Social conventionalism, free will, and Senegal

The way I see it, too much social conventionalism makes you dumb and that free will is never quite free. (wow preachings from an edgy teen how insightful) But I say this only because I’ve experienced what most people have — realizing that they want from life is clouded by social expectations. So I managed to make the conscious decision of taking a gap year. (Probably, subconsciously, performing unconventional actions will help me illustrate the illusion of practicing my “free” will.) But this is mostly because of my (overtly idealistic?) determination that life has much more to offer than the golden standard route of high school, ivy league, corporate slave, parenting, and alas death. Perhaps I’m wrong, but this is me taking the leap of faith to learn to strive in a somewhat different environment. And hopefully, this year will allow the time for me to learn and reinvigorate myself and the opportunity to think about other people other than me me me and my academic burnout.



Welcome to my blog aka the blog of a human who’s constantly caught in the states of confusion, amusement, exhaustion and teenage angst. I guess you could blame my traits of millennial indecisiveness / lack of self-awareness for being the way that I am but this is also partial to life’s inevitable chain of events. E.g. My long-awaited gap year to India had officially been cancelled 2 days prior to my flight to San Francisco for the Global Citizen Year launch. I received this news over the hong kong indian embassy counter from the lady whom I’ve been meeting for (no joke) the whole of summer. I’ve been told to come back to the embassy every other day to check up on my employment visa status and was finally declined on my seventh visit. Hallelujah. And yes, even bribing the consulate doesn’t work. I’ve tried every possible way there is, trust me. Weirdly, it felt liberating and (as cringe-worthy as it sounds) magical. I’d like to see this as proof that (LIBERTARIAN FREE WILL IS A BAG OF LIES and that) life is not a static one-ended road, but a vast uncharted map awaiting for venturing (and conditioned by hard determinism). I was reminded of how often I try too hard to shape my life the way I want it to turn out. Yet, I forget I am guided by my own devices as much as I am by fate. As the saying goes — “One does not make the wind but is blown by it.” So here I am. The wind has blown me to Senegal. (To the land where visas are not required. Bless.) And Imma embrace it. 



But before I tell my journey to Senegal, I would have to explain how the week-long pre-departure training in San Francisco has helped me gain clarity in reassuring my conscience and in feeding my curiosity. 



To be frank, my conscience has been questioned ever since I’ve been enrolled into this program. I feared that this gap year would reek of voluntourism (which I have, shamefully, experienced before and would like to avoid it from happening ever again.) Specifically speaking, the education apprenticeships where fellows would teach English at local schools had me thinking whether we as high school graduates are equipped with the qualified skills to teach the students and whether learning English is a priority in the respective societal context. But after learning that our roles would be teaching assistants and English club leaders whose job is to spark students’ interest in learning instead of being the formal teacher, I felt a wave of relief. Understanding how our role as fellows is mainly to observe and learn from them as opposed to “making an impact” has led me to the realization of why I’m here — To see the world before thinking of changing the world.



I was pleasantly surprised at how thought-provoking the sessions were. The global cohort had the chance to learn about the functioning of the non-profit starvation cycle, the role of the private sector in supporting social change (e.g. visited the LinkedIn headquarters to see how they built platforms for refugees, veterans and the youth to attain better access to employment) and how the exposure to cultures and common sense is quintessential to crisis management in developing countries (e.g. malaria medication with english instruction manuals are often sent to French-speaking African countries. people die of malaria due to confusion of dosage amounts. why? lack of understanding of the local language during manufacturing. poor crisis management? check.) Some speakers were super cool. I still remember vividly Chinese American documentary filmmaker and diversity trainer Lee Mun Wah’s speech on the importance of conversation. There was a certain gravity he held as he spoke. My favorite quote that I jot down from the philosopher was “The world is all around us and we are confined only by the boundaries we make for ourselves.” By instinct, conversations are made with people whom we love but not with whom we were taught to fear. And that’s what’s keeping us from the togetherness and human connection that we so hungrily strive for. 



This resounded with me greatly. Having spent my childhood in Shanghai and teenage years in Hong Kong, I found myself constantly comparing (and being compared) the nuances between the two cultures. Despite being under the same country, the differences were stark. In mainland China, naked babies peeing through the holes of shopping carts and walls graffitied with telephone numbers offering “scamming classes” were seen as normality. In Hong Kong, bringing your 4-year-old baby to tutorial classes and queueing up for everything were seen as normality. And if you’ve ever lived in Hong Kong, you would understand how the anti-mainland sentiment has posed such a prevalent stereotype-based discrimination against one another. Then it struck me: the differences we share is as much as the similarities we share. It’s all up to ourselves to recognizing the importance in taking initiative in understanding.



With these thoughts and an endless list of questions, I set sail to wherever the wind takes me. And in this case, it has taken me to West Africa — Senegal. 



TLDR: Shannon will take her gap year in Senegal instead of India due to visa difficulties. She finds pre-departure training quite amusing and her year ahead even more so. Stay tuned as life in Senegal unfolds…