By Maheen Haider

I think occasionally of the ritual of a commute. In my first year at CUHK, the journey from my apartment building in TST to the turnstiles at University Station was a meditative thing. I see: a still of myself seated always in the same corner at the end of the train; mine’s was the first stop, and the steadfast movement of the train brought with it a steadfast sprinkling of people to whom I did the favour of watching but not seeing and who, in their eternal graciousness, returned that favour even though that one morning I spilled coffee all over my jeans between Kowloon Tong and Tai Wai.

I remember, in that moment thinking, “am I really a university student?” and shortly thereafter, “would drinking the dredges from this squashed coffee cup be a faux pas?” What truly struck me then however — while I sat in uncomfortably damp jeans with the scent of distinctly burned coffee beans souring the air and the peach-scented tissue packet of my kindly neighbour clutched in my hand — was the consciousness of my reality as a material and tangible thing. I hadn’t opted to stay in the dorms at campus and that meant my transition into university from high school was marked not by the tradition of student orientation but rather by a mental orientation of how much more time I would need to get to the university from my home; the ‘end of the day’ was not marked by entering the dorms but the train, my roommates were the ephemeral crowd.

What had me rooted in that incident was not the embarrassment of spilling coffee but rather that I held in my hands the broken symbol of an expectation I’d held of ‘university life’. The stories I’d absorbed of initiation ceremonies, late-night snacks at the dorms and drunken partying came to mind, ever distant to me as the media I’d consumed to subsume them. They stay, even now, as vague myths; slippery like coffee through one’s fingertips. I see: a still of myself seated always in the same corner at the end of the train. I am presented with a crystal-cut sliver of my reality: the discomfiting awareness of coffee steeping in denim, a crowd drifting on stage without lines, and the ceaseless roar of that locomotive.

I realised in that moment that the commute was the face behind the myth of university life. Between the stations and the announcer’s voice, I found myself in the body of a CUHK student, a cell of the CUHK student body. It was submission and transition. Joseph Campbell, an American professor of literature, said: “A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth.” My commute became a sacrosanct ritual, if not physically then at least emotionally with the firm companionship of noise-cancelling headphones. I wanted, even within that 45-minute journey, to build my own narrative for my “unique” student experience; to both fight and fit the myth of university life. After taking an English course, I realised I’d misinterpreted the quote, and during an average commute back home on an average day, recognised I’d in turn misinterpreted the chasm between expectations and reality. It had felt wrong, to be presented with a reality that didn’t fit expectation, and my instinct had been to erase the distance in that chasm until the space between expectation and my manufactured reality was gone. But it didn’t work! It didn’t work because reality has a peremptory nature that draws your eyes to the image of coffee spilling on your jeans, the moment imprinting like a hairline fracture upon the artifice where pallid expectation contends with its vivid opposite. When I say ritual, I mean the patterns we create to comfort ourselves when expectations break and reality refuses to serve us.

Into the latter half of my first year, I grew. I grew both in height — much to the shock of the doctor who’d claimed I’d stop growing at sixteen — and in experience. I formed more rituals: with friends, classmates, professors, strangers and even for a halcyon of a month, a cat. I carved my own space within the chasm, a crow’s nest from which I could find a happy medium. The campus became more than just a destination on the commute. It became a gallery of memories where I could walk from one end to the other (or rather, take the bus from one end to the other) and feel like I’d experienced ‘university life’. There was contentment in my routine, and I entered my second year expecting smooth sailing.

…Obviously, I hadn’t quite absorbed the lesson of the falsehood of expectation. My second year — this year — was much like everyone else’s: a smorgasbord of incidents spread across a buffet table one after the other that found their way onto the plate without my deliberate awareness of having picked up anything. The eventual aftermath had me waking up at 8:25 a.m. for an 8:30 a.m. class on Zoom, all my grandiose and rituals broken in face of a situation bigger and scarier than the myth of ‘university life’.

I thought then, of the ritual of a commute. My beloved crow’s nest that I had crafted with mindfulness and selective memory was lost, and in place was once again the chasm between what I thought should be and what actually was. It is an incredibly selfish thing to be sad about doing online presentations for tutorials when there is so much devastation and grief in the world, but the nature of humanity is such that we often need to have our little tantrums before getting up to rearrange the knocked down building blocks. Once I’d had my tantrum, I realised that there was nothing to do but organise a Zoom meeting with my classmates to discuss who was going to cover which part in the presentation. On a deeper level, I began to comprehend the necessity for re-building – as a strategy for survival more than a tool for betterment. So! Stuff happened, and then kept happening, and when everyone thought it had stopped happening, stuff came back with a vengeance and just kept on happening. But! That doesn’t excuse anything.

There came another moment. A Zoom call for a lecture I had logged on to after only remembering its existence about two minutes prior. Absolutely no recollection of the reading and mind still on the tomato pasta I had been eating, I took a perfunctory glance at the cams. One of my classmates sat there — someone I’d seen around but would hesitate to even call “acquaintance” — and in their background was a poster of a band I loved. I see: a still of myself sitting at my desk, eyes fixed on a familiar poster accompanying a not-as-familiar face.

We had never spoken beyond small talk, elevator talk — and on one memorable occasion — the we-both-got-here-reallyearly talk. I didn’t really know them, and shared music taste isn’t a determining factor for a decent friendship. But that wasn’t really the lesson (the actual class was on social stratification). I am presented with a crystal-cut sliver of another person’s reality. I hadn’t ever comprehended that all my classmates — faces I walked past every day, and who walked beside me both as audience and protagonists — existed beyond the rituals of my university days.

The consequence of online classes is such that our masks slip. Whether heartwarming or humiliating, there will be a moment where you will falter and the expectation of who you are at university will be fragmented by the reality of yourself at home. I see: a professor’s child slipping in to gleefully announce their class’s termination, a student’s mother fastidiously organising his bookshelves behind him (by colour, for those curious), a TA’s book collection revealing their affinity for the Game of Thrones novels, and their lack of appreciation for the TV adaptation. When these masks slip, we face a new form of exposure. The line between our private and public selves blurring. A space with no fixed expectations, merely the suggestion of one (i.e. mute yourself when the professor is speaking).

In this liminal space, I recalled the coffee incident, and after the obligatory shades of embarrassment, recalled what that moment had brought recognition of. Submission and transition; the two three-syllable words like a cheerleader’s anthem. Submission: to the potential within reality, the failures of expectation. Transition: to a headspace where the submission brings contentment and growth. I used to sit always in the same corner at the end of the train and see it as a ritual from which I could emerge as a university student. When that ritual was taken away from me, I longed for the dreadful dull of that train ride. The longing, I now recognise, came from that ever-human need to forge something within the vacuum of ‘university life’ that belonged to me, and also enabled me to belong to the community.

When I anticipate the fall term of my third year, I examine my rituals and think of how they will morph in the face of circumstance. In the space without fixed expectations, I think of how the freshmen will enter, how we will meet in our private lives within a public space. There is an excitement that lingers in tasting the possibilities of the next term. When I write this, I pause at the thought of submission and transition. Our realities are messy things, and our expectations even messier, but within the chaos of it all exists potential. When I began my time at CUHK, I wrote “expectations vs. reality” and I fixated on the differences as if they were errors and not avenues for adventure and growth. When you, reading this, begin your time at CUHK or simply come back to CUHK, I hope you can examine your reality not through the pressure of expectations but rather the possibility of adventure.

In closing, I see: a still of myself standing at the precipice of the chasm between expectation and reality, daring myself to finally look down and find sanctity in the promise of potential.