Personal essay: the “In-Betweeners”

LowerSproul_Rgarner
Rachael Garner/File

“Y“ou can tell who’s a dancer by what they’re wearing,” declared my Adidas track pants-clad, incredibly agile friend as we sat in front of the studio on the second floor of Eshleman Hall, gazing out onto Lower Sproul.

Lower Sproul after 6 p.m, in between the consolidation of dance teams and the end of a semester, is a phenomenon that everyone should witness. The landscape is marked by the disappearance of daylight and the appearance of people slowly making their ways to different places, all while individuals morph into clumps of synchronized movement.

While witnessing this scene unfold before me, my friend’s comment resonated and prompted me to look down to scrutinize my own clothes. Generic black leggings, a tank top, a cardigan.  This inventory of my outfit rang like a mantra through my head. I didn’t know what to make of my clothes. Did I look like a dancer?

“I don’t think you dress like a dancer. Your style’s … ”

Some arbitrary adjective followed, but my friend’s pause said it all. I did not.

Her hesitance sent an unwarranted panic through my nerves. Dancers dress a certain way; I do not dress like a dancer. Therefore, I must not be a dancer.

I tried to refute this by telling myself that I was on a dance team, but this was a feeble defense. For one, I didn’t dress the part. For another, it had been months since I’d joined my team, and I still wasn’t improving at the rate of my teammates. I kept forgetting moves, my limbs still flailed at moments when everyone else’s struck out crisply, and my own two feet refused to cooperate with each other. How could a self-proclaimed dancer be so bad at what she loved? Maybe I was doomed to watch others improve on Lower Sproul while I metaphorically remained on the second floor of Eshleman, my nose and forehead pressed to the glass window, delegated to the back corners of various formations for the rest of my time in dance groups.

I wanted to fit in so badly. I went to my directors’ office hours, religiously watched the videos of the choreographers at a famous dance studio in Korea and even went to the aforementioned studio as a sort of holy pilgrimage with the foolish hope that learning from some of the brightest and the best would miraculously make me a light-footed yet powerful dancer within a day.

At some point, though, I realized that I wanted to be a dancer so badly, and that was the problem. What I wanted to accomplish was intense yet vague because I claimed that I wanted to be a better dancer, but in reality, I just wanted to better adopt the mien of a dancer. I wanted to envelop myself in that seemingly inherent cool poise and sass without putting in the vast amount of sweat and exhaustion.

I kept forgetting moves, my limbs still flailed at moments when everyone else’s struck out crisply, and my own two feet refused to cooperate with each other. How could a self-proclaimed dancer be so bad at what she loved?

But I get it. For me and so many others, there’s this sense that the hubbub of a giant college campus will suck us right in and brutally toss us around with abandon. When CalCentral doesn’t answer our pressing questions about financial aid or enrollment, it’s easy to think that we’re just faceless numbers, and this totally goes against the principles of why we’re here. We’re not hauling ass to be seen as replaceable cogs; we’re at a world class institution to better ourselves, to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the world. Because of this, we try so hard to anchor ourselves within this madness with labels — whether it be through majors, organizations or even ethnicities, labels have taken on an increasing importance in this post-postmodern chaos of the world.

Factor in the fact that, for a lot of college students, it’s our first time being thrust into such a turbulent environment by ourselves, and we’ve got a labeling frenzy. It’s nice to have markers that ground us to something substantial; it gives us a sense of purpose. Branding ourselves via organizations, by wearing letters or logos on our clothes, says that we belong somewhere. Aligning ourselves to an organization is a way to cope with the sense of being lost that’s part and parcel of being on such a huge campus.

But this strategy alienates people who have a wide range of interests, who want to differentiate themselves even further or both. I like to call these people the “in-betweeners,” of which I am one.

The amount of dedication it would take to reach my flawed, desired idea of perfection in dance  was nearly impossible for me because I was (and still am) involved in a pre-law fraternity and The Daily Californian as well. Right before dance practice, you can catch me finishing up an article or sending out emails. And during fraternity meetings, I am often talking about dance or a particularly arduous article. And in the office, I traipsed back from the bathroom while marking the choreography that I’d learned the day before or brooding over what I could wear that night that could be considered business casual.

But just being involved and a part of these groups wasn’t enough or the point for me; I needed these groups to be a part of me, to be a part of my very identity, and show everyone around me how much I was involved. So not only did I want to entirely encompass the perfect appearance of a dancer, but I also needed to look the part of a writer and a future lawyer. I thought this was a cool way to make myself stand out from the crowd because no one I knew seemed to occupy these three different niches. Why just be dubbed a dancer, a future lawyer or a writer when you can be seen as all three?

It was honestly, unproductively exhausting. I found myself so desperate to adopt the mannerisms of each student organization I was involved in that I had lost sight of why I had joined in the first place. I had joined because dance, law and writing were my interests, but I now found myself hyperfocusing on what being interested in dance, law and writing should look like. I was getting discouraged by my inability to fully throw myself in any one organization, and I was consequently unmotivated to actually improve. I grew obsessed with the trivialities, such as apparel. I should have been going to my directors’ office hours, attending chapter meetings and writing stories because I wanted to, but I found myself growing increasingly resentful and annoyed by everything instead. I went through the motions of a dedicated member of each organization without carving any time for myself or even enjoying myself because there was some unspecified goal of, “Ah, yes. Now I am a true member,” that I felt I had to reach as soon as possible.

Whether it be through majors, organizations or even ethnicities, labels have taken on an increasing importance in this post-postmodern chaos of the world.

This totally goes against my true status as an in-betweener. I need time to explore my interests at a leisurely pace. Sometimes, my interest in one of the organizations I’m involved in will surge and completely consume my life. At other times, my interest will wane for a bit as I tinker around in other areas. Maybe this makes me a flake to some people, but at least I’m a happy flake.

Using prepackaged labels is nice because they help make sense of the confusion known as college, but for all of us out there who feel like we fall in between the cracks, who feel like we can’t completely adhere to the identities — even stereotypes — set forth by the labels we loosely attach to ourselves, who join organizations and choose to double major in areas that don’t seem to overlap, it’s OK. I can choose to adopt the parts of each organization that suit me best. My outfit doesn’t have to make me look like a dancer, a writer or a lawyer — it’s OK to look like all three at once or none at all. I can talk about biology and then switch to analyzing a piece of literature. And I’m still just as valid to use these labels as anyone who wholly devotes their self to it.

The whole college experience itself is one giant sense of “in-betweenness,” anyway. We’re considered adults, but many of us are still teenagers. And in many ways, this in-betweenness is harder to navigate than full-blown adulthood. So there’s no need to add to these difficulties by hemming and hawing over what it really means to adopt certain identifiers.

This same philosophy applies to life outside college, too. So many people focus on identifying themselves by race, ethnicity, sexuality and more — which are all important markers — but people shouldn’t feel reduced to these labels. Sure, it makes things easier to explain, but it makes all of us in-betweeners feel displaced.

I had joined because dance, law and writing were my interests, but I now found myself hyperfocusing on what being interested in dance, law and writing should look like.

Another sense of in-betweenness that I’ve experienced stems from my identity as a Korean-American. I’m a second generation Korean who takes pride in my family’s culture but has some qualms about traditional Korean values and beliefs. This is standard of many Korean-Americans, but I don’t quite fit the Korean-American mold that I’ve grown up seeing, either. And I’m sure that the people who seem to fit that mold also feel like they fall in between categories.

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve fully embraced the philosophy I’ve outlined here yet. I’m scared to write as the dancer, writer and future lawyer that I’ve made myself out to be because I feel like I don’t have enough legitimacy to speak out as a member of the organizations I’ve mentioned. I still feel like I need to completely embody the ideals of each organization I’m involved in, but I’ve begun to accept that this is also impossible and totally unnecessary — an important first step to feeling like I belong. I’ll keep wearing my mismatched outfits and have my closet overflowing with apparel from everything I’m involved in, even while coming to terms with the fact that I exist beyond these labels I choose to take on.

 

Ericka Shin is a writer for the Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]