You don’t realize how precious youth is until you see what others have done.
Social norms hold that a successful college graduate comes from a top school, has internship experience with top companies, was leader of one or more clubs, and even participated in community service. Society seems uncomfortable with those who don’t 靠谱, or don’t live according to the books. For most students, then, life is focused on the resume, while their best asset now is youthful passion.
At 17, Beijing resident Zhao Xing (赵星) had a dream to visit Taiwan. Seven years later, in 2010, she toured the island alone for 11 days. She recorded her experiences with local people on her blog, which was immensely popular and became a book sold in Chinese bookstores around the world. In a speech last year, Zhao Xing talked about her past, how she could not comprehend reading comprehension and did not want to learn English despite her boss’ wishes. Her despairing mother once told her that she would be happy if Zhao Xing would be able to write a book and make a movie from it.
During my few days in Beijing in August Zhao Xing graciously let me stay with her and her roommates. She had CouchSurfed through Taiwan and had hosted a French tourist before. If she found the Taiwanese to be hospitable, I found her and her roommates to be equally warm. We chatted until 2am each night, exchanging our experiences and thoughts on China and America. Zhao Xing did my laundry and asked me constantly if I needed anything, even though she had given me many things already. In the mind of an author and traveler I found someone who could raise camaraderie, particularly through the Chinese habit of playfully picking at the faults of close friends – 你那么不靠铺的人！ Such social skills require a mind not constrained to academia alone. And as a reader and a writer Zhao Xing is definitely innovative.
Success, she said in her speech, comes from doing something different. No matter how simple the matter, it will be noticed because it is new. She wanted to capture the people of Taiwan, rather than the food and scenery, which so many have discussed before. As a result of her book she was interviewed by newspapers and television stations.
Zhao Xing’s story is an inspiring tale of fulfilled youthful dreams, which haven’t ended yet. She has signed a contract with a movie director for a film to be released next year, which will include such famous figures as the Taiwanese “Mayday” boyband (五月天). When considering her stable but long work hours, her wide internet following, her book, and upcoming movie, I am amazed. I realize that for every young person similar dreams can be fulfilled, if only one dares to step out and try.
Last summer, when I read Zhao Xing’s book, I connected with her story, for in high school I had also traveled to Taiwan and blogged about it. From the trip I knew that I wanted to return to Asia as a foreign correspondent, and I came to NYU for its study abroad program.
In my freshman year I was ambitious and ready to mold myself for future success. Yet in the last year that passion seems to have faded. Like the lead girl in “You Are the Apple of My Eye” (那些年我们一起追过的女孩), I have only learned to study well, which in today’s society includes structured extracurricular activities. I know how to play by the books, but not by the world. Perhaps just three years ago I dared to dream and pursue a life outside of academics, but two years in college have shoved grades, work, mandatory community service and club involvement into my idea for success. I have built my resume, but I have not built up myself as an individual.
Studying abroad in Shanghai, I am separated from my previous idealism. I realize that life does not have to be so rigid. Many say that China is not free, and in certain areas it is not as open as America. But for me, the opportunity here to experience the freshman notion of self-reinvention is liberating. With a good exchange rate, convenient Chinese food options, and NYU-provided activities for touring and learning the er hu (二胡), my world seems again to offer endless possibilities. Most importantly, finding warm friendships here has made studying abroad all the richer. If not for family and friends in New York, I would want to stay here.
I realize that studying abroad may bring artificial impressions of a country. Who would not enjoy a place with comfortable living conditions? My closet and room here are bigger than I’ve ever had in New York, and utilities are included in the low rent. But more than those comforts is the feeling of cultural cohesion. Dean Hamm, who led my trip to Japan, said that he felt that Japanese culture fit him. Perhaps for me it is Chinese culture.
This semester is a time of maturation. In New York I thought I was running out of time. I looked at what others my age were doing and felt that I was falling behind in the race towards achieving my goals. But perhaps their life is not the life I want. Zhao Xing fulfilled her dream to visit Taiwan when she was 24, and she is still working towards other projects. At 19 I still have time to dream and to plan; the opportunities are already at hand. Zhao Xing’s mother says she now just wants to have a daughter who can 靠谱, or live a normal life. Most parents do. But for the immature student, a seemingly risky step towards a greater good can be life-changing.
Youth is difficult to understand. It is a time of great, but fluctuating, passion. It is a time when you think you should relax and enjoy life or do everything possible to advance in a field. Youth is confusing, and a time of opportunity. Treasure this time.
Watch Zhao Xing’s video here: 赵星的演讲