As you can tell from the title, today’s post will be somewhat different since it’s neither about traveling nor about my teaching experience in France. The idea came to me a couple of weeks ago while I was back at home (as in Los Angeles): I live close to the middle and high schools that I attended back in the day and, considering that the school year is (was) coming to an end for students, I couldn’t help but reflect about my own experiences back when I was in school. Although they might not seem that long ago for some people, I admit that they are starting to become distant, fading memories for me…
Anyway, that got me thinking: how did I end up the way that I am today? And let me tell you: I would have never guessed from my childhood self that I would be doing what I’m doing right now at this point in my life. So much has happened in these last few years since graduating college, many which I didn’t expect to happen. It’s crazy, to say the least, especially when I spent much of my childhood thinking that I was this one thing, when in fact, I was not.
Growing up in the big city of Los Angeles, it’s easy to feel anonymous. Just like that Stephen Chbosky coming-of-age novel, I was what you would call a “wallflower” who blended in a field of faces: all 4 million of them. It was all too easy to feel lost– physically and mentally– being raised in a place which often pressured us to be part of the crowd, despite talks of being “unique” and “different” from others.
In high school, I was neither popular nor an outcast. Back when labels were so important, the closest one I would consider myself was “academic athlete,” since I took AP/honors courses while balancing it with cross country/track practice. I felt neither at home with my classmates in AP/honors classes, who were always stressed and obsessed with perfect SAT scores and UC/Ivy League colleges (their vibe which rubbed off on me, too) nor with teammates on the cross country/track team who hung out all the time at school and had inside jokes which I never really got on-board with, e.g. “locker room talk.” I guess I sort of drifted throughout high school, never that popular but never that unpopular.
After swimming in a sea of faces in high school, I jumped into an even bigger body of water (you could say an ocean) in college. Seriously, UCLA (my alma mater) has a population roughly the size of a middle-sized town in France (pop. 44,000). Not only was it even harder to make yourself stand out from others, but also there was even more pressure to do so if you wanted to have a job lined up for you after graduation.
If I’d thought that being top of the class in high school was bad enough (still traumatized by the level of rivalry in AP/honors), then college was even more so. Competition was fierce, and I lost count of the office hours and networking nights I’d attended, all which weren’t out of interest, but out of necessity. If I wanted to make myself stand out and get ahead in school, I had to kiss some serious ass. Didn’t like it at all, and to this day, I avoid networking nights like the plague. Being nurtured in the Los Angeles bubble, as well as attending school in the heart of the city, definitely gave me the mentality that I had to prove myself worthy of being there, and to do that I had to establish myself, somehow, in the crowd of my peers who also wanted the same thing, aka success.
Although I was doing what everyone was doing, I didn’t really feel like things were working out. I didn’t have a solid idea of what I wanted to do after graduation, or rather, I didn’t know how to find opportunities to make me happy. Having been conditioned to think nothing but grades up until then, I faced the reality of living in a grade-less world, soon to be replaced with interviews and qualifications (neither which I had much of). It was in the fall term of my final year when I stumbled upon TAPIF, a teaching program in France; I’d just came back from a summer studying abroad in Paris (and absolutely loved it), so I decided to go for it.
I’ll be honest: TAPIF wasn’t my first choice as a post-grad career. In fact, I had also applied to a publishing course at Columbia University, because I very much wanted to do editorial work for literary companies. At that time, it was my dream job to be an editor-publisher, which would reward my four years as an English major not only in financial stability, but also prestige in the literary world. I also had aspirations of doing a MFA program in poetry, which would’ve put me in contact with many well-known people in the arts, but it didn’t end up happening. Interesting how things turned out, though, because I ended up getting rejected from the Columbia publishing course and accepted into TAPIF. Before I knew it, I got my work contract, applied for my visa, and was off to France. Since then, I have never looked back.
Having been in France for the last two, soon to be three years (perhaps even four), I didn’t expect myself to have wanted to stay any longer than a year abroad. Most people in TAPIF do one year before heading home and getting a “real” job, i.e. full-time and financially stable. That’s what I’d imagined myself to do, but what I’ve come to realize is that there’s no way you can really know how things will turn out. Same goes for the dream jobs you want; you can plan all you want to have things lined up for you five, even ten years down the line, but the reality is that things change, and that’s okay. I admit, I had a hard time accepting that when I first graduated college, as I’d spent my life before then planning and trying to make my goals become reality.
“Success” means something different to me today. Back in college, I used to think that rankings and major choices were everything, with law and science offering the “richest” jobs out there, e.g. lawyer, doctor. Perhaps that was why I’d tried so hard to stay in the sciences the first two years of college, for I’d aimed to follow in the footsteps of my parents, who’d studied and established well-off careers in those fields. Now, rather than basing it off the monetary value of the degree of study, I have since based it on the accomplishments I’ve done since graduation, which have nothing to do with financial success. Given the opportunities offered, I traveled, and along the way I’ve learned incredible lessons about passion, kindness, and reciprocity. Not to say that I hadn’t learn those skills before, but realizing just how important they were, especially in today’s ever-changing, ever-competitive world, was something novel to me. I even became more confident in speaking French, thanks to the people I’ve met who’ve helped in the process.
Philosophy aside, I truly believe that success shouldn’t be measured by the number of hours put in at work or six-digit figures, but rather on what makes you a better person in the process. Success is being less socially-anxious, placing yourself in a new culture that scares you terribly, but emerging braver than ever in the end. Success is learning how to deal when sadness and doubt creeps up on you, even if you feel the most alone and helpless in your life. Success is being okay with telling your parents that you aren’t the daughter they might’ve expected her to be, and having the freedom to choose what to do instead, let alone be.
Last word: anonymity doesn’t necessarily equate with lack of success. Having tried so hard for most of my life to be anything but unknown, I’ve learned to accept it, since much of what I’ve done so far– traveling and constantly meeting new people– relies on a certain level of being anonymous. Names, careers, and social statuses are merely secondary to the stories we tell each other of what we’ve experienced in our lives, from the funny to the poignant. There’s no shame in being anonymous, especially when you’re creating your own success story (or stories) to look back on later down the line.
I’m aware that this post is far from being well-organized, let alone entirely comprehensible, and I admit, it’s taken three full drafts just trying to piece together what I want to say. Essentially, the point is to slowly learn to accept that things don’t go the way you planned from college, and that is the best learning lesson of all. No one can teach you that: you’ll just have to wait and see.