My Summer Studio
Sublet, Bloomington
Bloomington, Ind., USA
July 16, 2010

"I can't make the trip. But I can't not make the trip. What do I do?"

Ruth nodded and took another sip of her chai latte, playing sounding board. We were at the Runcible Spoon Cafe. It was late by the standards of Bloomington nightlife, approaching midnight.

To complement my rant I had a bottle of Baltika 3 in front of me. It seemed a little weird to order a pint of lager while out with a friend whose strongest drink of choice is coffee. But the combination of venting, empathy, and cold beer somehow formed the right mood to analyze my dilemma.

"See, I have to observe my ritual. I've made a trip out of the country over my birthday each of the last 23 years. It's my tradition. I can't break that.

"If I stayed here in Bloomington, not only would that end my streak, but there would be no way to get back all the money I paid for that ticket I bought to the Bahamas. A few hundred bucks--I suppose that doesn't amount to much in the grand scheme of things. But, it's my tradition I have to maintain! I thought I had everything prepared in advance to take time away from class... "

This must be a conundrum unique to me. Does anybody else feel compelled to celebrate their birthday by leaving the country every year? Would anybody else care so much if they missed a year?

Ruth tried to get perspective on what my issue was:

"Why are you so worked up? You seem to be doing a little better sitting here right now. But you were really spacey when I picked you up at your apartment. Why don't you just go if your trip is so important?"

"I really can't afford to be away from class now," I said, glancing at my watch. "I'll be taking the midterm in just a few hours. I know I'm going to get a really low grade."

File Photo: Ruth and David
out late in Bloomington
"Oh, come on! You told me earlier that you didn't care about them docking your grade by an additional 10% if you miss class. And what does the grade really matter to you, anyway? Me, I think I'd be more concerned about souring relationships with all the other people it would affect," Ruth said.

I hadn't considered this point. Ruth was right. After going against course policy to ditch class in favor of my birthday ritual there would be no way I could ask for even a mediocre recommendation from the instructor. (Not that I anticipate leveraging this course in any way that would require a recommendation.) But, that thought led me to reflect on what it took to get here:

Part of the application process required me to include letters of recommendation. I asked three friends, all of whom I met while studying Uyghur back in Urumqi, to write and submit nice words about me. Those recommendations not only got me admitted to the summer language program, but also got me funded. All those people who wrote letters on my behalf recently landed prominent positions in either government or academia. Asking them to help me get here felt a big favor to ask.

I knew there would never be any correlation made of their having recommended a weak student to the program. Still, the prospect of performing poorly in class felt like letting them down.

I stopped searching for other angles to consider. Seeing it from this perspective made my decision. I knew that any logical thought would point to scrubbing the trip this year. Any argument I could make would boil down to, "But, I've maintained my ritual for all these years."

I decided to scrap my ticket to the Bahamas. But even with this decision, I still hadn't accepted the idea that I would break my "be-out-of-the-country-on-my-birthday" ritual. Fortunately, I had a fallback plan. It was a loophole of sorts, but would satisfy me. I ran it by Ruth:

"Suppose you're me. You have this ritual where you have to set foot on foreign soil on your birthday every year. However, you can't use the ticket you've already bought to the nearest country. What would you do?"

"I don't know," she answered quickly. "Fly to Canada or Mexico for an hour? Or is there somewhere else?"

"Well, in a way. I think I could find a few places in Chicago--maybe even closer, places in Indianapolis--that would qualify. I might not even have to miss any class," I said.

Ruth took the last sip of her chai latte and stared at me. "Places that would qualify as going to a foreign country? In Indianapolis?"

"Yeah. Aren't all embassies and consulates considered foreign soil? If I just step into one of those offices I would technically be 'out of the country'. I could bring my passport and pretend I need to ask about a visa or something if they need a reason to admit me."

Ruth pulled out her iPhone. "Google says there are three consulates up in Indy. A Danish consulate, a Swiss consulate, and a Mexican consulate."

With those words all anxiety vanished.

"Excellent. I'll be making a trip to one of those next week."