Only child but never alone

Lost in Translation

People often talk about the emotional trauma of being the middle child, or the struggle of living in the shadow of a successful sibling. But I don’t think the general population quite grasps the ordeal of going through your teenage years as an only child.

Not to be overly dramatic, but privacy had no place in the first seventeen years of my life. Growing up in an Indian household meant that my parents made abundantly clear to me that all my affairs were their affairs – but their affairs were none of my business. You’ve seen those #GrowingUpWithStrictParents posts on social media? I could be the poster child for that hashtag.

Now, I’m not saying that children who have siblings don’t have strict parents. All I’m saying is that the screw-ups of siblings would occasionally offer some much-needed respite from the 24/7 surveillance that an only child is usually kept under.

My parents were big on spontaneity – just not when it came to me. My mom had absolutely no problem planning impulsive family vacations or a meet-and-greet with relatives. But if I decided to spontaneously go out for some harmless fun, I’d be met with a barrage of suspicious questions.

All through high school, I had to excessively plan my social engagements just so I could inform my parents well in advance of logistical details. This meant specifying any modes of transport, departure time, expected time of arrival and a rooster containing names and phone numbers of all the people that I was gallivanting with. Okay, that’s obviously an exaggeration. They never asked me for phone numbers.

Friday nights were family fight nights – I’d go out and come back after my ridiculously early curfew, argue, cry, makeup and then repeat the entire process next Friday. But we were used to this routine. We almost seemed to thrive off of this clash of our personalities, this magnetic pulling, pushing and stretching of ground rules. It was like an endless game of chess.  Every time I tried to bargain for a one-time extension of my curfew, my parents wondered if I’d use it as precedent to permanently extend it. Navigating this was indeed a battle of wits – beautiful, but in an utterly chaotic way.

And given this life on a tight leash, can you imagine the sheer magnitude of freedom that coming to Berkeley gave me? My parents were 8000 miles away from me and in an entirely different time zone. Gone were the days where they would know where I was and what I was doing every single minute of every single day. Gone were the days of strict curfews and suspicious questions. For the first time in my short life of 18 years, I was truly my own master. I could sleep when I wanted, wake up when I wanted, study, party, play, nap and eat whenever the fuck I felt like it — and if that meant that I had to do my own laundry and make my bed every morning, it was completely worth it.

This new and unprecedented freedom left me disoriented for the first few weeks. In my haste to prove that I was completely capable of being an adult, I tried diligently to follow the schedule I had back home. I’d try to wake up early and finish my homework so that I could chill at night with my friends. But although I finished my work, I’d end up sleeping at 3am every day and waking up at 8:30am, exhausted and cranky. For the past few months before coming to Cal, all I had dreamt about was going off to college and making my own rules, but now that I was here – I couldn’t seem to shake my old routine.

For example, one Wednesday night, I was at a study session at Unit 1 that stretched on quite late. To make things easier and prevent me from walking back alone at that hour, one of my friends suggested that I just crash there for the night. And I, in my sleep deprived, only-child conditioned state, immediately replied ‘No, not on a school night.’ It was only after I registered the amused look on their faces that I realized what I had said. This was college — weekends were a social construct, and every night was a ‘school night.’ I was no longer bound by the notion that I couldn’t sleep over at someone’s place on a weekday. I could do whatever the hell I wanted — as long as I was ready to face the consequences of my actions in the morning.

So now my days start at 12pm and go on till 3am. Sometimes I drink orange juice at 1 a.m. on the way back from Moffitt (where I’ve practically moved in) or finish a tub of Ben and Jerry’s with my roommates while watching Friends till early morning. And some days  I manage to eat 3 square meals, not overdose on caffeine and even shower. My schedule isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely getting there. Either way, I have managed to do more than just survive on a day to day basis in this new country and environment by myself. And the way I look at it, even if I’m dying (and I definitely am) – at least it’s on my own terms.

Anusha Subramanian writes the Thursday blog on being an international student. Contact her at [email protected] .