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长大 by Alan Z. '23, MEng '24

on family, thanksgiving, and growing up

Growing up, Thanksgiving was an extremely important holiday for my family. Every year, my mom and dad would invite all the Chinese faculty and graduate students from the local university to our house for a Thanksgiving meal. It was a way of giving the graduate students, many of whom had all of their relatives in China, a way to share the holiday with other people. We would fill all the rooms in the house, and everybody would eat together, and the adults would chatter, and the kids would run around the house or play video games. As the night waned, those who still had the energy would go Black Friday shopping afterwards, and those who did not would go home, and slowly, but surely, the house would empty again.

Cooking for thirty people was no easy task. Every year, a menu would go up on our refrigerator, listing all the dishes that had to be made. It would always be written in this mishmash of Chinese and English: dishes like turkey and mashed potatoes01 or, as it was always written 'meshed photato,' based on my dad's phonetic spelling one year, which my sister and I made fun of him for viciously. next to dishes like 排骨02 pork ribs and 凉拌粉丝.03 glass noodles mixed with various vegetables. My sister and I would provide very little help—we’d work on our schoolwork, and occasionally hinder the cooking process by coming downstairs and asking whether the food was ready yet. The whole task was just my mom and dad, in the kitchen all Wednesday and Thursday, cooking, and cooking, and cooking, until the meal was served.

It’s been two years now since my parents have had a regular Thanksgiving. These two years have taken a lot out of them, just as they have taken a lot out of everyone. When I think about the energy they poured into these tasks, though, I see a lot of what I believe reflected back at me. It counts to put in the effort for people you care about. Sometimes, you have to break your back a little to make sure that everybody is happy. 

I think about the way these values were taught to me, not by stern lecture,04 okay, there were some stern lectures along the way as well. but by example, and I smile.

When I first got to MIT, I didn’t feel immediately at home. I remember being completely out of place, and wondering why, out of all of my options, I had come to this godforsaken place. It seemed to me that everyone around me just talked about math all the time, and I, a budding humanities major, just could not stand it. I found my only solace in the fact that, every time I took the 1 bus up the street to visit my friends at Harvard, I felt even more out of place there. To summarize, I had a rough freshman fall, as many college students do.

At some point in November, one of the upperclassmen in my dorm emailed out to the whole house asking for people join the Next House Thanksgiving planning committee. Being still naïve and full of time, and being reminded of our yearly feast at home, I signed up. The upperclassman reached out to me to schedule an “interview,” and then, afterwards, added me to the committee. We planned out the dinner: menus, ingredients, shopping lists, volunteers, timing, so on and so forth. Then, on the day of, we got up at 7 AM to make sure the three turkeys started cooking, and the volunteers joined us at noon, and we cooked until dinner was served at 5 PM.

I was terrified during this entire process. I was first terrified during the interview, and then terrified on the day of because I felt like I had very little skill in cooking or delegating tasks or really anything at all. Throughout the journey, though, I knew that I wanted to work to make Thanksgiving happen, and, at the end of the day, people were fed. I helped accomplish that. That seemed to be enough.

This year, with the help of the other two members of the committee who had not yet graduated and many, many volunteers, we cooked dinner for even more students than normal. I felt some of the same feelings as I had freshman year—I’m still not totally happy with my capacity to move around a kitchen and feel confident in my decisions. Yet I felt more sure of myself, and although I spent less time actually at the stovetop, between the other committee members and myself, we kept the kitchen moving seamlessly from dish to dish. This time, when the dinner was served, I felt like I had accomplished something.

I see changes like this in every corner of my being. When I started singing freshman year in Asymptones, I couldn’t follow the music and I couldn’t hit the high notes, and so I sang quietly, unsure of myself. Now, I sing loudly in choir, and, for the most part, I hit all the right notes. I write plays and poems and blog posts and I call myself a writer when just a few years ago I was not so sure that I could put together anything substantive apart from argumentative essays and daily journal entries. And, despite never having been a student government type of person, I think about how students care for each other and the cultural values we share and I push for initiatives I think will help as a member of my dorm’s government. I don’t think I could’ve expected that even a year ago.

The thing that most surprises me about all of these changes is that I never see them happening in the moment—indeed, it often feels like life is stagnant around here, and each day is the same mess of work that needs to get done. As I wrote at the end of freshman year, “it never feels like one has changed, but rather that one has always been this way.” Eventually, though, you look in the rearview mirror, and you see the distance between who you were and who you are.

I feel larger now, as if I have slowly picked up more and more pieces of myself along the road; the multitudes I contain are both greater and sharper. In Chinese, “to grow up” is translated as 长大, or, literally, to grow larger. The sense in which 大 is used for ‘large’ here is, of course, likely not the metaphorical one I am using here—but the similarity is striking.

You can also use the phrase 成人 to describe growing up. In that sense, the characters literally mean “to become a person.”

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that, in the past two and a half years of MIT, I feel like I have become myself. My confidence has grown in ways that I could not have imagined. This is not to say that I have answered all the outstanding questions in my life—indeed, I am still not yet twenty, and it would be immensely hubristic for me to say so. Yet, it is still true that I am more comfortable in my skin now than I have ever been. 

I came into MIT feeling that I was at a huge disadvantage being from South Dakota. I’d seen what people from “real places” could do in academic competition after academic competition, and I knew that I was simply not geared for that caliber of performance. In essence, I had an overwhelming sense that other people had impostor syndrome, but I was actually an impostor.

In retrospect, such a statement is obviously silly. The reason that impostor syndrome is so prevalent is precisely that it hijacks your own thinking and makes you firmly believe that you are worse than the people around you. Knowing that impostor syndrome exists serves as no barrier to its settling into your mind. In many ways, all of the growth which I have done through the past two years has been climbing out of this hole, and I am finally starting to see the sunlight.

This growth makes me feel alive in a way that rattles in my bones. In each of the places I see myself sprouting, I am not yet certain of my skills. Questions remain, and they likely always will. Yet I am doing things which I certainly would have deemed unimaginable but two short years ago, and for that, I am thankful.

After finishing the dinner this year, and after the eating, and all the ensuing clean-up downstairs, I spent a little bit of time to thinking and writing about my day. I wrote:

This is exactly the kind of work that satiates my soul, if it tears down the body and the mind; I think, in a sense, it is what I would answer to the questions “what is the nature of the good?” or “what is the meaning of life?” So, I suppose, I am happy, and onto thinking about [Next Exec].

Last year, I wrote that, for me, the answer to the question of “what makes life meaningful?” is other people. It seems that, in the midst of all this other growth, that answer has not changed. I have already found the joy in my life, and, better yet, I have already let myself pursue it.

Here, even in the hardest semester of my life to date, I have truly found paradise.

I called my parents for the first real time in over a month this week. We had a very raw conversation about mental health and supporting people around us, and the lessons we had both learned over the course of the past semester, which has been hard on all of us. It was clear, though, that we had shared the same care for the people around us, and the same willingness to go the extra mile to make sure they were okay.

My mom made a comment that “我们家的人一直很坚强”; that everybody in our family has always been very resilient. I suppose that this is true. Yet somehow I am very sure that it is exactly the care I have been given and the actions I have seen which have made me who I am, not some inherent genetic quirk of our familial line. For this, too, I am deeply thankful. 

Then again, maybe the picture of our family is not always so rosy. My mom also asked “我们怎么养了一个艺术生?”; or, “how did [she and my dad] raise an art student?” To that I say “art is the food of the soul,” and nothing more.05 Just to be clear, in case the tone doesn't get across in text, we are both joking here.

My dad and sister came to visit me in October. I was hosed beyond belief, but I did my best to put some time aside to show them around some corners of Boston and Cambridge. During one of our meals together, my dad left the table for a little bit, and my sister and I had a short sibling-to-sibling chat about our parents. My sister is still in high school, and I wondered briefly if she’d share the same feelings as I did about the matter. After all, it’s easier to be sympathetic to one’s parents from a slightly greater distance.

“Y’know, I feel like I’m becoming mom and dad, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

“Yeah. I always order the same thing when I go out to eat now, and I think, ‘oh no, I’m becoming mom!’, but then I try something new and it’s bad!”

  1. or, as it was always written 'meshed photato,' based on my dad's phonetic spelling one year, which my sister and I made fun of him for viciously. back to text
  2. pork ribs back to text
  3. glass noodles mixed with various vegetables. back to text
  4. okay, there were some stern lectures along the way as well. back to text
  5. Just to be clear, in case the tone doesn't get across in text, we are both joking here. back to text