Tuesday, September 30, 2014

dreaming of a different life

All my life I've been scared, and I didn't want you to be scared. That's why I wanted you to go to Oxford. So that if someone asked you out to a nice restaurant, you wouldn't panic about what was a starter and what was a main course... 
London, 1962. The UK had emerged from World War II as victors only to find itself at war again; the quiet threat of a nuclear holocaust became the sword of Damocles hanging over the people of the world as they continued to go through the motions of living. Those of the older generation who remembered the state of uncertainty that they had lived through during the years of war might have been content with the mundanity in their current lives, but those of the younger generation, like sixteen-year-old Jenny Mellor, an ambitious suburban schoolgirl, were utterly bored by what was expected of them.

When I get to university, I'm going to read what I want and think about what I want and listen to what I want. And I'm going to look at paintings and go to French films and talk to people who know lots about lots
, Jenny says, bright-eyed and dreamy at the beginning of the film. Lone Scherfig's An Education (2009) has become my most re-watched movie since the first time I watched it the summer before my senior year of high school, and I think the reason for this is because I relate to Jenny more than any other fictional character I've come across. High school Vivian was certainly bored beyond belief; like Jenny, I was always dreaming of the day I would finally escape that suburb by the Sound and be a part of a more colorful world, one where I could look at art and watch avant-garde films and talk with people who know so much more about the world than I do.

Nowadays, it seems like such an indulgent desire to want a life of the mind even at a top-ranked university; I've come to dread when ask me but are your degrees going to get you a job? The recent economic downturn has ensured that the only important question to be asked of millennial college students is whether or not they're employable and can achieve some sense of security post-graduation. It's a different world than the Cold War Britain An Education is set in, where girls who read English at Oxford are expected to marry the successful men they meet at university and then go on to teach secondary school after graduation, but in many ways it's still the exact same. We all want assurance that everything will turn out all right; that's the way it always has been, and I suppose that's the way it always will be.

The last time I re-watched this movie was on a school night in August when I was still studying in London, and although it'd never been remarkable to me before, the scene that I've capped in the images above, where Jenny's father explains to her why he pushed her to study hard and get in to Oxford, really resonated with me for the first time. I saw a bit of my parents in Jack Mellor; I understood a bit better why my parents were always so hesitant to support my interest in fashion or pursuit of a degree in classics; enthusiasm for John Galliano and studying to read the Iliad in its original Attic Greek aren't very practical, you see, and in a world where security is not guaranteed, we've become more fixated on practicality than ever.

One of the things immigrant parents tell you when you're growing up is that they came to this country for you so that you could have a better life, and even though my parents had achieved the American Dream before I was even born, I know they expect me to exceed their achievements because I started out with more. I didn't grow up during China's Cultural Revolution like they did: I have no memory of food rations and totalitarian regimes and class trips to labor in fields in the countryside, but they do. And it's this memory of what their life was like before that drives them, whether consciously or subconsciously, to push me to live a more comfortable and secure life, one that a good education and a decent job after college is supposed to guarantee. It took me a long time to realize that the reasons I don't always see eye-to-eye with them is because I never remembered but they never forgot.

Now that I'm a month into my second year of college, the magic I initially felt when I first came here last year is starting to wear off, but I'm trying my best to bring it back again. 2014 has forced me to grow up, however reluctantly, and the dullest parts of adulthood are slowly seeping into my life as a college student. I'm working five days a week, I'm buying groceries every weekend, I'm cooking for myself, I'm paying utilities and rent for an apartment—it hasn't quite hit me yet, but some day soon it will: this is what it's going to be like for the rest of my life, and if I expect something less lackluster than this, then I'm going to have to seek out those art galleries and movie screenings and the best conversations over bulgogi and soju-mojitos myself.

Aut viam ad astra inveniam aut facium—either I will find a way to the stars or I will make one.

xoxo, vivian


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