Monday, June 19, 2006

On Being A "Quasi-Adult," And A Freshman For The First Time

In many ways, I come off to people as very adult---I cut off about 8 inches of hair a while back and on a good day, I look like a newscaster--Ann Curry for example, and on an excessively pouffy day, I look like a politician's wife--like Tipper Gore. Moving back to Orange County (not the denizen of iniquity you'd think, but then again I just live in a mixed-income/ethnicity neighborhood almost on the edge of the "bad" part of town that neighbors a poorer city, not a gated community) for the past year has disabused me of my flashier Bourgie Metrosexual Law School dressing habits. Now I look like is an OC suburban mom.

It's a very particular look--capris, backless shoes (usually backless loafers or "dressy" flip flops"), a loose-fitting peasant shirt or button down, or a cotton polo. Studs in the ear. A nice watch. This is a look that will age you 10 years easily. I used to complain a lot about how young I looked and sounded, and how when I gave a lecture I had to rely on a lot of makeup and professional clothing in order to look older than my students. But this is a different kind of older that I'm looking right now. It's not "you're a professional, good citizen, and taxpayer" look--it's the "you look like you should be a wife and mommy with a mortgage" look. And while any young woman in her 20s can be the former, it's a lot of pressure to be the latter! I'm totally ready to be Professional Woman. I really wish people would mistake me for a major taxpayer. But I'm not quite ready to be Mommy woman yet. In my OC suburban mom costume, when I'm out with my 5 year old niece (I am 26, it's not such a stretch though) people ask me how old my "daughter" is. Because I have blatant and aggressive maternal instincts and a superior knowledge (compared to most of my friends my age) of how to take care of children, and because I look like an Asian Tipper Gore, I just come off as "not a co-ed" anymore.

And I have no idea why I dress like this when I'm in Orange County. I have no idea how to dress my age when I'm not with people my age. My sister, who is 35, dresses less conservatively than I do--halters, tank tops, whatever. I tend to think that's a mistake in the wrong direction (tube tops?). I don't know. Living with my parents, I tend to dress wayyy less risque, and I think that's a good thing. But there has been a decided drawback to cutting off the long, "sexy" locks and dressing like the wife in "Everyone Loves Raymond"---you look older, yes, but you feel like you're playing dress up. It was different when I was "dressing up" to look like a professor or lawyer--that is, when I had a job or a place to go to everyday. I can dress like a law school student, lawyer, or professor. But when you're dressing for yourself, it's hard to figure out who you'd like to look like, and what role you would like to play. Besides, what's the alternative? Go in the other direction and wear the other OC look--like a tarted up teen with "I Make Your Girlfriend Jealous" t-shirts, miniskirts, and that inexplicable combo of hot weather clothes and cold weather mukluk Ugg boots? I don't think so.

With the more "blawggish" tone my blog has taken recently, you might be thinking I'm being incredibly trivial right now. But really, I'm trying to make a point about the interstitial space between irresponsible young adulthood (the co-ed years) and true adulthood. On being a "quasi-adult." How do you recognize a quasi-adult? What does she look like, an how does a quasi-adult dress? Or more particularly, what does it mean to be a quasi-adult?

By all accounts, I can take care of myself like any other adult--I can cook, clean the house, keep my stuff organized. Heck, I've even been engaged once. But I've never really been through all the rituals of youth and "growing up" that make you adult. So I feel like in some ways, I'm doing it all for the first time and it's all very confusing about where exactly I am in life.

I never went "away" to college. I commuted the 8 miles on inside road from my house to my school. And when I went "away" to law school, really, I was only up there four days a week--from Friday to Sunday, I endured the long 2 hour drive home. Four hours of driving every weekend, while other people my age were studying or partying. It's astounding I even learned how to cook or host dinner parties--I spent so much time eating my mother's food. So I never had the "dorm experience," or the real "independent living experience." I don't know what I had--a very weird mish-mash of exceedingly sheltered experiences and mild experimentation. For the three years in law school, I lived in an all-women University-owned boarding house in sorority row. Very, very strange. I liked it there, even though it was basically a glorified dorm, because I liked my housemates (several of whom were in med school or grad school) , liked the 10 minute walk to school, and actually liked that there were no men around to see me in my pajamas. Best of all, because it was an all-girls house, my parents only called me once a week. I've written before about how strict and just plain weird about female independence my dad is--and so not being "checked up on" was reason enough to live in a 10'x12' room for 3 years.

So finally, a few months shy of 26, he's finally letting his little girl go. And this is a strange feeling to finally be able to go. Especially becaues I'm not your typical 26 year old. Sure, the first few weeks of my first year at law school I went to 4 different bars for "Bar Review"--but that experiment ended when I realized I didn't like paying good money for over-priced drinks. Thereafter, I found the benefits of living away from home, even if only four days a week were:

1. Going out to classical music and jazz concerts and plays. My father, the fun-hating puritan, would not let me go out at night, even to educational or cultural events. Actually, any amount of money spent on something other than books (and for a time in high school, he confiscated my novels so that I could concentrate on the textbooks, but he stopped when I declared my English major in college) is money ill-spent. So I went to my first play at the age of 22, and I learned to really love spending all of my entertainment budget for the month on one recital by Gidon Kremer.

2. Learning how to become an oenophile, even though I can't afford the best wines from the Loire valley. My father, the reformed alcoholic who now despises the vices of smoking and drinking, would kill me if he saw me drink something alcoholic. I do not drink in excess mind you. Nor alone. No, I am interested in vintages and in pairing wine with food. But my family, who believes that a drink with dinner is excessive, doesn't quite get this. It's a shame. They would love a good Riesling with their spicy Asian food.

3. Learning how to to throw dinner parties, even though it's an excessively pretentious thing to do. I love cooking gourmet meals. I like baking even better. This goes against every insular impulse in my family, the idea being that since you have 5 siblings to hang out with, you don't need friends. Going out = bad. Socializing outside of family = bad. Studying 24/7 = good. Conclusion: Belle = bad.

4. The strange joy of being out at night, after 22 years of going home before dark. It's hard to explain this, because many of you have been out after 6 pm before you turned 22 years old. But I still get a great feeling of excitement from being out with the night sky around me. I liked to go to movies at 10 pm and come back after midnight. I liked grabbing late desserts at cafes. Sometimes, to the horror of my friends who think this is an incredibly stupid thing to do if you live in an urban city, I would go for a midnight walk. I have frequent bouts of insomnia, and the worst thing about living at home this past year is that I can't just go out at 1 am and walk it off. It still surprises me how much exhilaration and beauty I find from a dark sky and the crisp air--as if this is borrowed time, and the sky is not supposed to be this dark and twinkling--and I am not supposed to be out right now.

5. Being normal. People my age, even slightly-introverted, broke, non-drinkers/partiers/clubbers like myself go out at night and on weekends. I like to have some semblance of normalcy in my life, if only so that I can gradually introduce people to the weirdness that was my childhood and the lateness with which I have received common experiences.

So, three weeks from now (so soon! wasn't it just last month I was saying "in four months..") I'll be moving to a new life and a new home. My home. For seven days a week. That means, including weekends. True, it will be a 260 sq. ft. graduate efficiency apartment, with only a small fridge, tw0-burner stove, and no oven--I'll do all my baking in my powerful toaster oven---but it will be mine. (it's kind of like that "Tiny House" Geico commercial, and I refer to my oven as "The Easy Bake".) It would surprise you how I can manage to tastefully decorate an unfurnished small space (lately, my tastes in architecture have leaned towards the early modernism of Louis Sullivan and the late modernism of Mies van der Rohe), on a budget of <$500. I can't believe that it's only three weeks away. In three weeks, I'll be living in a mostly law and graduate student apartment building--and not only with the female ones. There are some common spaces (laundry, study rooms, a cafe)--but everything in my apartment will be mine--no sharing the bathroom with siblings, no arguing with my mother on the proper way to make toast.

And maybe it is better that I have this adventure now, at 26, rather than at the age of 18. I am not celebrating my excessively strict and sheltered upbringing--but I am not entirely ungrateful for it either. I would not put my own child through that upbringing, but I will say I am glad that my first time truly away from home, I know a lot about myself. It is a knowledge that was hard-won given the strict limits that were put upon me. In many ways, I had to be creative about how I came to experience common things like "fun." Every experience, be it the first live baseball game that introduced me to the only sport I like or the first jazz concert that made me really, really love upright bass players, was really meaningful and memorable to me. And I'm glad that my "experimental phase" wasn't too crazy or alcohol fueled and drug-addled. I am glad that I know myself better now than at I did at the age of 22, when I actually agreed to go to bars I didn't really want to go to and actually considered going to the Law School Prom (otherwise known as the Barrister's Ball). No, I never went. No, I don't regret it.

There are some things you can't replicate--the real Freshman experience of living away from your parents at that young, incredibly naive and stupid age, and all the new experiences and mistakes that necessarily follow. I certainly won't try to replicate it, since it turns out I'm not very good at being at being a Freshman. I like looking at the world with new eyes, and I like the thrill of new experiences--but I don't like the stumbling towards self-knowledge feeling. It will be an interesting challenge, this living away from home, my parents, my siblings, and my kids--but it's a challenge I'm glad I'm taking now--a freshman at 26, a quasi-adult who looks and acts mature but has the wonder of a child--rather than at the age of 18, when I was so charmingly naive I said "yes" to a proposal of marriage to the first boy who loved me. I thought then I knew what it meant to be grown up, what being an adult would be--and now that I've crossed the threshold into adulthood (anyone under the age of 25 can't really claim to be adult or experience true ennui, but once you hit 25 you can apply for the role), I know now that I was just a really dumb girl. It isn't a costume you can just put on--it's a series of experiences and mistakes, which can happen at any age, that bring you to this new state.

So whether I have the experience of "moving away" at 18, 22, or 26, I guess it doesn't matter when I experience things or what I look like to the world (like Tipper Gore or Bourgie Girl)---I'm irreversibly moving in one direction, towards real (not imagined or perceived) adulthood, with my own space, my own career, and my own life. There's a lot I'm leaving behind. There's a lot more time that will be my own rather than my family's. There may even be a new family in the future for me to attend to. In any case, all I can hope for is some measure of personal and professional success, all I can plan for is to have a tastefully decorated apartment, and all I know is that the eyes I use to see that corner of night sky will be still fresh and new to the world.