A Conversation with Jessica Pan ’09, Co-author of Graduates in Wonderland

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Rachel Kapelke-Dale (right) and Jessica Pan (left), both graduated from Brown, went abroad, ended up in London, and co-authored ‘Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults’ — out now!

Jess ThailandVAGABOND: Can you give us a quick summary of your post-college years and what you are doing right now?

JESSICA: When I graduated from Brown in 2007, most of my friends decided to move to New York. I had always planned to do the same, but when May came around,  I changed my mind at the last minute. A friend from Brown was moving to Shanghai to teach English for a year and when he told me about it,  the idea of moving to China suddenly seemed really exciting to me.

On a whim, I decided to move to Beijing (although my friend ended up in Shanghai). I’d never been, but I’m half-Chinese and I decided that I could study the language and have a fun adventure for a year – and then I’d eventually come back to New York where all of my friends were. Well, that was the plan.

The night before graduation, my good friend Rachel (Kapelke-Dale) and I made a pact: to write each other no-holds-barred, honest accounts of our lives every week. She was moving to New York and I had a one-way ticket to Beijing, and we were determined to not lose touch despite the distance.

The summer after graduation, I moved to Beijing, had a few odd jobs, then started writing and editing for a magazine where I eventually became the managing editor. A lot of crazy things happened during my time in Beijing, which are all heavily detailed in the book, but a few years later, events brought me to Australia where I attended journalism school.

Now I’m settled in London and that’s where the idea and writing of the book Graduates in Wonderland happened.

VM: How did Graduates in Wonderland come about?

JP: Five years after graduation, Rachel and I both ended up in London (although we were there for completely different reasons).

Finding yourself in a big foreign city living a few blocks away from one of your best friends is such a gift – we found that we were meeting for coffee and seeing each other so regularly that it felt like we were back in college.

On one of these occasions, we were bickering about some detail of the past – someone’s name or when one of us was in Paris – so we decided to both search our email history. We were amazed at all the emails from our past that appeared. Crushes we had lost touch with, strange experiences we lived through and so many details we had forgotten appeared in our inbox and took us right back to those moments in Beijing (for me) and NYC and Paris (for Rachel).

We were talking about all the weird stuff that happened over the years, and we decided to put together this book just for fun because it seemed like something it would be wonderful to look back on or have our future children read. As we got further into it, we thought that our letters captured really formative years and that we would have wanted to read something similar when we were 22.

Eventually we decided to send about 20 pages to a few literary agents. One of them got back to us, and before we knew it, we were selling the Graduates in Wonderland manuscript a few weeks later.

VM: Can you talk in general about post-grad life and any lessons you’ve learned?

JP: I think what surprised me is that everyone ends up in places they never thought they would. A lot of my friends that thought they’d work in publishing are now lawyers;, my friends that thought they’d love teaching are now working at NGOs. For a lot of people, you just don’t know what’s gonna happen because there’s so many twists and turns.

Also, everyone goes to New York, and there are just so many other places to go. I do love New York, but it doesn’t have to be the only answer.

As for lessons learned, I think you can’t predict anything. You have to allow for things you didn’t think would happen to happen.

VM: Would you recommend going abroad as opposed to staying in NY or the States?

JP: It’s definitely not for everybody, especially if you are absolutely certain about the career you want and it requires years of preparation, like medical school. But I don’t know anyone who has regretted going abroad – that is, unless you stay in one place for too long and have stopped learning anything from it or have stopped enjoying the experience.

You don’t have to stay abroad, but I did. I thought I’d stay in Beijing for a year and then come back. Obviously that didn’t happen., If you would have told me I would end up in Australia for a few years and then settle in London, I would not have been able to fathom how that would have happened.

VM: Do you think the education you got at Brown and your experiences here prepared you well to graduate and for life after college?

JP: At Brown, you meet all different kinds of people and –, although it’s not quite like going abroad –, you meet people from different backgrounds and cultures. It was the first time I had a lot of friends who were born and raised in other countries – so just having that exposure changes your world.

When I first moved to Beijing, I got in touch with the  Brown alumni club there and I met some amazing people that really made my experience in China (some appear in the book). Everywhere you go, there’s going to be someone from Brown there and when you meet those people, you have such a connection with them immediately.

I’ve been in really random places and have run into people I knew from Brown who I hadn’t kept in touch with and then connected with them abroad –  it’s always been really amazing.

VM: Could you talk a little about the adjustment to post-grad life and the adjustment to life abroad?

JP: I think Rachel struggled more with this because after graduation she went straight to New York and had to struggled with the adjustment from college to real life, which is something I don’t think gets talked about enough (and is one reason we wanted to publish this book). Rachel was working a job she hated, she was lonely, she was not making much money at all, and she didn’t feel fulfilled or like she was on the right path. In the book, you see how she decides to change her life and find a way to Paris and her eventual vocation.

Whereas when I went to Beijing ,it was so completely different from anything I had ever experienced, and it was such an adventure I wasn’t even really thinking about the transition. It was more like, “Omigod, I’m in a completely different world.”

VM: You studied abroad in Australia and ended up in a graduate program in Australia; Rachel studied abroad in France and ended up in a graduate program in France. Can you talk a little about the different experiences studying abroad through a program as an undergrad and as a graduate student?

JP: I studied abroad in Melbourne my junior year and Rachel was abroad in Paris. First of all, when you’re with a study abroad program as an undergrad, you hang out mostly with your friends from Brown or from the study abroad program all the time.  You’re in a bubble.

You aren’t really as in touch with the society, you don’t have as big a connection to people that live in the city other than students and teachers.

But years later, in graduate school, I was living in a shared house with an Irish guy, an Australian girl, and a Venezuelan guy. It just felt like I lived more in the city and that school was more secondary. I felt more a part of Melbourne, I knew so much more about the city when I went there the second time and Rachel felt exactly the same way.

We did laugh about it like, why did we both go back to the cities where we studied abroad? Are we regressing?

This was never planned in advance, but I like living my life like that. My biggest fear was to be stuck in a dead-end job in a city I didn’t like for eight or ten years.

VM: You and Rachel decided after you graduated you would continue this long-distance contact. Why did you decide to maintain contact in this way? Was it easy or hard?

JP: After making the initial pact, it wasn’t difficult to keep in touch. When you’re living abroad and you just graduated there are all these things happening to you and writing to someone who is removed from that life, but who knows you, is a great way to keep yourself grounded. I would be writing to Rachel at 3am my time, and she’d often be awake in New York or Paris, so it worked out really well.

I think everyone has become so bad at email because it’s a commitment, but once you get into it, its great.  It’s easier to be more honest with someone that isn’t in your life at that moment — to tell someone back home what’s going on rather than the person you’re living with. It’s a way to figure out what you’re thinking and feeling in life because sometimes you don’t realize “actually I’m miserable doing this” or “actually I’m really happy.” But when you’re writing to someone and you have to articulate your feelings or patterns about things you’re doing and it really clarifies the situation for you.

I totally recommend it — it’s actually really therapeutic and keeps you connected to your friends.

Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults, out now! (Gotham, 2014)

Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults, out now! (Gotham, 2014)

VM: Could you take a little about the process of making this correspondence into a book?

JP: After we had our literary agent and were working on our book proposal, we realized we had way too much content.

It had been so many years and we’d written so many things. Our agent told us to take the most meaningful moments in our lives or the turning points in your lives and cut out all the rest,

That’s what we did – there might be moments when we were doing something or even dating someone but we learned nothing from the situation or nothing really changed –  that stuff was cut out. It’s really weird to think of yourself as a character in a book, but I think anyone that writes a memoir has to say: this is the exposition, this is the climax… . We had to have a narrative arc. Once we decided what those big events were, it was really easy.

VM: What do you hope that readers will get most out of your book?

JP: We’ve had some reviews say things like “I didn’t realize I could go abroad” or “I didn’t realize I could do all these different things” and when we get feedback like that, that we’ve opened people up to possibilities, [it feels like our greatest accomplishment]. In the book, we also address loneliness a lot and I think people don’t talk enough about being lonely after graduation.

Also, I’m glad it makes people laugh. There’s definitely a lot to laugh about in the years following graduation – so many mishaps or strange adventures.

If our book can provide escapism, make people feel less alone and more likely to take risks, as well as laugh a lot, then that makes me really happy.

VM: What has it been like to have your life out there in print?

JP: Before this book, I wasn’t a very public person. In fact, I’m still not and I was scared to put such intimate details of my life out there.

One of my friends in London called me the most reluctant soon-to-be-published author she’d ever met – for awhile, I didn’t even tell people the title of the book because I didn’t want them to read about my private life. I’d like, wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking about it in the weeks before publication.

About a month before Graduates was published, I was interviewing Lily Allen for a magazine article and while we were talking about her revealing and honest lyrics, my fears about my book came up. She basically looked me in the eyes and told me that our most embarrassing stories are often the most relatable and they unite us (not least because they are often funny). And I believe her.

Stories only have real meaning when you’re willing to put it all out there, to go places that may make me embarrassed but will make other women feel a little bit less alone.

That said, I did white-out entire sections of the book in the copies I sent to my parents.

VM: What are you doing in London now?

JP: I found that through the book I started freelance writing more because I felt like I could. I’ve been writing for the Hairpin, ELLE online, Teen Vogue, etc. Also, after journalism school, some of my friends edit magazines there, so I do a lot of writing for magazines back there, which is random and wonderful.

I’m also working on a book of non-fiction essays now. Rachel’s just finished a novel and is hoping to sell it later this year (which she definitely will because I’ve read it and it’s beautiful and brilliant).

VM: Any advice for graduating seniors?

JP: Expect the unexpected and take risks. Don’t just play it safe because this is the time in your life  to take risks. When my class graduated, it seemed like people felt like they couldn’t do things if they hadn’t done them before, but that’s not true. You have to challenge yourself and if all else fails, fake it until you make it.