things i didn’t know i was going to learn

Going into the gap year, my primary goal was mostly focused on gaining more technical skills. I needed to be much more immersed in learning the kind of art skills I had to know for the possible kinds of career paths to be clearer to me.

Along the way, I learned many things outside the technical skills. For the most part, I already “understood” them, but many things simply take actual embodied and immersive experience to be absorbed deeply.

So this is more like a list of things I learned more concretely from the gap year.


1. the world is so big, and no one cares about you (but it’s great)

2. the relationship between satisfaction, fame, and accomplishment

3. special things about living independently and coexisting with loneliness

4. life = a dance between states; cycles of expansion and contraction


the world is SO big, & no one cares about you (but it’s great)

I especially felt this when I went to Oaxaca right after 2 weeks of LA and 9 days of Sundance.

When we are completely immersed in a field, it becomes a religious experience, as if it’s the truth and the way things have to be done. At Sundance and various scattered occasions of talking to successful film professionals, I frequently felt like the film industry was a huge bubble where I had to know the names of the producers, directors, directors of photography, editors, etc of all the big or best emerging productions, for me to even be considered *in* this bubble. Those conversations created a plastic sense that that was the *whole* world. LA especially was a city of wannabe *star* artists. It almost felt like everyone I saw there wanted to make it in the entertainment industry, and it almost feels like I’m not exaggerating here.

Then I arrived in Oaxaca, where no one would know anything about what the LA artists considered to be “the world,” just like I had no idea what TV shows my program assistants (all were local) were watching every day. It’s a dumb thing to point out. Of course people in Oaxaca wouldn’t care about what people do in LA! But when I actually walked aimlessly for hours in the city of Oaxaca, made simple guesses about what life would be like for the people I saw, it was much easier to absorb the slightest sense of the true scale of this world. 

Perhaps it’s especially easy to feel like what you do and the people you see and think about (whether you know them or not) are the whole world when you have lived in the US for a long time. Every other country directs its gaze at the US while the US doens’t have to gaze back at most of them. But think about how much time you truly give serious attention to the people who have nothing to do with your life. You really don’t spend so much time because you already have so much in your life that occupies your time, energy and attention. Same case for others. 

There is nothing wrong with being engaged in your own particular communities. In fact, I now believe that all that humans do in their lives is finding their communities, and understanding ourselves a bit more deeply along the way. We have the communities of families and neighborhoods and student clubs, and for some of us we have the privilege of finding the communities we like through our work, or finding ocmmunities through our hobbies. Regardless, that is what we strive for.

But when we forget the boundaries of the bubbles we have chosen to live in, it’s much easier for us to forget about communities and operate in the mindset of “conquering or defeat.”

I mean, even in Los Angeles, on the night of February 24th, a group of singers and artists were hosting a show, singing to their friends in a gallery right on the Hollywood blvd, a few minutes drive from where the Oscars was simultaneously being broadcasted to 29.6 million viewers around the world. 


the relationships between satisfaction, fame, and accomplishment

My first point about the world being so big brings us to the second point, which isn’t a statement but more so a set of relationships that I want to bring more attention to, because they don’t have to be completely the same thing as they appear to be from the media we consume.

The five years of elite education I received from Princeton and Exeter seemed to always make me believe that I was going to be “big” in the future: my classmates and I would become leaders and even legends of our own industries; we’ll get our fair share of global power held by the top 0.1% if not 0.01% or 0.001%. lol.

I have always felt that this sense of grandeur is toxic for an artist or any creative in general, but I must also admit that I still wasn’t completely immune to it while I was at Princeton or Exeter.  

When I went to EGX--a convention for game developers--in London, I met Ben Lunato, a game developer who was exhibiting his VR experience at a booth there. His VR project, called A Ton of Feathers, was one of my favorites of all time. I thought, and still believe, that it was a cinematic masterpiece and deserved to be ehibited in a decently famous gallery or film festival. But he told me that he had already reached out to galleries in the UK and no one was interested in picking it up. He joked about not having enough accolades under his name to make himself look “legit” to those people. I kept finding more and more people like him online or offline--really creative and talented artists who’re not getting enough attention they deserve.

I thought about how I could become famous.

For one, I could try to get famous on YouTube and/or TikTok. But who are the main users of those platforms? Do I desperately want to get as much of their approval as I can? Especially given the amount of time I’ll have to put into creating the content for those platforms --which doesn’t let me practice the skills I need for the art I want to make, is it worth it? To me it’s an obvious no. 

What about simply being known in the art world? From various artist research I’ve done, I have encountered a fair amount of people who have collected a decent amount of badges from the system that works for the art world (grants from well-known places, for one), but whose work I genuinely didn’t find innovative by any means. Usually those people don’t have a lot of projects because I’m guessing that they probably spend a huge amount of their time writing proposals, applying for grants, and submitting to 50 film festivals. I don’t want to be this kind of artists. Then I must accept that it’s likely I will appear less accomplished than a lot of artists.
stills from A Ton of Feathers by Ben Lunato

From my own experience, I mostly need a momentum to keep it going: I just need to have exciting projects to work on with people I appreciate. Whatever that project could be.

I had one of the busiest times of my life this past July working on several creative projects at the same time: a part-time film internship, a two-week full-time architecture summer camp, a web film, a music video collaboration, and final work for a UI design and illustration project. I loved being busy in this way so much more than any other way I have been. 

I definitely imagined and looked forward to the exciting moments of sharing those projects with people, posting selected images on my instagram and my website, etc. But when I actually finished these projects, when I shipped my desktop computer (because I have to fly back to China soon), I just felt bored.

I love writing my updates and reading, but, as I’m typing from my little laptop that’s almost useless for creating 3d art, I just wish I could carry a huge desktop with me all the time so that I could work on some projects right now. 

︎︎︎ my time in Asheville

︎︎︎ three summer projects (to be released soon)

Another definitive experience for me during the gap year was working on my documentary project. I always hoped to make this an opportunity for me to find like-minded friends. I did meet a number of cool people through the project, but I never managed to find even one other person who was equally passionate as I was on the project, knew the story at least decently well, could share responsibilities and tasks with me, and who could work with me the whole time. 

I just had way too much on my hands. I was producing, directing, interviewing, and a lot of the times even doing cinematography by myself, all at the same time. It was kind of like trying to start a startup without a lot of experience, without a mentor AND without a cofounder who could figure things out with me.

A lot of friends cheered for me on the project. I put them into a groupchat and for a while I shared the project updates with them to feel a bit less alone on the journey. But every time I shared a piece of good or exciting news, and every time I saw message notifications from my friends being really excited for me, I simply felt worse. I even broke down a few times. What if I can’t meet their expections? What if all the news I’ll bring will just be downhill from here? Having cheerleaders and having teammates are two very different things.

Seeing the artist communities at the Sundance Ignite program made me really jealous--a lot of the peer filmmakers I met there went to art colleges and/or art high schools, so they and their classmates would just help each other out on projects.

To this day I believe that the one important thing I still haven’t managed to do with this gap year was finding a community like that for myself. I have found several individuals that I really, really appreciate and admire, but it’s nowhere near a little ecosystem yet. It’s probably extremely hard for me to find my ecosystem due to the mismatch of the bigger environments I have been in and the kind of environment I’m looking for -- so it’s unclear to me where even to find the environments I want to be in. 

Although starting a big project myself didn’t naturally attract my “cofounder(s)” as I dreamed, I did, all thanks to this project, meet several really talented artists that I look forward to working with in the future. They didn’t know anything about the story I wanted to tell, so I couldn’t rely on them for bigger-picture-things this time, but when there’s a project that’d need more equal inputs from both/all of us, that’d be exciting!


special things about living independently, and coexisting with loneliness

Before this gap year, I had had some experience of living by myself and solo traveling in countries that speak languages I don’t know. I enjoyed those experiences a lot, and really looked forward to being by myself for some parts of the gap year. 

But who would’ve known I’d end up living by myself for 9-10 MONTHS (counting the summer after freshman year)??? 

I’ve broken down what I learned into four categories. 

1. Basic things about living alone:
    traveling solo,
    establishing relationships in places I haven’t been to (from attending events, reaching out to people, asking friends to make intros, etc),              
    adapting to different living standards/conditions depending on the geographical locations and my budget.

2. Coexisting with loneliness.  

I imagine this is essential for entering into the adult world after graduating college... I don’t believe loneliness would ever go away for most of us. So *coexisting* with loneliness, to me, means accepting that loneliness is inescapable and understanding what to do when thoughts and emotions related to loneliness arise, without trying to completely get rid of them.

I believe that feeling our own loneliness is a default mode of operation for our consciousness. We just do things to forget about it temporarily. We establish relationships to forget about it. But in the end we are always alone in our own consciousness, which constitutes the fundamental loneliness of our living experience.

For me, I have learned that I like to transform the loneliness I feel into creating art, whether I literally make art about that feeling, or I make something utterly unrelated but keeps me engaged in an imagined little world for a while.

a still from my web film “Looking At You” (https://readymag.com/wendiyan/lookingatyou/)

3. How living alone actually helps quite a lot in changing oneself and experimenting with different identities

I am a confusing existence to myself. I have multiple identities I feel called or drawn to be in, and it became more and more evident to me towards the end of the gap year that spending so much time living alone (& without any social bubble around me) helped me so much in experimenting with different identities. 

When I want to change my dominant identity (or even character or personality), just to see how I feel if I live in that lifestyle, be immersed in the relevant social circles and do related things, I can simply shift my mindset and establish a new set of routines for myself. 

If I were in an isolated community like Princeton, that’d be way harder because everything I do is attached to the same set of locations and people. Previous behavioral and mental patterns have already been encoded into those particular spots on campus and interactions I exchanged with those particular people. It’s harder to remake patterns over and over, than simply starting anew by literally going to a new city or just going to different parts of the cities.

The external environment influences the internal one heavily for me. Living alone, I have greater control over what information I consume & the worlds I imagine myself to be in. It’s also less obvious to people when I change my behavior slightly (not to temporarily pretend to be another person for the sake of taking advantage of others, but to actually place myself in an identity/archetype and seriously reflect on my feeling simultaneously).

And along the way, I get to pick something from almost each identities I once tried to live in, to form a more comprehensive understanding of what combination of elements I am.

4. Being overall in my head more was a wonderful thing.

So long as I had control over it, of course. It helped me discover things that were really on my mind. Questions I really needed to think about. Being alone for so long forced me to face the question about the emptiness of living a life, the question of fame and achievement, the question of finding satisfaction within oneself, the question of “what’s the point,” etc. 

I wouldn’t say I have my perfect answers to all of them now. But I am grateful for simply being able to look at these questions directly into their eyes in the first place. I could always avoid thinking about them at Princeton, when the system kept throwing tasks at me to finish.

When I was left with myself, those existential questions that naturally surfaced pressed me to understand myself a little bit further.


life = a dance between states; cycles of expansion and contraction

There’s no single desirable state to be in forever. We’re just always moving between states, especially between “expansions” and “contractions.” (I’m kind of talking about the yin and yang, I guess?)

Before the gap year, I held the romantic belief that I was on a quest for a certain utopian mind-state or lifestyle. I basically thought there’s the one ideal lifestyle, the one mental state, the one kind of environment, that’d be optimal for me, and I needed to use the gap year to find out what it is.

I can’t point to specific events that helped me reach the new unerstanding, but I did realize more and more that humans are too complicated for wanting only *one* thing. 

I now see that I can‘t get everything I want in any single state or place, and life’s beauty is just that I won’t get all I want in one state -- then I won‘t have the intense fear for losing that state anymore.

Things will pass, stages will change, I will move from one version of Wendi to another.

While it doesn’t feel entirely right to say it’s always about flow, because sometimes that flow could be a literal waterfall (like the kind of changes and uncertainties chinese students in US unis have been facing this year), it does feel like we are always dancing in some range between extremes.

Each of us has different spectrums to dance on, but expansion and contraction seem to be a more universal part. Contractions are times when we are really busy, nervous, tense, when we have to close our mind and focus, when we are confused and need to figure things out. Expansions are when we are more free, able to be open-minded, creative, able to let our mind and body wander, feel more loose. Whether we look at the scale of 2 years, 7 months, 3 weeks, or 1 day, it applies. 

After talking about all this philosophy, I mostly want to say that absorbing this knowledge made me more accepting and calmer especially in the face of uncertainties. Uncertainties may break a part of an old me, but I can embrace the new stage with an open mind.

I want to note that, just because many possibilities are there, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t break any possibility for the fear of inevitably losing some of them. I prefer to make my stages distinct from each other.

When I conceived the idea of making a documentary about psychedelics, I decided to commit to the documentary and psychedelics parts of me, within the first month or two of working on it. A part of me still itched to know what if I spent more time traveling or just taking classes in other art forms, but I still filled the rest of the gap year with production and post-production for the film. I am not saying I chose the best option. Between choosing things I love to do, there was no “best option” to speak of.

Then, when covid hit hard and all my documentary schedule had to cancel, I took a month or two to let my mind wander, and gradually built up a momentum for myself to learn and work on digital media art. The end of June to the beginning of July was an incredibly intense period for me, as I spent almost all my waking hours working on several creative projects that required digital media skills.

When it became clear to me that I had to go back to China for this fall and I likely wouldn’t be able to come back in the spring, it took me some days to internalize it but I decided to embrace this new and very unexpected stage. I’ve been trying to put together a month-long co-living program in Beijing for people like me. Whether or not that becomes reality (because everyone’s dealing with so many uncertainties right now), I’d still like to organize some offline meetups and activities anyways for us to get to know each other, and create a bit of a real feeling of being in college. I helped out with a program led by two high school seniors that’s designed to be the Chinese version of Minerva + Deep Springs, and would LOVE to participate in their November program where a group of us will live in a buddhist monastery in China.

As for the spring, I wanted to take more agency and just decided to not go back to the US. If things go well for China, Japan and Europe, I want to go to Berlin/Amsterdam/Tokyo for the spring semester. I’ll take remote classes still, but I will likely p/d/f most of them and try to take a tiny step into the avant-garde art scenes there in the mean time.

Overall, it has become easy for me to make decisions. I’m not trying to optimize, or hold on to everything I want anymore. While some preliminary work for optimization is necessary, it becomes utterly meaningless at some point. While the ideal situation for me is spending half a year in Berlin in the spring, I understand that there are still a lot of things I will lose that way. And while I know Princeton’s tight & incredibly intellectual community is impossible to recreate if I transfer to an art school in Europe, I am still seriously considering the transfer option. Holding on to all possibilities is not making a decision. I’d rather jump from one decision to another as I feel what’s more aligned for me based on the environment and time.