Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Yesterday I felt like a tourist, today an out-of-place college student.

Dear Friends,

Today I checked out my commute from GWU to K and 16th street. It's a 20-25 minute walk or just one stop on the Metro, but I'm going to try to walk as much as I can for the exercise. My route takes me up 23rd street, past the GWU hospital, turn right at Washington Square onto K street. Then it's straight along K from 23rd to 16th.

Along the way today the people I passed were mostly professionals. Most of the buildings along the way were office buildings and an occasional coffee shop or fast food restaurant that probably the people in these office buildings use. Many people I saw wore ID cards from their work around their necks or clipped on to their shirts. I wanted to see the name of some international organizations or federal agencies, but all the words were too small to read.

I'm at a Starbucks at the corner of K and 16th, next to the office building where I will work tomorrow. I'm here in part because I'm tired from walking around all afternoon, but also because I thought that a coffee shop would be a familiar place for me since in my mind college students are chief patrons of coffee shops, using them as places to study. (I wasn't looking for a Starbucks in particular, but I couldn't find this local coffee shop that I saw on google maps...) But this is not the case at this Starbucks nestled among office buildings. Of all the tables, there was only one occupied by two college-age girls studying. But this seems to be mostly used as a meeting place for people to talk business. Around me are young and middle aged people in suits and ties talking to each other or on cellphones or looking at their thick agenda planners. All this makes me feel anxious and giddy at the same time. I've never been around so many people in business dress. I feel as if I am leaving an academic environment for the first time in my life.

I have lived in China, Ann Arbor, and East Lansing. China in some ways seems like a very different place from the two college towns, but I feel that living in Washington D.C. this summer is totally unlike all those cities because I'm not in school, I'm working, and I'm far from my parents.

For all but a few years of my life I have attended school. I have finished 14 years of school, 15 including kindergarten. And I think I can say that I know what is expected in school. You read the assigned reading. You go to lecture. You participate in discussion. You see your professor and TA. You write papers and take exams. You study. You learn.

For all of my life, I have been surrounded by academia in one way or the other because my parents have always worked and still work at universities. But the specific cities and neighborhoods I have lived in are oddly similar. I've known are schools, universities, hospitals, and medical laboratories. I have always lived close to universities and in college towns. In China, we actually lived within the university campus, which is where most of the university employees lived. And of course Ann Arbor (especially now that Pfizer is gone) and East Lansing are dominated by universities. Everyone who hangs out in "downtown Ann Arbor" is also in Central Campus. I studied at UM libraries when I was still in high school in Ann Arbor. Our family friends also mostly work at UM too. I feel that all my life has been influenced by the university where my parents worked, where I know go, and the K-12 schools I had attended.

Despite having finished two years of college in East Lansing, this will be the longest time during which I will not see my parents for nearly three months. I know that people who go to college out-of-state have probably already experienced this, but it's new for me that my parents won't be able to help me much. They can't buy groceries or pack me food they made. They can't do my laundry.

I have never worked a 9-5 job before or a job not in a laboratory environment. (My job here is technically 10 to 5.) I have worked as a research assistant in medical research labs and even then it was only part-time while taking classes too. Lab work suddenly seems so hand-on, dealing with animals, machines, and equipment. The difference in dress code is a very noticeable difference. The dress code maximizes comfort and utility because you're working with chemicals, bodily fluids, and animals. Perhaps all the work I will do here is "paperwork" not in the sense that it's office work but that they are policies and laws. I'll have to refer to my work location as "the office" and not "the lab". This will be a huge change.

I'm actually dressed more like a tourist right now, of which there aren't many on these streets, because I wanted to be comfortable walking. I wanted to blend in with the business dress crowd I was walking amongst, but not today. Tomorrow I start working and I might actually look like one of them.


kels said...

good luck starting your internship Chen, and have fun in DC!

Anonymous said...

haha i also realized i need to stop dressing like a lab assistant/hippie and start dressing more professional.