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viewpoint

A few words on the seven weeks mark until graduation

| Friday, March 31, 2017

Seven weeks prior to coming to Notre Dame, I had a conversation with a Notre Dame sophomore from Beijing. When I inquired about the food on campus, she answered, with an ethereal smile I did not quite understand — “There are two dining halls, North and South. Which dorm are you assigned to?”

“Lewis,” I said.

“So you will go to North,” she said firmly, as if saying her creed. “I usually go to South. The question of which dining hall is better will forever be a debate between us.”

I laughed, and thought to myself — don’t Notre Dame students have better things to debate about? But of course, I didn’t vocalize my thought, for I had a fearful respect for the great, unknown dining halls.

I flew to Chicago with my twin sister and we came to Notre Dame one week earlier than our American peers for the International Students Orientation, a three-day-long crash course teaching us how to blend in American classrooms and how to make friends with Americans. It was a fantastically strange week. To cite E.M. Forster from his novel “A Room With A View” the international student orientation “worked some marvel” in me. It gave me “light,” but it also gave me “shadow.” The deep meaning of the sentence is beyond my current language ability to fully express in English, because I experienced it all in Chinese. Now in retrospect, I am still shocked by how many  people said “welcome home” to me during those three days and how “not at home” I felt. Home was Beijing, and nowhere else. Yet, those “welcome home” signs reminded me constantly that I was home. I secretly hoped that soon in the future, I would be able to say the sentence to another incoming student, and then I would be home.

Freshman year was a gloriously painful period. I say “gloriously painful,” because it was painful, but in a glorious, warrior-like way. The feeling of displacement, fear, being misunderstood, disappointed, and confusion all served a glorious purpose — to blend in, to become unidentifiable, to conquer challenge after challenge. One of those challenges was answering the baristas’ greetings in Starbucks properly.

I didn’t know how to properly answer “what’s up” until the end of the first semester. “Not much” sounded wrong because a lot was up. “How are you” was even harder to answer because most of the time I was “tired” instead of “good.” I could not persuade myself that everyone who answered “good” was actually good, even though I tried. Yet, I also refused to think that people who asked me “how are you” did not actually care how I was. After some meditation on why Americans answered “good” when they were not so good, I formed for myself a tentative belief — the question did not concern with the present but rather, it expressed hope for the future. Answering “good” served as a source of hope and positivity. I was immensely satisfied with my conclusion. Indeed, what reason did I have to not have hope? Tomorrow would be better than today, because today had already been better than yesterday.

I participated in an SSLP in the summer of freshman year, living with people with and without intellectual disabilities. Finally, the doctrines I learned in theology classes came into life. Jesus, that white man on the cross, became as vulnerable as the old guy I read Sesame Street books to every day. I could finally attempt to connect with Jesus on equal grounds. I started to seek for what my friends referred to as a “calling,” something I always wanted but never dared to truly hear.

That same summer, I switched my second major from applied math to English. My mom responded to the news — “What’s wrong with applied math?” “Nothing wrong. I mean, I saved my accounting, so I won’t be jobless,” I said. “English? You don’t even speak English fluently. If the major is too hard, just drop it.” Of course, she said the above in Chinese, and through her words came a perplexed and disappointed tone I would never be able to translate into English.

Soon after, I was interviewed for a writing tutor position in the writing center. When the director asked me what my biggest challenges working there would be, I said, without any intention of being funny — “My biggest challenge will be coming to work. The students are native speakers.” He laughed hard, and then seeming to be in deep thoughts, he reassured me — “But writing is about thinking.” I thanked him. Months later, I started working there and realized how true his words were.

Junior year passed like a dream. It was a year I could not capture in words. Thus I shall cite Joseph Conrad, attempting to capture the incredibility of that year — “No relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams.”

It was a surprisingly warm winter when senior year arrived. It has been a year full of results — rejections, acceptance, Trump getting elected — and decisions; taking on a creative writing concentration, not seeking an accounting job, going to an English master program. My mom responded to the third decision with a sigh, a proud one though — “Wow, you actually finished the English major. I wonder, though, is this step the right one?” She meant my decision of going to English grad school. I could not think of an intelligent answer, but I remembered the words of my best friend when I was studying abroad in Scotland — “As long as we are going forward, any step is a right one.”

Thank you, Notre Dame, for these transformative four years, during which I found myself a new identity, plugging in my own name to the immortal second sentence of Dickens’ novel “Great Expectations” “So I called myself Rebecca, and came to be called Rebecca.”

Rebecca Feng is a senior at Notre Dame, double majoring in accounting and English, but traveling and living abroad is her real education. She read Shakespeare and old English poems in Scotland last semester and interned at Forbes Magazine Asia business channel in New York this summer. Email her at yfeng2@nd.edu for story ideas and comments.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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