Monday, November 11, 2013

College Admissions Essay: San Mao Showed Me

This was my MIT admissions essay.  The prompt was something like "tell us about something that inspired you."  I always really liked it although it never occurred to me to share it with anyone before.  I found it again recently at my mom's house.  Although some of the word choices are a bit off, I still really relate to this essay.  

About once a year, I take out my box of children's books and sift through the colorful pages remembering how things used to be.  A couple of years ago, as I was indulging my nostalgia, I remembered how the picture stories made me feel and decided that they had much more literary value than I had previously thought.  One such piece particularly meaningful to me is a Chinese comic book called "San Mao," directly translated as "Three Hairs."

It's a pretty bland comic overall - nothing like the vibrantly colorful Disney cartoons, inviting children into warm and fuzzy worlds of fantasy.  "San Mao" was all black and white and most of the stories were pretty depressing now that I think about it.  The main character is a young orphan, who suffers from such extreme malnutrition that he only has three hairs.  Thus, he is dubbed San Mao, or Three Hairs.

The comic starts out with him gazing dejectedly at a sheep and her lambs in the countryside.  He cried (and I cried) because he was deprived of such an unconditionally caring relationship.  He then finds his way to the bustling streets of Shanghai, one of China's most congested cities, hoping for a life of peace and plenty.  Instead, he finds Shanghai in a state of riot and turmoil with multitudes of people just as pitiful as he.  Disappointments abound, he finds that Shanghai also has multitudes of people living in luxury, possessing only disdain for the surrounding poverty.  It made me feel personally affronted.  I was hurt that people were so inconsiderate and avaricious.  How could anyone sit cozily inside with the space heater eating ice cream, while others froze in the bitter cold of winter?  Couldn't the police see that San Mao was just trying to make a meager living by shoe shining?  So what if it's illegal?  Did they really have to confiscate his chair and box of shoe shining equipment?  

Reading San Mao was definitely not a conventional means for moral training.  Written in 1952, the social afflictions and unrest of Shanghai depicted in the comic can seem anachronistic.  However, the lessons are global and timeless.  I didn't know this at the time, but San Mao showed me at an extremely young age how good and bad can be conditional, and that no one is above this conditional scrutiny, not even a policeman.  Furthermore, since everything is seeped in chagrin and irony, individual blame is almost completely irrelevant.  Subsequently, all that remains is an image of helplessness and a yearning for a better world.  

At one point, as San Mao starts to whet his appetite for idealism by reading a book directly translated as "World Enlightenment," he witnesses a man being robbed.  He becomes so discouraged that he rips the book apart.  In contrast, my early exposure to calamity has helped me overcome this initial sense of disappointment.  I decided that San Mao's tragic kingdom does not have to be so tragic.  San Mao showed me things that I do not like and initiated within me a resolve to work for things that I do like.  

Since then, I found out that San Mao is actually as popular as Mickey Mouse in China.  It was written by an alcoholic communist, who was depressed and cynical about the poverty in Shanghai.  Its popularity is a reflection of the trauma and turmoil of modern Chinese history.  I'm sure the children growing up in China now can't really relate to it as much.  

When I wrote it, I felt I was taking a big risk, especially since by then I already knew it was sort of about communism.  I really did want to get into MIT, but I also felt the need to "test" them I suppose.  I wanted to know that mildly unconventional thoughts would be welcome.  I'm glad I did since it did make the admission feel more legitimate, since they accepted me knowing who I am.

Nowadays I still relate to the essay because it's probably the best description of why I don't really get that depressed about the state of the world no matter how bad things sometimes get.  For example, many people will say how they get discouraged when they read more about global warming and how so little is being done about it.  I mean, I know it's because nobody really wants to put in effort for something that might be a lost cause.  But I'm not concerned about that since it's not like I have something better to do, and seeing immediate results isn't that important to me.  Anyway, global warming and everyone else's lives will move on whether you're depressed about it or not, so you might as well give up feeling hopeless and fulfilling self-fulfilling prophesies.

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