Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Quick note to self: I'm still four posts behind. (Winter Break; Mongolian Visa Run; Valentine's Day; Independent Study Progress.) I'll catch up soon.

In e-mails to yours truly, once in a while a friend from home will say something along the lines of, "I bet you've changed a lot." Other variations include, "I wonder how different you'll be when you get back?" or even, "You're not writing enough in your blog about how you've changed as a person."

For a while now, I've been wondering how exactly you people got it into your heads that a year abroad is unquestionably a life-changing and character-molding experience for everyone. The changes that I have observed in myself are small, and largely superficial, and probably come through at least to some extent in my writing - certainly nothing to justify your buying into this myth of reincarnation-by-study-abroad.

Then, this afternoon, I had an hour in which I was hyper-aware that something about the way I see life has changed in a fundamental way.

I could encapsulate the change pretty easily (and accurately) by saying, "I feel that I've matured," but let me put it in a more meaningful way: What I discovered today was that I am now seeing things in a broader, more long-term perspective. I have discovered that choices in my life that once seemed isolated are in fact pieces of a larger construct, and thus both comparatively insignificant and at the same time crucial and defining.

I think it was Joseph Campbell who wrote that a certain class of people today grow up years and years later than we used to: we graduate from high school at 18, and then go on to college; we will be at least 22 before we graduate, and then there are those who will go on to get Master's degrees, or even Ph.Ds. In today's world, a student can be 30 years old before he emerges gingerly from the world of academia - if he emerges at all - blinking and stumbling as he find himself no longer under the protection of the ivory tower, left to fend for himself and choose his own road.

It's not just that school gives us dorms and cafeteria lunches, or a semi-structured daily schedule; besides that, there also exists a definite narrowing of the path of life. Yale may be many-faceted pregnant with opportunity, and her students may travel the world on every sort of mission imaginable before they graduate - but in the end they will, for the most part, return to take classes, read books, take tests, participate in student groups, and ultimately get a diploma before they move on to (for some) a more uncertain stage of life. For these four (or five) years, this is The Big Picture, The Path; finding another is, judging from the graduation rate, almost unthinkable.

Maybe more than ever, I want to stick to this part of the plan. I want to go back to Yale and learn, and discuss, and participate; and I want to graduate with a degree that will become an arrow in my quiver to be used in the journey ahead. But I suddenly understand, viscerally, that this path is just one of many, and more importantly, that it is just one small stretch of the longer road of my life. Sooner or later, I will be making decisions that are equally if not more important - like where I want to live, what type of work I want to do, and who I want to date. Each of these decisions will be made from an infinite number of possible, presented at one time or another by happenstance; each will be reversible at any time I choose, provided I am willing to pay the price; and yet, to succeed in the long term, I will have to consider the long term, and invest my energies accordingly.

But how is this different from my perspective last spring? After all, the above few paragraphs are fairly simple ideas, ideas which I could have read and agreed with as early as several years ago. Many of my friends and classmates would probably scorn them as simple. I myself, if asked a year ago, would have felt that I completely understood. So I think the difference lies not in my intellectual recognition of the above truisms, but rather in my gut reaction to them: instead of lamenting the inevitability of some aspects of the way forward and fearing others, I suddenly feel an enormous sense of possibility and acceptance.

Today I walked down the road next to where I live and - I dramatize not - it was as if I was on a completely new street. I saw the little shops opened by the workers who came from the countryside to try their luck in the capital and I thought, "Why are you here? What made you borrow hundreds of thousands in cash from relatives and bring your wife and child to come open a bakery here in Beijing? Was it an idea? a whim? the recommendation of a friend of a friend of a friend of your second cousin who knew a place that the owner was looking to sell?" And each time I think about my own life, I become more convinced that as long as I consider carefully, work hard, and do what seems right, choosing out of the myriad grab bag of decisions proffered by life (and my fortunate background) will give me no cause for regret. Who says I can't get married tomorrow, settle down as a translator in Saudi Arabia, and still live a happy life? You're wrong. For the moment I choose not to [sorry Mike/Max/Phil; no wives or children just yet], but I make that choice with the awareness that it is a choice - one of many - and that if the right opportunity comes along I won't be afraid to grasp it, even if it entails unfamiliar territory and a long-term commitment.

It's tough to say what brought about this change. Part of it must be put down to coming into contact on a daily basis with two aspects of the Chinese that I have never completely understood - the small-time entrepreneurial spirit with which the migrant workers flock to the cities, and the starry-eyed faith with which many young people marry their first love. Another part is surely due to the complete freedom that I have for these eight months: discounting the possibility that I might have quit school, I have literally never had this much time to myself in my entire life. I am renting my own apartment, making my own money, applying to a position I have created for myself in a far-flung and undeveloped region of the world... if nothing else, it's exhilarating. Maybe I'm feeling influenced by a good friend of mine, who is looking for jobs in a new profession - maybe even as a hostess -  in the relatively likely event that she doesn't test into graduate school. As for what set off this reaction this afternoon as opposed to any other day, I'll leave you to decide: all I did was read some (English) blog updates and news items about China, take a call from a Chinese company that operates in Zambia, and watch three episodes of a Chinese drama about young people finding work and love in Beijing.

Well, it's 4 AM and I still have to work a little bit on getting employed this summer before I go to bed. My persistence has yielded three tentative offers from Chinese firms in Zambia: one manager already has excellent English and still needs approval from the company headquarters, another wants me to work in a hotel, and a third I can only semi-understand when we speak on the phone... But offers are offers; I'm delighted; and I can now get on with the business of applying to fund this adventure with other people's money.

Until Thursday,

1 comment:

  1. Ethan: As you know from our talk, this is precisely what we imagined would happen by taking ownership of your experience in really ambitious ways. At CIE, we are working very hard to help students achieve many of these same realizations, and time abroad can play such a huge role!