When I was younger, in my teens, a friend of mine gave me a letter one holiday season. We were each assigned a secret Santa, someone who’d surprise us with a gift and a little holiday note on the last day of school before Christmas break. One of my dear friends happened to draw my name. So, instead of a bland card with the generic “Happy Holidays,” she decided to write me a letter, recalling all the good times that we’d had together. At the end, she wrote that I had this quality she hadn’t seen in others around her. She said I was tenacious and she wished she had that too. What a lovely compliment.
But, I had no idea what tenacious meant.
So, I politely said thank you, gave her a hug for the note, put it in my bag, and then slipped away to find a dictionary – this was before the era of the Internet. I landed on tenacious. I even tried to pronounce it- sounded funny to me. What on earth could it mean? And then I learned, it meant to have willpower, to persevere, to keep going, to keep trying, to not give up.
Later, when I was in college and had to write letters, expressing my interest to work in a place, do an internship, or apply for a fellowship, I always used one word to describe myself – tenacious.
I was raised in an immigrant household. I didn’t learn tenacity from a dictionary. I saw it in front of me. I saw success and immense failure. I saw good times and very rough times. I knew what it took to put food on the table. I saw sacrifice daily. And I saw tenacity.
That frugality and work ethic stuck with me. I went to college and worked three jobs – two that paid housing and expenses, and the other that helped me inch closer to my dreams. I spent early mornings and afternoons in newsrooms in DC, chasing journalists and producers. I spent evenings sitting through classes on the Cold War. And then spent nights, writing papers, completing assignments, and doing yoga at 2 am to relax. I also had my share of good times with friends. But it was always a humble existence. It was always an existence that knew that this would be the way to a better future, a more secure future, a future of my dreams.
And then I graduated during the pinnacle of the recession. Even with a stellar CV, I found myself entering an economy that didn’t have time, space, or money for me and my classmates. So, I applied to graduate school and, shockingly, got in after a few weeks of submitting my application. But I didn’t have the funds. So I applied to countless scholarships. I got rejected and rejected and rejected. Then, I applied to some more. And finally, found my match. A year later, I found myself walking the streets of London, something I had only dreamed of. Even though I had money in my pocket to catch the bus after class, I would walk. Even though I had money to buy a decent lunch, I’d go for the simple sandwich. Even though, I could have spent on myself a little, I saved. I suppose that frugality resulted from having seen the struggles in my childhood. It was fear that you’d never want to run out.
And in the process of doing all this, I discovered the beauty of service. Perhaps because I grew up in a humble abode, I could relate to the art of service, to giving to those who had less. For me, it became my passion. I enjoyed spending time in rural villages, tending to public health issues. I enjoyed sitting with other young twenty-year-olds, trying to figure out new innovative solutions to serious problems. I enjoyed reading about great leaders who lived big lives on little resources. I enjoyed listening to others stories, learning from their struggles. I enjoyed prodding inefficient organizations and agencies to give more, to do more for their communities.
And yet, while I would spend hours in rural communities, tending to these needs, and coming back home to figure out how to get through silly bureaucracy to get funding for them, I’d run into a middle class, living a life of luxury – far beyond their means. It didn’t matter where I’d look, whether in the so-called rising Asian giants or in the developed world, I saw young people walking around with technology hanging from every pocket, wearing branded t-shirts, shoes, bags, and even socks. And I thought to myself, have we simply exported our bad habits globally?
After all, a generation and a world that had never seen credit cards was now using them – and liberally so. Cities that had deep, cyclical poverty also had families getting bigger homes, more cars to fill all the parking spaces (literally), and more designer wear to compliment their new 21st century lives. I saw bakeries pop up, feeding those already a little too plump with more gluttony. Outside such a shop, a starved man and his family would be sitting, but few looked at him or recognized his presence. I saw globalization benefit thousands in the metros and leave thousands more behind in its shadows. I saw youth that had been granted everything and had little to achieve on their own.
What we had achieved on paper and pencil, they needed an iPhone to do it on. What we achieved by working jobs after school, they expected from their parents. Places we worked so hard to visit by getting scholarships and support, they vacationed in during their holidays with ease.
And I wondered, will this generation have the same work ethic? Will this world have the same tenacity that I learned first-hand? Or has this world’s expectations of a “comfortable” life grown so exponentially that if they don’t slow down, they may just come crumbling down?
As an immigrant, I’ve traveled continents, lived my life in fragments, parts here and parts there. I’ve learned that every society has its flaws. But today, when I see the rise of Asian societies, I worry that perhaps they’ve adopted the bad economical habits that are ravaging the Western world.
We’ve been told repeatedly that one can still live big with less, yet we ignore that advice and indulge our senses. But at the cost of what? To breed a generation that expects luxury but doesn’t know how to achieve it? To breed a generation that doesn’t know struggle, only excess? To breed a generation that isn’t equipped with the tenacity to take on the challenges that life presents?
I hope not. I hope that the mistakes of our economies in the West can be a lesson. A life with less can still be a grand life.