There are milestones in one’s life: turning 16 (driving), turning 18 (voting), and turning 21 (drinking). When my birthday rolls around this year, I will be entering the ripe age of twenty-five. What significance is that really? Well for one thing my car insurance will be going down. Is that it? Larger picture, I will be joining the ranks of those who can call themselves a quarter-century old. QUARTER CENTURY. That sounds really, really, really old. Well it does when sometimes I still feel like my mind hasn’t aged past seventeen.
I entered college with the idea that as long as I had a plan, I would succeed.
Everyone’s heard of the mid-life crisis, when mid-aged adults all of a sudden wonder what their doing with their lives and whether they’ve accomplished anything. If you went up to your parents and told them you were experiencing the quarter-life crisis they would probably look at you in confusion. What is the quarter life crisis to begin with? Simply put, it is the transition from adolescence into adulthood which many experience, can be a traumatic event. How is it traumatizing you may wonder? Well if you find yourself graduating from college soon, or having graduated recently and find that you have no idea what you really want to do, then you’re experiencing it right now.
I graduated a year earlier than my peers in 2003. I entered college with the idea that as long as I had a plan, I would succeed. I had the necessary classes and internships that would certainly assure me job security. I had interned at amazon.com and a local FOX station, worked for a local magazine, and had clips in various student and local newspapers. Certainly I had worked enough to be able to be competitive in the workforce. That summer I went on vacation and hadn’t worried about finding a job, because how hard could it possibly be? I did everything that I could possibly do to make my resume the best it could possibly be. Besides, I figured that worst case scenario I would work at the neighborhood Barnes and Noble while trying to find a real job.
Well, suffice to say, every plan I came up with blew up in my face. Coming back from vacation and starting to look for work wasn’t fun. I must have interviewed for over 50 jobs in the past three years. I had turned in an application to Barnes and Noble every week for two months in the hopes of even getting an interview! No such luck. I ended up becoming an unpaid production assistant for Seattle’s local PBS station for ten months, working on their weekly show and on a national documentary. The entire time, my morale was low and I began to question everything I thought I knew when I was in college. Because it wasn’t supposed to be this way, it wasn’t supposed to be this hard. With the economy at such a slump I tried to convince myself that it was the job climate, that there wasn’t actually something wrong with me.
Being in this situation and having Asian parents added a whole new spin to it. My traditional business minded Chinese parents were great in the fact that they never forced me to become something that I didn’t want to be. Though they never directly told me to enter a certain career path. There were many subtle and indirect suggestions otherwise. To Asian parents there were only a few options to truly become successful and stable: medicine (doctor, dentistry), law, engineering, computer programming, and business. Oh did I mention that these were also the criteria’s for a good husband? These were the stable jobs that most of my cousins and friends were being geared towards. It was certainly difficult for my parents to accept that I was entering the world of journalism, a world they knew nothing about except for the news anchors on television. Even at this very moment, my parents are still consumed with the idea that I need to one day wake up from this fantasy and go back to school to get a real degree.
Well, suffice to say, every plan I came up with blew up in my face.
The sheer frustration of not only being uncertain of what I was doing with my life, but that my parents were unsatisfied with what I had to show, made things even more overwhelming. There is a gap between our parents’ generation and ours which makes it difficult for them to understand what I and many like me are going through. Because of their hard work we have the luxury to endure a quarter life crises. We have the opportunity to ask ourselves, “What are we doing with our lives?” “Where is this all going?” “What do we really want?” and “How the heck are we going to manage that?” Our parents didn’t have that chance. My mother was already married at twenty-two years old and gave birth to me at twenty-three. They in a sense were forced to disregard their own ambitions and focus on raising and providing for a family.
Being in the quarter life crisis is different for everyone. Sometimes it’s just a matter of small adjustments, and for others it’s a world turned upside down. And while they thought they knew what the world was about, it turns out they hadn’t a clue to begin with. That ladies and gentlemen is traumatic. Things that were once important to you may suddenly seem trivial and insignificant. We begin to examine our lives with much more criticism. We all have different goals and dreams. There is no perfect way to attaining that. There is that old saying, that the 20’s are the best time of our lives. Sometimes, I’ll actually believe that statement because while life is undeniably complicated in my own little bubble, I realize that we are all still young. The truth to that is we do still have our entire lives ahead of us. Our ability to dream allows us to look and strive for what we want.
This is a period of frustration, confusion, disillusionment and questioning. But that’s important to question, and keep questioning till you find that direction. What matters is to be pro-active about it. Talk to counselors, to siblings, family, friends who might be going through the same thing, mentors, teachers, and heck if you can afford it even a psychologist. There is no harm in talking and getting advice, but ultimately the decision falls on you. If you don’t know what you want to do, try try try try. Trying new things is great and if you don’t like it move on. If you do then that’s even better.
That is exactly what twenty-nine year old Arnold Wong did and is still doing. Having had a range of jobs from book salesman, weekly advertising representative, corporate housing sales, and even a card dealer at a casino, he has had a myriad of experience and has enriched his life. He mentioned had he not become a book salesman, he wouldn’t have been able to go on a cross country road trip. “It expanded my world, to see the whole nation,” said Wong.
There are so many things that they don’t teach you in school and you can only learn through experience. College doesn’t prepare you for what happens if you don’t get a job. It doesn’t prepare you for what happens if you do get a job and find that you absolutely hate it and have no back up plan. Wong says it simply, “Sometimes you feel you cannot control the path that you're taking, like it’s a ride and you're wondering if you should get off or not.”
Twenty-three year old Eva Leong graduated from college in 2005 with a degree in International Studies and an emphasis on Chinese Studies. She was left questioning, “What could she do with that?” Leong felt that she had to re-examine what kind of career she wanted because it was too difficult to find a job specific to International Studies. Leong noted, “I had to really look into fields that had similar disciplines to what I did in international studies.” She is currently a pr/marketing intern for the non-profit organization The Borgen Project.
The importance in trying something new is paramount. Twenty-three year old Elizabeth Shaiken after graduating with an American Ethnic Studies degree decided to take a few business classes at a local community college while entertaining the idea of going to graduate school for a Masters in Business Administration. “I had thought about only one career choice during college and I wondered what if there was something else I might want to do,” Shaiken said.
After taking a few classes she quickly came to the realization that it wasn’t the choice for her. “I really think the glamorous lifestyle business people lead sounds better,” Shaiken admittedly confessed. But on the bright side it rekindled her interest in teaching and now is focused on attaining her teaching credentials.
Being in this situation and having Asian parents added a whole new spin to it.
There never was one path to take in life and even though life may seem directionless, stagnant, purposeless, difficult, frustrating, well you get the point, take comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone in all of this. Arnold Wong puts it best, “Through all the crap in life, it happens for a reason. Goals are constantly changing, but to keep focused and always move towards your goal until its time to change them.”
My goals have changed since I graduated from college and some of it will continue to change before I turn twenty-five. There are so many things that I still have to discover and learn from to add to my repertoire of experiences. So I take comfort in the fact that it’s ok not to know what exactly I want to do with the rest of my life. It’s the journey after all that makes it interesting.
“To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping.”
— Chinese Proverb
Nicole Cukingnan is based in the DC metro area working for PBS. She is Chinese born in the Philippines and has lived half her life there and the other half in the US. She graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in editorial journalism and political science.