For the Experience

By ELLY HONG

It was a hot Los Angeles day when Dad took me to the Oaxaca Festival. As the women onstage twirled their colorful skirts, I could feel the sun sink into my skin and sweat drip down the sides of my face. The light fell directly on my neck and shoulder. I wished I’d brought sunscreen.

Dad had brought me to the festival in part because we’d gone to Oaxaca for vacation; the city is increasingly popular among American tourists. What was unusual was going to the festival back home in LA, because it was mostly attended by the Mexican community. In Oaxaca itself, people had stared and pointed at our Asian faces, and here we stuck out as well—though the Angelenos were far more used to people like us. Still, we didn’t see any other non-Mexicans there.

Dad brought me to places like this all the time. A play about Creole identity, a launch party for a Latinx American magazine, an Obon celebration. Dad grew up in Hawaii, where twenty-three percent of the population is mixed race. Japanese, Portuguese, and Native Hawaiians are only three of the many cultures who’ve made their home there. Diversity was part of how he’d grown up, and he wanted to expose me to people from around the world. Because, despite being from Los Angeles, diversity wasn’t what I was experiencing.

My parents were educated people who wanted me to have the same opportunities they had. Our neighborhood didn’t have good public schools, so I went to Chandler, one of the most rigorous private elementary and middle schools nearby. My best friend’s house had a pool, a tennis court, and a playground. Her mom drove a Porsche.

But that was nothing compared to my high school.

Tuition at Harvard-Westlake was thirty-eight thousand four hundred dollars, and only twenty-one percent of students received financial aid. (I was one of them.) Parents included the CEO of Activision, the richest doctor in the world, and Oscar-winning writers and directors. The cafeteria had sushi and boba. The school was in one of the most diverse cities in the world, and yet its student body was sixty percent white. Many of the others came from China’s elite.

Harvard-Westlake’s status lent itself to exceptional academics. Seventy-one percent of faculty members held advanced degrees, including twenty-eight with PhDs. There were twenty-eight AP classes. Over the past five years, thirty-eight graduates went to Stanford and forty-five to Harvard. Many kids, whose families had been rich for generations, didn’t recognize the opportunity they had. But there were others. The kids who would become my friend group were naturally talented at academics and took full advantage of Harvard-Westlake’s resources. My friend Jenna took both AP Calc BC and AP Latin as a sophomore, whereas many didn’t qualify for either class as seniors. Toby took two languages and studied organic chemistry at UCLA for fun. Academics was what we bonded over; Jenna and I took the same art classes, and Toby and I spoke Spanish to each other.

We were privileged to have so much at our disposal. Because none of us needed jobs, we were able to devote ourselves exclusively to school. In order to succeed, I spent every second of my forty-minute commute with my head buried in a textbook. I scooped vegetables into my mouth while walking to class since I’d had to study during my lunch period. I sometimes got three hours of sleep for two weeks in a row. On top of school, I fenced eight hours a week, until my parents forced me to stop.

Despite excursions and activities with Dad, I was rarely intimately exposed to people outside Harvard-Westlake—I didn’t have time to spend anywhere else. I barely managed to hang out with my friends after school. I never went to parties. I never drank a sip of alcohol, and I didn’t even know what weed smelled like. I never so much as held hands with a guy. In other words, the cost of excelling at school was living the life my father didn’t want for me: sheltered in the world of the rich, exclusively focused on academics. I did learn on our father-daughter trips, but a couple hours in the city paled in comparison to the weeks of nothing but papers and tests and labs. Dad knew it, too. “Kids like you don’t have experiences,” he told me.

I still think about that. What makes something an experience? Eating at a taco truck instead of a prep school cafeteria? Working at McDonald’s after school instead of going to SAT prep? What kind of experiences did I want? I didn’t have time to even consider this question in high school.

I am proud that I took advantage of my privileged education, but part of me regrets it now. Because I have come to understand that studying so much sheltered me in a crucial, undeniable way. I never learned how to fail. And it would cost me greatly during the next chapter of my life.

 

I was beyond excited to start college. My hard work had paid off; I’d gotten into Amherst, my top choice. The school had an open curriculum, which meant I could choose all my classes without worrying about gen eds in subjects I wasn’t interested in. It was in a beautiful town on the East Coast, and I was eager to live in a new place. And Amherst had marketed itself as diverse. I’d get to meet people from all over the country and world, from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds. I could become the sort of Angeleno I was supposed to be. Dad would be proud.

But when my first semester began, it wasn’t what I had expected.

It started with little things. My Chinese teacher failed to clearly explain what the homework was, so I turned something in late. This sparked a surge of red-hot anger that left me seething for the rest of the day. When I couldn’t understand a psych lab, I panicked so much I started to cry. Every emotion became a hurricane. And I wasn’t making friends. Everyone around me seemed to already have a group, while I did everything alone. This was unacceptable. Because I was failing at what mattered most to me—having experiences. Connecting with people from all sorts of different places. Going to parties, making friends, traveling with them, getting in trouble with them. I decided I wasn’t meant to do these things, that the sacrifice I’d made in high school had prevented me from ever becoming a real person. My broken mind made freshman awkwardness feel like a permanent condition. I stopped trying to make friends; who would want to be friends with a shell of a person anyway?

Eventually, I forced myself to go to the Counseling Center.

There were spells of calm when I had a good session, but therapy didn’t save me. In the last month of freshman year, I got into fitness, and focusing on weights and calories distracted me from my loneliness. But when I went home for the summer, I started eating at random again, gaining back all the weight I’d lost. I managed to get a job, but it was shift work that rarely called me in. I was left alone with my emotions—and they consumed me. Every day I’d wake up at ten, put on a bathrobe, and walk downstairs to stuff my face with snacks. Food was the only distraction from my helplessness. I’d eat until I felt horrible, then climb back into bed still wearing the robe and fall asleep again. When I woke up the second time, I’d put on real clothes so my parents wouldn’t notice anything amiss. I’d spend hours staring mindlessly at my laptop. When Mom and Dad got home, I acted like everything was all right.

That summer, I thought sophomore year would by my salvation. I thought I could bury myself in work so I wouldn’t have time to think about being lonely. But soon I was crying over my econ homework. I had my worst panic attack ever at a fencing tournament and had to go home. One day, I went to bed knowing I wouldn’t even try to go to class the next morning. Instead I woke up, picked up my phone, and called the Counseling Center.

“I need advice about checking myself into a hospital,” I said.

The receptionist was startled. She stuttered as she asked me who my therapist was, and I told her his name. He’s in a session now, she said. Can you hold for a few minutes? I said yes. I wasn’t in a hurry. I was calm and collected as I sat there, still in my pajamas, tinny muzak blaring into my ear. I wasn’t panicking about falling apart anymore. I had accepted that I was broken.

My therapist picked up the phone. “If you want to get in an Uber and head to Cooley Dickinson, you can,” he said, referring to the nearby hospital. “But I really don’t think that’s the best solution for you.” I was too burned out to fight him. We scheduled an emergency appointment for the next day.

A few days after that session, I had my first-ever psychiatry appointment. As I was sitting in the center’s waiting room, scrolling through my phone, a white-haired man stepped out of the nearest door and called my name. His voice was low and soft. I shook his hand, walked into his office, and sat down on a plush red chair. The room was brightly lit, and an open window to my right revealed a row of autumn trees. It didn’t smell like cleaning products the way the waiting room did.

The doctor started asking me questions, and I told him about the hurricane in my mind. Shame burned in me as I remembered blowing up over homework, leaving the tournament alone. Being too depressed to shower even when I was coated with fencing sweat. The summer of lying in bed in my pajamas at one in the afternoon, only having gotten up to binge eat.

The psychiatrist handed me a box of tissues. I wiped my face.

“I think medication has a place for you,” he said.

I couldn’t speak. For the first time since I’d returned to college, I felt a flicker of hope. That afternoon, I went to the health center and picked up a little green pill called Aripiprazole. It wasn’t enough at first; I had a panic attack a few days later. The doctor added another pill called Lamotrigine. A few days after that I realized I had showered without having to force myself to. I’d gone to class without hesitating. In the note on my phone where I jotted down happy things to remember later, I wrote I think the medicine is working.

Medication changed everything. The dark places in my mind were still there, but over time I visited them less and less often.

I found the confidence to date for the first time, and in November I met the man who would be my first kiss. I started going out more and putting real effort into my classes. And I started writing.

I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life—again, just like my dad, whose worldliness was also due to his experience as a journalist. As a kid, I’d started hundreds of stories, usually about girls my age going on adventures in fantasy worlds, and in high school I’d write ten-page plot outlines on the rare Fridays when I didn’t have a test the next week. But I never finished anything. The last story I completed before college was when I was seven, and I’d never even thought to revise it. But sophomore fall I signed up for Fiction Writing I, as a reward to myself for surviving freshman year. Dad had warned me that you shouldn’t major in creative writing, that you should instead choose something that would give you ideas to write about. When I got into the class, I didn’t tell him or Mom, thinking they’d be angry. But I needed it. I needed at least one of my classes to be something I did just for me.

I was no longer the student I’d been in high school. Depression made me not care about or want to do anything, including schoolwork. But somehow I managed to finish one story, then two. I threw my heart into them. On my best day, I wrote for six hours, skipping fencing and spending every minute between classes writing. I got an A in that class, the only one I’d get that semester. I was no longer fixated on grades, but after an entire summer lacking the will to get out of bed, performing that well felt like a miracle.

My first story was entirely about depression—a first person monologue that visibly disturbed my classmates. But the second story was about friendship. Three kids, two girls and a guy, dedicated students who all loved languages. That description perfectly fit Jenna, Toby, and me—my high school trio. In the end, I had found meaning in high school; I’d had friends who inspired ten thousand words. But the emotional core of the story—one of the friends’ suicide—was something I never could have imagined until college.

Writing and reflecting on this story, I realized that high school had sheltered me not so much culturally, but emotionally. I had always achieved my academic goals. I had never suffered serious setbacks or felt that my mind had abandoned me. But now I have. That experience has both given me both the permission and the impetus to write fiction. A short story wasn’t a test I could pass or fail or study for; it was a place to dig into my experiences and reexamine them. And in the process, I became what I’d wanted to be since I was a child.

After Fiction I, I leapt at the chance to take another class, Writing the Novella, where I wrote twenty-one thousand words about suicide and a fencing team. My dad asked to read them for his Father’s Day present. When I showed them to him, this is what he said:

I read the excerpt you sent. So good! You will be a writer (whatever that means) if you want to. It’s all about persistence, organization, being good to people in the writing community.

Don’t even question your ability.

 

 *

 

Names have been changed.

 

Elly Hong is an Editorial Assistant at The Common.

For the Experience

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