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It was my second week back from First-Year Trips. I’d moved into my dorm early for the debate team pre-season, but with Orientation Week approaching, my floormates were finally arriving. I’d left my backpack in Robinson Hall earlier that day by mistake, and now it was dark. Still confusing in daylight, campus felt unfamiliar at night. Like many women coming to college, I’d been told not to walk alone, and so one of my new floormates joined me.
I was raised under the sun, yet I wasn’t really supposed to be. My skin takes after my mother’s, who grew up in northern China, where the sun hides for a large part of the year. When my mother was younger, her skin was pale and spotless like porcelain. After living in California for over 20 years, her skin is now adorned with a lovely arrangement of spots and freckles that bear witness to her strength and adaptability.
My first term at Dartmouth was mostly spent grabbing meals. Like many, I was unaccustomed to, but excited by, the ability to eat at all hours of the day. The Class of 1953 Commons and Collis Café saw much of my DBA in my first few weeks here. More engrossing to me, though, was the chance to meet and talk with people from so many different backgrounds. Hearing my new classmates tell stories of places I’d only once imagined was both exciting and overwhelming.
I have a habit that often annoys my friends. Before watching a movie or starting a TV series, I have to read the Wikipedia plot summary first so I know the ending. I try to do the same with books if there is a plot summary available online. One could call this a bad habit, but I never saw anything wrong with it. This practice maximizes my enjoyment of media because I can watch or read things without having to be stressed about whether my favorite character would die. Suspense has never been my cup of tea.
There was a moment a few terms ago when I was trekking back home after another long night in the library. It was snowing and I was miserable and exhausted, my paper still unfinished, my anxiety acting up in full force. The walk from Baker-Berry to the Lodge was a long one, made even longer from the construction at the Hood Museum of Art and because the Hopkins Center for the Arts is closed after midnight. I remember stopping for a moment, looking at the empty street at 2 a.m. and thinking to myself that perhaps this would be a moment I would still remember and miss after my time here ends.
“Game of Thrones” ended last Sunday, and people hated it. The next day, while hot takes exploded across the internet, an ’80s-style remake of the final scene made the rounds on Twitter. As Jon Snow rides north, he looks back over his shoulder one last time — and then Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” slides in. A character montage rolls as tongue-in-cheek “Where are they now?” text flashes on the screen. “Arya found land west of Westeros and named it Westereros,” we learn. “Bronn was stabbed and killed in a bar fight three days later.”
I’m a little bitter that the Hood is just now opening as we’re leaving. I wish I had more time there. I have spent hours wandering the art museum, marveling at Dartmouth’s well-funded resources at our fingertips. And there’s one painting that I keep coming back to: Mark Rothko’s “Lilac and Orange over Ivory.” It stands in stark contrast to my busy, frequently overloaded time running around this campus.
As I look out across Dartmouth’s campus each day, I see hundreds of high school students and their families trailing a tour guide across the Green. These students will undoubtedly hear about all of Dartmouth’s “hidden gems” — the Shakespeare’s First Folio that we keep in Rauner, the “take your professor to lunch date” that turned into a research opportunity, the awesome concert at One Wheelock with a finalist from “The Voice,” and so on. But most of those students will never get to experience the real hidden gems of Dartmouth.
In the strange bubble of New Hampshire where “flitz,” “S.W.U.G.” and “facetimey” are used in everyday conversation, it is not surprising that the theory of “the X” has cemented itself in Dartmouth culture. Students seem to latch on to ideas and phrases that separate them from the outside world, more firmly solidifying and celebrating how quirky and different they are. The X is a rumor describing social power throughout one’s time at Dartmouth. It theorizes that freshman girls arrive on campus with peak social status and appeal, and then they gradually lose this appeal and become less desirable throughout their time at Dartmouth. In contrast, freshman boys are thought to begin their time at Dartmouth at their lowest social point, slowly gaining prominence on campus as they navigate college, and finally graduating at their peak. The term is used jokingly for the most part, chastising girls for descending along the X too quickly when they show up to parties in sweats and t-shirts or nodding knowingly when freshman girls flock not to their floormates or lab partners, but to the senior boys on campus. The X is denounced, promoted and questioned, but no one seems to take it too seriously. The interesting part of the X, however, lies in a more basic assumption it makes: that throughout students’ time at Dartmouth, there will come a moment when they cross over from one side of life to another.
During an especially introspective stretch of time, my 15-year-old self jotted down several quotes that fell within the boundaries of what I perceived to be profound. One of the first to appear was the phrase, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing,” derived from something Socrates may or may not have once said.
A writer for The Dartmouth once joked that staffers only know two things about me: that I’m from Hawaiʻi and that I have consistently arrived late to campus each term. While the second point did not always happen by choice — some of my flights back to the east coast really did get delayed, guys — the first bit of information is certainly one that I conscientiously shared with everyone I met at Dartmouth.
College is weird. Part extended summer camp, part boarding school for semi-grownups, part elitist neoliberal institution, part academia machine, college means different things to different people, but no one really knows what it’s going to be like until they’re there. My first impression of Dartmouth was of miles and miles of trees. On the drive up, my mom and I felt like we were headed to the middle of nowhere — coming from dry, dusty southern California, I had never seen so many trees in my life. It felt like I was entering a different world.
I remember the first time Dartmouth felt like home. I remember the day — Jan. 3, 2015. I remember my outfit — a recently-bought wool sweater littered with pretzel crumbs. I remember where I was sitting — about halfway back the Dartmouth Coach in a window seat. I don’t remember the movie playing, but I do remember the screen was right above my head and I do remember the Coach’s headphone jack didn’t work.
When I was looking at colleges, I asked current students a lot of questions. Their responses were plentiful, varied and usually helpful. But when I asked Dartmouth students what stood out about their school and why they seemed to love it so much, I got one answer over and over and over again: they loved Dartmouth because of the people.
When I walked away from my parents on Robinson Hall’s lawn for Dartmouth Outing Club First-Year Trips, laden with a heavy backpack leftover from my father’s Eagle Scout days and several items of mild contraband, I knew that I wouldn’t be talking for a while. Faced with the prospect of introductions and icebreakers, I contemplated how I could survive the next few days saying as few words as possible. When faced with the opportunity to make a bad impression or a good impression, I tend to split the difference and do my best to make no impression (at all).
By some mishap I’ve ended up here: senior spring, less than seven weeks left until I lose student discounts and access to the Cube and the Onion — not to mention other trivial points, like lifelong friends and alumni connections and what not. Every day since the realization of my impending graduation hit has been a day of mild existential crisis, where my own identity and impact here feel like a philosophical question that even Aristotle or Socrates would break down at. In the midst of one particularly existentially stressful day, a friend-acquaintance whose friendship thus far has been limited to a single climbing trip passed by me and gave me the highlight of my day: a smile and a “Hey!”
I don’t remember when I first read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I can picture the nine-volume paperback box set, each cover a different pastel gingham, sitting on the lower left of the downstairs bookcases as if it has always been there. I know that the first book in the series, “Little House in the Big Woods,” was read aloud in my preschool group; I would ask my mom for two “Laura braids” when she did my hair in early elementary school. Wilder’s childhood and my childhood are woven together, zigzagging across two centuries and the continental United States.
For those of you who haven’t heard of “duck syndrome,” it is a concept often applied to college students who appear calm on the surface but are frantically suffering underneath. At Dartmouth, students can struggle to juggle numerous commitments and expectations. So many seem to do it all and still have their life together. Dartmouth students pride themselves on the ability to “work hard, play hard,” but are we happy?
This column was featured in the 2018 Winter Carnival Issue.
Before my first Dartmouth winter, I’d seen snow exactly four times. Five if you count the only time it snowed in my lifetime in San Francisco: Dec. 20, 1998, (the day that holds my first memory). I’m two years old at the park with my grandma (Nana to us, although she tried to convince me to call her Aunt Birdy until I was five) and a few glorious snowflakes fall from the sky.