Vicky Ding: Baby shoes

Guest Columnist
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2017

Inspired by the mother of the protagonist Sam in “Transformers 2,” my dad proudly paraded through Keeney on orientation day with my baby shoes around his neck (or “baby booties,” as Sam’s mom calls them).

I took my first steps in these tiny red shoes. They flew with me across the Pacific from Toronto to Beijing when I was barely two. Sixteen years later, my dad carefully packed them into his suitcase to Providence. Barely aware of their existence, I sensed that this pair of palm-sized mementos held more sentimental value for my parents than for me.

Growing up, I had always relied on my parents for advice. A trivial dilemma: what shoes to wear to prom? Or a major one: which university to attend? Involving my parents in every step was like a game of trust-fall. I openly embraced new risks, but only when assured that a safety net would catch me if I really “fell.” I expected my parents to right my wrongs before I hit the ground. This was the thinking that accompanied me as I first walked through the Van Wickle Gates.

Coming from Beijing, I had never watched a single football game, let alone the Super Bowl, and I initially thought Greek life was a secret society for history majors. Being international on top of being an already lost freshman was not easy. In the first months of college, I constantly dialed those familiar digits for advice like a natural reflex, looking for detailed analyses of the pros and cons of joining a certain student group or for lengthy discussions of the correct course choices to support my career plans.

Yet it was not long before these “consulting sessions” with my parents became a one-way monologue. I labored to explain how “shopping period” worked, what “S/NC” meant, why the Sci Li was not exactly for sciences and the many other aspects of Brown undergraduate student life that my parents were not involved in. They could not judge a course based on a mere five-word title without having sat through the professor’s passionate (or bone-dry) lecture. They did not feel the exhilarating chills down my spine as clever ideas bounced off one another in my seminar discussion.

Having received his MBA from a top Canadian university, my dad was among the first batches of Chinese students to study abroad. But that was still 25 years ago, in a different school and with a considerably less diverse and liberal student body. The picture he painted of his own college life ultimately failed to match mine. I was the one experiencing every angle of Brown firsthand.

Without the safety net of my parents’ guidance, I began treading the waters on my own. Despite my initial reluctance, I realized that if there was one place to start crafting my own path, Brown was that place. I also realized I was not alone in these foreign waters because every one of my fellow classmates was in her own process of self-discovery.

I took eight different classes in eight different departments during my freshman year. I learned the steps of the waltz in Sayles Hall and danced until my toes went numb. I tutored refugee children from Somalia alongside local volunteers. I received my bid from Kappa Delta, a national sorority with 120 years of history.

And then there were the not-so-easy decisions. After spending numerous nights covered in oil paint and combing through the RISD course catalogue for four semesters, I found I was not that passionate about painting anymore. At some point between reading Balzac and Faulkner, I realized that I enjoyed books for leisure more than for an English degree. I tried out investment banking one summer despite my parents’ initial insistence that I was not fit for the industry. Yet looking back today, weeks from graduation, I could not be happier with my economics and art history concentrations, knowing that I made these decisions based on my own experiences.

During these four years, I have come to terms with the fact that my parents cannot and will not hold my hand every step of the way. College is a time for growth and self-discovery. It is also a painstaking process of letting go, for us students and for our parents. Sometimes we tread slowly and cautiously, and sometimes we stride forward with confidence. While I know that my parents will always support me unconditionally, I am now confident enough to walk out of the Van Wickle Gates in the direction I choose to take.

After all, I have outgrown those “baby booties.”