London and the Coming of Age

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A real castle! Circa 2011

Every person has a coming-of-age story. If you’re lucky, yours would not be very exciting. While I wish I could say that I reached adulthood when I moved into my dormitory in college or the moment I graduated and picked up suits from the mall like a grown woman to head to my first job in New York City, I’m afraid I – like the rest of the Ding/Fan family household – appeared to be a late bloomer.

Childhood and young adulthood is filled with emotions that rise and drop like waves, unfettered idealism, and an enormous confidence in one’s untested convictions. Perhaps that is why the young will always be more creative, brash and exciting than their older peers, and because of this, I look back on some misguided events in my younger days with a mix of embarrassment, pride and at the end of the day, a shrug, “Oh to be young.”

I attended my college reunion this past year, a last minute decision fueled mostly by the rare chance to see old, close friends. If you had asked me when I was 22, I would have said without a second’s hesitation that college was the best time of my life. Years later at the reunion, I found myself looking back on college with mixed memories. Sure, I had freedom, but I hadn’t quite known how to take advantage of my freedoms (looking back, I would have had a lot more fun and worked a little less). I had no real responsibilities, yet I had felt more pressure then because I didn’t have anything to show for it other than marks on paper. I had been lucky enough to be surrounded by friends all day and night, yet I had felt inexplicably alone when my mind wandered toward what I would do with my life. I was crippled with the fear of not being successful without really even understanding what success was.

In hindsight, I see those years and the ones directly following with some sentimentality as a time of directionless ambition, creativity and energy (perhaps more than I knew what to do with).

Growing Up

After college, I worked in New York City at a typical high pressure, white collar job I generally disliked (to be honest, I don’t know any entry level analyst liking their job but the more mature ones accepted that it was temporary) and decided, with no experience whatsoever, to go the London School of Economics to get a master’s degree in Economics. I had only taken 1 fluffy economics course up until then, but the idea of being prepared didn’t really cross my mind. I don’t remember the series of events that led to this fateful decision as I’m not even sure I really knew what economists did until then, but I remember the events that happened after as if I had just finished reading a comedy story about my own youth. I had a small amount of savings from my job and spent it all without a single worry on moving to London and paying for the program. I had little concern about the financials of the decision, less about whether I’d even enjoy economics, and mostly focused on some ridiculous idealization that economists could save the world with their clever policies. It was post-crash 2008 when I applied, after all. Even weeks before moving, I was still off racing my bike in the Vermont mountains instead of finding an apartment, and through sheer luck, ended up subletting a flat on Whitechapel street, above a bar in East London, through a friend’s connection.

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London on a rare, sunny day, 2010.

In London, I lived like the typical graduate student and felt generally miserable with the exception of wonderful friends and a terrific cycling team (those moments would turn out to be the most precious in all my life). At LSE, I found out over time that I neither liked economics nor was I particularly good at it, at least as far as a life in academia was concerned. It was also dark, wet and cold for a large portion of the year, which somehow confused me. In short, because of my youthful mistake, I limped my way through the LSE program with no finesse, experienced a small existential crisis mid-way through, and solidified my reputation to, as my Company says, “chew through a concrete wall.” For that reason, the friends that I met there have remain as those I feel the most grateful for, nearly indebted to, for putting up with me in my 20s.

After my program at LSE, I stayed in London for a few months and found a job at a Silicon Valley start-up and moved promptly in September, 2012. It was there that I also met my future husband within 3 weeks, discovered a career that fit me (only after 6 years of searching through trial and error) and experienced some of my most fulfilling and rewarding years of work. When a former classmate and close friend recently asked me if regret my time in London, I replied, “LSE was probably a mistake since I could have just gained the time back for my career, but London was not. I’m incredibly thankful I learned what I did then versus years later because it has made me so damn happy. Now would my experiences in London have been possible without LSE? I’m not sure.”

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On the Thames. ~2010/11

I recently returned to London for two short weeks, the third trip since living there over 6 years ago, and I spent some time reflecting on what the city meant to me. All of the annoyances I had with being a poor, graduate student in London melted away, and the visit was filled with awe at how beautiful the city is. It was helpful that I could afford, say, dinner out, and that I wasn’t trying to ride my bike through 40 degree rain in November. I reminisced about how very changed I felt after my first experience there, but it wouldn’t be until recently that I understood why: if I can point to any singular phase of my life as when I “grew up”, it would be here. During my time in London, I learned the power of accepting my own weaknesses (and not taking it all so seriously), of having faith in my resilience, of taking on unpleasant conversations and most importantly, of letting go. In those ways, I think the line which separates my early 20s from now is simply knowing the boundaries, and as a result, knowing myself. Here’s a short list of examples of pre and post-London:

Me in my early 20s : Me now

  1. The harder the better : the more effective the better
  2. The consequences are temporary : the consequences (and their probability of happening) inform my decisions. Period.
  3. I can do anything! : But I can’t (and don’t want to) do everything.
  4. People all mean well : People mean well but your time is limited.
  5. Why ever work for someone else? : Because many times, that’s how you can be more effective (see 1).
  6. Academia is the end all best thing in the world because it is discovering the truth: Only if that truth is relevant, credible (pontificating doesn’t count) and shareable to others.
  7. Money?? : Money is what you exchange for people’s time (including your own) and while it’s not an end in itself, is crucial to know how to manage.
  8.  Parents give me stuff and I sometimes get mad at them : My parents are aging, and I need to take care of them.
  9. Why are there injustices? How does this happen? Why me? Why can’t it be another way? : Uhh…circles of control, circles of control, let’s repeat, circles of control.
  10. What is the point of life? : To find your true talents, enjoy them and share them with others.

Each of those examples contain an experience or series of experiences that point to when I had to grow which is probably why the transition from the roller coaster years of ones teens or early 20s into the more thoughtful years of the 30s and 40s feels so vividly painful. The lessons can only be experienced, bumbled into, knocking you down from left field to remind you that no, you’re not invincible and also no, this will not last forever. In that way, the process and story of growing up, of aging and maturing is experimental, like drafts of an essay and allows itself to be revised before the final version if complete.

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In the country outside of London.

I’m sure each person has her own unique answer, but if I could tell my ambitious, sometimes misguided, youthful self of the early-20s what to do, what would it be? I would probably say, “Stop worrying about those things you do – doing something hard just for the sake of it to achieve a masochistic trophy, ignoring your intuition and gut sense of what is the right or wrong thing. Think about those things you gloss over – what makes you happy and why, skincare (no, sunglasses doesn’t count), and oh, learn a thing or two about saving for your retirement because you’ll get really excited about personal finance just 10 years later.” I might be in the minority to feel so much happier and more fulfilled as I entered my late 20s and into my 30s than I ever did in my early 20s, in college or in high school. For that I’m also very grateful, as I have the maturity to know why I feel so content.

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Likely an acceptable grad school dinner.

London Neighborhood Highlight: Brixton

Since I’ve lived in London, I want to share a few highlights on some neighborhoods outside the usual tourist spots of places like Covent Garden, Soho and Westminster.

Brixton is a hippy (and seriously hip) neighborhood with its own currency called the Brixton pound with the faces of people like David Bowie and Violette Szabo used by some 300 local vendors (they also accept the UK pound). The neighborhood boasts a large indoor food market, delicious Caribbean food, concert venues for the newest rock bands and cafes with prices that say “pay what you can”. It’s like London’s own mini Bohemian artist commune or sociology experiment mixed in with a diverse crowd that seemed to have settled here from all over the world (historically, the neighborhood was mostly Caribbean; it also had some notoriety back in the 1980s and 1990s for gangs, but I suppose those are prime locations for the young and hip in the 2000s and 2010s). Located in South London, you can get to Brixton via the Victoria line.

My suggestion is to check out the Brixton Village and have some delicious Caribbean food, like the jerk chicken we ate below at Fish, Tings and Things. Top it off with a drink

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Fish, Wings and Tings at Brixton Market

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