By Vicky Chong
Hey everyone! I hope everyone is doing just fine. I’ve just finished wrapping up my last semester at Santa Rosa Junior College, and I’ve got all the feels! So, I thought I’d spend this entry reflecting on the 1.5 years I spent at the JC and let you know what the full mental and emotional experience was really about.
When I arrived in Santa Rosa, I was initially filled with dread. DREAD! This was because of how suburban Santa Rosa looked and felt, how everything was so spaced out, and the nearest Krispy Kreme was 20 whole minutes away in another town (I know, tragic), and there was no skyscraper in sight, and everything just felt so slow and depressing. YES it was quite dramatic (things weren’t nearly as bad) but I was from a big city, born and raised in Kuala Lumpur where I lived on the 13th floor of a skyrise with views of glittering skylines beyond every window, with highways and buildings packed together and restaurants closing at 12am, and something different to do every day and every night SO this quiet, small town of Santa Rosa was quite a shift. I grew up with everything so fast-paced and condensed that suddenly living in a suburban college town was a really hard adjustment. Initially, my mental health suffered quite a bit. I would get so restless and anxious at night, needing to be distracted and busy and doing something outside but instead, I had to deal with everything closing at 8/9pm (I know). This quietness and bedtime drove me crazy until I started to make friends and realized that people were alive past 9pm, they were just hanging out in their homes!
When I started to grow my social life, this restlessness was quenched and I realized that I was starved for human connection and that my repulsion to this small town life was only amplified because of it. That’s not to say that after I made friends, it completely turned around and I loved being in Santa Rosa (heck no, it’s still way too quiet for me!!), it’s just that after I found people I loved spending time with, I didn’t feel so alone and out of place anymore. However, there were still bouts of homesickness and feeling left out. Leaving home and all my friends and family was especially hard in the beginning, of course. Sometimes, I would feel like I finally adjusted to living in Santa Rosa only to look at the social media posts of all my friends from home and be thrown into a pit of loneliness. A lot of my weekend evenings were spent in bed, crying and feeling like everyone at home moved on without me and that I’ll never find connection anymore. I would also look at old pictures of people and places and reminisce in the most emotional and painful way, telling myself that I’ll never feel at home anywhere else and that I won’t be happy so long as I was away. These feelings were all very valid and normal, of course. Such a big change was bound to take a toll on the old noggin! I was depressed for quite a bit because of all this disconnect, and it took me a while to get out of that funk. It started to get better once I started telling myself that this sadness was a phase. It was very hard but I accepted my sadness, clung on to my hopes and dreams of studying what I loved at my dream university, and told myself that everything would be exactly like I dreamed for so long.
Like I said, finding new friends and nourishing my social life was a big part of easing all the anxiety and loneliness and after a while, things started to look up again. I’d be excited to see my friends and do something fun over the weekend, and things would make me happy again. We liked to visit San Francisco at night, and when I tell you that being in the city did so much to improve my mental health I assure you I’m telling the truth! Visiting San Francisco became my absolute favorite thing to do, being there made my city girl heart sing!! It was amazing to feel part of a big city again, to feel part of something bigger than yourself.
Unexpectedly, my classes also did their part in motivating me again, pulling me out of my pit. I loved, LOVED my classes and they were the thing I was most excited about and the thing that made me happy. I loved learning all this new stuff and feeling good about my grades and working hard and having that hard work pay off — it was a great cycle. All my classes also gave me so much inspiration about the stuff I was learning (art history and anthropology and astronomy and literature — all so interesting and beautiful) that it made me appreciate life again. I was in awe about everything I learned in my classes that I felt so much gratitude for being able to take all this information in and to be educated about the most remarkable things. I’ll never, never take these things for granted!
Other than that, being at SRJC as an international student also taught me a thing or two about my cultural identity. Being a minority in a town like Santa Rosa (which has a relatively low POC demographic) definitely came with the pressure of blending in. This meant I was influenced to mute my cultural identity by internal and societal pressure in small ways, such as being uncomfortable eating ethnic food while with peers, embarrassment about speaking my mother tongue/slang in public, reluctant to bring up the fact that I’m an international student, feeling embarrassed to impose my own cultural norms (for example, asking house guests to remove their shoes) and etc. These micro-aggressions against my own culture were uncomfortable to deal with — since giving in to this pressure and refusing to adhere to it both came with consequences. However, after slowly letting go of my need to assimilate, I started to be so thankful for my unique cultural upbringing. Instead of being embarrassed about my superstitiousness or my love for fishballs (they are SO good and I REFUSE TO PRETEND ANYMORE!), I started to feel thankful and grateful I had my own norms to follow. I began to love the idea that I was different from everyone else, that my culture was unique and special and so beautiful! With that acceptance and embracement came my practice of consciously establishing my cultural identity, no longer shying away from indications that pointed to me being different. This meant speaking on the phone with my mother in public without an American accent, being unapologetic about cooking my home dishes when my friends come over, and not treating my identity of an international student like a dirty secret. It was such a phenomenal experience shifting from wanting to fit in to being grateful I don’t! It came with a lot of unlearning glorified western norms that go against my own culture and finding the bravery to speak up about who I am in a sea of Americans. I am a Malaysian Chinese, and I am so thankful to be raised the way I was!
Evidently, not only did I learn from my classes in my time at SRJC but I also learned about myself. I learned about who I was in a foreign place — a place that came with the age-old pressure to blend in (I was the only Malaysian there!). I also learned about the waxes and wanes of my mental health that resulted from moving across the world to pursue my dreams, and I learned about the bittersweetness of education — how in order to be inspired and educated, one must also learn to embrace the academic pressure and standards that come with it. This whole experience has been painful at times but so beautiful and rewarding in return and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
That’s it for me for now! My time at SRJC is done: it was butt-bustin hard work but I graduated summa cum laude with two associate’s degrees (one in English and one in Humanities) with a 4.0 and the dean’s Highest Honors, and I’ll be waiting for fall 2020 to start my first semester at UC Berkeley! It seriously can’t come soon enough. But I’ll definitely miss the sunsets and cherry blossoms at SRJC’s gorgeous campus. I’ll especially miss that boba store across the street. God, this makes moving away so hard! For now though, everyone should stay safe, wear masks, support your POC communities (especially your black communities), and fight the good fight! Lots of love as always.
Vicky Chong, from Malaysia, will be attending UC Berkeley in fall 2020.