Alone together

Lost in Translation

I have a chemistry midterm tomorrow. I’m halfway through two emails — one to my editor explaining why I won’t be able to meet the deadline for this article and the second to a professor about not making my 8 a.m. I know what you’re thinking — my work ethic is so trash that I can’t even be bothered to go for lecture, right? I mean, I signed up for this when I decided to pack my bags and come to UC Berkeley and enroll here for four years. Why did I even do it if I’m not committed enough to the cause?

But the thing is, I am committed. I’m skipping the 8 a.m. lecture so that I can study till 4 a.m. and not collapse at 8 p.m. when I take my midterm. I’m trying to get an extension for this article so that I don’t have to skip breakfast and lunch to write it. In my head, I’m making four different types of to-do lists and constantly arranging and rearranging my daily schedules, all the while trying to maintain a positive outlook on life and learning so that I can make the most out of my time here.

“Making the most of my time here” is a such a heavy phrase. I sigh and glance around me at the emptying Starbucks. I’ve been here since 10 a.m., and I desperately need a break. But I don’t know where to go or what to do — all I know is that I want to be alone, listen to music and not think for a while.

As I walk aimlessly through campus, I casually wonder how long someone has to feel exhausted by school and miss deadlines to classify themselves as a burnout. Does it still count as a burnout if you give up in the first three months? Or do you have to wait for at least a semester before it can be categorized as one? I tell myself that it isn’t a big deal, that I’m only being overly dramatic because I feel unprepared for my midterm. After it’s over, I can take a break and practice some much-needed self-care. But then again, have I worked enough to deserve a break? Where is the line between being lazy and practicing self-care? Having an existential crisis when I’m supposed to be analyzing chemical molecules is not exactly a good sign. But hey, at least both were organic.

For me, a large amount of this pressure is self-imposed. I feel pressured to validate my parents’ decision to send me here. To saturate myself with experiences and wring Berkeley dry of every resource, connection and opportunity that it has to offer. And every time I slow down, every time I pause, I wonder if I should. I wonder if I’ve earned it. I wonder if burning out is the only way to do it right. I wonder if I’m really pushing myself to the maximum, working the hardest I can to “make the most of my time here.”

My parents have never once burdened me with expectations. They’ve always made it amply clear that whatever I’m doing is only important if I’m doing it for myself. They’ve always measured my achievements not by a number or a letter but by the amount of joy it brings me. I know that my dad would be equally proud of me whether I told him I got an A or that I shotgunned two beers, if that’s what made me happy.

But making them proud is still important to me. I’m obviously indebted to my parents. They paid a large sum of money and consciously suppressed their overwhelmingly overprotective instincts to let their only daughter move across the world, which I know is an underappreciated and gigantic effort. So, when I do call home, I tell them everything. But I don’t tell them about the pressure that I’ve put on myself to do well.

And every time I call home, they ask me if I’m having enough fun and reassure me that there are enough people in this world who have made it without a 4.0. I laugh and joke that I am partying way too much and can always marry rich if I bomb college. But being academically inclined is a huge part of who I am as a person. And the fear of losing that part of me is akin to the fear of losing my very identity — a whole new level of the fear of missing out. It’s irrational and unsustainable, but “it be like that sometimes.”

It’s 8 p.m. now. I lazily plug my earphones in and turn the volume way up until I can’t hear myself think anymore. It’s just something that I do when I want to force my mind to shut down. I know I came to UC Berkeley because (in the immortal words of Miley Cyrus in “The Climb”) there’s always going to be another mountain, and I’m always going to want to make it move. But actually coming to Berkeley is understanding Cyrus when she sings, “There’s always going to be an uphill battle, and sometimes I’m going to have to lose.” It’s resonating with John Legend’s “All of Me” when he sings, “My head’s underwater, but I’m breathing fine.” And more than anything else, it’s rejoicing when Fall Out Boy sings “Let’s Be Alone Together.”

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