The Odyssey
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India & China
Meet Yang Yang

Yang Yang Name: Yang-Yang Chen
Age: 21
Where from: San Diego, California
Roots: Chinese

When and where were you born? I was born on January 14, 1979 in Beijing, China.

Who did you grow up with? I grew up with my parents in Beijing. I have no brothers or sisters because starting in 1979, the Chinese government created a law allowing each family to have only one child. Even today, that same law is still in place and Chinese families can only have one child. When I was 5, my parents moved to America and I spent a year living with my grandparents in China before joining my parents in the United States.

Who or what has had an especially strong influence on the direction of your life? When my family first moved to the United States, we lived in West Philadelphia near the university where my parents worked. It was a fun neighborhood. Most people knew each other and I had a group of friends on our block that I played with every day after school. Then my parents decided to move to the suburbs where the public schools were supposed to be much better. Even though I was only in middle school at the time, moving just 10 miles away was a really big change for me. At my new school in the suburbs, people drove nice cars, wore clothes from the Gap, and carried their backpacks on one shoulder. What was now considered cool and uncool totally changed from what I had been used to at my inner city school. It took me a long time to fit in and get used to the new values and socio-economic environment around me. I was lucky to have received such a good education from my new school, but I missed being judged by others only based on who I was on the inside, and not based on my clothes or what car my parents drove.

What is your favorite food? Eating is one of my greatest passions in life so I like many different kinds of food, from Korean shortrib bar-be-que and Thai tom yum lemon grass soup to French tarte tatins (upside-down caramelized apple pie) and Spanish tapas. But I especially love sushi - raw fish eaten by the Japanese! My favorite kinds are eel (I know, it sounds really gross) [] and tuna. I hope to try many new kinds of foods during our trek through Asia. You never know what you might like until you've tried it.

What do you like to do with your friends? When I'm with close friends, it doesn't matter that much exactly what it is we are doing together. I'm just so happy to get the chance to see them and spend time with them. Back home in San Diego, we like to go to coffee shops, walk along the beach, go for long scenic drives with the sunroof open and the music blasting, or just sit somewhere and talk for hours. There is always so much to catch up on. When I went to college in New York, I liked to go to jazz clubs, try new restaurants, see theater performances, go to funky art museums, walk through the endlessly entertaining streets of Manhattan, rollerblade through Central Park, and explore new neighborhoods in the five boroughs of New York City. []

Do you have any pets? Unfortunately I don't have any pets right now, but in the past, I've had fish, hamsters, a cute White Terrier dog named Foxy, and a turtle.

What is the place you're most looking forward to visiting? Even though I was born in China and lived there for six years, I never got the chance to venture too far out of the capital, Beijing. Being a part of the Odyssey Team will give me a chance to visit parts of the country that remain relatively removed from Western influence and are unfamiliar even to most Chinese people. Surprisingly, there is no one particular destination that I'm especially excited about visiting, but rather, I'm really looking forward to seeing the small towns and countryside we will be passing along the way, during our long bus and train rides.

What was a challenge or a cool job you've done? One summer I worked for the United States Forest Service studying endangered species of fish in Southern California. We woke up at 6 o'clock (or earlier) every morning to go deep into the forests of San Bernardino, hiking to small streams and rivers, and looking for fish. We studied the streams where the fish lived and tried to figure out what their ideal habitats were. My favorite kind was the Santa Ana Suckers, cute white fish with little suction cups for mouths. We found the fish either by snorkeling in the water or by using a process called electroshocking, where an electrical current is created in the water using two electrically charged poles attached to a large battery. The electricity in the water temporarily stuns the fish and makes them float to the surface. When I first tried it, I was scared that all the fish were dead because they just stopped moving all of a sudden. But after floating in the water for a couple of minutes, the fish would suddenly wake up and get back to what they were doing before. That summer as part of my Forest Service job, I also worked in a greenhouse transplanting native plants, watched for bats at nighttime outside a bat cave, and dressed up as Smokey Bear for a local fishing festival. My favorite part of the job was wearing my Forest Service uniform and driving around in our green truck, waving to all the visitors in our forest.

What (things) are you afraid of? Perhaps the thing I'm most afraid of is not living my life to the fullest. There are so many things I dream about doing and experiencing during my lifetime. Sometimes I worry that I'll get distracted along the way or that I'll simply run out of time. I'm scared of having a job that I don't really care about, and working just because I have to and not because I want to. I worry that one day when I have my own family, I'll move far away and not get to see my parents nearly as often as I'd like to. I still get scared in the dark and imagine unknown creatures hiding in the corners of my room. I fear that I won't always stay true to the values I hold dear now, or that I'll one day end up living my life by someone else's standards and not by my own. I'm scared that some day, I'll simply stop caring and give up the fight. I fear that sometimes I get too wrapped up in arriving at the destination and forget to enjoy the scenery along the way. I worry that at the end of my life, I'll die having had taken more from the world than I had contributed. For society as a whole, I fear that people are becoming increasing obsessed with increasing the quality of their own lives and forget to give something back.

What are some really fun things you've done? I have been very lucky and have done some really things out in Nature. When I was in middle school, I went on a weeklong backpacking trip with a group of students from Japan, Mongolia, and China through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. We carried everything we needed for that whole week - pots and pans, water, clothes, tents, food - in our humungous backpacks. We hiked every morning from sunrise to sunset through completely flat land where we could see for hundreds of miles ahead of us. The hot sun beat down on us every day but we still had to wear thick long-sleeve shirts and pants because there were tons of misquotes hiding in the tall grasses surrounding us. The summer after I graduated from high school, my mom and I took a roadtrip out to the Grand Canyon and spontaneously decided to hike all the way to the bottom and camp there for the night. It took us four times as long to come back up as it took to hike down, and the temperature at the bottom of the Grand Canyon was over 100 degrees Farenheit, even at night! And last year while living in the French Alps, I went cross-country skiing at midnight with some friends. It was a magical feeling to be out in the wild, skiing under the moonlight with no one else around.

What kind of student were you? I got very good grades in school, but despite being Chinese, it was never my parents who put pressure on me to excel academically. I was always the kind of student where if I got an A-, I would get upset at myself for not getting the A instead of being proud of myself for getting the A-. Sometimes I think I focused too much on my getting the good grades rather than on just enjoying and learning the material. I found that I learned the most when I relaxed about comparing myself to everyone else, and just dug deep into my classes.

What is your advice to young people today? Believe in yourself and in your ability to pursue your dreams even when no one else does. Don't be afraid of hard work. Sometimes you may not get recognized by others for all of your dedication and sacrifice, but in the end, your commitment will pay off. And dare to dream. Many of humankind's greatest achievements, inventions, and revolutions would never have happened were it not for daring dreamers. The possibilities are always greater than we imagine them to be. Don't let anyone tell you what your limits in life are. Each one of you has an amazing potential to learn, to achieve, to contribute, and to feel fulfilled. Seize that great opportunity and use it to do the things you are really passionate about.

Yang-Yang's Archive

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Meet Yang-Yang