Fending for Ourselves

Coming to college was a big change. The number of and influence of authority figures lessens. No one tells you how atrocious your living conditions are. No one even suggests that you need to study or that you’ve wasted your evening screwing around with your friends. But with great freedom comes great responsibility. Gotta keep tabs on your general diet. Have to plan ahead and do laundry before undies must be turned inside out.

There are, however, still many crutches in typical dorms. A cleaning staff maintains the washrooms and showers through truly horrid conditions. The dining staff ensures that if you arrive at the right times of the day, edible things will go into your mouth. They streamline chores so that students can focus on their task of learning.

Now, the school year is over, and summer life begins. I decided awhile back that I would be doing research on campus this summer, and I figured it would be a good chance to live different. I convinced two of my dormmates to join me in toughing out the summer in Mirrielees, the highly anti-social, but apartment-style on-campus housing.

Last Tuesday, I went through the tremendous task of moving my stuff, which was somewhat more than I had originally thought. Kesav, one of my roommates, temporarily had a car, though that was less helpful bringing stuff up to the 4th and top floor of Mirrielees. The climb, however, was worth it, as the conditions are fantastic.

The room isn’t plush, but it is absolutely sufficient. We have two bedrooms (I put my flag down in the single), a kitchen/living area, a sink area, and a shower and toilet room. The kitchen has a stove, fridge, sink, and many cabinets, and is certainly enough. Throw in a few closets around the apartment, and it is fairly cozy.

That night, we made our first Safeway run to get basic foodstuffs, else languish in starvation or eternal ramen. Kesav, Rob (a past and present dormmate), and I had a mildly terrifying moment, as that trip was the first non-trivial, unsupervised grocery shopping any of us had ever done. It, however, went well, as I foresaw the need for reusable grocery bags (which also netted me a discount in the single cent range! I think it’s 3 cents a bag) and am also currently alive. My only regret is that we passed the popsicle and ice-cream aisle, decided to hold-off to avoid melting, then forgot about them.

The moving, however, did come after my internship was supposed to begin. The research I’m doing this summer involves writing part of an agent for a cognitive architecture to see how effective transferred learning is in this environment. What it actually boils down to is writing code so that a computer can learn about football plays and make its own. Seriously. After a minor calamity, I began on Thursday, where I met Kamal, the guy who I’ll be working mostly with.

I am kind of scared about this. I thought I had prepared decently well, as I brushed up on my Lisp chops and followed along with a course taught by the head of the lab. I feel like fear is somewhat appropriate now, though, because as we walked over to Kamal’s desk, he asked me, “So are you a graduate student or a PhD student?”

Things look somewhat better, now, as I power through a textbook on machine learning. And I’m very quickly getting used to living here. Just today, Kesav and I made a Wal-Mart and Safeway run where we picked up a rice cooker, a 7-piece cooking set (for $17! Who knew kitchenware was so cheap?), and more foodstuffs. Combining that with a 7 lbs package from my mom, and we now have a working (and for us, complete) set of kitchen equipment. In celebration, I cooked my first serious and entirely unsupervised meal. And I didn’t even burn anything!… because I steamed the vegetables.

I’ll hardly be cruising over the next 9 weeks, but it certainly won’t be too bad at all. My current situation is definitely beyond my life before, but I’m feeling competent enough to make this work. Sure, we don’t have the mini-TV on the kitchen table that would totally complete this place, but I’ll have adapted. The first few steps have seemed dangerous, but it’s only slightly more than what I’m comfortable with, and everything has turned out just fine.

And so I sit in my room, shirtless and with a very hot computer, but in an apartment that I’m very satisfied with. It hasn’t been as hot as I’ve tolerated in the past, but apparently, this summer is a hot summer for California. The high has hovered around 90, which doesn’t sound bad at all until one considers that air conditioning is not installed (or even allowed) in dorms, and that heat rises to our 4th floor apartment.

Dang it. We forgot the popsicles again.

When Summer Strikes Late

I just finished my last final this afternoon and am greatly relieved, though somewhat sad. My dorm gets emptier and emptier, while I stay here until the summer session starts and I can shift into new housing.

But it’s been a good year. College offers many different opportunities than before, ranging from the freedom to take actually interesting classes to listening to my roommate’s music instead of my own. I’ve tested my limits by juggling commitments, and I seem to have found it, as I’m now in the midst of a vaguely grizzly illness.

Regardless, with the summer ahead and the school year behind, I’m in a reflective mood. I’m glad I challenged myself in CS my first quarter here. I’m glad I got my hand in research. I’m glad I played a variety of intramural sports. I’m glad I took my hand at section leading a class. But I’m sad it looks like music is going to drift out of my life. I’m sad my classes aren’t quite aligned as they should be. I’m sad I haven’t quite developed a healthy routine for myself yet.

I’ve learned about assembly code and the memory heap. I’ve learned about gods and religious life. I’ve learned to appreciate movie musicals and their integration into animated sitcoms (you can read my research-based argument here if you’re interested; warning it’s kind of long). I’ve learned that conventional “college” parties aren’t much fun if you don’t drink, and that it’s just fine to watch a movie and talk with friends on a Friday night. I’ve learned how to appear to be floating along while treading furiously, just like everyone else here. I’ve learned what it’s like to stay up all night writing a paper, and how to avoid that. I’ve learned about the entrepreneurial spirit that envelops Stanford and the entire Bay Area. I’ve learned that just because the dryer times in increments of 15 minutes, 15 minutes isn’t long enough to dry clothes. And I’ve learned that no one I’ve met here, no matter how bizarre, high, ridiculous, pessimistic, Southern, loud, athletic, drunk, religious, or just about any other measure, was mistakenly admitted, and that everyone has something to contribute.

Just under a year ago, it was so tough for me to pack up and leave home, but as comfortable as I was, I needed the change. I needed something radically new in my life, and Stanford’s been that. I’ve learned so much this year, and I feel like this place can keep giving for at least another three.

Ch-Ch-Changes

Being home is nice. Sitting in my old chair, sleeping in my old bed, seeing my high school friends, talking to my mo, watching Star Trek. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like you’re running that fast until you take a breather.

It’s interesting to think about how that last quarter went. Defintely busier than the one before, but a lot of fun at the same time. The dynamics of the dorm especially changed. Perhaps it’s not wholly accurate, but it somewhat seems like that people are finally comfortable around each other, and willing to be a more complete person. In that first quarter, it was all about meeting people and getting along with everyone. In that manner, we really only presented ourselves as conforming to what everyone was doing. Uptight isn’t quite the right word; we were “particular.”

This quarter, we had more chances to delve deeper into the things we enjoy doing. I noticed this first when we had a one night resurrection of “Diablo 2,” a computer game from our junior high days. A bunch of us sat around in the lounge and hooked up to play together for a couple hours. Recently, the kid next door brought his “Magic” cards, prompting a revival in that and Pokemon. As such, I now have “Magic” cards and some of my RPG books ready to take back when I head back.

But I’ve done other stuff. I took a tour of Austin last week to visit my sister and friends there. They didn’t give me a tour, but I saw their dorms and talk about what they’ve been up to. Some people are the same. It’s always reassuring to know that there are some that you can depend on. It’s been less than a year since high school ended, so perhaps some transformations are slow.

That doesn’t mean that college hasn’t drastically changed some. Over lunch at the “Italian Longhorn” (plug for their awesome falafel wrap), my friends and I gossiped about some of our old classmates. We’ve barely seen some, and probably forgotten about more, but sometimes come across someone who it seems that we never knew. College has empowered some to work, as they realize that the work ethic from high school won’t work anymore. For others, college has opened them to many new possibilities, complete freedom has liberated them into new paths.

They say that people are largely shaped by their environments, and are completely different depending on what situation people are in. We may think that our essential character is unchanging, but we’re always adapting and can’t afford to remain constant in a changing world.

I’m sure the natural selection of friendships will continue in the wake of great climate change from entering college, but the gossip will keep going around. There’s nothing more interesting than another human: you never know what to expect.

Growing Up

This past weekend, my sister Nicole came to Stanford for about 2 1/2 days as a break and chance to see the west coast. Thankfully, one of her good friends happens to live in the dorm across the street from mine, so her accommodations were not a floor of boys.

I met her at the Caltrain stop, and, luggage in tow, we walked into Palo Alto for dinner (and ice cream afterwards). It’s surprising how much there can be to catch up on when it’s been only 2-3 months since I spent the winter break with her and my parents in Shanghai. Granted, my sisters and I haven’t done an amazing job calling back-and-forth, but it seems like there’s a lot to miss.

Dinner was at a classy sandwich place, a lot of which I soon discovered was class stolen out of my wallet. Sandwiches shouldn’t be expensive, and salads certainly shouldn’t be, considering how cheap it is to grow plants. We talked about ridiculous things going on with academic and extra-curricular stuff, from my sister overheating the other day to the importance of “Super Smash Brothers” in Cedro. I felt like one of “those college kids” who, without a care, disrupts the experience of others by being too loud and rambunctious. I now realize that at the same time, we were talking about issues that actually matter. Just as my sister’s been wading through the insanity of dealing out money for environmental issues on campus, I’m looking at my research opportunities.

It’s weird how “growing up” shows up socially. Before my senior year of high school, I was talking to a former band director about the coming marching season. When I mentioned how scary it was that there would be freshmen looking up to my peers and me, that we would be their role models, he just laughed and said, “That’s what it’s like to grow up.”

Later that night, my sister and I were sitting in my dorm room, just talking about everything going on with my family. It seemed like we were just having a chat about what would be happening after this next summer, but soon after, we had covered the job opportunities and career paths of both of us, and my oldest sister. Sure, I knew what the interests of all of us were, and what we all wanted to do, but now, we’re all at the point where we have to face the realities of it. Of rejections, of obstacles, of the actual situations we are each in.

My sisters are, of course, a lot further than I am, in this respect, with one having just graduated from college, and the other about to graduate. I myself am still getting used to the fact that I can actually make an important decision without mandatory parental consultation. It was something new, these past couple weeks, to show off Stanford to my mom, grandparents, friends, and sister. But I guess the real step there was that I was showing off my new life.

Return of the Jet-lagged

How natural this feels. Old chair, old desk, old room, old life, old people (err, bad parallelism there).

I arrived back in Houston on a red-eye flight last Friday night and have had a great time since. Everything is more familiar than I thought it would be. I’ve only been gone for 9 weeks, but during those weeks, I’ve learned so much. My life has changed so much. I’ve had vastly more responsibility over my own life, without my old friends and family around, in a new location, with many times more academic work. Almost makes life here seem quaint.

But it’s nothing weird to be back. My room lacks a few items, but I instantly felt like I never left as soon as I walked down for my first breakfast when I got back. No shift.

Except for the bed. I love and now realize I have under-appreciated my double-size bed here at home. I roll back and forth a few extra times now.

It’s been great catching up with friends. I like to think I’m a nice person, but when I’ve met up with some of my best buddies from around here, I realize how punishing I am to them. I’ve cleaned up most of my blatant cynicism and excessive sarcasm, but around these guys, it all comes back. I guess I’m messed up like. The better I get to know someone, the nastier I get. Man love, right?

But it’s been enlightening. Some crazy, baffling stuff happens, with high school drama and the bizarre practices of public education. At the same time, some things are so familiar. It’s somewhat satisfying to hear an amazing story, and realize that I could have seen it happen. Watching some of my friends change over many years, and then removing myself from this world, it’s in some ways like I never left. Life is cyclical, especially in high school.

It’s been great being back, and there are still so many people to see. And everything is so easy to get back into. For so long, I’ve said that Toronto is my only home, but I think Houston is just as much home. Maybe Katy isn’t so exciting, but it feels right. I complain a lot about Katy, moreso now that I’ve seen that the world isn’t all the sleepy suburbs. Man love, right?

It Never Stopped Spinning

Before I came here for college, I went back to my high school several times to practice. I got the most uncanny feeling whenever I saw the cars there, or the teachers walking out the building, or the band equipment scattered in the hallways. It didn’t seem right that kids were waking up at 6, like I had done for 4 years, and going to school while I was sitting in my pajamas wasting time at home.

For me, that part of my life was over, and I somehow assumed that it was for everyone else. I expected the world to move with me as I passed from home into a far more independent realm.

Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve come to terms with that. Just because I’m not in Katy, Texas doesn’t mean that Katy, Texas isn’t there anymore. I am not the world, and I am now in a separate bubble.

Life has been a lot different. Tons of activities and lots of studying to do, and with that comes sacrifices. I’ve become more aware of my methods of procrastination, and have cut some of the empty out of my life. I’ve also learned that some things I thought I couldn’t do without really weren’t that important to me.

But today, I had a relatively free evening. With the “New York Times” on my bed after being taken from the dining hall, I popped it open and began the ritual that I thought was reserved for 6:15 in the morning with my yogurt.

I’ve kept up with news. Thanks to the net, I get my daily emails from news websites. I watch “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” online, and have even picked up the Times during lunch, glossing over the headlines while talking to my dormmates.

Today, I started with the crossword. Thankfully, Mondays weren’t rough, and with an assist from my roommate on a long clue, I filled it all in. Moving on, I read through several other interesting articles in all sections of the news.

It wasn’t anything I didn’t have a vague knowledge of. I knew the writers went on strike. I knew the Patriots beat the Colts. I knew there was trouble in Pakistan. When I actually read the articles, though, it became real.

Here at Stanford, my entire life is within a 4 minute bike ride. I’ve been into ‘Frisco once, and Palo Alto only thrice, though it’s just 10 minutes away. I just haven’t had to. Stanford has everything here. I don’t have to leave to live and have fun and deal with my life.

It, however, does seem really small. It’s absolutely a bubble. Even with the internet, a lot of what goes on doesn’t apply to me, and yet, it happens.

Reading the news felt great. Maybe I’ll keep it up, maybe I won’t. At least I know where I can find the rest of the world.