photo by Flickr user El Caganer
photo by Flickr user El Caganer

Just as I started to really enjoy Princeton, I’m going away—for a long time. When I arrived in September, I was a freshman, but not particularly fresh. I’d returned from a gap year that had me doing almost nothing, and certainly nothing that benefited other people particularly (unless you count the two hundred forty Chinese children whom I taught English for a semester—for a decent amount of cash). Somehow, though, last year gave me my highest highs and my lowest lows. From motorcycling through every inch of Vietnam to being stranded with no money in Cairo, it left me jaded and cynical beyond belief, and the benefits of Princeton’s liberal arts education rang like stale bullshit in my ears.

I mostly lived in China last year; that was my primary activity. I was nominally enrolled in a few different Chinese universities’ language programs, primarily to reap the benefits of a sponsored visa, which allowed me to legally live my life of nothing—learning little Chinese, reading not as much as I told myself I would, writing not as much as I felt I should. I have a sick ability to justify almost any of my actions to myself, and I justified my year of waste as a crucial formative experience. And it was.

It was the other side of the coin to Princeton. I’d wake up somewhere before noon, go for a seventy-cent lunch of noodles with suspicious meat, which from time to time sent me into a few days of misery. I’d get my shoes shined once a week for thirty cents by an old man who’d lived through eighty tumultuous years of Chinese history—years of civil war, Japanese occupation, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Reform and Opening and today’s shallow consumerism. I’d go to work around 1 pm, either to teach English or to my office as a “Customer Service Executive” for a tech firm in Southwest China. My fancy title had me sitting there for the afternoon reading New York Times articles through the Virtual Private Network I’d installed on the firm’s computer; from time to time I turned off the VPN to see what was and wasn’t blocked in China. Every so often, I edited the English of a product’s interface. Rarely, I responded to an email from an angry customer.

I frequently got bored, as would probably anyone doing as little as I was. My outlet was to get up and leave with very little warning. A hangover would turn into a week-long trip; a binge would have me move cities. I traveled widely through nothingness. Through Tibetan regions where the air was thin and altitude sickness consumed me; through winding stretches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in which each day ended in the early evening and I fell asleep satisfied with the several hundred kilometers of winding tarmac I had conquered; through the endless Chinese cities stretching from Manchuria and Inner Mongolia down China’s coast on long—very long—train-rides; through the eerie landscape of North Korea, stopping at nameless train stations along the way, listening to the creepy, Stalinist music methodically dance through the sealed-shut windows; through the desert of North Africa on a bus without air-conditioning, dozing off in the heat and waking to have my passport checked by a soldier; through the hustle and bustle of cities that grow up, not out—lost.

I got back home last June with no idea what to do with myself. I had changed, or been changed, or maybe had just had the opportunity to let my true personality run wild. To avoid boredom and some memories, last summer I worked 45 hours per week at three different jobs. The last night before I moved into my dorm, I sat in “my seat” at the kitchen table filling and refilling a glass of gin and tonic. I had no desire to come here.

Still, despite my initial (strong) reluctance, I had high hopes after an excellent OA trip; freshman week was quite enjoyable and I looked forward to the start of classes. I joined ROTC and tried to turn myself into someone I wasn’t, but perhaps could have been. After half a semester of waking up four days per week before 6 am, I was exhausted—more importantly, I was directionless. Perhaps I didn’t want to join the military after all. I’m still not sure; I gained a tremendous amount of respect for the institution and for the truly selfless individuals who commit so much more than the average Princetonian to the school’s motto. I left ROTC and tried to buy into other aspects of campus life. I became nominally involved in a few different organizations, worked hard in my classes, and worked hard in my job at the dining hall. By December, I’d decided I would take a term of Advanced Standing and go back to Beijing, followed by a semester in Hong Kong. I wanted to get away from Princeton for an entire year. Though it would be true to say I didn’t love Princeton, this was not the reason for my going away. I just preferred the grittier, more “real” life of an expat in Beijing.

However, over the course of spring semester, my attitude towards Princeton has changed dramatically. I’ve accepted it, and I feel part of the community. I have close friends and friends I see only on the Street. I can confide my fears and my thoughts to people. I’ve realized I’m not the only one who felt anywhere-but-at-home at Princeton in his first semester. Princeton is not the cluster of castles that the pre-frosh believe it to be, but we should be careful to avoid getting lost in the ivory tower Princeton has the potential to be. I am now comfortable here, but it’s best to push comfort zones and not become complacent.

And so, I’m leaving. I’m returning to China with a plan to study, not to muddle through. I will learn a language, not do “nothing.” Princeton University has even agreed to fund a part of it. I thought I was going to China to escape the luxury of Princeton, but I am not. I am bringing it with me, literally, in the form of a check from the University, and figuratively, in the form of the education that has already been afforded me. Everything that has shaped my decision to leave has also shaped me for the better—from the first time I was robbed in the middle of the night to the time I called home frightened that I would be arrested for a crime I did not commit; from walking away from my dud of a first apartment to waking up to a cold sunrise with a desert fox a few feet away, watching; from the moment we shivered in lightning position on OA, telling dirty stories to handing in my first twenty-five page paper, and most of all, the incredible people I’ve met along the way—in my travels and at Princeton. I did not understand how lucky I am to be here at Princeton with you all. Now, just a handful of weeks before I leave, I understand. And I’ll miss you.

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