Chinese Proverb for a Struggling Student

Background: Below is a conversation about a proverb that the informant was told at the start of her academic journey at a competitive math and science boarding school. Two years later, she still holds the proverb near to her heart and uses it as motivation for her all-nighters. 

Main Piece:

Informant: I was struggling in excel with my workload and my math teacher told me a chinese proverb that helped. He basically said, the proverb goes like this like, “20 years ago was the best time to plant the tree, but the second best time to plant a tree is right now.

Interviewer: What does that mean?

Informant: Basically saying that you know you should have started this thing, a WHILE ago, but now that you haven’t done it you know that in the past that was the best time to start it. But, you haven’t so the best time to start it, again, is right now. And I think that works well cause like I’d procrastinate a lot on homework and then I’d be stressed like there’s no way I can finish this. And it’s like well yeah you should’ve started it 6 hours ago, but — you didn’t. So, the best time to start it is right now. 

Interviewer: Tell me about this teacher

Informant: He was half Chinese, his mother uh— actually I don’t know which region, but she spoke Cantonese not Mandarin. And his father was from Kentucky, he was Black. He was really understanding. Not judgemental, he knew that waiting til the last minute was punishment enough.

Context: This conversation occurred over a FaceTime call where I asked the informant if she had any sayings or proverbs she liked. She instantly told me this. The conversation was casual, but very relatable as we both lived out our shared experience of procrastination and all-nighters.

My thoughts: It was interesting to find out that this was one of those sayings that keeps the informant pushing through some tough times. It felt very personal to know that this has become a mantra for her. I also found it interesting and quite touching that she resonates so wholeheartedly will a proverb from a culture that is not her own. I feels that not only the proverb was given to her, but a kindness and genuine motivation from her teacher was transferred as well.