The Moment I Knew I Was an Adult

05/13/2015 12:00 am ET | Updated May 13, 2016

The world is filled with guidelines for what we should be doing when we hit a certain age. When you start kindergarten at 5, you should be able to spell your name. You become a teenager at 13 and should start rebelling against your parents. You can drive at 16 and should start thinking about what you want to do when you grow up. You're eligible to vote at 18 and should be going off to college. You're allowed to drink at 21 and should be learning how to live on your own. But what happens after 21?

Maybe all these guidelines are for grown-ups to try and teach responsibility to children, but I never understood these rules. I was always excited to wake up on my birthday, but was ultimately disappointed when 18 didn't feel that much different from being 17 the day before.

So, what does it actually mean to be a grown-up, and when did I pass that threshold into adulthood? Was the tipping point when I moved to New York City on my own, proud to be sleeping in my first shoebox apartment, basking in the glory of all the IKEA furniture I could afford? Or was it when I received my first paycheck, contributed to my 401(k), or filed my own taxes -- proudly clicking that no one could claim me as a dependent? Somehow I'm doing all the "responsible" things that seem to point to adulthood, yet when I look at my parents, I sense an ocean of difference between them, being true adults, and me, who is just going through the motions and being a "wannabe adult."

Ultimately, I think being an adult isn't any one age or any one thing. It doesn't mean that you don't lean on other people when you fall. It just means that you count on yourself first and foremost and don't expect anyone else to clean up your mess for you.

It hit me (literally) when I got into my first car accident. I sideswiped a cab accidentally during the first time I rented a car for a business trip. Always having been the kind of girl who followed the rules, I panicked and quickly scanned my phone for who to call. Do I call my parents or my company's HR department? Finally, it dawned on me that it was up to me to fix this. I calmly got out of the vehicle and checked to see if the taxi driver was OK before going to the nearest Dunkin' Donuts and buying everyone coffee while we waited to exchange paperwork and for the police to come. It might seem obvious that that's what you're supposed to do, but it was the first time I clearly fought against my instinct to call my parents for help.

There is a saying in Mandarin that loosely goes, "Old, young. Old, young." It means that the old become like the young again when they need others' help to take care of themselves -- which my parents are now doing for my grandparents. Or perhaps its significance runs deeper.

The first time I came home crying after breaking up with my first love was a learning moment of stepping into adulthood. The look on my mom's tearful face as she hugged me broke my heart. She was in pain simply because I was hurt, and she and I both knew there was nothing she could do to make it better or protect me from future pain like this. After that day, I vowed never to cry in front of my parents again; I wanted to save them from whatever hurt I could and limit the amount of worry they endured for me.

Neither of these were life-changing moments. I'll get into car trouble in the future and I've had my heartbroken since then. But to me, they symbolize the baby steps I took in becoming an adult, because there isn't a magical age or threshold beyond which adulthood lies.

I believe no one really knows what the heck he or she is doing. Adults aren't minted at 25 years old. It's because small steps like these that we'll wake up one day and realize that we might be adults now. Watch out world, I'm taking off the training wheels.