My Own Teacher

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

According to tradition, every Chinese New Year children receive lucky money in red envelopes from older relatives and friends. In my toddler years, finding the crisp, red envelopes embossed with gold characters to be aesthetically superior to and more valuable than the worn and wrinkled bills they held, I habitually kept the envelopes and returned the money. Yet as I learned the function of money in society, it still seemed magical that we handed pieces of old paper to a department store clerk, a street-side food vendor, or a toyshop owner in exchange for winter coats, roasted yams, or a plush tiger twice my size. My parents explained that money could be used in exchange for a seemingly limitless variety of goods because everyone simply agreed on its value. This only resulted in more questions, to which they could only say that they worked in film, not finance, for a reason.

School was no better at providing answers. Economics is not a core subject. My lack of exposure and access to the field of economics made it an enigma to my mind. Completely shrouded in mystery, it beckoned me, enticingly, to explore it. My curiosity in the subject soon reached a level I had never before experienced, having previously had access to all the information I needed. I began to unconsciously tune-in to the news at any mention of the economy, and found myself drawn to Internet articles that focused on commerce and finance. I did not understand most of what I heard or read, and online explanations only introduced entirely new sets of alien terms. Yet the less I understood about this puzzling concept of “economy”, the greater my desire became to learn everything about it.

Eventually, fragments of information, of which I understood little, had become insufficient. Though I had no one to teach economics to me, there was nothing stopping me from teaching it to myself. And so, one spring afternoon in the eighth grade, I marched, authoritative and determined, into a used textbook store and demanded to see “an economics textbook please.” I was subsequently shown the five vast, ceiling-high shelves, packed with textbooks, in the economics and finance section. In my excitement and haste to miraculously fill my brain with economic knowledge, it never occurred to me that I would have to choose a textbook from an endless array of options. Overwhelmed, I spent the afternoon browsing the shelves, leafing through books of all shapes, formats, and sizes, pretending to know exactly what I was looking for. Eventually, I settled on Economics: Principles and Policy by Alan Blinder. That summer, I embarked on my quest to learn its contents. Nearly every page introduced foreign words, concepts, and notation I had never seen at school, requiring me to re-read many passages several times to understand them.

The experience of learning on my own was even stranger. I did not have a teacher to clarify confusing sections of the textbook; my teacher was the textbook. I missed the nine different perspectives I could glean from my classmates during discussions; the textbook’s opinion was the only opinion. Yet, I also found this new approach to learning liberating. No longer feeling obliged to focus my time and energy exclusively on information relevant to “the test,” I was able to further research or gloss over topics depending solely upon my preferences. It is quite ironic that I then chose to take a test, standardized, no less, on macroeconomics. This test was a milestone for me, a way to track my progress and understanding after nearly one year of weekend and vacation studying, and certainly was not the final stop. Instead, I hope that it will serve to remind me of my original, zealous curiosity in economics, which still propels me, even today, through the challenges, to delve deeper into the broad scope of the discipline. I cannot imagine stopping.

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