The Last Five Years

The paradox of being an internal processor in the Internet age is that while I prefer to do my thinking through writing, as many who keep journals can relate to, I also admit to following that irresistible urge to share my thoughts with the world online. There is a delicate balance between writing honestly about my life — which is necessary for personal reflection and deconstruction — and writing engagingly and relevantly — which is necessary for the entertainment of my audience, but sometimes requires being less than completely frank. I think that more often than not, I aim for the more candid version of anything I might set out to write. But here’s the funny thing: it seems that the blog posts that generate the most traffic are also the ones that address the darker and sadder parts of my life. At least, they’re not the ones that I would necessarily call “entertaining”. They are just starker, realer reflections of my current worldview: life is tough, but hope is there, and though it be small, it is yet powerful.

Anyway, where am I going with this? I’m reflecting on my blogging after having attended my five-year college reunion. (Five. Years. Time just doesn’t give a damn, does it?) A lot of my peers came up to me over the weekend and commented on how they have enjoyed keeping up with my blog posts over the years. One of my friends told me that she still reads whenever I share a link to a new post on Facebook, even though she might never leave a comment. And this made me realize that even though we have only had the briefest of text message conversations over the past five years, she must know a hell of a lot more about my current life — the good and the bad included — than I know about hers. I find this very interesting and ruminated on it long after she had caught me up on everything she’d been up to.

It’s not just the writing, though. Social media has allowed me to keep tabs on some people from high school, college, and Korea, but I can’t explain the seemingly random subset of my acquaintances that it has chosen to send to the top of my feed. I ran into a former classmate and already knew that she’d finished a graduate program and moved to a new city. But one of my former roommates seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. (A quick Facebook check shows me that this is not true; the algorithms just decided that I haven’t been super interested in following his posts these past five years, and to an extent I guess that they were right.)

It’s possible now for an arbitrary photo to go viral, or one well-timed shared link accompanied by commentary to allow all one’s networks to get the latest scoop on your life, your looks, your stance on current affairs. You don’t have to put a lot of effort into this; get lucky with the social media algorithms, and seventy-five percent of your world can know who you’ve become without ever having to ask. And once you’ve put your big announcements out there, the burden of knowing what’s going on is on them, not you.

Yet it’s just as possible for a former friend to quietly fade from your life if you don’t take on the responsibility of sending an email or calling them up yourself.

For the most part, though, my friends and I remarked at reunion that it was so funny to chance upon a classmate and ask, “What have you been up to these past five years?” but already, in fact, know the answer.

Let’s be honest: attending a reunion requires quite a bit of performance. Sometimes you have to feign interest in your old classmate’s new job (because you’ve heard that same spiel from a dozen other people), or tell them their kids are honestly just the cutest ever (but you’ve already seen the photos on Instagram), or make a promise to hang out because you’ve just discovered you both live in the same city (or you did know and conveniently forgot). For every person I was genuinely overjoyed to see again, there were three that I was merely pleased to see again. (There was nobody, fortunately, that I had actively wanted to avoid.) But everyone gets the same smile and salutation: “So good to see you again! What have you been up to these past five years?”

I also found that I had to do some self-editing when I answered the question for my own part. If someone had just told me they had just finished grad school or were in some doctoral program, I found it much easier to describe what I’m doing now at Berkeley. But for friends who were not, I became very self-conscious of how I might come across if I talked about what it’s like to get a fancy degree or how fortunate I am to be paid to stay in school. Since some of my peers are in between jobs or are otherwise stalled in their careers, I tried to downplay how comfortable I am in my present circumstances (though I feel uncomfortable writing this), because, well, no one likes meeting up with an old friend only to discover that they’ve become a pretentious braggadocio.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical about this. Well, what did you expect? It comes from a place of honesty. See, I am always happy to get back in touch with old friends and acquaintances, but my preference has always been to do this on a one-on-one basis: grabbing a meal with a few people at a time to chat, rather than squeezing in a hundred quick awkward catch-up conversations in forty-eight hours. I had to wring the extroversion out of myself like tepid water from a very limp sponge, and I may not be ready to do it all again until the ten-year reunion. “See you all in five years!” I said brightly — and truthfully — to my friends before I left, followed up with, “Please come visit whenever you find yourself in California!” Also truthfully.

What’s funny is that my friends who went to large universities instead of small colleges were so charmed by the idea of an actual class reunion. Since I supposedly got to know every single one of my classmates, my homecoming would be much more meaningful than theirs, lost as they are in a sea of thousands upon thousands of alumni. But that isn’t really the case.

The feelings that came rushing when I visited my alma mater last year, which was the first time I’d been back since graduating, were much more powerful. It was the middle of June and the campus was deserted. Humid, buzzing with insects, and exploding in greenery. Peaceful, almost sacrosanct. I received and I revived while I walked around the amphitheater and my old dormitory. In contrast, the rush of human energy around the reunion weekend was taxing. I gave as much as I got but still felt depleted. And that’s not just because I stayed out late for the parties and after parties! There’s just something about a low-key reunion that works better for me than a big, hyped-up one.

All that said, there are two things that I realized I’ve been missing like hell for the past few years: being silly with my friends and documenting said silliness on my camera. I haven’t done as much photography since starting graduate school, and I regret it. One friend told me that pretty much all the photos of her that exist on social media were taken by me in our four years at college. I used to take my camera with me everywhere I went; these days I dust it off for special occasions only. In college I would also play games like Ninja and Contact all the time, or strike up a debate with my hallmates about something entirely trivial, and for whatever reason I never do this anymore. Is this part of growing up? Do we all prefer to pass the time on our phones now? Or is it just me?

The comforting thing is that it was easy to slip back into that familiar routine over the long weekend: just like old times, let’s all play a game while we picnic on Parrish Beach, and then I’ll take a bunch of photos and throw them up on Facebook later. Like nothing’s changed.

But perhaps it will be five years before I can enjoy that kind of comfort again.

I think that’s all that I had to say about reunion, for the time being. Below are some shots I took of my beautiful alma mater. (True to form, I am not in any of them.) And, though I may never know who has actually read this, thank you, dear Reader, for stopping by.

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Word of the Day: ergodic, from the Greek έργον (ergon: “work”) and οδός (odos: “path”), is a word whose many uses I cannot even begin to explain, but in at least one case it means, “relating to the condition that over time, a system will return to a state that is closely similar to a previous one”. I’ve come across this word to describe dynamical systems as I read up on them for my linguistics research. I mostly don’t understand any of it because I know pretty much nothing about physics and statistics. But I like taking a metaphorical stab at describing the tendency we humans all have, as complex creatures, to return to the places we’ve come from, through the concept of ergodicity.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in life, musings, summer and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Last Five Years

  1. This is such a thoughtful post. Thanks for writing it!


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