Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review

Beringia

By Lii Xu

Mama thinks she walked across the ice sheet that once covered up the Bering Strait. I can see her mind churning furiously, sometimes, when she thinks she’s just staring absentmindedly at the bloodstained mirror or the dust motes colliding in the sunlit air. No, I know what she sees: the cracked marble terrain, the gashes in ice, the tenuous glacial bluffs crumbling into the frigid water like a sonata. She holds very still, transfixed by some keen and palpable cold against her unflushed cheek. She will rave that she has walked alongside mammoths whom she then slew and partook of their meat. I don’t know if you know this, but Mama is crazy.

 

Mama doesn’t talk much. I, on the other hand, make up for the amount of talking she does not do by the amount of walking I always do. Most nights you’ll find me roving the various grounds of our small college. Sometimes I am high or drunk, and sometimes I am terrified, and sometimes I am very, very hungry. Irrespective of my state, my route never deviates: I walk and walk beyond the empty student center; the mailbox cluster ensconced by an installation of native cacti; the defunct student-run cooperative café, its sliding glass door boarded and papered since the year that student austerity protests were so in vogue that the school offered a half-credit to known non-participants. I’ll pass the toothy Edwardian turrets of the Anthropological hall; and the marble mahjong tables in the courtyard of the Sociology department’s Bauhaus banquet hall; and the Office of Admissions, a windowless matchbox turned on its shortest and thinnest side and painted a gleaming red. I’ll pass the main quadrangle, formerly an arboretum until all of the trees were razed years ago during the great wood shortage—though the stumps have since remained, blunt and blackening. I’ll skirt the rim of the lake, a pool of consolidated runoff from administrative lavatory facilities up on the adjacent hill. And I’ll cut through the forest, nineteen acres in thickets of single growth pine plantation, until I find myself at my department’s office upon whose floors I sleep most nights. It is pleasantly homey. I have fashioned a comfortable cushion out of months of dryer lint collected from strangers’ laundry loads—college students by and large are not courteous enough to remove their own lint post-dry-cycle—stuffed inside a laundry bag lifted off of the first person I ever slept with. It seemed like a fair trade then, my virginity for his laundry bag. We haven’t made eye contact since, but the bag-turned-cushion has observed many moons of good use.

 

I major in Arctic Studies here. It wasn’t an extant department until after I petitioned for it; when that failed, I went on a hunger strike. Two and a half weeks and several gallons of ionized water later, I finally snipped the fresh red ribbon that I’d artfully strung at the door of the newly operational Arctic Studies department. My department runs out of the basement of the old freshman dorm, the one that was in the middle of the forest. I’m sure you’ve stumbled across it on some wild night of yours?—where I serve out my administrative roles as Department Intern, Department Chair, Department Head, President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Office Secretary, and janitor Emeritus. I am also the sole (declared) major. When we opened, there were no faculty to give classes and I was tasked with coming up with material independently, but after I doused my body in butane, tied myself to the flagpole on top of the main building, and threatened to immolate myself in broad daylight on Parents’ Weekend, they granted us an arrangement whereby professors from other departments will sometimes come in and deliver cross-listed lectures for all the students in my own department. I like the lecturers from Peace and Conflict Studies and Biochemistry best. Beringian Theory might best be described as a necessarily fragmented whole, and is thus best grasped through transdisciplinary approaches that might begin to refer to such principal themes as the immaterial ailment of landscape, the performative geochemistry of ultraviolence, the dis/assembled aesthetic life of frigid-psychotic conditioning, etc.

 

It can be difficult, as you must imagine, navigating the isolationist reality of being the sole student in an academic department with no permanent faculty other than one’s self. However, I am able to manage the difficulty and much of my research is independently wrought. My latest study, for example, is on Mama: I am cataloguing her thoughts, which I can read. She does not know that I am cataloguing her thoughts—or that I can read them, for that matter—but I can, and I am. Though technically I should need an IRB form to establish consent to be researched from a human subject, one of the advantages of being the sole student in an academic department with no permanent faculty other than one’s self is that oversights like that invariably slip through cracks. It’s almost as if I don’t exist; therefore, I can really do anything I want. Granted near complete researcher’s freedom, I have concluded that at this point in my academic career, I want to catalogue Mama’s Beringian thoughts.

 

As with any other academic field worth its credentials, the study of the Beringian must be performed with intent to construct and deploy emphatically nuanced critique—precisely the approach I seek in my upcoming catalogue project, just as I have before in my dearth of prior independent projects. Courses of independent study have been instrumental to my growth within my major—in fact, they are my sole means of accreditation. The administration refused, at first, to grant me credit for unsupervised study but acquiesced when I amputated my left index finger and threatened to cut off more if they did not meet my desires. (Not to worry, my finger has since been surgically reattached and has regained at least 78% functionality.) My past independent projects have included, but are not limited to:

 

  • an ethnography of Mama
  • an ethnography of Mama’s dreams
  • observing and theoretically engaging the food Mama eats and how it relates to her dreams and her life and the Arctic
  • a quantitative study of the frequency at which Mama cries, factoring in the independent variables of weather, hormonal cycles, the state of her health, experiences of trauma potentially engendered by linguistic isolation and racist xenophobia faced by foreigners like herself, and proximity to the Bering Strait
  • a qualitative, comparative analysis of the linguistic schema expressed by speech Mama utters when she is sleeping; and the landscapes of the Arctic, and phantasms in the Arctic, and sexuality in the Arctic, and the Arctic moon rising over land that is both ravaged and perfect, both empty and full
  • sixteen ink studies of Mama wearing the alpaca sweater that she dons even in the heat of summer, utilizing impressionistic line and hatch techniques to illustrate the embodiment of longing and delusion
  • DNA and chemical sampling of Mama’s skin and hair, proving that she has never, ever been to the Bering Strait

 

 

I won’t go into tedious detail about how I conduct my research, though suffice to say it is always an act of adaptation and revision. And Mama has wrung her hands nights as I have brewed batch after batch of a tonic I invented years ago, invented in a moment of such utter brilliance and dread that time itself flowed in reverse—while I can’t recall the precise context, please trust the veracity of my previous statement—which has served me more than often in my tireless pursuit of knowledge. (I’ve since discovered that this tonic conveniently offers secondary uses as an emmenagogue and a surprisingly effective laptop screen cleaner, so it’s actually served me in many ways. But I digress. It was specifically developed as a highly legal mood-altering substance to ward off the flat anxiety of nights stretched thin to four a.m., you at the kitchen table typing without pause in the dim blue glow, and your mother, your mother watching on from her wood spine chair with eyes wrested from the salty sockets of dead Beringian fish. Forthcoming patent constraints prevent me from sharing with you the exact particulars of my recipe (though castor oil factors in greatly). I am glad, however, to speak freely of the academic success my tonic has catalyzed. In the past several years I have been led to a number of surprising conclusions about the Arctic that are grounded in my investigative framework, which oscillates between the theoretical, the psychic, and the positivistic. Some conclusions, in no particular order, follow:

 

  •     Mama is sad
  •     Mama is crazy
  •     Mama has never been to the Arctic
  •     Mama thinks that I am sad and crazy and that I won’t graduate
  •     thinking I am sad and crazy appears to exacerbate Mama’s sadness and craziness
  •     it is easy to experiment on Mama without ever letting her know
  •     Mama needs the Arctic
  •     in another life, Mama raised me in the Arctic
  •     etc.

 

I am currently in the process of considering topics for my final thesis and am hoping to arrive at higher, meta-level analyses of Arctic theory as derived from my more exhaustive list of independent academic conclusions. I have also considered applying for a “Watson”, which I would spend studying the intersections of landscape, loathing, and mythology in an Arctic context. I am told that there are not many Arctic nations—the Watson Scholarship unfortunately requires that its recipients conduct research in several separate, officially recognized nation-states. I am not terribly worried, however, as I have a plan of action in which I threaten to peel all the skin off my face with a small switchblade if the United Nations does not acquiesce to my demand, which is: to recognize several small, autonomous, arbitrarily defined nations within the greater geographic area known as “the Arctic,” for purposes of facilitating my study. I know how drastic my measures may perhaps seem, at least superficially, but I am afraid that if I do not commit myself to life as a go-getter, a theorist, an expert in my field, then I am destined to stare blankly at mirrors and thin air and dream forever of gashes in ice, of mammoths I’ve slain, of the Arctic moon rising above the only landscape it knows, ravaged and perfect, empty and full—

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