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There is a Chinese proverb, or chenyu, that literally means “guarding a tree for rabbits.” The story behind it involves a farmer who saw a rabbit run into a tree, providing his dinner for the night. He then waited by that tree the next day in hopes of getting lucky again, but his effort was futile.
Another chenyu, “marking the boat to retrieve the sword,” was coined when a fool dropped his sword while crossing a river, and thinking himself clever, marked the the side of the boat at the spot where his sword fell. After he reached shore, he plunged into the water at the marked spot to find his sword, and—you guessed it—it wasn’t there.
Although I had a good laugh at these chenyu and the many others that my mom told me throughout my childhood, I take their lessons to heart. Rabbits aren’t part of my diet, but I know to never wait idly for opportunities to come to me. And I may never be found on a boat with a sword, but I appreciate logic and practice it 99% of the time. Derived from ancient poems and legends, these idioms may seem silly at first, but they have been integral in shaping my philosophies on life.
(yi si bù gou): Three summers ago, I took up soapmaking. You can say that it was just for fun, and that’s what I thought too, but I quickly learned otherwise. Making soap is a very daunting task and must be taken seriously. I started off on the wrong foot by forgetting to buy one of the essential ingredients, lye—sodium hydroxide, which happens to be the agent that actually cleans—but I really got myself on a slippery slope when I decided to make it anyway. Seeing the mess that I ended up with, my dad told me, “Not one thread loose.” Later, I learned that the lye was necessary for saponification, a reaction in which a base hydrolyzes fats to form soap. When I repeated the process, I made sure to have all the ingredients and to fully understand why each step was necessary for the end result. Now, I thoroughly immerse myself in everything I learn, whether it be a new type of math problem or a dance routine. I make sure to understand all the details of the task at hand; if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.
(táng bì dang che): Throughout my childhood, I often faced the age-old question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The young me was a dancer, a musician, and an avid reader of mysteries. Naturally, my answer was a detective, with ballerina and pianist as side jobs. After telling this to my Sunday Chinese school teacher, she chuckled and said, “Mantis arm blocking a car.” She then explained the legend of a praying mantis who believed he could stop a king’s chariot, suggesting that I was overestimating my abilities. I spent the rest of class justifying how I could have three jobs to my laughing classmates. To this day, I still stand with my eight-year-old self. Why can’t investigators occasionally perform at Carnegie Hall and teach ballet in their free time? For that matter, why can’t engineers coach soccer and guest-host cooking shows every so often? I once met a doctor who works part-time at a beauty salon, because she loves it. I will be the accomplished woman with a professional job who also teaches yoga to kids and has solo art exhibits. Despite the looks I get, I will always strive to stop the car with my mantis arms—which, by the way, are very strong and have hooked claws that extend at lightning speed. Besides, who ever said that the car was big?
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