I wake up and immediately crave noodles.
Not just any noodles, but pad see ew gai, the Thai fried noodles that were a staple of my diet last year. The Forbes dining hall offers a delicious array of scrambled eggs, potato hash, and blueberry muffins; but alas, not a noodle in sight. Some days, I swear readjusting to a Western breakfast menu has been the hardest part of my post-gap year transition. Other days, I am more shocked by the sheer opulence of my environment.
As I bike through the verdant courtyards of Princeton, surrounded on four sides by regal stone buildings, my vision flashes briefly to the bike rides I took in Thailand. After work, we would coast down dirt roads lined by groves of palm trees. Every once in a while, we came to a village, where shouts rang out from bustling outdoor markets. Motorbikes whizzed around, some carrying entire families on their rickety metal backs. We would sometimes stop at a vendor for a bag of pineapple, or an iced tea. As we moved toward the edge of the village, the three-story cement buildings slowly morphed into shacks propped up by sticks and amputated car doors. Shirtless men lounged in hammocks, and thin children played hacky sack on the street.
My dorm room in Forbes has air conditioning. It used to be a resort hotel.
A squirrel darts in front of my bike, and I am brought back to the present. I veer around a texting student, grateful I had snapped back to reality before running him over. In fact, the majority of people around me have their faces turned to their phones, or their headphones in.
They don’t hear the dying leaves gently murmuring their last words. They don’t see the morning sunlight expanding over the ground like spilled water. They shut their eyes and cover their ears in a place that is a feast for the senses.
And suddenly I’m back in Thailand, on a school field trip to the beach. Some students had never seen the ocean before, despite living only a half-hour drive away. Konto, my favorite fourth grader, stepped out of the minivan. A life vest was already fastened across his chest, and his fat rolls bulged over the straps. He looked towards the beach.
“Ooooh!” he gasped, his eyes opening as wide as his gaping mouth. He pointed at the clear blue water, then at the sand, then simply waved his finger around, overwhelmed by the pointing possibilities. He furrowed his brow, searching for the word in English.
“Beautiful!” he said at last. I had to agree.
Back at Princeton, I arrive at class, hastily lock my bike, and slip into the lecture hall. My GEO lecture consists of about 200 students who have less of an interest in geology than in fulfilling their STL requirement. I rack my brain, trying to remember what the homework was and if I’d done it. A problem set, maybe? That I probably did?
There was never much need for time management skills in Thailand: I simply went to work at the primary school, coached a basketball practice, then had the day to myself. I spent a lot of afternoons cooking and eating traditional Thai food with my coworkers, and a lot of nights running around the school’s track. Night was the only time it was cool enough to run. Plus, the stars were beautiful.
“Speaking of stars,” my professor says, startling me yet again. Had he read my mind? “Today we are going to calculate the energy level of the sun at the top of the atmosphere.”
"What a pointless thing to do," remarks that little voice in my head. These days, this voice interrupts my thoughts often, constantly telling me that I should be doing something useful, something tangible. I can’t help thinking, damn that voice in my head. He chirps at me when I waste food at the dining hall, and when I catch myself complaining about having too much homework. He snickers when my Writing Sem professor asks us “why is your thesis important to you?” Is it important, Hannah?
But he also sometimes asks, "Why are you here? What can you gain, what can the world gain from your education?" And just like that, I am forced to defend Princeton, to really think about what this university can offers and explain what I want from my experience here.
I argue with the little voice. Princeton is a place of opportunity, a place to better equip myself to change the world later on. What I learn and do here can be as important as I make it out to be. The people I meet are valuable, the classes I take are valuable. The improvement of my own mind, that is valuable too.
The voice makes me see and understand everything I have in a clearer light, and because of that, my gap year was worth the uncertainty and discomfort I feel now. Everyone needs a bit of discomfort to keep them questioning, to keep them exploring their own minds. I know I’ll learn a lot this year: about Princeton, hopefully about myself, and maybe even about the energy levels of the sun.