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The Forgotten Stories of Our Future

Personal Essay

"Tell us about your experiences as a New American. Whether as an immigrant yourself, or as a child of immigrants, how have your experiences as a New American informed and shaped who you are and your accomplishments?"

My interest lies in stories. Yet, the truest and most potent of stories are not those found on a page or a screen but those that come alive through our experiences and more importantly, honored through our memories. My parents, Abraham and Natalia, immigrated to the U.S in the early 1990s. If one were to ask of their motivations, my father could speak of his desire for political freedom, or my mother can speak of the economic opportunities in comparison to the life available in her childhood’s communist China. However, behind their proud facade, you can see the picture of Charlie hidden away in my dad’s wallet — the last memento of their firstborn child and the failed attempt to find him medical relief in California. My own story began when I was conceived in an attempt to be the bone marrow donor for my dying brother. But to my biological parents’ greatest dismay, I was not a match. Unwanted, my story will leave my birthplace of California and instead be placed in Tianjin, China. With my foster parents, I was nicknamed “street rat” and meandered the neighborhood uninhibited. However, at age 5, my biological parents officially recalled me back to the US and I was to leave immediately. Terrified of leaving the only world I have ever known, but yet impatient with excitement, I returned to Los Angeles. I was 28 pounds, struggled in verbal communication, and was unable to count past 10. I was too young to understand, but I will never forget my mother’s disappointed gaze the first time we met. In hindsight, this emotional rejection became embedded in my psyche, and being useful became my objective. I never questioned why I would become my entire family’s manager as soon as I could speak English. I never questioned why I would spend every spare moment interpreting for my father and be pulled out of class for business meetings. I never questioned why I went to at least 6 different elementary schools that at times resulted in violent playground bullying. I never questioned every time my mother screamed, ridiculed, or hit me if I brought home subpar grades. I never questioned why my parents never attended any ceremony or performance. I never questioned why I would cry myself to sleep wondering why I was never enough. But lastly, I never questioned why failure was not an option even at the expense of my own mental health and life. It was not until my darkest and lowest point — my suicide attempt at age 16 — that brought these questions to the forefront. However, it was not just questions: it was stories hidden deep within my broken heart. In other words, in trying to be a useful daughter, I had almost killed my own spirit. In the years that have followed, I voraciously fight every single day to not only find the innate compassion needed to overcome my depression and trauma but also the strength to achieve in the outside, material world. I often ask myself if I have taken the correct risks to succeed: was my decision to leave my family at 16 to go abroad alone to pursue my dream worth missing nearly half of my brothers’ childhoods? Or was establishing my startup at 19, a valuable payoff to the experience of mentally relapsing alone during a cold Boston winter? Or was gaining admissions to prestigious universities as a first-generation student - the proper reward for the nights of panic attacks induced by the fear of failing a singular paper or exam? Behind every accomplishment and every title, there was always a clandestine struggle. It was never about the award, but finding my own encouragement in pushing past every cruel critique and rejection. My father is relentless in his pursuits to give his children a better chance than the one he was offered. My mother is fierce in her perseverance to prove that she made the right decision to immigrate. But for me, I am motivated by being my brother’s second chance, and my best chance at the opportunity of the meaningful life that he was unjustly denied. Being a child of immigrants is more than an identity. It informs the way I am raised, the way I live, the philosophies I hold, the hunger to succeed, the deep pain when I face disappointment. But, most importantly, it is what gives me the drive to be my truest self when my parents themselves could not be. My work as a sociologist, poet, writer, filmmaker, photographer, painter, printmaker, mixed media artist, sculptor, or entrepreneur — all share the same purpose. I aim to tell stories regardless of form — mediums are finite yet stories are immortal. My father’s first American property was not a car or a house but instead, the burial site for Charlie. In an almost poetic fashion, I viewed this milestone in his and our family life’s as honoring a respectable home for the dead rather than for the living. Architects Arakawa and Gins “believed that through a radical recalibration of the built environment, humans could solve the ultimate design flaw: death”. But I tend to disagree. My parents’ sacrifice, immigration, and my very existence were brought into this world through the fear of death. However, this ending became the foundation for my beginning. My goal is not to prevent death but rather, to reanimate and give life to the stories that have been momentarily unnoticed. Pursuing my goal of becoming a landscape architect does not take away from my lifelong practice of telling stories but instead further informs it. In the landscapes I hope to design, create, and re-imagine, I need to not only understand the history of each embedded space but also how to crucially create new history through the natural and built environment. Stories only become alive when people choose to listen, so I believe it is my responsibility to honor the stories that should not be forgotten.

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