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Leaders bring home

| Friday, December 2, 2016

There are two concepts that have confused me since I came to Notre Dame — what is home and how to reject mediocrity.

Let me start with my confusion over the concept of home. I remembered the first time I went back to China after my freshman year fall semester. Walking into the arrival area, I saw my mom and dad standing close to each other, dad’s arm around mom’s shoulder, mom’s arm in the air waving at me. As I walked towards these two old folks, I marveled at how little they had changed and how much I had changed. Then I heard my mind crying in the voice of an excited yet confusing middle-age woman — “The daughters of China have returned as women.” The same person could return to the same place, yet no longer be at home there. Home occupied my heart as a vague, itchy, prolonged longing. Yet, the overwhelming feeling of displacement made me shiver that afternoon in the Beijing Capital Airport. I did not know how to come home.

As for the rejection of mediocrity, the words of the Notre Dame 2014 valedictorian echoed in my mind: “To fear a life of mediocrity more than to fear failure.” Then I suddenly remembered saying to my mom when I was barely eight years old — “Mom, when you open the windows every morning, do you too smell the tragic mediocrity in the city?” The smell of “tragic mediocrity,” now in retrospect, is simply the smell of home-cooked lunch. At the age of eight, I must have felt that in the dusty city where I called home, people were living their lives like everyone was. Nameless, traceless, unremembered. Many years later, I would open the same window in the same living room one morning and tell my mom, “ah, this is the smell of home.” Somehow the mediocrity perceived by a restless young soul had turned into home. I did not know how to reject mediocrity.

Last Saturday, I met a man who was everything but mediocre, yet whose presence reminded me of nothing but home.

South Dining Hall Hospitality Room. We just lost to Virginia Tech. I came back from the game with the smell of marshmallows in my coat, my hat, my shoes, my hair, everywhere. The honorable Ma Ying-jeou, the former president of the Republic of China, wore a burgundy sweater with a clean white shirt and a pair of long black trousers.

“Treating history, compare a fact with a fact. Treating humans, place your heart close to theirs,” he said. “Kindness is the only real thing in the world.” Somehow I expected more of this great man than simply telling me to be kind, sincere and objective; somehow I thought as the political leader, he should do more than just listen; somehow I expected him to glow like a lighthouse on an island in the middle of the dark, vicious sea. I thought “being able to glow” was one of the key qualities of a leader and “not being able to glow” was a sure sign of walking on the path to mediocrity. Then I thought to myself, wow that was quite scary — a human being glowing in the dark.

The man in front of me was as honest as a child to himself and as sincere as a father to his daughter. And though it might sound weird, as we shook hands, I smelt that smell of tragic mediocrity, the smell of home-cooked lunches, the smell of youth. I felt as if I had come home.

I was reassured, that yes, even he had that smell of tragic mediocrity and yes, even great leaders brought that home with them. Then I suddenly thought maybe that was the way to reject mediocrity — not to glow in the darkness but to bring home to people.

Then my mind wandered off to imagine the young Ma Ying-jeou as a student. I saw him staying in the library at Harvard until late, with undaunted eyes that belong only to young people. Occasionally, he would lift his head from a pile of books to stretch. In my vision, he stared blankly at the night sky, wondering how to reject mediocrity and how to come home.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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