I quit my first job out of college four days after starting, an entry-level position in finance at a bank known for having the largest trading floor in the world. I’d gone into it for all of the wrong reasons: fulfillment of others’ expectations, status, and—not least of all—a big paycheck. From Day One, it was absolute murder getting out of bed. I simply didn’t have the passion for it, and to be honest, I didn’t like my colleagues. Still, I felt like an idiot for walking away so soon. I had no Plan B, and I had just signed leases on a condo and a car. It goes without saying that my parents were disappointed; they told me that I had to find a new job…ASAP.
I waited tables for a year to work off my financial obligations, then packed up and moved to China. There, I volunteered as an English teacher through an NGO called WorldTeach. A lot changed: my salary, no more than a modest stipend for living allowances, shrank to one-fifteenth its former value, and I went from working with stressed-out adults all day to working with stressed-out kids. Ningyuan, the town in which I’d been placed, was a poor, rural community—a far cry from the suburbs of New York—and there were few Western amenities. It was a hardscrabble existence, but every morning, when my alarm went off, I actually wanted to get out of bed.
My students were inquisitive and welcoming, yet shy. Many of them helped their families with farmwork when they could, and while at school, they studied from—I kid you not—eight in the morning to ten at night. (And I thought AP Latin was bad!) I taught seventeen classes of, on average, sixty kids per week, and hosted two English Corners during dinner with one of the other volunteers. It was there, under a stone pavilion in front of the school building, that I got to know my students. They asked me what an ordinary high schooler’s life was like in America. I told them I didn’t know.
I think that what turned me off from banking was the lack of humility I sensed on the job. Having graduated from Roxbury Latin, and then Yale, I’m extraordinarily grateful for the education I’ve received, but I’m also thankful for my time in Ningyuan, because it served as a reminder that there’s a much larger world out there. I know that this is something the faculty at RL tried to beat into my head, but hey, sometimes you just have to learn certain things for yourself.
Quincy’s debut novel, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside, based partially on his experiences in Ningyuan, was published in November 2015 by Inkshares.