat on the dock, my feet hanging over the dirty lagoon water as I watched the sun’s hues change from red to orange to yellow before its light diffused into the clouds.

IMG_3544.jpg

I can’t remember the last time I saw the sunrise. I’m an early riser for a college student, but I’m never up by dawn. And that made this sunrise even more magical—it was probably the first one I’d seen in years, and I probably won’t see another one for a really long time.

I’ve been in Venice for over a week now, and I have a little less than two weeks here. It’s been such a wonderful trip so far, although it’s been far less glamorous than I would’ve expected. I didn’t think I’d miss the United States as much as I do. Italy is wonderful, but especially as someone whose Italian only goes as far as “posso avere una pallina di gelato” (“can I have one scoop of gelato,” probably the most important phrase), I miss being in a country where I speak the same language as everyone and where people share the same cultural values as me. My feet have been swollen from so much walking, the heat and humidity of this time of year is killer, and I don’t have the academic background in art history and European history to truly appreciate all of the lectures and cultural sites I’ve been visiting. Travel is hard. I miss home, and I miss my country.

IMG_3557.jpg

At the same time, I’m so genuinely glad that I’m here. The Veneto region is beautiful. I commute throughout the island by vaporetto (water bus). I’m seeing beautiful basilicas, churches, synagogues, and museums every day. I eat my fill of pasta, pizza, and gelato every day. And because I’m here through Stanford, I have the help and support of the university in terms of affording meals (which includes a meal stipend for lunches and dinners), knowing where to go (the program has a busy but eventful itinerary), and just generally having peace of mind. I’ve met such wonderful Stanford students here from a variety of disciplines, I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the history of Venice, and I’m getting a pretty cool crash course in archeology—this weekend, we’ll be at our excavation site in Torcello Island, which will be hot and grueling but also such a unique experience.

I’m surrounded by such extreme beauty here, but in reflecting on this past week, the most meaningful pieces of my time in Venice—and even in New York City the week before I arrived—have been the moments where I’ve found the most peace and simplicity.

IMG_3690 4.jpgIMG_3694 4.jpg

On Friday, I took a wooden boat to San Francesco del Deserto, a small island within the Venetian Lagoon where a small monastery sits. Saint Francis of Assisi came here after returning from the Holy Land during the Fifth Crusade—during that crusade, Saint Francis spent time with the Sultan of Egypt, either to attempt to convert the sultan to Christianity or to bridge religious divides, depending on who’s telling the story. (It’s theorized that Pope Francis even took Saint Francis’ name as a way to outreach to Muslims.) According to legend, Saint Francis of Assisi told the birds around him to be quiet while he prayed, and for the entirety of the time he was praying, the birds remained silent. Saint Francis then stuck his wooden staff into the ground, and miraculously, it grew into a large oak tree. The Franciscan monks who now live in the monastery have kept the stump of the oak tree near one of their altars as a reminder of God’s miracles.

IMG_3695 4.jpg

I’ve written on this blog about my own difficult relationship with organized religion and the Catholic Church in particular, but there was something especially soothing about being in this quiet monastery, surrounded by natural beauty and a handful of praying Franciscans. The Franciscans in particular have always given me much hope, and their focus on protecting the environment and the most vulnerable in our society have always been in line with what I believe that religious groups should care most about. Apparently, this monastery used to be open to tourists so that they could stay there for very low prices, but as tourism to Venice rose, the monks decided to end that practice in order to retain their sense of isolation. Even as someone who cares deeply about globalism and wants to see the world become more interconnected, even though the world’s political headwinds seem to be drifting toward isolationism in this period of time, I can see why these Franciscan monks would want to separate themselves from the rest of the Venetian Lagoon and hold onto the peace and quiet of San Francesco del Deserto.

Unfortunately, these kinds of monasteries are in danger of disappearing completely. The number of people who run the monastery is in the single digits, and because they and other monastic groups often don’t have any real source of income or financial support, the costs of keeping the monastery open can sometimes be too much. The other trip participants and I were encouraged by our professor leading the trip to buy something if we were able so that it could help support them. Even though I don’t really pray, I bought a small wooden rosary as a keepsake, a reminder of this short but impactful stop.

IMG_3701 5.jpgIMG_3706 4.jpgIMG_3712 4.jpg

These moments of peace and simplicity are usually pretty hard to come by in my daily life. I’m someone who tends to move toward hustle and bustle: I’m a Stanford student, and competitiveness weighs so heavily in the air sometimes that it can be hard to move without it suffocating me. My fieldwork this summer is a dizzying schedule in which I will have crossed the country and the Atlantic Ocean far too many times for just ten weeks. And my time in the Veneto region of Italy and the Slovenian coastal cities of Piran and Koper is busy and fairly exhausting, and even though the academic work load is dramatically lighter than what I’m used to, a five-page paper isn’t exactly what I would define as a vacation.

IMG_3379

Tea time at Ladurée in SoHo

Before I left for Italy, I found a rare moment of peace and simplicity… in Manhattan of all places. New York City is probably the best example of hustle and bustle, where one of the fastest ways to tell whether someone is a tourist is by looking to see whether they’re looking at their phones/straight ahead or whether they’re taking in the sights of the city. I had been staying with my friend Whitney* for the past couple days, and in our first of two excursions into New York City from Newark, New Jersey, we were definitely the latter; having been thrown off track by a late train from Newark, we ended up taking the ferry across the Hudson River and then walking through SoHo, taking in all the energy of New York City as if it were either of our first times there.

From a lovely lunch and tea time in Ladurée—when I unsuccessfully attempted to get Whitney into tea—to rapid-fire visits with some of Whitney’s friends from when she was studying abroad in South America in the spring, the day felt very characteristic of the hustle and bustle of New York City. All of that was amazing—when else do you get to explore SoHo with a friend, meet a bunch of other students filled to the brim with stories of their adventures across Latin America, and even get to visit Squarespace? But the most meaningful moment for me was when it was all over.

IMG_3436

IMG_3467

Whitney and I met up with another friend from Stanford who was living in Brooklyn for the summer; she, a sociology major, had just started working on an independent research project—funded by the same grant that’s been funding my travels, so we’re part of the same grant cohort—on Bosnian Muslim identity. She was still adjusting to life in New York City, so she didn’t want to be in Manhattan too long after dark. Whitney and I met her in Battery Park, about as close to Brooklyn as you could get within Manhattan without actually crossing over into another borough. After catching up for a few minutes and taking pictures at golden hour, we sat down on a bench and watched the sun set over the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty looming large in the distance.

For those couple hours that the three of us were together, we talked about the state of the world, our differing approaches and praxes, and gave each other insight into how our specific social sciences—political science, sociology, and anthropology—approach societal issues. We spoke at length about the struggles that intelligent leftist discourse has on campus, often squeezed out by a vocal right-wing minority and reactionary left-wing responses to that majority, and we talked about our hopes and plans for the future—academically and personally. And every now and then, we’d all just stop and take in the beautiful sights in front of us.

IMG_3359.jpg

New York City from the Hudson River

***

Today, I’m in Koper, Slovenia. It’s on the very small strip of coastline that Slovenia has, and it’s incredibly beautiful. Tomorrow morning, I return to Venice. It’s been a dizzying past week or so, but I’ve been really enjoying it! I spent some time studying medieval anti-Semitism, so getting to see the Jewish Ghetto here—which is actually where the term “ghetto” was coined—was especially exciting. And by the end of the week, I’ll be excavating. But until then, the goal of today is to rest—much needed after all the traveling!

4 Things I’ve Learned from Traveling (so far)

Comments 2 Standard

Right now, I’m waking up in my bed in Dallas for the first time in a while after making a brief stop in the Pacific Northwest to visit a friend from my freshman year at Stanford. This is now day 13 of my travels across the country—and world, kind of… if you include Italy, Slovenia, Israel, and Palestine as “traveling the world.” But after spending some time in Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Menlo Park, California; San Francisco, California; and Portland, Oregon, for my anthropology fieldwork, there are a few things that I’ve learned about people, travel, and myself already.

1. You have to be open to adventure, even when it’s awkward.

It’s a pretty obvious statement, I know. I’m a very extroverted person to begin with; anyone who knows me is well aware of how much I love getting to know people and just being with others. But one of the hardest things about traveling is the constant feeling of displacement and the lack of grounding that comes with that. When I don’t feel grounded, I have a tendency to feel anxious, and that can make it hard to put myself out there in the same ways that I might be able to without even thinking during the school year.

The way that I managed to quell the shifting earth under my feet was by being very intentional about how I planned my travels. Even parts of my travels that aren’t for the purposes of my fieldwork were built with comfort in mind: I made sure that there was always one person in every city who I knew (keeping an extremely wide social network at Stanford was a key prerequisite for this), and I asked to stay in people’s homes instead of in hotels or Airbnbs (also great for saving money!). Beyond that, face masks, an occasional glass of red wine, a good book (currently reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac), and, if worst comes to worst, some anti-anxiety medications, all help.

Keeping the inherent nervousness that comes with traveling down to a minimum has helped me say yes to all sorts of new experiences. It’s how I ended up at a country concert in Milwaukee even though I don’t really like or know country music. It’s how I ended up watching fireworks at a country club on the Fourth of July. It’s how I ended up making new friends in San Francisco and getting to see a piece of the Mission District that I would’ve never known to explore before. It’s how I got to see downtown Portland by bike. And it’s how I’m going to venture into the Texas Panhandle this weekend for the first time.

2. Books are a love language. Read a lot of them.

This is probably partially a product of the fact that I’ve been hanging out with Stanford students and their families, but books have been such a huge part of my travels so far. I decided that I wanted to be able to read more, and after getting into a brief but ongoing Beat Generation phase, I finally picked up Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—both a great book overall due to its historical importance and a great book to read while traveling the country. It’s the first fiction book—although it barely counts as fiction since it’s a roman à clef—that I’ve read in a while, and oh boy, has it been a journey. I’m about halfway through the book as of right now, and it’s a really genuinely fascinating portrayal of what it’s like to be a straight white man in 1940s/1950s America.

IMG_3076

Dog Eared Books in the Mission District in San Francisco, California

Even more exciting than reading the books themselves is how I’ve realized books connect you to others. Reading may be a solitary activity, but books are a way to share knowledge and the human experience with others. In San Francisco this past weekend, I was surrounded by a group of Stanford students who all love to read. They broke all the stereotypes in my head of what STEM majors do in their free time by waxing poetic about different philosophers they like to read and sharing what’s on their reading lists. We even all went to a bookstore in the Mission together. I can only imagine how awkward that whole experience would’ve been if I didn’t like to read; what would I have done while everyone spent so long roaming through the bookstore, taking books off the shelves, and calling over to each other to recommend things to read? And it definitely helped, too, that one of those people had just finished Kerouac’s On the Road as well!

There’s rich anthropological literature about the importance of giving, receiving, and exchanging gifts in the formation of social bonds. Books, in my opinion, are one of the many ways that people—especially students and their families—facilitate this kind of gift-giving. Right now, I’m borrowing a nonfiction book from a friend called Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Culture after he let me look through all his books while he was packing the night before I left the Bay Area. And just yesterday in Portland, my friend’s family let me borrow a fiction book called Euphoria which they thought I’d really like.

3. Planes can be your friends.

My schedule for this summer is pretty intense. It goes without saying that I’m racking up a ton of miles on Southwest, which I’m super excited to use to fund a free trip later! As a college student, I spend a lot of time on planes because I’m usually flying somewhere over Thanksgiving, winter, spring, and summer breaks, and I usually take about one or two trips each year—this past year I went to both Boston and D.C. in the fall and spring, respectively. With so much air travel, I’ve learned that flying doesn’t have to be the completely miserable experience that so many people think it’ll be. I usually try to book direct flights whenever possible, both because it’s less stressful and because it puts less strain on the environment. But for those times when I do end up flying for a while, either because a direct flight isn’t available or even just because the direct flight is really long, I realized that planes are actually great for either reading, getting rest, or working.

IMG_2884

Chicago from above

It’s pretty obvious, but planes make for a great time to take a nap. I use a charcoal eye mask to help block extra light, and I end up asleep real fast. Supposedly, this charcoal eye mask is supposed to help reduce the swelling and puffiness that are associated with tiredness, sleep debt, and flying; I’m not really sure I believe that, but I’m gonna go ahead and pretend it does. For flights that are about three or more hours or flights that are timed so that I really do need to sleep on the plane to make sure I’m rested enough to take on the city as soon as I land, I sometimes take generic Benadryl. Fun fact: ZzzQuil (a well-known over-the-counter sleep aid) is actually just diphenhydramine, which is the exact same active ingredient in Benadryl, so you can save a good amount of cash if you buy generic Benadryl instead of shelling out the big bucks for brand-name ZzzQuil.

I also like to read and/or blog on flights since planes give me uninterrupted quiet time. I read most of On the Road on a plane, and I actually wrote this blog post on my flight back from Portland to Dallas! I’m really bad about actually finding time to write—have you noticed the lack of posts throughout the school year?—but luckily, plane rides give me the time to actually collect my thoughts and write. My refusal to pay money for Wi-Fi to check Facebook and Twitter definitely help the writing process. I also try to make sure my field notes are all accounted for when I’m on the plane leaving a location; I’m often pretty busy doing interviews and just observing and participating in others’ lives while I’m in various locations, so the long plane rides give me a lot of time to actually make sure I have the notes that I need and some time to reflect on the key themes of each trip.

IMG_3131

Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, Oregon

4. Things always work out.

My trip to Portland wasn’t actually supposed to happen. My original plans to visit in August fell through after my contact in Portland was no longer able to accommodate my visit, but because I really wanted to visit, I very last minute made alternative arrangements to stay with a different friend. I took a leap of faith, booking my flights before I even had a place to stay—thank God that Southwest lets you really easily change your flights! (Dear Southwest Airlines, you should sponsor me and my burgeoning anthropology career!)

My mantra in life lately has been “everything will work out.” It’s something I’ve had to repeat to myself so many times in elementary school, high school, and now college, and I’ve reminded myself that so many times this summer as my travels would get more and more complicated and random things would come up that I would need to plan around and account for. But at the end of the day, I’m confident in myself. I’m confident that I’ve set myself up for success this summer: my parents instilled in me a strong sense of independence and quick thinking that has saved my ass so many times; my coursework has been geared toward both theoretical and practical skills for how to handle this kind of project (thanks, Stanford, for having multiple classes on research methodology and fieldwork preparation!); and I have the monetary resources to get by should anything happen since I built in emergency funds into my grant budget and have emergency stashes of credit both through various credit cards and a personal line of credit from my credit union just in case I’m in desperate need of a bailout.

I was pretty worried that I’d struggle to get the kinds of data that I’d need for this project, too. My biggest fear was that I’d go through this whole summer and then return to campus having nothing at all because I was blindsided by what I ended up experiencing. What if everything ended up completely irrelevant? But my lovely advisor, Sylvia, reminded me that the best part of anthropology research is when you get thrown for a loop. If everything went just as planned and exactly as expected, what’s the point? That’s why I’m rolling with the punches (see #1 on this list) and trying to not stress about the research aspect too much. After all, this summer is as much about my academic and personal growth as it is about writing a kick-ass thesis.

I’ve learned that preparation is key, and while you can’t prepare yourself for everything, you can set yourself up to handle nearly any situation. And at the end of the day, that’s really all you can do.

IMG_3060

Inside City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, California

So what am I up to now?

Right now, I’m ending Part One of my life on the road (yes, that’s a small Jack Kerouac reference)! In true Kerouacian fashion, here’s what my itinerary looks like as of the time of writing, split up into five parts:

Part One (complete!): Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; the Bay Area, California (specifically Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and San Francisco); Portland, Oregon
Part Two (about to begin): Canadian, Texas (a small town in the Texas Panhandle); Austin, Texas; Newark, New Jersey; Venice, Italy; Koper, Slovenia; and probably Florence, Italy, if I can swing a quick daytrip
Part Three: New York City, New York; Wheeling, West Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Part Four: Boston, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; probably a few other towns in New England where I can do daytrips from Boston; Tel Aviv, Israel; Jerusalem, Israel & Palestine; Bethlehem, Palestine; and possibly a few other parts of both Israel and the West Bank
Part Five: TBD! Strong contenders are Los Angeles, California, and Seattle, Washington, since I’ll be back in the Bay Area to focus on writing.

I’ll be blogging throughout the summer about specific locations and experiences I have, as well as my general thoughts on travel and the world through posts similar to this one. I expect the commentary to get a little bit more cutting since I actually have a pretty sarcastic personality that usually doesn’t come across in my writing… that, and I think I was a little afraid to be brutally honest on this blog while in my teen years, but now that I hit twenty all bets are off. It should still be entertaining, though… the anthropology department’s student services officer told me she thought I should start a blog about my life at Stanford since my reactions to things are usually pretty funny.

If you’d like to keep up with me, you can be notified via email every time I post if you subscribe in the sidebar. My day-to-day adventures are captured via Instagram stories, so if you have Instagram (or Facebook, since my Facebook friends can automatically see my Instagram stories), feel free to check that out. Yes, you too, Mom and Dad. The frequent posts that probably annoy my friends and classmates should at least indicate to you all that I’m alive. And then of course I’ll be sharing each post on Twitter and my personal Facebook profile, but I’m thinking of restarting the Facebook Page for this blog so that anyone can follow along even if we aren’t actually Facebook friends (yes, you, random stranger, friends of my parents who might feel weird about adding their son on Facebook, and/or current/previous classmates who just want to read my travel posts without being subjected to my political Facebook statuses!).

I guess I’m 20 now?

Leave a comment Standard

As I sit in my bed, curled up with my laptop, admitting to myself that I have no chance of falling back asleep, I’m overcome with a strange, deep anxiety. I’ve been alive for two whole decades now. In many ways, this strange fear of growing up is probably a sign that I’m still young. But at the same time, has it really been twenty years since I was born?

It’s been a wild ride thus far, probably far more than most people really need to experience by this age. But looking back, I can confidently say I’m really proud of all that I’ve managed to do up to this point and all I’m about to do, at least in the near future.

This past year alone, I feel like I’ve finally become comfortable enough to be myself. About a full year ago, I came out on this blog after nearly another full year of being out to my parents, close friends from home, and everyone I knew at Stanford. I’m still learning to get rid of the internalized self-hate that was instilled in me from over a decade of Catholic education—the education was great, but can we do that without teaching our children that there’s something wrong with them for being who they are?—but that coming out post was one of the biggest, scariest things I’ve done.

On the note of religion, I began to pay more attention to my own spiritual needs. I found a spiritual home at Stanford’s Memorial Church and their University Public Worship, a non-denominational Protestant ecumenical service whose services have included beautiful sermons by our deans of religious life, who hail from Anglican, Episcopal, Reform Jewish, and Muslim traditions. And lately, I’ve been finding an interesting and accepting home within the Jewish community at Stanford, mostly thanks to a close friend who I took an anti-Semitism class with in the fall.

I rekindled my love of writing. After spending the past year writing small pieces of prose poetry and flash fiction, partially as a form of self-therapy, I wrote a 50,000-word novel draft in the month of November. It was pretty bad, but I did it. And then I wrote a full-length short story this spring that I’m incredibly proud of called who made the sun rise. And then I declared a minor in creative writing!

My academic life has never been better. I finished spring quarter happy and fulfilled, having learned so much more than I could have ever expected to learn. I finally feel in control of my academic life. I spent most of my time in small seminar-style classes—my largest class was eleven people!—and then I would sit outside in the California sunshine reading and writing for my classes. Grades are imperfect measures of success, learning, and fulfillment, but the contentment with my academic life translated to a 4.0 for spring quarter, bringing up my overall GPA to a place where I’m actually happy with. I’ve never felt more validated in my decision to study anthropology, and if the future permits, I’d like to keep going—ideally even getting my PhD in social/cultural anthropology within this next decade of my life.

I’ve acknowledged my role as a mentor for others, which has been the weirdest thing to wrap my mind around. It shouldn’t be all that weird; after all, some of my friends who are now rising seniors have been people who I’ve leaned on for support and mentorship in trying to navigate the often confusing, overwhelming, and difficult place that is Stanford University. And I guess for some of my friends who just finished their freshman years, I was able to provide at least a little bit of that same help and support. Beyond that, I’ve continued to take up positions of leadership within the communities that are important to me, such as the Pilipino American Student Union. And starting this next year, I start a two-year position on the Asian American Activities Center’s Advisory Board, in which I’ll deepen my commitment to supporting the Asian American community at Stanford by working directly with Stanford administration to advocate for our community’s needs.

Most excitingly of all, I’ll be spending the summer traveling… nearly entirely on Stanford’s dime since this is all part of my anthropology fieldwork. At the end of this month, I leave for Chicago. Other places I’ll be this summer: Seattle, Philadelphia, New York City, West Virginia, and more. Oh, and also Venice, Italy; Koper, Slovenia; and various parts of Israel and Palestine. And then by January, I’ll be studying abroad at Oxford University (yes, the one in England). I’ve been denied the opportunity to travel for so long due to difficult life circumstances, so I’m excited to take the world by storm. What better way to kick off my twenties?

And just as I’m planning on spending some time to feed the wanderlust that I have, my commitment to others and to social justice remains just as strong—I guess that really was a carryover from my Jesuit education! The purpose of my travels is to investigate experiences and perceptions of social mobility among Stanford students, a micro look at a much wider issue of educational inequities and the barriers that certain types of students face, even after getting into an extremely selective academic institution such as Stanford. I used to think that I had to make a hard choice at some point between helping myself live the life I want and personally working toward creating a more just and equal work. But as time progresses, I’ve been finding that this dichotomy is false—I can do both, and I will.

I’ve always considered myself someone who makes things happen. It was why I loved Scandal so much when it came out; I identified so strongly with Kerry Washington’s character, whose early catchphrase was “it’s handled.” In many ways, that’s the way that I’ve lived and approached my life up to this point, especially at Stanford—tell me what needs to be done, and it’s handled. I honestly thought I would’ve burned myself out by now with this attitude, but I feel like my flame has only gotten stronger. And for that reason, I’m even more excited to see what the next decade holds—what social problems will I work toward fixing? Where will I devote my time and energy toward? Maybe this feeling in my stomach isn’t anxiety after all. Maybe it’s actually excitement for all that the future holds.

***

For my twentieth birthday this year, I’m asking for everyone to donate $20+ to my friend Brooke’s fundraiser through St. Baldrick’s. Three years ago from tomorrow, she was diagnosed with leukemia and had a bone marrow transplant in the same month that my younger brother Jude had one (September 2015). Today, she’s been accepted to medical school at Mount Sinai in New York City, and she’s raising money to support young adult cancer survivorship and research around graft vs. host disease.

Even if you’re unable to donate $20, every dollar counts. She needs to raise $10,000 to set up a Hero Fund (and she’s making great progress so far!), so please support this life-saving research. And if you donate, please let me know! I’d love to thank you personally.

Donate here!

Thank you for your support!

Notes from Stanford: Looking back on my freshman fall quarter

Comments 2 Standard

Well, I did it. I managed to survive my very first quarter as a college student at Stanford—and I really do mean survive. I always knew freshman fall was going to be a struggle because I’d be trying to adjust to living on my own, meeting new people and making new friends, taking my first college-level classes, and generally trying to make the most of my Stanford experience. But I really didn’t expect the sheer amount of “struggles” I ended up facing over these ten weeks!

In a nutshell, the whole quarter can be summed up in one sentence: this quarter, I learned a lot about myself. Yes, I learned a lot in my classes, and I learned a lot from the many new people I met, but at the end of the day, the most valuable thing I took from this quarter was all that I learned about me.

img_1158

Outside the Caltrain station in San Francisco

Coming into my own skin

I walked into my first day at Stanford pretty sure of who I was, what my values are, and what I wanted from my college experience. But it was only a matter of days before all of that broke down, and I found myself spending much of the quarter just trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

It’s actually a little shocking to look back and see how much I’ve changed since high school, but at the end of the day the thing I wanted the most from my Stanford experience was personal growth, so in another sense it’s comforting to see how much I’ve grown in just the past quarter.

In high school, I considered myself a pretty strong introvert. I was definitely able to speak to people and to make friends, but I wasn’t particularly social—if anything, the thought of long periods of social interaction just sounded completely and utterly draining, which sometimes comes as a shock to people who know me (because I really do love to talk). But just this past summer while I was doing an internship at a Dallas children’s hospital, my boss (who’s known me for the past six years) said that I’d probably stop considering myself an introvert once I went to college. I didn’t believe her, but she ended up being completely right.

dsc_0010

Dorm trip to San Francisco

Continue reading

Notes from Stanford: Surviving the first three weeks

Comments 7 Standard

Picture this: a student bikes furiously through Main Quad, messenger bag straddling his hip, his wrinkly lab coat still on. In his right hand, he’s clutching a small paper to-go container filled with the tabbouleh that he’d just made earlier that day. And then, as he comes up to the turn to exit the main quad, he squeezes his left break, but then—the front wheel of the bike stops—the back wheel keeps spinning—BAM. Bulgur and chopped vegetables scatter across the floor, and passersby slow down and stop to make sure the student is okay.

img_1118

Pre-accident

In case you haven’t guessed, that was me on only the second day of classes. The worst part of my first bike accident (other than it being completely self-caused and not even a collision of some sort)? The reason I didn’t have any injuries was because I’m an embarrassing pre-med who was biking all the way across campus still wearing my lab coat from the chemistry lab I was coming back from.

My first three weeks at Stanford—New Student Orientation for the first week and two full weeks of classes right after—have been a roller-coaster that’s half “best thing ever” and half trainwreck. I actually won the dorm’s unofficial “Person Who Had the Worst First Week of Classes” award because I had to shuffle nearly my entire class schedule in the first couple days—and then of course there was the biking accident! Even though my preliminary study list had 17 units of classes, a fairly heavy load for first-quarter Stanford freshmen, I reached a low of 6 units—full-time students take at least 12—by Tuesday evening after my Tagalog class got moved to a time that conflicts with my chemistry lab, my Human Biology class ended up being only juniors and seniors (turns out it was an upper-division class!), and my class on Economic Policies of the Presidential Candidates turned out to be not right for me.

Ultimately I ended up at a resonable 14 units: chemistry, a class in writing & rhetoric that looks at the rhetoric of “success,” an introductory seminar on race and politics (a class I got off the waitlist for), a weekly lecture series in the medical school about physicians and social responsibility, and a once-a-week seminar offered only to residents of my dorm that explores gender, sexuality, and identity in American culture. Luckily, what started as an awful first couple days of class, mostly because I didn’t actually know which classes I was even taking, quickly became a first-quarter class schedule that I really love—even chemistry, whose workload continues to be the bane of my Stanford existence, has one of the most engaging and interesting professors I’ve met so far.

Of course, Stanford isn’t all academics, and if it was I would probably go completely insane because, at least for me, the classes are extremely challenging. In the past three weeks, I went to my first service event to help combat world hunger. I went to my first football watch party (Stanford vs. UCLA) at Stanford Stadium and sprinted across the field to get a free Snuggie. I went on my first boba tea run with friends. I rode on a hover-board for the first time. I made my first meal all on my own, did my laundry by myself for the first time, and learned how to quickly wash the glasses that I drink out of every day. I went to my first frat party (would not recommend), as well as a less gross party that had free samosas (would definitely recommend, even if the samosas went fast). I got to watch as friends had In-n-Out for the first time, and I got to eat greasy food at one of Stanford’s late night eateries. I went to my first Stanford home football game and sprayed my hair red for the first time. I got to go to San Francisco with my dorm and explore the city by foot. And most excitingly of all, I’ve gotten to know some really great people from all over the country and from all different backgrounds.

Stanford, and even just being in college, is by no stretch of the imagination easy. But already, nearly one month since I first moved in, it already feels like home.

Stanford: A New Chapter

Comments 9 Standard

These past few weeks have been more grueling and difficult than I ever could’ve imagined. For many high school seniors, the months of March and April are a fairly exciting and nerve-wracking time since most college decisions come out in the second half of March, giving everyone about a month between acceptances and matriculation deadlines (usually May 1). But for me, the whole month of April came down to deciding between two colleges I had completely fallen in love with, a most difficult choice.

Over the past few years, I’ve written about some of the colleges I had been dreaming about—Columbia, Harvard, Georgetown, and the University of Texas at Austin, to name the major ones. I was guaranteed acceptance into UT Austin since Texas law requires them to provide automatic admission for Texas students in the top 8% of their high school class, but in February I was accepted into two honors programs I really wanted to be a part of: Plan II honors, an interdisciplinary liberal arts program, and Health Science Scholars, a departmental honors program in the College of Natural Sciences.

For about a solid month or so, I really thought I was going to UT. I was excited about the thought of living in Austin, getting to do research in my freshman year as part of Health Science Scholars, and having the opportunity to intern at the Texas Capitol (they only accept Plan II students) and do actual policy work (as my state representative explained). But then things changed in mid-March, when I got a letter from Brown University saying I can expect to be admitted on March 31, the day that all Ivy League acceptances come out.

Needless to say, I got incredibly excited about the thought of going to Brown. Brown had an Open Curriculum, which meant that I wouldn’t have any general education requirements and would thus have way more space to explore different fields of study. It was in Providence, Rhode Island, which fit my dream of being at an East Coast (read, Ivy League) school, and Providence itself is charming, friendly, and beautiful. And unlike the rest of the Ivy League, it’s quite laid-back and it doesn’t have the same pretentious quality around it, despite being one of the best schools in the entire country. But then, over Easter break, I got the most shocking and unexpected news.

I got into Stanford. Continue reading