Settling back into school after the summer is sometimes unsettling. It could be relearning a specific detached hello to that peripheral acquaintance, reunderstanding — in neutral sunlight — that route from the library once weighted with late-night assignments and February snow or retrieving social postures and modes of thinking almost exclusively inhabited in this patch of the world.
Settling back into Watermargin took relearning for me. I start from detached, structural descriptions to friends back home: “It’s a co-op — like a gender-neutral fraternity, but you help with the cooking and cleaning so it’s dirt cheap — themed around social justice.” More privately, I recall that its resonance to me wasn’t through spring formals or the barbeque on Slope Day as penetratingly as it is rushing a final paper and hearing a housemate make his fourth trip bringing down utensils he accumulated over the semester, dumpster diving and the festive sharing of spoils the night of and watching the house fall into disrepair during finals to the extent that my roommate proclaimed, “You know you’re in Watermargin when you feel an ant crawling up your leg.”
I remember, also, my early dissonance with its culture. My alternative description of Watermargin to Christian friends back in Singapore notes how within my first week here, I found a portrait of Jesus with condoms taped to his nipples. This, alongside the irreverent pasting of evangelical stickers I disagreed with but felt by-association defensive over and the confusing presence of religious paraphernalia disoriented my understanding of American social justice more broadly. Espousing inter-difference dialogue, Watermargin seemed to angle itself toward the representation of a very specific set of “identities” and causes that appeared self-selecting.
I was not the only one with this realization. A lot of attention has been paid to diversifying co-ops, which are currently mostly popular with a self-perpetuating, left-leaning demographic. Watermarginites themselves, noticing they had become predominated by white suburbanites several years back, sought to return to their roots as one of the first interracial and interreligious houses in North America by increasing base votes for “moseyers” of color and those facing financial barriers. But these identity labels cannot capture or guarantee a plurality of worldviews. And don’t differences in worldview hold far richer potential for cross-difference understanding?
While a lot of my alienation was internal in ways that most house members likely never characterized me by — being a racial minority, majoring in something “artsy” and overlapping music tastes were things I superficially understood as compensatory social currency — it still led to nervousness over the visibility of aspects of my life that were far more fundamental to who I am.
Significant external changes have happened since I first began to live in my co-op. People moved out and in. Braver voices in the house have spoken out against the assumed homogeneity of lifestyles and politics on my behalf. In conversations both fleeting and deep, through which I discover deeper nuances on housemates’ perspectives and histories with positions I hold, I grow more reassured letting my differences be visible and discussable.
More importantly, my understanding of the house has changed since first seeing that Jesus portrait. I came to learn that I had been the one underestimating the extent to which the people around me would empathize with and be open to where I come from. Though some of it never goes away — an uncomfortably public exclamation of confusion that I don’t smoke, as an example — it’s comforting knowing I’m not exactly alone, that nuance exists and that it’s all part-and-parcel of learning to live with people different from me, majority or otherwise. My house also happens to be filled with some of the most thoughtful people I’ve met at Cornell. Through this, I’ve come to confidently believe that values can be shared, though they may be articulated into different political beliefs and that sifting out this commonality as a point of empathy is the beginning of dialogue.
One evening, I was walking from the Student Assembly BDS vote with a Jewish friend and bumped into a housemate, who bemoaned her need for a good, strong drink after the results. Her assumption that we all agreed was sobering. My Jewish friend later told me that the potency of homogenous opinions occupied by the “liberal left,” with which co-ops are affiliated with dissuades him from moseying. I wanted to express my despair — and I did, saying that my first semester at my co-op was uncomfortably dissonant, and how much of that perpetuated itself because I didn’t give anyone a solid chance at proving me wrong.
Being back for this new semester, I have to relearn this safety and genuine receptivity. I remember anew how disorienting surface discomforts can feel (granted, I’m generally an introvert). But I remember in kitchen conversations big and small what it means to know my housemates as a kind of family. While the emotional aspects of renavigating spaces may be inevitable, they helpfully inform my descriptions of the house with empathy. With luck, publicizing how Watermargin permits discomfort and difference will invite the interest of a wider demographic of future housemates. I can’t imagine a more powerful social experience than having to ask from a person with whom you disagree with on every deeply-held political belief in the most painful of ways where the dustpan went.
Kristi Lim is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kli[email protected] Riskit Kristi runs every other Wednesday this semester.