“Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her … She liked taking deep breaths here. She liked watching the locals who drove with pointed courtesy and parked their latest model cars outside the organic grocery store on Nassau Street or outside the sushi restaurants or outside the ice cream shop that had fifty different flavors including red pepper or outside the post office where effusive staff bounded out to greet them at the entrance. She liked the campus, grave with knowledge, the Gothic buildings with their vine-laced walls, and the way everything transformed, in the half-light of night, into a ghostly scene. She liked, most of all, that in this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else, someone specially admitted into a hallowed American club, someone adorned with certainty.”
— from: “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chapter 1, p. 1.
One of my best friends thought this passage could have been written about me. Ah, I guess she is right :-). I spent nearly a year living in Princeton where I always felt that I, as Merlyna Lim, did not quite fit the place. It was not only my feeling, in fact some Nassau Street shopkeepers really treated me as if I didn’t belong there. In contrast, my Princeton credential allowed me to enter the circle of elites. I have to admit, from time to time I secretly enjoyed how well people treated me once they found out that I worked at Princeton, as a professor, no less. And yet, while my Princeton privilege always worked like a charm, I was never at ease with it.
About the image, it’s an ice cream shop at Nassau Street Adichie was writing about. Thomas Sweet Ice Cream is the legendary ice cream parlour of Princeton. I stood outside this shop frequently, but wasn’t a frequent customer. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. Growing up, I ate ice cream very rarely, not even once a year. But I do appreciate high quality home-made ice cream, such as one made at the Thomas Sweet. The first time I was there, I could not decide what I wanted. Just like a little kid who entered the ice cream shop for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the choices. How do you decide? There were tons of colours, flavours, and blends. Not to mention toppings. I was amazed that some kids in the shoppe seemed to really know what they wanted. I eventually settled with the combination of what’s familiar with a layer of newness, which probably resembles what I always choose in life when I am exposed to many pathways.
Looking back, it was a sweet memory. An overwhelmingly sweet memory.*
Image: Thomas Sweet Ice Cream, Nassau Street (by Princeton University) – Princeton NJ. Sketched 2014, coloured in 2019, by merlynalim.
*This post and the sketch is dedicated to my wonderful colleague Linda. We both share a special memory of Thomas Sweet and beyond that, we also are bound by a special connection and beautiful relationship — despite the fact that we first met in such a horrendous situation. Thank you, Linda.