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To Find, First Lose MAG
People could spend their whole lives trying to find where they belong or who they are meant to be. I found the answer to that question by doing the opposite of finding myself – I got lost.
I was nine, maybe ten – the Chinese Lunar calendar measures age on a whole other cycle, so I never could be sure – when my mother and father came into my room and told me in hushed tones that we would soon be leaving for a place called Canada. I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I responded to this proposition with eager nods and went back to investigating the sorcery-like mechanism of erasers. Naive as I was, I assumed that we would be going on another one of our family trips, traversing through the rural villages in China to rekindle some old friendship one of my parents had had before they moved to the city. Maybe if I got lucky they would let me feed the pigs and watch them roll around carelessly in the mud – a freedom I’d long envied.
Those hopes were obliterated within a week. Our entire lives were packed up into bulky suitcases and dragged onto an airplane that didn’t seem to have any rural village as its destination. I put my face against the clouded window and pondered, holding onto the last shred of hope that maybe my parents just had some very exotic acquaintances, and that even though this trip would last an unreasonably long time, it would not be forever. Soon I could return home to my cramped neighborhood which had buildings so tall they were seconds from toppling, where my grandparents showered me with stories about how they fell in love amid the cultural revolution, and where I could navigate through hectic streets on my own, certain that everything would be perfectly in its place. Stagnant, complacent, unchanging. As smooth as the plane ride was, I couldn’t soothe the inner turbulence eating away at my faltering sense of confidence – the feeling that we weren’t going to come home. The further we flew, the more distant my dream of this being “just a brief vacation” grew.
Then we arrived. The first week or so was foggy. Either my memories are too diluted from the resounding jet-lag or the heavy musk from the rain outside infiltrated my headspace, rendering coherent thought nearly impossible.
My parents might have been in another country, but their traditional, no-nonsense, school-is-the-only-place-a-child-should-be Chinese values still manifested themselves very clearly. Once we had a chance to recuperate, I was immediately put into school. That first month, I felt like a “fish out of water.” Or more explicitly, the exact few seconds when the fish is initially forced out of its comfortable tank and into a place where it biologically cannot belong: its gills contracting and its body spasming as it struggles to adapt to a sharp change in environment. It feels as if its entire world view has just crumbled in front of its bulging eyes.
We lived in an area that was largely Caucasian. People there had rarely seen individuals of other skin colors on TV, let alone in real life. I felt like an extinct animal walking through school those first few weeks, with kids gawking at me and teachers approaching me and speaking an unintelligible dialect. The processed lunches everyone ate were too neon to be from this world, the material I learned in math class was already taught to me eons ago, and people had eyes like the sapphire blue patches of ocean we’d flown over during the plane ride – large and surreal. It was hard to believe that I was still on the same planet, that my genetic makeup could be of any resemblance to the complete foreigners beside me.
On a pouring Tuesday, around a month into my time in Canada, I was feeling particularly defeated. Trying to insert myself into the culture here was as difficult as putting a crinkly dollar bill into the vending machine. I was, with an unassailable determination, holding my ground against a tide of cultural assimilation and maintaining – just barely – my old identity and way of life. But at the same time, I also ached for acceptance. The dilemma was enough for 10-year-old me to experience my first, but certainly not last, dose of acute distress.
I had taken my regular path home that day, cutting through the luscious greenery (something rarely seen within a 20-mile radius of my school back in China). The damp earth whined beneath my rain-boots and in the far distance, a creature of some sort shuffled its paws, plausibly trying to make it home in the mud. The sound of the scattering rain harmonized with the natural melody of the forest. This bucolic scene was another example of this place’s unfamiliarity, and I didn’t dare to appreciate it. I held an incontrovertible resentment toward anything which deviated from what I was used to.
I kept my head down and tracked my steps, recollecting the events from that day at school. I had humiliated myself because I asked the teacher what the word “agenda” meant, and the class snickered, signifying the ridiculousness of the inquiry. I spent recess and lunch wandering the halls, seeking harbor but failing miserably. No group was willing to take me in. The palpable feeling of being isolated and perpetually confused – like I had the bubonic plague and no one would tell me why or help me – weighed down my body.
I quickened my pace; it was getting dark. I’d overheard that there are coyotes in Canada during the nighttime, and I wasn’t all that eager to affirm the theory. Finally lifting my eyes, I was taken aback by how strange my surroundings had grown. The distinguishable man-made path through the wet grass had dissipated; taking its place were unruly multitudes of nondescript plants. The branches conjoined to form a thick barricade, such that it was impossible to look through its nonexistent interspaces. All sounds of civilization, of people rushing home and traffic skidding along the slippery road had waned. I noticed how loud and thundering the rain had become, the way it overwhelmed all my auditory senses. I also noticed that I had been walking aimlessly for almost half an hour, absorbed by thought.
Stopping short, I accessed the situation. Going straight back wasn’t an option, I had lost my path long ago, and my surroundings looked identical in every direction. The closest form of outside communication I could resort to was pigeon mail, and there were no visible directional signs in sight. I was, positively and desperately, lost.
I quietly denounced my parents for not getting me a phone. The visibility decreased by the minute as the encroaching darkness moved in. It framed the trees, making them look more and more menacing the longer I took to formulate a solution. The rain intensified. Nothing came to mind. I slumped against a tree and slid all the way to the bottom like a raindrop on a windowsill.
Fear quickly crept in, then came the hopelessness and despair. I felt like I was back at school all over again, enveloped by incongruous scenes and objects, feeling forlorn and out of place. No one could help me, and desolation seemed more and more absolute as time passed. I was lost. Stranded in a place which I could neither escape nor acclimate to.
I felt something wet trickle down my cheek. I convinced myself it was rainwater, and that I was perfectly fine, that I would walk out of this maze and be back in my old, comfortable life. One in which I understood the world around me, could contextualize it and interact with it. One in which I wasn’t a pariah, where everything I did was not an immediate and direct deviation of the norm. That reality seemed so far away.
Closing my eyes in defeat, I remembered an old Chinese saying: “Getting lost is the first step to finding yourself.” My grandfather used to recite it to me when I got stuck on a math problem, and he said that single sentence got him through an entire war.
Suddenly a gust of strength forced me back to my feet. I wiped my face, and scanned my surroundings one last time to search for a way out. The Gods must have been looking down on me that day because in the far distance, a glimmer of yellow caught my eye. I investigated further and found a directional sign pointing me to the fastest way out of the trail. After screeching in celebration, I half-jogged, half-galloped my way in that direction, praying that my proclamation of glee did not attract any hungry coyotes.
Stepping out of the bush and back onto concrete road, I was soaking wet, exhausted, and definitely in trouble for coming home after dark, but I had never felt more grounded. I was self-assured that no matter what kind of situation I ended up in or what kind of radical change in circumstance I would eventually have to deal with, there would always be an accessible resolution. My geographical location didn’t define my state of being. From then on, the idea of embracing a complete paradigm shift became something I was open to, something that would make me stronger.
Being lost does not mean having lost at the game of life. Whenever possible, I encourage you all to lose yourself. Sometimes it’s exactly what you need to realize that alienation is a self-imposed concept, and that as long as you have the willingness to adapt, you can thrive in even the most hostile or unfamiliar circumstances.