As some of you may know, I lived in Shanghai for my sophomore year of high school, and I still visit regularly. My family’s apartment in Shanghai is surrounded by coffeehouses, boutiques, and restaurants that boast food from around the world. I try to eat adventurously when I’m there. Unable to speak fluent Chinese, it would be incredibly easy to seek foods and products I recognize from America, isolating myself in a bubble of familiarity, but I have always tried to avoid that bubble.
It’s customary in China that dishes remain in the center of the table, for an entire party to share. If I order dinner, I expect to share it with my family, whereas in the United States, we order our individual meals without a thought to everyone else at the table. Our culture in America emphasizes individual achievement over the needs of a group, and we often view our first and foremost responsibilities as to ourselves. At Waterford, studying the achievements of great writers, artists, and scientists, pushing myself toward personal goals, I grew up valuing originality and trueness-to-self above all else. On the other hand, in China, identity is first and foremost as the member of a unit. The community—family, city, country—is more important than the individual, and the way restaurants serve meals is only one facet of this priority.
For this reason, many Chinese customs baffled me when I first moved to Shanghai. My classmates at Shanghai American School, many of whom had grown up in Shanghai, considered their education a duty to their families and their country. Learning, to them, was a path by which to carry valuable knowledge back to the community that raised them.
For the first time, I fully considered the responsibilities we have to a world beyond ourselves. A responsible life is a tightrope. We walk heel-to-toe, with our arms spread a thousand feet above the ground. We cannot lean too far to either side, or we risk a fall.
In one hand we carry our responsibilities to the self, from brushing our teeth to reading a good book, to finding a career that satisfies us. Learning is, in many ways, a responsibility to ourselves. We are responsible for the upkeep of our bodies and our minds, for cleaning dirt from our hands and rust from the gears that spin in our heads. When we learn, we feed our curiosity and express our creativity. We find the activities that keep our gears turning, the passions that help make us whole and human.
Back on our highwire, we balance our responsibilities to the self with those to our community. To be responsible is to be aware of the world around us, contribute to it, and alter it if necessary. Through my education at Waterford, I have spun the gears in my head and pursued my passions. Looking toward graduation, I have a responsibility to use what I’ve learned to better the communities around me. On an international scale, we have a responsibility to be aware of societies other than our own, to interact with other cultures and build bridges across the world. Here in Utah, we have a unique responsibility to the Wasatch Mountains. We build ski resorts and carve hiking trails, and in exchange we protect our watersheds and create conservation laws to protect the natural environment.
Leaning too far toward our personal responsibilities, we retreat into ourselves, curling away from the world and never thinking about what we can do for others. Leaning too far toward our communal responsibilities, we lose our sense of self, of art for the sake of art and the pride of individual achievement. We fall to the ground either way. If we make it to the other side, wobbling a bit but otherwise intact, then we live a responsible life.
In life, we cannot share every meal with our party. Sometimes we need a big eggs-and-bacon breakfast all to ourselves. Other times, we order a plate of dumplings, and everyone at the table takes a couple. I will always value my originality and strive for individual achievement, but as I prepare to leave high school, I often ask myself what I am doing to benefit the units of which I am part—my family, my country, the planet I inhabit. The trick, I think, is knowing when to feed the worlds within us and when to feed the world outside.
February 22, 2017
September 3, 2021
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