As most people who’ve donned a cap and gown can attest, “What are you doing after graduation?” is one of the most gut-wrenching, panic-inducing questions you’ve ever experienced.
On the face of it, the question seems scary because it requires you to contemplate finally becoming an “adult.” However, the real cause of the fear is even more significant: graduation represents an identity crisis.
Most people still don’t know what their identity is after four years of college. Suddenly, you’re no longer a student. So, what are you? A writer? A teacher? An accountant? A stereotypical millennial living in your parents’ basement?
People respond to the graduation identity crisis in a number of ways. Usually, they respond by panicking and trying to find a job that “starts their careers.” I dealt with it by moving to Shanghai.
The truth is, I’ve never been drawn to China. I’ve never had any great desire to visit or live here, and I’m coming into this experience with essentially no knowledge of Chinese culture whatsoever.
This is exactly why I knew I needed to accept the opportunity.
In February, I had a conversation with my supervisor at my internship at the time. He was a recent graduate, and he was talking with me about the two types of people he felt he had interacted with in life:
1. Those who took risks.
2. Those who do not take risks.
Those who take risks, he said, may not have the most comfortable, linear, or obvious trajectories, but they also tend to be the people who end up with more “successful,” fulfilling lives.
During that conversation, I realized that I was laying the groundwork to take low risks after graduation. I had applied haphazardly to a single master’s degree program and was applying for various job listings with an equal lack of focus. By late February, I was basically planning on staying in New York City, finding a decent first job, and moving in with some friends from college.
Don’t get me wrong: that path holds its own risks, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that the direction I chose is inherently better or more challenging than anyone else’s. But I thought—and still do think—that moving to China was a challenge I could grow from.
The day after that conversation with my supervisor, I started looking for jobs overseas.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts about deciding to move to Shanghai. Why would I choose to give up being in close proximity to all of my amazing friends and family at home? Why would I leave New York, a city that I love? Why would I throw away all of my networks in the States and the job opportunities those might lead to? What person in their right mind would choose to throw all of that, and so many other incredible things, to the wayside?
My nervousness about moving to another country—and especially one I was extremely unfamiliar with—has ebbed and flowed over the past few months. I expected to be lonely, at least temporarily, in China. I expected to be challenged by surrounding myself with a culture that is strange and new to me. I expected to sometimes be unhappy.
Yet, those fears weren’t entirely negatives to me. Quite simply, I decided to take the opportunity to move to China because I wanted to be uncomfortable. I wanted to challenge and surprise myself—and hopefully learn about myself in the process.
I’ve only been living in Shanghai for about a month, and I’m already finding that this city is surprising me all the time. I’ve seen snapping turtles for sale on the sidewalk. I’ve had people take pictures of and with me because my whiteness makes me “exotic” here. I’ve been to a North Korean restaurant and been thoroughly confused by the live entertainment.
I’ve seen luxury shopping malls that surpassed my wildest expectations. I’ve eaten intestine (and liked it). I’ve ridden on the back of a moped at 1:00 in the morning. I’ve watched people sing karaoke versions of “Edelweiss” and “Silent Night” (in Chinese) in the park. I’ve driven a bumper car for the first time since high school.
What I’m most surprised by, however, is how comfortable I feel in Shanghai. Already, I’ve met people and made new friends, enjoyed the food (even if I didn’t always know what it was), and just generally loved being in Shanghai.
After graduation, too many of us think we have to immediately put ourselves on some predetermined path toward success. In the process, we often rob ourselves of the opportunity to find out who we are, what matters to us, and what “success” really means to us.
Instead of pursuing the obvious path, more recent graduates should embrace the haziness and charge forth into the unknown. Instead of trying to squeeze ourselves into an identity, more of us should take the risk of accepting that we still don’t truly know ourselves by the time we graduate.
I was fortunate enough to be able to afford making the move abroad by finding a job as an SAT test prep teacher in Shanghai, and I am forever grateful for that opportunity.
Instead of trying to find success, I hope more recent graduates will try to find their own Shanghai.