Justin in the Upper school commons with friendsThe following essay is adapted from MPA Class of 2023 member Justin Choi’s Senior Speech.

I’ve always feared change. There’s something about leaving everything known and entering new territories that scares me. When my family and I made a choice to move to Minnesota, I didn’t have the time to fully evaluate the process of moving to a new country, a new environment. I was on the plane to Los Angeles when I realized how much of my life was packed on a small island in Hong Kong, and in that plane seat I also realized how frightened I was. I had never even met a single person in America. I had only met my aunts and uncles when they would occasionally visit Hong Kong or the rare time we would visit America, but even then, I’d never had a whole conversation with them. I realized this was going to be the biggest change of my life, and I had no idea how to even adapt.

I landed at MSP, and I immediately felt lost. I didn’t know where I was in the country, I didn’t have any friends, I had never seen lakes, boats…farms! I felt tiny–coming from Hong Kong, where I was the same size as everyone else–felt weird. In Hong Kong, there were mountains surrounding a concrete jungle. I could walk the streets throughout the whole city and find my way home. Here, I couldn’t even get from my house to my school…and for our first year here, we lived in the apartments right by MPA!

On the first day of school here at MPA in ninth grade, I remember walking into my first block class, physics, and feeling all of the eyes looking at me. Did I dress wrong? Did I look funny? Why was everyone so big? That was the moment when I felt like everything was so wrong. It wasn’t what I expected at all. In my 13-year-old brain, I had imagined everyone smiling, standing up, and saying “OMG, Justin! It’s so nice to meet you!” Now, keep in mind, I had never had to meet friends on my own before in my life. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that way, but it made me feel very alone. Eating lunch alone, sitting alone, wondering how I would ever make friends. It was horrible. I remember sitting at lunch and looking over to the table where the freshmen boys were sitting and I thought, “How will they ever connect with me?” I felt so different. My Asian-born, Hong Kong-living, British School-attending self didn’t seem to have anything in common with them.

I knew eventually I’d have to open my mouth and talk to someone, and that freaked me out. Then, the opportunity came. Let me tell you, it was intense. I was minding my own business finishing my lab in physics when Noah Lantz started talking about basketball right behind me. Wait a second–I knew basketball, I knew all the players, all the teams–this could be my time to shine! I calculated all the risks, planned everything I was going to say, took a deep breath, and blurted out something out about Lebron James. Surprisingly, he didn’t back off from me and he actually had a conversation with me. I did it! I had a conversation with someone new, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I started growing more confident, and by the end of my second week, I had introduced myself to everyone and I was finally sitting with the rest of the freshman boys at the lunch table. By the winter, I had joined the basketball team, met my teammates, and bonded with bus rides and practices, and it all helped me start finding my place here. But as I was trying to get to know Minnesota more, COVID hit, and I was suddenly trapped in my home, going to school through a screen. I couldn’t see my new friends, but I remember booting up my Xbox one night. I joined a chat with my friends, and we started talking as if we were at school together. Obviously, we finished our homework first, but we talked for hours.

While the conversation started off with arguments over game strategies, we stopped playing, and started talking about our lives, emotions, and stories growing up. It was in these moments that I grew closer and more comfortable with them. They shared their traditions, cultures, and childhood experiences, and I shared my experiences living on an island, going to a British school, and all the things that make up my upbringing. The stories we told each other made me realize something new. Everyone was unique, and it’s our differences that are beautiful. I saw the beauty of differences through storytelling, as I was able to connect to others on a more emotional level. I learned so much listening to my friends’ experiences and their hardships, and I came out my shell by opening up about my life and the challenges I faced. Over the course of many car rides, late night Xbox chats, and video calls with my friends, they accepted me and my life, and I finally accepted mine. I was different. And for the first time in my life, I was proud to be.

I was no longer embarrassed of who I was. I found confidence in myself and was able to walk into Targets without feeling isolated, able to play basketball without fear, and walk into school without a tightness in my chest. All of these were things I never thought I’d be able to do. And the move here was totally not what I expected. I think back to Fall 2019. I woke up in the apartment, heart pounding. I put on my black skinny jeans, light brown Hollister shirt, and black Nike trainers on. I slicked my hair to the right, my mom took a photo of me leaving the door, and I anxiously found my way to school. Some part of me wishes I could go back in time and tell that kid everything was going to be okay. “It’s not that bad and you can actually make friends. Just don’t be scared.”

It’s funny to think how I was so afraid of change, when the reality was that it was something I needed. Through change, I accepted who I was, and that’s something I’ll take on for the rest of my life. While the future and the unknown are scary, the experiences I had moving here makes me less fearful of what’s to come. It gives me a calm, more positive outlook on life, and I know anywhere I go in this world, I bring my stories and who I am.

It’d be foolish to say I did this myself. My parents have been there every step of the way. They made the biggest sacrifice by leaving their lives, families, and homes in order to support me on my move to Minnesota and help me find a better education. You have shaped me into who I am today, and I have no idea how I will ever repay y’all for everything you’ve done for me. Thank you so much. We don’t say it often, but I love y’all. Finally, I want to say thank you to the Class of 2023. Thank you so much for letting the new, shy, small Asian kid into the community. Every single one of y’all have been so accepting and kind, and I deeply appreciate that. Y’all have made the past three years such a positive experience. I hope senior year goes great, and I hope the very best for all y’all. Thank you so much.

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