One of my best friends, Julie, just landed a really great job in New York City. She recently moved from California to New York with no promise of employment or an apartment, but the other day, she texted me “I GOT THE JOB”— and even though she’s still unceasingly hunting for apartments in Brooklyn while living off of bagels and poetry, she’s most definitely on her way.
What does being an adult mean? Having a salary, your own apartment, an impeccable credit score? Being out of debt or in a committed relationship? At what age do you become an adult? 18, maybe, but in this country that means you can vote and die for your country but can’t legally be trusted to drink alcohol, so in my book – and my parents’ – that seems a bit off. I was drinking beer at age 16 while living in Germany, and I proudly voted in my first presidential election while in college at age 18, but I don’t know if I felt like an adult at those ages. I first fell in love as a teenager; I got my driver’s license at age 20; but I don’t make enough money to pay taxes, and I haven’t reached the era of child rearing or “real” jobs (whatever that means). I turned 21 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in the midst of an incredible international conference, and even though my birthday had nothing to do with a legal drinking age like it would have back in the States, I definitely felt older. Halfway around the world, I remember, I felt like I was truly coming into my own. During that conference, I saw myself through the eyes of strangers that I became close with, and I liked what I saw. I remember leaving Malaysia and getting ready to start my senior year at Elon thinking, It’s nice to know who I am, who I can be in that big wide world out there. I have so much to look forward to.
And now, a fresh 23-year-old, and all I can think about is what Julie recently said to me in light of negotiating a salary for her new NYC job: “You know, being an adult in general is incredibly uncomfortable.” Maybe a little naïve sounding, but you know what? We’re a babied generation. And being an adult is taking some getting used to.
I’m getting ready to start a nine-month teaching assignment at a university in Sri Lanka. I’m going to be teaching English literature to young adults roughly my age who will be, for the most part, taller than me. This will certainly be a growth opportunity (no pun intended). Maybe I’ll feel like an adult when I step into that classroom, lecturing to my students about the merits of Dave Eggers’ nonfiction or the power of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories. My height and the “Miss” before my name might throw my students off, but I have every intention of acting and teaching like a full-fledged “adult.” Can’t be too hard, right?
Here’s what I do know: we’re supposed to take this all one step at a time. I’m reminded of something I wrote to myself after my semester in Ghana: Please don’t forget what it feels like to lie under a mosquito net in the middle of a stifling afternoon with no fan and be happy. Find the places, the small adventures, the little things that make you that happy. Yes, you have lots to miss now, but find solace in the fact that what you enjoyed and the ways in which you enjoyed them will always be yours to hang on to in some way.
I guess as I truly take those lessons to heart, I’m becoming an adult. We take things one step at a time, one picture window to the next, moving forward while occasionally pausing to study our reflections in the shadowy glass and to ask ourselves, Is this who I want to be? Do my actions inspire others? Do my relationships fuel me? Do my experiences reflect my values and passions? If we can breathe yes, we’re doing what we’re meant to do. We are where we’re meant to be.
I’m not where I have been. I’m not where I am going. But I’m on my way.