I told myself I wouldn’t tell my kids these stories. And yet, posted today to the immutable internet, here are the stories of how my roommates and I ended up having Thanksgiving dinner at a Chinese takeout restaurant, and how we went without food and shelter in the mountains of rural China — two separate stories, of course.
It was my very first Thanksgiving away from home. Instead of family and my aunt’s savory turkey, it was my roommates and a d-hall Thanksgiving meal — I was stuck in Boston for the weekend. But the worst part of that dinner was missing it entirely: we misread the emails and showed up too late. And by the time we made the bold move to have Thanksgiving dinner at the Hong Kong, a formidably fast fast-food takeout joint, I was in an Uber, racing to the suburbs of Boston to pick up my shift as a server for an affluent family’s Thanksgiving. I missed Thanksgiving dinner back home, at Harvard, and even at the Kong. My Thanksgiving dinner at 10 p.m. consisted of a handful of breath mints and half a family-sized bag of Funyuns.
We continued to make the best of this odd Thanksgiving. After feeding a floormate’s pet fish in their common room, we decided to overstay our visit and watch a movie on their TV. You know it's been an odd Thanksgiving when you fall asleep on the bed of a near-stranger, platonically cuddling with your best friend for warmth as he confides in you about a recent breakup.
There was something wrong with every part of that night. But we found a way to have unforgettable Thanksgiving, and it didn’t cost a dime. I wasn’t able to put it into words, but I knew I craved for more experiences like that night.
Two years later, in the mountains of rural China, that feeling resurfaced. Allow me to paint the picture.
Six college students, two parts brave and 98 parts dumb, spend a summer night in the Huangshan mountains, with no hotel, hostel, or even a tent prepared in advance. Armed with one meatstick per person and a singular loaf of bread, they find a clearing in the forest and try to sleep on a stone slab by a cliff. As temperatures drop, temperaments rise, and one sleepless traveler nearly runs off the edge of the cliff in hysteria. They move camp and break into an abandoned shack for some shuteye. Two hours later, stomachs rumbling, eyes sunken, they summit the mountain to witness a beautiful East Asian sunrise. Of course, they promptly pay the price with a hungry 14 kilometer trek back down to civilization.
I’m often in disbelief that I am of the (un)lucky six who experienced Huangshan this way. I used to be a huge control freak: it was once anxiety-inducing to not know where I was, where I was headed, and why I was headed there. It took experiences like my freshman Thanksgiving and Huangshan — experiences where my control was heavily limited by the environment — for me to be comfortable giving up control.
Investor and author Tim Ferriss argues that a great way to judge situations of high uncertainty is through fear-setting: playing out precisely what the worst-case scenario looks like. An untraditional Thanksgiving wouldn’t destroy my social connection with my family. A night out in the mountains would probably get me sick, but the path to recovery is clear. It was by realizing that the worst case scenario was not so bad that the experience became de-risked, leaving me happy to give up control.
As the YouTube group Yes Theory often discusses, there is one primary question we need to ask more often: What makes you uncomfortable? They contend that most personal growth occurs by deliberately venturing outside your comfort zone. By accepting a loss of control and leaving it to fate, or God, or quantum randomness — whatever name fits you — I found a lot of peace in being unprepared. Before, this statement would have shaken me to my core, but now I’m actively working on honing my ability to take on the grey areas with a new calmness.
Maybe it didn’t have to take a near deadly overnight hike in China or even a soiled Thanksgiving to discover the rush in pursuit of seeking discomfort. Still, I take away the value of keeping a high spirit in embracing the ugly uncertainty of life.
Mohib A. Jafri ’21 is an Electrical Engineering concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.