By Eric Liu
I still remember vividly the horror when I saw a dark, skinny creature slithered between my legs.
As I strolled on the campus pavement, something dashed between my feet. The next thing I knew was that a mouse-looking creature manifested itself in front of me.
I never could imagine it was a squirrel. As I approached, I examined the creature: two shiny eyes fixated upon me cautiously. With fur darker than the night sky and a long, skeletal body, the bizarre-looking thing diluted into the shadow of trees. It dashed away quickly.
The strange encounter perplexed me. Back home, if some curious stranger put their hands toward a squirrel, it would wiggle its fluffy tail, hopping forward to explore whether there are roasted tree nuts in the hands. However, I highly doubted the one I just saw would ever do the same.
From high school biology, the Darwinian theory of evolution states that the environment dominates a species’ physical and behavioral traits. Perhaps, Palo Alto offers a unique environment that molded the squirrels into pitch-dark, vigilant shadows. I wondered what kind of change would cause such a big transformation.
After spending a month here, I think I might have some clue. I can empathize with the squirrels: during NSO, I always felt that I would miss out on important events or socializing. So, I spent all of my time meeting strangers, repeating “Hi, what’s your name?,” “Where are you from?,” and “What are you planning to major in?” over and over and over. Then, I would never see most of them again. Every day when I was jerked awake by the alarm, I found myself in an utterly strange world, perplexed and paralyzed by the inexhaustible variety of the new life. I stopped journaling. I stopped calling friends back home. I stopped planning my days. My life and sense of self morphed into a peculiar amalgamation of the raw and overwhelmingly numerous quirks Stanford had to offer. I used to love strolling at night alone, appreciating the secretive quietude and the whispering mind. However, the night in Palo Alto drenches me –– the deafening thoughts sealed in the dead silence I could not bear. It was dark, just like the color of the squirrel.
A week into school, I felt that everyone is better than me, that the admission office made a serious mistake. While I busied myself adjusting to the new pace and familiarizing myself with oceans of information, people around me auditioned for a variety of activities on top of their academics. Rollouts from the chamber, choir, a capella, theatre company, debate club took their toll on my confidence. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything more than adjusting. This feeling escalated when clubs’ application forms stormed my inbox. When I opened the ten-question google forms for the applications, I crossed most of them out. I became that squirrel hiding below the shade of my past, ashamed by the constant confusion I felt at the present.
However, at the same time, I knew for a fact that I would grow tremendously. I have met several close friends with whom I am comfortable sharing anything. I learned to take care of myself first after I prioritized other people’s feelings the first week of school and became so mentally exhausted that I stayed on my bed for an entire Sunday morning. I learned how to pick and choose the opportunities instead of crashing and burning in doing everything during the club fair when my calendar was covered like high school lockers by colorful blocks of reminders. I also learned that avoiding failure is impossible and that growing through experience and learning skills are the most important in reaching goals.
A month after the NSO, I am sitting near Tressider Union, managing my calendar like I do every morning, adding and deleting events and reminders. In my hand, a grande matcha latte with oatmeal and seven scoops of green tea powder. I took a sip, turned on the “peaceful piano studying music” playlist on Spotify, and opened The Daily channel on Slack. After creating a google doc file, a familiar silhouette manifested itself near the flooded trash can. As I am observing the skinny, dark-furred squirrel looking warily searching for something, a sense of connectedness sparked in my mind.
I begin writing.