“You Don’t Belong at Amherst”

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(James H.)– I grew up in California, meaning I went eighteen peaceful years without having to hear the words Exeter, Taft, or Hotchkiss. The first time someone told me they went to Choate, I was convinced they said chode. “I’m sorry, did you just say your school was called chode? You went to chode?” Similar confusion with “coxswain.” Oh, and rowing a boat is actually called “crew.” “ZOMG LOLZ, how could you not know that?!” On the East Coast, “Lax” means Lacrosse, high schools have sailing teams, and cigarettes cost twice as much.

I thought coming to New England for college would be a comfortable escape. Goodbye Los Angeles. Farewell traffic jams and club promoters and aspiring writers with nasty waitressing habits. So long oversized family, I promise to send angsty texts from Memorial Hill every Sunday night. But instead of casually sliding into my new world, I spent most of Freshman Orientation being reminded over and over again that I’m not from here. More like a Freshman Disorientation, am I right? (I’m sorry you had to read that).

I realize that this story is hardly unique – everyone feels like an Amherst outsider at some point. My problem, though, was that I didn’t feel like I had a good enough excuse for my anxiety. Coming from California isn’t the same as coming from China. Pulling the Culture Shock card at the Counseling Center would have felt stupid: “You just don’t get it, doctor. Everybody here drinks Poland Spring. They use ‘summer’ as a verb. People wear pants. I’m a fucking mess!”

So, faced with the social unease of an interloper, I resorted to the most important tool in my freshman emotional crisis utility belt: shameless hyper-romanticization of my hometown. Instead of thinking about how much it sucked here, I thought about how awesome it was back home. Surrendering yourself to that kind of sappy nostalgia is like putting a heavily-opiated sloth in charge of your central nervous system. Suddenly, every story becomes soaked in this soothing warmth that blankets your whole body – kind of like when you pee in the bathtub. You become convinced that In-n-Out really is the best restaurant in America. And that everyone back home smiles more and smells better. Even the shitty stuff from home becomes part of your Rifleman’s Creed of wistfulness:

“This is my emotionally-abusive Starbucks barista. There are many like him, but this one is mine. My Starbucks barista, without me, is useless. Without my Starbucks barista, I am useless.”

And so I spent fall semester peeing in the bathtub. In all fairness, the New England foliage was pretty. But winter was like mating season for my nostalgia sloths – a real no-holds-barred sex den of hot, barely legal sloth-on-sloth action. In fall, a few students very actively reminded me I wasn’t from here, but in winter it felt like Western Massachusetts itself was physically rejecting me. Snow is less fun in shorts. My hair turned brown. I got really pale. By spring break I looked like that sickly kid from The Secret Garden. I really wanted to be anywhere but the Pioneer Valley.

Like everyone, I eventually got over it. I realized that my experiences at Amherst were steadily becoming a part of my identity too. More importantly, I realized that not everyone born outside of Southern California is some Chauncey Worthington the Third who sustains himself with orphan tears and rides a yacht to school everyday. I slowly learned that simply attending a boarding school doesn’t make you a douche.

Still, in the process of “getting over it” I realized that there is a real power in feeling like you don’t belong on your campus. For better of for worse, being an outsider puts you in a position of perpetual critical analysis. (Though sometimes, “judgmental prick” would be a better a description). Regardless, feeling strongly connected to somewhere else gives you an “out.” It links you to something tangible outside of the Amherst Bubble. In other words, you don’t have to begrudgingly drink the Kool Aid on everything just because everybody said these are supposed to be the best four years of your life.

I’m not saying it’d be great if everyone walked around with a “fuck this place, home is better anyway” attitude. What I’m saying is that getting quietly acquainted with whatever makes you feel like an outsider here is important because it allows you to occasionally distance yourself in a meaningful, healthy way. You can break free, even for just a moment, from the oppressive mass hysteria that is the “Amherst Awkward.” When you take a minute to actively separate yourself from the larger community you can shift into a “This is not me – I am not just my Amherst identity” kind of mindfulness that invites more clear-headed analysis and criticism of our community.

Still, I’m not advocating for any extreme. Feeling like a perpetual outsider isn’t just psychologically painful, it can also be a risky state of mind – as an example, it really hamstrings the movement to prevent sexual assault on campus when people consider themselves “outsiders” and thereby not responsible for campus culture or the actions of their peers. The fact that we are all still here reveals that, in some way or another, we retain some fundamental connection to our campus community.

So yes, I’m saying that my West Coast non-boarding school inferiority complex has made me feel better equipped to tackle the issue of sexual assault on campus – I agree, it seems like a jump, but everyone has something that makes them feel a little alienated from time to time, and in the end, that’s a good thing. I’d still take LA Mexican food over Bueno y Sano any day of the week, though.

PS: This past winter break I found my official family tree. You can imagine my horror at discovering the oldest entry:

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I guess I’m not as far from home as I thought.