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Update: I changed my name from “Mimi” to “Marty” and started using he/him pronouns in July 2019. This article keeps the original “Mimi” and “she/her” self-references in order to maintain a sense of timeline.

Content warning: Death

I think a lot about being old.

When (if?) I’m so old that my body is stuck in life support mode while my mind wanders, will I remember my twenties? Will I regret them? If I could go back, would I change things? How so?

My grandfather passed away halfway through my second year of college. He had lived with my family in the United States until I was twelve, helping to raise my sister and me while my mom and dad were both at work. Under his guidance, I learned hundreds of ancient Chinese poems and could recite them at will before I entered kindergarten. He’d show me certain plants that grew on our walks back and forth from school and explain why they grew in certain areas. We’d have long discussions outside after dinner, topics ranging from the natural sciences to politics to human behavior; he answered all of my “why” questions and stoked my curiosity when most people would have shut me down.

Unfortunately, he moved back to China and we never got to truly talk again. Years of American schooling made English my new mother tongue; those poems I learned were replaced by Top 40 song lyrics. We were both unemotional people, and trying to bridge that gap was too awkward for either of us. When he died, I hadn’t seen him for two years.

I remember him as one of my oldest friends, a man with endless knowledge whose eyes would light up when I asked him a question or let him in on an observation I’d made about the world. He was always full of life and opinion, my first role model of someone who was Very Proper Who Also Did Not Give A Single Fuck. I’m told that his health deteriorated rapidly, that near the end, he could no longer tell the difference between day and night, speak properly, or get up from his bed.

I took his death pretty hard; it still kind of fucks me up to this day. I mourned the fact that I’d never see or talk to him again in this life and that I’d been foolish enough to let contact with him slip away. Most of all, though, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness when I thought about him in those final days, unable to sense his environment or talk or move. How terrible an existence that must be; how lonely and claustrophobic it must feel for a person who once was so outspoken, stubborn and adamant.

I don’t think I’d ever fully appreciated my youth until my grandfather died. People often ask me how I’m so confident, or so independent, or so disciplined; the answer is that I make a lot of decisions from the perspective of an eighty-year-old who got to re-live life as a twenty-year old. Periods of moderated recklessness and pointed reflection keep me from living a repressed and underexamined life. I refuse to be one of those people who get super down on themselves once they realize that their time is indeed finite.

Mid-life crises suck; that’s why they’re called crises. I’m going to do it right the first time.

Looking back

20 was an age of slow personal development. I entered into it as an extremely driven, task-oriented individual, but was forced to pause and assess what I really wanted from my future before heading down any certain direction. The time did not fly by with this year, even when I was having fun. Sometimes I felt as if I weren’t growing as a person at all, that I was regressing back into the undisciplined slacker I was in high school. Maybe I am … or maybe I’m finally starting to get the hang of the work-life seesaw. Only time will tell; I’ll keep you all posted.

One thing I learned was real tact and emotional maturity, or the ability to get along with others who are very different from myself. When conflicts occur, I no longer have the knee-jerk reaction of “emotions are stupid!”. Instead, I tell myself that others’ feelings are indeed valid, and try to find a resolution that works for all parties involved. This was hands-down one of the hardest things for me and my emotionally constipated self to understand.

What lies ahead

I read a lot of books where characters talk about the past in a glowy haze of nostalgia. You know, “our beautiful white girlhood was passed together there” type of thing. Most people live day-to-day without really having a say in the big picture of their life, and thereby very few experiences that really engage them. They romanticize the few moments where they actually experienced excitement or joy or any other emotion worth remembering.

In addition to my refusal to live a sad existence and take my time for granted, I also refuse to romanticize my previous experiences. I’ll enjoy them when they happen and remember them forever, of course, but there’s nothing that makes me want to roll my eyes more than “the good old days” kind of talk. Looking at life that way is basically saying that you can never have an experience of that caliber again, and why would you do that to yourself?

So far, this summer has made me feel like I’m stuck in a weird coming-of-age storyline:

“Newly arrived in Philadelphia, twenty-one-year-old Mimi lands a job as an iOS engineer intern at a celebrated (or much-hated?) international clothing brand. What follows is her education: In champagne and cocaine, love and lust, dive bars and fine dining rooms, as she learns to navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing life she has chosen.”

(By the way, that description was 100% ripped off of the back of this very basic book I bought from Target two months ago. I ended up returning it because the plot line was so slow that I couldn’t get through half of it. I hope my own coming-of-age isn’t as long and drawn out. Sheesh.)

My own summer has been a lot less “champagne and cocaine” and a lot more “rice crackers and La Croix at my desk,” but I’ve been exploring the city a lot and getting to know tons of new people, and that in itself brings a lot of exciting and novel experiences. However, this is going to be the start of how I learn to live, not the end. I’ll make smart choices and bad decisions, be honest with both myself and others, stop being reserved about what I think, and ask enough “why” questions to make my grandfather proud. I promise.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just turned 21, so I’m going to pour myself a drink. ♚

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© 2019 by Marty Noel Chenyao. All rights reserved.

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