Highway to the D̶a̶n̶g̶e̶r̶ Comfort Zone // Emily Wu

Just before I started college this past September, I discovered that embarking on a new milestone mostly meant receiving a flurry of unsolicited advice. From my sleeping schedule (a healthy mix between “you can sleep when you’re dead” and “if you don’t sleep eight hours, you’re gonna regret it”) to my yet-to-be-determined extracurriculars (but God forbid I don’t join any! That was [person A]’s biggest regret — not getting more involved. Plus, [person A] knows a [person B] who [did/didn’t] join a [fraternity/club/sport], and they [loved/regretted] it!), everybody had an opinion on everything.

Although I couldn’t see it at first, all of this sage guidance I patiently nodded my way through were my predecessors’ way of warning me: you’re going to be stepping far out of your comfort zone. I try to live my life with few regrets, but one of them for sure is not realizing this sooner. I had been raised in a privileged bubble most of my life, aware of the problems afflicting this world, but from the comfort of a multi-ethnic, upper-middle class neighborhood in a two-parent home. For me, stepping outside of my comfort zone meant getting my license and making my own dentist appointments. I would get a thumbs-up from my friends and family, telling me how “mature” I was getting, letting me believe that I was light-years beyond my fellow high schoolers. With this false sense of confidence, I packed up my room and left for a whole new world, just a convenient 30 minutes away from my parents, ready to take on this new chapter I was obviously super prepared for. As this anecdote obviously sets up, I was not in the slightest way prepared for what college had in store for me. Suddenly, breaking out of my comfort zone was less of a to-do list, and more of an existential journey, discovering who I was, and what was important to me.

(Author’s note: that’s REALLY TERRIFYING. I had existential breakdowns in high school, but it was more of a “what is my greater purpose” and less of a “who AM I” like seriously my anxiety went off the charts lol record-breaking amount of attacks anyway back to the Capstone)

(Author’s note #2: Most images/gifs used below are pulled from TV shows, and in context, are meant sardonically. Please read the captions of the images objectively, as I did my best trying to find relevant images to break up the attached word vomit).

A lot of the guidance in this self-discovery was from this class. This Capstone is meant to be a summary of what my accumulated Mondays and Wednesdays from 5:25-7:05 PM (jk more like 7:20 PM) in fall and spring quarter had been about. This is how this university-scheduled section had been about in the lens of my mental journey:

CTW I and Slant
Taking this class was a double-edged sword. Much like the analogy, I didn’t really understand it — of course a sword has two edges?? That’s what a sword is?? What is the point of the analogy?? Similarly, I had taken so many years of government-mandated English classes, so what was the point of taking another 20 weeks of churning out pre-formatted essays? As any student of Nick’s was quick to realize, though, this class was not like most English classes. After introducing Slant, the reigns in terms of the essay were handed back to the writer, from the subject down to the structure.

That much power terrified me. As much as I was told to speak my voice, I had never been encouraged in an academic setting, and I was almost crippled by the lack of guidance and the need to determine my own decisions, without a stricter guidebook telling me how to move. All my life, I had craved a sense of real control over my decisions, yet once I had it in my hand, all I wanted to do was analyze a book based off its Sparknotes summaries, as I had done for years past.

In CTW I, I wrote an essay about how the surge in pop-up, pseudo-Asian restaurants has led to cultural appropriation, which in the long-run, extended itself to a form of cultural appreciation, as the millennial generation demanded better, more accurate representation of cultures off of a black and white binary in the mainstream. While the essay fell short, I finally began to write what I cared about, as opposed to comparing and contrasting two European wars of ancient AP history. While I didn’t know what my deeper meaning was, I knew my identity as a Chinese-American had impacted my life so greatly, whether or not I had been conscious of it doing so.

Moreover, I let myself break from the mold of five paragraphs and scholarly writing, and let me natural voice, the sarcastic wit voice, take over. As someone with a complete inability to handle stress, comedy had been the only way to cope with debilitating situations, though it was always in the form of a 140-character tweet or text. By moving my coping mechanism away from a safety net, and an incorporation into my every day life (especially with the things that caused me to find a coping mechanism), I appreciated part of me that was actively making a positive impact on my life.

Eating Animals, Sustainability Debates, and This is Water
As with any English class, no matter how contemporary, CTW I & II had required reading. Eating Animals, by acclaimed author Jonathan Safran Foer, explores the topics of factory farming, animal agriculture, and the cultural meaning of food. The reading impacted me two-fold: firstly, Foer employs a very anecdotal way of presenting his information. This had been a style that felt the most natural to me, but I had never seen it executed properly in an academic, scholarly context. He integrated primary and secondary research seamlessly into stories about visiting farms or his grandmother’s cooking from his childhood. Secondly, though, Eating Animals challenged my perspective on food and morality at that point. I grew up with a vegan, Buddhist grandpa, so being respectful of the environment and animals was always an important idea he had ingrained in me. Yet, my efforts to have my cake steak and eat it too, no matter how “fair-trade, free-range, grass-fed and organic” it was, it was not the difference I thought I was making. While I have not gone fully raw and vegan yet, I took the new-found knowledge brought by the book and adapted my perspective: I do my best to eat a pescetarian diet (I love sushi than my moral compass, I guess), and try to eat meatless at least once, if not twice a week. Eating Animals shattered old perspectives, and forced me to learn to empathize and adapt my own thoughts. As someone who has had the same haircut for 6 years, change and adaptation wasn’t exactly my strong suit.

Unfortunately, empathizing wasn’t a skill I gained overnight. Infamously, during our sustainability debates, to put it succinctly: I lost my s*** (to use the asterisks Dylan Klebold’s English teacher so wished he had used). I wasn’t arguing a front I was particularly passionate about, but I could fool anyone, with how frantically and erratically I was arguing against the opposing side. Below is an accurate representation of me at the debates:


At the time, I didn’t think what I was doing was worth all of the eyebrows raised. I was briefly in debate in high school, and grew up with strong peers who didn’t back down from their stances in times of discourse. However, taking a step back, I realized how unnecessary and unwarranted my behavior had been. A deeper revelation came, after talking to one of my classmates who pulled me aside after to ask if I was OK, in that I had never accepted the idea that I could be wrong, or that I would one day have to listen to someone ramble for hours (ok, five minutes) on a stance I had assumed against. The sheltered, high school Emily still prevailed, who had rallied with her ability to speak louder than everyone in the room and steamroll over any glimmer of opposition. If I realized I was in the losing position (which was rare, obviously), I would surrender, not willing to comprehend that I could lose against my own will.

As disastrous as the debates had gone down, it taught an obvious life lesson. Maybe not right away, but after a while, I realized my biggest problem was not listening. I was so entranced with my need to be right, that I didn’t comprehend what others were saying, and refused to put myself in their place. For a girl who had been told time and time again that I was “very mature for my age”, I had the empathy skills of a six-year old.

This realization, though, was mostly at the hands of This is Water, a speech by David Foster Wallace, which urged the young college graduates he was speaking to, to be more aware: aware of how we perceive others; aware of our instinctive, initial thoughts; and aware of how we act on a day-to-day basis.

I had watched this my senior year on the last day of my AP Comparative Government class. I thought it was a fun videographic for a message to be aware — not in an empathetic kind of way, but rather aware of what was happening socially. That was one of my biggest hindrances coming into college — I had wanted so desperately to be a social justice warrior that worked to fix the big problems in society, that I failed to realize the small nuances that were afflicting problems on a smaller scale. While I realized I was being an overzealous, pretentious ass, this had also sent me spiraling into figuring out what I was to do: I had bigger fish to fry, but did that make it ok to throw the by-catch by the wayside?

(This is still a question I am struggling with, but I am also barely 19, so… we’ll leave it open-ended)

CTW II, Columbine, and Deadlines
If you couldn’t gather already, my first quarter in college was already a mental wreck, and becoming more self-aware about it wasn’t really helping. Winter Quarter, arguably, was my best 10 weeks here, mentally, because I was cruising through with the regular level of stress that hits most college students — and also because I was suppressing the existential thoughts that weren’t being brought to the forefront constantly. Unfortunately, time is a thing (and the main part of this section), and Spring Quarter eventually rolled around. The points I derived from CTW II were a little bit more obvious, a little bit more intertwined, and hopefully, a little bit more concise in summary (seriously, this Capstone is already 8 pages and I’m not even done yet).

Winter Quarter being great made me think that I had my life together, and I had finally figured it all out. Then I realized, I am an anxiety-laden child with a coexisting dual personality that needs to simultaneously perfect everything, while the other is convincing her to just c’est la vie. Combine this pressure with some personal family matters, and my perpetual fear that I was disappointing the people I cared about, and my morale slowly dwindled to an all-time low around Week 4. For instance, I turned in my Essay 2 (the relationship between social media, food, and society) super late, and it is 4:30 AM on Thursday of finals week and my Essay 3 (mental health, stigma, and violence) is nowhere near done nor submitted. I am trying my best to be the best me I can be, but I also have lost the willpower to write about the exact thing that is stopping me from writing. I wish there were more to elaborate, but that’s about it. I also realized that the skills that I thought resonated as the most me from CTW I (using humor) backfired, as I focused so much on that, I stopped writing an actual research paper. This is something I am going to have to hone after time, but realizing just being me results in a lackluster grade is demoralizing.

Also, reading Columbine was a lot more insightful than I thought it was going to be. As Cullen set-up the book to force readers to get to know and understand Eric, Dylan, and the victims before and after the massacre, it made me realize how quickly I and others make snap judgments, and worse, how steadfast we are in holding true to those (and how reluctant we are in letting those go — see the blurb about the debates). Taking the time to get to know people this quarter, despite what my initial impression had been, has resulted in some great friendships and beautiful buds for becoming better buddies in the near future.

By the end of it all (aka 4am two nights ago), I realized that every “comfort zone” only came about after a series of uncomfortable new experiences. I don’t think I will ever relieve myself of the constant stream of thoughts and fears and anxiety, but I also don’t think the meaning of life is the absence of struggle, but rather learning how to coexist and be ok with the struggle. Being chucked into situations, and expecting to know how to navigate through them was something I would inevitably have to do, and I had to accept that at the end of the day, I needed to hold my own hand.

High school had been a stepping stone in discovering who I am, and what is important to me. By no means do I expect to be able to complete a Merriam-Webster definition for Emily Deborah Wu any time soon, but whether or not this step in my path is definitive or not, it’s a journey I will have to strap myself into.

Through CTW I & II, I learned to be more aware, and I realized the necessity that is challenging myself, but more importantly, accepting myself as well. The only way to grow as a person is to accept and understand the perspectives of others, whether that be empathizing with the backstories of murderers or letting opponents debate their side without terrorizing their every syllable. I learned that it was ok to be wrong, and that it was ok to be right, and that it was ok to disagree, as long as you could support what you said and were willing to listen. Most of all, I learned that my personal identity was going to be an ever-changing idea, and the journey to reach a definitive end was going to be long, arduous, but worthwhile.

I doubt anyone is going to read this besides Nick, so thank you for the class, and thank you for your patience with me. This class meant a lot more than I could put into words, and a lot more than I probably let come across.

PS: I know I have a recurring problem about being too anecdotal, and that hasn’t been fixed at all in this Capstone, but at least I’m aware! This is water!



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