Graduating from University in my San Francisco Living Room

In this inaugural post-graduation blog post, I would like to write on two things: (i) the bizarre but also intimate experience of graduating from Stanford University in the comfort of my own living room, and (ii) my relationship with San Francisco illuminated by this physical circularity of ending right where I started.

To dim an already drab morning, my June 14th graduation day began with the city’s usual fog and an absence of any light (a metaphor, perhaps). Knowing that what would’ve been an elaborate outdoor ceremony in the company of friends, family, and teachers has now been demoted to a living-room livestream watch party with none of the above expectant eyes on me, I had little motivation to even get myself dressed and out of bed in time for the 10am event. While I’d looked forward to this day since COVID-19 kicked me off campus and back home, I realized all too depressingly that this Sunday wasn’t really any different than any other; I was still in the confines of my family home and without the company of my friends. Perhaps I merely longed for this day because it was the only specific date, the only mark of certainty, in a future that was dreadfully uncertain. In reality, there was really no point to wearing my crisp, white graduation dress, donning the oversized cap and gown and draping the bright red Stanford sash around my shoulders merely to watch a series of speeches on a TV screen on my living room couch. In fact, it felt even more upsetting knowing that the makeup I’d so excitedly applied (after months of living in the same set of pajamas) would be washed down the sink in no more than an hour after the digital ceremony would conclude.

But while my mood drained with every second I realized I could’ve been roasting underneath the Palo Alto sun with my friends in the outdoor stadium, I also gratefully recognized my family’s efforts at lifting my spirits. Making a day of the at-home event, my younger sister rose at 7am to plan a surprise graduation party for me. As I descended despondently down my bedroom stairs to the cleared-out living room, I was immediately greeted by a plethora of sparkling balloons, graduation banners, and a table full of food — a beautifully-plated charcuterie board, Stanford-themed cupcakes, my favorite chocolates, and all the chips and homemade guac I could ask for. I popped the champagne bottle (anticlimactically) in the foggy backyard, and I called my friends. My dad took pictures of me, alone. I saved what few screenshots I had of my Facetime call with my friends and hoped (fruitlessly) we’d be able to take pictures together in our cap and gowns one day.

And thus graduation day ended as quickly and abruptly as it began. But as I went to bed that Sunday after a lovely dinner cheffed up by my even lovelier sister, I couldn’t help but marvel at the circularity of my narrative. Graduating in my living room, I concluded my lifetime journey precisely where it began, in San Francisco. And, in many ways, there is really no better place for me to reflect on my growth and my relationship with my family than home itself.

For most of my life, I hated San Francisco. And I mean I hated it. Any chance I had to come home during college I dismissed. In fact, precisely because I ended up going to university only an hour away from home, I almost never came back these past four years, spending all my time in the liberating independence of college dorms and summers abroad instead. With only forty miles between me and my parents, home was too in reach that it didn’t feel necessary to often return. And of course, most prominently in my mind, coming back to San Francisco would mean reverting to an introverted self I’d grown out of, a pawn in my parents’ tight grasp yet again, a girl who only had decisions made for her. So when classmates asked me about San Francisco, I had little to say; I’d experienced little of it growing up in the shelter of my immigrant parents who had better plans for me to study, go to dance classes and play piano than to explore a rather idiosyncratic city.

So like I said, I hated San Francisco.

But this past summer, a series of unfortunate events brought me back home to spend two rather fortunate months back in my childhood bedroom — the longest period of time home since I was eighteen — and I found myself rediscovering for myself a city that actually held so much more than my inner sunset home. What I realize is I’d conflated San Francisco with the institution of “home,” my physical house in the city. It was the unpleasant childhood and adolescent memories, the growing pains, that took place in this home that sent shivers down my spine, not the city itself. High school was a difficult time for me (try being one of very few first-generation Chinese-American kids in an extremely white and borderline cultish Catholic prep school), and while I do not detest all the piano and dance and art and golf lessons in retrospect, the exhaustion of childhood haunted the space of home I was keen to leave the moment I held that college acceptance in my hand.

As a result, I was hesitant to return home years later after having experienced the unbridled freedom of friends, drink, and spontaneity. It felt as though returning to the watchful gaze of my parents would render the growth I’d experienced in college nonexistent, as back home they still needed to know when and where I was going, with whom and why I was heading out, and, most dreadfully, questions of what’s next that had a right answer.

So as expected, the moment I returned after a month in Greece last summer to face the next two back home, the stress and anxiety of enduring Asian Parenting 101 kicked in at full swing. I may have been twenty going on twenty-one, but I was still living like I was seventeen because I was back at home with Mom and Dad, having to report to them what time I would be back from my college friend’s place despite having been kicked out of two clubs with him in Barcelona for being too drunk only months before, in a life they knew little of due to my intentional alienation from them.

Thus my parents had a tough time seeing me spend so little time at home despite living there, always going out and hanging out with people they didn’t know or ever see. See, I’d done so much of my growing away from them that they still only knew me as I was before I left for college — obedient, introverted, reclusive, and uninterested in the world outside my fictional ones on the page and on screen. So, when I abruptly re-entered their lives, living again in my childhood bedroom and eating meals and taking weekend walks with them, they had to learn a new, rather active and explorative twenty-one-year-old who’d changed almost entirely after three years outside of their purview.

After stubborn resistance at first on both of our parts those initial weeks in late July, though, my parents slowly began to understand that the learning curve would be steep, with three years of material to catch up on. More importantly, though, they also realized that with my newfound independence also came a newfound maturity of communication. See, while I’d originally attributed this ideological difference between me and my parents to our cultural and generational gap, the truth is that it was more a communication gap. Sure, they still had a ways to go to understand my need to stay at my friend’s until 2am playing beer pong while discussing the politics of ghosting, but unlike what I’d originally thought, they merely wanted me to communicate with them, to be transparent and honest with them. While I’d expected my mother to adamantly bar my exit at 10pm with a bottle of white in my hand one Friday night, she instead asked me if I wanted a ride after I told her where I was going. (And what a riot it is to say my mom drove me to house parties in the city at midnight and in true Asian mom fashion always asked that I at least bring a bag of oranges to the hosts every time). What I failed to consider in my initial anxiety of facing my parents again for a whole two months was that they, too, could grow. They, too, would learn to live with a new, older version of me, because no matter how much I infuriated them at times, at the end of the day I was still their daughter.

And as I grew to love my family in a different, matured way, so I grew to love the city they raised me in. Afternoons were spent browsing Green Apple Books and City Lights, tracing the trails of Land’s End with my mom, and circling Stow Lake with my parents in a completely new light — an I’ve Grown Up But I Will Still Walk in the Park With You Every Weekend light. I sat in coffee shops that have existed in the city longer than I have, and I walked around neighborhoods I never considered much of before. I thrifted throughout the Haight, took friends to brunch places in the city I, too, was trying for the first time, and most importantly, I learned to enjoy the city alone. Rather aptly, in that last summer before my senior year of university, (and before I would unexpectedly need to return indefinitely), I learned to love home again.

Today, nearly three months have elapsed since senior year was cut tragically and abruptly short. While I would have loved to graduate in the company of my friends, I am beyond grateful to have graduated in the company of my family, no matter how anticlimactic the livestream ceremony and emailed diploma. And, while still today my Chinese parents have yet to say they are proud of me, they don’t need to. Their glee at running down the stairs to me that Sunday like it was Christmas morning said more than enough.

This global pandemic is beyond awful. It is deadly and merciless and unprecedentedly life-altering. However, while I lost precious time with my college friends, I gained invaluable time with my family that I perhaps never would have gotten if the pandemic hadn’t forced me to rest and contemplate my future (which, in any other case, I likely would’ve impulsively sped forward with without much of a mind to my parents to avoid the stigma of living back at home to “rethink life”). COVID-19 thrust me back into the arms of my parents, and while they are still giving me headaches and provoking daily screaming matches, they also constantly remind me just how much we are in this together — and always will be.

I dreaded leaving college, but I didn’t dread returning home to San Francisco. While some loathed the idea of spending months again with their family, I instead found myself reluctant to be apart from my family during such an uncertain time. After three months cooped up back home and being with my parents as an adult, and also realizing quite jarringly that they are getting old, I can confidently and genuinely say that I will always come back, I will always come back home, back to San Francisco.

For them, and for me.

Writer based in San Francisco. Stanford ’20.