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John Harvard's Journal | The Undergraduate

Point of No Return

July-August 2020

image of a girl in a dark space looking upward as her flashlight illuminates a verdant space ahead

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Illustration by Nicolas Ogonosky


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Illustration by Nicolas Ogonosky

Soon after the Harvard community was upended and scattered around the world by the COVID-19 evacuation, I called my two roommates. Pre-move-out, whenever I felt like my world was falling apart, I could always depend on returning to our room in Adams. The worn wooden floors, beautiful crown molding, and fireplace made the space look reliably ancient, like an antique heirloom passed down for generations. My roommates, Sunday and Catie, and I would sip from mugs of herbal teas on those cold Cambridge nights and snuggle together on our beloved, faded floral futon. I could always count on Sunday’s perspective to ground me, or at least tame my overzealous drive to work. Catie and I often had long, philosophical discussions about the meaning of work, school, and service that left me satiated with introspection.

Even without the physical comforts of our dorm room, I was happy I could still call them from my home in California. I couldn’t wait until all of this was over so that we could all…

So that we could all what? As graduating seniors, we weren’t returning to campus. We weren’t really returning to anything, since we’d been thrust peremptorily into the uncertainty of postgrad life.

In some sense, college is structured as an incubation period. You enter this vault, and the controlled conditions protect you as you mature, ready to enter the postgrad world. That expected incubation period lasts around four years. COVID-19 has an incubation period of only five to 14 days. Maybe that short turnaround explains why we were unprepared for the jarring mid-spring-semester transition out of college.

Or maybe it’s the fact that the class of 2020 lacked closure for our undergraduate years. It’s as if the transition to “Zoom school” overshadowed our transition from Harvard. My partner, Liren Ma ’20, says, “I feel lost in a void between point A and B. It’s like I got stuck in the middle and don’t know how to get back.” But if there’s not even a “going back,” where do we go?

 

A few friends and I started a book club to keep in touch after we were dispersed to our different time zones and homes. First on the list, per my request: anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. This patchwork of narratives traces the globalized commodity chains of matsutake, the world market’s most valuable mushroom. The stories helped us think through precarity, the defining condition of our time. “Post-industrial ruins,” including shuttered factories, economic catastrophes, and climate change, all make the present moment a ripe time for sensing precarity, Tsing writes. If we ever felt caged by too much stability, it now seems that many of us face indeterminate and troubling futures. And it also seems we are at a loss for narrative happy endings. Our “handrails of stories” about stability and progress—which “once made us think we knew, collectively, where we were going”—are gone, she writes. How do we imagine living without those handrails?

Many of us lack them now. According to an April 2020 survey, more than half of Los Angeles County residents were unemployed due to the coronavirus crisis. My parents, among millions of other workers in this country, have suddenly lost their income. My sister and I delivered groceries to my grandmother a few weeks after the stay-at-home order in Los Angeles. She lives in a Section 8 apartment unit in the heart of Koreatown, where my family’s former acupuncture clinic and other small-scale business buildings were torn down and rapidly replaced by luxury apartments during the past decade. It can sometimes seem only a matter of time before her own apartment will be demolished as well.

As Tsing says, living life without handrails amid economic uncertainty can make us more attuned to precarity and risk. When discussing our postgraduate plans over the phone, my partner told me, “I probably value having a secure job more highly than I would have if not for the impending economic crisis. You don’t want to take as many risks now.” The postgraduate job market looks bleak for many seniors. On top of the difficulty of simply coping, my roommate Sunday, a budding clinical psychologist, has been struggling because most labs have scaled back their work and aren’t looking to hire.

Of course, some of my peers will be starting jobs with six-figure salaries that they had secured after junior year. “I know people that did recruiting and still have those jobs,” my other roommate, Catie, said. But even graduates with economic security might have other risks to worry about, including sick family members and loved ones. “There’s an aura of uncertainty that unites everyone but is manifesting in different ways for different people and in different realms of life,” Catie reminded me.

Security and safety are often compelling justifications for Harvard graduates to enter careers that offer obscenely high salaries—perhaps even compelling enough to enter corporations with practices that make them uncomfortable. The decision to attend Harvard itself is often a step toward security, as in my case—a way, perhaps, to uplift my immigrant family. I understand it: when life seems so precarious, I often find myself grasping for handrails.

But maybe there’s an alternative to those norms of security and safety that have diverted our attention from other directions. Tsing points to the matsutake to illuminate alternative paths for survival on our precarious, damaged planet. Matsutake production and commerce take her readers to unexpected places, including human-disturbed and -damaged forests in Oregon, Japan, and Yunnan. Matsutake thrive in our ruins. It is said that when Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb in 1945, a matsutake mushroom was the first living thing to emerge from the blasted landscape. Yet matsutake survive only because of their dependence on multispecies collaborations. Rather than the lone-wolf-against-the-world model, survival is about connection, interdependence, and relationships. How can we survive together?

 

I can feel frivolous, sometimes even guilty, when thinking during this crisis about what lies ahead for me. My Harvard degree will always give me immense privilege when navigating the job market. I’m so lucky that I’m in good health, have enough food to eat, and will likely be okay coming out of this pandemic. In late April, after months of uncertainty, I found out that I’d been accepted for one international and one domestic fellowship. I could travel to South Korea to conduct research and learn Korean, enabling me to connect with my heritage and extended family members after 18 years of separation. Or I could do community-service work in California related to food justice—issues that seem especially salient now, given the unprecedented levels of food insecurity all over the world.

But given the state of international travel, I don’t know if I’ll be able to go anywhere for the rest of the year. And my priorities are shifting. I’m sure there was a time when I thought going abroad would be the perfect way to spend the brief and exciting years immediately following graduation. While postgraduate wanderlust should carry me away from home, I can’t shake off the startling news we get every day about “essential” workers who lack proper health insurance and protective gear, and families going without food due to rising unemployment and disrupted supply chains—or my own family’s efforts to manage. 

It can feel like the world is falling apart. But I do not find myself grasping in the dark to turn on the light switch—or to find the handrails. I am grasping to feel the edges, imagining a new space with contours that lead to unexpected avenues. Arundhati Roy writes: “Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”

Although it sometimes feels as though my future is falling apart, I now see that—rather than unraveling—it’s becoming a spinning vortex that’s converging into a point: a source that sucks shut my other fears about risk and uncertainty. The pandemic has cleared the smog from cars that normally chug through traffic on Los Angeles highways. It’s given the city the clearest skies we’ve seen, breathed, and smelled in decades. This is the clarity that guides my journey into life after graduation, as I continue to imagine the world that I want to live in. 

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