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Monday, 16 July 2007

It Ain’t Cheap, It’s Vintage.

Contributed by: Laarni Almendrala Ragaza, San Francisco State University, California

As others who have gone to college or grad school in the U.S. already know, studying here means having to balance school, work (about three part-time jobs, at least one involving a coffee house) and having a life. I am living proof that with luck, hard work, and year’s supply of Ramen noodles, it can be done.

The operative word is “cheap.” I don’t mean “slutty” cheap either. I mean “pulling cushions off your sofabed to look for spare change” cheap. There are the lucky few who have parents that can financially support them, but the rest of us get a crash course in poverty that hits home far harder than simple culture shock. When I first started grad school in San Francisco, I found an apartment with two female roommates and insanely low rent, I inherited a used Mitsubishi Galant from my folks, and I had the first semester all paid for. In six months, I realized the following: My rent was low, because my room was the old living room and my roommates were hellish; I had to sell the car, and used the money for rent; and that I was living practically hand-to-mouth. Sure, my folks helped as much as they could, but since I made the decision to study in the U.S., I had to find a way to support myself. That meant working part-time as a teacher at school, at a magazine, and odd writing jobs, and living off credit cards. That didn’t mean paying for a round of drinks, buying anything with a known brand name, or getting sick (since health insurance wasn’t part of the picture).

But don’t pity me or recoil in horror, either. Having virtually no money gives you a certain kind of freedom. I found out who my real friends were, and who were just around when times were good. I discovered free summer concerts at Stern Grove, and the joy of watching an impromptu baseball game at Golden Gate Park. I indulged in the cheap food at Nanking, spent happy hour in the Tonga Room (five bucks bought you a drink and all the dim sum you could eat), learned to cook, or hunkered down with ramen. I shopped in used clothing stores like CrossRoads and the Salvation Army (although the shoes and underwear I bought new). If anyone asked me where I got my outfit, I’d say “It ain’t cheap. It’s vintage.” I figured out every route in the city because I took public transportation everywhere.

And I wrote my entire masteral thesis in a bar. Yes, you read that right, a bar, Yancy’s Saloon to be exact. I imagine most people would prefer a college library with towering bookshelves and banker’s lamps, but I found that smoke-laden air and dried beer spills on the tables were far more conducive to getting my creative juices flowing. And the free Cokes and popcorn passed to me on the sly by my favorite waitress didn’t hurt. I bought a used laptop, plugged it into a wall socket, and I was good to go.

Toward the end of my graduate studies, I earned enough scholarship money to pay off my last year’s tuition, so I could ease up on working, and I moved into a new apartment with equally cheap rent and a roommate who became one of my best friends. And I eventually earned a master’s degree. These days, I work for a top-notch magazine in Manhattan, have great benefits, live in a lovely little apartment with my husband, and consider my life idyllic. I look back on my time in grad school, six years later, and I can’t say I regret any of it, not the long bus commute, the constant hunger, or the crazy hours I had to keep to survive. The experience made me fearless about taking risks and thriving despite the circumstances, a lesson that you can only learn in the school of hard knocks. Like my dad says, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

But ask me if I’ve eaten ramen noodles in the last six years.

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