December 10, 2019

LIM | Back to Reality

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“Deadline for new checklist items for Spring Programs: November 1st”

Receiving automated study abroad notifications long after they were meant to be read was somewhat funny. Beyond being an administrative inconvenience to various parties (sorry!), having a more long-drawn application process has also meant interrogating — far more extensively than productive — reasons to stay or to go.

No matter the cause, a trend among many who leave for a semester abroad is to do so during junior spring, not infrequently for reasons beyond the permissiveness of academic structures or the attractiveness of programs elsewhere. I’ve heard peers speak of the need to retrieve a sense of perspective narrowed by being in the whirling stress-pool isolated in “Shithaca” (not my title, this place is … alright). Grateful as I am to come from the other side of the world in search of perspective, I wonder what it means to be at a point where I so resonate with this sentiment that I feel “reality” could be better grasped by returning.

I wonder how much of this has to do with me being more and more invested in a smaller and smaller width of Cornell as time goes on. Taking my immediate surroundings as my fullest reality – where the most visible lifestyles are, at their broadest, still restricted to students, professors or University-affiliated staff — has exaggerated the importance of social and academic priorities exclusive to this university setting. That is not to say that my patch of Singapore, despite being the world I’ll return to after graduating, is a truer reality. My experiences in both places remain restricted to specific demographics, despite my efforts to expand them.

At least for me, retaining a sense of perspective feels like it has less to do with where I am, and more to do with engaging with perspectives different from my own. Cornell, with its massive student population and natural breadth of interests and backgrounds, channels more diverse a body of people into more narrow a range of living options (Shithaca) than I suspect will make frequent occurrence in my life. No matter how visibly different a person, they too likely spent at least one Sunday morning their freshman year at RPCC brunch, investigated at least one posting on the Free Food GroupMe, tasted at least once the same placid “hummingbird” coffee at a University-owned café. When else will this common ground with people so different be as accessible to me?

Yet these abstract, humanizing niceties only go so far. Despite these supposed commonalities,  we seem to sacrifice the promotion of mutual understanding on contentious topics when our conversations occur in the context of the ideological fierceness of contemporary activism. There is simultaneously the sense that there is no better opportunity than this cocooned, educationally-oriented meeting point to attempt crucial conversations. When encountering difference on the most fundamental levels, I am often shocked to realize how different someone else’s reality can be, and more deeply question my own.

Everyone has different levels of emotional attachment to their beliefs. While I idealistically aspire after open-mindedness, there are moments when it takes a little more out of me to hold my tongue and listen — already, despite what I know to be relative emotional detachment on the issues I feel for.  I respect all the more deeply people who, holding their beliefs to far greater extents, still subject them to questioning: like the Chinese friend so committed to truth they were willing to painfully and systematically uproot all they grew up believing about their government. I also wonder if their investigations would be smoother in a country where news outlets weren’t as polarized or didactic as here.

I would be overgeneralizing if I claimed that every interaction on campus followed some cultural institutionally-reinforced pattern. It’s worth questioning how far top-down influence can spread, even as the university takes steps to promote a culture of conversation. First applying to Cornell, I was thrilled for what a “non-sectarian” environment, in the abstract, could mean for interfaith dialogue. But in practice: Was the spontaneous and balanced conversation I had about abortion in my kitchen because of it? Was my Biblical Hebrew class more secular here than it hypothetically would have been if we had a divinity school? These both seem to me more a result of individuals than of the institution. For better or worse, Cornell has its siloes, so every fragment of “dominant overarching culture” I’ve seen has often surfaced more as unquestioned assumptions within a few individuals than a monopoly over entire spaces, all of which have their own levels of formality and didacticism. A conversation is not a course is not a talk is not a teach-in.

Even teach-ins have been platforms more receptive to conversation than I’d expected. Their strong language often attracts the people most deeply implicated: I have never been one of them, and peers who have expressed their frustration at how detrimentally polarizing this can be. It is with this in mind that I am all the more inspired seeing connections form across great difference. I recall the speaker at a recent Uyghur teach-in respond with incredible grace to various comments to which I felt a lot of the room tense up in disagreement; I remember seeing a Chinese student who made one such comment hurry to get the number of an Uyghur attendee after the event. I know that I’ve glossed over a lot of failed and absent conversations: Besides inertia, and aware of how idiosyncratically-motivated resistance can be, I can only try to trust the validity and emotional salience of whatever keeps people from dialogue.

Heading abroad, I carry with me (alongside excitements over landmarks and food — honestly more likely satiated) the determination not just to engage with difference, but to question the neutrality, affectedness and potential of the platforms on which this occurs. I have learnt, and am learning still, that no matter where I am, it’s both healthier and necessary to recognize how narrow my perspective will often be and that my pursuit of a better grasp on reality must be a continuous commitment to understand the lived reality of other beliefs, worldviews and people.

Kristi Lim is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at Riskit Kristi runs every other Wednesday this semester.