May 12, 2020

YANG | Weifeng the Freshman

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I have always claimed, to those who know me, that my college experience here at Cornell has followed a healthy upward trend. My best semester was probably last semester. As a senior, I was truly living my time. I have found my community in Cornell Republicans and Cornell Political Union, among friends and mentors, often acting like an old man telling stories of the past (which, frankly, is just three years away). I found my voice here at The Sun, as the Chinese columnist annoyingly acting out his “Chineseness,” and daring to, for the first time, share my subversive thoughts about my beloved motherland with the public. I also found my faith and fully committed to being a Catholic, about to receive baptism. After three years here at Ithaca, I felt that I found a role and a purpose. I found a home here, in addition to Tianjin. It is bizarre to think that as a pre-frosh, on my 30-hour grueling journey, I thought Ithaca was a suburb of New York City because it is part of the New York state.

I often disparaged those early times when I had not yet settled here. The anxiety-filled interviews for clubs, the first party that went unimaginably awkwardly, the first discussion section I ever attended, where the TA was late and I, a demonstrably older-looking man, was mistaken for the TA. As a Chinese setting foot on foreign land for the first time for an extended period of time, freshman and sophomore years appeared to me as times of abject loneliness. Or so I thought.

What has made my lack of fondness of those formative years more bearable is the development of this spring. I must admit when I wrote my first column of this semester about the Coronavirus situation back home in China, never did I expect that I, alongside every human being living in this world of ours, would be so affected by this whirlwind. I always had plans for this last semester — where I would be, what I would do. So far, none of them have manifested. I am not celebrating my graduation among my peers, my own community here in Ithaca. Graduate and law school application results have so far not been ideal. Now, in May, I have no concrete answers for where I will be and what I will be doing come August — answers that are ever more urgent when in the U.S. on a student visa, in times of international travel lockdown.

It is in such despondent times I become ever more fearful of my freshman year, so much so that one night in March, right before the chandelier that is spring 2020 hit the floor, my friends and I showed up at Nasties at North campus, in a drunken state, for one last meal. I dreaded returning to that place, for it almost served as a reminder of all those moments that symbolized what I could have been and done: If only I woke up earlier to attend class, my GPA might be a few points higher; if only I had been more daring in my resolve, I might have done more for the community that I loved. And the most dreadful thought of them all: If I had made more of an effort to fulfill responsibilities I committed to, I would not have disappointed so many friends, especially those within Cornell Republicans and Cornell Political Union. It is as if going back to North Campus brought down the façade of tranquility and assurance that I had created for myself by senior year. Combined with the instability of leaving this place for an uncertain future, it felt as if I was suddenly uprooted. In Ithaca’s soil, I am sown no more.

But was my freshman year as unappealing as I assumed? What was I truly afraid of in those times? Or rather, more accurately, why did I become so content in my first semester of senior year? How did I find the sense of settlement that I believe God had placed for me? Where was the Weifeng that seeks excitement, seeks dynamics, seeks everything new?

Ain’t that the Weifeng of freshman year, though? There was a time when Weifeng was excited about the Slope for the sake of the Slope itself, a city-child who had never seen buildings so far apart, grass so green and the sky so blue. He was enamored by the Slope, so much so that in his first month here, he slept a whole night out there on the Slope. Weifeng the Freshman was excited about what he would become in four years, not to settle, but to find new grounds and purpose in life. Everything was anew, just like it is today.

Am I then afraid of becoming Weifeng the Freshman again, fearful of starting anew — of  being, once again, dynamic?

In my newfound religion, people like to talk about God having a plan for you. The interpretation of such a line can be divergent. The divine plan can seem to be some sort of a settlement, representing a sense of stability. The trick is, of course, that one can never be 100 percent sure of God’s plan; he operates in an all-encompassing and holistic way. Perhaps, one can only be sure of his own plan, sometimes feigning it as God’s, finding stability there, like I finally have in my senior year at Cornell. If the process of seeking God and his plan is not fundamentally a dynamic one, where everything always starts anew and destabilizes any current temporary tranquility, it would perhaps make a mockery of the human condition, especially now in the time of Coronavirus. For a religion that at its centerpiece was a resurrection event, nothing ever ends; for even in death, there is a new beginning.

Thus, as I am preparing myself for baptism and confirmation, starting anew in the most literal sense, I pray that I can be Weifeng the Freshman again. It is most blissful to see my prayer at least partially answered, for in these days when I’m “trapped” in Ithaca, I start to see every detail of Cornell with a freshman’s excitement again: The garden behind Willard Straight that I had somehow never visited, the words carved on the bench atop of the Slope that I had never discerned, and, most importantly, as I am typing these words now lying on the grass of the Slope, appreciating the grass, the trees and the sky as if I am Weifeng the Freshman. We should think of God’s plan for life not as merely all-knowing, simply accepting your place; we should think instead, of God on high, designing a world out there for you to conquer. It can be finding your new family; it can be liberating your own country. It doesn’t matter; that world is waiting for you, as you sit, fearful and excited.

Weifeng Yang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at weifengyang@cornellsun.com. This is the final installment of his column Poplar  Sovereignty.