Here’s to Adventures – AND Misadventures!

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

— JRR Tolkein
in Lord of the Rings trilogy

First off, I’m not an LOTR fan. I found the second line from the first stanza on a mirror at my hosts’ place back in Texas and I looked the poem up. It’s a pretty heavily packed one. (I should probably memorize it.) I’m just throwing it out here coz it seems like something I should/could live by, and it applies to what I have recently been through. For the flip side of the first two lines, though, I feel the need to say, “Not all that glitters is gold, not all who are lost wander/wonder” …

Anyway, I’m writing to reflect upon the biggest shift I’ve ever made in my life – the college transfer. And yes, it is bigger than coming to the US for the first time. That did involve a lot of stress and trial-and-error, but that did not involve 3 semesters of declining academic performance, social withdrawal, homesickness or mental health problems. It was a hard making the final decision to transfer here. Now I’m in a Red state and as far South as the Midwest goes. These were my options:

  1. A 1700-student liberal arts college with select graduate programs in a Texan metropolis. It’s in a little forest in the middle of town. I went to audition there. The music department faculty was a liberal bunch of old people, able although the department is rather small. Not many resources on campus for the students – since it is mostly a commuter campus. I didn’t get any financial aid besides a few grands as music scholarship.
  2. A 1400-student liberal arts college with select graduate programs in the suburbs of New York City. Like number 7 in the nation for theatre program and number 12 (I think) for sociology. WHY THE HELL WOULD I NOT GO THERE? Abso-fucking-lutely expensive! Even with the financial aid I got, I was more than 20 grands shrot to go there. Most of its financial resources are federal – although it is technically a private school – so no touchy for me as an international student. Sad! I ran around for like a week trying to find someone to cosign a loan for me. Nopes, Han Zaw doesn’t know enough people in the US to find a student loan cosigner.
  3. This 1100-student liberal arts school (with no graduate programs) in the middle of nowhere of a Midwestern Red state. It’s the school I knew least about, because I didn’t have any means of finding out information. But something here spoke to me – money. Not that I got as much aid as I need, but if my parents worked the whole year without taking holidays, they might just be able to send both me and my sister to college in the US. And my whole family has agreed that I needed to get out of my old school for my emotional and social wellbeing. So we went with option #3 and here I am. Some dear friends did also warn me since it is a quasi-South Red state and looks a lot like my old school in terms of demographics: “The Devil you know is better than the Devil you don’t.” But my natural response to that kind of comment is, “Cool, let’s get to know all the Devils!” And the international admissions coordinator here – who is from China and part of class of 2013 here – did a good job convincing me to come here. She did give me a list of pros and cons of being here, but she worked really hard communicating with me. One time, she was staying in sick and not going to work but she was sending me emails via her cell phone. God bless us hardworking Asian folks!

Before I moved in to school, there was a whole slew of adventures – and misadventures in New York City meeting up with my sister before she goes off to school further North on the East Coast. It includes the exciting incident of developing allergies on a ferry ride to Staten Island and having difficulty breathing, and my sister broke down coz our expedition of NYC wasn’t going as she wanted. Really though, I’m struggling to breathe with puffed up red eyes, and she decided it was the perfect time to cry. She probably has her reasons but I’m not gonna go into details. Also, I missed my flight out of NYC, so I had to book another one urgently.

Sister on Citibike

This is my sister on a Citibike riding toward Times Square. We rode from Columbus Square till Chinatown.

Back to my new school, they have a very well-designed orientation for international students. If I remember correctly, I don’t think my old school gave much time for international student orientation. Here it’s a whole week. We don’t have a large number of students from each country but the international students are spread out from all corners of the globe. They’re not just freshmen but also include exchange (1-year) students and study-abroad students from sister universities, so it’s impossible to stay with fellow students of your own origin and not step out of your comfort zone. Back at my old school, a quarter of the international students were from Burma, another quarter from China, another quarter from Vietnam and the last quarter, a random assortment, and confining yourself to your nationality comfort zone was fairly easy. People are from different places and different cultures. We have separate PAs for international orientation, besides the PAs from (regular) new student orientation. What they do is allow us time to get comfortable in a new environment with a limited number of people and encourages us to open us. Since everyone is radically different, in terms of national and cultural origin, we all can see in each other how we all are vulnerable. They provide us a safe space before exposing us to the blob of American culture of the Midwest and South – which can be ignorant and intolerant compared to the East and West Coasts. I really appreciated that. The orientation leaders included the international admissions coordinator, frat boys, sorority girls, sports people, folks from the school GSA, etc. so it’s a random assortment of active people on campus.

But of course, orientation was boring since I’d been through it all already before. And I escaped from (regular) new student orientation as much as possible, because it was my fourth orientation. I’m already Asian, I don’t need to get any more Oriented! For the orientation, they put together all transfer students in the same PA group. We are the ignored minority so we bonded well. The orientation event masters would always address students as, “Freshmen!” and we’d be like NO but we were in each other’s company so we didn’t feel that left out. I’ve stuck out with 5 of my PA group members after orientation was over and classes begin and we would do everything together. You could say I’ve found my clique already, as much as I am against cliques.

Panther earphones

These are the earphones that came with my international student welcome package. The school mascot is the Panther and H is the school name initial. They sound crappy, but they look cute.

And, NO, it’s not all fun and games … I’ve had some shitty moments. Moving is hard. I had my stuff in 3 different states and I had to decide what to move and what not to move to a fourth state. They come in from different places at different times and I have to coordinate people and transportation. I had to get a ton of new stuff, coz I couldn’t move some and some got damaged while moving. I had people to help me out though, luckily. Even then, I blew like $400+ just on moving and getting settled in. I’m selling some of my old books just go get some money back.

Also, I’ve heard from some folks about how they’d also love to transfer after hearing my news of transferring as an international student. I will address them in a different post.

This school has a music department on its last legs. What I was told: some years back, it was deciding to cancel the music major offering and have music minors instead. It only offers basic/core courses, it can’t manage electives or topic courses. I wasn’t able to register for voice lessons because the teacher is already over-capacity. I’m taking piano lessons though, fortunately. I’m not sure if I’ll be taking composition lessons during my time here, although composition lessons are listed on the website. I hadn’t dug deep enough to find info about the music department here. My advisor even asked me if I’m sure I wanna be here, because of how little resource the music department has. On the bright side though, the voice teacher – who is not yet my voice teacher, since I’m waitlisted for lessons – is also the choir director and she is very able and accessible. The voice teacher and choir director at my old school didn’t seem very accessible. Another music rage: the men’s section in the choirs, concert choir and chamber choir – there are only 7 and 5 men respectively. But smaller choirs, fortunately, mean that I get more individual attention from the choir director, which will be my consolation. I might have to just focus on vocal music here and go on to do composition in grad school.

Theatre, hopefully, is going to be my second major. I might end up doing it as a minor, I don’t know yet for sure. I can give myself either 2 and a half to 3 years to graduate, but college is expensive so I kinda want to graduate asap. And OMG, I got an opera afcionado and a Wagnerian for an advisor. There was this thing where we had to meet up with professors of non-American origins for international orientation. There was one from Munich, Germany – Bavaria. She’s bee in the US for decades but she still an accent and talks about how she had her first beers since before age 5 and how American beers are shitty. I dropped Wagner in a conversation, with the assumption that all intellectual Bavarians should love Wagner. She got all excited and directed me to get in touch with this one professor from the theatre department, so I requested him in particular to be my academic advisor. He’s had experience directing opera and wants me to put up a show for my senior project. I’d like that. BTW, the choir director is taking her students to the nearby opera house for Puccini’s La Bohème later this month, FUN!

I’m in 2 classes of his: voice and movement; and musical theatre. This past Thursday, we watched the first 2 acts of Bizet’s Carmen in class and it took up like 75-80 min in a 2-hour class. Class was dismissed after like 10-ish minutes of discussion. Carmen is my spirit animal and I connect to the opera, the story and the shero on a personal and spiritual level. You can’t do this to me! That was very sad.

What else do I have left to say? Wait, I still do have a shit ton … My old school asked for $380+ for withdrawal. Is that standard procedure? No idea. But I have yet to take care of that. This new school forgot to add the cost of health insurance on my bill and my student got frozen because my payment was short by the amount needed for health insurance. Also, the business office wasn’t aware of how much financial aid I was given and asked for more money, too. I had to run around for the past week trying to resolve these things. Classes are ok overall, although it’s my first time on the semester calendar, but it’s been stressful because of those financial incidents/issues.

And guys, I’m already in counseling! There’s nothing seriously wrong but I signed up as a precaution. I don’t want to get back into the gutter of depression. This first week has been pretty stressful. I had to work on those financial matters. The school internet speed dropped significantly after all the students moved in. I barely get phone reception on campus. (The campus is on a hill in the middle of the woods, but I went hiking and I got reception in the woods, just not on campus. FTW?) I might be slightly homesick. It’s officially 1+ years since I last saw my parents. I haven’t been able to skype with or talk to them over the phone. My sister is also starting college and she has confidence issues. She doesn’t think she is up for college reading-writing. She’s more capable than she realizes, I tell you. And she is a much higher achiever than I am. But Burmese society has always favoured me over her all our lives since I’m the first-born son in a small nuclear Asian family with a large extended family. Fucking sexism! She’s been put down all her life. And it’s impossible for me alone to reverse within 15-30 min each night a process that has been forced on her by society for the past 18 years. Also, she might be having some problems communicating with her roommate about certain issues, but I’m not gonna mention anything since it’s her own personal business.

I’m doing well here – much better than at the old place – overall. The people here are lovely. I moved from the cornfields of the western Midwest to the woods of the southeastern Midwest – still in the middle of nowhere. But I prefer woodsy trees to barren farmlands and I’m on the bank of a river here, so I like it. Mandalay, where I was born and grew up, is in between a large river and a giant plateau. The people are nice, although I can’t seem to understand (yet) how people seem to be engaged/married at a very young age, i.e. college age. Well, rural life, I guess. Trying not to judge! And it’s odd how I seem to be the most sexually experienced among my group of friends – and really I don’t know much.

Final rage, before I conclude: THERE IS A DEARTH OF GAY MEN ON CAMPUS! I walked in late into the GSA meeting: lesbians … lesbians everywhere! I got no problems with lesbians. In fact, angry lesbians get shit done. I just wanna be dating. There’s like only 2 other gay guys that I know around here: the one whom I first met online and who showed me around the place and his ex. At least, they’re not together, heehee. But really, I don’t think I’m interested in either of them. And I don’t think I have a right to complain given the political demographics of this locality. On the bright side: we have an LGBT resource centre, where I just signed up to work. (I won’t be getting paid though.) We’re also a PFLAG chapter. And we have a general anti-discrimination squad of faculty members. Hopefully, I’ll be going again to MBLGTACC in February 2014.

Over and out, BYE! I need more rest this weekend before I start picking up homework.

OH River

This is the S/SE part of the campus that overlooks the Ohio River. It’s pretty.

I promise, next time I’ll write something (remotely) insightful. Right now, I’m gonna enjoy the weekend. HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN!

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