自强不息” - Striving Tirelessly For Continuous Improvement
The Chinese idiom “自强不息” (zi qiang bu xi) – or striving tirelessly for continuous improvement – is Xu Zhekai’s life mantra. “Without it, I do not think I would have been able to overcome everything that has come my way, especially in these recent years,” the young man reflected stoically.
Despite coming from what is commonly perceived to be an ‘elite secondary school’, Zhekai describes himself as an “initially passive and introverted teenager who would just go along with the flow”. Constantly being viewed as an elite simply because he came from an ‘elite school’, Zhekai would always hear negative comments about himself from others. “Coming from such a school, yet such simple tasks also cannot do well” – Such hurtful comments bothered him and further eroded his self-confidence. Like many other boys his age, Zhekai dabbled in online gaming. Yet, for him, it was not just a game. It provided comfort and refuge from the cruel; judgmental world he faced outside every day, and was the very outlet that he needed as his virtual achievements as a top gamer gave Zhekai his sense of worth. The allure of the game and the satisfaction it brought for his self-esteem led to online gaming growing into a huge addiction for him. “I was stuck – so stuck, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t do anything other than game. It was a black hole that sucked me in, and didn’t let go. Looking back, I realise what a frightening person I had become,” Zhekai muses. The addiction badly affected his O Level Examination results and continued into his first year at Jurong Pioneer Junior College (JPJC). It was life that threw the brakes on the impending high-speed collision wreck that would have been Zhekai’s life.
The turning point in his life came when he had to repeat a year in JC1, and his late father passed away suddenly due to illness. Zhekai’s life was then thrown into utter disarray. As his late father was the sole breadwinner of the family, his mother had to then take on two jobs to make ends meet. “I woke up, from my long dream, my long nightmare, only to land in another one. But this time, it was for real. My dad was gone, and I was the only other man of the house now. Reality forces you to change in a way nothing else can,” Zhekai sombrely shared. Being the eldest in the family, he had to be the role model for his siblings, and support his grieving mother. “In my life mantra “自强不息”the first word 自 (zhi) – or self, reminded me that I have to focus on the state of my own mind first and foremost, and maintain a positive outlook despite the circumstances, myself. Only when I am strong, can I give courage and hope to others” he shared.
The second word in his mantra, 强 (qiang) – or strength, saw him taking an active step to cut off his deep addiction, transform his passive personality, and develop himself to be stronger and healthier in all senses of the word. Zhekai is very grateful to JPJC’s Kairos Programme (for JC1 repeat students) for giving him a second chance to make a clean break from his gaming addiction. “I managed to start afresh, step out of my comfort zone and to know new friends there, who inadvertently became my biggest pillars of strength in dealing with my gaming issues. I was really touched, because these friends never gave up – they kept asking me to hang out with them, I kept rejecting them, but they never gave up!” Zhekai laughs, “That’s how we became friends, and I became ‘distracted’ from my gaming problem and the grief of my dad’s passing.” Slowly but surely, having these friends in college changed Zhekai, from a quiet introvert to a more sociable and affable young man. “Without them, I don’t think I could have gotten out of the dumps, I was grieving, struggling and at the darkest, deepest point of my life then.”
Apart from the friends he made in college, the caring and nurturing environment at JPJC embodies the phrase _不息 (bu xi)_ in his mantra for Zhekai. He is forever grateful to all his tutors, especially Mr Pang Kang Ming and Ms Alice Seah Shiow Woan, as these supportive and caring teachers not only shared with Zhekai their own interesting past experiences that helped him to overcome his own fears, but also never gave up on him, constantly checking in on him during his darkest days. Such nurturing environment strengthened his resolve to pay it forward and help his friends as well. During the circuit breaker period in the COVID-19 pandemic, Zhekai initiated Zoom and video chat study sessions. Even though these were held virtually, that spirit of camaraderie and feeling of togetherness allowed them to stay focused, and accountable to one another for their study goals. “I had received so much from the college and my friends. I transformed into a totally different person, for the better – I don’t think I can walk away from it without trying to repay them,” Zhekai convictedly shared. As Zhekai’s Civics and Physics Tutor Mr Pang shared, “Zhekai might have taken a huge detour, but he is so mature, and he never gave up. He had to work part-time during the holidays while schooling, he repeated his JC1, he struggled with addiction, so much to bear as a teenager, but he still trudged on. He even demonstrated care and concern for those around him – I think his peers have much to learn from him.”
The resilient and mature young man also shared that many of JPJC’s signature programmes and frameworks, such as the Peer Supporters network, and Self-Regulation Framework, greatly helped him and his peers. “I think we are at an age where we need to be enlightened – what is self-discipline, how do we go about having some focus and discipline in our lives, it’s vague for teens like myself, so having the Self-Regulation Framework and our teachers explaining and guiding us, it was really explicitly demonstrated to us and it is helpful in that sense, so that we can carry it out and walk the talk.” His appointment to the role of his class’ Peer Supporter also allowed Zhekai to grow in his interpersonal skills, receive proper training and understand his classmates better as he showed more empathy towards others. He was equally surprised that his classmates would come forward and share their personal issues and challenges with him. For a formerly introverted individual like Zhekai, such an achievement really comforted him, and motivated him to go the extra mile for others, never giving up on those around him.
Having come this far, despite, in Mr Pang’s words, taking a huge detour, it is all worthwhile, in both Zhekai’s eyes, and those of his tutors and friends around him. “This boy has far exceeded the emotional growth and maturity anyone could have experienced, and he should really be proud of himself, GCE A Level Examination results notwithstanding,” Mr Pang shared proudly. When asked if he thought he had done well thus far, Zhekai replied modestly, “I have a very long road ahead, I cannot rest on my laurels.”
In his parting shot to his juniors, Zhekai shared, “Don’t dwell on any setbacks, there’s always a silver lining to every crisis, always remain positive and look forward to the next challenge. Embrace the challenge and always have the _“_自强不息_”(zi qiang bu xi)_ spirit!”
Zhekai hopes to read Electrical Engineering at the National University of Singapore.