Olive Numeroff
New York, New York

I must have been Chinese in my past life.

I was on track to sign with Israel to skate for them in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. I was only an 8th grader at the time, so it was all very exciting. In May of that year, however, I was getting out of the car to go to school when I had stepped into a pothole, breaking both of my feet. After that, I was in a wheelchair for two and a half months. This incident marked maybe one of the most important changing points in my life and initiated a huge state of confusion within my identity.

This also happened right before I switched to a new high school in New York where no one knew me. Honestly, I was afraid of what my identity would be now. I went from being the ice skater who was training every day to all of a sudden just another girl. That summer, I had to think about who I was. I could no longer lean back on telling people my ‘wow’ story of being a competitive figure skater. What I had identified myself as all my life was not me anymore.

I was very lost and I felt like a whole central part of me was gone. I was so frustrated with my life. But luckily for me, I was able to find myself through something that I had been doing from a very young age, and I thank my parents for this every day. I had been taking Chinese classes religiously and really enjoyed the language and culture, but never really had the time to explore any further due to my rigorous schedule with ice skating. The Chinese classes I had been attending since I was a child were more than just some extracurricular classes to me. By the time I was a freshman I was already proficient in the language.

After my injuries healed and I redefined how I valued myself, I understood the power and strength of being a woman and the importance of academia. I was also blessed with a Chinese teacher in my school who really believed in me and brought out of me a side I had never had thought to explore before.

Still trying to figure out my identity, and traveling to China several times I decided I was ready to have a more valuable experience and go on a backpacking trip through rural China. This decision made me discover a part of myself that I was so desperately trying to find. I stayed in a homestay for some days in a small village just outside the autonomous region of Tibet. One day as I sat outside writing in my journal— I literally felt like I was in a scene from a movie—a woman came up to me, took my journal and began looking through its pages. This woman then asked me to go to her home. It wasn't necessarily the safest decision I’ve made, but it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity that I couldn't miss. It was an unexplainable experience. In the home, the woman’s kids looked at my journal and copying the words I had written in it while I talked to her husband. We discussed my life, my passions, and my family. It was insane — all of this in mandarin of course.

The second I stepped out of that house, for the first time after my injury, I felt fully like myself again. I had just communicated with a Tibetan man for a couple of hours, sharing my stories and he sharing his, in a language completely different from my native one. I couldn't have been more comfortable in my own skin. The family was just so kind, so genuine, and so interested in what life was like in other places of the world. Now, I really understood the power of communication through one's own language. I was able to communicate not just who I am, but also my culture and my values through two very distinct languages to two very distinctly different types of people. I felt so at peace with myself. This is when I realized that there was so much I could contribute to the world through language. It was in that moment that I knew Chinese had now become a part of me.

After returning home, I decided to major in East Asian Languages and Culture, applying to colleges with this major in mind. Going from thinking that figure skating would be my career path to seeing myself in college, majoring in Chinese, was something I had never envisioned myself ever doing. So far my life has taught me that everything happens for a reason and that we should always be on the lookout for opportunities, even when you think that there are none left.