Yun-Yun Li '17: Novogratz Bridge Year Program 2022-23 Send-Off Reception Remarks

Novogratz Bridge Year Program alumna Yun-Yun Li '17 shared insights with the 2022-23 Bridge Year students at the August 22 send-off reception in the Chancellor Green Rotunda. Her full remarks are featured below.

It’s a pleasure to meet you all at this very particular time in your lives. For the next few days you will be moving through a threshold to a fresh chapter in your life, from the known and familiar to the unknown. For that deep transition, I’d like to offer a story that a dear friend shared with me last year during a threshold moment in my life. 

This story is about a beloved rabbi and philosopher named Simcha Bunim, who lived at the turn of the 19th century. The story goes that the rabbi always kept two notes, one in each pocket. The first note read, “I am but a speck of dust.” The second note read, “The world was created for me.” 

I love this story because it captures the essence of, in my opinion, one of the most important life skills we can cultivate and practice as adults: Being able to hold two (or more) contradicting truths in your heart and mind at the same time, and still be able to move forward. 

An example of this is how we all ended up standing here in this room. You worked so incredibly hard to get into Princeton - getting perfect grades, SAT scores, touring schools, letters of recommendations, etc. AND not even just that, you also took it a step further to apply to this program. You worked SO hard to stand where you are now. 

At the same time, standing here comes with an incredible amount of privilege. There are so many elements outside of our control that aligned perfectly for us to find ourselves here. We can hold both truths, and still move forward. 

The moving forward part can sometimes be the trickiest! As John mentioned, I work as an organic vegetable farmer now. I farm because I believe growing spiritually and physically nourishing food for others is honorable work. The physical challenge of our daily work combined with the emotional challenge of supporting my team and learning to make collective, collaborative decisions offers so much possibility for growth. At my farm, we are in relationship with other activists working to make our local communities in Providence and Boston more resilient and supportive to people with multiple targeted identities: working class people, undocumented people, queer people, indigenous people, and people of color. I am proud of what we’re trying to do.

At the same time, I know that being able to choose a low paying, manual labor job, rather than being forced into one, is a massive privilege born from my upper middle class upbringing and my educational privilege. How can I be a part of justice work seeking to uplift and support communities experiencing oppression when I myself have never felt the difficulty of choices and experiences others have had to make to survive?

So here are my two conflicting truths I hold while I move forward in my life and my job: The note in one pocket: my privilege makes it hard for me to truly understand and see the people I wish most to support and be in healing community with. 

In my other pocket: a just world requires all of us to engage in healing work. It requires us to look inside ourselves, make mistakes, and listen. Everyone’s experiences and feelings, including mine, are valid and real.

Sometimes in the non-profit world we call this kind of thinking “both / and” thinking. Rather than “either / or” - either your perspective is right OR mine is right, we challenge each other to think about how your perspective is real AND mine is real. It’s a tool for learning to collaborate better and work across differences in life experiences. At one of my past work places, sometimes my coworkers would take things a little far and create massively un-grammatical confusing sentences in an effort to not use the word “but” or “or” at all! It can get a little silly, but the core idea has been really valuable to me. What happens when you start seeing the world as a spectrum of ANDS instead of a binary of “either this or that”?

Looking back on my Bridge Year experience and the college years after, there are so many contradicting truths I practice holding in each pocket, on hypothetical sticky notes:

Here’s one truth I hold: Many parts of Bridge Year were really, really hard for me, and I struggled with mental health – feelings of loneliness, shame, and guilt of the privilege that brought me there. I’ll give you an example centered on language learning. I felt very challenged learning Mandarin. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t learn as fast as the rest of the folks in my cohort, and I felt so isolated from other people at my organization and in my host family due to my lack of language skills. And in Kunming people expected me to be able to speak based on my appearance, and were confused and annoyed when my language skills were inadequate. It took me a long time to process those feelings of self-criticism and shame. After a few years of reflection, I hold so much more compassion for my younger self. I had so much extra emotional baggage attached to learning mandarin, a language my family spoke but did not teach me. My very identity as an Asian American was all knotted up in my lack of language skills. Of course it took me longer to learn, and I had emotional knots to untangle. Speaking Mandarin will always carry an extra burden of identity for me.

However, I hold that compassionate truth lightly in one pocket along with the heavy truth in another. The truth that even that identity struggle was a privilege. So many people in this world are forced to adapt to environments where they are not native speakers of the local language (very often English). Migration forced by the intersecting pressures of war, environmental destruction, and massive economic inequities causes so many people to face the challenges I faced with language, but with no safety net, no support, no institutional security. 

It is hard and painful to move forward with those two truths in my pockets. And for me, it is oh so important to feel the pain, because that’s where compassion emerges. I have tasted the isolation and confusion of living in a place where I can’t effectively communicate with most of the people around me. And I know that that taste is a privilege. Now I try my best to move forward holding both truths, with ever deepening compassion for people I see and meet around me who have that struggle forced on them.

I’ll offer another set of truths I’ve been thinking about a lot for you all:
Here’s the first note in my pocket: challenge and discomfort are good for us. They will help us grow.

And the note in my other pocket: Too much challenge can be harmful if we don’t have the support we need from our community. 

Never hesitate to ask for help from your peers or the program. My bridge year cohort was particularly diverse in our identities, and that created special challenges. I don’t want to go into too many details because my friends’ experiences aren’t mine to share, but I’ll just say that travel in china (and in many countries) is not easy on black americans, and life is confusing for mixed race people… and indigenous people who look like mixed race people. Some of my most memorable experiences in China were conversations I had with my own cohort, as my friends processed their experiences and began to identify challenges that were tied to our racial identities and how we were identified by the people around us. I encourage your to engage with these conversations with your whole heart. 

And if you find yourself having an easeful experience, or even thriving, during Bride Year, I urge you to ask yourself why you find ease if others in your group are struggling. What factors of identity, upbringing, environment, or the attitudes ingrained in you by your community, allow you ease? And most importantly, how can you best support, hear, and learn from those in your group experiencing difficulty?

Here’s the last set of conflicting truths I want to share with you.
The first note reads: The existence of the Bridge Year Program is very uncomfortable to me. The idea that we go abroad to do service work feels like a problematic colonial legacy. During my year in China, the majority of people I met will never leave Yunnan province, let alone have the very great privilege to visit me in my home town. Their lives are made very difficult by the same globalized capitalism that my life has overall benefited from. Touring their lives in the name of service that I was ill equipped to perform felt wrong. And yet, the people I met really shaped who I am today. So with that, 

Here’s the second note, in my other hand: Bridge year deeply transformed me as a person, and laid the foundation for the work I try to do today as a farmer. Bridge Year helped me see the world from new perspectives: I was deeply inspired by the farmers I met working for the Pesticide Eco-Alternatives Center, who were mainly subsistence farmers working plots smaller than two acres. Their skills and knowledge stay with me. To my surprise I ended up returning to Yunnan Province to interview farmers for my senior thesis work, and my experiences on Bridge Year not only gave me a boost in language skills and cultural context, but also helped me see the importance of asking questions about people’s livelihoods, the hard decisions they had to make and how those related to their values, rather than conforming to pure environmental science. And maybe most importantly, my time on Bridge Year gave me the opportunity to start looking deeply into myself, into my own heart, my own experience of the world. That year gave me concrete examples of the massive power differentials that persist along lines of wealth, race, class, and nationality. And which side of those inequities I inhabit. That learning was such a precious gift.

Ten years after Bridge Year, I hold these conflicting truths in my hands and use them to keep moving forward. 

So here’s my invitation to all of you: what conflicting truths will emerge in your experience? How will you hold the conflict that arises as you learn to see the world through so many new lenses? I hope you will hold yourself and each other very gently and lovingly as you are reminded over and over, “you are but a speck of dust” and “this world was created for you.”

Thank you!