A Major in Music and a Minor Identity Crisis

I’ve heard so many stories and jokes surrounding the indecisiveness of the majorless first-year, those lost liberal-artsers who constantly change their interests, take courses from every department possible, and woefully declare the hopelessness of their future. The good news is that all of these confused first-years eventually find something they love or something at which they excel and have perfectly normal and successful futures. Nonetheless, that wasn’t exactly my story.

Reason #1 to major in music: Someday you might get a tree planted in your honor!
Reason #1 to major in music: Someday you might get a tree planted in your honor!

I’d known for years that I wanted to be a music major. I’d auditioned for conservatories before deciding (partially through reflection and partially through botched auditions) that that environment wasn’t for me and that I’m a liberal-arts gal. I play piano and oboe, and I’ve fluctuated wildly in the degree of closeness I feel to each instrument. Every time it came down to it, though, I enjoyed playing. I tried to see myself as a performer. I also liked composing, and I’d done some of that and some pretty serious songwriting endeavors (three recorded piano-voice albums!) in high school.
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Why Study Abroad?

A pretty large number of my Pomona friends are studying abroad this semester, and if not this semester, they plan to go abroad in the spring. We are in places as far-flung as Cameroon, Germany, Australia, Hungary, China, Greece — the list goes on. We all made the decision to forfeit a semester at Pomona, giving up loads of interesting classes, on-campus involvement and responsibilities, Taco Tuesdays, perfect weather, all manner of Claremont traditions and shenanigans, and time together with friends, professors, classmates, and teammates. Why leave behind all these opportunities to go halfway around the globe? Here are a few of the reasons I chose to study abroad:

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Life on a Language Pledge

motorcycle - Madeleine
A scene from everyday life in Kunming.

Here in Kunming, I’m not just studying abroad in China. I’m studying abroad in Chinese. The Middlebury program I am on has a strict language pledge, essentially meaning we can’t speak anything but Chinese for the whole four months. It sounds intimidating, and it definitely was at first.

One complaint about the language pledge is that it makes it harder to make friends. Things definitely go slower with a language pledge. With limited vocabulary, you can’t readily express everything you want to. You’re a little more boring, a little less funny, a little less unique, a little less whatever-makes-you-you. You know that if you were allowed to speak English, you could really click with the other American students on the program, but instead you spend the first few weeks awkwardly stumbling around in Chinese, trailing off at the end of your sentences or finishing them with an uncertain “you know what I’m saying?”

Translating words and phrases is one thing, but translating your self into another language is definitely not easy.

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A Trip to Dali

This past long weekend, I was lucky enough to spend a couple days in Dali, a small(er than Kunming) ancient city that used to be its own kingdom. Dali is about a 6-7 hour drive from Kunming and is famous for its beautiful scenery, old town, and the Bai ethnic minority. Though it threatened to rain at times, for the most part, the weather worked out in our favor — meaning lots of outdoor activities!

We arrived in Dali on Thursday evening, and spent a few hours exploring Dali’s old town.

On Friday morning, a group of American students and some of our Chinese roommates biked 35 km around Erhai, the big lake next to Dali.

Mid-bike ride.
Mid-bike ride.

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5 Reminders I’m Not in Claremont Anymore

rsz_dsc_0105-1But first, a quick introduction. My name is Madeleine Colvin and I’m a third-year student at Pomona. As this post’s title indicates, I’m not in Claremont, but in Kunming, China, where I am spending the fall semester abroad at Yunnan University. While essentially everything I see/hear/smell/eat here is remarkably different from Claremont, here are some more obvious standouts (in no particular order) to give an idea of what my life in China is like:

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A Day in the Life (Abroad)

I’m Madeleine, a Pomona junior spending the fall semester abroad in Kunming, China. Here’s a little taste of my average weekday:

Fruit seller outside my dorm.
Fruit market outside my dorm.

7:00- If I wake up this early, I like to go down to Cuihu Lake where exclusively old people practice Tai Chi, their Chinese opera skills, embroidery, dancing, etc. I am a Chinese grandma at heart, so I feel especially at home here.

7:45- Wake up. Judge whether I have time for a shower. Buy new favorite delicious Chinese breakfast food (er kuai) from a street vendor on the way to class. Try to review how to write some characters before our daily quizzes.

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Nowhere Near Completion: The End of Summer

Of all the words buzzing around my still-embryonic and, thus, still-optimistic thesis research – which, now, can be best characterized as a heap of mistreated books, fingertip-oiled keytops, and looseleaf essays-that-I-should-have-read-electronically-but-printed-so-I-could-scribble-academic-nonsense-on-them – there are a few that linger a bit longer, that resonate in a higher register: “flesh,” “horror,” “freakishness,” “alterity,” and, perhaps most prominently, “grotesque.” Throughout my studies, this has been the undergirding term, the concept that has pulled my ideas, observations, and farfetched considerations up from vague abstraction to (marginally-less-vague) clarity. It has not only unlocked doors for me; it has thrown doors open, pried them away from their rust-laden hinges, crushed them into shards and splinters and assorted debris.

To be sure, there is a sort of commonplace assumption about the “grotesque,” that it encompasses all things distorted, depraved, and/or demoniacal, and such an assumption is not entirely wrongheaded. Upon hearing the excessively grisly details of Robin Williams’ suicide, for instance – details, I might add, that specified the late comedian’s precise posture at the time of “death-via-asphyxia” and previous attempts at self-harm – a family member of mine remarked, with a generous helping of disgust in her voice: “How sickening. How grotesque.” This usage, while admittedly atheoretical, is not too far off the mark. The “grotesque” is that which causes us to turn away, to shut our eyes, and sometimes, if it is especially potent, to scream out.

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A Meditation on Culture/Internationalism

Drip.

I sigh as I brush my damp hair out of my eyes.

Drip.

Another sigh.

Drip.

“Where’s that sound coming from?” My hand moves to my forehead again as I get up from my prone position.

A flash of light. The sound of rain pattering violently on tile.

“Ah.” I shuffle wearily to the window. “That’s where the drip came from.”

“About time,” my mom grumbles in Chinese. “Typhoon was supposed to come three days ago. Three extra days of pre-typhoon stuffiness.”

I start making my way up the stairs. “You want me to close the bedroom windows?”

“Yes, please.” More Chinese.

A few moments later, and I’m standing in front of my bedroom window.

I run a hand through my hair again as I stare out the window. Rain is lashing down everywhere, turning the nearby creek into a mess of concentric circles and the bright red lanterns into soggy balls of maroon.

These are the Septembers that my parents grew up in. Torrential rain punctuated with interludes of sweltering, humid heat.

I look out over the darkened street.

This was the life they lived. Simple childhoods by a crook, catching dragonflies and toads, collecting cicada pupae for traditional pharmacies, steeped in a culture that defines them and, perhaps, could have defined me.

I sigh again. My parents, caught up in the massive chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the cultural dark age that accompanied it, rarely brought Chinese culture into our family. And so, despite spending most of my childhood summers and the last five years in China, I am still staunchly American—with a Chinese ancestry. My parents taught me to question, to criticize, but never really got around to sharing what they had been like, how their families had lived.

So it’s not surprising that I was a bit out of my element living in China. My Chinese was, to say the least, choppy and accented, and I could squeak out barely a few phrases in Shanghainese, a dialect that should have been my native tongue.

Suddenly, the Asian-American identity that I’d carefully crafted was no longer relevant. To my Chinese relatives and friends, I was an American, a foreigner. At best, I was a “banana”–yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

But, as I’ve only just realised, I’m quite okay with that. I was never going to quite fit in in China, nor, with my wanderlust, any place else that I decided to live. My time overseas meant that my experiences no longer quite meshed with those of Asian Americans, Californians, or even Americans as a whole (pardon my sloppy generalisations here).

I have friends who I care about, a college community that I respect, and goals to realised. Maybe I’m naively delusional, but for now, that’s enough to keep me going.