How to not end up like the adults you hated growing up

Comfort Food

Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, put it best. From his stand-up special titled “Weirdo,” Glover eloquently stated, “If you’re a conservative when you’re 30, you’re going to be conservative for the rest of your life.”

Pretty much by the time we turn 30, we are who we’ll be for the rest of our lives — and we’re all stubborn fucks. Unless a loved one is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease or we accidently kill someone, we’ll stick to our old ways. This is a terrifying truth. At best, it’s inevitable. It’s what those of you wearing rose-tinted glasses would call fate or destiny.

I remember being a kid fantasizing about my future. It was a blank canvas, so pristine and fortuitous with a world of possibility tucked somewhere behind it. I waffled between wanting to be a doctor and becoming Oprah Winfrey. But when I learned how convoluted, competitive and expensive becoming a doctor was in the United States, I opted for the second option.

I truly thought I could be the Asian version of Oprah. I read her biographies, watched her talk show religiously and emulated whatever I learned from her: I set positive quotes as my iTouch’s wallpaper and placed color-coordinated objects strategically around my room to enhance certain moods. It seemed so easy back then — to think of myself and my potential as exponentially greater than my reality. Worry was nothing but an empty threat, and time seemed infinite. I was on a no-rush, three-to-five-day Amazon shipping transit to my future.

But this was the last time I would feel this way.

I grew up. My success was carefully measured and managed through grade levels of the public education system. Each transition from elementary to middle school, from high school to college, became progressively more difficult. Expectations increased and the challenges I once looked forward to became the standard.

When I was in sixth grade, I passed out of pre-algebra into algebra. My teacher encouraged questions and trial and error. If I ever had a hard time comprehending a problem, she would give me leeway and say things such as, “It’s so impressive that you’re learning these concepts at your age.” Some cheesy shit like that.

But by the time I was a junior in high school, the adults that dominated my life, especially my teachers, became less encouraging — cold, even. Whenever I didn’t understand a problem, teachers seemed to assume I was incompetent. They would spew passive-aggressive insults along the lines of, “You should know this by now.” “You should have learned this in middle school (and retained it, you dumb fuck).” But they never took into consideration the various extracurriculars and jobs I worked to support myself and invalidated the struggles I faced surrounding my identity as a Korean-American immigrant.

In these adults’ lives, there were rules but no exceptions. They ignored the reality that life happens and that the unexpected should be expected. I remember once walking into the high school attendance office a few hours late after a doctor’s appointment, having been stuck in LA traffic after a minor accident impeded the usual route to school. The two ladies who worked in the office scolded me ruthlessly from the minute I walked in. They judged me as irresponsible and spoiled for not following the proper procedure to be re-admitted into the school and inserted sly, degrading remarks such as, “Why can’t you ever do this right if you’ve done this before?”  

Unfortunately, the adults in my life became less and less empathetic the older I got. They became desensitized to the emotional turbulence of adolescence. Unknowingly, their cynicism rubbed off on their students, including on me. I became used to adults and their condescending comments about my thoughts and actions, so I stopped dreaming and began to set more realistic goals.

I worked internships I wasn’t too thrilled about and entered leadership and academic programs half-heartedly, only to realize that nothing would motivate me for the following day. I realized that when I was younger, dreaming about becoming the next Asian Oprah, the anticipation of who I might or might not become kept me looking forward to the next day.

When I was younger, I was thoroughly excited to be the person I might one day become. But as I became older, I increasingly idolized the things that might or might not make me into the person I dreamed of becoming. Whether this materialistic object was the Sephora limited edition eyeshadow palette or a flight to Morocco, I fixated on items as if obtaining them would expedite the process to my dream self. But objects only fill the void on to which hope has already etched its name, and nothing can replace the power that comes with dreaming.

As a child, I failed to realize that becoming someone or achieving a career isn’t a one-stop destination. I love Donald Glover, and I agree that most people won’t change even if change is the only solution to their problems. But I believe also that many of these people are capable of change and none of us are truly stagnant; we change despite our own understanding of our lives or surroundings.

I’m jaded, thanks to the adults that criticized me throughout my adolescence, but at the same time, I am kindling this discouragement into motivation so that I won’t end up stuck with a less-than-ideal job or place in my life. I’m jaded but I’m working hard not to end up like the adults I hated growing up, such as the ladies in the attendance office.

Lauren Ahn writes the Friday blog on inedible nourishment. Contact her at [email protected].

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