Undercover undergrad

(The Philippine Star) - September 17, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Colleges, particularly the Anglo-American varieties, in many ways are like floating oases — within yet apart from the worlds they aim to prepare you for. As a graduate student in a predominantly undergraduate-centered campus, meanwhile, you can easily feel like a tourist in a space that is not yours — or more accurately, no longer yours.

That rush of youth — of carving one’s own place in the playground of pretend adulthood — is all around in obscene, blushing view, and I felt its freeing wildness careening all around me, but I was meant to just ignore it. Those sleepless faces of too-late nights, the possession of an untouched future parked expectantly beyond the gates of campus, skirts too short for the weather, the joy that vibrates throughout on sunny days, the huddled, conspiring and intricate formation/destruction of social worlds utterly unique and ephemeral — none of it had anything to do with me now.

I heard it was worse still for those who decided to undertake their graduate degrees at their undergraduate alma mater. They walked around with their new cohorts of professional, sensible PhD students on the first campus tour, and as they drew new geographies atop old ones, they would turn on jarring memories of this thing, our youth, that seemed suddenly so slippery and so strange and so long past — over there was the frat where she drank “jungle juice” served from a trash can and mixed with a broom handle. There was the bench he associated with falling in love — and somehow it felt as though they had never truly occupied the spaces in which strangers were now sitting.

I was the teacher’s assistant for my professor’s class, and I almost wanted to begin the class by assuring them: “Listen, we’re really close in age, okay? Don’t let my obviously well-rested eyes suggest otherwise.” Sure, I was silently thrilled when the best looking 21-year-olds set out to befriend me. Brushing up too close against this world-now-no-longer-yours, I easily found myself succumbing to it. Next thing I knew I was at a party where a full quarter of the crowd was an entire decade younger than I was, and I had absolutely no idea what was happening to my life. I heard myself telling people I was a sophomore majoring in econ. People asked me if I was “going to Myrtle” for senior week. I only ate single-serving hummus packages bought from the corner deli for every meal.

Why wouldn’t I try to return there undercover, to the site of my youth? I was a student again, and isn’t that what the joy of being a student was? Wasn’t it bound up with the rawness of our incomprehensible future — forever held at bay?

But as an undercover undergrad, with the distance of age and the composure of a repeat-offender, you can’t feel it — the agony and terror are gone. The love interests who would never have given you the time of day when you were in college? They seek you out now. The conversations in which you felt so intimidated before? You dance through those with the detached aloofness you could never convincingly master when you were young, back when it would have counted.

As Nathan Heller wrote so perfectly in The New Yorker: “The shock of the 20s is how narrow that window of experience really is, and how inevitable it seems both at the time and afterward. At some point, it is late, too late, and you are standing on the sidewalk outside somewhere very loud. A wind is blowing. It’s the same cool, restless late-night breeze that blew on trampled 1920s lawns, dazed ‘60s streets, and anywhere young people gather. Nearby, someone who doesn’t smoke is smoking. An attractive stranger with a lightning laugh jaywalks between cars with a friend, making eye contact before scurrying inside. You’re far from home. It’s quiet. All at once, you have a thrilling sense of nowness, of the sheer potential of a verdant night with all these unmet people in it. For a long time after that, you think you’ll never lose this life, those dreams. But that was, as they say, then.”

I had left my undergraduate-dominated graduate campus and was preparing finally to write my dissertation away from school, when I received an email at 2 a.m. from Johann, an old friend. He had written our entire group of college best friends. “I just went to this dance party in Brooklyn and it sucked. Friday at my apartment can we throw an epic dance party like we used to?” On Friday we danced to all the songs that we had worn down well — from when we all went together to see The Knife in concert, when we used to turn the basement of SAE into our private raves, when Luke tried to compose his own electro, and when we all lived within the same one-mile radius. Though I know, of course, that it is painfully true what Wordsworth wrote, that “nothing can bring back the hour — of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower” — that night, and on a few nights undercover, I felt it.

* * *

Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.

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