Picking up the pieces a year later;

I’ve read that if an avalanche buries you and you’re lying there underneath all that snow, you can’t tell which way is up or down. You want to dig yourself out but pick the wrong way, and dig yourself to your own demise. That was how I felt: disoriented, suspended in confusion, stripped of my compass. In retrospect, my failure was gradual. Slow and excruciating, I dug myself deeper and deeper in the wrong direction until I was trapped, the whole world against me.

I have been in accelerated classes my entire life. In elementary school, I was removed from my school and placed in a gifted and talented center. In middle school, I skipped grades and grades of math and took classes separately from everybody else. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel smart, even special.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing to realize after entering high school was that I am not special. My teachers showered praise on me- and maybe I could do long division in my head, internalize difficult concepts in minutes, or finish a book in 3 hours- but so could millions of other people.

It was with an unmistakeable juvenilia that I began to write the novel of my life. By the time I entered high school, my fixed growth mindset already seemed etched in my brain. I quickly devolved into an indifferent individual after realizing that I couldn’t coast anymore. I couldn’t grasp the concept that I couldn’t make effortless A’s: if I had to try, then I wasn’t smart. I aggressively squandered my potential, let down all expectations. My failure was not the direct result of any pinpointed event; rather, it was the failure of mindset. With no sense of self, my small world view coupled with limited experience became a dangerous immaturity.

I didn’t realize what it was back then; I was 15, blissfully, painfully stuck in the days when sadness was sadness but I didn’t understand it. It began slowly, but I felt it everywhere. Enveloping, suffocating. I tasted it in the salt from my tears that I didn’t understand and the constant bitter taste in my mouth. I saw it everywhere. I saw it in my parents’ tired, haggard faces, in the disappointment of my teachers, in the angry texts my swim coach sent me: “Why aren’t you at practice? Tom Dolan is soon!”, and I felt it. Most of all, I felt it. The lows were so intense that I felt too heavy to get up in the morning, like my body was weighted with something heavier and denser than osmium.  I lived in an alternate reality and didn’t understand that the rest of the world didn’t work that way. I became obsessed with the existence of a parallel universe because maybe, maybe in one of them I was happy and didn’t let down everyone who had ever believed in me. I was angry at the world, furious in my belief that it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Eventually, I isolated myself completely. I thought I would be be understood without words. My brief lapses into sunshine and back into the world of the living were delivered through the little things. The way everything looked in the morning, how the sun hit the piano in the foyer, a successful yield after months of experiments, the smell of oil paint and the pavement after it rains, my little brothers’ smiles and continuous love despite the broken, shattered mess that I’d become. I devoted my time writing a manuscript I titled “My Search for Happiness,” desperately analyzed why Thomas Jefferson wrote the ‘pursuit’ of happiness rather than just happiness itself, questioned the very existence of the concept. What was happiness, anyways? Just chemicals? Just something regulated by my 150 milligrams of toxins? It didn’t matter, because in the final verdict, I boiled it down to a single conclusion, a simple, heartbreaking result of my frenzied search for happiness. I dismissed it as, to put it in colloquial language, just something in my brain, something I’d never really be able to get ahold of. I wrote, in essence, a quietly heartrending portrayal of the human capacity for self-deception and misguided ideals.

My year abroad turned out to be the experience that saved me. At first, all I felt other than apathy was relief that I didn’t have to face anyone’s disappointment anymore. I remember my first few months as tentative footsteps. I learned how ugly a culture difference can be, shed my biases that were cemented during my life in America. I was completely cold shouldered and looked at with contempt sometimes, more nationalistic Chinese citizens unable to accept that despite my exterior, I was American. Chinese by birth and American by choice was how I introduced myself as I slowly began to see the beauty in the culture. Eating something so spicy my eyes would water uncontrollably, learning new words in Chinese that simply couldn’t be translated back to English (it felt like a secret language), laughing myself to tears while watching skits and eating mooncakes for the Mid autumn festival. In December, I looked at the fainter star of Orion and felt just as lonely and shadowed. My first Christmas alone.

I celebrated my first Chinese New Year’s in China, and as I watched the fireworks go off, the light reflected in my relatives’ faces, I felt the first stirrings of hope. I felt my emotion flooding back to me. I cried real tears seeing limbless homeless people on the subway, nursing babies or the elderly, only to be met with baffled looks- “Why are you crying? This is normal in China. They may even be faking it.” I cried again as my friends talked about how cutthroat the Chinese education system is- and to think I ever complained about the American one! Again, I was met with bewilderment. That’s just how it is, they said, and I reminisced about my best friend’s favorite quote- c’est la vie. I felt nostalgia, regret, happiness, and above all, a burning, inexplicable desire to make everything right again.

During the summer I engaged myself in a volunteer trip in the mountains of rural China. Living in the suburbs for most of my life, I was sheltered, untouched by the realities of the world. I didn’t understand the gravity of the experience until I arrived, unable to complain about being unaccustomed to the living conditions when I saw how the children lived. There was no electricity, plumbing, or running water; the only clean water in the village was from the bottles we brought. In the classroom, I was met with stony silence and reluctant participation until in a frustrated outburst I asked why, why is it that we went through brutal training, countless hours of lesson planning, and endless plane and train rides, only to be met with your indifference? The students all began to speak at once, exclaiming that they had gotten attached to the group the previous year only to be left behind, stuck in the mountains while they traversed back to America and forgot all about them. It broke my heart. I became painfully aware of how foreign I seemed, of how vast and unknown the world was to me. Stepping out of my comfort zone, I laughed with my students while we made flower crowns, when I got a splinter in my hindquarters from a wooden stool, while tie dying and signing shirts, and cried with them on a particularly rainy day when they sobbed that they felt hopeless- that they knew they would end up farming like their parents and didn’t know why they were wasting money on an education anyways. I saw with my own eyes, familiarized myself with bright, sensitive, capable students that wanted nothing more than to break the cycle of poverty and couldn’t, as well as students who had long ago resigned themselves to their fate. Although they insist otherwise, that every volunteer forgets about their time there as soon as they leave, I will never forget. I went there to teach them, but left knowing that they taught me more than I had ever learned in school, more than I could learn from reading the news or watching documentaries. They taught me gratitude, simplicity- to be humble and to be compassionate, to give and give and give, even when you have nothing. On the last day, one of my students shyly presented me with a watch that had belonged to his sister. She passed away two years earlier. “I want you to have it,” he said. “She’s someone I’ll never forget, just like you.” I was shocked. He had nothing, yet he was giving me, wholeheartedly, the one treasured possession he had. “But you have to promise me,” he continued, “promise me that you’ll wear that watch always. Take my sister with you wherever you go, since I can’t take her myself.” He was sobbing by the end of his sentence, I long before. I had never felt such raw emotion. They poured their dreams out to me: one student told me of her dreams to become an engineer, others dreamed of concrete jungles, exotic foods, and hot showers every day. They begged me to describe what riding an airplane felt like.
These kids, 8th grade and 13 at the oldest, had a grasp of who they were and what mattered most to them, something that I couldn’t figure out more than 3 years older than they were and living in conditions they could only dream of. I was filled with contempt for my behavior and mindset in America. Stargazing one freezing cold one night, I felt tranquil. The mountains were holy, not because they were beautiful, but because they were silent; and for a moment, I was too. I felt a world bigger than myself. I vowed to stop acting so small, because I am the world in ecstatic motion.

Who’s the real me? The fragmented excuse of a person who was something awful, or the one who’s horrified by the awful thing I was? Is one part of me allowed to forgive the other? Coming back to America after a year filled with a lack familiarity and life-changing discovery, I have matured irreversibly. Looking back to when my future goals consisted of just wanting to be filthy rich, I am astonished. I strive to leave a legacy that will touch people everywhere, from the impoverished to the business owners who have, in fact, let money take over their lives, who are living in the very shallow dream that I envisioned not even 2 years earlier. I want everyone to see that the world is so much more, because there have been some awfully gorgeous moments in my life when my thoughts and my feelings and the physicality of everything aligns perfectly and I feel as if I am truly, honestly alive and full of the thought that this, this is what we’re here for. They are rare and fleeting and I spend the rest of the time looking for them again. I want my legacy to feel like that—I want to have shown people this feeling, and I want to leave them with a memory of it so beautiful they can never forget it. I want to be the reason they have felt alive for a second, even if I’m never that reason again. My legacy will not just be titles and numbers on a paper.

Aren’t we lucky? We’re so lucky to be here. I bring with me new passion and opened eyes when a few years ago, my only motivation to do well in school, to push myself through the necessary means to an end that was high school was mediocre at best: “to get into college.” How could I be motivated to even go to college with no aspirations, no long term goals, when the biggest thing in the world to me was myself? I am learning how to be angry and sad and lonely and joyful and excited and afraid and happy. I am learning how to taste everything. You have to be the kind of person who can make the best out of a Tuesday. You know those people who live for the weekends? They’re wishing their lives away. You have to find something worth living for or else you’ll look back and realize you’ve wasted your entire precious time here.
I am lazy, vain, indiscreet. I laugh when I’m not amused. But I am not a quitter, I am optimistic, passionate, and filled with hope for the future of both myself and the world.

I have rediscovered myself. I feel, again, the same excitement I used to when I do labwork, when I read an excellent book or scream along toTaylor Swift with my best friend. I want to be personally and intellectually challenged once again, and college will be my time of internal exploration, of finding answers and satisfying my intellectual curiosity.  Although I’ve changed irreversibly from the person I was, I certainly don’t want to graduate as I am now; I want to become better, smarter, more active in the world, and everything in between. An ideal way to write the next part of my bildungsroman.

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