I read this amazing article today, one that
discussed what it is be a mentally strong person. The article listed five
key points that comprise a mentally strong individual, and what it means to
have determination. I'd like to respond to a question posed at the end of it.
I think everyone goes through a series of ups and downs in
life--seasons for everything, as they say. Most recently, and as any of my
readers will know, mine has been surviving China, and the return to America. I
say "surviving" as a way to title the event, not intending to imply
that one needs to "survive" when going to China due to X element
present in the country.
Traveling to another country, to one that I've aspired to work in
since I was five, was a dream come true. I worked hard to achieve what I needed
to in order to get there (though the application process wasn’t necessarily strenuous,
the company I worked for did a great job of making things uncomplicated!). It
was the years of middle-school and high-school spent self-studying Cantonese
(sometimes with a tutor, other times without) in hopes of going to southern
China, specifically where that dialect was used; it was the all-nighters,
studying only to spend another sleepless day at work before hitting an evening
class; it was picking up a second job on the weekends, hoping to make it
through classes and 10 hour shifts while maintaining some standard for myself
with my grades. These are what I would categorize as challenges.
Finally arriving in China, after graduation, that was something
other-worldly. I remember getting off the plane and being unable to read any of
the signs around me, or understand any of the conversation around me. I was
surrounded by people and yet more alone that I had ever been in my life. I was
anonymous to myself, and yet a curiosity and an attraction to the locals. The
small, city of Dongguan did not host a large number of foreigners, and I'll
never forget what it felt like to be stared at, poked by people around me, and
have crowds part to watch me walk through-- in the deep alleyways of Nancheng,
they had never seen a female like me before,
I was a circus freak.
At times, it seemed like someone had stuffed my airplane in a box,
rattled that box for some 18 hours, and then let me out in a part of American
that was populated solely by the Chinese. Was this really happening? Every moment
was sort of surreal, as though I could wake up from a dream and be back on the
loud streets of Denver, late for class again and hoping noone could tell I was
wearing yesterday’s clothes. Unbelievably dreamlike is the only way I know how
to explain it.
Experiencing China, smells and colors, nothing
was comparable to anything in America; my mind couldn't define things
and had to stretch to understand the simplest body movement of a stranger
approaching me. A whole other set of manners, interactions, definitions were
used. Imagine your first day of a foreign language course, when you realize
that sounds, punctuation, and grammar are being redefined, and your
understanding of your native language is useless to you. Now expand that
feeling out to your understanding of EVERYTHING around you. Can you even
fathom? It is by far the most insanely wonderful and frustrating feeling-- you
instantly know just how limited your own knowledge base is, and simultaneously
desire to learn infinite amounts and quickly.
It was beautiful, it WAS a dream come true, and then I was sick.
At first, just a little sick, a strange cough that most of the foreigners
informed me was "the China cough," and that I was merely adjusting to
the high pollution levels. But then I was coughing blood, and then there were
fevers, and fatigue. Before long I couldn't make it into my classes, couldn't
think clearly, couldn't eat. It took three hospitals, 10 days of being totally
bedridden , and a host of symptoms gruesome enough that I'm sure you wouldn't
want to make it through reading about all of them, before I decided that even
though I had only been living my dream for 4 months, if I didn't find the help
my body needed, I wouldn't live to tell about it.
is where answering Marc&Angel Hac Life's post comes in, "What’s one habit or belief that has helped you stay mentally
strong through good times and bad?"
I had made it to my ultimate dream in life, and I was only
24! Success!!! But mental strength for me is in learning my personal limits.
Before making the decision to return to America, I thought to myself about all
the other foreigners who were out there teaching, who got sick but made it
through, who were perfectly capable of "surviving" in China. So why
Most foreigners I came in contact with were in China due to the
boom in an economy that loved foreigners. We were treasured
gold by the PRC (also a culture shock). But I wasn't there looking to make
it big, get recognized, or flourish in the economy-- I was in China, in a small
industrial city (shoe producing capital of the nation!), because I loved the Cantonese
culture and the Cantonese people, and I wanted to learn everything about them
and immerse myself. So why on earth couldn't I just live there and be healthy
like everyone else? Why wasn’t the medicine at any of the hospitals enough
I fought the decision to come home tooth and nail (isn’t that
the expression?). Surely I would start to get better. But I didn’t, and the
reality that my window to seek out help was closing hit me sharply when one
day, after my routine treatment of antibiotics (given to me via an IV in my
hand for two hours daily), I fainted in my apartment bathroom, totally alone.
It wasn’t until my roommate discovered me on the floor and helped me to bed
that the severity of my situation truly dawned on me. My body had reached its
limit, and I had to give up my dream.
For a while I looked at this as a weakness. I wasn’t strong
enough to make it in another country with living conditions that were
unfamiliar to my body’s chemistry. I felt defeated—no shame in admitting it.
But after making it back to America, and my family (alive!), I realized more
than ever, that knowing my own limitations is what allows me to push through
and continue in life.
I think all of us spend a great deal of time considering
ourselves in comparison to those around us and those we are close to. Family members,
friends, someone running down the street—we observe, analyze and compare. After
all, it’s in human nature to consider things from what we ourselves know and feel,
it seems only natural then that we would compare ourselves to what we see around
us, as a means to interpret, better understand, maybe even relate.
I recently went to a park to sit and read. While I was there,
I observed (stalker style) a group of women around my age, all jogging together
along the path by the lake. They were
dripping in sweat(you go ladies!), some concentrated on the path in front of
them, and some (God bless them), with the energy to hold a conversation. The
ones who couldn’t talk knew it, and held their pace by staying silent; that was
their strength. Others knew they had the lung capacity and endurance to talk
while they ran, and they did. What made them a cohesive group was each one
knowing their own, personal limits.
As I watched them I had some amount of envy, because my body
is not at a capacity to perform that kind of physical activity, and it may
never be. But knowing that limit, and not comparing myself to them, is what
enables me to try harder at the things I know I can do. I could have attempted
a run, inspired by the group (who doesn’t look at the person next to them in
the gym and think, “damn”). The result of such an effort on my part, however, would
be a few weeks in bed, fatigued and in pain. Why try at such a cost? And wouldn’t
my energy be better spent doing something that I know will yield positive
Sometimes knowing our limits is not a cut and dry thing, but
learning them can be an invaluable asset. There’s no shame in knowing what YOU
personally are capable of, and thriving inside of it, instead of beating
yourself down and spending useful energy comparing yourself to someone else’s
I challenge you to catch yourself. Think about times when you
compare yourself to others, and what it yields for you personally. Next time
you catch yourself in the act, make a positive step and consider if the
comparison benefits you personally, or not. If it does, how should you perform
the task so that it yields fruit in your life? I still catch myself all the
time, but the process of becoming more aware of what standard you hold yourself
to, and what your own personal limitations are, is a sharp mental tool that
will only make you stronger with time.