Apprehension from Within

At midnight, I woke up again to fitful, loud snores from my roommate Jim. I could hear planes roaring above us, usually beginning with a trace of noise, gradually intensifying, rumbling, and then slowly shrinking to nothing.

I wished so much that I was on one of those planes, on my way back to China, rather than staying at this camp, getting tortured days and nights. I groaned involuntarily. “I don’t want to stay here anymore,” I thought. “I just want to go home.”

That happened to me almost every single night during my first summer camp in the U.S., in seventh grade. Honestly speaking, the program wasn’t that dreary at all. No testing, no grades, no final presentation, virtually nothing was “imposed” on me, yet I was depressed, distressed, and defeated. While other kids were enjoying their days under the beautiful sunshine of California, I was suffering from wounded pride and spiritual loneliness.

From the beginning of camp, I had a hard time learning, which used to be my best skill. It was my first time studying in English, yet my listening comprehension wasn’t good at that time. I couldn’t catch even a word from my teacher’s long pedantic speeches. Plus, my major, macroeconomics, wasn’t an easy subject for a seventh grader. I had absolutely no idea what aggregate demand and aggregate supply were, or why there were long run curves and short run curves. Whenever I got stuck, everybody else seemed to be fine. I was afraid of disturbing the whole class or being jeered at, so my questions were never resolved, which hindered my further understanding. Only four days into camp, I received an email from my economics teacher, Mr. Dean, in which he wrote, “Archie, I’m afraid you can understand no more than 40% of the class. Maybe a lower-level economics course is better for you.” It significantly hurt my brittle self-esteem as a top student in China. I felt I was belittled and underestimated by him. I was annoyed and dismayed.

Hardship in learning economics was only a tiny portion of my miserable life during those three weeks. What brought me the most agony was my bad performance in socializing. At my school in China, I had lots of friends and playmates surrounding me, letting me be the leader. But when I went to that competitive camp, things suddenly changed. I wasn’t the center of class anymore; I was actually at the margin and seldomly engaged in group activities, far from being the leader. I wanted to get involved in American culture, I wanted to be the same as the other kids, but I felt very upset when I pushed myself to laugh as the native kids were howling at a joke that I didn’t appreciate at all. In that competitive environment, the most outstanding and outgoing kids eclipsed my light, leaving little room for me to grab attention. Honestly, that wouldn’t have been a big deal, if I didn’t overevaluate my relative position in a group. I couldn’t forsake my pride, yet I couldn’t earn that pride myself. That dragged me into a self-twisting mire, in which I was greatly frustrated.

I had a terrible life during those three weeks, but that’s it. The loneliness and frustration were gone as soon as the session was finished, when I boarded the flight back to my nation. Calm, with the jets roaring beside me, I realized in retrospection that nobody belittled me or excluded me from participation. It might have been me, with my sensitive heart, who thought everyone pushed me aside. Mr. Dean’s judgment was correct and he was trying to offer help, and lots of local kids actually taught me the meaning of their jokes and tried to include me in the group. But due to the differences in culture, I took their kindness, their ways of interaction, as looking down on me, and I felt like I was in an environment where everyone else discriminated against and ridiculed me. Self-esteem and lack of confidence clashed in my inner heart, creating a fretful ambience that enclosed me.

Peacockish and afraid of criticism, I cared too much about others’ opinions of me and thus got easily hurt. Outsiders, even my parents, were not able to sense how much I mentally suffered in those collapsing weeks. They didn’t see why I was living miserably when I was supposed to have fun and make new friends. Since that experience, I have gradually acknowledged the fact that I am not always the best, not always at the very top among people surrounding me. I changed my mindset to be less sensitive and more objective. For sure, everyone has self-esteem, but we shouldn’t allow self-esteem to evolve into self-pride, which wipes away humbleness, rationality, and courage in facing our flaws. Others’ help is not mockery of our failures, but a hand to lift us out of the morass. People at camp were so nice to me, and I should have been thankful for my TA, mentors, and roommate Jim, who once offered to help me. I wish to help my young peers see that fear and anxiety are not imposed by the outside world, but rather derived from lack of confidence in our inner selves.

Botao Ju is a 17-year-old from Beijing, China. He enjoys reading, writing, cycling, rowing, and holding club seminars.

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