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All These Love Letters
“They left you in China. They brought your sister back to the United States, but left you,” said Keiko. My eyes darted around the room, trying to find a point on which I could focus my attention in hopes of preventing myself from crying. I found the plastic water bottle that sat on top of the piano. Her lipstick had stained the rim red, a vibrancy that contrasted with her raven black hair. Every week, for the past couple years, she offered jarring critiques about my ability to play the piano that would elicit tears as her sharp words chipped away at my resolve — maybe I was simply too sensitive — but this time it was personal. I mentioned that my parents were in China visiting my grandmothers. I was staying at a friend’s house in the meantime, which I suppose prompted her memory of a similar story.
“What do you mean?” I asked. My face warmed to a soft pink.
“When you were an infant, they made a trip to China and never brought you back with them. They brought Alice back, but left you.”
Tears fell onto my plaid skirt and our lesson ended as it always did, with defeat and exhaustion. I was tired of constantly being compared to my older sister who was seven years older than I. I would always be the inferior sibling from Keiko’s perspective because she also had the privilege of teaching my older sister, who was much more committed to learning to play the piano from her first lesson than I would ever be. My sister had started piano lessons with Keiko the year I was born, a year before my parents left me. I imagined that my sister recounted the situation in a simplified manner during a piano lesson, or maybe my parents had no desire to explain their personal choices to a piano instructor.
On my way out, I hit the door with my shoulder. I knew that it hurt and that my skin would bruise, but it didn’t matter because my pain, anger, and confusion were all I could manage to focus on. Why did they leave me? How could they leave me? They’re my parents, they’re supposed to take care of me. That’s the whole job description of parents — to take care of their kid.
The following day, on the car ride home from school, I built up the courage to ask my mother the questions that gnawed at my conscience. For a split second, she turned around. I saw what seemed to be a look of surprise, followed by her grilling questions about my source of information. I lost my resolve and began to stutter, choking out short responses. I wish I had fought harder for the answers I wanted, but I was terrified at what they would be. I changed to topic of the conversation and began to blabber about an event happened that day. Maybe one of my friends fell on the playground, or maybe I was the designated line leader for that day. My monologue was a one-sided conversation that trickled into silence. I sat in the backseat of the car and could no longer see her face, but I imagined that her brows furrowed as she reminisced upon a time she remembered, but didn’t know how to explain.
For years after, I created and tested different versions of the story in my head. I imagined that I had come at the wrong time, unplanned. I imagined they simply didn’t want me; maybe I caused too much trouble and cried too often. Maybe I just wasn’t enough.
The issue with feeling inadequate is that it meant at some point, if I acted in the right manner, spoke with the utmost eloquence, dressed in the quintessentially correct clothes, I would be deemed acceptable. I was missing the truth regarding their side of their story, and so I created my own — one that gave me a sense of security in myself, one in which my parents accepted me, wanted me.
And so it began — both inside and outside of school. I thought if I could work hard enough in academics, I could make my parents proud enough to want me as their child, sufficiently worthy to be a drain on their income. Ever since I can remember, my mother has ingrained the notion that “STEM majors make a lot of money.” I argued, cried, and screamed, but ultimately complied with training to compete in math competitions — not that I ever won an award, but I tried. And when I was the only sophomore that received a B in Calculus BC, I felt as though I had failed. The next year, when I took Multivariable Calculus, I was one of approximately five girls in a classroom size of 30 students. Every day, I walked into a room full of students passionate about mathematics, while I was just a girl going through the motions. As a female in a classroom dominated by males who thought that they were, what I imagined, much more qualified than I was to be enrolled in the class, my sense of inferiority skyrocketed as I had spent my life building my identity in my ability to solve math problems, despite the fact that I didn’t even like math.
“Jake, Mike, Danny, Nora. Oh, look, it’s ranked in levels of intelligence, with the highest at the top,” said Mike.
My jaw dropped.
“It was just a joke.”
“That wasn’t funny,” replied Danny as he looked at me to gauge my reaction.
I had written the names of our group members in a clockwise fashion, without the intention to instill meaning in the order. I thought my lack of ability was all in my head, but it wasn’t. Mike had said it in front of our entire math table. In every joke, there’s a small hint of truth. And although, at this point in my junior year, I had received the truth, the emotions from the novel I had created in my mind still lingered.
At the time, my parents could not afford to raise an infant. They were constantly working to pay the rent in an apartment they shared with multiple families. Both my parents had to work, and while my sister was old enough to attend school, they decided against sending me to daycare because they wanted me to have the full attention of people who genuinely cared about me, my grandparents in China.
When my mother explained her story to me years later, I realized that I had imagined myself into a tumultuous situation that would have been avoided if I had pushed harder for answers during that car ride home. If I hadn’t learned to wreak havoc on my own mind before I understood how to form compound sentences, perhaps, every argument with my parents wouldn’t feel like the last time I would be allowed to sleep under their roof at night. If I had known earlier, maybe I wouldn’t be conditioned to cry every time an adult chastised me for an error I committed. But, perhaps, if I had known earlier, then I would not feel such a strong desire to protect the ones I love from the things that cause them pain.
“It’s time to let it go,” said Ms. Jen. “Your Common App essay is 90% about failures so small they aren’t even real failures. And I think that if your parents knew the way you felt, it would break their hearts.”
I told her, “I would never tell them. It would cause unnecessary turmoil at this point. I refuse to impose on them the mental conflicts I have struggled with.”
I could not help but cry, like I always do when talking about my parents and our relationship. Certainly, while it has shaped me, no longer does it define me.
“You won’t ever be able to completely move on from this, but it does not belong in an essay about your identity. Remember what happened, but don’t live it again,” said Ms. Jen, my junior year English teacher. I have written this story multiple times throughout high school, but it was not until November of 2017 was I able to converse and reflect about my history with another person. Although I had spent every day of my junior year participating in the discussions that occurred in Ms. Jen’s classroom, each time I walked out, I remember that I would always wish for more time in that classroom. Within those walls, I spent time breaking down, dissecting my emotions, and building myself up again. There, I felt like I was home.
As a consequence, I vowed to myself, that if I should have daughter, she would never fall asleep at night wondering if she were worthy of existing, of taking up space. She would sleep, breathe, and eat the understanding she would be unequivocally loved under the roof of which she sleeps. She would have the space to make mistakes and learn from them, instead of fearing to commit them in the first place. She would not experience the anger, resentment, and pain within the tan house, that on some days, I still struggle to call home.