A Year of Living Joyously

‘I might describe my year at Notre Dame, a pinnacle for creative minds, as a combination of art, enlightenment and therapy, but also chores.’

Author: Cheng Wang

When a plant blossoms, it announces the arrival of spring by producing buds before bearing fruit. When people blossom, we likewise flourish. However, when that lush season ends — and it will end, for everything and everyone — do we wither and become forever dormant?

Most of us toil our entire working lives toward the dream of financial freedom. But the truth is that, even if that dream comes true, life is nowhere near as sexy and rosy as we had imagined. Individually, we grapple with vanishing social circles, stiffer joints and sleepless nights. Collectively, we feel we are beyond the life goals — going to school, getting married, raising a family, retirement — that society sets for us, as if nothing remains but to let others write us off before the end.

As I turned 65 last year, my love of writing made me feel productive and connected. I had published a memoir, and I knew that I needed to keep that storytelling spirit alive; however, my cyclical lifestyle — doing the same things with the same people, even fun things like playing tennis and having a beer at any time of day — would lead to mundane musings at best. Around that time, the Inspired Leadership Initiative at Notre Dame caught my attention.

Now in its fourth year, the ILI is designed for people who have completed their traditional careers and want to spend a year contemplating life’s second act. Participants attend core lectures and discussions and audit classes with students while taking advantage of the University’s nearly unlimited resources for personal enrichment and self-discovery.

As a retired principal engineer whose life trajectory led him from a Chinese re-education camp in the early 1970s, during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, to graduate studies in economics at the University of Cincinnati, work at AT&T and the publication of a memoir about these experiences, I imagined a year at Notre Dame would put my feet on a new path. How, I wasn’t sure, because the notion of campus life had become so remote to me, and I had never been to Notre Dame. Looking back now at the end of my year, I am astonished by the outcome, which has surpassed all my expectations.

Cheng Wang 1
Photography by Matt Cashore ’94

“How are you doing at Notre Dame, Cheng?”

I had trouble answering this question whenever friends posed it, because there was always too much in my head: daily interactions, books, discussions, presentations, parties, a retreat and all the people I encountered — more than I could have in 10 years back home in North Carolina.

Often I would say something like, “I have stopped napping, and yet I feel fine during the day and sleep better at night.”

This seems like a simple statement, and yet it impressed people who know me: My daily nap around 2 p.m. was religious. I worked from home for 15 years before I retired, and I have worked for myself since. I could always lie down after lunch with a book in my hand, and the book inevitably ended up on the floor.

Meanwhile, my nightly sleep was always poor.

Campus life started me on a healthier life cycle: A busy and exciting day left no time for afternoon Z’s. This led to sound sleep and renewed energy for each new day. My mind was clearer than ever, and my writing became more prolific and lucid. Even my tennis game, which I kept playing three times a week, became more efficient and free-flowing.

At home, I always start my day by turning on the coffee maker and doing tai chi, followed by two to three hours of writing. I did not want to change that at Notre Dame, so my days on campus usually started around noon. A typical Thursday afternoon schedule looked like this:

12:30-1:30 Inspiring lunch and conversation with a guest speaker

2-3:15 Class: Chinese Religious World Today

3:30-4:45 Class: Language Strategy and Techniques

6:30-8:30 ILI dinner and conversation with a guest speaker

Tennis often filled the days that had fewer classes and ILI events. Over the last 20 years, playing tennis has become my panacea, and I would be at my worst if I couldn’t play.

We ate well, too. Research shows that an upbeat mental state plus a good diet can boost our “happy hormones” and improve our overall health. ILI did that by providing food for our souls and our bodies: Our weekly dinners together were delicious as well as inspiring. In short, the ILI fellows felt pampered, which shouldn’t be the main reason to participate, but it really helps.

Each of the 20 fellows had different objectives but one thing in common: a search for new meanings and rekindled purpose while having the healthiest fun we could have.

We spent much time studying rhetoric, my first taste of this expression of the highest learning in the West. I pointed out that, because public speaking was not lauded in Chinese tradition, self-cultivation is considered the highest form of learning.

ILI fellows all participate in one course, the ILI Core Element, twice a week. It involves plenty of reading, writing and discussion. Of all the well-chosen books, I liked Deep River — a 1993 novel by the Japanese Catholic writer Shūsaku Endō, selected by our ILI spiritual adviser, Father Kevin Sandberg, CSC, ’88, ’04M.Div. — best. It gave me an unparalleled perspective from which to view religion and myself.

One important character, Otsu, is the only faithful Christian in the book. Born and raised in Japan, he is the most awkward young man among his college friends and becomes a stubborn “holy fool” as an adult living in India. The Church has expelled him from the priesthood because he raised many questions influenced by his Eastern tradition, and Japanese people mock him because he chooses to believe in a “foreign God.”

Throughout the book, I sensed many similarities between Otsu and me. His distinctive awkwardness, stubbornness and naivete were in me as well. Over four decades of traversing the Pacific, I have often felt like an outlier because of my Eastern background and as a nonnative speaker of English. And I am not perceived as Chinese when I return because I am not like the locals, either. A college friend commented, “The way you speak, you can’t survive in China!”

Most of all, I chose the hard path of authoring a book in English and then coming to Notre Dame, when I could have lived a more easygoing life. Like Otsu, I couldn’t — and didn’t want to — change myself. The path I am on is exciting but also frightening. Somehow, these conflicting emotions make me feel alive.

At its end, Deep River contemplates the notion that all religions have the same access to the divine. It depicts the sacred Ganges River near Otsu’s adopted home in India embracing and subsuming all living beings equally. This cosmopolitan spirituality struck a profound chord within me, as I consider myself spiritual, but not religious in a particular way.

Still, after reading the book I had more questions than answers. Is this spiritual inclusiveness a new trend? And how far does it go? During our one-on-one conversation, Father Kevin sensed my hesitation because I was a blank page in religion and offered the thought that when we get too particular, we become close-minded. Similarly, Bill, an ILI friend and former priest, stated simply that there is no “outside.” The supportive environment embraced by the entire ILI cohort helped me, the only Easterner, feel at ease.

That reassuring cohesion among us amazed me: It stood in stark contrast to the division and chaos of the world around us. The news media depicts America as more divided than ever before, which I think is largely accurate. Yet, why was this not the case among my ILI peers?

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As ILI fellows, we could audit additional classes that piqued our interest, with professors’ permission. The Great Speeches, a class taught by Professor John Duffy of the English department, was the first course that drew my attention. It required students to write and deliver public speeches. I was initially apprehensive, imagining how big a fool I would make of myself. The challenge turned into a formative experience I could never forget.

My heart was always in my throat as I entered Duffy’s classroom. I feared being crushed, because today’s kids are so quick with their thoughts and words during discussions and role plays. But their warm smiles and friendly small talk always calmed me, and I felt exhilarated after class — yes, I had done it again!

At one time, we had to pick a topic from a list, say something for it and something against it. When it was my turn, I chose “Aristotle is a bore.” It was easy to mock a stone-aged name and even easier to praise him once I examined the way he put words to ideas, which are still considered among the best today. My impromptu speech surprised the class, including me, and put a big smile on the professor’s face.

One day, he invited Claire Redcliffe, a member of the visiting Actors from the London Stage theater company, to speak to our class. At the time, Redcliffe was cast as Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s famous play, and Duffy asked her to perform one of her monologues. She paused for a minute and turned herself into Lady Macbeth, a person on fire. From a few feet away, I felt the heat from her eyes and tone — even though I could not understand a word she said.

We spent much time studying rhetoric, my first taste of this expression of the highest learning in the West. I pointed out that, because public speaking was not lauded in Chinese tradition, self-cultivation is considered the highest form of learning. When people speak of the legendary, 16th-century neo-Confucianist philosopher Wang Yangming, they are likelier to talk about his sitting in the bamboo garden for seven days rather than the ideas he was pondering.

The course final was the Great Hall Speeches, so called because we delivered them in O’Shaughnessy Hall’s Great Hall. During my 12 minutes behind the podium, I felt more comfortable than ever. ILI fellows do not receive grades or credits for the classes we take. But my grade was on Duffy’s face, which was as bright as a sunflower as I stepped down. For the first time, I could proudly say I had formally studied English writing and speaking, Western literature and rhetoric — all in one class. Duffy said he was happy to have me, too.

When he came to speak to the ILI fellows at our weekly dinner, he commented that Notre Dame should expend more on the ILI program, because of the different experiences we bring into classrooms. And I am the only ILI student he has yet taught in class.

Did I mention that Professor Duffy received a teaching award? The announcement came on the day we delivered our final speeches. Being in his class was simply good luck, but I could only feel this way after I had given my full effort.

‘I’m inspired by your zeal for life, learning and growth, as well as your optimism. I’m grateful for the gift of you.’

Professor Julia Kim’s course, Pronunciation Techniques for English Language Learners, bore unexpected fruits. The class is intended for international students, but I was drawn to Kim’s immigrant background and her scholarly achievements. After this magazine published a story about my unconventional life path in its spring edition, Kim and I agreed to host “A Conversation on Cross-Cultural and Language Learning,” inviting more students than those in the class as well as her colleagues.

Kim kicked off the dialogue, and the students jumped in. Most of their inquiries focused on how these seemingly unrelated chapters of my life had converged into something of my own. The event was an excellent opportunity for me to discover how today’s students comprehend the concept of consilience — how using evidence from interdisciplinary learning and disparate experiences helps one form robust conclusions — which I hold dear. They got it and were ready to put these notions into practice.

Afterward, five students caught me in the hallway to chat for another 30 minutes. They were bright and aspirational but also timid and apprehensive. The hallway provided a less formal setting that sparked a broader conversation.

I hope the students took away at least this much: New technologies may quickly become outdated, but old-fashioned storytelling never will be. Stories are a way to make long-lasting impressions when meeting someone — a new professor or an interviewer for a job, for instance — making them eager to know you. Engaging personal stories invite others into our lives, leading to new connections and opportunities for success.

“I’m inspired by your zeal for life, learning and growth, as well as your optimism. I’m grateful for the gift of you,” Professor Kim commented on the event. And we are planning another “conversation” when I return to Notre Dame.

Chinese Religious World Today, taught by Professor Lionel Jensen, was also on my course schedule. China is widely perceived as a spiritually barren land due to Confucian pragmatism. However, the extensive discussions and the free-spirited students in Jensen’s class allowed me to see my home country differently.

I began to understand how religion has always been part of Chinese culture. Many supernatural beliefs, such as yin-yang, feng shui, ancestor worship and the sacred “Son of Heaven” label that once legitimized emperors, had been deeply rooted for thousands of years. I had many chances to bring my knowledge of China to these explorations.

My upbringing had coincided with the 10-year Cultural Revolution, when all suspicion was wiped away from the Chinese mind in favor of one ideology. Then again, hadn’t it also prompted a certain kind of piety? During those years, everyone in the country held Mao’s “Little Red Book” of quotations, wore a Chairman Mao medal and sang daily in earnest, “East is red, the sun is rising, in China is born Mao Zedong; he brings joys to people, and he is a savior of us all.”

When the professor asked us to reflect on the closest Western equivalents of Chinese concepts, one student argued that American bipartisan politics could parallel yin-yang as a manifestation of interconnected opposites. That was interesting indeed.

Yin and yang, in traditional Chinese cosmology, explain the opposite forces in natural phenomena from the universe to our human bodies, given by God.

American politics is, of course, a social phenomenon, created by humans. Yet the analogy is no less relevant. For example, the Chinese believe a well-balanced yin and yang is the way to stay healthy and energetic. An imbalance may mean a person will become ill, age prematurely or even die. A balanced diet is the mechanism to maintain equilibrium.

Similarly, the opposite forces of American politics must stay balanced for the country to thrive. The question is, what mechanism do we employ to regain our balance when the rival parties fail to collaborate?

“You have the thoughts. That’s the most difficult thing in writing,” my journalism professor Alesia Redding said to me after her class on opinion writing one day. “Write in the way only you can write it by being personal.”

My final project for Redding’s class was a column titled “We can — and should — strive to understand other cultures.” When it appeared in the South Bend Tribune’s June 7 edition, I felt an unexpected blossoming that prompted me to see my Notre Dame year in a new light. Although the ILI programming and my chosen courses were blowing my mind in various ways, what really stirred my thoughts were the unexpected encounters.

Three days after I moved into my off-campus apartment in August 2022, I heard a knock at my door — a rare occurrence nowadays. I opened the door and saw a smiling East Asian girl and a shy-looking Indian man holding a tray with six banana-nut cakes. The cakes exuded a yeasty aroma as they had just come out of the oven.

“Wow!” I said, looking at the cakes and the two strangers’ pleasant appearances.

“Hi, we are from the third floor on the left,” the girl chirped. “My name is Hui, and his name is Siva. We want to meet some new neighbors.”

“I’m the lucky new neighbor today!” I responded joyfully. There is nothing more exciting to me than getting to know someone like this. We chatted a bit. “Let’s get together one day,” I said, noticing they had five more cakes to share with other neighbors.

“Yes.” They nodded in unison.

A month later, Hui brought another new friend, Jinan, when we met over Siva’s homemade Indian food at the Duncan Student Center. Hui said she was born and raised in Malaysia and went to work in Singapore, where she met Siva. Jinan came from Lebanon to teach Arabic. Everyone was eager to tell stories about their families, careers and traditions. Before we knew it, two and a half hours had passed, and we all had to go. I suggested we meet again and offered to host the next lunch.

After that anything-but-random lunch, I wrote, “Sitting together, we look and feel like a rainbow.”

One comment from Hui reverberated in my mind. “I knocked on five doors after yours, and you were the only one excited to see us,” she said with surprise. “Others looked puzzled and gave excuses to not take the cakes.” I wonder how most people grapple with modern-day isolation and loneliness. Many blame social media. Might some of the causes come from within themselves, too?

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Have I mentioned that the Notre Dame students are so impressive that I often felt I hadn’t lived much of life? At least, not like them! Sid and Daniel were two Master of Business Administration candidates assigned to me as mentees, an experience that allowed me to learn more about today’s young men.

I met Sid first. Within five minutes, I learned he had gone to college in India, completed a master’s degree in Texas and worked seven years for a high-tech company before coming to Notre Dame. I believed I had just met the future Microsoft CEO. Sid immediately said, “Yes, that’s what I aspire to do!”

What’s more, Sid solved one big puzzle for me: why Indian immigrants in the United States are so successful, especially in comparison with the Chinese. I discovered through Sid that Indians almost always want to keep going, while most Chinese will settle for a well-paid job. The contrast between the two national characters could not be more striking.

I met Daniel later. After getting to know me as an author, he was inspired to tell a story of his parents, of the Ivory Coast where his mother came from, and of Ghana where his father was from. “I will write a book after my career is established, and you will be the first to know,” he said to me before we parted.

I advised both young men to exhibit curiosity and enthusiasm in the people they encounter but, even more important, to be confident and humble, to take genuine interest in others and establish commonality with them. People are far more similar than they are different.

Playing tennis during my ILI year meant more to me than merely chasing fuzzy yellow balls around a court because of the people I met. Shortly after I settled in to my apartment, I joined the South Bend Racquet Club. The first day, I arrived 10 minutes before the club opened and I waited in the parking lot with two other players, Bill and Rick. We chatted briefly, as both men were eager to know “the new guy.”

The next day, Bill texted to tell me he had ordered my book. A week later, he and I texted numerous times about his thoughts on it. He was a retired lawyer and had a keen interest in China. We had a drink together and became friends outside of tennis.

Rick invited me for brunch at his house. He came from the Philippines in the mid-1980s because of government corruption. I told him I came to the U.S. in the mid-1980s because China had opened its doors for the first time. I remembered the Filipino president, Ferdinand Marcos, but knew more about his wife, Imelda, who always looked glamorous.

“His wife was worse,” Rick said. “There was never enough for her. The Philippines was the first to become democratic but last to achieve economic growth in Asia.”

Rick became more emotional while finishing his thought, leaving me to wonder about his insight. He invited me to visit the Philippines and offered to be my guide. I accepted the offer earnestly.

Another tennis friend, a professor of political science, invited me to his department tailgate and introduced me to several colleagues. One had spent many years teaching and writing in China before coming to Notre Dame. I made an appointment to see him in his office. Among the many topics we discussed, he mentioned several professors whose research interests might benefit me. This conversation further encouraged me to explore my interests through the ILI.

Early on during our ILI experience, the program organized a short retreat for us at Gull Lake, Michigan, a chance to reflect while appreciating the glories of a golden Midwestern autumn. Father Dennis O’Donnell was our guest retreat leader. Father Den’s method was invigorating — ordinary life stories that made profound points — and our participation was soul-searching. At one point, he asked us to share our upbringing and what it meant for our spiritual growth. When I began to talk, I delved into Chinese history and traditions to exemplify who the Chinese are and why.

After immersing ourselves spiritually, we took a 25-minute bus ride to a restaurant. On the bus, O’Donnell approached me to chat. “I will get your book to know more about you,” he said before we stepped off the bus.

Two months later, he sent me a long email. He thanked me for our conversation and said my book had helped him in many ways, “one being your ability to see and incorporate many different viewpoints on politics, culture, philosophy, religion and life,” he wrote.

You said that the USA was a ‘melting-pot’ (actually I think it is more of a salad) but your life is a wonderful example to me of what Jesus Christ taught of courage, acceptance, focus. . . . Actually, the 24-character strategy of your nation’s hero, Deng Xiaoping, you have embodied in your life, Cheng: ‘Observe and analyze calmly, strengthen your own position, undertake change calmly and with confidence, conceal your true potential and bide your time, contribute your part, never become the leader.

Like everyone, I love compliments. O’Donnell’s comments were more specific than most others, making me see myself in a new way through him.

“In this life stage, I just want to serve a tiny piece of the world and do it as well as I can,” I responded.

He made me believe that what I did held meaning, and we sent many emails back and forth after that. Our recent correspondences about his retreat work triggered an idea, and I wrote, “If you think stories and life experiences from the Eastern culture may fit into some of these events, I’d be happy to come and share my thoughts.”

“Your ideas are not only interesting but also exciting,” he replied. We will look into details to make our relationship blossom and bear more fruit in the years to come.

I might describe my year at Notre Dame, a pinnacle for creative minds, as a combination of art, enlightenment and therapy, but also of chores. The unexpected encounters that stirred my thoughts and created emotional resonance were nothing more than good luck, but they nonetheless required me to play my part. The truth is, if you are open to it, spring will come to greet you, even in autumn.

Cheng Wang, one of Notre Dame’s 20 Inspired Leadership Initiative fellows during the 2022-23 academic year, resides in Cary, North Carolina, and describes himself as a “Chinese American cross-cultural messenger.” During his two decades working in technology at AT&T, he became a writer. His memoir, From Tea to Coffee: The Journey of an “Educated Youth”, was published in 2021.