Growing up – well, really until I left my parents’ home for college – I spent a lot of time envying the people who had stories to tell. My parents never allowed me to attend sleepovers, or school dances, or to date, and my family rarely traveled or went on vacations. Thus, I often felt as if I had missed out on a number of things in life. I lacked hand-eye coordination, but envied my friends’ tennis trophies and even the sports-related casts and crutches that seemed an inevitable part of the “exciting life.” I was glad to never have to reveal my middle school crushes, but felt incredibly left out when my friends would giggle recalling last weekend’s sleepover games of Truth or Dare. I wished that I had aunts in England, or had been to Disney World, or even just the beach – any beach.
I even envied my parents, whose childhoods and young adult years were in many ways an incredible struggle as they grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution (read about it here), for at least having lived.
After I left home for college (though still in my hometown) I hardly went wild, but especially in the first few years, I tried hard to take more opportunities to escape what I considered the familiar uneventfulness of my existence thus far. I stole dining hall trays to sled down Libe Slope on a snowy winter night. I took the notorious BIOMG2810 and discussed drosophila with my lab partner while drinking Red Bull and watching the sun rise through the library window. I waited in line Wednesday night to drink fishbowls in a dank basement bar, and then stripped down to streak through the quad with drunk friends and strangers. I had long-term and long-distance romantic relationships with men who could not have been more different in many ways. I waited until the cops weren’t around and completed a Cornell rite of passage, plunging into Beebee Lake from the footbridge above in a mixture of glee and fear.
Some things I did not necessarily because I especially wanted to at the time – don’t get me wrong, I regret very few individual experiences and given the opportunity, I would make many of the same choices. But the important thing was that I now had my own stories - as well as a caffeine tolerance, a casual attitude towards drinking, and a “number” associated with my sexual history. I had hardly adopted the most exciting or eventful lifestyle among my friends/peers, but in retrospect it seems appropriate to say that I occasionally lived by “YOLO”, thinking more of the present.
In my last year of college, my two roommates and super-close friends entered into serious relationships and got “real-person” jobs. We would joke about how we were too old to stay up past midnight (life is tiring!), and our conversations would turn to the Facebook wedding photos and even baby photos of the people we went to high school with (they’re – we’re – so young!). And then arriving in Princeton, I found myself in a lab where it seemed that half the lab members were about to get married if they weren’t already. Once at Wegman’s, my friend remarked that people probably assumed the two of us were married as we were two opposite-gender, 20-something year old Asians grocery shopping together.
Surrounded by people who seemed to be entering (or at least looking to enter) the next, more serious stages of their lives, my stories suddenly felt less like something to brag about, and more like…. baggage. My mother always firmly advocated sex abstinence until marriage, saying that no respectable man would want to marry a woman who wasn’t a virgin. I would still retort that I wouldn’t want to marry any man who placed such value on a woman’s virginity, yet I recently found myself in a nascent, still undefined romantic situation, where after the other person had made it clear that they were thinking of the long run, I felt less comfortable talking about my own romantic history and admitting that I didn’t really know what I wanted – not in the long run.
More and more so, I find myself in a hypocritical and confusing game of tug-of-war in my head. On one hand, I still envy those people who are spontaneous and seem able to enjoy themselves unburdened by the judgement of others or the worries of tomorrow. I envy their freedom and ability to embrace happiness whenever and however it comes. I cherish the experiences I’ve collected from the times when I did choose to “let go” or to be more active outside my comfort zone. On the other hand, I think a lot more of the consequences of my actions – anything potential stray step from the tightrope of propriety – that one drink that could take me from tipsy to sloppy drunk, a potential hook-up that could be another “+1,” even an expensive weekend NYC trip that would push me a little closer to being broke. Everything that I once saw as a potential story that could now become baggage. Maybe I’m being too serious, or maybe it’s just “growing up.” I don’t know.
“So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?” — Hunter S. Thompson
Edit: I think there is a noteworthy distinction that I’m not ashamed of the experiences that shaped me and effectively made me “who I am today” (to use that cliche) – as some of these “stories” aren’t necessarily reckless/fun/stupid/crazy decisions I’ve made, but occasions when life just happened for better or worse. Mostly I’m talking about some of the things I did “just because” that now seem maybe not the wisest or forward-thinking in retrospect.