by S.D.

I scan the room: it feels more like Tokyo’s intimidating 10-lane Shibuya Crossing than a high school cafeteria. The football players shake their heads at me. Reroute. I spot an open seat … but it’s saved for the blonde girl’s boyfriend. Red light. Now it’s rush hour, and people with trays full of pasta cross to and fro. Slam on the brakes! My right shoulder twinges under the weight of my backpack. Don’t do it, I think, resisting the urge to lift up that second strap. Two straps are for people who eat lunch by themselves.

Finding my place in high school was difficult. Coming from a K–8 school with a significant Indian population helped me to embrace my identity, but my self-confidence faltered in this new, relatively homogeneous environment. Was I supposed to laugh when they mocked my dad, as if having an accent is some form of entertainment? And what was up with “the stare” I get every day―do they think I am lost? These questions ran through my mind as I sat by myself outside, eating my turkey sandwich as quickly as possible, wanting more than anything to fit in.

I eventually formed my own friend group when I took advanced math and science courses sophomore year. We would debate the existence of a fourth dimension and anticipate medical advancements. But gradually, the environment turned competitive. When nobody wanted to collaborate anymore, I experienced a wake-up call: I did not want to lose myself in the madness of it all. I wanted to find a deeper connection with others and build lasting friendships.

I’m grateful to have had this epiphany when I did. Soon after, our school was shaken by the death of a beloved student. Her sister, Georgia, walked the halls alone, the object of everyone’s curiosity and stares. I couldn’t understand her pain, but the expression on her face brought me back to my freshman year. On the lacrosse field that week, I tied my cleats next to her and casually inquired, “What’s on your mind, dude?”

We have been inseparable ever since. We are both jokesters, and every day we laugh until our knees collapse. Our serious conversations happen at night. Since her sister died in the middle of the night, Georgia often struggles to fall asleep. Instead of sleeping, we talk and add to our list of why life is so freaking worth it. (#3 is deep conversations, #32 is pad thai, #50 is the sun peeking through the clouds, #68 is making someone else laugh, and #103 is tomorrow.)

Our friendship has changed my priorities and helped me grow up. Like Georgia, I appreciate my family and try to spend more time with them. I have also realized that I want to make a difference in people’s lives, which attracts me to Biomedical Engineering. Finally, the stupid things I used to stress over, like someone’s thoughtless comments, no longer affect me. Before, I believed that life would be monumentally easier if I were one of “them,” but I understand now that a sense of belonging doesn’t come from blending in―it comes from receiving love and reciprocating it.

I entered Shibuya Crossing wanting to be a regular car navigating my way safely through traffic. I realized along the way that letting people in on a personal, vulnerable level not only exposes our blind spots―it gives our journey meaning. I do not need to reroute myself anymore. At school, people know the real me, who wears her backpack on both shoulders and rocks a pencil behind her ear.

I braved my way across the buzzing intersection, and although at times I lost my way, one thing is certain: I never once lost myself.