By Qin Sun Stubis
I wouldn’t normally write a column about my own column, but this is a special one: After eight years and four months, I’ve finally reached the milestone of having published 100 pieces here at The Santa Monica Star!
Being a Chinese American, I instinctively see 100 as a perfect, auspicious, and celebratory number. In China, for instance, the 100th day after a baby is born is celebrated as a very special event with only the best a family can offer.
For school-aged children, getting a 100 means achieving a perfect test score. And, this obsession with 100 continues into old age: Chinese often use the phrase bai sui lao ren (“100-year-old”) to mean someone who has lived not just a long life, but a perfect one.
From elementary school to my college days in Shanghai, I remember numerous instances of my teachers mournfully questioning me about the few points I lost on a test, instead of praising me for how near I came to getting a 100. That’s because in Chinese teachers’ eyes, nothing but 100 is a perfect number, and aiming for perfection is something we learn very early on in life.
For a brief period in my early teen years, I was obsessed with perfection, seeking a stack of “100s” as evidence of being an ideal student. But rather than feeling ideal, this thinking soon became a burden, as I found myself constantly worrying that I couldn’t keep up my reputation. Then one day, it hit me that I could never learn everything and be perfect no matter how many 100s I got. I might as well try to collect all the sand from a beach, or memorize every book in our school library.
Soon enough, the rebellious part of me started to enjoy getting a less than perfect score. Being openly criticized by a teacher gave me character, like a dog-eared book, a wrinkled piece of paper, or a lightly bruised piece of fruit. I decided that I’d rather be a happy student with an imperfect score than a tense student who always worried about not being perfect.
True perfection in life lies in constant improvement, and mistakes offer us real opportunities to learn more. In that sense, perfection lies in imperfection itself.
Some part of me still seeks to celebrate milestones, but I have come to realize that even a “perfect” number like 100 is just…well, an ordinary number. Its value lies perhaps more in our being able to see where we started and what small progress we’ve made…like hiking on a trail, counting your steps, and going forward.
You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A longtime columnist of ours, Qin lives in Bethesda, MD.