“You’re real!” my friends would say after meeting me for the first time off Zoom. And after a conversation, “You’re exactly the same person you were online.”
Could I belong here, as I have belonged online in the past year?
I don’t quite remember how the fall 2020 semester ended. It could have been a Directed Studies seminar at 1 a.m., a lecture in Canvas I never watched or a loving “happy holidays” text from a friend I have never met. What I do remember is closing my laptop after a long night, watching the sunrise through the pink, tinted window of my childhood bedroom in Suzhou, China. One by one, these incoherent moments settled into a routine that no one has ever lived through before. By the time the semester ended, I was sure that this was the way it would always be.
In many ways, it is impossible to understand the remote semester, even as a memory. I was a student in college, I was living with my parents, I was 18 and eager to learn. But I was also not there, I was always talking to screens. I was on a 12-hour time difference, I was 7,000 miles from New Haven, half a world away. Zoom backgrounds of campus landmarks and classmates’ Instagram accounts became the sum total of the Yale I knew. But college itself was nowhere and no place.
Despite all my friends, all the Zooms and all the passing hours, I still thought to myself every once in a while: “None of this is real, none of this really happened.” Weeks passed, and the entire semester seemed to melt into the same autumnal, overcast day. I stopped imagining what college would be like: I was sort of there already.
I moved into Yale on an unseeming, cloudy day in early July. No one was on Old Campus; I had the whole of Bingham Hall to myself. During my first night, I battled insects with a can of Lysol, drank straight from a gallon of Poland Spring, and wondered if the fireplace was real. It’s not. Jetlagged, bemused and gleeful, I sat on the bench eating a sandwich from GHeav and watched the sunrise. Most first years live on Old Campus before moving into their residential colleges as sophomores, but there I was on Old Campus, watching my day-long first year disappear into a hot, gray morning. I was going to attend Yale Summer Session after taking a semester off, and after many tribulations, I was here at last.
In the coming days, I would move into Hopper and meet all my “internet friends.” I would go to Koffee? five times in my first week and see all the moving faces I know, now that I’m here, now that we’re all here. My friends would give me tours of Sterling and Bass and tell me the details of where to go and when. I would put names to places and faces: New Haven Green, Harkness Tower, Cross Campus. Things were slowly becoming true all around me. I couldn’t help but feel slightly fearful: Yale was suddenly physical and manifest. At times, it was difficult to believe I have never lived here before.
Being here in the summer meant that I had plenty of time to gawk and wonder. I stood beneath the entrance to Sterling and searched for the figurine carving that bore my mother tongue. I would bring my boxed dinner to Cross Campus and watch the students, the dogs, the tourists and the occasional bride. At night, I walked under the string lights in the Hopper courtyard as laughter broke out from a tall window. Like a tourist, I took pictures of everything, and like a tourist, it felt difficult to believe that I was here at all. It’s true that I caught Yale in its sleep, but I also caught Yale as a friend. We had the entire summer to make our peace with each other. This university and I, we were both rehearsing for the fall.
But it didn’t feel real.
Before coming to New Haven, I kept asking myself if I was ready. I didn’t feel ready to be seen and perceived again, to study again, to think of the future without putting it on hold.
Now that I’m here, I have no doubt that we are all ready to plunge into the fullness of college again, but I’m not sure if we are all ready to accept the past year as a year of our own. Everything we have experienced about college in my Zoom rectangle was already real: we have made these friends, taken these classes and came into a place of our own. Whether it was a year of rest and relaxation, of grief and confusion, a year enjoyed, a year lost, wasted, thrown, it was nonetheless a year that occured, and thus a year that made us who we are. Remembering and talking about 2020, albeit painful, is a duty to our future selves.
Young as we are, we might not understand this period of our youth for years to come. But we cannot let 2020 become a euphemism of itself. This was the year I came of age, in all my pain and complexity. And coming out of 2020, this will be the year I think of when I face all the future unknowns to come.