It is 3 p.m. in San Francisco. We are making dumplings in the apartment of Chanel, one of the fellows in my cohort this summer. She is living in the heart of Chinatown with a full time staff member from the Chinese Progressive Association. My friends and I are admiring the apartment aloud, saying how there’s so much light, and how the space looks so cozy. The password to the wifi is “webelievethatwewillwin” and hot water is already bubbling on the stove.
There is a light brown L couch in the corner of the apartment, sidled in next to a bookshelf. It reminds me of a similar couch in my friend’s apartment back at Brown, but I let thoughts of Brown float away with the whistling on the stove. I am not alone here, not taking dizzy 7 a.m. showers, nursing 3 a.m. headaches in fluorescent library lights. Instead I am wrapped up in the quiet rustling behind me as my friends on the couch snatch pillows from each other, their garish laughter interrupting all soothing sounds around me—the bubbling water, soft rustling, calming music.
A year ago at Brown, I had finally given up on work on a couch strikingly similar to this one. I was studying with a friend but we had been naturally growing apart. Between classes that left me constantly pulling all nighters and a club I was holding up by myself that few people showed up to anyway, I was trying to convince myself I was all right with the aching in my back from sitting too long in lonely places and the barrenness I was slowly learning to hold close to my chest.
Here, I am standing at the table a few steps away, back relaxed and the dumpling wrappers starchy on my skin. Flour sticks to my fingers and somehow finds itself on the long edge of my sweater. Eddie, another cohort fellow, points it out and I laugh, embarrassed. “Don’t worry,” he teases, “It adds character.” It is a stupid little thought but the parts of me that are always tensed tight are learning to loosen a little with every too-nice-to-be-real interaction. Sometimes it all feels ridiculous, but some part of me that has been conditioned to be performative and competitive is slowing down to the tinkling of the pot cover.
We are all wearing the same sweater: dark blue, well-fitted, with sleeves that are long enough to pull over my knuckles. “Know History Know Self” is printed across the front of the sweater, alongside a kid with one fist raised and a “Fight For Ethnic Studies” sign clenched tight in the other. Eddie sold these to us; he was helping fundraise for APEN, the organization he’s working for this summer. As typical of my cohort, we all snatched them up as quickly as possible, because organizers love to do everything together, and organizers love to find every way to build.
A year ago at Brown, I wouldn’t have thought this was worth it. A year ago at Brown, I would’ve measured this (and myself) by arbitrary measures of prestige—am I at the breaking point yet? Have I pushed myself enough?
A year ago, my friend’s housemate was in the kitchen getting off a call with her long distance boyfriend and asking me about myself, probably just trying to be polite. She was a grad student at Brown, an aspiring English PhD, just passing through the common space, but I was dejected and frustrated and running out of sympathies for myself. She said she studied English too and suddenly my composure snapped and I was crying about how there are never any safety nets in this place.
I thought I knew my limits but then I’d taken one class too many and all of a sudden it was like I had never learned anything here at all. I began talking to my friend’s housemate who I didn’t know and telling her that I had been thinking about an English PhD all along but something was always messy every semester and this was the semester I was finally supposed to get it together. I thought I had finally gotten all the adjustment pains out of the way, but how can you ever know anything in this damn place anyway? Nothing is ever stable. I told her that I have invested everything into the work and the loneliness and telling myself that it only feels so painful because nothing good ever comes easy—but at the same time I am so tired, tired of always hanging by a thread like this, tired of learning so precariously.
On the last night of my first week in San Francisco I stayed with another staff member from CPA and he asked me a lot of questions, like most organizers like to do: How are you feeling? What do you need? What is coming up for you?
I’m thinking about sustainability, I told Jonathan. I’m thinking about what it means to keep these types of moments always floating to the surface.
He told me about Pam Tau Lee in response. Pam, a badass Asian American organizer that founded CPA many years ago, is still in the organizing business even though drop-out rate is high and few organizers ever stay in the industry past 30. Somehow she escaped burn out, he said, and he once asked her why. She told him to “find your crew and build with them.”
I was tempted to roll my eyes but here in the Bay we are making dumplings together and the soft music is punctuated by garish laughter and I am thinking about how that phrase somehow never leaves my head. I am not thinking about the grind—not thinking about the dizziness, the headaches, the 4 a.m. fluorescent lights.
I am thinking that the angle of the light as it hits my napping friend on the couch is some kind of lesson. I am thinking about pressing the dumpling wrappers together like some kind of simplified origami. My mind is still fixated on the flour stain on the bottom of my sweater but the part of me that is always afraid everything is going to fall apart is suspended somewhere in the tangled light in my friend’s hair, in the endearingly cliche tarot cards and vegetarian cookbooks stashed in the bookshelves.