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Life lesson from Miss Zhang

It's March, and like many seniors, I'm wondering what on earth I'll be doing next year. For those of us who have spent four years parrying questions like "What do you plan to do with a degree in X?", admitting that we still don't know what we'll do when we grow up has become acutely embarrassing. Friends, take heart: There are worse predicaments than not knowing; knowing unhappily, for instance.

Last summer, in a small city west of Shanghai, I met Miss Zhang, an ebullient 19 year-old with enviable language skills and the toothiest smile one could ever hope to see. Along with four other Princeton students, I was teaching English to middle school teachers, and Miss Zhang worked as the program's secretary and the liaison between the director – Mr. Wang – and us.

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It's impossible to do justice here to her alacrity and good cheer: Have you ever asked someone to make a billion copies and gotten a beaming, "My pleasure!" in reply? It's quite disarming. She endeared herself to all of us, and soon we were going to discos and eating dinner together after work, learning the details of each other's lives.

Miss Zhang is an elementary school teacher and student at a teacher's college, and like us, she is ambitious; like us, bright and eager to travel; like us, afforded an excellent education by her parents. But she knows what she'll be doing next year, and after graduation, and twenty years from now: teaching elementary school.

There's nothing wrong with teaching elementary school, but when we started speculating about our futures at dinner one night, Miss Zhang said with a rueful half-smile, "I want to do many works, but I think it is not very possible. My parents and Mr. Wang –" she held out her open hands to us as if to emphasize the obviousness of the problem, "have been so kind to me."

It is difficult to try "many works" in China; at 19, Miss Zhang is already enmeshed in a suffocating web of obligations. Mr. Wang, her former teacher, gave her the plum job as secretary of the summer program, and he expects her to continue to work for him after graduation. Four times a week, she tutors the daughter of another former teacher. And though her parents have given her the boys' name Yi Lu – "different roads" – in hopes that she will be able to follow many paths, they also expect her to remain a teacher. Anything else would be unfilial.

In any case, going abroad is virtually out of the question for Miss Zhang, though she desperately wants to study in the United States. She is required to tend to her parents, her jobs and her schoolwork; the Communist Party has impressed upon her the importance of staying in China and stopping the "brain drain" to developed countries; and its unlikely that the U.S. government would grant her a visa. Still, in our company, Miss Zhang talked repeatedly about the time when she would attend Princeton, too.

I spent my last day with Miss Zhang at Suzhou Amusement Land (like Disney World, except that it has only four rides and closes at 5:00). As we strolled through the park's Little Europe, she told me that it was popular to "write on a paper the fifty most hoped things. Actually, I think maybe there are only three, for me: First," she mused, ticking them off on her fingers, "I want to go abroad to America. Then, second, I want to buy my own computer with my own money. Then, third, I hope to meet a nice boy." She grinned.

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I was trying to come up with a list of similarly fervent and remote hopes – having already realized her three ambitions – when she ran to the carousel, straddled one of the plaster ponies and laughed, "I hope this horse will take me to America!" It was a silly, poignant expression of a hope not much more fantastic than her aspiration to study abroad.

Meanwhile, back at Princeton, humanities majors head for med school, engineers are going to law school. Some are trying consulting or banking for a bit, and some of us are still muddleheaded, trying to sort it all out. We're grateful for the advantage of a Princeton diploma, but many of us are frustrated and frightened by our own uncertainty.

Miss Zhang's improbable dream reminds me to be grateful for the luxury of indecision, too. We are blessed with the chance to take "different roads," after all; to fail at something we truly want to try – or possibly to succeed.

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