Reflection on freedom

Today is the last day of my second to last semester of college. I haven’t been home for a year now, so I booked the earliest flight I could to fly back to China.

I find long commute humbling as it mercilessly carves out time for me to do absolutely nothing. Instead of putting on a podcast or audible like I usually would, I decided to just look outside the window. I soon lost myself in the vastness of the snow, the looming mountains, the frozen streams; it didn’t take that long when the New York City skyline rushed into the frame. I felt almost at home for a second. I grew up with skyscrapers.

I had never seen snow before coming to the East Coast for a boarding school. I remember a snow storm hitting New England before my first Thanksgiving in the States, I spent hours outside taking photos as if the beauty would disappear the next day. Back then, everything felt ephemeral. The teacher would tell stories about Greek mythology in my history class, we were given entire books to read for my English class, and we could have peer discussions in our physics class. I never experienced any of the above when I was in China.

Now looking back, my boarding school was quite restrictive. We had to turn in our phones and laptops when we were doing assignments. We had to sign up to be on a sports team. We had to go to bed at 10:30 PM every night. We had to check-in with the “house parents” at 7 PM sharp to report that we were alive and functioning. We had to go to church every Wednesday and Sunday. We had to talk to our “advisor” to report our grades every Tuesday. Any violation of the rules results in either humiliation, which meant the world to a teen, or confiscation of our electronic devices, or worse, calling our parents. When I recount my boarding school life to my college friends, they are usually startled with disbelief. It sounds like prison. They joked.

But I never felt that way; none of those things really bothered me that much. Everything was new to me. The people, the place, the snow, but above all that, the knowledge. I was hungry for food and cookies as any other teens, but I was hungrier for information. I felt like I was learning something new every day. I read everything from Shakespeare to Dante to Pascal to Joyce to Conrad. I could write about whatever I wanted and could however long I wanted to. I never felt this free before, and no one could really understand why I tend to overdo all my assignments.

When I was in China, the teachers always sent me to their offices and told me how I “read too much irrelevant stuff for my own good”, how “my thinking is incorrect”, and how “I’m too rebellious”. I spent hours reading American fiction and listening to TED talks during lunch breaks, and the teachers didn’t appreciate that. I was smart enough to win some competitions, and that was my last defense to fight against the “authority”, a shield I used to disguise my intellectual insecurity. My desire for validation was desperate; I felt like a lone warrior fighting a war in my fantasy.

I remember openly asking questions to a teacher in our ethics class about how the questions didn’t make sense, and the teacher dismissed me as being rude and disturbing the class order. Reflecting back, I definitely didn’t make it easy for them.

For those who are curious. I looked online and found a sample question for the ethics class. It looks like this:

NBA star Yao Ming once said: “It’s only worth it to fight with the strongest opponent”, this quote tells us that:

A. We should be good at collaborating and optimize for team spirit

B. We should compete fairly, and obey the rules

C. The goal of the competition is to beat your opponent

D. Benign competition can inspire a passion for learning

There is a correct answer to this, which is B. We should compete fairly, and obey the rules. Enough said.

It’s almost a decade that I came to the States, and I’ve been spoiled with something really special for a long time, that I almost forgot how excited and grateful I was for the simple fact that I got to be free to express, and free to know, although I wasn’t quite free to act. I also realized how I’ve become a lot more complacent with the system, where “freedom” seems to be guaranteed. When I thought I wasn’t free, I challenged and questioned everything, and when I think I am, that intense curiosity wanes.

I’m glad I got to reflect on this, and asking more questions in both systems will become one of the key themes of the new year.