This semester, I decided to participate in an exchange semester at ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). As the psychological distance between Boston and me grew larger, I could then contextualize and reflect on my life outside of the MIT bubble. Only when I began to reorient myself in Switzerland did I realize how small my cognition of the world was.
I think the craziest thing about growing up and going to school entirely in the U.S. is that, without being aware, I became accustomed to my identity as an American – that even growing up as an Asian American, I still belonged to the majority of Americans. Spending a semester abroad made me realize how rare it was to meet international students in the U.S. It was incredibly refreshing to no longer be part of the majority and be introduced to people from around the world with vastly different philosophies, identities, and people who grew up in entirely different education and political systems.
II. Problem finding
One of the first activities I took part in was ETH week—a one-week-long seminar teaming up with students of all ages, disciplines, and nationalities to discover challenges and sustainable strategies for building a sustainable yet rapidly evolving urban future in the midst of the global climate crisis. However, a week dedicated to such an ambitious goal definitely came with challenges and frustrations.
First was being someone formally diagnosed with inattentive type ADHD, which is a condition described by abnormal function of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive function (doing stuff), short-term memory, impulse inhibition, attention, and planning. When working in groups, I was particularly afraid to tell people about my condition since I was meeting people from disparate backgrounds and knew that varying levels of awareness and stigma regarding mental health exist.
As often as I tried to mask my ADHD, it manifested as frequently falling asleep during critical group discussions—when the content was no longer engaging to my brain or showing up late to events due to an inability to sequence and plan events ahead of time. Too often, it feels like my brain is overheating due to a lack of RAM for tasks that require attention and organizing. Rather than fight my impulses, the most I could do was to laugh them off and acknowledge my experiences, that in the future, would inform foolproof systems that can manage my symptoms and needs.
By the end of ETH week, however, the most important thing I took away was that finding the right problem to solve is much more important than the solution itself. I also learned that asking well-formulated questions helps organize our thinking around what we don’t know. Perhaps this is more general, but I started to reflect on how my education in the U.S. placed an extremely high value on solving problems rather than finding the right problem, which I now realize are two different skill sets.
III. Mental mapping
Having struggled with the challenges of my own mind, I became fascinated this semester with a course called mental mapping and the mind, which is themed around architecture, memory, psychology, and space. I started to ponder how everyone has a unique cognitive fingerprint shaped by their biology and environment and how important having psychological diversity is in the context of the human population.
One lecture introduced a study published in 1973, which studied participants in Los Angeles categorized by various demographics and social classes, and their ability to map the city of Los Angeles onto a blank sheet of paper. The results were quite fascinating, to say the least, where each group’s map showcased drastically different perceptions of the city at a variety of different scales.
I was inspired to do the same and test myself with how much of Boston and Cambridge I could remember without having seen an actual map of the area in the two months that I’ve been abroad. I was blown away by the memories that flooded in and how many vignettes were triggered in my mind as I drew each building.
I started remembering the North Face jacket I lost the night I went hacking, hiding in MIT nano playing capture the flag during CPW, and staying overnight at tEp which became the precursor to one of my good friends falling in love, my beloved old dorm Next House, and all my friends in East Campus. It was only then I realized that so much of our cognition of time and space is inextricable from our emotional experiences. I came to this realization looking at how densely populated the MIT area was in my mind, in contrast with the vast areas of blank space, indicating areas blind from my memory or areas I’ve never visited before. Overall, I definitely recommend getting a nice A3 sheet on a free Sunday afternoon to see what you discover about your brain’s relationship to a place you’ve lived in before.
One night I sat on a rock ledge and watched the sunset on a vineyard in Altstetten with some friends I had recently met. Through my conversations with them, I began to contextualize my identity not only as a student in the U.S. but also as an architecture student. Being in Switzerland, I began to realize how foreign the concept of declaring a major was. My friends who grew up in the European education system would often comment, “you get to choose your major after entering college? I’m so jealous, we have to declare before we even enter.” All I could remember was when I first started studying at MIT, I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to major in and was only focused on finding communities and classes I enjoyed while chugging through as many GIRs as possible. I remember that as a freshman, I felt comfort in identifying as undeclared and then wound up in architecture because I had taken the most courses in it. I was left with a lot of questions after this interaction, for instance, whether, in an alternate reality, would it have been beneficial to declare a major before having taken courses in the subject. Or whether I would be happier in a different major, having taken a gap year, or deciding to work in a separate field. My best answer for now is, I guess I wouldn’t know unless I lived it.
The dorm that I live in is called Meierwiesenstrasse 62 in this quaint little part of Zurich called Altstetten; it’s actually quite far from campus by MIT standards, and people often commute by bus or tram to get to class. There are 170 international students living here, and we share one kitchen. Sometimes it is absolute madness, and other times it’s great seeing everyone cook and eat dinner at the same time.
It also hit me that I was the only American living in this dorm. I could not find anyone who spoke with the same accent as me. Even after making enough friends that already knew one another in the dorm, no matter who I asked, they all seemed to tell me that I was the first American they had met in the dorm and that they could immediately recognize it from my American accent. I can’t tell you how many ‘oh so you must be bad at geography’ jokes I’ve heard, which… I feel like this is, unfortunately, true to a certain extent. It caused me to reflect a lot on my education in the U.S., and how much of the history curriculum in high school was U.S.-centric. I was also surprised by how many people speak multiple languages with a high level of fluency here. In a way, I still feel like I’m living in a bubble, albeit a cozy, international one that is acclimating to Swiss life together.
VI. Gen Z-ing
Lastly, I wanted to also reflect on my identity as a GenZ-er in today’s technological day and age. Growing up addicted to social media and YouTube videos made me realize that there are companies pouring millions of dollars into manipulating our psyche and the flow of our attention. From an ethical standpoint, it sort of freaks me out a bit about how our attention nowadays is a new form of currency. I’m not sure what expectations I had, but some part of me definitely thought that coming to Switzerland would make me live a healthier lifestyle. Nonetheless, I still end up spending an exorbitant amount of time in my room scrolling on my phone and watching YouTube videos instead of doing as much traveling or hiking as I feel like I should. As we enter a new age of technological advancement, I think we as a society should take a moment to ponder critically about our existing technological habits and question our relationship with technology.
Identity takes time to morph and develop but is often shaped by forces beyond our understanding and control. Just as finally being able to gain comfort and security in my sexuality was an entire process of discovery and reflection, I am still experiencing the same with accepting and understanding my ADHD diagnosis. Being abroad, I’ve developed a fascination with how our identities develop and how it shapes our actions and behaviors. There was one quote from the UCLA study that stood out to me, “It would seem even more crucial today… that we continually check our own world view with that of others who share the same matrix, even though, or perhaps, especially because our social worlds all too often touch but fail to penetrate.”
Michael Tan ’23, an architecture major, is studying abroad in Zurich, Switzerland! Switzerland was his choice because of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s research in architecture and sustainability. And, of course, for his love for nature and admiring the European influence in architecture and languages.