Negotiating my Identity

Celeste
7 min readJan 25, 2021

An anecdote of top Chinese universities

The top 2 universities in China are Tsinghua University and Peking University (acceptance rate of 0.1–1% depending on your source). To walk in the hallowed halls means you must score the highest for the gaokao in your province — seats are reserved and scores vary by province (which I think is fair as it accounts for unequal wealth between provinces). When I learnt of both schools’ immense prestige in China, I asked a local colleague where the best and brightest students ended up after graduation, and if being graduates of those schools was an accurate predictor of how well they would fare in the workplace. She couldn’t give me an answer.

I got an answer yesterday from Tracy, whose company recruits from both 清华北大. China’s top universities, like Singapore but unlike the US, are public. And the only way you can get in is scoring the highest on your standardised examination. In a way that is fair, because unlike the US where you have to cultivate a list of extracurriculars and get strong recommenders for elite universities, and money and class could give you a significant boost; in China you are competing on academics alone. Not only does it creates a society of doers, not leaders; you can get in even if you have non-existent interpersonal skills. And what was interesting to me was hearing these bright students suffer an identity crisis after they get admitted into 清华北大 (to be fair, I think most of us suffer an identity crisis in freshman year). These students were used to being the top scorers, the brightest amongst their peers; yet the moment they entered university, they realised they were just like everyone else. And apparently they spend the first 2 years of their undergraduate lives basking in nostalgia of their past glories, and the last 2 years of their undergraduate lives trying to find ways to hasten their return to society. They did not want to enter the corporate world; they wanted to make their time last in academics and go all the way to a PhD.

So the job market for 清华北大 was not as competitive and attractive as one would expect. The savvy students make it to the recruitment talks and ready themselves to “enter society”. The rest hope their academic bubble never pops.

Making peace with myself

We actively construct our identity and beliefs based on how we choose to see ourselves. Personally, my self-concept is constructed on the books I read, the signals and feedback I receive from people; and I use it primarily as a form of self-defence, to reject ideas which I think are not in line with ME, or to pursue goals when I believe I’m destined for greatness.

As I enter a new phase of life, I find my self-constructed identity and beliefs that I built up over the past 7–8 years under threat. This phase of life is to quit my job and move to the US to pursue my MBA at what I perceive is the holy grail of schools.

It was hard for me to pinpoint my disconcertment at first, the panic I felt 2 weekends ago and today after meeting fellow admits to the school (or at the very least feeling funny). I felt a bit like those students who have left the province and are entering 清华北大. I used to feel so self-assured of what I was doing in China (market entry) — until I literally met this one other girl over Zoom working on market entries for a way cooler company, Tesla. I used to feel assured that my small circle of (what I hope is) diverse friends were all I needed to carry me through life. But it was quite something to attend a Zoom call which seemed like an entire high school reunion. My future classmates were in consulting, either went to school with A or B or had a junior of C, who had a friend who knew D in Los Angeles, who was in the healthcare industry like E, who also went to school with her brother, and his cousin is applying for the same MBA program this year. Whereas in the past I was comfortable keeping most people at arm’s length, I’m suddenly questioning whether this is wise, if I’m missing out valuable connections. It felt like people had at least 2 degrees of separation from each other, and I had 6.

I used to tell people that the most important thing in life is to make peace with yourself. But recently that trope has sounded hollow to myself because I’m no longer clear how to construct “myself”, accept this image, and then project it to the world.

The active construction of my identity started in freshman year at school. From Tumblr influences and books I read, I decided not to be the person who blindly followed the crowd if it didn’t work for me. I loved quotes like swim against the current/ swim against the stream. I idolised this girl on Tumblr who created a blog on 90s supermodels (influencing my aesthetics), dropped out of her neuroscience course at Brown University, interned for the Paris Review, worked in a film company and covered the Cannes Film Festival, and eventually went into Harvard Law School. And she was only 1 year older than me, and apparently looked like a model herself. I want to be like her — actively constructing my own experiences, being ‘cool’ in my own way even if it wasn’t in front of my peers, and to earn social approval from professors and mentors. I was okay with being a ghost at business school (in fact I proudly announce it to people) and generally at campus, only dropping in on classes I enjoyed. Like the Frank Sinatra song I decided to do things My Way, which meant making friends by chance, traveling and registering for classes alone, and spending a lot of alone time in the library either reading the Wall Street Journal or applying for jobs.

This identity sort of extended when I entered the corporate world. I could not be as independent as before, being subject to a routine and benchmarked with 9 other peers in the cohort (and with other cohorts). But I found my own way to get involved in extra-curriculars, and brought a bit of that independent spirit to start new things at work, like a Lunch Dialogue with a book publisher and with a senior leader. While I was always curious about meeting new people, I was not that close to my cohort, nor with other cohorts, preferring to build 1–1 friendships with people who were ‘my crowd’ (and possibly my echo chamber?).

When in Shanghai, I felt that my identity at work underwent a small evolution. (I realised that while writing this that my identity feels quite performative, and in social life I’m just Celeste to my friends, Celeste who enjoys reading and sending long emails and exploring art museums or new neighbourhoods) Maybe it was having the status of a foreigner in a largely local company that contributed, or the fact that we didn’t speak the same native language, or that I had joined quite an ambiguously named team and many locals were speculating about my future. But whereas in the past I would make lunch plans with someone different every day, and never eat lunch alone, in Shanghai I practically had lunch alone 5 days of the week. But I always resolved to be the nice and helpful girl when colleagues needed help, and to be the resourceful and switched on girl to my managers. As I finally settled into this identity and this rhythm of life which I was comfortable with… it is suddenly time for me to go back to Singapore, and then to the US.

Spending my Saturday night watching Barbie

Knowing my future classmates made me question my modus operandi in life and whether the instincts I had honed in the past would serve me well in the future. Did my lack of networking in Shanghai due to the unfamiliarity make me soft and lazy to meet new people? Do people who go to Harvard watch Barbie movies or Shrek 1–4 on weekends instead of attending board meetings and swooping in to save a charity from financial crisis? Or stay at home on Friday night doing virtual yoga with my boyfriend and eating sushi instead of attending a mixer where the minimum annual income is 300k (RMB)?

Sometimes I try to be more proactive, like text a Singaporean future classmate who’s working in a rival company, or a Wharton graduate working in Stripe, or spontaneously ask someone out for drinks. None of them have replied my messages, and frankly when I lie awake at night my thoughts drift to that. I wonder if I have lost my touch… or if there was a better way to do this.

Sometimes I wonder if people would reply my messages if they knew I was going to HBS. Like take that for ignoring my InMail, sucker! but I know that this is lazy branding. And sometimes I wish that more people would reach out to me if they knew I was going to HBS, for advice or whatever, so I could feel important and useful. And sometimes I know I would feel envious if some other classmates received more requests than I did. Then I would compare our LinkedIn profiles and try to suss out whose experience was more interesting. Because my ego is so fragile… because no matter how many books I read or how moved I am by the Bhagavad Gita at one moment in time, I forget. And I don’t live in a vacuum. Society and people influences pull me back to a world of comparing whose dick size is bigger, who is doing the most, who has the most friends, who is the most sure of the future.

Both Emily and my sister used the word ‘posture’ when I told them about those brunches and Zoom calls with future classmates. Emily was particularly helpful, having done an MBA herself back in 2016. She assured me by saying that everyone is insecure of themselves and hence posture and cling on to who they know (i.e. existing connections). She told me she thinks I would be a ‘sleeper hit’ on campus, someone people start off not really knowing/ recognising/ bothering to make friends with, but then realising the film/ girl was actually amazing! I know Emily is just being nice because everyone is literally amazing once you get to know them better.

There’s no resolution to my current identity crisis, but typing everything out makes me feel better. It will all be A-OK!

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