How we create narratives of ourselves

I’ve been going through a lot of life changes lately. Too many for me to name all at once. But recently, I got a pleasant reminder from the past—a photo I had submitted to a photo competition in college was chosen for a 20-year anniversary retrospective.

I don’t like it when people say college is the best time of your life, as there’s so much more of your life to live afterward. That said, college was certainly one of the most interesting parts of my life. I’m only realizing now, nearly ten years after I graduated, how much I learned in school and am applying that knowledge to my day-to-day life now.

That’s the thing about a liberal arts education. It’s hard to market a degree in linguistics or the fact that I took advanced courses on various topics of my own initiative. But the preparation to be a well-rounded individual makes it possible for me to pick up any job—I learn quickly. And I’m applying that skill of being able to learn virtually anything to my fiction writing, where I have to do a lot of research on disparate topics to create verisimilitude.

I’m very grateful that UNC-Chapel Hill had a lot of experiential learning programs. Ever since my first year there, there were always programs for service-learning, where you volunteer hours, and living-learning, where you live together based on a common goal or interest. My first year, I lived in a diversity-oriented community with some introductory anthropology courses; my second through senior year, I lived in the religious pluralism and interfaith living-learning community—something that lots of people in the South were skeptical about, given strong religious ties in the region, but it worked well and formed the basis of a lot of how I think about philosophy and interfaith issues now.

I’m realizing only now how much initiative I took to just experience different things in life, regardless of whether I felt uncomfortable or shy at the outset. Not just college, but also high school. In the end, although my mental illness often makes me see my life as a string of failures, the reality is that my life has been a string of educational opportunities that I’ve leapt to take.

Honestly, I don’t even remember submitting the photo that was chosen and only faintly remember the day I took the photo. Both my short- and long-term memory often have issues because of my various mental health problems. But, as with all things, my ability with words paints a vivid memory regardless.

So, without further ado, here’s the initial email:

Congratulations! Your photo has been chosen to be presented in the 2021 Carolina Global Photography Retrospective Exhibition. This year judges reflected on the prior years’ photos and reviewed the competition archives—comprising of thousands of submissions—to select and commemorate the most inspiring photos submitted since the competition began more than 20 years ago.

The Center for Global Initiatives also requested a paragraph on what I’ve done since graduation to run with the photo and caption. I’ve included them all below:

“During a family vacation to China, my father, brother and I climbed and slipped over the Great Wall. I couldn’t help but think about its long history and about what life must have been like for soldiers who had to spend winters huddled up inside the stone towers, ever on the lookout for intruders.”

What I’ve done since graduation: I am now a freelance writer, translator, and editor. After trying out a few desk jobs, I found that freelancing is the best way for me to engage with my passion: language. My fiction has received several recognitions and has been translated into a number of languages, including Japanese and Spanish. My translations of Chinese science fiction have been an integral part into opening up the current speculative fiction market to global perspectives.

Part of chronic mental illness is the lies that your brain tells you so often that you think they’re true. It’s moments like these that remind me that I did incredible things in college and continue to do amazing things. I can’t take any experiences for granted, which is what motivates my writing now—both to share what I’ve experienced in a way that’s accessible and reaches people, and to remind myself and others that our lives are beautiful, no matter what kinds of twists and turns we’ve been through.

It is never selfish or narcissistic to write based on your own experiences and to make sense of your own life. That’s the power of introspection that makes us human. I’m grateful for this retrospective to remind me of all the amazing things I’ve experienced and all the help I’ve gotten along the way to become an insightful person. I hope that, by sharing, I can help others look back on their lives in a way that’s positive, that integrates all the various facets of a person to remind us all that we each have unique lenses and prisms through which we see the world.