Stephanie Mei Huang’s Advice on College Breakups

Stephanie Mei Huang is an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. She uses a diverse range of media and strategies including film/video, installation, social interventions, sculpture, writing, and painting. At the time of this interview, Stephanie was still in college and blogging at High Stitched Voice.

“When I was 17 I moved from Shanghai to the suburbs of Los Angeles for my studies. Los Angeles was, to say the least, completely different from what I expected it to be as a metropolis. I found LA unlike any other city I had lived in because it is so vastly spread out and revolves around driving to places. Being away from what had been home for twelve years in a city so different, and so seemingly inaccessible, was a difficult adjustment. A few months later, the person I was seeing at the time and I parted ways due to the distance that came with the move and the sudden change. I found myself without the same support network I had had for years, with my family and closest friends no longer physically there, in addition to my significant other not being there either. At the same time, I had different expectations of what college would be like. I found the population of a liberal arts school to be homogenous and somewhat isolated compared to the international communities I had grown up in and my understanding of larger universities. It was a lot of simultaneous sudden change and overturned expectations to process at once—but I am latently grateful for that change and see it as integral to my current identity.”

“I felt like in the aftermath, for the most part, I was still grasping onto my childhood friends long-distance because they were the friends I grew up and was therefore accustomed to. They were familiar with my typical emotional response to conflict and what I needed from them in terms of support, and at the time, familiar was good, familiar was comfortable. I was hesitant to confide in new friends and reveal emotions that I saw as somewhat burdensome or tiresome. American culture can be very individualistic in certain regards. Though I am American, partially growing up in Asia, I was accustomed to this unspoken, collective, and automatic exchange of anticipating what one’s friends may need, of what one can provide for them. I have this inbred unconscious tendency in which I try to give myself to others first without them asking for it or try to predict what others may need at certain times, so I had to come to the realization that if I needed help, I would need to actively seek it and prompt it.”

“My parents have always been supportive, yet they have only ever been with each other, which is common in older Asian generations, so it’s more alien for them to understand the process of detaching oneself from another in a relationship. Additionally, they didn’t move around as much as I did at a young age (I have moved over ten times in the last three years)—so speaking based upon experience and speaking to my perpetual state of missing some place other than the place I was residing in could not really apply. Regardless, being able to call them was enough, just for the familiarity.”

“For me, there’s a certain kind of unique beauty in sadness that is so generative. I believe you are your most productive when you are in a difficult period because there are so many complex places you can draw from and channel that potential into so many different outlets. I also believe in reading to understand your own emotions and not to assume that we know ourselves best. Mourning and loss are extremely complex and some of the best literature is written about such states in particular. I adore Anne Carson, Joan Didion, Louise Glück, and Maggie Nelson. All such strong, beautiful women. I recently read this amazing memoir my former professor [Meghan O’Rourke] wrote about losing her mother called The Long Goodbye. When you can emotionally identify with such texts, the experience of reading them becomes so much more powerful and immersive.”

“The sudden change and the sadness that follows provides such a productive period for self-care and self-growth. I think that you first have to address that, yes, your emotions are very real and very valid. But then you have to make sure you don’t generate a period of self-pity or self-importance. That’s important. In addition to creating, reading, listening to music, watching films, and just absorbing content that doesn’t necessarily mirror your experience but complements it, is a very healthy way to understand, build upon your own emotions and come to terms with them. After that, I think it’s really important contextualize the smallness of your troubles and doubts. That’s why I gravitate towards inserting myself into a vast landscape and going on hikes – you have this sense once you’re amid a desert, the ocean or a canyon or mountain ranges that both your troubles and your individual self are so very little compared to the grander scheme of things. Moving a lot has also helped me with that. It’s difficult because you find yourself with so many goodbyes to say, but it’s easy in the sense that you can tell yourself this is not a deliberate choice necessarily to break ties with friends or lovers, just the collateral that occurs from parting with the familiar. Once you’re thrust in a new environment, your only option is to navigate the space around you. A lot of significant memories of mine are of the first few weeks in a new city, alone and disoriented, but going to cafes and ordering lattes and reading poetry outside regardless—that’s a great space and period of fragility to expand and heal yourself. And it sounds corny, but if things are meant to be, you might end up in the same place or in a different place with the same people.”

“People who I’ve had a significant relationship with are people I would be friends with both before and after a separation. For the same reason I choose to enter a relationship with another individual, I think it is important to maintain such relationships as they evolve because these individuals know you in a way that no one else does or can. But I also find it necessary to cut yourself off for a few months. In other instances when I didn’t at first, it was unhealthy to try to maintain a friendship when I had all these feelings I needed to deal with on my own. You cannot try to put the other person first when it conflicts with your own wellbeing.”

“I have friends who are always hesitant on entering into relationships because they are afraid of the loss that follows. But it is necessary. You cannot develop your own self without creating meaningful bonds with other people, and subsequently having to move past the loss when relationships no longer foster growth. That loss is infinitely insignificant compared to what can be gained from a strong, supportive relationship. I don’t think we have to be afraid of loss or change because we will move on and, in doing so, find that which better suits our personal intentions and self-growth for the next period of our lives.”

“Pre-2010, when I was still in high school and back when Lookbook was heavily used, I used it as my first platform and received many comments asking if I had a blog, so I asked myself why not? It merged my varied passions in photography, fashion, art, and writing. I realized it was a seamless marriage of all those factors. That was earlier on when the blogging world wasn’t as saturated. It was really nice to have this community to connect with and grow from. I no longer blog on a regular basis due to time constraints and the increasingly commercialized nature of the blogosphere, but through blogging I found photography. I have recently self-published a photo-poetry hybrid book called Nostos and am a photographer for Local Wolves magazine in addition to other clients. I recently did a shoot with adidas NEO in New Orleans. Because I started out doing a multitude of things and getting jobs early on in my life, I have cultivated a fear of not doing enough and not having enough time. I’m trying to rid myself of this fear because right now we’re so acclimated to a lot of young people doing a lot for their age with the way the internet has restructured conventional careers. It’s hard and ultimately unproductive having to feel like you’re not doing enough—because what are you comparing to?”

“I graduated college early and felt the need to give myself a bridge between my academics and working full-time. I want to remind myself through living minimally, of what my core values are and how they inform a lifestyle and my work. So I will be working on a non-profit farm in Hawaii for a couple of months and then I hope to head to a few artist’s residencies later in the spring. I hope to surround myself with communities whose primary purposes are to work with the land or create art…”

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