Life gives you another chance to be brave

Have you been afraid? What are you afraid of?

If you think you are not afraid, have you tried thinking again?

I have a pair of Chinese parents. Probably not the type you are thinking about right now, that has high hopes of their child, demanding her to do as well as she could, and ideally better than she could at school, practicing piano or violin or chess from 6 years old and getting miraculously good at them at 12 years old.

My parents wished me to become a mediocre person when I grow up, maybe a middle school teacher, maybe a clerk at a local bank, and live a simple, happy, content life.

My childhood was relaxed. I could play outside or at friends’ homes for as long as I wish, and I could rank high or low at school, as long as I am happy and content. My home was a completely safe place, physically and emotionally. Did I do poorly at school for a semester? That was okay. Did I eat too many candies and got chubby? That was okay. I was loved unconditionally.

Growing up in a home like that, I was not afraid of anything.

Before I turned ten years old, my cousins, two older brothers and sisters and a younger sister, and I often went out together for adventure. I was always the one who picked up or destroyed exotic creatures that sat in our way, be it worms, spiders, or insect-looking things, while my cousins back out screaming.

In third grade, a small flame of ambition lit up: I wanted to be the monitor in my class. I kept it to myself for a year. Then I told my parents, “If Tang Jiafang (who was the monitor), Guo Huiyi, and Wu Yunchao transfer to another school, oh and Yuan Ying!, then I could become the monitor. That’ll be cool.” My parents thought my idea was adorable and amusing. And they told their friends about it like a joke, a joke that I thought was funny too.

None of them transferred to another school. I never became the monitor in my elementary school. And nobody from school ever knew I wanted it.

It didn’t happen? Then it didn’t happen. It was fine. I was still happy and content. Everybody was good.

Fast forward to high school. In China, the way college works is as follows: You choose a list of schools, stack ranked. Then you take a college entrance examination. After the examination, the colleges pick students from the highest score to the lowest until the headcounts are filled. Usually, all the good schools have way more people who picked them as first choice than the school’s capacity. Then they will announce their “cutoff score”. In other words, filling out the stack ranked list of schools is a strategy. If you are overconfident, and that you didn’t get picked by your first choice school, you may end up in a very inferior school. If you are too conservative, you would have given up on the chance to get into one of the better schools.

Anyways. My first choice was an engineering college. It was not my dream school, but I felt it was right in the middle of being too conservative and overconfident. Most importantly, there are way more boys in that college than girls, the ratio is about 7:1. It would be easy for me to find a good boyfriend, to whom I would marry later in life.

It all worked out. I got into my first choice. I was spoiled by the abundance of boys — I had to move dorms a few times but I never had to lift a finger. Every girl gets four boys to help whenever she needs help, especially something like labor.

I had my first love three months after I started college. It didn’t last long, but I was never single for long. My college was filled with good boy-friends or good boyfriends, most of the time.

Every time I started a new relationship, I tended to greatly cut back on the connection, or cut it off entirely with all other major male friends. It was too much maintenance, and too tricky to manage in a everyone-knows-everyone campus. I thought it was the simpler thing to do. And it was. That tendency of “cutback male friends after I get into a relationship” lasted beyond college.

In the dating market, it was a privilege to be a girl at an engineering school, especially if you are not ugly or unacceptably dumb. I got to pick, and I got to make a long list of rules and criteria. One of the rules is: I do not date boys who I don’t see a possibility of marrying. What does “not possible marry to” look like? For example: if he’s from a different city and might decide to go back after graduation; if he’s too tall — which would be inconvenient to kiss for the rest of our lives, or too short — which is genetically inferior for our future kids — I was not tall either; if my dad thought he was not good enough to be son-in-law; etc, etc, etc.

After college, I joined a management consulting firm. It was my dream job, which called for 60–70 hour work weeks. My mother got really sick in the last semester of college. She passed away two months after I started my consulting job. It was a dark period of the life of me and my dad. While my dad was taking care of mom most of the time in her last weeks, I tried to be at work for as long as I could — there was an infinite amount of work if I was willing to do.

My mother had always been curvy since my earliest memories. She had a full face and round body. She tried to lose weight but never really succeeded. My dad and I never had problems with it, though. My (little sister) cousin and I loved giving my mom facials because her face feels so soft and bouncy. Since she got sick, she lost so much weight that she did not look like herself. Her legs were as thin as her arms while she was healthy. I could see knee bones moving while she got off the bed. Her cheeks, which used to be cushion-y, now were left with only a thin layer of skin and two hollows.

I didn’t want to see her. Not because I didn’t love her, but because I loved her such that I couldn’t imagine a world without her. The idea of witnessing her fading away, and the memory of her last days, her last words, would kill me, I thought. So I try to not have the memories.

The last words from my mom was a text message. I texted her “Are you feeling better? I hope you are feeling better.” desperately I wished for a miracle. I wish something would work and the whole situation would turn around. She replied in a few days, “Thank you! — your mama” the next time I went to the hospital she was no longer able to talk.

I succeeded. I never touched her boney face and legs. I didn’t have much memory of her last days. I succeeded in avoiding the memories that would kill me.

On a happier note, I have a habit of making ten year plans. I made one when I was 20 years old. And I lived my 20–30 exactly according to the plan: Graduating from college; joining a top consulting firm; working for four years and getting an MBA degree in the US; and joining a big company in the US. Not everything worked out in the first try. But I never let my actions slip. I always try again and again. I knew what I wanted when I was 20. I have to make it happen. And it did. The decade, miraculously and predictably, played out exactly according to my plan.

One of the “not everything worked out in the first try” was my rejection by Amazon after my summer internship in the middle of MBA. I worked my butt off, trying to make a business impact and impress my boss. The final presentation went great — everyone seemed to be impressed. The rejection was a huge surprise. My manager said, “Unfortunately we are unable to give you a return offer. It has nothing to do with your performance. It’s… you are too nice. You work too hard. We are afraid that you will burn yourself out, and you won’t survive here.”

I was broken after that conversation. I cried for seven hours straight on that day. I didn’t understand why being too nice and working too hard could be the reasons for rejection. The ideas such as, “What could I have done differently? I shouldn’t have gone to the office over the weekend. Or at least I shouldn’t have logged into the system after 8PM. I shouldn’t have continued to say hi to people after I had noticed it was not a thing on my floor.” came to flood my mind. I desperately wanted the offer — even though the misfit was clear — I wanted an offer from a big company in the US because that was what I promised myself to do.

And then, my life was forever changed the day I decided to meet a stranger, an impossible lover on a foreign land.

I realized what I was doing during this whole time, the 30 years that I thought was happy, content, well planned and successful life, in which I thought I was unafraid of anything — since the adventures with my cousins when I destroyed worms, spiders, and unfamiliar insects.

Fear was with me this whole time. I was afraid. I just didn’t know.

I was afraid of disappointment, and so I accepted the wish from my parents: to be a mediocre person, maybe a teacher or a clerk at a local bank. It’s easy to achieve, so I was safe from disappointments.

I was afraid of rejection, and so I never asked if I could be the monitor. I did nothing other than wishing other “more ambitious” classmates would transfer to another school, so that I was safe from rejections.

I was afraid to be single, and so I chose a school where there were seven times more boys than girls, so that I would be safe, and I would not be left over and die alone.

I was afraid of awkward situations, and so I cut back on all male friendships every time I got into a serious relationship, so that I would be safe from the dialogs like “Why are you seeing Jun so much?” “Are you cheating me?”, and I would be as distant as possible from the labels of “bitch”.

I was afraid of breakups, and so I only dated boys who I saw a possibility of happily ever after, and I would do all that I could to make it work, so that I would be safe from breakups.

I was afraid of sad memories, and so I avoided having them in the first place. I avoided seeing my mother and touching her face, hands and body in her last weeks, so that I would not have the traumatic memories that I believed would replay in my nightmare for the rest of my life.

I was afraid of being out of control, the idea of “go with the flow” was as terrifying as bungee jump. I desperately want to take the driver seat of my life, so that I made ten year plans. And I would do all I could to make my life stay on track, whether I like the track or not, so that I would be safe from the feeling of the unknown, out of control.

I was afraid to face myself. When I was rejected by my goal because of who I am, because “I am too nice” and “I work too hard”, the two identities more important to me than “I am Asian” and “I am female”, when my goals and my identities had a head-to-head fight, I was afraid to stand up for my identities, and for who I am.

The day I encountered this stranger, an impossible lover, a completely off-track affair with an unplanned, unknown outlook, my life was changed forever.

Life gives me another chance to be brave.

And I wrote a book about this chance.

This memoir is about the frustration and serendipity of online dating, the longing and search for life partners, and the transcendent journey of becoming a stepmother.

It is a story of an Asian immigrant in the US. If I could only wish for one thing, I wish to tell an immigrant’s story that is not bitter and difficult because she is an immigrant. I hope you too will see that our deepest joy and fear has little to do with the color of our skin, and that as human race we are more similar than different.

If you are still here, thank you! It means a lot to me. I just finished the first draft of my memoir and will be working with my editor in the coming months. If you are interested to be my beta reader, please leave a comment. I would love to hear your perspectives.

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