“Two drifters, off to see the world, there’s such a lot of world to see….”
This line from the iconic song “Moon River” kept returning to me as I started this column. Last Friday, during one of my daily Chinese lessons, my teacher and I decided to make a small digression—we would talk about music and movies rather than clothes. We ended up discussing Breakfast at Tiffany’s—largely because I had earlier learned how to say “little black dress” in Chinese (小黑裙), and it reminded me of Audrey Hepburn’s iconic outfit from the film. “Moon River” reverberates with greater meaning at the start of a new year in college or a new life outside of it because it speaks to embracing possibility and the unknown.
To this point, I am now quite enthusiastic about learning Chinese, but this was hardly the case when I arrived in Beijing. When I got here in June, I was dead set on having the gap year I told everyone I was going to have. This was the gap year where I would work long hours to get a couple of publications under my belt, escape to a different Chinese city every weekend and explore all that Asia more generally had to offer. Learning Chinese was not part of that gap year because it would take time away from everything else. I saw my desired gap year as a great adventure, one that would improve me both as a person and as a professional. And I had it scripted perfectly.
My time in China has certainly been an adventure—just not the one I expected. Taking Chinese lessons is one example. My work is another. When I came here I expected to conduct research in much the same way I had as a research assistant in Cambridge, Mass. I quickly learned that doing research in China is very different from doing research in the United States. There are more obstacles to good work: slow Internet speeds, greater censorship, limited access to reliable data and more pressure to do things quickly rather than methodically. Plus the fact that most work is done in Chinese! But what would you expect?
The project that I was assigned to lead in China was also vastly different from the kind of work I had done back in the States. Instead of spending most of my time alone, tethered to my computer, working on Stata or Excel, I am now responsible for leading a team. We are working to design a study that will quantitatively assess the quality and impact of management practices in Chinese hospitals. This will require us to develop a comprehensive survey, hire and train people to implement it and then collect, store and analyze data from hundreds of interviews with Chinese hospital administrators.
I don’t have a lot of experience with designing surveys, hiring or firing people and amassing large data sets. These aren’t things that most people learn as undergrads at Duke or anywhere else. The “real world” is filled with many things that school can’t teach you, but that you have to teach yourself. On balance, I am more excited by these challenges than I am overwhelmed by them—even when they force me to take a detour or to go off script. I decided to learn Chinese—a small challenge in itself! —because I thought it would make my time in China more fun and meaningful. It has. And so I have become a bit more open to embracing the unplanned and the unknown.
When the verdict comes in, will I see my gap year as a wise choice or a waste of time? The jury is still out—it is too early to tell where my gap year is taking me. But for the first time in my life, I feel that I am the primary author of my own constantly revised script. Most people think that college is usually that time of initial self-authorship, but I am not so sure any more. I’ve seen too many people follow the same, unimaginative script: freshman year is about parties, sophomore year recovery, junior year internships and senior year jobs. What comes next?
A gap year can be a challenging, empowering and liberating period of time. Challenging because it's about being tied down to commitments you didn't create for yourself, or even expect, and figuring out how to really own them. Empowering because you have more space to fail, to grow, to learn about yourself. To define and refine your interests and passions. To meet new friends and see new places. And liberating because it offers you an opportunity to imagine—perhaps for just a year—a life different from the one you already had scripted.
Paul Horak, Trinity ’13, is currently conducting research as a Peking University Young Health Economist Fellow in Beijing, China. This column is the second installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the gap year experience, as well as the diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom. Send the “gap year-ers” a message on Twitter @MindTheGapDuke.