On making peace with myself

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I turned 31 this year. Anyone who knew me only before the age of 18—or even 25—would be stunned by the person I have become. They would find me unrecognizable.

Some vignettes:

Age 9: It’s my first year living in the United States. Everything is strange and different and disorienting. Even public drinking fountains are new to me (what do you mean, they’re free?). In the school cafeteria, I add an ice cream cone to my tray, like I see other kids do. The lunch lady tells me I have to put it back. You’re on the free lunch program, she says. You’re not allowed to have ice cream. Oh, sorry. I didn’t know.

Age 12: I spend most of middle school alone. In seventh grade, while my classmates eat lunch at two of the three round tables allocated to our class, I sit at the third table alone with a book. I speak so infrequently that my tongue is rusty from lack of use. I wonder if they can tell that I get all my clothes from yard sales and that I only own two pairs of pants. I hate myself. Every small inconvenience in my day feels like an earth-shattering slight against my existence.

Age 18: I’m a freshman in college. I find out that the admissions office is recruiting students to serve as tour guides for prospective students and families. I decide to volunteer, even though the idea of leading groups of strangers and speaking loudly to them for an hour is terrifying. It turns out I am actually pretty good. I lead groups from all over the country and I tell them about the academic programs and the dorms and the ghosts haunting the library that used to be a confederate hospital.

Age 19: My friends—I have friends now—are getting ready for a dance. They invite me, but I don’t like dances. Instead, we crowd into someone’s dorm room and I help them get ready. We post hundreds of pictures on Facebook. For the first time, I watch YouTube tutorials to teach myself to apply makeup. I use the money from my part-time job to buy Vogue magazine and clothes and bags from Ebay. I learn to wear high heels.

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First work trip ever: Boston.

Age 21: I’m standing at the crosswalk of 15th and M St NW in downtown DC, ready to report to my first day of work. While waiting for the pedestrian light, a man wanders over and punches me. It doesn’t hurt, so I shrug it off with a bit of confusion and hurry off. My new boss tells me that she wants to send me off on work trips right away. In the first few months, I fly to Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans. My job is to represent my client—a federal government agency—at trade shows and sit in a booth and talk to strangers all day. I find out that I’m pretty good at this, too. The most famous person I meet at a conference is Stephen Wolfram. “He’s like the Brad Pitt of math!” I tell my coworkers excitedly when I get back. No one else gets it.

Age 23: I come across an online announcement that the Smithsonian is looking for volunteers. On weekends, I sit behind the information desk at different museums, answering visitors’ questions. (The most common one is where is the restroom?) Usually I am paired with a fellow volunteer; I meet someone who is a recruiter at the CIA, someone who is retired, someone is an architect. I discover that I’m pretty good at this job, too. People from all over the world come to visit the Smithsonian museums. They have questions about everything. I am delighted to help them.

Age 25: I am about to graduate with my master’s degree. The commencement speaker is Senator Tammy Duckworth. As I sit there in a sea of caps and gowns, strangers on either side, it dawns on me that I have no friends. There is no one that I’ve invited to the ceremony besides my family. No one else will text me afterwards with congratulations. I have a job that does not provide benefits, and in a few months, I will turn 26 and be booted from my parents’ health insurance plan. I start therapy later this year.

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Age 26: I’m sitting in a tiny hotel room in Midtown Manhattan with my work computer and a giant slice of cheese pizza and Sprite. It’s 8pm and I’m working overtime, putting the final touches on this year’s annual report. What my employer doesn’t know is that I’ve come to New York to sit an important exam for an organization that I’ve always dreamed of working for. If I pass the exam and then a panel interview, I could get a job there someday. The next morning, I set out at 6am with my pens and pencils, walking towards my destination through a fog of falling snow. 

Age 27: I’m in therapy again. I am in so much pain and crying every day. I believe that the only solution is to leave. I apply for a job in Switzerland even though I have never even been there and I don’t know anyone there and I don’t speak French, and to my surprise, I get the job. I realize that I’m smarter, more qualified, and more confident than I’ve ever given myself credit for. I pack my life into two suitcases and I don’t look back. Two weeks later, I’m sitting on a rooftop opposite the Milan Cathedral, people-watching with a cappuccino. I can scarcely believe that this is my new life.

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Age 29: I’m in therapy again. I tell the therapist that I’m thinking about quitting and moving back to the States to crash at my parents’ place for a while, even though that sounds almost worse than quitting. I am on the verge of quitting when I get an email. It’s from the organization that I took a test for, four years ago. I’d thought that they’d forgotten about me. We’d like to offer you a role, right here in Geneva. Do you accept? Yes. Oh my God, yes. I can start this summer.

Age 30 and onwards: I realize—finally—that quitting and leaving is not the magical cure to all of life’s problems. My new job is not perfect. My life is not perfect. I still experience major depressive episodes about twice a year. But in my third decade, I have finally reached a point where I know who I am, how to care for myself, and how to fill my life with joy, contentment, and goodwill.

The other day, I looked around me and was amazed by how rich my life is. My French is getting better. I spend an hour each day practicing the guqin, a Chinese instrument that I began learning two months ago. I host a meetup in Geneva every month, in which people are encouraged to engage in honest yet gentle conversations about life. I take my tea with honey. I have friends who come from all over the world. Just last week, I was quietly marvelling at how many people actively seek me out to see if I want to have lunch, coffee, hang out—something that would have been unimaginable to my middle school self. I can say without reservation or qualification that I am happy.

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Someone recently taught me the phrase “to practice vulnerability”, and that is what I try to do with this blog. Some of you who read this blog have never met me. Some of you, of course, know exactly who I am and what I look like and where I work. Regardless, I am happy to open up and and show you these vulnerable snapshots of my life to an extent that is comfortable for me. Ultimately, my goal is to become the same person on the outside as I am on the inside—someone who does not wear a mask of slickness, who listens and empathizes and connects and enriches. I am not there yet, but no fear: this is why we refer to life as a journey. We are all on the train.

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