At Georgetown, there seems to be a positive correlation between sleep deprivation and self-confidence. Sleeping less suggests working harder: we get restless when we are resting, feeling inadequate compared to those around us who would sacrifice a few extra hours of rest to change that A- into an A or to send out another cover letter to a potential campus recruiter. Sleep deprivation might be necessary in crunch times, but it is usually no more than an image to project to others around oneself for self-assurance. When I returned to China from Georgetown this summer, I was instantly reminded of how I used to be a participant in a similar sleep culture, to which I am now strongly opposed, although it is demonstrated in an opposite way.
It was a Saturday morning in Beijing, and I walked to the nearest caishichang — a farmer’s market — excited for a nice big brunch. Yet the usual breakfast stands were nowhere to be found. Had I arrived too early? After all, at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday, O’Donovan Hall would be pretty empty too. I asked a local man sitting on a stool where the breakfast spots were. In response, he looked at me and laughed, “It’s already lunch time! What breakfast are you talking about?”
I recounted this event to my mother, who used this incident to criticize my “westernized” living habits. “Chinese know no weekend; if they do, they only get up even earlier,” she said. She promptly reminded me of the old saying, “A whole year’s planning is in the spring, a whole day’s planning is in the morning.”
As a boarding student at a local Chinese high school, I woke up at 6 a.m. every morning, rushing to make my bed, finish my breakfast and be at the track field by 6:20 a.m. Then, we began our morning exercises — a set of movements meant to energize and strengthen the body, preparing us for the day ahead. After exercising, at 7:20 a.m., we had our “morning reading” time, where students read aloud in class together, with different poems, essays and articles every day. Finally, the first class started at 7:45 a.m., 15 minutes earlier than the earliest class offered at Georgetown.
The “early-to-rise” schedule developed an unhealthy yet unspoken competition among the students to brag about their wake up time; whoever woke up the earliest gave others the sense that they were occupied and involved, making others feel inadequately prepared for a new day’s work and uncomfortable with wasting their precious time in bed.
This emphasis on utilizing morning time developed an anxiety in me whenever I failed to wake up before 7 a.m., even during weekends. I retained this habit when I arrived at Georgetown: whenever the clock struck noon and I realized I had only worked for five hours, it felt like my day was wasted.
Soon I realized that in the United States, the competition to wake up the earliest was transformed into a competition to go to bed the latest. Whoever slept last could brag about how much work they had, indirectly showing how involved they were and how indispensable their work was to their clubs, jobs or even just to their own ego.
It takes a body of people who are restless and who are willing participants to make “sleeping less equals doing more” a culture. I also had moments of anxiety when I was in France, where the tradition of “à Dimanche, on dort,” or “on Sunday, we sleep,” prevails. It refers to not only resting on Sunday, but also to a culture that places less weight on how hectic other people’s lives are. The other Chinese student in my host family would wake up at 8 a.m. on Sunday; if I were back in Georgetown, I would reflect on my own laziness when I got woken up by her footsteps. However, for the first time, I had no qualms over sleeping in a little bit, ignoring the fact that someone else woke up earlier and respecting my body’s need to rest and relax.
Now that I am back in China for the summer, I have had time to reflect on the detriments of Georgetown’s sleep culture on my physical and mental health. Instead of changing my sleeping habits to meet the expectations of others around me, I am living by my own schedule. The first step I took was going to bed at 11 p.m. and waking up at 7 a.m. Those typical northern Chinese breakfast meals — doufunao, tofu pudding, and youtiao, fried breadstick — have never tasted so good after a good night’s sleep. Those mornings come without me hearing about a friend from class preparing 258 notecards until 3 a.m., or of another waking up at 5 a.m. to finish a problem set and move on to the bonus questions already.
Zoe Sun is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. At Home in Four Oceans appears every other Monday.