Have you ever read a book called “Prep” by Curtis Sittenfeld? It is a coming-of-age novel where a teenage girl starts to explore the world by doing things that she never had done. Sittenfeld won several big awards with this book for accurately and descriptively depicting the insecure, vulnerable, and yet adventurous psyche of a teenage girl. Well, it is a good read but actually not that important. I just wanted to say that for the past few weeks or more, I was increasingly becoming bored just like the protagonist. This article is about how I (sort of) overcame the boredom through encounters Northfield allowed me to have.
Since this week’s theme is “reflection on my four years in Northfield,” let me acknowledge that I still have a year left. Yet, I think what makes me writing this article all the more meaningful is because I am excited to enjoy next year with an unprecedented level of appreciation toward the people Northfield has. Until very recently, I did not realize that Northfield can be such a big town with so many stories. Professors and friends I met at Carleton, random townspeople I met on the streets, cats and squirrels, and a number of physical spots all add to my understanding of Northfield.
When I say that I was bored or becoming so, I mean that I was rapidly losing vitality, vigor, and vision all at once. Everything that used to make me move or think no longer did so, and sloth overwhelmed me. I did not do my work or go to class because I thought life was too great a burden to bear and selfishly wished that somebody would just come and turned off my switch so that I didn’t have to have consciousness. One nice spring day, I looked at Lyman Lakes for an hour, agonized over the disparity between the world inside my head and so-called reality, and sincerely hoped that I could just disappear like a puff. Even my history paper on antebellum prostitution, which made me feel ecstatic whenever I read and wrote about, started to look dull.
The first encounter that started my ball rolling came from a seven-year-old boy who has a fat black cat named Oliver. In front of the Weitz Center and Northfield Lutheran Church, his small bike bumped into me when it lost its balance as the fat cat jumped into his lap. I actually cried because it really hurt. He seemed startled because, as he later explained, he had never seen an “old person like me” crying. I could not stop crying because, after some point, I no longer felt pain but instead howled over the lack of joy in my life. By then, this very clever person asked me, “you are not crying because of me. What’s wrong?” Without shame, I threw all the things out that were packed in my head. He probably did not really understood because when I sob, I just can’t articulate. Yet, in the end, he cut off my rambling and advised, “you think too much. I think you should do what you want to do at every moment.” And somehow, that spoke directly to me.
On that Sunday, a second encounter came; I saw a really hot guy on Winona Street. We were walking towards each other and from a distance, I noticed the glamor around his physique. It was the seven-year-old boy’s voice that I heard at the moment, and when we finally passed by, I asked him if he wanted to sleep with me. After two seconds, he said yes, and I freaked out. We tentatively set a time, and I was befuddled until he rescinded it after two days.
Many questions popped up in my mind during that time, mainly revolving around his motivation of saying yes. Why did he not think of all the dangerous possibilities that he could otherwise avoid? I could have been a serial killer who would seduce and kill him. Or a vengeful woman who got an incurable STD and attempt to spread it. Why did he potentially invite me to physical intimacy without thinking of any security? Why was I not a threatening stranger to him? How do I look to other people? These questions, I could not expediently answer, so I asked a few friends and a professor about male psychology and looked up on jstor keywords like “female sexuality in the society” and “Asian woman in the United States.” A couple of articles introduced me to some interesting studies on male sexual gratification, and I felt like experimenting in it for myself. For the next three days, everyday with different attires, I went out to Northfield streets and in total, asked 7 men if they would like to have sex with me. Everyone, after a pause or two, said yes. I was impressed by the degree of accuracy the psychology and gender and sexuality scholars had presented in those papers. More interesting observations came when I immediately explained to them that it was my social experiment, and we would not be sleeping together. Some people were visibly outraged, and that made me wonder why. Clearly, I was losing my boredom and found myself again working on my history paper on prostitution.
At the moment when I reached a deadlock in understanding the results of my experiment, I saw my professor walking the beautiful, flower-petal flowing leeway between Leighton and the library. Then, I decided to ask for his opinion. After hearing my experiment and the results, he carefully posited his theory, which was in line with many other scholarly works: that when having or instinctively imagining sex, man does not care about his sexual conjugator; it is all about himself. (As a qualification that I have to put, this view on male sexual gratification does not include the change of behavioral and psychological pattern when the man is engaged in socialization.) That partially explained why every one in my sample did not reject the offer; I was easy game, he could just thrust and take me as his a material conquest, not an individual being. This cleared the puzzle a bit, but made me slightly disturbed. Then, without the process of socialization, how can a woman be taken as a living, conscious person to a man? Can a woman be not sexual at the first encounter?
My fourth encounter(s) came after a history class on this Wednesday. The professor gave a small anecdote on how in the historic South, people sat on the front couch in the evening and bantered greetings to their neighbors. Then, we listened to Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” a poem that ends with a line singing “Say simply, very simply, with hope, good morning.” At the end of class, I was determined to do another set of experiment; this time, however, with greetings. In the previous seven cases, I was upfront and immediately asked, “I think you are really attractive, would you like to have sex with me?” This time, I started with, “Hi, how are you? How was your day?” After a bit of conversation, I asked the same would-you-like-some-sex question, and this time, I saw a difference in reactions. My respondents mostly seemed astounded (one burst into cursory laughter) and asked me back why I was doing this. In the end, all of them even warned that asking such a thing to a stranger can be very dangerous. Walking down College Street, I cried out in joy because I felt that although I might have been a complete weirdo, at least I was taken for a fellow human being, not as an expedient vehicle for sex. I was pleasantly overwhelmed by the power of greeting or acknowledging the humanity in a person.
Going back to the struggle against my pathological boredom, I recalled the message from the seven-year-old boy and decided to do something bad “just for fun.” In this journey, I got tremendous help from friends who I only accidentally discovered to be really, like really, nice people. Clearly, I don’t have the capability to tangibly articulate their generosity and warm-heartedness, but I will work on it. These were two friends who I had taken three classes with but was never engaged in knowing. One great sunny day, I saw one of them smoking a cigarette and asked him if I could try; he did and we smoked at the smoke place in front of the library. The way the smog flew into the cobalt-blue Northfield sky and disappeared was cathartic, and looking at the white clouds and the green through the smoke was even an aesthetic experience. Soon the other of the two came, and we hung out that afternoon. One time, they asked me why I was trying stuff and at that moment, I came to realize that casually doing something “deviant” without conscious efforts would help me empathize with the historical actors who were called “deviant.” Recalling back, that must have been a kind of weird answer, but I do not remember any embarrassment. After that great company, back home I was too contented to keep the happiness only to myself. I hugged my roommate for a really long time - she seemed confused - in a belief that happiness multiplies and transfers. The encounter with new parts of people that I knew but did not labor enough to meet shook me in a good way.
Around this time, I met two new people who made me really happy with their kindness. One was a friend of the aforementioned two, and when I first saw him, walking into the dorm through a reflective glass door with sunshine in his back, he looked like a panther. It was, however, not his beauty but his nuanced nicety that mesmerized me. There are few occasions, but since this article is already really long, I will just recollect the first one. We were enjoying the weather at the Japanese gardens, a place I used to condescendingly mock because of its moniker farcically epitomized Orientalism. He and the other two were talking about a friend with their friends, and I was giving up on following what they were talking about. Then, I, being a typical newbie, asked who that person was. Quite predictably, no one answered at the moment. I was soothing myself saying that it was one of those questions that you don’t have to get answered anyway. After a few seconds, however, maybe noticing that I was slightly embarrassed, this person answered me. This might sound so trivial, but thinking that he did not have any incentive nor a single reason to do so (after all, even if he did not answer, that would not make him feel bad or anything), I took it as a pure act of kindness. I feel like I tend to be overly poised and don’t make much sense around him but hope that he does not freak out inside.
The other one was the owner of Northfield tobacco shop who spent twenty minutes straight up telling me how he started smoking at the age of fourteen, regretted it, but failed to quit because of addiction and contended with an unmistakable emphasis, how bad smoking is and why one should not ever do it. That was right after I told him that it was my first time smoking and asked if he had any suggestion. Given that he could have effortlessly led me to make a stupid purchase, which would benefit him, I cried inside for the goodness of humanity. The Northfield tobacco shop seems entirely different after this pleasant encounter.
After all this discovery that happened in Northfield, I came to question why I was so fascinated by these “new” encounters. Were these people significantly more special or interesting people than those I loved before? I don’t think so. Reaching that point, I felt compelled to see one of my friends who I had not seen for a while. It may sound very anti-social, but I always thought stopping by at a friend’s room is a pesky business, so this was my first time actually visiting my friend just to chat in her room. We talked for an hour, and finding myself in a space created and maintained by her, I never felt so close to this person. While we were talking about some silly stuff, she came to mention that we should have reunions once we graduated college. “Every year… no that’s too much, maybe every two years, we should meet up somewhere in the world - every time at a different place! - and see how things changed.” All of the sudden, I felt like living. I felt like now I have a future not just for myself but with someone in the same picture. I cried a little, and she cheerfully laughed.
Two other of my loved ones also substantially made me overjoyed about this business of living as a human being. They are very different people but somehow told me essentially the same thing. I was telling them that after all those encounters, I increasingly lost the sense of common sense and now don’t know how to not make people feel awkward around me. One with very kind and circumlocutious manner and the other with more chiddy remarks told me: since I have always been weird just as all the other people in the world are weird, it is okay to continue what I have now. I went to the riverside around the midnight and slightly weeped, appreciating their understanding hearts and recognizing that all my past efforts to seem “normal,” whatever that means now, were futile. All these experiences lead me to ask, what do I really know about people in Northfield? Why don’t I start exploring before it gets too late?
Again, all of these experiences happened in Northfield. When I was seventeen, I did not expect that this small town located in the middle-of-nowhere and surrounded by endless cornfields would be the place that I had to spend 4 years of my early twenties. I like watching high-rise buildings and bustling and overdressed people. That did not change, but I started to really like Northfield. I can hardly imagine this town changed drastically and no longer “boring,” but all those small spots where I encountered people now make this place very special. After all, it was the boringness that entails the sense of safety so that I can do all this stuff. Just to quote Maya Angelous in remembrance of her greatness, there are friends under the face of strangers, and at least, I think, in this town, too small to care too much, I alone am enough and have nothing to prove to anybody. Nothing manifestly changed in my life, but I am not bored anymore. And I really like that.