Monday, August 16, 2010

A Ph.D. in crayons

In about a week, my sister, Q., and I will be moving into an apartment in New York City and starting our respective school years. At present, said apartment is completely empty aside from basic kitchen appliances and a few ceiling fans. Therefore, last week we decided to make that greatest of twenty-something pilgrimages: a trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond.

We piled our cart high with pillows and bedbug-proof mattress covers and struggled to maneuver it around displays of such enticing items as University of Minnesota Snuggies, butt-lifting underwear and something called the Pasta Boat. We must have looked lost (or like prime targets), because every employee we passed asked us if we needed help finding anything.

"Are you shopping for college?" one of them asked.

My mom, who was with us, explained that my sister was getting her master's and I my Ph.D.

The employee looked at me aghast. "A Ph.D. in crayons?" she demanded.

I'll admit that I can look young for my age. I don't say this in a "look how well I withstand the signs of aging" way; apparently, there's something about my face infantile enough to have made people assume I was in high school during and well after college and that I'm too young for big grown-up tasks like buying alcohol in countries where the drinking age is 18 and getting advanced degrees.

I'm sure I'll end up being grateful for this a few years down the line, but right now, being babyfaced sometimes results in people not taking me seriously – like the client at my last job who told me I “wouldn’t know anything about” a topic I wrote my undergraduate
thesis on.

It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t feel like a child sometimes, too. I was pretty good at keeping things running smoothly in Chile and Ecuador, but the fact that I’ve lived so many of the past several years abroad means I don’t really know how to be an adult in the U.S. I went straight from the protected island of college to a series of adventures in destinations south, and although I got jobs, opened accounts and rented apartments, everything seemed too transitory and precarious to fit into a stereotypical portrait of adult life. While some of my friends in the States were buying and decorating homes, I was renting furnished rooms in other people’s houses or – in the case of Ecuador – filling my apartment with cheap furniture I hoped to be able to resell when I left in a few months’ time. While some people my age were advancing along the hallowed road of “building a career,” I was working quirky jobs that, although rewarding, were more like tiles in a mosaic than rungs on a ladder.

Of course, I don’t subscribe to the idea that stasis is the key ingredient to adulthood. I would also hazard to claim that my unconventional experiences have made me more self-reliant than going a more traditional route would have. In other words, I’m prepared to take on adult responsibility, but I just don’t know how to do it here yet. I could tell you all about talking down your rent in Ecuador and could show you the statements from my Chilean retirement savings fund, but I still get nervous whenever I have to write or deposit a check in the U.S. And it is a bit unnerving to know that this new educational endeavor falls completely under my responsibility, both academically and financially: My fellowship is mine to keep or lose, and a lot more independence and self-discipline are going to be demanded of me than when I was a perennially sweatshirt-clad undergrad who spent hours in the cafeteria getting sugar highs from the impressive array of frozen-yogurt toppings. All of this makes me wonder if I'll be able to prove myself any older than the employee at Bed, Bath & Beyond assumed I was.

So stay tuned for my adventures in crayons, alternately titled “Little Leigh does Big-Girl Things.” No posts about writing checks: I promise.


Anonymous said...

I've recently been asked what grade I'm in. I'm like "I'm not. I'm studying a master's degree." It sort of throws people. However, in Chile people would always guess I was older. Like thirty-ish. So I don't know which is better.

Hope you have fun decorating that apartment!

Kristin Thomas Sancken said...

If it makes you feel any better, there are plenty of people who have stayed in the U.S. post college who haven't bought houses or made any headway on establishing a career (like myself). At least you have awesome stories to show for it, and you can be self-sufficient in two languages.

Also, my husband was on a flight the other day and someone asked him what grade he was in. He pulled out his wallet and showed them a picture of his wife and baby and told them he had just finished graduate school.

Annje said...

I have always had that problem because I look young and I am tiny. It is not as bad anymore, because mid-30's have more crow's feet and I am usually hauling around 2 tots.
If not in Crayons, what will your Ph.D. be in? I finished mine last Dec.; it is quite the journey!

Leigh said...

Sara - That's odd that people's perception of your age differs by country! Maybe people in Chile think you're older because you're out on your own (gasp!).

Kristin - I would have loved to see how the other passenger reacted when your husband showed him the family photo!

P.S. Your baby is scrumptious.

Annje - Congrats on your Ph.D.! Even though it will probably eventually become obvious what I'm studying, I don't want to give too many specifics about it on this blog just yet because I'm paranoid like that. I'd be happy to talk about it through e-mail or Facebook, though.

When do you move to Chile?

Jamie said...

Nah dude, it sounds like you're totally fine. Even people who've been decorating their houses and no traveling the world don't have any more living skills than you. I have that feeling all the time of not understanding how things work, but I know I'd manage if someone threw me out on my own. Hm, maybe someone should do that...