March 6, 2018

LEE | Home Safe Home

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There are many aspects to “adulting” that I’ve learned over the past two years since my acceptance to Cornell. I applied for a student visa and traveled alone on a plane for the first time, set up and started managing my own bank account, signed my first housing contract with a landlord, got my first paid job, began to shop for groceries and cook regularly — the list could go on. I thought that achieving such milestones allowed me to become one step closer to adulthood, that I had done a pretty good job of making it through these rites of passage.

I was completely wrong. One thing that I had discarded was a sense of concern for safety. I actually don’t think that I’ve ever felt as safe before living here in Ithaca and being on a college campus. While developing other skills for adulthood, I somehow lost my ability to deliberate on the need to first and foremost be safe. In Dubai or Seoul, where I have most recently lived, I would never even have considered the thought of leaving the doors to my house unlocked. However, I just felt like I was out of harm’s way living here in Ithaca and on the Cornell campus. Walking home alone from Uris Library to Balch at 3am at least once a month was something I would never have done elsewhere. Never having felt immediately attacked or at risk here, I had dismissed any regard for security.

But it was the same place that had made me become immune to basic safety measures that also alarmed me of the significance of remaining cautious at all times. The door to my apartment is rather heavy while the key is somewhat stiff and difficult to use. Plus, we have 6 housemates in total so we decided early on last semester that leaving the door unlocked would require less effort on our part. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago, a burglar apparently took advantage of the unlocked doors and broke into our unoccupied house to steal any cash in the desk drawers.

Although enough time has now passed for me to be able to write this down, I was quite traumatized immediately after the incident. The image of a stranger walking into my room and rummaging through my stuff continued to resonate in my mind. This image followed me along wherever I went — before falling asleep, when I was in the shower, when I opened the door to leave my apartment, whenever I was alone in the living room. I became extremely alert to the smallest sounds that I usually would have ignored beforehand. My brain was filled with questions about “what if.” What if I or another roommate had been there when the thief barged in — would they have had a weapon? What if he or she attempts to break in again? What if they somehow happen to also have the keys? What if we had kept our doors locked?

Prior to this happening, I had never been directly involved with a crime, at least to my recollection. I was a victim for the first time. Although my experience is much less painful than that of someone who was physically or sexually assaulted or abused, I realized how agonizing it is to be the target of any crime. I especially recognized how susceptible the victim can be in blaming him or herself. Yes, while it was initially my fault for not having kept the doors locked, I was still shocked and distressed nonetheless for having been robbed of my belongings and sense of security. I placed  greater blame on myself than the burglar that indeed put me through a phase of anxiety.

I hope for a society in which victims won’t need to feel at fault and there would be no need for vigilance against potential dangers. I had thought of Ithaca and Cornell’s college campus to at least some degree be that sort of shelter. But I was misguided by that sense of protection and serenity, as such perceptions of overwhelming safety were what in fact led me into a position of greater danger. As of now, I guess the best thing to do is preempt potential mishaps by being wary of the fact that no place is really a safe haven. Both our main entrance and apartment doors are now, of course, fully locked. I learned the lesson the hard way — no matter how inconvenient a feature can be, inconvenience can’t and never should override the primary need for safety.
DongYeon (Margaret) Lee is a sophomore in the ILR school. She can be reached at Here, There and Everywhere appears alternate Tuesdays.