The summer before senior year I participated in the United States Naval Academy Summer Seminar. I had no idea what to expect, except for something very different from what I have known. I had never been anything military before; I had no connections, no experiences, no education, no expectation.
Going past the point where no parents were allowed to follow, I remember first being told to tuck in my shirt, then being struck by how the midshipmen, glowing with health, carried themselves and how professional they were. I was not at all in charge of the situation; I went through registration and gear collection like a part in an assembly line and found my way obediently into my dorm room.
For the first few days, navy terminology (platoon, company, what?) and the achievements of the people around me dazzled me (captain of three sports teams, leader of this, honorary member of that). There were many names to learn, most of which I would never see the faces of again. There weren’t many like me, either: a Beijing expat come for the experience, while others wanted nothing but to come to this school, who had been preparing all their life for? JROTC and military school. What’s an artist doing amidst these future officers? But despite having a different purpose, I approached each task with the same enthusiasm as everyone else, though my abilities may have been a fraction of the best. I learned my rates: the mission of the academy, How’s the Cow?, the five basic responses, and how to answer the question: How long have you been in the navy? It took me a few days, but I got used to putting on and taking off my cover, drinking many times the water that I am used to, and brutally enduring morning PEP, a happy acronym for exercising before breakfast. I didn’t pass the Candidate Fitness Assessment, and barely finished Sea Trials, but I developed a kinship with my squad that made me realize that we couldn’t be that different after all, for despite my initial uneasiness, I realized that my peers were people too! Though they seemed to be made out of steel sometimes, they were compassionate team members too, and were always willing to give encouragement during the last few reps of a set, or the last half mile of a run. We bonded through sweat and peanut butter-covered bagels.
I was definitely glad to reunite with my family again after those six days, but if I look back on that time, I do not think of the pain of flutter kicks and rope burn, but rather with fondness of those highly motivated, disciplined, and strong yet gentle collection of faces who became my temporary family and who accepted me for who I was, a stranger among midshipmen.