A Short Story of My Life

— Disclaimer —

I first wrote this blog in the summer of 2021 and kept it private. Today I got selected for Forbes 30 under 30 (November 29th, 2022), I believe it is time to share it with the world.

I, the writer claim that this work is pure fiction. But you, the reader should feel free to form your own opinions.

— 0 —

It’s unfortunate that this has happened. No, it’s fortunate that this has happened, and I’ve remained unharmed by it. The thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.

Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations” 4.49a

— 1 —

She has always hated the game of Go, but not because anything in and of the game itself.

One afternoon when she was still in the 1st grade, she got home from school and began to get ready for a class of Go at a chess school. She asked her father to give her a ride, out of the blue, he demanded that she kneel in front of him and beg. The school had a rule against wearing slippers to class, but her father forbade her to change into proper shoes, so she showed up in slippers in embarrassment.

Like a despot, he ruled over her. Why would he intentionally make her life hell? Why didn’t he love her the way a normal father would? She did not know, but she was already used to his twisted whims and demands, and learned that the best way to deal with him was to passively obey to avoid beatings.

During the class she played against a classmate and lost. Her father hit and humiliated her in front of the whole class: “I spent so much money on you, gave you a ride here despite so much inconvenience for me, how can you be so stupid and lose?”

When they got home, he made her practice one more round with him. She won this time, but he was again furious. He violently flipped the board, everything fell onto the floor, Go chess pieces rolled everywhere. She was terrified and confused; she trembled in silence and didn’t dare to make eye contact. Although he was only 5’7, for a child, he seemed like a giant. He demanded her to clean up the mess, and stormed out the room. She let out a long-held breath: she was glad that there was no beating this time.

— 2 —

Divorce was such a deeply shameful affair in China in the early 2000s, that her mother didn’t finally do it until the constant abuse sent her to the ER and the mental hospital multiple times. Our protagonist became a melancholic kid. Her grades dropped from top of the class to average and a few times even below average; she became more distant from her friends as well.

Her teachers reported to her mother with concern: she’s not paying attention in class anymore; I don’t know what she’s thinking nor how to help her. What they didn’t know was, she was ashamed of her broken family, she was concerned that her mother is not well and didn’t know how to help. She also envied her classmates with loving fathers.

She found comfort in writing. She could let her mind wonder and her creativity run free; she found refuge in writing about fantasy worlds to escape her painful reality. She had a gift for it too, pretty soon she was winning awards at the city and later at the province level. She aspired to become a writer when she grows up.

Sometimes her eyes welled up with tears, when she saw a father of classmate showed signs of affection towards them. She yearned for an affectionate father: someone who would look at her lovingly, tell her that she’s his little princess, hold out his big hand for her, carry her on his strong shoulders, shield her away from danger rather than being the source of danger. But she felt she couldn’t share these thoughts with her mother, for she had already suffered so much.

— 3 —

Her wish came true. Well, in a way. Several years later, when she was in middle school, her mother remarried. He was a big guy from Texas in the US, he only spoke English and she could barely understand him. But he seemed nice, he took her to nice restaurants, bought her pretty clothes, and said he would treat her as his own daughter. She was overjoyed, she was ready to call this foreign but affable man “father”, and finally live in a healthy and loving family with him, as she had long dreamed.

Sadly, his friendliness did not last, soon he complained of everything, and grew cold and distant. It must be hard for an American to live in China where everything was so different. After a couple of years when he asked them to move to the US with him, her mother agreed, thinking that he would be happier there and things would get better.

She still remembers every small detail on the day of her arrival in the States: her first step on the US soil was at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, TX. It was well after midnight but it was still so hot and humid that she thought she was going to pass out. They had rented a car to drive to Nacogdoches, TX, where his mother lived. She remembers that when they stopped at a gas station, a man inside the convenience shop smiled at her, she was so shy that she hid behind her mother. She remembers arriving at the town square of Nacogdoches at the break of dawn, everything seemed so peaceful and serene, and she was taken by the cute red cobblestone roads. She was ready to start a new life on this foreign land.

— 4—

“If you don’t study hard, the Chinese will take your jobs!” on the first day of class at the local high school, where she enrolled in as a sophomore, the school principal preached this to the entire school as a part of his motivational speech. This was her first encounter with racism. She was so confused: the small town had virtually no Asian presence, she looked around her again, just to double check: she did not see another Asian face. Why did the principle make her the enemy of the whole school, when she had just arrived, and couldn’t even speak a complete sentence in English? She had no clue.

She was placed in an ESL class at first, but everyone else spoke Spanish there and even the teachers taught in Spanish. She then joined the regular classes, but she couldn’t understand most of the things taught there. Moreover, she found it so strange that she didn’t have any homework to do for 2 months. Later it turned out that she just didn’t known what the word “assignment” meant.

Soon enough she realized her dream of becoming a writer would probably never come true. Her command of the English language was worse than a 2nd grader native speaker. Her love for Chinese poetry seemed utterly useless in this new country, the nuances of the poems that made them so beautiful and powerful were complete lost in translation. She was lost, she didn’t know what she would become if not a writer.

— 5 —

Several months later, the stepfather found a new job at a nearby town, Tyler, TX, so they moved. The new school had something called the International Baccalaureate program, she learned that it was the most advanced curriculum that the school offered. Using her very broken English, she insisted that she would like to be a part of it.

Many days after getting home from school, she locked herself inside the bathroom and cried desperately. It was so hard for her to make friends there, her English was not good enough, and she couldn’t fit in with the culture; she was terribly homesick and wanted to go back to China to be with her family and friends again, but she couldn’t; she struggled a lot with schoolwork as it seemed infinitely harder in English (except for math), a simple assignment in US History would take everyone else 20 minutes, but 5+ hours for her. School officials had also encouraged her to switch to easier classes instead, but she never budged. She wanted to be with the best, and be the best.

With the stepfather showing his true colors as an alcoholic with bipolar disorders, things at home were getting difficult to endure as well. He yelled at her mother about every little thing she did or didn’t do. Her heart bled but she was too scared to mediate most of the time. A few times when she did, she got uncontrollably hysterical. Those were the only times when she became hysterical in her life. She desperately wanted to protect her mother, and shouting back at her stepfather seemed like the only thing she could do, but it was still not enough.

Sometimes, her mother would drive her to a McDonald’s, and they would stay there for several hours to escape from the stepfather and cry together. They couldn’t handle him anymore, but didn’t have anywhere else to go. They also didn’t know how things worked in this new country, and no one was there to help. To endure was the only way forward.

The stepfather lost his job and the responsibility was on her shoulders to get a job, and help out the family. While dining at a restaurant in Houston one day, the manager was so taken by her that he offered her a waitress position on the spot. The useless stepfather even considered moving the family there and let her be the sole breadwinner. When that didn’t work out, she went home and got a part time job at a restaurant near her high school.

— 6 —

She stayed in Tyler for college, because the stepfather said that he would pay for her tuition if she went there. He didn’t. She knew that she didn’t belong in Tyler, but she felt trapped: she didn’t know anyone outside the town; she didn’t have money to leave and start somewhere new; all the working experiences she has had thus far were either at a restaurant or as a clerk at the mall. But on the bright side, at least she had finally learned to drive and had a car.

Taking care of a clinical depressed person was probably one of the most difficult and heartbreaking life experiences she had to go through. After years of abuse, her mother finally slipped into a critical state of depression. Unable to afford either the health insurance nor the hospital bills, she sent her mother back to a mental hospital in China, where she still had health insurance.

Homelessness ensued. Naturally, she had no reason to stay with her stepfather in their dingy rental apartment just the two of them. She packed some clothes and other belongings in a suitcase, and put it in the trunk of her car. With no clear destination in mind, she drove off when the stepfather was out, and never looked back.

— 7 —

Years later, when her therapist asked her about the darkest time of her life, this was the time period that she recalled tearfully. She clearly remembered that one day, while sitting in a lecture hall and browsing rooms for rent on Craigslist, she overheard several students behind her talking about a party they were planning to go to that night. A bitter smile emerged on her face: she didn’t even know where she was going to bed that night, a party was the last thing on her mind. How funny yet cruel life worked.

Her resume grew longer. She took on more part time work while still going to school full-time. Daycare centers, tutoring centers, clothes shops, restaurants. When she didn’t know where to go at night, she either stayed in the school library, or parked the car in an empty Walmart parking lot, hoping not to get caught by the cops.

She was living at a crisis center, a shelter for women and children from abusive households, when she turned 19. It was on a Sunday, she had 3 part time jobs to attend to, and worked 12 hours nonstop. At the end of the day, a boy who was enamored with her at the time, cooked her a full dinner and bought her a birthday cake. She cried so uncontrollably.

The crisis center did not allow any food in the room that she slept in, and their cafeteria had strict hours. Given the fact that she had to go to school during the day and work at night, she didn’t even have structured time nor place to have proper meals. The birthday cake sat in the trunk of her car, and she would indulge herself a little between classes at the parking lot, when no one was looking. Sadly, when the cake went bad after 3 days in the awful spring weather in TX, she was only half way done with it.

She bonded with others in unfortunate circumstances. At the Mexican restaurant she worked at, a young woman confided in her about the behaviors of her abusive boyfriend: she had a tendency to pee when tickled; when going out together in the public, he would tickle and embarrass her in front of everyone. An older guy in his 60s had to wait tables because his kids didn’t want to take care of him. He had chronic back pain and had to sit down every few minutes; he was scolded by the manager for being “lazy”.

Even till this day, when she goes out to eat at restaurants, she still gets flashbacks from that time in her life. She likes to imagine that every restaurant worker has his/her own backstory, and she has much respect for all of them. She also feels an overwhelming sympathy when she sees homeless people in the streets. She realizes that she was only a few missteps away from ending up there herself. What’s broken is the system, not these people, she believes. They probably have the potential to achieve something really great if they received the appropriate help. Sometimes, when she had snack bars on her, she would hand them out to the unfortunate ones. She knows that’s nothing of real significance compared to the amount of help that is required, but she likes to know that she contributed, in her insignificant ways.

— 8 —

By the beginning of her sophomore year, she had moved to Dallas, TX to start a new life. Her mother had also returned to the States and finally divorced the stepfather. They were all on their own in this foreign country for the first time, with little money in the bank, and knew no one in Dallas, but they felt freer and happier than ever.

Suitors came knocking. Since her struggles were so recent, she was eager to tell people about them as a way of healing. Soon she found that it not only did that, it also made her appear more attractive. They praised her courage and strength, and were keen to console her and lend her a shoulder to cry on. It almost seemed like cheating in a way, she realized. When she wanted someone to fall for her, she just had to recount her stories to them with teary eyes.

Academically, she was drawn to physics, and was eager to learn about and solve the mysteries of the universe. She declared to be a physics major, got involved at the Society of Physics Students, and was later elected as the president. Under her presidency, the student chapter was recognized by the national organization as a “Distinguished Chapter”, for the first time in the chapter’s history. She is still very proud of this fact till this day.

Someone she met at a meetup told her that she should do this thing called “research”. She didn’t know what it was, but figured it might be a good idea to pursue it. After emailing a few faculty members in the physics department about her interest to get involved, she was rejected by all of them. Why would a professor take on someone who’s resume is full of experiences at restaurants, and none in research?

But she was not one to give up. She spread her web and emailed all the remaining faculty members in the department. Finally, one was impressed by her courage and initiative. He was also kind enough to pay her a part time salary so she could quit her job outside. At age 20, she finally had her first exposure to research. Like a person drowning in quicksand, when extended a lifeline, she held onto it and crawled along with all her strength. She never, never wanted to be stuck at the bottom of the food chain in the society ever again.

Her resume was slowly taken over by more research experiences, and the minimum wage jobs gradually faded. She actively applied for summer research experiences at other institutes, and spent the remaining 2 summers of her undergraduate years doing more research at the Georgia Institute of Technology and UC Berkeley. She got to work with some of the biggest names in the field, and rubbed shoulders with Nobel Laureates. Doing research made her feel alive and fulfilled. She decided that she would like to continue her career in it.

— 9 —

She graduated one semester early, left for a research position in CA, and would never return to TX again. It was a place with so many painful memories. Years later, during a casual conversation with several backpackers in a hostel in Europe, when a fellow American mentioned that he wanted to move to TX, she found herself strongly advocating against it. She was a little embarrassed afterwards, and it took her some time to process why she was so repulsed by the thought of living in TX.

A new chapter of her life unfolded in CA. She interned at a startup company within a cohort of an accelerator program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, called Cyclotron Road. It was her first exposure to bringing lab research into the market, and she was intrigued by the possibility of doing research that could have a positive impact on the society in such a direct way.

After the internship, instead of going to graduate school, she decided to stay in the Bay Area for one more year, and worked as an R&D engineer at another science-based startup. After having accumulated experience at startups, she aspired to found a company herself someday.

— 10 —

He arrived 10 minutes late and his hair was still wet. Sitting across from her, he nervously apologized while fidgeting with a piece of napkin. She smiled at him and said “no worries”. Little did she know that she would be briefly engaged to him roughly 2 years later.

She continued to date him not because she was madly in love, but rather she felt safe with him. On most dates, he was silent at least half of the time and looked deep in thought, as though she wasn’t there. She had to carry most of the conversation, but it didn’t bother her too much, at least not at the beginning. She was just happy to be with someone unabusive, she even was willing to overlook the fact that he had almost completely opposite political views as hers.

He did not believe in minimum wage; he did not believe that everyone should have an opportunity to go to college; he said that homeless people should be sent somewhere far away so he wouldn’t have to deal with them in the streets. These comments chilled her to the bones. But as a seasoned “emotional endurance athlete”, she didn’t know what a healthy relationship should be like. So she stayed and endured.

Furthermore, because of her childhood, she was used to not getting treated with affection and attention. Hence this courtship felt comfortable and familiar to her. She also liked how they never got into heated arguments, she would get really scared if her partner were to raise his voice at her, but that never happened with him, and she was grateful for that.

Half a year later, she moved across the country to start her PhD in NYC. They continued the long-distance relationship into the first half of her second year in the program. After receiving an engagement ring while on a trip together to Boston, she watched some wedding videos of other people online, and was surprised to find that the brides and grooms had so much love for each other, and said that they were each other’s best friends.

She realized that she didn’t feel that way about her fiancé at all. They never connected on a level that she was satisfied with, and she definitely had friends with whom she was able to connect with at deeper levels. She could not envision herself wearing a wedding dress in front of him, and say in front of her family and friends that she would love him for the rest of their lives. She returned the ring the next time she visited him in California.

— 11 —

She thrived in grad school. She not only was highly passionate about her research topic, she also enjoyed the company of her advisor and other lab members on a personal level. She has published in a top journal, invented new technology that resulted in 2 patents, and has spun out a company based on this novel technology as its CEO. Her friends made comments like “you should be on Forbes 30 under 30” or “don’t forget me when you win a Nobel Prize!”.

Moreover, during these several years, she also spent the holidays traveling to different countries, and got to experience a variety of different cultures and history backgrounds. She got into sports, hiking and cycling toned her body and brightened her spirits; she taught herself foreign languages; she learned to appreciate art and music; with her English getting better, she could finally explore the wonderful world of English literature, and she enjoyed it immensely. She found great comfort in the teachings of Stoicism.

Sometimes she reflected back on her life, and was amazed by how far she had come. Almost all of her colleagues had parents who were academically inclined, and were there to guide them every step of the way. Or at the very least, no one she knew had to worry about food and shelter the way she did. It almost seemed like a miracle that she was able to fight this uphill battle alone, and against all odds, end up in the same place as others.

The trauma from her childhood and teenage years seemed like a distant memory. The ugly duckling has evolved into a swan. She is now, dare I say, educated, worldly, and desirable. Occasionally, she went on dates, and almost always managed to charm and impress. She was proud that she finally had enough interesting things going on in life, that she didn’t have to resort to her “cheating” ways and make people fall for her out of pity.

— 12 —

In a bright yellow jacket, he looked like the human manifestation of a light bulb. She chuckled at this comical observation, which was her first impression of him. When they were together, he liked sharing his life stories with her, and she enjoyed listening to them. She learned that he grew up in a harmonious family; his father was an educated and righteous man; he had fun experiences during high school and college. In a nutshell, he was everything that she wished for but was never able to obtain.

Unlike her ex, this new guy was attentive, had similar political views as her, and was unafraid to be affectionate. He picked date locations close to her place for her convenience; when they did go somewhere further away, he planned out the subway routes for her, and offered to meet her at the exit of the subway stops, so that she wouldn’t get lost; when she casually mentioned she liked chocolate, he showed up with chocolate on the next date; he asked her how many pull-ups he needed to be able to do to impress her; he got shy, murmured that he wanted to get stronger in order to protect her. She blushed, buried her face in his chest, and her eyes got misty.

She had spent her whole life searching for something like this. She tiptoed around her father, her stepfather, and later her ex, trying to elicit any sign of affection, but had always been rejected. So she had come to accept the fact that she probably didn’t deserve it. But then he showed up, in his bright yellow jacket, along with his abundant affection and sensitivity. Is this how people treat each other in healthy relationships? She was flustered on the receiving end, it felt like pure bliss and she didn’t know how to properly respond.

She desperately tried to hide her inexperience with healthy relationships, but her attempts were clumsy. For instance, even though he had explicitly told her that he liked to do things for other people to make them happy, she was still scared to make any demands or ask for favors; for she worried that any small inconvenience that she inflicts on other people would drive them away, just like the way it had happened so many times with her father when she was little.

She really wanted to open up to him about her troubled past. She fantasized about him hugging her so tightly, and telling her that she didn’t have to be afraid anymore, because she had him. But every time she rehearsed this scenario in her head late at night, she would cry herself to sleep after recalling the painful memories. She didn’t want to overwhelm him with all this, at least not yet, so she kept quiet. What she didn’t know was, by deliberately guarding her past, she had given her past the power to dictate her present and future. Because one day, out of the blue, he called it quits, citing their lackluster emotional connection.

— 13 —

“Why would anyone want to be with me, when they could be with so many other girls who are free of emotional baggage?” She cried helplessly to her therapist, who looked at her with so much sympathy and compassion. “Everyone has emotional baggage”, replied the therapist reassuringly. “They will be with you, accept you and your past, work through your issues with you; and in return you will do the same for them. That’s how relationships work.” She ceased crying and looked deep in thought.

While sitting together at a picnic table on campus in a warm summer afternoon, she raised the same question to a friend. He blurted out his reply almost without letting her finish the sentence: “Because he loves you! Because the right person will realize your strength and resilience and love you for it. Don’t ever look at your past with shame, it is what makes you so special and amazing. Be proud of it!”

She was touched. As she looked away, she saw children running around innocently with balloons in their hands; college students in small groups sitting on a lawn and enjoying each other’s company; old people walking their dogs slowly, with a certain satisfied look on their faces. Everything seemed to be in its right place.

The gentle afternoon sun warmed her skin and her spirit. She smiled, and felt hopeful again.

— Epilogue —

I, the writer who created this character, know that she will eventually find someone to share a happy life with, and also have a fulfilling career. If I have the honor to be on the next Forbes 30 under 30 list, I will expand this short piece into a book, so that others who are going through hardships may find comfort in this story. Crazy coincidence: just like the protagonist, I also have always wanted to become a writer.



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