Photo from Patrick Nunn, Wikimedia
Cindy Huang; Beijing, China—
Gen Z, composed of a group of the world’s youngest little giants, makes up over a third of Earth’s population. Exposed to rapidly evolving modern civilizations, they face the toughest challenges as ancient architecture collapses and a demand for evolution threatens them. Clashing cultures, raging social change and overwhelming environmental crises are thrown at them, but they stand firm, stand tall and stand with a loud voice; they bloom with sparkling innovation, and they heal. Connected through shared responsibility and hope for the future, Gen Z will never stop taking action and reaching for a place higher than the world can imagine.
Though I’m not an avid “Harry Potter” fan, I’ve known this saying from J.K. Rowling as long as my memory allows: “It’s our choices that show what we truly are.” When I sobbed goodbye on my best friend’s shoulder, when I shivered on the airplane in awe of the beauty of the islands in Micronesia and finally when I shook off the drowsiness from my 36-hour plane ride and felt the first rush of wind of Pohnpei, that particular sentence echoed in my ears, and my heart went “ba-dumph.” The wind blown from the hot and cold mixture of clouds hovering above the vast Pacific gently brushed my cheeks in welcome and smothered a humid towel over me.
I’ve made a seemingly impossible choice—I’ve decided to transfer from my hometown, Beijing, China, to come to Pohnpei, a small island in the northwestern Pacific that was no more than a dot on the world map, with roaring waves and thriving jungles. My family has moved often, so I was used to announcing moves to friends and teachers. Like I had in the past, I followed my parents because of their work. But I felt people’s disbelief when I pronounced the syllabes alien to my tongue and their ears, “Pohn-pae.”
Even now, almost two years after my arrival here, I’m still wondering what this choice says about me. Perhaps you could say I have no more intelligence than tree bark, giving up quality education, leaving a safe haven of close-knit family and friends, or perhaps you’re mildly entertained by my choice and would give me an encouraging smile.
Two years. It could be a blink of an eye—the dinosaurs roamed the earth for 180 million years. It could be an eternity—the universe formed from complete emptiness to everything and anything in only 0.0000001 seconds. Truly, everything and anything has happened as a first for me since I’ve set foot in this isolated equatorial jungle.
The first day I entered the school, my heart pumped its way into my throat and my entire frame trembled uncontrollably. How should one feel coming to a new country—a country unknown by anyone in their own community? What feelings stir when one lands, for the first time, into a religious private school? A school, in fact, that has never taught a student from China? Being the one actually in the situation, all I could remember was a nauseating feeling of trying to gulp down my breakfast, desperately waving off a giant mosquito feasting on my left ankle and squinting my eyes to avoid the blazing tropical sun.
Four classrooms, each with 30 individual blue plastic seats carved with slang and a dull green chalkboard, clustered in a modest two-story concrete building. Chocolate -colored young boys and girls ran out on the grass barefoot, squeezed themselves out of the windows and knocked each other over the stairs to catch a glimpse of the yellow-skinned, short-haired girl from an unfamiliar Asian country. My heart fluttered and an irregular beat thumped against my temple as I tried to shake off all the whispering, staring and hooting. Lively spirits huddled around me, clinging and shoving each other, those in the back hopping on top of those in the front, brown eyes wide, smiles shy but quivering with excitement. “I’m…” “..and I’m—” “ah…I’m..”… “Hey it’s my turn!” My heart was clasped tight by suffocating self-consciousness, and their excitement towards my novel existence pulled me under a shroud of relief. Had I made myself accepted? Was I one of them now? Could we fish by the shores, swim in the reefs and hike in the most beautiful parts of the Pacific jungles? Could we talk about Ariana Grande and streaming Netflix hits and new shoes?
Occasionally someone would pinch another and yell something in the native tongue, Pohnpeian, sending blasts of wild laughter among the crowd gathered, always startling me. I prayed they didn’t see through the weariness underneath my stiff smiling muscles.
Sheepish glances. Blank faces. Averted eyes.
Lively spirits ran away. Not one group of them were as insane as to betray the non-verbal rule and include the novel existence in their pack. It was one thing to be poked around at and occasionally used to be a dare in games, but entirely different to talk about music and school like friends.
So who am I to you? Why did I bring myself here?
The locals had their pride and their language. They laughed often, but I had no idea what the joke was. A looming steel wall was built in between them and me, and hopelessness haunted me. Instead of daggers, they pulled dull daggers, instead of murderers, they were innocent murderers.
What was it? I didn’t eat kimchi or ramen or raw fish straight out of the pack with kool-aid. But the lively spirits did.I didn’t take showers in the rain that poured every morning, afternoon and night nor did I walk barefoot in the wet jungles. But the lively spirits did. I was scared of the swarms of stray dogs on the streets and couldn’t make myself put coconut oil on my scalp. But the lively spirits did. Were these the reasons why I felt like the loneliest outsider ever?
I was on a bumpy ride in the school van. It was the wildest, most disintegrated road I’ve seen. The bustling bushes and ferns on the sides, taller than any of us, were eating up the road—or, more accurately, the muddy strip—in the middle. Dents, puddles and rocks in the ground dotted the jungle path. The van was carrying our class to our classmate Adrian’s mother’s funeral at her house. As we struggled along the path, I felt like I was being tossed and turned in a washing machine. My knuckles were pale from clutching the seat too tight. Classmates around me slouched in their seats with bare feet propped up on whatever they could find—an empty ramen box, a person’s back or shoulder, a corner of the van, dusty and full of lizards. They were preying on a can of chocolate icing of some American brand—someone must have been lucky enough to snatch it off the shelf before it ran out, and we’d have to live off what was stored for weeks or months before another ship docked at the pier. A hand gave the messy plastic can to me nervously. The plastic can was wrinkled after being licked and poked by tongues and fingers of 10 teens on the van. I flashed a smile at the girl, who probably was holding her breath for my reaction, so she could hurry back to her friends. I gestured to my abdomen area and moved my hands outward in a circular motion, my way of telling her I was full.
We had already driven almost two hours on dirt roads before this new challenge. I tried to imagine how it must be for Adrian every morning when she goes to school, and, for a moment, my heart was quiet and full as I could think of nothing else but her. She entered my mind with a sudden tenderness, as this slightly chubby, curly-haired girl who always looks at me silently, with a sweet shy smile, the closest connection we’ve had to a conversation. Details of her that I never knew I took into notice flooded my mind: the rhythm of her laugh, the flip of her hair whenever she made a joke. As if there was someone else within me, someone who had been attentive towards my classmates in ways one typical teen would be towards another, rather than seeing them as a difficult task that aroused insecurity. A magical moment, belonging to me.
“Vummmm—HUM!” I jolted at the sound that brought me back to reality. Our driver, a friendly young local man, was stepping hard on the pedal and leaning forward, sweating. The engine roared and puffed as if catching its breath. The road was now not only muddy, but a steep slope as well! I held in a gasp as my back was shoved to my seat. The hill was so steep I couldn’t sit straight in my seat, I could only lean back in vain. With every churn of the engine we would move uphill a few meters, only to be pulled back more by gravity.
“Alright guys, time to walk!”
I stepped outside into the steaming heat in the jungles, and I spotted Adrian, hands on her hips and dressed in a hot pink t-shirt, beaming at us. I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating—and there she was, more jolly than ever, hugging everyone who approached. Only after did I learn that in Pohnpeian traditions, you don’t show your pain, or else you appear vulnerable.
I offered a sweaty embrace, trying to pour my empathy into this hug. The sky seemed to glow brighter as I noticed how her freckles were asymmetrical as she smiled at me.
The jungle’s canopy above me provided some shade as we dug deeper into the forest. Rustling sounds of bustling tropical creatures—stodgy toads half-hidden behind the damp leaves, lively emerald green grasshoppers and shiny brown crickets, deft blue-tailed lizards zig-zagging their way around mushrooms, and cockatoos whistling a high cheerful note—the sound seemed to be very close, but also very distant. You could never tell while surrounded by the charm of the forests.
We took turns crossing a moss-covered log perched across a dead pool of water. I felt light from the beauty of the forest and, trying hard not to grin like crazy among my grim-faced classmates, I hopped cheerfully onto the log … “Oiiiaahh!”
Pain! Pain! Burning sensation spread rapidly. Sharp pain shot up my knee and palms.
“Ughhmmm…” I moaned under my breath as I shakily got up from the viscous mud.
“You alright?” One of my teachers gasped from some distance ahead. Her voice was muffled because of the heat and my dizziness from skidding across the jungle bed.
“I’m fine, Miss,” I called back hoarsely, carefully stepping out of the way of the line of classmates behind. Some eyed me, some didn’t.
I trembled for a while, just staring blankly at my limbs, drenched with mud, trying to wrap my head around the situation. My chest was heavy from climbing sixty-degree slopes, my stomach was wrestling itself from the roller coaster car ride up and my throat felt drier than the Sahara desert.
It was a petite Filipina who walked in front of me. “ I can hold your water bottle.”
I was surprised but handed the bottle over.
Quietly, I took a deep breath and cleaned myself with water from the dead pool. Yuck. It was almost swarming with flies and I shuddered once I saw the cuts under the mud, praying the water wouldn’t infect my wounds. The thick silence of the jungle wrapped us once the class ventured further. Only the sound of my shaky breathing echoed as the dirty water slipped through my cupped hand.
“Here,” My classmate dropped to her knees and started to join in my effort of scooping water on my wound. I gasped and almost flinched as her hand touched my skin.
I noticed beads of precipitation as she concentrated on gently rubbing my wound, trying to avoid touching the part where blood was gushing. My freed hands were twitching with uncertainty. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing.” She casually stood without glancing at me, and handed me my bottle after shaking dirt off of it.
“I think it’ll be fine.”
We finally reached Adrian’s house after another climb, indulging in a lot of monkey-like movements using hands and feet. I looked over and realized I could overlook Sokehs Rock, an iconic sight in Pohnpei that had an altitude of about 300 meters. I let out a shaky breath, we had certainly reached a high point. The barrier reef, a stark white line in the distance was also visible from her house. A fresh breeze from the ocean below rustled through palm trees and whooshed my sweaty hair back. It smelled like crystal salt water, a smell I knew by heart, something I was attached to by now.
I caught my breath, and started after the footsteps of my classmates ahead with a tiny, wishful smile.
The funeral. We stood next to the grave stacked from earthy soil and covered with a single large coconut leaf, listening to the representative of Adrian’s family—judging from his age, he was either her grandpa or uncle—speak in Pohnpeian. He wiped his face with his half-torn orange t-shirt from time to time, speaking fluently, though I didn’t have a clue what he was saying. The sole word I recognized was “paneinei,” meaning “family.” It proved to be enough.
Beads of sweat rolled into the creases on his face. An image of my grandpa in China flashed before my eyes. They had the same furrowed brows, the same gentle gleam in their eyes when they spoke of their family, and all of a sudden, I didn’t feel the pain from my fall anymore. As I stood there, catching different tones of “paneinei,” I felt at ease, though I was standing on the jungle floor, attending my first funeral, a local funeral, and listening to a language I didn’t understand. For the first time since I stepped on the island, I didn’t feel panicked to be a Pohnpeian. I could understand the language without words. The force that drew me here was so strong, forming such an ineffable bond between one soul of intellect and another, between me and them, between one culture and another.
As the van started again down the road and back to school, I leaned my head against the dusty window and gazed at the shimmering sea.
I came, I saw, I conquered.
I’ve made the choice to come.
I’ve seen unbelievable sights and experienced once-in-a-lifetime events that will sound like fairy-tale fantasies to my friends.
I’ve conquered the differences between humans on this earth that live under such varying conditions. I’ve conquered the hatred and love, the outstanding and the seemingly untouchable.
And if anything, the sea, the coconut-scented wind and the boars on the hill had witnessed my fall and my climb, my choice to come and see. They will keep my story and whisper it to the fertile earth, until I come back one day and continue the story.
What I want to conclude is: never be afraid. There are so many possibilities, so many people on this earth that live and think differently beyond your wildest imagination. You are bound to be challenged, to feel the pain and to be loved. But if you never take the step forward, you’ll never discover your true potential. Always head in the direction of the path less traveled and embrace what terrifies you. You’ll find the love underlying utterly different worlds, and it might be through a simple, deep word, paneinei.
This is the story of Generation Z, a story of multiculturalism in our world facing rapid globalization. Today, try to listen to the stories and voices of us. We are not only a generation; we are the cradle of revolution and the future of creation.