TGS Graduation Speech: "The Best is Yet to Come"

On June 23rd, I graduated from THINK Global School. As Class Speaker, I addressed the audience of teachers, friends and family. It was truly one of the happiest nights of my life - a perfect way to end a massively enriching four years and to be launched into the real world with love.

"Good evening everyone. My wonderful peers here on stage have given me the honor of talking to you a little bit about these past four years and what they've meant for me.

During the summer of 2011, I packed my bags, did my summer reading and said goodbye to my friends and family — some still did not understand what I was doing and why. I left for different reasons than I came. I left because I felt lost in a crowd, like I was about to burst with so much to say but without the voice to say them. I came because I had an inkling of hope that I might find great people and that here I would learn how to change the world. These were two things I craved: authentic connections and a broad, deep understanding of the world, that was unlimited by the notions both good and bad that I had been conditioned by my environment to see. 

I learned that both things are not so simple and require a lot of navigation. 

I learned that there is no way to be ready for the choices, the love and the learning that this school sends your way. TGS in these four years found ways to teach me and show me all of the things I wanted to learn, to know, to feel but presented them in packages unrecognizable. So that only after, only now, can I truly see the value of each lesson.

When I look back at the 14-year old girl who arrived in Quito, Ecuador in September 2011, I see now that I was standing at the brink of something unforeseeable. Something that despite my hardest attempts could not be planned or controlled. Of the few choices that I alone have made in my life, stepping forward at that point into these four years has no doubt been the best, most rewarding decision imaginable.

On the plane ride to Athens, three months ago, I wrote:

“Liisa and I once talked about the crazy arbitrariness of our community. How was it possible that she and I were able to become friends? From opposite sides of the world, with equally complicated backgrounds, how did a Korean-American and a Swedish-Estonian fly from their homes in Singapore and Gothenburg to meet in the old Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires? (That was six countries right there.)

How did we end up here? Here, watching the sunset on a beach town in Costa Rica? Here, in the cafeteria of a Hyderabadi boarding school? Here, with a balcony view of the Acropolis lit up at night? How did we end up here? Here, instead of there?”

In the past few months, we’ve talked about that a lot. About what would have happened to us if we hadn’t come here - who we would’ve been. About how close it was that we didn’t end up here in each others’ lives, as the people we are now, at all. I no longer believe that this gathering of individuals is in any way arbitrary because I cannot bring myself to believe that the way we have touched each others lives could have been random. 

It’s hard to explain what my years at TGS have meant to me. I am sure I will be thinking about this for a long time to come. I guess the only way to say it is that I grew up here. This experience digs so deeply into us as teenagers and as travelers. Here is where we learn what kind of power the warmth and support of a small community can hold. All of the fears that we held in our shadows, here is where we turn around and face them. Here is where we live with our closest friends, whose smiles we know by heart, whose faces we can see when we close our eyes. 

One of my favorite moments in "Dead Poets Society" is when Robin Williams’ character, John Keating gets up on his teachers’ desk in front of his students and says, “You see, the world looks very different from up here.” And it does. The world looks different from the time you start TGS to the moment you leave it.

With every change at TGS, we see that the world looks very different for every person at any time from any place. We learn that no worldview is the same, none is more correct or invalid. I hope this is something we never lose sight of - that the world is how we see it and also that everyone sees it differently.

Our last night altogether in our house in Glyfada, not too far from here, we sat in a circle. In that moment, looking at the faces I’ve known the most these years, the people who have become among the most important in my life, I felt full and complete and yet utterly petrified that the moment someone stood up to leave the circle, I could not push this reality away any longer. It’s the reality that we will never be the way we’ve been. That this circle will only exist intact in our memories. That this home that we’ve built here ceases to exist the way we know it, the moment that we graduate. There’s a beauty to it, but it’s also so scary.

It’s scary because whenever we need it, there is no childhood bedroom to return to to reconnect with the memories and the lessons of our high school years. That bedroom has changed more times than I can count. With the alumni here, I wonder how strange it must feel to return to this home to find it full of strangers. What TGS has taught us, I suppose, is to carry that home inside of ourselves.

What I know with absolute certainty is that these four years have been filled with a love that only a home can provide. It’s not easy to be a teenager or a high schooler or a traveler. But somehow the combination of the three creates people like these.

I am so proud of this community - I struggled in writing this speech. I didn’t know where to start so I started everywhere but I always came back to people. To the human family. Here at TGS, I have learned the importance of this human family. I have seen what happens when you have teachers who listen as much as they speak, kids who come here seeking a great purpose, and the same spirit for depth in thought, in friendships and in openness to the unfamiliar. What you get are individuals who reflect deeply on why they see the world the way they do, how they want to see the world and how they wish the world to be. You get a community that does not reject change in each other but instead embraces that growth. You get a family.

At TGS, we surprise our teachers, our families, our friends back home and here, but most of all, we surprise ourselves. It has been an honor to be a part of this community. It was truly given me so much. 

I would like to extend a massive thank you to the off site staff and admin, Jo, Ashley, Laura, Jamie, Mike, Jeff, Lee, Heather, Lily, Melanie - the names behind the emails; the on-site staff both in Student Life, logistics, and in academic life - you give us so much balance and guidance that I see you and value you as friends; to the parents here who have the strength and openness in their own minds to send their kids to an unknown place for them to return happier, sadder, older just to watch them go once again and to support them in these dreams - you’re not as common a breed as you might think; and last to the students. You make this experience what it is, for others, for yourself. I have so much respect and love for all of you. You have made the greatest difference in my life. In every Village Hall, classroom debate, the incredible Symposium a few days ago, I am reminded again and again and humbled to be surrounded by thoughtful, creative and smart individuals like you. Thank you for filling these four years of my life with strength, love, hugs, laughter, encouragement and utter happiness. 

Class of 2015 - hey! From here, we will go in all different directions. What we will hold on to is this awareness of love, of our own strengths and weaknesses, of the danger of apathy, of the need for passion, energy and above all, hope.

As Lindsay reminded us on our senior trip, the best is yet to come."

Is this Africa?

It is my first time in the continent of Africa. 

I am distinctly aware, after listening to Ndaba Mandela speak about Africa Rising at the 2013 TEDxTeen conference, that there is a great more to Africa than the generalized discourse in media of diseased children with protruding bellies, broken governments and infrastructures and people swamped in poverty. I know, too, that Africa is made of 54 countries and over 2000 languages and that I cannot name them all. In the West and in the East, we treat Africa as one continent, in a way that we do not with the Europe or Asia. There is recognition that Malaysia differs greatly from Japan and that Spain is distinct from Bosnia. We give these countries the right to be individual, to own their unique cultural, linguistic and historical personalities; it is a right that is withheld from Africa. Africa is not a country. Yet, why do we treat it as such - as if we can address it broadly and sweepingly? It is with this in mind that I fly into Tanzania to spend two weeks, a brief effort to grasp what this small piece of this giant and complex continent is all about.

My first impressions are of hustlers, who at the sight of our bus coming to a stop in front of a currency exchange center, ready their racks of sports jerseys, woven bracelets in Rasta colors and wooden masks. They push forward, joking and smiling with an undertone of aggression, insisting at the authenticity of their obviously manufactured and cloned wares. The second is of a delectable, juice-dribbling-down-the-chin mango bought at a stall made of a few wooden planks and crooked nails for 20¢. The third is a heart-stopper - my first time seeing a rhino, an animal that for many reasons I'll leave explaining to a later date represents to me my grandfather - who chose the rhino to rebrand our family's long-withstanding textile company - and my heritage. My head popping out of the open roof of our safari Jeep, my hand over my agape jaw and my eyes huge, I hear none of the laughs and hoots around me. Instead, I feel the slow, steady movements of this rhino as he crossed the road in front of our line of Jeeps; I feel the presence of history, of a time when there were more rhinos than cars, of a time when my grandfather was alive.

The last is a visit on the way out of the Serengeti to the home of a Maasai tribe. I am confronted strongly with the notion that tourism can provide economic life and cultural death. There are model tents within which are members of the Maasai and reconstructions of how they might have used these tents several decades ago. They wear their traditional clothing, dark purples, reds and blues draped around the body. The women have cropped hair; some have completely shaven heads. The younger boys wear loincloths. In a massive circle in the middle of this reconstructed village are baskets and baskets of handmade bracelets, selling for $15 each - that's seventy-five mangoes. I expected authenticity, but instead I am handed photo opportunities, a naive tourist's Kodak moment.

In history textbooks of high school curriculums and literature selections in English class, Africa is generalized and excluded. Africa is ignored. Why do we know and learn so much about England and America and so little about Kenya, Senegal, Zambia? We often learn about Africa in the context of the West; Italian Mussolini's aggression in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia); British control of the Suez Canal in conflict with Egypt; the Belgian and CIA role in the assassination of Congolese premier Patrice Lumumba. 

I don't know where to start in understanding Africa and all of its many parts. I certainly don't want to do it in a way that validates African narratives only if the West is impacted. Over the last two weeks, I have thought of my own privilege as a well-educated, well-fed and loved person and I question my right to be here seeking an authentic experience among a people historically marginalized. Yesterday, an article arrived in my Inbox, forwarded from a friend, written by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about access to electricity in Abuja. These are the narratives that are shaping and changing our archaic view of Africa as backwards, slow, illiterate and starving. It is not my place to redefine and validate Africa - that is up to the citizens of African countries. But it is in my capacity as a traveler to re-empower these stories and to listen.

Home Away From Home

Written back in January 2014, at the very start of my six months living in Hiroshima, Japan.

As I sit here in my hotel room in Hiroshima, my makeshift dorm room for the next six months, I think of yesterday, of the crinkly, sympathetic grandfather, the woman with laughing eyes and the soft-spoken schoolboys who, when I found myself stranded on a platform in the far east side of the city, helped me find my way home. And then, I think of home. Is home an inventory of one twin-sized bed, one desk, four hangers and a set of towels?

On the bus ride into the city from the airport, I held my passport in my lap. It’s blue and bound and embossed with gold. The pages itself are pictures and words: pictures of flags, eagles, battlefields, train tracks and quotes of presidents and inventors. In school, they teach you never to judge a book by its cover - which I never realized was true until overcoming my childhood fear of the old, bearded man on the cover of "The Giver", finally reading it and coming to know and understand that frightening, gruff man on the dog-eared paperback. If you judged me like I judged that book, you would see blue, bound and an embossed gold eagle. But if you looked inside, pored through its pages, you would see stamps in faded blues, smudged blacks, dark reds and light purples and dates that tell you I have not stayed in one country for more than three months at a time. You would see that a person cannot be understood by their facial hair and that home cannot be understood by the outside of a passport.

The question of home is everywhere, in every person that shuffles by in a crowded space, in every sad soul who sits on the sidewalk and we call “homeless.” Sometimes the answer is an easy, one word: “Toronto.” I can’t decide whether those people are the lucky ones, or whether the lucky ones are the ones like me. I used to glorify our house in California since it seemed like the right kind of place to call home. It had avocado trees in the backyard and palm trees in the front. There was your typical green hose coiled onto the wall and a peacock that liked to sleep in front of our garage. My neighbors to the right were a crabby couple named Steve and Claire and to the left was a family with two snarly Dalmatians. It is the only place we ever had a Christmas tree. But California is not home; it is the place of the lost years, the memories that were somehow left behind like the small things you lose when you move away, though you swear you packed it all.

Living in China made me feel like a tourist and living in Korea made me feel like an outsider to every distant relative who took pleasure in reminding me that though I was born there, I was also born in a foreigner-designated ward of the hospital. Singapore was where I grew up the most, in both age and soul. But because of that, it is also where I have the worst memories - those bad memories of adolescence that eventually become sweet. After I flew the nest and hit the road, Singapore is where I came back to in the small spaces in between trips and continents. It’s where I put scrapbooks together and did big batches of rank laundry.

Now, I’m in limbo, as my brother is off in his first year at college, my parents are moving to Seoul and I have only vague ideas of where I might be seven months from now. But home isn’t a memory - it’s not what you used to have; it really isn’t that tangible. It can’t be a place because it only takes one tornado or bulldozer to tear it down. Home is infinite and it is constant. I’m still sitting here, my thinking and writing almost synchronized. The heater is coughing warmth into the room. My bathroom amusingly resembles the toilets in airplanes. The television is on low even though all that plays are Japanese game shows that lack subtitles, because without it, the silence is too loud. My phone bleeps a Whatsapp message notification; it’s a photo of waffles from my mom.

This is what is true. Home is where the people you love are. It’s where I can take up two seats in the car and rest my head on my mom’s knobby knees. It’s where my dad goes to sleep before eight and my brother doesn’t come home until two. It’s where my dog wakes me up at uncouth hours of dawn so I can put her up on my bed. Home is where the five of us, furry ones too, go to brunch.

Gold: Remembering Robert Spellman

Five weeks ago, my Head of School called our senior class of 13 students to the curved amphitheater and sat us down. He announced with as much sympathy as one can when delivering sad news: "We recently learned that Bob, a former Head of School, has passed away."

People cope with grief in many ways. The timing of this announcement could not have been worse as we entered IB mock exams, followed quickly by final exams. Then again, when has death ever been to the convenience of anyone? Certainly the idea of a convenient death is a guilt-inducing thought, a selfish prospect - perhaps, probably, an impossible one.

I swallowed the death like I often take pills against the scoldings of my mother - quick, dry, without water. And it stayed, like it felt that the pills often did, stuck in my chest. I pushed mourning out of my head, as if it were something that could be pushed, handled, held pragmatically. 

I learned a lot about him that night, typing into Google a search for his obituary. He was 53 when he died - the same age as my father - and he had moved back to Orlando, Florida to be with his family. That last one brought about a smile that prickled my face; Bob had always loved Disney World.

One night, I read in a sitting "Tuesdays with Morrie," motionless, but for tears that silently wet my cheeks and dripped off my chin on to the pages. Then, once more, I swallowed the bitter pill and went upstairs to the common room, where the last scenes of the latest Fast and Furious movie played. The dramatic CGI scenes of men pushing each other through walls of glass seemed a grotesque contrast to the sad simplicity of the words that stayed in my head: "Death ends a life, not a relationship." 

Tonight, somehow, the chest has opened and eyes closed, the memories of the great Bob Spellman play. Somehow, the evening of cramming treaties and dates for tomorrow's 9am exam has exhausted the will to fight the natural urge to remember, to feel, cry, laugh for my friend Bob. The first person I ever knew to actually be called Bob, he had counseled me in my most depressed days. He told me walking was better than running and that my fish earrings looked great. He was a former ambulance driver and counselor at a correctional facility for men in Illinois - the kind who cared, asked questions and really listened. Everywhere he carried an arsenal of stories - drunk teens, crying wives, IV drips. I wonder how his last moments were, whether he was at peace or in pain, whether he lay strapped to a bed in the back of an ambulance, aware, whether the driver thought, 'This man won't make it.'

Back in Cuenca, the town in Ecuador where I began traveling the world as a waffly fourteen-year old, back when I first began to feel that overwhelmed sadness that would follow me, he sat me down and asked me, "Are you gold, or are you garbage?" I asked myself that question many times after, both rueful and glad that Bob was not there for the days I answered the latter.

It is strange for emails to exist from people who no longer do but in hearts and minds. They comfort, they kill. 

The last correspondence we had was in the summer of 2012, the summer I took a political philosophy course at Stanford and the summer it was announced that Bob would not be returning for the following school year. The last email I sent him reads: "I don't know, but here's the short version: I couldn't really believe it. But I know that we will not become strangers. You have taught me so much and I hope you know what a lifeline you were to me in Thailand. I couldn't have trusted anyone more."

He never replied; I never asked why. We became strangers in the way that distance, time and silence creates. But I never lost the sense that he would be there for me, a proud friend from afar, as I, as little wisdom as I carry, would be for him.