Seeking Comfort in Discomfort: A Continuous Process

By Gaby Germanos, HCWC Intern

No, this is not a rant about safe spaces or the coddling of millenials on college campuses. Rather, this a collection of thoughts from a college student (me) on the search for emotional and mental “safety” on, you guessed it, college campuses. I would like to preface these thoughts by noting that they are derived primarily from my own experiences, so take from them what you think will be useful for your own life. Bear in mind, though, that because the purpose of this article is to prompt you (college student or not) to seek discomfort in your daily life, I urge you to also entertain—at least momentarily—some suggestions I make that don’t necessarily seem like good ideas for you.

With all that out of the way, let’s start at the beginning, waaaaaaay back in the summer of 2014.

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Circa 2014, when Spotify and CDs didn’t exist and everyone listened to music on tape, and we had to walk to school every morning in the snow uphill both ways

It was nearing the start of my freshman year. I hadn’t given a ton of thought as to what I wanted to study, or which activities I wanted to pursue, but I knew I wanted to do something new. As someone who has never been a big fan of change, transitioning from high school to college—one of the biggest changes of my life—seemed like as good a time as any to hurl myself into some new situations. (And, if you know my love of routine, “hurl” is a pretty accurate word for that.) My first step outside of my comfort zone was to sign up for the First-Year Outdoor Program (FOP), a week of camping and backpacking in the Appalachians. While I certainly enjoyed taking long walks, as a moderately lazy person with a knee condition, I preferred my hikes to be almost entirely horizontal. Also, the idea of living without running water or a bed for any period of time appalled me. Basically, FOP scared me more than any of the other freshman pre-orientation programs, so, naturally, I signed up right away.

Spoiler alert: it ended up being pretty damn scary, and difficult, and exhausting. But I also learned that I’m one tough cookie, and that if I can get along with a bunch of new people and poop in the woods and scale a mountain, all the while dealing with aching knees and my period (because of course it would come that week), I can pretty much do anything. I haven’t done any camping or backpacking since FOP, but that wasn’t the point for me: I conquered my fear and, more importantly, learned that I am capable of conquering my fears, one of which was stepping outside of my comfort zone in such a major way. I did it once, and I could do it again, so do it again I did.

Once FOP was over and I had officially started my freshman year, I continued looking for new ways to embrace change. Academically, I was looking forward to exploring English, philosophy, and sociology, but on a whim, I accompanied someone in my entryway to a class they were shopping in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS). I had dabbled in “Tumblr feminism” over the summer, but I had never seriously concerned WGS as a concentration. To my surprise, I loved everything about the course, so I stayed.

I also went out of my way to seek discomfort in my extracurricular life—in one instance, quite literally, when I ventured all the way to the Quad to attend the first rehearsal of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. When I first told my family and friends about Kuumba, they gave me strange looks, since (a) nobody I knew was joining, so my interest was rooted in something other than peer pressure; (b) I had never sung in a choir, much less a choir that solely sings music from Africa and the African diaspora; and (c) I had no idea how to navigate inhabiting a safe space for Black students and consistently being one of the only white people in the room. But I felt so drawn to the music, the people, and the mission of the space, so I stayed. I also joined a tutoring/mentorship program in which I made weekly group visits to a local all-male youth detention facility, even though nobody I knew growing up had even stepped inside a prison, much less been incarcerated. But the other tutors, and the guys we worked with, were so smart, hardworking, and fun to be around, so I stayed.

[Quick note: I must point out here that obviously these organizations do/did not exist in order to help white, economically-privileged young people like me experience change and discomfort and then metamorphose into a confident new butterfly. But the fact of the matter is, I did grow from these experiences, not only because of the experiences themselves, but also because, like FOP, they showed me that stepping outside my comfort zone can be absolutely incredible and expose me to things that I really enjoy doing. It’s ok to learn something from an experience in an unfamiliar space, so long as you contribute to the growth of the space as much as it has contributed to yours.]

Of course, during my freshman year, I also pursued extracurriculars that I had enjoyed in high school. Funny enough, with all of these familiar activities, they either fell by the wayside, or I never made it passed the audition stage. (This latter phenomenon was a bit depressing, but I saw it as a sign that I should continue trying new things.] Thus, by the beginning of my sophomore year, my extracurricular life looked nothing like it had in high school, and, frankly, I was having so much fun.

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Me, dancing my way through sophomore year

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, AKA the middle of the first half of my junior year. I was giving a freshman some advice on joining clubs and finding their niche at Harvard, and I kept harping on the incredible effects of embracing discomfort. After the conversation was over, I walked away feeling proud of myself for giving such useful advice, when, all of a sudden, an unsettling thought passed through my mind: was no longer living by my doctrine of change. This semester, I’m still in Kuumba, which has now become a place where I feel emotionally and mentally safe. I’m (clearly) an intern at the Harvard College Women’s Center, and while this is my first semester on the job, the mission and overall vibe of the Women’s Center is one that makes me feel entirely comfortable, and it’s an office at which I’ve been interested in working since the end of my freshman year. As a WGS concentrator, I seek intellectually rigorous and challenging courses, but not courses that challenge my deeply-held beliefs or require me to work with unfamiliar methodologies. (In fact, last semester, all four of my classes were taught by WGS professors.) Granted, all these aspects of my life at one point caused discomfort for me, but I have now become too comfortable in these spaces for them to help me grow as a person in that special way that only discomfort can.

I’m not saying that I want to change my concentration, ditch Kuumba, and quit my job at the Women’s Center; these things bring me a lot of joy and constitute My Harvard Experience™. Nor am I advocating that you overhaul everything in your life and start afresh in order to experience personal growth. I am a firm believer that college is a time to “find yourself,” and once you figure out what makes you happy, I see no compelling reason to quash your happiness.

BUT—and here is the crux of this long ramble—”finding yourself” is also an ongoing, lifelong process, and there is no one version of “yourself” onto which you should desperately cling forever. Coming into college, I could have easily continued doing the same things I knew and liked, since high school was also a time of “finding myself.” However, had I done that, I never would have learned the valuable things I’ve learned , or become a part of the close communities I’ve joined, or had the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to the spaces I’ve occupied. If I keep doing the things I’m doing now without deviation, who knows how many new people, ideas, and experiences I’ll miss out on?

Since this revelation, I’ve made a pact with myself to revitalize my freshman year goal of living outside of my comfort zone as much as possible. To start, I have applied for an internship at PBS, even though I have no experience in broadcast journalism. Sure, I might get there and have no idea what to do and completely flounder, but I’m sure that by the end, I will have gleaned some useful information and changed in some way. Maybe I’ll learn that broadcast journalism isn’t for me, and that’s useful information, too. I’m also planning on finally fulfilling my science general education requirements in the next couple of semesters (which I have been strategically avoiding due to a general distaste for the hard sciences and a irrational fear of labs). Perhaps I’ll even take some challenging seminars in topics that—gasp!—don’t directly relate to my interests.

In pushing myself to explore new, uncomfortable things, I hope all of you can try to do this, too, even on a smaller scale. This is especially important if you consider yourself an activist or, at the very least, an ally, since you will often be called upon to stick your neck out on behalf of a person, group, or belief that you care about, and those kinds of confrontations can often be difficult. I want to emphasize that I understand how hard change and discomfort can be—after all this, I still hate change. Sometimes in making these decisions, I don’t feel emotionally and mentally prepared, and it scares the crap out of me. But even when things don’t go well, I’m glad I went outside my comfort zone, at least 99% of the time. During that other 1% of time, I have a strong support system to help me out. It’s also important to push yourself to a point; while I think it’s ok if you aren’t always emotionally and mentally prepared to tackle something new (that is the point of leaving your comfort zone, after all), I don’t advocate that anyone seriously endanger their emotional or mental wellbeing. As the only person who gets to live in your skin, you’re the sole arbiter of which uncomfortable choices are ok for you to make. The purpose of seeking discomfort is to change your life for the better, so making decisions that do the opposite is not necessarily a good idea. But when and if you do decide that you’re ready to take the plunge, I hope you’re able to find comfort in discomfort and, when it becomes too comfortable, you find new ways to embrace change.

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Go get ’em, you brave millennial you!

PostIt Comix 2: Erasure + the Mikado

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By Jessica Jin

Erasure. Erasure. Erasure. Erasure. Erasure.

I’m saying it enough times that it hopefully doesn’t sound like a word anymore. That it disappears. I am Chinese. Erase my yellow skin. Erase my eyes. Erase my black hair. Put me on a stage where white men watch me. Watch them laugh. I’m invisible so they see right through me. Put someone else on stage, dressed in my skin, so they finally see me. I am whole. I am peace. I am transparent. I am erased. Thank God. Thank God. Thank God.

_

What they never tell you, what the inevitable most-protected most-taboo thing to say is, is that we don’t live in a post-racial society.

People of Color are Other. 

This is a fact. To say otherwise is to erase the reality of racial conflict, Black and Brown and Yellow death that continues to this day. This hour. This second.

The Gilbert & Sullivan Players are putting on a production of “The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu” this weekend. In the Crimson article they released only a few days before this show, they claim to be striving towards a vision of a “humane Mikado.” The dilemma they face?

“Strike “The Mikado” from our season, and ignore one of the most problematic but well-known G&S; shows, or try to confront it by reimagining it and subverting authorial intent.”

The intention is beautiful. I want to imagine a world where I can take a show based in the humiliation of my race and of Black races as well, hold it in my hands, and make it good. A show that includes the line “Toko for Yam,” a Victorian-era British-colonial term for beating a West Indian slave. A show that names a white person dressed as a Japanese person “Yum-Yum” and “Nanki-Poo.” Isn’t it beautiful? I subvert it, I take out “Toko for Yam.” I take out “Yum-Yum.” I take everything out of it. Its racist undertones are gone. I smile. My white donors smile. 

The intention is misguided. To call not putting on a play with distinctly racist colonial roots that have modern-day impact “erasure,” is to not fully know what erasure is. Erasure is sanitizing the script until it becomes palatable to the diversity-initiative sensitivities of the audience, and the cast.

When asked earlier why the Mikado could simply not be put on, the response from G&S was that there was a set rotation of shows. The response was that the play was a favorite of the donors. 

When Asian protestors did nothing more than create a Facebook Group to organize protest against the Mikado, to gather in support and solidarity of cultural defense, we received disrespect and dismay from members of the G&S cast, rather than the “welcome invitation to engage with the historical and contemporary implications.”

The words they said:

“I honestly think protesting this show would prove to be a waste of everyone’s time, because if you were to see this production or talk to any cast/staff, you would understand that this is not the type of show that needs to be opposed.”

Are we ignoring the fact that the president of the company is Asian-American and that the *subject* of this production (via its staging and dramaturgy — as opposed to the subject of the original text) is the exotification and commodification of Japanese culture for audiences that blithely indulge in racist consumer habits?”

The words they didn’t say:

I am not listening to you.

I am not aware that I could be wrong.

I don’t want to be wrong.

I’m sorry for forgetting.

Chinese bodies under the railroads.

Nagasaki.

“Gooks.” “Chinks.”

Vincent Chin.

Japanese internment.

I understand that you all have worked hard on this show. That it is a product of your effort, your sweat, and your tears, and you need it to be good. None of us who are fighting your show are devaluing all of your hard work. But here it is- despite your noble intentions, I despise it. It hurts me somewhere in the vast ocean between where my parents call home and where I call home. I wish it were never born. I think of the title of your play- “Titipu”- and I think of how laughter sounds after my mother speaks broken English. I think of British colonials giving my great-grandfather opium until he had no more money left and my grandfather didn’t go to school. I think of your eyes, looking away from all of us. Shame. Looking back, with anger and defensiveness. I see you seeing right through me.

I am finally quiet.

I won’t respond.

-PostIt Comix is a weekly comic strip + blog post series that I (Jessica Jin) will be running throughout the year.

 

Postit Comix 1: Sleeping In- On Laziness + Mental Health at Harvard

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By Jessica Jin, HCWC Intern

Harvard students are not lazy.

Harvard students, at the least, cannot afford to be lazy. To be lazy is to squander something precious, our Lord and Savior Time, of which we have such few and scarce hours- to finish a paper, to rush a pset, to run a meeting, to catch a shuttle, to socialize with friends, to maintain appearances. It’s like a reverse Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs, where basic human needs for survival, eating and sleeping, come after all else. You don’t compare how well rested, or well fed you are. Instead, you unzip your metaphorical jeans, you whip out your hours of sleep, and you compare whose has been the shortest. “Look at these dark circles,” you say. “Maybe it’s Maybelline. Maybe it’s sleep deprivation.”

Which is why, when I found myself lying in bed, fully rested for the first time in a month, having skipped my morning lectures and sections, feeling like a veritable Princess™, I was never more utterly ashamed of myself.

Why are the moments I’m most disgusted with myself the same moments in which I treat my body with the respect that it deserves? Mental health at Harvard isn’t just a diagnosis. Or a 3am trip to UHS (lol, those are fun). More than that, it’s a toxic series of socially institutionalized practices that we fall into every day. How can we counter that? If pushing yourself to breaking point is the ever-present Upside-Down dimension that we can’t escape from, what can we even do?

Recently I’ve been trying to practice radical self-care. That doesn’t mean doing a full-twist backflip directly into a Lush-bath-bomb infused tub of water. But consider:

You deserve to sleep.

You deserve to eat.

You deserve to watch TV.

You deserve to miss to classes.

You deserve to be lazy.

 

 

-PostIt Comix is a weekly comic strip + blog post series that I (Jessica Jin) will be running throughout the year. Or try to. 

 

 

 

Hear Us Speak: A Recap

By Gaby Germanos, HCWC Intern

Warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies – devoured in 20 minutes.

Solange’s voice wafting through the kitchen, down the hall, out the door.

A dozen undergrads nestled into comfy chairs, snapping and laughing together.

This was the scene in the Women’s Center lounge last Wednesday night, when we teamed up with Speak Out Loud – Harvard’s only spoken word group – to host “Hear Us Speak,” a poetry workshop and open mic. In any given week, there’s bound to be at least one open mic somewhere on campus, be it for music, poetry, storytelling, or something else entirely. (Are there open mics for dogs who like to howl along to the radio? I hope so.) We knew that in planning our open mic, it had to be something unique, embodying a feeling, an ideal, an environment that we don’t often encounter at Harvard.

As a safe space on campus, the Women’s Center seemed like the perfect place to host an intimate open mic, replete with string lights, pillows, and delicious snacks (10/10 would recommend Cracker Barrel’s Jalapeño Cheese Slices). Since we’re an office intent on “raising awareness of women’s and gender issues” (#MissionGoals), we decided to orient our event around themes of gender and identity expression. After getting to know everyone in the room, we played YouTube videos of awesome women performing awesome spoken word on topics like race, periods, and belonging.

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HCWC intern and Speak Out Loud co-president Jessica Jin, using her magic baking wisdom to prevent me from burning all the cookies

Then came the core of the event; we took some time to sit in silence and write our own poems. Having a space that actively promotes and creates time dedicated to self-reflection is such a rare thing at Harvard, and it was nice to take a few moments to think creatively and enjoy the company of friends and strangers. Once we had all written something down, we went around the room and shared our poems. There were people who had written thousands of poems in their life, and some who had never written poetry before. Every poem was vastly distinct from the next, in form, topic, and affect, but all were deeply personal. As someone who doesn’t get the opportunity to attend a lot of poetry workshops, I loved being able to sit in a circle and use writing as a way to bond with a bunch of people who, for the most part, I had just met less than an hour before.

I’m a new intern at the Women’s Center, and the power of the space never ceases to amaze me. How many other places on campus can foster such a welcoming and inclusive community in such a short period of time? If you haven’t visited the space in a while, or if you just want a midday pick-me-up, I urge you to stop by the Center sometime. Even when we’re not hosting a poetry workshop, we invite you to come in, take a load off, and engage in some relaxation and introspection. In the bustling, hyperactive world of Harvard, taking time to connect with yourself and others is a much-needed thing.

On the first day she planted the world.

And she saw that it was good.
And she saw that it didn’t have enough so she picked up her heavy body by the roots
and brought herself, swelling
to somewhere before a thing called the Universe existed, dark and unforgiving
Even had to make soil for herself from nothing, just so that she could give birth to more unshapen clay.

(Jessica Jin ’18)

#WCW 10/12/16: Pam Grier

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By Gaby Germanos, HCWC Intern

When it came time to pick this week’s #WCW, I immediately thought of one woman: Blaxploitation icon and badass action heroine Pam Grier. It seemed fitting, given that she just received the 2016 Du Bois Medal from the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, an honor awarded to those who have made outstanding contributions to African American culture. As someone who loves 70s Blaxploitation films, it blew my mind that there were people on this campus who had never heard of Pam Grier, and I hope that writing about her as this week’s #WCW will inspire fans and newbies alike to check out her work!

I was first introduced to Grier’s films after watching some of the more mainstream famous Blaxploitation movies, such as Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972). These types of blaxploitation films were often set in poor urban neighborhoods and depicted a tough Black dude (the good guy) taking down a less-tough white male crime boss, police officer, etc. (the bad guy). The Good Guy was smart, deceptive, knew how to use a gun, and got all the ladies. In fact, the only women in sight were the Good Guy’s lovers, featured predominantly in sex scenes. Don’t get me wrong; as pretty much the first major films in which Black men weren’t depicted as the bad guys, Blaxploitation films were (and remain) incredibly valuable, not to mention entertaining! But I wondered where the badass Black women were in these movies.

In came Pam Grier. In movies such as Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Sheba Baby (1975), Grier played Black female protagonists who were everything I had hoped for: strong, smart, athletic, deceptive, and just as violent as the male protagonists in other Blaxploitation films. In my favorite of her films, Coffy, Grier plays a nurse bent on destroying the system of drug cartels and mafia bosses that led to her sister’s drug addiction. Throughout the film, she pretends to be a sex worker to take down a pimp, ditches her loser traitor boyfriend, and kills a bunch of people. Of course, she’s not perfect, and innocents suffer along the way. But that’s the beauty of it – the male protagonists in Blaxpoitation films aren’t angels, and neither is she.

Decades later, Grier still makes waves in the acting world, starring in incredibly diverse roles. In 1998, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her role in Quentin Tarantino’s Blaxploitation-inspired movie Jackie Brown. From 2004-2009, she starred as one of the leads in the hit Showtime series The L Word. She even worked on an animated children’s series on HBO called Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, securing an Emmy for her performance in 2000. Beyond that, she has worked on tons of TV shows and movies, far too many to name here. Of course, for much of her fan base, she remains most memorable for her work in the Blaxploitation genre, carving out a space for female action stars in all genres. When she’s not in the limelight, Grier lives on a Colorado ranch full of animals, dedicating her time to helping rescue horses and running a therapeutic horse-riding program. (As an animal lover and animal rights activist, this makes me love her even more!)

As a member of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, I had the honor of singing at the Du Bois Medal Ceremony last week, standing less than 10 feet from her on stage. It truly made my day (*cough* life) to help honor such a groundbreaking performer that has meant so much to me and so many other fans over the years. I’m excited to name her as this week’s #WCW, and I can’t wait to see what she does next!