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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

自己 zi ji Oneself, One’s own

Since day one, the belief that I am a unique being has been ingrained in me. I entered an ice rink at the age of 2 years old and discovered on my own a passion that has stayed with me ever since. At age 6, I learned how to perfectly tie my own skates, leaving the parents at the rink staring with their mouths wide open as their respective children kicked their feet in the air, laces and blades flying, and screamed at them “Too tight! Tie them looser!” I stepped foot on Princeton’s campus for the first time at the age of 7. While marching through the P-rade at my parent’s reunion engulfed in a sea of orange and black tiger stripes, I personally decided Princeton would be my goal that I would work hard to achieve.

Individualism is a pillar of the American mentality; it is not only encouraged in “The Land of the Free”, it is idealized. I was raised to think like an individual, to self-motivate and be self-reliant. I expect to live my life based off of the principles that, although influenced by my upbringing, I believe to be uniquely mine. It is this value of individualism that makes my homestay family think I’m crazy.

“What do you mean you’re not going to grow up to work at the same company as your parents?” Nai Nai (Grandma) and Ye Ye (Grandpa) look at me across the dinner table with genuine confusion, and possible concern for my future, in their eyes. “What are you going to do on your own?”

In a matter of seconds I have almost shattered my host grandparents’ perspective of life itself. All I had to say was, “I don’t think I want to be a lawyer like my parents.”

In all honesty, I have no answer to Nai Nai’s question; I have no idea what I want to do in the future, but the unknown is exciting. It means I have the opportunity to explore, to succeed, to fail, and to enjoy the ride that comes with discovering my new passions and interests in life. Even with support and advice from my loved ones and friends, I have the ability to delve into new adventures on my own, with my own interests at heart, and with my own passions fearlessly in the driver’s seat.

My nine year old host brother won’t choose his own future.

“When I was forty years old, I switched to work at Ye Ye’s company so we could work together. Now, our son works at the same company. When your di di (Younger brother) grows up, he will work there, too.”

Nai Nai leans back in her chair and smiles. She’s proud to have laid a strong foundation for her future generations to prosper and live comfortable lives.

Di di is quick to add to the conversation with his signature enthusiasm, “One day, I’m going to own my own apartment and buy my own things.” With genuine curiosity I ask, “What job do you want to have?”

There’s a short moment of silence. Everyone at the table, including di di, awkwardly looks at each other for reassurance, trying to confirm whether or not my question is a part of the joke. Then, a simultaneous roar of laughter erupts around me.

I’m silent, lost, and frantically searching my memory of the conversation for every language mistake I could have made to amuse my host family. I realize quickly that I did not incorrectly ask my question, but rather I had incorrectly read the situation. I had interpreted the content of my di di’s vision, a future that seemed ridiculous and unnecessarily risky to my host family, to be an attainable reality.

My first instinct is to judge, to question why anyone would be satisfied growing up with limited freedom to carve one’s own life path. However, I now realize this is the wrong reaction. I am letting my preconceived ideas, based solely on my upbringing and not on listening and learning from others, inhibit me from understanding the lifestyle and ambitions of my Chinese host family.

I came on Bridge Year with the goals of becoming a world citizen, an advocate for cross-cultural understanding, and a more empathetic and open-minded person. I came into this adventure with the mindset that in order to achieve my goals,  I needed to be independent, to 做我自己的 (zuo wo zi ji de), be on my own. This attitude, which gives me pride in my ability to self-motivate and has helped me achieve my goals in life so far, has hindered my ability to listen, learn, and fully internalize and appreciate my surroundings.

I will not always, nor should I expect to, agree with everything my host family does, thinks or says, but that is no excuse to remain close-minded. If I open my mind, I can recognize how every day I grow more appreciative of the communal aspects of my life in China that go against my normally autonomous instincts. I’ve learned to love knocking elbows with di di as we sit in our tightly squeezed chairs at the dinner table, both lunging for the plump chicken leg in the communal bowl in front of us. Not for us to eat ourselves, but to gift to each other to show respect. I’ve grown to understand why members of my host family open my door without knocking and wander into my room, rearrange my possessions, and sit down next to me just to chat and enjoy the company. I am even grateful now when I am prohibited from leaving the house without my host grandparents lecturing me to bring extra jackets just in case the weather suddenly changes.

Being accepted so quickly into a new community and family is overwhelming. Reminding myself to remain receptive to a new lifestyle is tiring and often stressful. Switching my mindset and jumping into a new culture is in no way easy. Luckily, I understand that I’ve landed in the perfect spot, no matter how uncomfortable or awkward at times, to expand my mentality. I no longer have to do everything on my own, but am instead experiencing moments that are teaching me how to be a better and more appreciative member of a community.