Short, Fiery, and Annoyingly Optimistic
I have dreamt of studying abroad since freshman year. To help myself fall asleep or to pass time in a boring lecture, I would paint alternative realities in my mind. I pictured myself enjoying bread and cheese in Paris and dancing under neon lights in Ibiza. However, when the time came and I landed across the pond in London, I could no longer access my dreamy mind palace.
During my initial weeks abroad I found assimilating very hard. No matter how much I wanted to absorb every moment, I could not help but feel overwhelmed and claustrophobic in my own mind. The feeling reminded me of the foreignness I felt my freshman year. Just add accents, cigarette smoke, and a new metro system.
To escape the uneasy feeling of not belonging in this new place, I buried myself in books. I spent hours every day reading anything from eco-poetry collections to 800-page Victorian novels. I immersed myself in fictional worlds rather than living in my own.
At the time I was frustrated at my inability to relax. However, reflecting on those first few weeks, my feelings make sense. I had just started my first long-distance relationship. I was on dreadful terms with a girl that slept 5 feet away from me, someone I considered a friend. She lashed out at me because I am “short and fiery” and “say whatever is on my mind”, as though being a 5'3 Leo is something to apologize for.
Needless to say, things started out rocky and left me feeling timid and lost in a new city where no one looks you in the eyes and where an American accent stands out like a sore thumb.
Thankfully, life got better.
I launched Voices. I went to Paris and saw the Mona Lisa in person and the Eiffel Tower lit up at night. I explored markets and museums and drank cider at pubs with my friends. I befriended teachers and wrote a piece about my brother that I had been meaning to write for months.
Mid-February I started my first internship at a PR agency.
At first, the internship provided structure and stability. I was given real responsibility and assigned to write entire press releases for big names in the Biotech and Pharma industry. Initially, the internship built my confidence and made me feel like I was a contributing member of London society. Like I finally belonged.
I felt like myself again. I began to craft nourishing recipes with colorful foods and make playlists with new music. I started socializing more and going out with new people on my floor and in my classes. I finally felt like I could breathe.
The internship office wasn’t much of an office at all. It was in the basement of a freezing-cold chocolate shop that my supervisor and his wife own. I wore a sweatshirt, overcoat, scarf, and gloves to work every day, and was still chilled to the bone.
My supervisor’s wife would be in the shop most mornings making chocolate and talking with customers. It felt odd knowing that she could hear her husband ranting to me for hours about politics, the economy, and conspiracy theories rather than doing the work that he was supposed to be doing.
Most conversations were littered with tone-deaf remarks about race. He would ask why Chinese names are hard to pronounce and then go on to say that he doesn't like when Chinese people adopt English names. He said Black Lives Matter was “stupid”, and that “all lives matter”. He shared that the gifts his wife gives him are thoughtless and advised me to refrain from having kids because they are a waste of money. He has two children.
I pushed back as much as I could given he was my supervisor. It was never a balanced playing field and I was never taken seriously. In his eyes, I am a young and inexperienced American, what could I know? I am not sure mutual respect was ever a possibility.
He took ahold of this power dynamic and ran with it.
On the first Thursday of March, he played a clip from a naked dating show and insisted I watch with him. We were alone in the basement. No wife, no customers, no one but him and I. His eyes bore into me and my eyes bore into my computer. I refused to look but I could hear the audio talking about things that should not be talked about in a setting like this one. My face burned, my stomach dropped, and I became aware of pressure building behind my eyes. I couldn’t manage to get anything out other than “I don’t know why people would watch that”.
What I meant was: I don’t know why a man twice my age is determined to show me naked people while we are alone in what is supposed to be a professional setting. I don’t know why he won’t drop the subject when I am unresponsive, visibly uncomfortable, and trying to do my work.
My eyes glued to the clock, I tried to devise an escape plan. I needed to leave. Yet, I felt tethered to my seat; frozen, silent, and small.
The description of my role as an intern was to write press releases, edit writing, and organize spreadsheets. I was not there to endure his inappropriate behavior, anger with the world, and dissatisfaction with life.
He once called me annoyingly optimistic.
I love my optimism. It is a seed inside me that soaks up water from every downpour and uses it to grow. It is the way that I rework, rephrase, and reprogram my thoughts to be wings instead of anchors.
So, thank you. Thank you for showing me that at 20 I carry myself with more dignity than a 40-year-old businessman. Thank you for reminding me that I am indeed full of fire and will not allow myself to be walked on by anyone. Thank you for posing as an obstacle that I will overcome with a smile more radiant than ever. Most of all, thank you for waking me up and making me remember who I am.