When I transferred to PDS in ninth grade, I set a very concrete plan for myself: I was going to go to an Ivy, major in biology, and then attend a renowned medical school. Looking back, that was mainly influenced by my love of Grey’s Anatomy. And then I took freshman biology, and I was just off the mark completely. Sophomore year, I became heavily invested in Model UN and changed course. Now, I thought, I was going to major in political science or international relations and become a government official or public advocate. Junior year, we had one of those alumni award lectures, and one young alumnus talked about how the hobbies he enjoyed as a child ended up being elements of his career. In that moment, it just clicked for me. I flashed back to art classes I had taken when I was four, the one time I measured out and drew up a floor plan of my basement just ‘cause, and all those times when I just felt at peace in the architecture studio here at school. I didn’t realize how integral solitude was to my wellbeing.
Growing up as a very idealistic and precocious child, I always wanted to “change the world.” And based on what many told me, that meant writing the next great American novel, becoming the first Asian-American president, or curing cancer. I always felt like I needed to love science or mathematics because it was in line with what my family did. And sure, I was a year ahead in math and took the hardest sciences available, but I never felt as passionate about those subjects as I did about the arts, humanities, or social sciences (AKA the soft sciences). As a “model minority,” my baseline was always set at exceptional, which meant that I was expected to challenge myself in everything. And then from there, when I was supposed to be excelling at everything, I would simply choose one path and it would just be the “world’s loss” in those other disciplines. As I struggled with AP Bio or Honors Physics, my mother told me that my indifference to those classes was my fault: I was failing because I took AP Calc AB junior year instead of BC; I was failing because I didn’t finish AP Calc sophomore year overall. It’s in our bloodline, so it should’ve come easy to me.
No matter which interest or hobby I have taken up, I have always had to contend against stereotypes. A girl who wanted to study the humanities and social sciences instead of STEM, an Asian who only cared about school, an Asian-American girl who was a raging feminist and wanted to form an army against the patriarchy. In a fishbowl environment like PDS, it’s very easy to get caught up in thinking that we are all so intrinsically unique. A lot of times we think that when someone is the best in this school, it translates into their being an-All American athlete or a world-renowned performer. I often think that the trials I go through are unprecedented. But I am not the first Asian-American girl to “fight the patriarchy” of both of her cultures. Yet, our student body is extremely homogeneous in a lot of ways. There are three-and-a-half Chinese students in our class, and all of them were in my senior credo class. And even within that one class, we were still a minority. I do not want to be the sole representation of the groups I come from, whether it be feminists, liberals, women, or Asian-Americans. My views and opinions are exclusive to who I am as a person, and people’s perceptions of me are not to be applied to or projected upon anyone else.
Last year, I went to a lecture by Susan Cain, a writer, and promptly read her book Quiet, which is about how modern Western culture underestimates and misunderstands introverted people. That book changed the way I view myself, my classmates, and even my teachers. I never really understood the term “introvert” before, as I always thought it was synonymous with shy or timid. When I was brainstorming college essay topics, my parents warned me not to write about this personality trait of mine, stating that colleges would not want another quiet, studious Asian girl. So now, I was not supposed to come off as an Asian who was involved in STEM unless I could solve the Riemann hypothesis, as a raging feminist unless I was the next Malala because that’s too “threatening” or “off-putting,” or as an introvert unless I could channel that into writing a novel or starting a tech company in my garage. My parents told me that wanting solitude was the way “everybody gets at times,” instead of trying to understand that it was the way I felt most of the time. I’m not antisocial or quiet; I am actually an extremely outgoing person as long as I’m in a comfortable setting, most preferably with a small group of close friends.
I resent how western culture associates the man of action or the extrovert with success or popularity. I have found that when talking about a class with others, the students that are declared the best are often just the loudest or talkative ones. When I try to talk about my introversion, some of my peers reply with “but you’re not an introvert, you do X, Y, and Z,” like all introverts just watch grass grow for fun. I hate how some of my classes consider participation as part of the grade. Because of that participation grade, I have often felt very on edge because I’ve had to push myself to speak more than I’ve actually been comfortable with. I’ve had teachers who tell me how in control or confident I seem when speaking at Announcements. The truth is that I always try to recite and memorize the speech beforehand because the stress of public speaking causes my vision to blur and I get lightheaded. While others get energized and excited by adrenaline, I can’t wait to get it over with, and only later can I be happy with it in retrospect.
I’ve been so tired for the past four years trying to be “on,” to always say yes to teachers or other students, to do everything. I loved trying out so many new activities, from giving tours to playing volleyball, to doing Model UN or being on The Spokesman, but I wish that I had set aside more time for myself. Trying not to succumb to academic peer pressure at a place like PDS has been the toughest part, and I found myself signing up for more extracurriculars than I could really handle and applying to colleges that I really didn’t like, because everybody around me was. I took AP Bio for an entire year even though I pretty much hated freshman biology. That was one of the reasons I fell in love with architecture, because the studio offered a quiet space away from most of the students. I can only think and create clearly when I am in solitude, and I just simply feel reenergized once I get a few hours, or a few days, of isolation.
Even as I became passionate about architecture, I still felt like I needed to make it more pragmatic and more social-sciences-oriented in order to feel that I was “doing something meaningful.” Instead of being a graphic designer, an art director, or just a poor struggling artist, I felt like I was best fit to go into urban design and city planning. I feel like that’s actually what I’m meant to do as of this moment, but I wish I hadn’t cheated myself out of the fun and disappointment of exploring other options first. I’ve chosen to attend a college with no architecture or urban studies majors or courses, and I’m thrilled about it. I am very set on going into urban design or architecture criticism eventually, but senior year Grace is not as worried about how to get there.
– Written by Grace Lee (redefy mentor)