I’m sitting on a plush red sofa that spans the long 3rd-floor window into the central atrium of Dartmouth’s newest academic building, the Black Family Visual Arts Center. Across the negative space and one floor below me, a student is hammering away at a final paper in a fishbowl, a trinity of glass walls surrounding the workspace I think belongs to the Film and Media Studies department. The brightness and hyper-visibility of the Black-Vac, as at least one student calls it, are new phenomena among the abundant brick and sheltering verdure of Dartmouth’s campus. But more than feeling foreign to Hanover, I’m struck by how alien the building feels to me personally. A few minutes ago, as I ducked in to see the new Lowe Auditorium, I found myself wondering how I’d answer if someone approached with a trite, “May I help you?” Certainly it wasn’t a problem to be there, but I realized I didn’t know how I’d identify myself. 6 months ago I’d say I was an admissions officer, just exploring the space. But a former admissions officer? That’d be weird. Yet answering only that I was an alum, back visiting, would completely ignore the 3 years I spent in the Upper Valley post-graduation, maybe the most important period in my life. In either case, I can’t escape the fact that I’m just a guest, a visitor in an unfamiliar building in the place that I still call home.
I’m standing behind the makeshift bar at Fox Run, tending to guests at our “Thriftshop” party, held half in honor of me being home, half in consequence of me-being-home-so-I-can-bartend, a practice which I claim with deliberate conceit “makes” parties, and the House as usual has gone along with it because here I am mixing “Purple Draanks” and “Cold-ass Honkeys” (repurposed White Russians) while people serve themselves from a bowl of “Your Grandpa’s Punch” and everyone seems to be generally having a good time. As was often the case at Fox Run parties, there are a few people here I haven’t met before. Now one thing that makes meeting people at Fox Run different is that instead of “who (among the people who live here) do you know?” being the default question, unknowns ask “So, do you (also) live here?” because, let’s face it, the odds are good that you do. But this particular evening, I’m not prepared for such a line of questioning. More specifically, I’m not prepared to refer to my living here in the past tense. “I, uh, well, this week I do!” But even to me that sounds a bit desperate. Gotta face the facts. “I didfortwoyears! but no, now I… all right, so this is still my legal address, because I haven’t had another home, and… well your drink’s ready, so here you go enjoy the party!”
I’ve collapsed into a chair, one of the few we haven’t moved to make space for the dance floor in the living room. Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You out of My Head” from 2001 is playing, but the nostalgia sweeping over me is from a more recent era. In a rare moment, everyone who’s at the party is dancing at the same time, and I’ve paused to commit the scene to memory. There’s Mackey, dancing on a couch, and Olivier, still wearing the ridiculous fez and earrings he picked up from the thrift store this morning; Pat’s in hot pink, inexplicably running around in circles, and as usual there’s Rory, in the middle of it all.
A few days ago, I found out I was admitted to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) for a 2-year master’s program. When I’d applied back in January, I assumed I’d be in China when the decision arrived. I figured if I liked how things were going in Beijing, I’d defer school for a year; if not, I’d stay for a few months and travel a bit more before moving to D.C. Now I’m here, with a broken collarbone, about to begin a 4-week visa application process, and it feels as if this entire week has been conspiring to remind me of how much community I had here, and how much I miss it. Am I really prepared to make my way through a long bureaucratic process in order to move to the most polluted city in the world for a job I’m still not convinced is a great fit for me, and stay there just long enough to forge relationships that will hurt to leave? Because I could just wait a bit longer for my collarbone to heal, kick around South America for two months, cycle through France for the summer, move to D.C., and stay there for a while.
* * *
I’m at the post office, holding my diploma and a letter from Dartmouth’s HR in a poster tube, ready to go to Beijing and prove my status as a “foreign expert.” In the end, I realized my decision wasn’t between one thing and another, but rather one or both, and I can’t quite imagine yet a time in my life when I won’t choose both.
I’m at my desk at Taiyue Suites in Beijing, my first night here, about to hit ‘publish’ on something I wrote more a little more than a month ago. My deferral deposit is in. Tomorrow I’ll look at apartments. Work starts Thursday. Here goes…