Picture this: April, 2000. The Valley Green apartments on De Anza Boulevard, Cupertino, Calif.: pasty yellow, thatched roofs, burgeoning with Asian immigrants, all engineers or computer programmers or accountants, from India and China and Korea and Japan. Apple Computer’s headquarters are next door, but none of us kids go there. I am 11, and far more interested in games: ball games, like four square and wall ball and three flies up; running games, like parkour and 100-meter dashes and hide-and-go-seek tag; video games, like Legend of Zelda and Super Mario World and Pokémon.
And so I played against my rival. Chubby-cheeked and wide-thighed, Dan always held himself up like the tallest person in the room; when he had the chance to look down on someone, he did. I used to knock on his door every day, and every day he would come out and immediately challenge me to a game. “Let’s see who can dig up the most worms in an hour.” “We’ll shoot 100 free throws, loser jumps in the neighbor’s pool.” “I’ll be the Packers and you’ll be the Ravens, but rules are only rushing, no passing.” The win-loss count never mattered — it was how much mental anguish we could inflict on each other — with words (“Wow, I can’t believe you still can’t ride a bike without your hands.”), but more often, with devastating sneers of pity and condescension. As we grew up, our rivalry spread to other spheres of life: Social Science grades, lunch-time basketball captaincy, pursuit of the same black-haired sylph. We couldn’t stop, even though both of us felt worse after every clash. Soon, normal thoughts gummed up with fears and schadenfreude, so that every day, when I passed by Dan’s house, I couldn’t help but look at his apartment — pasty yellow, with a thatched roof — and wonder who he was hanging out with, what he was playing, and how much fun he was having.
Fast-forward: April, 2007. Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, brick red edifices and chartreuse fertilizer covering Old Yard, while students, some in packs but most of them by themselves, criss-cross through the lattice of walkways in front of Memorial Church. Dan is back in California, most likely in class. I’m on the East Coast, visiting the Ivy League colleges. Four years have passed since he and I last spoke; during that time, he has drank, smoked and lost his virginity. I’m captain of Debate, learned French and started my own Fantasy Sports club. Presumably, I’ve won: look at me, Asian-American, admitted to the school my mother and father had set in my sights the very first day they arrived in America. I’m living the dream — and at a high school that’s 65 percent Asian-American, all the other parents have probably let their kids know that too.
But somehow I don’t feel like I’ve won. I think about where Dan’s going, UC Davis, and start to miss what he’ll have: cuter girls, friends from back home, perpetually sunny California weather. As I walk with my host to Adams House, and then the Science Center, he tells me how many Nobel Laureates and CEOs his college has created. I hear him, but I am really looking around — at the brick red edifices and chartreuse fertilizer — and wondering how, if at all, this is different from the 100 free throws, 7 years ago and 3,000 miles away.
November, 2010. Old Campus at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, yawning elm trees and keen squirrels, students jogging and making bubble tea and ambling around with their DSLR cameras. I plant myself against a tree trunk, sit on newly moldered duff and open my New Yorker. Motes of conversation float by; occasionally, somebody comes up and says hello. They don’t stay long, thinking I’m reading, but I’m not really; most of the time, I’m looking at the yawning elms and the keen squirrels, thinking of the first time I stepped onto Old Campus, when feelings of community, peace, and exuberance first steeped in my soul. Yale was an escape hatch — from competition, from rivalry, from the blind pursuit of success — and by some stroke of luck, I had the foresight to jump down. The day turns to twilight, and as the carillonneurs strike the first notes of the Harry Potter theme, the air around me turns dreamy, almost ethereal. Boola boola.
Peter Lu is a senior in Berkeley College.