By E Ju Ro
I woke to the sun pouring over me today. It felt foreign and unfamiliar, bright heat subsuming my body like a weighted blanket — nothing like the unremarkable sun I was used to. When I opened my eyes, I found myself in a bedroom 5,633 miles from home, in an oddly lofted bed, the walls decorated in cliche dorm stuff: fairy lights, film photos of friends, a tapestry of home — Seoul.
It was April, the start of the last quarter of my freshman year. Yet if it were not for the sun and the obvious dorm-ness of my room, you could have told me it was April 2020 — that it was time for me to go to school and celebrate my college acceptances — and I would have asked no questions. After all, the past year floats in its own ambiguous space, with no transition between spring 2020 and now. If I were writing the story of my life, I would delete the last year (maybe that’d translate to cutting anywhere from about a paragraph to 10 pages) for the sake of a smooth plotline readers can follow. In the improvisation that is real life, however, expectations of an unwrinkled narrative arc go out the window.
The sun must have many versions of itself for various contexts. In Seoul’s urban clamor of imposing skyscrapers and brisk walking salarymen too busy to give it a glance, the sun is a wallflower. But here in a quiet college campus in California, where people spread themselves across the grass in bikinis and eagerly await its embrace, the sun is the main character.
This morning reminded me of reading “A Wrinkle in Time” back in elementary school. In the book, the author describes a time travel analogy about ants and a string, in which an ant’s fastest route from point A to point B on a string is to simply bring the two points of the string together. The in-between of the two points droop in a seemingly irrelevant loop below the ant. Sometimes, like today when I woke up in the unfamiliar sunlight, I’m at point B: it’s April and a year of COVID, uncertainty and abrupt new chapters. I look back and just a few inches behind me is a high school senior, still deciding where to spend the next four years and baking her quarantine banana bread. But at other times, I still feel like an ant tangled in the drooping loop of time that’s all smooshed together into one shapeless and non-sequential form.
I’ve attempted many times to write something eloquent and reflective about my last year, but the pandemic has jumbled all of its moments into a tangled loop of time. The last thing I want to do is write only about how COVID has shaped my life; I fear that actualizing its power into words will give it the dominance it seeks over my mind. The year has been too colorful, and to let all these happenings be painted over in the gray of the pandemic would be to accept defeat. I graduated high school and left a school I’d been a part of for 11 whole years, I want to be able to say, without focusing on the with masks on. And I moved to the U.S. and got a taste of the Stanford bubble, I want to reflect, without the intrusive and everything was online and terrible. Some reluctant corner in me is still in denial (or hope?), wanting to believe that my experiences can remain separate from COVID as long as I don’t put the two together in words.
Yet even with COVID put aside, I do not know how to capture all the colors of the past year in their subtle shades. How do I explain that the sun still shone next to the looming dark cloud of COVID anxiety, like when I finally graduated or during my sunset picnics with friends at the Han River? How do I differentiate the tears shed in the fear of anti-Asian hate, numbness of a funeral on my first day of college and the grandeur that overwhelms me standing in the center of Main Quad? How do I make sense of the mental health rollercoaster I’ve been on ever since Chloe Ting trended on YouTube last spring? How do I articulate why as I move farther from home, the greater proximity I feel to my language, to Korean music, to my hometown?
To answer my own questions, I don’t think I can. I’m still processing the past year by posing unanswerable questions and writing without a destination in mind. In some sense, I’m attempting to untangle the loop of time lost between point A and B. So when I awoke to the unfamiliar California sun and the sight of my dorm wall decorations screaming nostalgia today, I decided to jot down these wandering ruminations before I could forget this wrinkle in time.