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Although they’d rarely admit it, most children see their parents as superheroes in street clothes.
Kids search for their parents in the stands at the volleyball game or visually comb the theater rows during a dance recital to make sure they are looking. They beam with pride when they bring home their art projects and math exams. They turn to their mom and dad for comfort when bullied by their peers, betrayed by a friend, or rejected by a crush.
Of course they do, because beyond tending to standard care, parents give the best bear hugs, lift self-esteem, mend a broken heart, soften hard days, and love unconditionally.
So, imagine the unique challenges school-aged children navigate in a far-away country without their parents.
For the second segment of our Expat Untold series, we’re shining a light on parachute kids. They are unaccompanied minors sent to or dropped off in another country to get (what is considered as) a superior education.
Parachute kids often live with complete strangers or extended relatives. So, on top of navigating the typical tough childhood stuff, they must also contend with language barriers, not fitting in, culture shock, etc. ALL compounded by the reality of not having their parents around.
This week, it’s my pleasure to welcome host and founder of Global Cktizens, Calvin Widjaja. An Indonesian-born Chinese, Calvin moved to Singapore for school at 11 years old. Today, Calvin joins us to share his experience and perspective of what it’s like to be a parachute kid.
What You’ll Learn in this Episode:
- The incentive to not end up “like them”
- Realizing how different you are once you return home
- Counterfeit names & the comfort of using your birth one
- A hybrid of cultures & belonging to multiple countries
- The relief of having a name for your struggles
Listen to the Full Episode
What am I missing? Which topics do you think need more coverage? You have my ear, so don’t hold back. Special prizes are up for grabs, so keep those brilliant ideas coming right here.
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Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Featured on the Show:
- Wisdom Fusion 6-Week Learning Series
- Sundae’s Facebook Business Page – Sundae Schneider-Bean LLC
- Sundae’s Facebook Group – Expats on Purpose
- Global Cktizens Facebook
- Global Cktizens Instagram
- Global CKtizens Podcast
- Families in Global Transition
We’re delighted by our nomination to the global Top 25 Expat Podcasts!
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Full Episode Transcript:
Hello. It is 3:00 am in New York, 9:00 pm in Johannesburg, and 2:00 pm in Bangkok. Welcome to the Expat Happy Hour. This is Sundae Schneider-Bean from www.sundaebean.com. I am a solution-orientated coach and intercultural strategist for individuals and organizations. I am on a mission to help you adapt and succeed when living abroad and get you through any life transition.
If I asked you what a TCK was, most of you, if you’re living a globally mobile life could answer it, a Third Culture Kid. Someone who grew up in their formative years outside of their passport country because of their parents work.
But what about a parachute kid? For many people this term is unfamiliar and what we know from the research is that parachute kids are also an important part of our globally mobile community, to pay attention to, to understand, and also to learn more about.
And that is exactly why this episode is part of our Expat Untold series. You will find out why this is so important for us to talk about this later in the episode.
So, let’s back up for a second, before we dive in, what is a parachute kid? Well, Baoyan Cheng in their article on Sociocultural Adaptation of Parachute Kids from Mainland China in the British Journal of Guidance and Counseling defines a parachute kid as unaccompanied minors, or unaccompanied sojourners. And usually, they are from Asian regions, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Mainland China, and they are dropped off in another country to go to school. Most commonly we know it’s in the US, but increasingly it is changing into other countries as well.
So the children are dropped off to go to school while their parents stay in their country of origin. Now, we’ve known about parachute kids since the 1980s and they have captured the attention of some researchers but from what I’ve seen in our expat and globally mobile spaces, it is really not on the high level of the radar.
And I know that this needs to change. Danau Tanu asked me in 2020 to join her in a conversation on third culture kids and parachute kids so that we can focus on what it means to help build their resilience. So I’m going to put in the show notes that link to that discussion with two experts so you can dive in and learn more if you want to. But beyond the research and beyond what we know from educators who work directly with parachute kids, I wanted to talk to a parachute kid myself and that is exactly why our guest is here today.
Make sure you listen to the end, because there is something that – to the best of my knowledge – NO ONE is talking about and my hunch got confirmed during the process of producing this episode.
Sundae: So our special guest today is Calvin Widjaja. He is Indonesian born Chinese who lived in Singapore for almost two decades and the host and founder of Global CKtizens. That’s Global CKtizens, with an extra K. It’s an online show hosting interviews of and for third culture kids. Those who experience multicultural lifestyles, including cross-cultural kids, digital nomads and expatriates in order to share their experiences working and living in their host countries. So it is my absolute pleasure to have you on Expat Happy Hour Calvin.
Calvin: Hi! Thanks so much for inviting me, Sundae, and it’s an honor after quite a while, actually. How are you doing?
Sundae: I’m doing so good. So the last time we talked, I was actually so lucky to be a guest on your show. Tell the listeners, why did you start Global CKtizens?
Calvin: Yeah, really interesting story on that. So as Sundae mentioned in the introduction, I grew up in Singapore for over two decades and I came back to Indonesia in around late 2018 or early 2019, it’s because I was feeling a little burnout and I wanted a change of pace. I mean in life we always want to keep on improving, right? And at that time, that point of my life, I just didn’t feel that in Singapore I could accomplish as much as I can, so okay maybe it’s time for something new. So I head back home to Indonesia and at that time the idea was just to learn a little bit from my dad and fortunately, having an Asian father, he is already so focused on dedicated, “Alright, my only son has come home. The prodigal son has arrived. So I will put everything into him to make sure that he become the my successor.” and–
Sundae: No pressure.
Calvin: No pressure, no pressure at all. So, he has executed numerous ideas at that time, one of which was actually to purchase a property.
And his mindset was that because I think it’s a typical practice in Indonesia communities that, “Oh, you have a business. You have to have somebody who is stationed there,” so that you act as the person in charge of the area and lo and behold, I’m put there.
So I’m really out of my comfort zone. So at that time I actually argued a lot with my parents and more with my dad, not with my mom. My mom is usually the peacemaker of the two of us. Because there was a lot of differences.
So, at that time because I only can make the best of my situation. I tried to find ways to actually find an outlet to counter the cultural shock. So what I did was last time I used to write articles and when I was doing that, I do it from the perspective of, “Okay, I’m going to turn this into a book,” and what I did was that in each chapter actually, put some of the issues that I have, then I use a pop culture as a reference to make people understand what is actually going on. And then I’ll add on some additional theories on that. I think when I reach around one of the last few chapters, I realized that it doesn’t have a proper perfect flow. It’s not good. So when that happened, coincidentally, I actually was meeting up with a friend, who is a serial expat at a time. He is currently in Abu Dhabi and when he saw what I was doing, he told me, “You know your perspective only come from one perspective of a global citizen. It’s just a guy who moved from a big city to a small country, which is still developing. So from a developed country to a developing country.” It doesn’t represent the entire viewpoint of global citizens, for example, all of the type of guests that I’ve invited, digital nomads, yourself, expatriates, it’s not represented the whole perspective.
So when I was reflecting on it, I get where he’s coming from and yeah, I do agree that it’s only one side of one side of the coin. Coincidentally, a week after that I actually head back to Singapore for a short break.
And at that time I was attending a networking event while waiting for my friend who is working. So, in that event, I actually met two TCKs actually. One of whom, I kept in touch and we became really good friends, but one of the person leaves me, both a positive and negative impression. In that networking event, there’s a lady called Zai, she is actually an international speaker, she’s a two-time Amazon best-selling author. And one of the TCKs, the one who left me with negative impression actually said this to her in front of everybody, “You’ve done two books only and here you are at the stage, making a good living out of it. I’ve done eight books and here I am still struggling.”
So I was like, “Okay that’s just too much. That’s not really being too direct, that’s rude.” This is her event and you are trying to take the spotlight. But then I found when I actually talked with him a little bit more, I found out that he actually wrote books about his personal experience growing up as a TCK from growing up in Los Angeles to returning back to Singapore. And I actually reflected again like, “Okay, I’m actually doing the exact same thing and if I just do it the same way that he does it, trying to take my chance and just to publish something without having any idea, I’m going to end up like him.”
So, in that very moment, I actually decided, “Okay, I have to do something different. I have to do something differently because I don’t want to end up like him.” No disrespect to the guy but yeah.
Sundae: Right. What a turning point. It sounds like it started from really, a creative way to meet a need because you were feeling literally isolated, right? Language-wise, physically from a city, culturally. And then also watching what emotional state you don’t want to be living in. You don’t want to be living in that resentment. And I’m also hearing that you want to include more perspectives. That’s so fascinating. Wonderful.
So tell me, this is something I’m so interested in, the show you’ve talked about, like you said, you’re including a lot of voices between cross-culture kids, digital nomads, expats, TCKs, and this is also one of the things I think that we have in common, I want to be able to talk about the many ways that people live abroad and do global life, and that’s why I have you on today’s show. Because we’re talking about a topic that I don’t think people actually know about. That’s why we did a conference with Danau Tanu last year on the topic of parachute kids. And that’s why I invited you here. The audience now knows what a parachute kid is, but I want to hear from you. When did you realize you were a parachute kid?
Calvin: Okay. Yeah I definitely realized that I’m a parachute kid on my first day of school in Singapore. I rarely tell about this story but this is actually my fondest memory of my first day in Singapore.
So back then in Singapore every morning from when you are in your elementary years all the way until you’re the equivalent of a high school year, you have to come for morning assembly. You have to sing the Singapore’s national anthem and your tertiary education onwards then.
So back then, on my first day of school, my only guide was my cousin who had been in Singapore for several years back then, he’s also a third culture kid by the way, and I don’t know what to do. I really don’t know.
Sundae: How old were you at this time?
Calvin: I was 11. I was 11 years old.
Sundae: Okay. Just quick. So does that mean when you left Indonesia, your parents, did they physically drop you off at school? Or did they fly you out?
Calvin: No, they fly me out. They fly me out. I actually had fallen in love with Singapore at that time because I was having a holiday with my cousin. I was staying with my aunt and my cousin and I love the country so much because it’s different. It’s like there’s a certain atmosphere to it that I love and there’s something about it. That makes me want to say, “Okay, I think I can succeed more here.” So, at that time, my parents left me there for quite a while, to feel adjusted. And naturally, I went to school, when it started.
Sundae: So, okay. I need this for context. So, because with parachute kids, some are flown out and go to boarding schools. Some are flown out and stay with host families. Yeah, you were flown out, but you were able to stay at your cousin’s place.
Calvin: Yes, with my relatives actually.
Sundae: With your relatives. Okay.
Calvin: My aunt and my cousin, so my host family is my own blood.
Sundae: Your actual family. Perfect. So it’s your first day of school and then what happened?
Calvin: So I actually to understand what I’m supposed to do because my cousin only dropped me in my classroom because he was late for class himself. So I was like, “Okay, what am I supposed to do? I don’t get it.” So firstly, I wear the wrong uniform on the day, that’s one. And I was actually three years older than my classmates at the time because I took Mandarin for my mother tongue which is something that I did not learn before. So in order to make it easier, they allow me to go down two years. So okay, I’m already bigger than most of my classmates. I got the wrong uniform. I don’t know what to do then. I only hear the word assembly and everybody seems to head downstairs, “Okay, I’ll just follow along.” Then thank God, they actually put a place card for each of the classes. I took a seat and then apparently we have to take attendance.
So my attendance come I was looking at it like *shock* because I’m a new kid and I can speak English at a time, but my English was still really fluent. I’m not very comfortable speaking English at the time, because in Indonesia, we rarely use it. So, when I was looking at it, “Why are all of these names so strange?” Later on I found out they were Chinese names, Malaynames or some other foreign names, and Indian names, but not all of them look, so strange and out of place. So, at the last part is where there’s an empty column where I’m supposed to put my name. So I was already feeling really insecure right through since I was out of place in the class. So I put my name Calvin, then I put my Chinese surname which is Huang.
And the attendance list was passed back to my teacher at that time. And she was introducing me to the class later on. She was looking at my name, “Calvin Huang. Did you get the wrong name?” “No, ma’am. That’s my real name.” But yeah, I think she just let me off since I was the new kid, and this is actually something that allows me to remember years later. There’s something different with different cultures, the different kind of environment and I only feel the immediate impact at that time, as an adult, when I repatriated back to my passport country. Because I usually went back and forth between Indonesia and Singapore but that’s only for a short period of time and maybe at most is a month or two, but not until what people would consider a permanent basis. Only when I come back, then I feel that giant immediate shock is like, “Oh my goodness, this is really different from what I was used to growing up.” It’s like it’s night and day is topsy-turvy so that was something that became a challenge for me to overcome.
Sundae: I’m just imagining being 11. My children are in that age range. And that’s a pretty big first day of school. So you knew you were different from the very beginning. Tell me about the impact of not having your parents around. You did have your family around and a cousin around. How was it going to the school system and not having contact? I don’t know how often you had contact with your parents while you’re going to school.
Calvin: In my first few years, every Sunday, I would call my parents, in my first two to three years but after a while I kind of just got used to it.
Sundae: So it just became normal to you. And you didn’t probably have the words parachute kid at the time. When did you actually hear the term parachute kid?
Calvin: Actually, when I first spoke with you.
Sundae: And how did that impact you, when you had a name for it? How did it make you feel?
Calvin: To be fair, it’s this. I actually heard parachute kid, I think around a year before I started Global CKtizens, when I was still writing articles at a time, Before I converted the sound into a podcast. So, I thought that I was not a parachute kid because I thought parachute kid means you have to go to boarding school or when you are you have already been there in the country for a while. Then the parents left, and left you to finish your own education for a while before rejoining them. So I thought, “Okay, maybe I do not fit this criteria.” I know when I was reading the TCK book by Ruth Van Reken and all of Fathers and Sons I know that I’m an educational cross-cultural kid. I know I’m a son of a domestic TCK and I always thought that I just fall under the category of others under the original TCK model.
So that’s what I always decide myself to be. I called myself a third culture kid because firstly I always feel that growing up outside of my own supposed birth culture, I see the world in a third person point of view and I live in it. That’s how that’s my definition of it. And this is actually something that was taught to me by a friend of mine is that for third culture kids, since you don’t grow up between the two homes that you know of you see a third one. So okay, that’s my definition of TCK. I only found out the clearer definition when I actually spoke with you.
So when you told me that, “Parachute kid is the same kind of profile as you,” and I was like, “Oh okay, cool, interesting.” And by then I’ve already done it for a while, but in a sense it just became a sense of relief. But because at that time, I have been doing content to represent TCKS and all the Global CKtizens community in general for over a year, to me, it’s just something that is brand new information and it’s something that makes me feel relief, I guess. But at the same time it’s not something like such a giant framework because I’m so used to hearing that consistently. Now I know there’s a clear definition for it for myself.
Sundae: Speaking of relief, I have someone that I know was on the call for the parachute kid event that we did with the Families in Global Transition last year and in hearing that term, the person actually broke out in tears because it helped give language to the challenges that they felt. And that’s why I think it is so interesting and sometimes it’s like the revelation that people have had when they heard the term, third culture kid, and they now that they know they are and have an identity have a name and also to know, you’re not the only one going through that. I also think about this idea of a parachute kid, most of the research is done from East Asian countries, going over to let’s say the United States. But we also, living on the continent of Africa, I know a lot of families that send their kids away for education and spend time with their Auntie’s or other people that they trust so that they can have another life. So I think from the research perspective I’d love to see the definition of parachute kid go a little bit deeper to see what other ways that kids are educated outside of the supervision of their direct parents, right?
Sundae: So what was hard about being a parachute kid?
Calvin: First thing is personally, for me, there are certain things that I think third culture kids could easily relate to, because there’s a certain stereotype that is associated with us. One thing, is that growing up is, when you come from Indonesia, they assume you are rich, which is– well, I don’t like that kind of label. I mean, what does it matter? Are you going to treat me differently now if you know what my financial status is? That’s some of the stereotypes that could be associated to it. And along with that it’s actually something that I felt in adulthood because when growing up as a, well, I think you mentioned earlier, you mentioned earlier on what it feels like on my first day of school without my parents being there et cetera, right? So at that time it was because I felt as I grew older, yeah I stay with my true blood relative, with my aunt and my first 10 years or so in Singapore. But later on when you actually reach adulthood, you realize that your parents and their siblings do not have the same style of mindset and the same kind of approach.
Sundae: That’s hard.
Calvin: Yes, it is. It is really, really hard. And as I mentioned, I have a ton of arguments with my parents at that time when I return, well, primarily my dad, my mom is usually a lot more accepting of it. And I think a lot of parachute kids, of course, would naturally come from East Asia to go to a western country to acquire more knowledge. Yeah, so in a sense, we develop in a sense, a more hybrid kind of approach to life or a different kind of mindset because we uphold certain Asian values that we have been raised with. But we approach things in a way that may not be accepted in this country. Like, you can’t be straightforward or like a certain Asian country and they really have a negative stigma.
Sundae: When I think about this, one of the things I want to ask you about is advice you have for parents who are choosing this approach for their kids, because essentially the positive intention is to create a better life for your child and more opportunity. And I think there’s a little bit of a double-edged sword there of, “And stay exactly the way we are culturally,” right? It’s impossible to grow and stay exactly the same at the same time.
Sundae: So what advice would you have for parents who are choosing the parachute kit approach for their children?
Calvin: Okay. I actually want to say something. I actually had a discussion about this with my fellow group of TCK content creators at that time. The thing is that for third culture kids, is that they have no choice when they actually go to a new country because of a parent’s job. So they developed an approach to their new home and who they are is like to absorb the culture and it’s like Lego pieces, in a sense, if you want to call it or other kids are calling it Roblox, I don’t know what kids are doing these days, I’m too old for that.
What happened was that because they acquired a culture and a certain approach in the new country for parachute kids, for one thing is for parents, I want parents to actually realize that you gave them the opportunity to go to a new place, to make it into a better future, to give them a better chance at a better future but you have to accept that they are not going to be like you. They are not going to approach the same way as you, they may not think the same way as you, they may think in a sense in what could be much more pragmatic to them or depending on which country they are sent to. The one thing is that you have to acknowledge it. You can’t accept that they are going to be an exact carbon copy of you.
Sundae: That’s hard to accept, that’s hard to accept for people.
Calvin: Exactly, it’s really, really hard to accept that because, as I mentioned, I am a son of a domestic TCK. Wherever my dad goes, he knows where a certain route office is. So he carries the same kind of traits and principles wherever he goes and most of the time, it’s still domestic anyway, but he has never dealt with other countries, actually internationally.
For a parachute kit, they have the opportunity to deal internationally. So as a result, even though, maybe there is a certain part of you that has been imparted the certain values that you taught your kid but the thing is that it’s not always going to be 100%, they’re going to be like you. And doesn’t mean that if let’s say they approached your business contacts or somebody that you’re familiar with, they’re going to approach it the same way as you do because they at one point have managed to be exposed to an environment outside of your own, your own bubble. So they really know what it is like. So, they may not be able to do it immediately and when you are at a young age, it’s not an easy thing to do and it gets better over time as you get older, but you have to be understanding of that.
And this is something that is especially crucial around the age of 10 to around the age of 18. The reason being is that this is their formative years.
Sundae: And so, it’s no surprise that during their formative years, they’re going to be formed by the cultural values so that they need to be really aware of what they’re doing. That it’s going to change the relationship and change the cultural hybridity of their child while they might welcome some of those changes or might be changes that are harder. What about for educators? What about for teachers, who teach parachute kids? What advice do you have for them?
Calvin: This is something that is universally applicable. Kindness. That’s one thing. See here’s what I already said earlier. My first day I write a fake name. I write a counterfeit name. And when my teacher was looking at it, like, “What the…? What is this? Why does your name look different than what I was told?” I was like, “Yes, it’s the same one ma’am.” But the thing is, after a while, people never really care about my surname. They just say my full name Calvin, it’s easy. Okay, people just remember me as Calvin then okay, eventually I’m comfortable enough to write my own birth name. So I was really thankful. She was okay with it because I think she got it. He’s a new kid who is feeling jittery. He’s nervous and he just wants to fit in.
Sundae: So good. This is another conversation we’ve had around parachute kids of teachers and educators, really need to understand. There’s so much that they don’t know, that this idea of being very careful about making assumptions. Because if you are a parachute kid, you don’t know what cultural background they might have, or what internal challenges are going through. We talked about some of the hard stuff for you, but what did you gain? What do you think you gained as a result of growing up as a parachute kid?
Calvin: One of the things, I use this term on my show before it’s called the global vision. So is that in a sense, this can go two ways actually, it has both the positive and the negative end. The reason being is that, I understand now that my problems, there are problems bigger than my own and that there are certain issues that are universal. It’s not something that I can just accept if I had just grown up within one country because especially in the developing countries, people will be too focused on surviving on a day-to-day basis. Whereas if you are in a developed country, your focus is always on productivity. So I have, in a sense, I have the luck to have grown up in this two kinds of environments that makes me realize that. We all are at the end of the day, we are just people. Maybe we have a different way to approach certain things that people give us respect, love or any kind of emotion. But the thing is, at the end of the day it is universal. So, when you approach a certain issue is that you are able to accept it in a more global. You tend to realize that when you do something it could be some it could be impactful universally. Or it’s just something no matter how small it is. There’s going to be an impact of it. On the other hand, at the same time, that became your own way of trying to debate in a sense because there’s certain things that are done where I am at, whereby, I just don’t like it. Whereby, I just think it’s redundant. It takes unnecessary time.
It’s actually, well, there’s a certain stigma with Chinese Indonesian in fact. So, I’m already a Chinese Indonesian. So, in a sense, there is a certain stigma to it, attached to it. And the thing is, is that now I have a different mindset that comes from a developed country. So it became a double jeopardy, if you want to call it that, because now you have larger targets and people who would misunderstand you or unfairly, they misjudge you, because, yeah, you are completely different from the norm.
Sundae: Right? Yeah, that’s and that’s something I assume you’ll have to navigate throughout the rest of your life, as you navigate, between your family, who stayed and your family, that’s abroad and your community. I know that our time is coming to a close here quickly. If people want to find out more about you:
The link is in the show notes.
Sundae: And for those who are discovering that they belong into this category of parachute kid for the very first time, what is one last word of advice you have for them?
Calvin: Be patient. Be patient. Growing up multiculturally is the biggest blessing you can ever have in your life. However, it’s not going to be an easy kind of journey when you are really young. Because you not only have to deal with your identity, you have peer pressure, you have social issues, you just want to fit in, you want to be liked by people. And it came as a disadvantage in a sense when you were younger because I remember when you are doing your episode, in the opening part you mention about kids who are going to be going to graduate and then they have to stand behind the country flags and you don’t know which country flags, do you belong to since there are several of it. But this is, in a sense, it’s not even an obstacle, it’s a learning opportunity. It’s a growing part. And as you get older growing up multiculturally is the biggest blessing that you can have. However, yeah it’s not easy, be patient and do find outlets, do find your community.
And also find an outlet for you, to be able to express yourself because it can be really tough when you are younger. I was a loner as a kid until I was in my preteen back then. I really was a loner. I remember one of the mentors actually, one of my upperclassmen actually remembered seeing me and asked, “Why do you always sit on one side?” “It’s because I just don’t feel like I fit in with my peers at that time. I always sit on one corner on the stairs and maybe with one friend or two, who actually are also international parachute kids. But the thing is, most of the time, I’m a loner because I just can’t feel that I belong. I just don’t fit in. So yeah, it’s always good to have some kind of emotional outlet so that you can express yourself so that in a sense people not being there, may not be too much of a pain to you but at the same time it can be something that is comforting because at least you have a physical proof or evidence that this international life that you have led is valid and it’s real.
Sundae: Thank you so much for sharing that. It’s been amazing having you on here Calvin. Thank you so much for being part of Expat Happy Hour.
So there you have it, insight directly from a parachute kid. And that is why I wanted to shed more light on the topic. Because as we have just seen, having one person’s experience go from untold to SHARED can create a ripple effect of awareness, hope and useful strategies. In fact, when this podcast was being produced, someone on my team wrote me a message on Slack and said, “Um. I think I’m a parachute kid.” And this confirmed my hunch that the technical definition of parachute kid, of being sent away from your home country while your parents stay in your native country so you can be educated in a new context matches what I see a lot of on the continent of Africa.
So I’m curious, for those who are doing research out there, how much research has been done and has this sort of family arrangement ever been researched in the African context. I’d love to hear more from those who are doing research on the subject.
This is Expat Happy Hour with Sundae Schneider-Bean. Thank you for listening. I will leave you with the words of John C Maxwell: “Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.”
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