I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I thought I’d have the answer by now, but from when this question was first posed to me when I was a mere toddler to now, my answer rings hollow.
It’s not that I’ve never given the question proper thought. I actually might’ve encouraged my naive imaginations to run a bit too wild. But with time, my fairytale fantasies of becoming a piano-playing princess dried up. I crossed ‘figure skating queen’ off my list when I clashed with my coach, irreversibly damaging my passion for the sport. And the hopeless romantic in me isn’t romantic enough to become a tear-jerking YA author.
This forbidden question begs my undivided attention. It repeatedly runs through my mind, soaking up my spirit at every chance. My uncertainties collide with my insecurities, prompting me to overthink if the life I’m chasing is actually the life I want. Truth be told, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something out there that’s more suitable for me and I just haven’t met it yet. For this, I desperately need time to tell. But with the world and my peers accelerating past my worries and me, the walls close. I’m scared about getting left behind.
A few summers ago, I unburied a snippet of clarity. My mother brought me to a lantern-painting shop, convincing me that it would be worthwhile and I should play along. So, I did. Swiftly, a lantern the size of my wingspan stood next to me. I was told to paint on it anything my heart desired: all the hopes and wishes and dreams. As I grazed the thin pastel sheets curtaining the edges, I was cast under a spell of introspection.
I dived into the unbounded archive of my mind, seeking something meaningful to paint and to show that I wasn’t an empty, echoic body. The probing question of my future livelihood and where I’ll be in 10 years ebbed and flowed in my sea of scrambled thoughts. By the end, I solemnly deduced that I had nothing in my life that felt permanent enough to inscribe on this lantern. I didn’t have anything I wanted to be loyal to, anything I thought I could confidently take with me into adulthood and the rest.
The ink stained my calloused palms and my paintbrush laid untouched. My eyebrows furrowed and my mind drew a pathetic blank. I glanced over my shoulder to find an amusing expression on my mother’s face as she tactfully tapped through her endless Facebook feed. With this image in mind, I felt the corners of my mouth curl. Starting with the most gentle lines, I finally began.
That day, I painted my mother. And my brother, my father and a few faceless friends. With each addition, the next came easier: music notes, lucky pens, pocket-sized roses. I strung along a dainty dandelion, linked arms and a plethora of smiley faces. In between these strokes and mistakes, my figures and blotchy circles gracefully unlocked my unconscious desires that had lain dormant for far too long.
Those four wrinkled sheets encapsulated all that I cherished, all the things I so easily took for granted. As the lantern gradually lit, the things I held closest to me emitted the warmest glow. I released my vulnerabilities, those hopes and wishes of mine, through the misty air to kiss the sky and its stars.
For all this time, I’ve been trying to tangibly respond to my forbidden question. But as the lantern’s blank canvas populated with the little things I loved that weren’t career or college-orientated, I realized this question of what I want when I’m older reaches far beyond what I ever conceptualized. And when the lantern blended in with the night and minimized into a distant speck, I was left with my longing answer.
When I grow up, when I’m all gray and glitched, I hope that my brother still finds time to be that annoying older sibling for me. I hope my best friend never stops telling me her knee-slapping stories. And I hope I’ve truly followed my heart in the endeavors I explore. As for my career, I still don’t know what it will be. Perhaps I’ll pursue pediatrics or journalism, a combination of the two or something else entirely. I’m eager to find out, whenever that breakthrough occurs.
But as I navigate this hyper-focused society around me, I want to remember what this is all really for. My dream is unquestionably the people I choose, the healthy mentality I crave and the happiness I hold. Whatever that may mean and manifest as for my future self, I hope to protect a blissful spirit and mind through it all. Because when I grow up, I want to be happy.
That’ll be enough.
Ashley Tsai writes the Monday A&E column on art bridging the internal and the external. Contact her at [email protected].