Learning Self-Reliance: My First Year in America

Taking responsibility for our individual success and failure is the most empowering and uplifting human experience.

“Dad, I’m still trying to get used to my life here, but I think I am almost there. Life is all good.”

I remember that freezing January night in 2012 when I called my dad while sitting alone at the front porch of my freshman boarding house, a simple wooden New England cottage. The humble three-story abode seemed quite rickety in the blustering wind, so much that I used to doubt every time during a heavy snowstorm or blizzard whether the structure could sustain the onslaught of Mother Nature.

Our housemaster once told me with great pride that the house was built during the American Revolution and only went through a few minor repairs since then. Perhaps that was not the most reassuring thing one could have said to a timid 15-year-old Chinese boy fresh off the boat from a faraway land searching for his fair share of American greatness. Especially when he just had a rough start in this strange New World.

“ — Although I still don’t understand a word in my biology lab, and — please don’t tell mom — it took me five minutes to read through a single paragraph in my American literature class, and my classmates all laughed at me when I couldn’t muster the words to answer the teacher’s question.”

Of course, that was only the tip of the iceberg. There was no way on earth that I could have told my parents the other things that were far worse than my apparent ineptitude in the English language. As I thought about all these on the phone, I could feel the tears filling up my eyes, but my voice remained imperturbably calm. The superb skill of masking my emotions was one of the many things I learned during my first year away from home.

At the tender age of fifteen, I was a skinny, sheltered, and curious kid who knew very little beyond the perimeter of books — arguably the finest finishing product you could expect from a Chinese public education at the time. However, the New England boarding school I was attending had a unique culture that did not at all match my perceived strengths. Unable to excel in competitive sports, I did not belong to the lunch tables of the American kids. Hailing from a less cosmopolitan city in China’s provincial backwater, I had little common language with most international students. A few weeks into the first semester, I hardly felt any sense of belonging in the community.

The suffocating social exclusion was all the more unbearable given that I was away from home for the first time. Don’t get me wrong. Leaving home was liberating — I entered boarding school just as I passed the age of puberty en route to a period of teenage rebellion. Since my mom could no longer hover around my head 24/7, I had the newfound freedom to finally breathe and thrive. (Years later, my parents and I all agree that my forced detachment from my mom’s omnipresence was the best thing that ever happened to our family.)

Yet, having decided to study abroad at a young age, I was acutely aware of my parents’ anxiety and concern for my wellbeing, especially my mom’s. Telling them everything in my new life was anxiety-inducing for them and counterproductive to our relationship. The least I desired was to make my mom more anxious. Plus, since my parents couldn’t do much to help while they were 7,000 miles away, I had to find workable solutions to all my problems myself anyway. So I made a pact with myself that under no circumstances will I ever reveal to them my deepest fear until the tsunami recedes — a pact that I still abide by to this day.

Since it was my own decision to study abroad, my deepest fear during the first year was always the possibility that I may settle for mediocracy and not live up to my full potential. Without active support from my parents, I had to take responsibility for my future. Taking responsibility is exhilarating, especially when we enjoy the fruits of earned success for the first time. But it is hardly comfortable. When we find ourselves swimming upstream, as we always will do, we ought to realize that in addition to the vicissitudes of fortune, a combination of our past choices has also led us to where we are. If we wish to claim that our endeavors have contributed to our earned success, then we cannot fixate solely on factors external to us when life doesn’t go quite as well.

Becoming truly independent requires us to examine our faults and deficiencies in the barest form and learn from our mistakes to go forward. It often presents us with unsavory truths about ourselves in which none of us wishes to confront voluntarily. Painful as it is, confronting and embracing ourselves is the only way to grow as a person and the only path to becoming truly independent and self-reliant. Taking responsibility for our individual success and failure is the most empowering and uplifting human experience.

Of course, I did not expect to be in that terrible situation before I moved to America. I was hoping that everything would run smoothly, and I would end up spending four peaceful years before heading off to a good college. In a sense, I was thrust into the wilderness. But I also understood that my past choices had led me to where I was. Blaming external circumstances only brews pessimism. It would lead me nowhere.

There were things I could change and things I couldn’t. Since I was quite an oddity on campus, the anti-intellectual culture was unlikely to change just for me. But I could try to understand the culture and those within it, especially the international kids. Believe it or not, I discovered that it was often my prejudice that kept our distance. Under the pretense of snob and extravagance, they were just ordinary 15-year-olds like me who shared the same yearning for a sense of belonging and experienced the same trials and tribulations abroad. I ended up even going on skiing trips with them, some of whom I am still in touch with.

Yet, I knew that the world was much bigger than my limited experience. I was sure that there must be other schools out there whose culture valued my passion for pursuing knowledge and academic excellence. With an eye on transfer, I spent the remainder of my first year in New England polishing my English and re-studying for the SSAT, the boarding schools’ entrance exam.

It was late March when I started the application process. Most of the schools had already concluded their annual round of admissions. So I made a list of some thirty schools and called their admissions office one by one to inquire about their vacancies. It turned out that a few of them still had spots available. Out of sheer luck and some personal endeavor, one of them ended up becoming my sweet home for the following three years.

After the trials and tribulations of my first year in New England, I arrived at Indian Springs, my second boarding school in America. (Picture: Senior Graduation, Class of 2015)

Had I merely blamed the circumstances, I would never have escaped the wilderness of Vermont. I would never have met the wonderful friends and teachers at Springs that I loved so much. And had I not gone to Springs, I would never have ended up at places like Northwestern and Oxford. I am forever thankful for the steps I took during my first year in America. And here is the most beautiful thing — I realized with great joy that I am not a prisoner of my circumstances, that I am capable of shaping my own destiny.

The experiences during my first year in America left an indelible mark on me that has since shaped my views on everything in life. It is my great hope that every single individual in our society, regardless of their circumstances in life, may experience the same empowering optimism and joy as they learn to become self-reliant. Perhaps it is apt to end my reflection with a beautiful line by Emerson:

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”