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Authentic Eagles: Emily Zhao on Public Display of Distress

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our true selves. Embracing our individuality can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being one’s authentic self at BC. We hope that readers are inspired to have conversations and reflections of their own, working toward being more authentic individuals.

Emily Zhao, MCAS ‘19

Since I arrived at BC in 2015, I’ve publicly cried countlessly over a number of things: relationship issues, the unit on domestic violence in victimology, BC’s production of the Vagina Monologues, the 2016 presidential elections… The list goes on. I can’t say that I’m proud of it, and my public displays of distress are certainly not intentional.

Earlier this year, I was sitting in a large lecture hall when I just felt all the pressure and stress and personal issues from that week bubble up. The tears came up, like uncapping a shaken up soda bottle. I couldn’t contain it. Thankfully the class ended just 10 minutes later. I awkwardly said goodbye to a friend who I shared the class with, hoping they hadn’t seen any of it. I had been trying to hide my face, probably to no avail.

I scrambled out and called my sister. As one can imagine when someone calls them bawling, my sister was concerned that something terrible had happened. I wasn’t sure how to articulate what was going on. I didn’t know where to go, but I knew I had to run to a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, assigned by a professor. I stood on the side of Carney trying to calm down. While people happily conversed just feet away, I stood out like a patch of yellowed, dead grass in an otherwise lush lawn.  My sister did her best to calm me down; eventually I took a deep breath and went into the dark classroom where the film was already playing.

Just the other day, I was among some new friends of friends when I overheard one of them start off a story with, “That crazy Chinese girl…” I couldn’t hear the rest of it, but I felt my stomach drop. I remembered all the times people have described me using those exact words, thinking, I’ve been found out. How did they know? I just met them! And what did my ethnicity have to do with anything? Well, it won’t be long until I show them how crazy and Chinese I am anyway.

All the times I’ve been vulnerable and worn my heart on my sleeve were not acts of bravery nor were they pleas for attention. I’ve always thought that maybe I should feel more ashamed or embarrassed by my strong emotions. All my life I’ve been told to feel embarrassed by my feelings and to contain them, to at least pretend that everything is perfectly in order. Get it together, Emily. I’m not sure whose voice I’m hearing this time, but I know it’s not mine because mine is never convincing enough. Just get the As, just go out and drink and throw up and repeat. But life happens, getting As is unbelievably hard (especially at BC), there aren’t many private spaces at any college to let the emotions out, and besides, I don’t even party all that much, if at all. I can’t even put on the façade that I am the perfect, straight-A student laughing on a quad surrounded by friends, featured on the cover of a BC pamphlet.

These public emotional moments are something I’ve been struggling with since freshman year. Then I was dealing with one break-up and many subsequent breakdowns that were oh-so-conveniently taking place during peak dinner hours in Mac or in that one crowded bathroom in Fulton before my 10 a.m. class.  I expressed to a close friend that I was embarrassed about it and should be able to keep my feelings private, like everyone else does. She disagreed, and told me that there is dignity to be found in showing emotion and in being vulnerable. That sentiment was groundbreaking and stuck with me. I still worry that my fellow BC classmates have seen me too many times looking like I was having an allergic reaction in just my eyes. I felt gratitude for that statement, nonetheless.

“It’s been four months, don’t you think you should be over this by now?” I heard this from friends and echoing in my own head. Still, months later I’m shamelessly crying during a Daughter concert at the Boston Royale over heartbreaks and for my past self and the amount of pathos Elena Tonra can breathe into a song.

Then there were the kind people who I still remember and thank quietly at night when I feel the anxiety bubbling up and solidifying over my entire being.  It was at BC when a young man on a bike passed me as I cried. That man came back and handed me a bunch of napkins and wished me a nice day. A year later and related to a different event, there was the anonymous person who called University Counseling Services for me when they saw I was struggling.

In the midst of it all, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing great kindness and affirmation that I was not alone and that people were not in fact looking at me in disdain or indifference. I now recognize the courage it took to find support, and in the process I’ve found people, who I barely knew, but cared for me anyway and listened and never expected an apology.

Recently I tried expressing again how terrified I am at my passions and emotions and feelings—that all they’ve been is destructive and led me to be rejected and abandoned and considered a burden on my closest friends. Yet someone listened to me patiently and pointed out that my emotions aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but could be channeled into something positive, something constructive.

For a moment I felt hope for myself. What that person told me is still sinking in. It was liberating to hear that and to have that resonate with me for the first time with this magnitude. I started thinking about my passions in a different light. They have even been a testimony to how much I could endure and work through and to the support of all the people that helped me.

I laugh at the days spent in the inferno level of Bapst, taking a break every 30 minutes from my essay that I already had an extension on to cry for five minutes and then continue like nothing happened and repeat. I look back on that fondly rather than with shame; and because it was amidst the stress of finals, I could’ve easily become a meme symbolizing #relatable college student stress.

I’m still figuring out how to balance everything, but I now realize that someday I can figure out how to let my passions sustain me rather than consume me. I want so badly to live in peace with myself and accept myself for who I am. I don’t want to suppress my passions for fear of being too loud or taking up too much space or being a burden. Emotion and feeling are not something to be suppressed, but rather they are paths to empathy and solidarity and being able to be that same supportive force for someone else. I’m realizing I can use my own emotion this way, and though I have a lot to work to do, that recognition has been a liberating first step in finding my way to becoming my best self.

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