September 13, 2019 | Narrative
看着办 • kànzhebàn
how summer snuffed (much of) my perfectionism
I have lived a significant chunk of my life as a careful, oftentimes stuffy perfectionist—getting annoyed when the picture frame is not perfectly aligned with the edge of the wall; writing a sentence only to erase it, write another one and erase that one too; calculating the exact, dollars-and-cents amount to Venmo my friend after a night at Vivi Bubble Tea. In response to such “dramatic” behaviors, my brother would regularly spout an exasperated “Just DO IT!” Though he probably meant it for comedic purposes more than anything else, I pondered his advice earnestly. Mr. LaBeouf’s motto was (at best) gripping, but really—why would anyone ever “just” do it when you could do it and do it right?
On a small scale, my perfectionism meant wasted time; I’d do rounds of extensive edits to caption a Facebook post. On a larger scale, my inner voice could be deafening. During high-school group projects, no matter how low-stakes, I found myself unable to resist monitoring each inch of progress. The final product had to be perfect…but sometimes even “perfect” didn’t cut it.
Very often, I hated myself for being this way. I hated my perfectionism because more than just slathering the label of “finicky” onto my forehead, it affected my relationships in a way that made people—myself included—uncomfortable, unhappy. But I didn’t know how to deal with the problem. Somewhere in the maze of my mind, haphazardly crammed in a box labeled “Things I Know But Don’t Want to Admit,” my perfectionism surpassed the definition of a character trait. Despite how miserable it made me, it was a moral imperative. I felt a sense of duty to get things right, as if the level of my perfectionism and (over)planning defined the level of importance something had to me.
In other words, I was experiencing a dangerous chemical reaction. My perfectionism catalyzed overthinking catalyzed worry catalyzed hesitation, and the result was a crippling conglomeration of insecurity and micromanagement. I didn’t know how to let go.
“Alligator, alligator, CHOMP, CHOMP, CHOMP!” I croaked for what seemed like the 257th time that day. This was definitely not how I imagined my summer—making a fool out of myself daily in front of a horde of five-year-olds who barely understood me. But what else could I do to hold their attention when Chinese was their native tongue and English was mine? What else could I do when my arsenal consisted of a crate of Play-Doh and the Baby Shark song? Perhaps it sounds obvious to you that a five-year-old will only stop throwing his paper airplane when something of greater interest catches his eye, but the realization humbled me. After my summer working in China, I’m ready to argue that no amount of “training,” no curated resume, no Ivy League education properly prepares you for impersonating an angry alligator. At some point, you just kind of have to whip it out and comply.
“CHOMP, CHOMP, CHOMP!” they screamed back at me.
I began my job as a camp counselor in China with a paper schedule in one hand and a class flag (featuring Peppa Pig) in the other. By the third day, the schedule had been tossed. By the third week, the class flag was abandoned. My brain was deluged with allergy information, favorite colors, whose water bottle was whose, and the best strategies for stopping fights (“if you don’t listen to me, I will eat your egg tart”). Naturally, my perfectionism was punched in the face—and the chest and the stomach and the groin, for that matter. These five-year-olds simply did not care about arriving on time to Activity One or reading The Assigned Book. And by the second week in, I didn’t care either (I did, however, make sure we read The Giving Tree). Often, I didn’t even know what we would be doing until 20 seconds before I informed the kids themselves. Creativity, improvisation, and patience were the key tools of success; perfectionism, logic, and overly careful consideration were not. So whenever my co-worker asked me, “How does some group time watching Mr. Bean sound?” I would immediately respond in the affirmative.
After camp ended, I decided to travel around China with a close friend I had made in the chaos of the classroom. Another insult to perfectionism—we didn’t necessarily have a plan. We missed our train because we took the wrong subway line, we didn’t do half of the things we originally brainstormed, we ate corn for lunch and Oreos for dinner, we lost $70 because a typhoon canceled my train back to Beijing…and despite it all, we had so much fun.
If you had told me this story a year ago, it would have sounded like irresponsible, poorly executed traveling. But I have since come to value the imperfections of a good adventure: not stressing about the particulars, paying for each other’s meals without conscientious calculation, using hand towels to dry off after cold showers. Not to mention that I was obligated to depend on my friend to plan, choose, and order because I barely understood the Chinese language. For once, I was put in a position where almost everything was out of my control: Perfectionism was simply not an option. I had to trust, I had to wait, I had to accept. And if I didn’t, it was only at the expense of my own happiness. So I chose again to respond in the affirmative. When I did, I felt a peace and a joy I hadn’t experienced before. This was really living to me, really learning, loving.
One day, laughing over yet another story about a childhood crush, my friend asked me what I was going to do when I got back home. “Nǐ huí jiā yǐhòu dǎsuàn zuò shén me?”
I thought back to my time that summer enacting an alligator. I remembered the 70 lost dollars and the canceled train and the impulsive street food purchases. I replayed in my mind all the times that my plans had fallen to pieces and all the times that something even more beautiful had replaced them.
“I’ll play it by ear,” I said.
“Kànzhebàn,” my friend replied. “In Chinese, we say, kànzhebàn.”
As I repeated her Chinese, trying to get the pronunciation right, we turned the corner and stumbled across a stinky tofu stand. “Oho…” my friend began, and we slowly smiled at each other.
I laughed because we had just stuffed ourselves with dinner an hour before. Kànzhebàn, I thought, and swung my arm around her shoulders.
“It’s on me.”