GRADUATION 2023: Chen continues to adapt as Gray Stone chapter ends

As her time at Gray Stone Day School neared its end, senior Cindy Chen was excited about graduating, although there was still some anxiety.

Throughout most of her 17 years, Chen has felt like an outsider, as someone who never quite fit in. She can’t help but stand out at school, as the only Chinese-American in her senior class, while her American identity has often been on full display during her many trips to China, where she lived for a few years as a young child.

Gray Stone senior Cindy Chen will be attending UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall.

Her parents, who used to own Jin Jin Chinese Restaurant in Albemarle, often used Chen as an interpreter whenever interacting with customers.

“Two different worlds collide daily for me,” she wrote in a college essay. “It has shaped who I am as a person. I am proud to be a
Chinese-American.”

Operating in these worlds has taught Chen the importance of adaptation and learning to adjust to whatever situation she finds herself in.

This is clear in the name people associate with her. Students and teachers know her as Cindy, though Chen’s real name is Xin Ying Chen. Her parents refer to her as Ying, which means beauty.

Understanding most Americans would have trouble pronouncing her legal name, Chen’s parents sought to find her a new name and, after searching various newspapers, agreed upon Cyndi, which evolved into Cindy, following a teacher’s misspelling.

When at school, Cindy tends to be quiet and shy, content to listen to those around her; at home, though, Ying is much more talkative and even loud, as are her parents, she said.

Having learned to be comfortable in both settings, “it has helped me a lot with adapting to different surroundings and people, because I have to learn how people work and I’m this observant person,” Chen said. “It’s a natural skill that I have now.”

Over the past two years, as online learning was replaced with traditional in-school instruction, Chen has again adapted, becoming more social and making several new friends.

“The Cindy today, though still pretty shy and quiet, and the Cindy I met as a junior are two different people,” said Sarah Ince, Gray Stone’s college counselor.

“I think Cindy was very intentional in who she initially connected with and invested her time in,” Ince added.

One of her close friends is a Syrian student, whom she met last year in Spanish class, mainly because they sat next to each other. At first she was excited to have connected with another person, and only later understood they shared a bond of having unique backgrounds.

“We’ve talked about it and I’ll be like, ‘You realize that we’re the two non-majority people here,’ and she’s like, ‘Oh my God, you’re right,’ ” Chen said. “And that’s so cool.”

They both share common interests, including a passion for writing.

“Just having a friend there, to go talk to after school or to go to lunch with, to me, it was very important,” Chen said.

She now finds herself as the talkative person in her close group of friends — all of whom are quiet. Although it’s not her style, Chen has grown accustomed to initiating many of the conversations.

Having always been a strong academic student, Chen has become more involved with various organizations, serving as a member of Gray Stone’s National Honor Society and volunteering her time at the Stanly County Humane Society.

Chen credits Ince for helping her open up to people, even though it was intimating at first, since Ince pushed her out of her comfort zone.

“Initially, coming out of Covid, Cindy wanted to do all our meetings over Zoom…but I was like, ‘Nope, we’re not doing that. You’re going to come in and we’re going to talk in-person,’ ” Ince said. “She has grown so much.”

As she gets ready to attend UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall, where she plans to study psychology and creative writing, Chen is looking forward to continue growing. She wants to become more social and make more friends.

“I like fresh starts,” she said. “When I came to Gray Stone, I had a fresh start. No one knew me. So, I’m going to start over again.”

As part of this fresh start, Chen said she wants to change her name back to Cyndi during her time at Chapel Hill.

“My hope for her is that she continues this growth and this ability to open up, but does not lose that observing nature, because that is what’s going to make her a great psychologist,” Ince said.