Photo: Ben Mason

WHEN I LIVED in Beijing, I loved spotting English phrases ironed across t-shirts. Mistranslations are nothing new, but because there are infinite possibilities in their construction, they were always a dependable source of fun:

    Happiness grows sky tall from the place of crying

    Santa’s Dirty Secret

    Hot Biscuits

A favorite of mine was on a t-shirt worn by a Chinese teacher at the school where I taught English. In front of the mass of tiny students she would lead morning exercises with, the phrase Drink. Drank. Drunk. was sprawled in bold letters across her chest. I was unsuccessful in explaining to her that the t-shirt didn’t express an appropriate colloquialism for a kindergarten class. From her perspective, it was just a conjugation.

Besides the entertainment value, there was another reason I found these translations enthralling. Being unable to read, write, or speak Mandarin, these English phrases were often the only form of literature that I could understand outside the walls of my apartment. My English-trained eyes were drawn to these phrases and, in a bizarre way, I was comforted despite their seeming lack of real meaning.

I read them to reassert that I was indeed capable of reading a language. It was an instant ego-boost, as much as reading improper English can be for the newly initiated and illiterate foreigner in China. Drink. Drank. Drunk.

They abounded, these tidbits of English, allowing for some semblance of sanity in times when I felt uncontrollably outside of it all. At least I could read. At least I could mentally edit. At least I might expect a good laugh unexpectedly on my way to work.

Or, at work. I thought the minor appreciations were as far as these guiding words might take me. But then I was met with one which stole the laughs, and instead smacked of reality. On the shirt of a Chinese intern at the same school, it read:

What are you going to do with your life?

And that was it. Bringer of guilt and shame. V-neck of judgment.

The joy of simple, quirky English translations was replaced by perhaps the most dreaded question of every creative-writing major. When you are asked a question like that, and you have no definitive answer, all sorts of uglies are stirred around in your self-conscious. I was happy with my decision to move to Beijing, but it was initially spurred out of interest and curiosity, not what some might call real or confident purpose. I was invested, but I couldn’t honestly say I had planned on it.

* * *

One of the best and worst things I found about style in Beijing was the social permission to wear a single outfit for weeks at a time. On the up-side, you were never left wondering what to wear in the morning; on the down-side, that same shirt, worn by that same intern, taunted me for nearly two weeks: What are you doing with your life? The constant reminder that my priorities were all wrong; that I didn’t even have priorities to begin with. It was the question that had me wriggling on the floor.

A poetry professor who had once been kind enough to hand me a passing grade despite my lack of enthusiasm or talent, also gave a rousing send off at the end of the year. He was an optimist and role-model, and told us that upon graduation from our creative writing majors, we would be congratulated and adored by family and friends. “But,” he warned, “they will all ask you a question, the same question, over and over. What are you going to do?”

Then he paused dramatically, as poets do. “Maybe you have an answer,” he continued, “And maybe not. But the quickest way to end this conversation is to look them straight in the eye, and answer them with: whatever I want.”

* * *

Stunned by the brashness of her shirt, which I had first tried to ignore, I was defensive and doubtful and self-conscious day after day. It was stress inducing, and by day three I had had enough. What else was there to do but look straight into the heart of the message and utter those words of triumph and confidence?

Whatever I want.

Whatever I want!

Theoretically speaking, that is. Had I chanted it out loud while staring at her chest, the discomfort brought on would have led me to write a different story, I’m sure. But I kept it in my mind, turning it over and over again. After a few days, having reminded myself of the importance of aspirations and belief in abilities, the question of what I was doing with my life began to lose its anxiety wielding pressure.

While I wasn’t where I thought I would be three years after graduation, I was a living example of the advice given so enthusiastically. “What are you doing with your life?” The unspoken question that followed me everywhere — whether on my mind or on a t-shirt — was already being answered. I just happened to be in China, when I realized what I happened to be doing was better than what I could have imagined: living in Beijing, overcoming challenges, learning, growing, finding new respect and admiration for a society so apparently different from what I was used to.

I had convinced myself that questions about my future were the worst, fear-inducing kinds of inquiry. What I finally realized, via expressive fashion, was that they can also be the greatest motivator of all. What am I doing with my life? Simply put, I’m living.

Take that, off-brand Hanes, and put it on a sweater.

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