My father once mailed me a postcard from his visiting professorship at National Taiwan University. On the back of the photo of Taiwan’s tallest building Taibei 101 he wrote: “Be a good girl. Climb onto the top of the world, one day.” It took me many years but my earlier resentment about this postcard is now completely replaced with warmth and pride.
I was born in Philadelphia to two very ambitious international graduate students from China, and I became part of their ambitions. When my father took a teaching job in Japan, they transferred me from a private kindergarten in Boston to a Catholic pre-school in Tokyo. I remember feeling so frightened when my parents dropped me off the first day. I was surrounded by smiling Japanese teachers and kids, but I could not understand a single syllable. Every day the kids had to pray in Japanese for a couple of minutes, and I felt so helpless trying hard to mimic what everybody else did. My parents believed in my young flexible mind, and pushed me to continue school. Later they pushed me to skip a grade in primary school in Beijing. For many years they sent me to Olympiad math tutors and all kinds of gifted summer camps.
I excelled at everything they expected me to do, until my desire to do what I wanted during the weekends was so strong that I started to fight against them. I blamed my busy schedule and anxiety on my parents and tried to run away from their plans. I replaced my weekend Olympiad math courses with fun and light French and later Korean courses. Instead of following my mom's foot-steps and learning about business, I stayed away from economics and statistics. While my parents wanted me to attend elite academic camps in the U.S., I chose to spend my summer in South Korea. I took control of my own courses, activities, and how I spent my time, often disagreeing with my parents.
The funny thing is, as I wrestled with the burden of their ambition and tried to run away from it, my own ambition started to take shape. I became an ambitious language learner, and have picked up a few other Asian languages. Now I continue to study Manchu and Korean during the weekends, even though my parents urge me to take SAT courses instead. I also became an ambitious traveler. After visiting South Korea a couple of times, I was so curious about the mysterious neighboring North Korea that I finally managed to visit the place. My trip to North Korea brought me a sense of contentment and urgency at the same time, and I now feel the need to do something for the peace and prosperity of the region.
My interests take me to new places, new language courses, and new friends. Along the way, I’ve discovered who I am, and realized that ambition is the self identity that I cannot live without. In the words of my teachers and friends, I became that independent, ambitious girl, just not the exact type my parents had originally planned for.
The week after my mom and I came back from North Korea, my parents told me to follow my interests and said the only thing they want from me now is to get the most out of my life. If I ask my father to write me a postcard again, now he probably would write something like: “Success is a journey, not a destination.” My parents have somehow become my role models and I feel that I’ve just begun to understand them. Despite his brain strokes, my father continues to teach and research in math. Despite being laid off from her executive position, my mother keeps running her small consulting business and is as hardworking as ever.
Ambition is not just a desire for fame or power. It is good for me, and I now proudly wear my own ambition on my chest. My next goal is to apply for my dad’s university where they offer one of the best Asian Studies programs in the country. My ambitious family reflects my heritage, my work ethics, and my reason to make my own mark in the world. One day, I’m also going to become someone else’s stepping stone, passing the torch on to my children, mentees, students, or col-leagues. My ambition will fuel more ambition and more progress, and perhaps one day together, we can climb to the top of the world after all.