Whenever I bump into someone on campus who knew me as an undergraduate, the greeting I receive is often a quizzically bemused (or even mildly scandalized): "What are you still doing here? I thought you'd graduated eons ago!"
I do sometimes wonder about this. Don't get me wrong, I love being here: I get delirious watching the furry bushy-tailed squirrels frolic about. Yet, the fact remains that after talking to chums who've moved on from college to suit-wearing, explicitly "grownup" (i.e. moneyed) careers, or to the harried lives of grad/law/med school, it's hard to refrain from imagining the possible worlds I could now be inhabiting if different choices were made.
I feel especial kinship with seniors graduating this year because I'm at the same crossroads, trying to figure out what I ought to do with my life next year. But wherever the road leads, I feel deep peace and satisfaction for having taken up this quasi-"year-off" job as program coordinator (or "program manager" if I want to feel more important, although I don't actually manage anyone) for Princeton in Beijing (PiB), a language program that brings students for intensive Chinese training during the summer.
During senior year, being a comparative literature major with no acumen whatsoever for anything profit-making disqualified me from the jobs that held information sessions in swanky nearby hotels. It wasn't that I was interested in them anyway; I felt and still feel that I'd be most vocationally happy if I spent my life relating literature/literary theory, theology and East Asian culture with each other.
As the fall progressed, piles of thesis-related books languished unread in my room while I spent far too much time researching seminary and grad school admissions websites instead. By spring, however, I was admitted to an excellent theological seminary in Philadelphia. This was the grand plan: after four years there, I'd go to graduate school and then be an academic at any place that would hire a nut who read Chinese literature (or Korean dramas) from a Christian theological hermeneutic. Yet there was a problem — as much as I delighted in studying theology, the prospect of attending seminary straightaway somehow felt like too heavy a cross to bear, probably because I was secretly wishing for a break from structured studying after a laborious senior spring.
Blissful resolution came in early April — just before my thesis was due — in the form of a surprise phone call from a PiB director, who informed me that the program coordinator then was planning on leaving and invited me to consider applying for the position with human resources. (I had "interned" with PiB in my junior summer as an ad hoc RA.) Now, I've had a variety of religious experiences in my life, but what I felt at that instant, though hardly spectacular, surely ranks as amongst the most memorable. It was a distinct sense of joy and levity, a certain conviction that what had opened up before me was a good and right thing to do.
One may rightly protest that choosing courses, majors and jobs (or even what to get at Frist!) typically involves way more existential anxiety. But this honestly seemed to be one of those rare moments when emotion/intuition happened to correspond perfectly with practical wisdom. Being PiB program coordinator has been an ideal job for me, both in terms of who I am and what I want to do in the long run.
Being in China for the past three summers has not only allowed my language abilities to improve tremendously, but also afforded me the opportunity to experience Chinese culture and society in all its "thickness." At the same time, I enjoy taking care of 150 precocious students — most reduced to saying only the humblest of things thanks to the mandatory Chinese language pledge — in what is often a strange new world for them. It also makes for hilarious anecdotes. Once I had to accompany a fledgling second-year student from Yale to the pharmacy to get suitable ointment for the heat rash he'd developed in a particular place, because the attendants were stubbornly convinced that what this mutely gesticulating white male needed was medication for herpes!
Being on campus has allowed me to help out part-time with Manna Christian Fellowship. My involvement with Manna last year gave me, among other things, a better understanding of real ministry issues, which can sometimes be distant from pure academic theology. I've come to see more clearly that the end toward which all true religion tends is simply the giving of hope and healing to the weak and hurting, who do exist even at a place like Princeton.
I suspect that all this may not have been terribly helpful to seniors fretting over applications, internships and interviews, apart from maybe assuring comparative literature majors of their employability! (I jest. I do think comp. lit. is an enriching and practical major.) But this is my story in a nutshell. And if in a story we find structure and telos unperceived in actual existence, I have faith that in due time we shall all have stories of our own to tell — of a hope and a future realized, of our days in this broken but beautiful world. Teng-Kuan Ng '05 was a comparative literature major and now works as program coordinator for Princeton in Beijing and staff assistant for Manna Christian Fellowship. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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