Extreme Makeover: Room Edition

For anyone’s who ever stepped foot inside a living space of mine, you know, as well as I, that “interior design” is not quite my strong suit. Try as I might, ever since I’ve been at college I just haven’t figured it out. There is something about my room being slightly too big, my possessions being too few to fill it, and the wall finish being a little too white that makes for a brutal combination. In fact, my sophomore year at Oberlin marked the first time in my life that I had a room to call my own. It should come as no surprise then that I am uniquely bad at figuring out how to live in one.

Me and my younger sister shared a room my whole life up until I went to college and I spent my first year in an open double with a roommate who, let’s just say, I didn’t get along with all that well. That experience spurred my desire to want to live in a single and become an RA, which took me through my sophomore year and the second semester of my junior year after I returned from Japan. But I wasn’t all that keen with a room to myself either. Sure it was nice to have the privacy, but instead of a personal oasis, I found it lonely and stifling to be there for any significant period of time. As a result, I made it a habit to be out as much as possible, and my room quickly became more of a docking station than anything else, a place to sleep, shower, and occasionally sit down in between doing other things.

This mentality took me through my senior year, and even though I was living in a house with three close friends, those old habits were hard to break. I was rarely home, never used the kitchen or the living room to any large extent, and hardly saw my housemates. I thought that it might have something to do with the quality of my living space, and finally, halfway through my senior year, something snapped. Sure my room was neat, but it also had the aesthetic appeal of a county prison cell. I decided that I was fed up with staring out at my bare walls, marked in any distinguishing way solely by the globs of blue sticky tack that remained after a previous failed attempt at hanging posters. I went to Bead Paradise and bought a mosaic tapestry, borrowed Chloe’s hammer and pushpins, rescued my poster tube from the depths of my closet, invested in some decent affixing materials, and got to work. In a couple days’ time, and thanks in no small part to Chloe’s help and the friends who gave me the keepsakes that I used to decorate my room, I came up with this:

My wonderful old house at Oberlin, complete with bike (on "loan" for the last three years) parked out front! (photo courtesy of Hannah Tam-Claiborne).

Though still short of anything spectacular, at least, as a friend so nicely put it, I had something on my walls. I don’t know to what extent the change in room décor actually influenced how long I spent at home, but I certainly appreciated going to bed under the shielding, yet gentle gaze of Mulan, staring out at me from across the room. At Cornell, I unfortunately wasn’t able to bring much of anything to give my room a personality, but luckily my dad had something up his sleeve in the way of a housewarming gift. It was amazingly thoughtful—a very practical teapot and a few different selections of tea, all wrapped in a beautiful package—to aid with long nights of studying, and adorning my dresser.

For an apartment that I found on craigslist, I have been amazingly impressed living here for the last four weeks. Though it’s not very big at all, the place is incredibly homey. The apartment consists of a kitchen, a living room, a bathroom, and two bedrooms. I sublet my bedroom from an unbelievably hospitable grad student from Thailand named Thanasin, who has one year left in his Economics PhD program. For the first three weeks, we also lived with his girlfriend Orn, who graduated in May and just recently moved back to Thailand to start her job. Whoever had the foresight to cosmically pair the two of us certainly had a sense of humor—two men in Ithaca who care deeply about women on the other side of the globe.

My roommate Thanasin and his girlfriend Orn. Aren't they adorable?! (photo courtesy of Thanasin Tanompongphandh).

The only real gripe I have about the apartment is how far it is from where all of my friends live. I guess I should be used to it by now, having been the only person in my high school class to commute to school from Brooklyn. Not having known the layout of Cornell before deciding where to live, I judged craigslist listings solely by their proximity to the building where I take my Chinese classes. And since it is located on Central Campus, it was about the same, distance-wise, to live either on North Campus or South Campus (also known as Collegetown). The apartment where I live now looked the best and I knew that I wanted to have a roommate so I ultimately went north, not knowing that almost all of the young people in Ithaca for the summer live in Collegetown. If nothing else, it makes for a nice long walk in the mostly clement weather this time of year to visit people from my class. And recently, my group of friends has acquired an automobile, which has made it more convenient to get back home after a long night out. Though I may miss out on some of the fun happenings in a scene dominated by restaurants, bars, and daresay even a nightclub, I at least have a peaceful room to come home to at night.

Most everything else about the location is great. I love the feeling of stepping outside in the morning when it’s still chilly out and getting a deep breath of cool, fresh air to start my day. I run into deer almost daily, most coming within ten or twenty feet of me which has been both jolting and surreal. There are tons of other wildlife too—birds, chipmunks, squirrels, and yes, even an entire family of wild turkeys that I saw crossing the road the other day. With the exception of traveling to Collegetown, the apartment is also well placed within my nexus of daily destinations—the gym and the dining hall are about fifteen minutes away, and class is not too much further than that. Finding shortcuts to get to places feels better than discovering the Northwest Passage—I have been decidedly too eager about shaving extra minutes from my commute. I’m finally getting better at estimating distances and beginning to feel safer walking alone at night.

Ironically, despite the pervading quiet of my neighborhood, the apartment complex where I live is surrounded by fraternities. In the summer, the presence is definitely not as strong, but every now and then, you can still pick out a bare-chested frat boy like a lesion from 50 yards away. If nothing else, I at least have the entire Greek alphabet practically memorized at this point. Over alumni weekend a few weeks ago, the frat right next-door hosted a barbeque for returning Cornellians. But over the course of the following week, I still saw the remnants of the cook-out—hot dog buns, mustard and ketchup containers, stacks of American cheese—strewn about the front porch (astonishingly, the beer was noticeably absent). I finally became so frustrated that I sauntered up after class one day and cleaned them out—not even wanting half the food but knowing that it was just going to go to waste otherwise. Eventually, I had to buy myself some hotdogs for dinner to make use of the giant condiment bottles still sitting in my fridge.

Though I’m still not used to spending a great deal of time at home, the time that I do spend here has been good. Weeks pass with every new issue of the Economist that shows up in the bathroom, and the apartment maintains the constant smell of rice, Thai food, and newly upholstered furniture. It is clean—cleaner even than I keep my own room, which is certainly saying something. I feel the way about this apartment that I felt about my house at Oberlin before we all stopped caring—I do my dishes after every meal, clean the stovetop after cooking, wipe down the table every time I use it to do homework, take off my shoes when I go in, and turn out all the lights when I leave.

As mentioned earlier, my roommate has been nothing short of amazing. It was a little awkward at first in terms of communicating, but now we get along great. He has been generous enough to let me use practically everything in the house—spices and sauces for cooking, detergent for laundry, the stereo, toaster, microwave, rice cooker, etc. Though he and Orn are about seven years older than me, we have spent a lot of time together without a hitch. We watch Netflix movies, make weekly car trips out to the handful of grocery stores in town (including the 24-hour Wegman’s and the Asian market!), and occasionally eat dinner together. I just started getting into a routine of playing squash with Thanasin, and Orn even made a profile for me on their Wii Fit! When it was pouring outside one day and Thanasin knew that I didn’t bring an umbrella with me, he called to volunteer to pick me up. A couple of weeks ago, they even introduced me to a couple of their friends from Thailand and I went over to eat a delicious dinner and dessert at their house that lasted well into the evening. It’s so refreshing to come home after a long day and just be able to hang out and talk with someone at the kitchen table. Just hearing stories from them and their friends has made me really want to visit Bangkok during the time I’ll be in China.

Thanasin is doing research over the summer for his PhD work and waits tables at a Thai restaurant in the Ithaca Commons on the weekends. Before she went home, Orn gave piano lessons to a handful of students at a local music center in town. In fact, Orn graduated with a Master’s in Piano Performance from the Eastman Conservatory at Cornell, one of only four people in all of Thailand to hold an advanced degree in piano. Not surprisingly, she knew Oberlin well, and had actually been there to visit friends from Thailand some years ago. Even stranger, one of her students is actually an Oberlin alum living in Ithaca—a physics major named Casey Dreier who graduated in 2005. As if it could get any weirder, when I went to see her final piano recital, I met Casey and it turns out that I took Japanese with his sister Virginia during my first year!

Orn and her students at a piano recital. Can you spot the Oberlin alum?

As much as I do like my little apartment here, I miss my old house at Oberlin constantly. More than that, I miss the people I lived with (both officially and not) and everyone else who came by on a regular basis. It makes me wish that I took advantage of living there a little more, hosting friends in my room, cooking more often, creating a profile on Rock Band. I do know, though, that it will be in good hands next year. My friend Caitlin will be living there with three girls she’s been roommates with for the past two years. There may not be as many people living with me now, but our litttle apartment is certainly still full of warmth.