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Brand New City – Onto an Off-Campus SURF Adventure

Dear Diary Caltech Student Blog,

This summer, I am off doing research in a new city. It’s an opportunity that I was, and still am, very, very, very much excited for! Regardless, thinking about all the logistics of “moving out” alone did cause me some amount of stress…

In a way, it really felt like moving out to go to college again. The same uncertainty, the same excitement for a new environment – both the college and the world outside its embrace – and the itch under my hand to do some real science. Isn’t that ironic? Doesn’t matter that I have been at a science school, gone through a myriad of science courses, and completed many, many integrations by hand (flashback to finding the electric field as felt by an electron five meters away from an electric conductor rod, or something), new opportunities never stop feeling like real science. Contradicting isn’t it, that the future is dubbed the real thing—  an escape from the worn-and-frayed magic of your current life.

A mother duck and two little duckies at Lake Mendota, Madison, WI.

Ducks at Lake Mendota! There were so many ducks, but it’s rare to see the little ducklings

(Anyway, never mind that— that is just the impostor syndrome talking. All science, no matter how small, is real science. I learned that earlier today, sitting at the stone steps of Lake Mendota pier, staring at the steps for fifteen minutes trying to prove my own intuition about how the height of the steps affects the turbulence of the waves as it comes crashing in, roaring with the tides). 

I think I learned a lot about myself, the “adult life” inching step by step closer to me, and how I best manage it. There is a lot to grapple with, but I have settled into a good life here, I think. Something small, neat, full of lake water to stuff into a little pocket in my heart.

Tiny lists of things I learned about “adult” responsibilities:

  1. Housing:

Turns out housing is simultaneously cheaper and more expensive, and rarer and yet easier to find than I thought. I planned to rent a small room through Airbnb at first, then a friend (thanks Guutz!) suggested looking through Facebook Marketplace for summer sublets by the local students. After several weeks of searching, accidental ghosting and then being ghosted, I finally found a place to live at a decent price! The nice thing about staying in the Midwest is that… rent is so much cheaper than in California. 

  1. Budgeting:

The crazy thing about housing is that you have to pay rent. And then you have groceries. And random small things that you need (like cooking pans, spatula, spices, and an umbrella because it actually does rain here). And then, a week in, SURF pays you a heaping sum of stipend — and now you need to make sure you allocate all of that money to cover all of your expenses. Hence comes the need for budgeting. It’s not like I will run out of money (really, SURF may not elevate anybody to a new tax bracket, but you will have a little more than enough to live— especially on Midwest expenses), but there is a sense of padded reassurance when I am all alone and have to manage my own finance, that I know how much money should go out, and for what.

I felt very adult as I began my first budgeting spreadsheet, week one into SURF, when I have a better sense of how much money I spend weekly. Rent money, transportation money, laundry money, groceries, music subscription— the list goes on. Oh, of course, don’t forget to have a budget for your weekly silly little treats (mine is boba). You need it to stay sane, really.

Boba and cheesecake at Lake Mendota

My favorite thing to do in the weekends here is getting boba, maybe a slice of cake, from a boba shop on State Street, and consume them by the lakeside.

  1. Transportation:

The cool thing about living off-campus is that there is so much more for you to explore! And the cool thing about going to campus, and also exploring the town, is that you need a way to get around. My favorite invention of society thus far is (good) public transportation. Every weekend, I catch the bus to go on my little adventures: to the zoo, to the movies, just going around town— or sometimes, to go to the neighboring city to watch a production of Twelfth Nights (that was an hour of bus ride plus an hour and a half of walking each way)!

But, I figured that there is a more economical way to get around, too, for places that are more local, like going to campus for SURF or around the area for groceries. Luckily, I managed to purchase a used bike on Craigslist for $50. The advantage of having a bicycle is that my activation energy requirement for going out and exploring town is much lower, and I also have a lot more freedom to go wherever I want. Pretty cool money-saving hack, really. She is a beautiful, bright green Huffy, and I plan to pass her off as the summer comes to an end.

  1. The mortifying ordeal of structuring your own life:

Last but definitely not least, all of the aforementioned points wrap up into a small and overwhelming fact of adulthood’s independence: you have to decide everything and do everything for yourself, now. My mother would definitely have never let me walk an hour and a half to see a play (the scenery was quite nice, to be frank— I walk through a nice forested area on the side of a highway, and for sometimes was surrounded by cornfields), but my mother also isn’t here to pay my rent and utility bills on time, or to cook daily meals, or to remind me that ice cream is not an acceptable substitute for dinner. To go off of a famous quote: If we want the rewards of going to a brand new city by ourselves and doing things our mother would never let us do, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of taking adequate care of ourselves. 

I realized, then, that I have an incredible need for structure, something that was always guaranteed before this. Between being surrounded by family or friends and a stringent schedule demanded by the Caltech curriculum, it’s easy to keep going with the days knowing at what time I must do what: at this time is house dinner, at this time is problem sets, at this time is hanging out with friends. But now that that structure is no longer around, my pre-programmed pace came to a halt. I grapple with empty time now — time that I have no obligation to have — and deal with it by preparing, more preparing, and trying to carve out to myself another comfortable nook in spacetime to settle into. 

A (model of) a plesiosaur, its head poking out from a pond, at Mitchell Dome Park, Milwaukee, WI.

Rawr! This little guy is saying Hi, from the Mitchell Park Domes, Milwaukee, WI.

In the quest for structure, I made new habits— routines that very much made me feel like an adult, and with that, a bite-sized piece of melancholy. Every day after work I go to the lakeside to read my book, and to swim if I feel like it. Every Thursday is grocery day, and every night before that is spent looking at the grocery store’s online weekly ads and deciding what to cook. Every Saturday morning, if not otherwise occupied by an exploratory quest, is spent taking a round in the city’s farmer market and then settling at a coffee shop and learning something new — it flickers between Fortran (I know.) and group theory, depending on my own fancy — before making it back and prepare a week worth of meals. Every Sunday is movie night with my friends. 

The summer is not quite over yet. In between SURF and procrastinating on this diary entry, it is week six of my journey. I feel tethered in this city, now, little by little, from the small pieces lent to me by the locals: graduate students in my lab who told me to go to the farmer’s market, the museum keeper I met through the university’s free movie night who told me about the local jazz festival, or the senior scientist I work with — that noticed my lament about the scarcity of creampuff locally — telling me about the state fair coming up. Along each journey, I found a different piece of the city and this independence to keep in my heart, too. I don’t think I could have had this opportunity, and the motivation to go outside, if I was not feeling restless from this newfound independence and solitude, aware that my time here is limited. 

I learned new things: how to quickly memorize the paths from one place to another with a quick, careful look at Google Maps (this very old bicycle doesn’t have a good place to attach my phone to). I learned from my friends, always so close by through a wormhole called social media, tricks for meal-prepping and how to make the food feel new. I learned how to effectively plan for a trip, and quickly applied that by taking a one-day trip to Milwaukee to visit a cat cafe. I learned some Fortran and group theory, of course. I have time to write again. From the beginning of summer to now, I finished three books! 

Overall, thus far, this has been a great summer. I have time for myself, my schedule is at once emptier and fuller than ever, and there is still so much to see and so much to do, to learn. I’m excited to go home and meet my little sister again; I’m excited for the school year, and at once, I don’t want SURF to be over just yet… But at last, time flows. All we can do is surf: swerving atop the excitement brought by the waves and the discoveries they carry, big or small. Then, let’s submit to its hold, and take life as an experience. Ten precious weeks— ten weeks for Lake Mendota to cement its scent into my skin before I return home.

See you again soon, orange sunsets.

Chi Cap ’25

I flitter around here and there — from the coast of Vietnam, all the way to the scorching heat of Texas, and now to Pasadena! When I’m not daydreaming about the sea or the stars, I like to write fictions and poetry, watch movies, or swimming. I’m also a member of the TechLIT club and the Totem Literary Magazine on campus, and I’m very active in Dabney House, where I am currently the Vice-President and Health Advocate.

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