You might have seen me on campus: a gray-haired undergraduate who is the age of your parents. You might have casually greeted me, “Hello, Anna,” and I didn’t know who you were. We must be attending the same class, and at the beginning of every class, the professor always asks us to introduce ourselves. I stood out, I know, because of my age, and you are all young, happy, and vibrant. I’ll know you eventually, though it’s harder for an old dog to tell you apart.
The fall semester is in full swing, and how wonderful it is to be a junior. I’ve already begun to draft my personal statement for the MFA application in my head, and I would title it “An Office of One’s Own.” I see your conspiratorial smile. You recognize it. Literature students, especially females, must have known Virginia Woolf and “A Room of One’s Own.” But why office? What’s your story behind it? you might ask.
My first day at Point Loma Nazarene University was Jan. 10, 2022, the orientation day for new students. Omicron was raging, and the instruction I received beforehand asked the parents to refrain from coming. Still, I saw parents present on campus, strolling with their children, enjoying every minute of togetherness. The closer to Nicholson Commons, the thinner the crowd of people who looked like parents. At last, only one middle-aged person persisted and pressed on. Self-consciously, I picked up the end of the line, lowering my head, pretending to read the instruction on my phone, which I’d read millions of times.
At that instant, the image of the beadle who had stopped Woolf more than a hundred years ago flashed across my mind. I imagined some security guard would come up to me and say, “Ma’am, please step out. Students only,” and I would explain, in a stammer, “I myself am the student, a new student, a new transfer student.” But this interaction never happened. No dreadful beadle materialized, and I never heard the prejudicial statement, “Here’s the turf, there’s the path.”
People at PLNU trust that other people know what they are doing. I’m safe here. Actually, at San Diego Community College, the starting point of my journey to a degree in literature, I was no less safe. But things were different there; all classes, except for one, were online. There is a saying, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” and therefore, I was there, on the internet, playing the role of a student.
It was in the fall of 2020 at the height of the pandemic. Only seven students were in our English 101 class, and the professor implored us to turn the cameras on. I didn’t want to at first. Isn’t attending class invisibly the benefit of online education? But then I felt the need to let him know who I was. Had he known my age, he might have cut me some slack when I couldn’t keep up with class activities conducted with new-fashioned technology. Plus, he was pitiable. His mouth opened and closed, his head shook and nodded, while static pictures, and in my case, a black square, stared at him. I decided to expose my face and with it, a bit of self-introduction.
I was born and raised in Beijing, China in the 1960’s. In 2006, my family immigrated to Canada, and a few years later, we became Canadian, nationality-wise. My daughter and my son are going to school in San Diego. I came to visit them but got stuck here due to travel restrictions. So, I thought: why don’t I also go to school to get a student visa just like my children? But don’t get me wrong, I love going to school. Once I started, I realized how much I loved it. While this is the first college-level class I’m taking, I can’t wait to transfer to a four-year college.
My computer must have overheard my ambition. One day, this creepily intelligent thing pushed an ad to me: Point Loma Nazarene University: “Fully become who you are called to be!” That sounds nice. “$10,000 transfer scholarship!” That sounds even nicer. I contacted the school counselor, asking her if I could transfer by the end of 2021 when my legal stay in the states ended. She replied that I must have 36 credits by the time I apply. I took only one class in the fall of 2020; without English 101, I wasn’t eligible for any other humanities and social science courses. The fall semester ended, and grades came out. I got a B. Not ideal, but enough to lift the constraint on my head. I charged onto the San Diego Community College District website and picked up 22-credits worth of courses in my shopping cart. Summer came, and I picked up 11 more credits. I applied to PLNU in November and was accepted. Before Christmas, I flew to Los Cabos and returned to San Diego as a student.
The officer at the border didn’t ask why I went to school in the first place. He just stamped on my passport. Had he asked, I would have spouted “children” and “visa.” That’s the true reason. I didn’t lie. But there is a truer reason: I love going to school.
“Haven’t you gone to college in China?” you might ask.
Yes, I went to college in China when I was your age, but that experience didn’t help me much. I went to college because that was the right thing to do for people my age and I made sure I had a good time. All the years easily flew by me, the 1980s, the 1990s, the 2000s… I thought I had a job. I have been writing as a freelancer for more than twenty years. I chose this line of work first and foremost because I must raise two children. I need the flexibility of my schedule to distribute my energy as I please. I have a room of my own, thankfully. I read Woolf in a state of peaceful happiness; how lucky I am to be living in a modern time. Immigrating to North America didn’t disrupt my career as a freelancer. In the time of globalization, it doesn’t matter where I assemble my words. I continued, from my room thousands of miles away, to write for magazines based in China in my native language, Chinese.
This flexibility of time and place brought only one problem: I didn’t feel that I had immigrated to North America. I churned out pages and pages of writing by which I felt I had been repeating myself as if I were still in my mother country. My only meaningful connection with the outside world was going to PTA meetings. However, I was reluctant to introduce myself as a writer to other parents because I feared the follow-up question, “What do you write?” Well, I published four novels. They are Xing Cun Zhe, Ni Bie Wu Xuan Ze, and… don’t go, I can translate.
I decided to try my hand at writing in English. After 2 years of working in my own room, I finished a memoir, which was accepted by an independent press focused on Chinese writers. The publisher thought highly of my book and invested in it. But the book didn’t rake in big money, and soon his interest turned to east Europe. I bought my book back and became a self-published author. Now I can take care of the marketing side of the business in my own room.
I ran away from Chinese, but didn’t go straight to the fairy land of English. I was stranded in between. I wanted to quit writing in Chinese completely but often relented when an editor in China invited me to write a column or an opinion piece. I wished I only read English books, but when I felt bored, I slipped onto Chinese social media to check what was trending with my friends back home. I knew what I wanted, but I lacked the willpower to pull myself out of my conundrum.
In the one and half years of my student career at SDCCD, I had only one in-person class, Math 121. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I drove to Mesa College to learn calculus. With an in-person class came in-person office hours, and there I was, sitting in the professor’s office, asking her a question. I was the last student coming in that day. When the office hour was over, she left with me. I watched her turn off the lights and lock the door. The door was made of glass, so I could see the enclosed space we had left behind through it. It plunged into darkness in an instant, and then, the lighting in the hall, woken up by our footsteps, salvaged it, bathing the furniture and furnishings in mellow starlight. I saw a picture frame perching on her desk; the picture seemed to be of her and her grandchildren. On toward the elevator, we didn’t break stride, but something about her office was so attractive that I looked back twice.
The professor was a bit older than I was. If I had met her on the street, I might have taken her just as a grandma. Yes, she is a grandma, but she has another side of her identity. She has an office. It was then that I came to understand what I needed: an office of my own, not a study/library in my own house, but an office in a working place.
Also, at that moment, I fully grasped what I was doing. I go to school because I can’t study by myself. I must situate myself in a learning community. I go to school because I want to have a job after graduation. Cooped up in my own room and freelancing is not right for me. Freelance jobs only work for people who have strong convictions and self-discipline. For me, it was a trap. It only works for me as an excuse due to its ambiguity. I hate that some people just take freelancer as a euphemism for housewife, but I often hide behind this equivocal term for its convenience. With a job, I must speak English, unlike at home, where my children give me leeway because they understand Chinese. If I teach school, I must read the classics again and again, unlike in the past when I often assumed I’d known the books already and missed out on the pleasure of fresh revelation. With a job, I may, no, I’m sure I shall, ultimately become a better writer.
Still, whenever I was asked, I stuck to the answer that I secretly, regrettably felt too glib —“children” and “visa,” but shied away from the truer answer—the desire for an office.
“Why,” you might ask, “didn’t you want to say it out loud? What do you fear?”
I fear it is too late. How I regret I hadn’t started earlier! I could have gone to college in 2006 when I first landed in Canada or in 2015 when my children first came to the states. Had I been able to see through the false sense of identity brought about by working as a freelancer earlier, I might have had an office now. Instead, I had been waiting until I had to get a visa.
What if there hadn’t been a pandemic? I shuddered at this thought.
I could not justify my happiness by witnessing a disaster fall on human beings, but I couldn’t help but imagine dying unfulfilled. I might lie in my bed, looking out of the window, desperately searching for a beadle to blame, thinking forever that I was limited by my status as a woman, a mother.
But that grim scene will not likely happen because one winter morning in 2020, I encountered the ad for PLNU. “Fully become who you are called to be!” And here I am, looking out with you at the enormously beautiful sea.
Written By: Anna Wang