Six a.m. and my mom’s shaking me awake. I open my crusty eyes and stare at her, bleary-eyed. My eleven year old eyes struggle to focus, in need of glasses and lacking the money to purchase them. She’s dressed in sweats and a ratty T-shirt, and it’s obvious where she needs to be.
“You’re not going to school today.”
I groan and throw myself back on my bed.
“I have to work. Labor Ready.”
“Where’s Ted?” I ask.
No answer. I still understand. He’s away. Away, with his bloodshot eyes and strange skunk smell. Away, with his hateful words and hard hands.
“Get up. Josh and Jeremy are still asleep. You can go tomorrow.”
I stretch and stumble downstairs, a big empty house that would be abandoned in two months. My four- and one- year old brothers are sleeping on a couch with “Dora the Explorer” blaring on the TV in front of them. I spend the day cooking, ignoring calls from tax collectors, cleaning, changing diapers, playing games as we pack up our belongings. We ignore the ash burns on the carpets, the holes punched in the walls, the pornographic magazines hidden in kitchen cupboards.
After a bout of homelessness, we are holed up in a two bedroom apartment with our pregnant Mom and our loving aunt. He’s away, and only I know that it’s going to be a very long time before he comes back. The four year old, Joshua, looks at me with inquisitive eyes as I struggle to finish my homework at midnight and asks me, “When’s Dad coming back from work?”
I give him a tired smile and say, “I don’t know.”
Within the years that follow, I become happy and self-assured. My passions grow as I enter middle school and join the marching band, adding on to the love for clarinet I discovered in fourth grade. My sister is born, adding one more to my responsibility list when my aunt left and my mom obtained a full-time job at Motel 6. As I gaze into the eyes of the three people who mean the most to me, I marvel at how something so hateful, so disgustingly abhorrent, could create such beautiful, joyful epitomes of innocence.
He comes back, and she goes back to him. He meets the little girl for the first time. They all fall in love with him. I guess that’s the gift of childhood; you forgive so easily.
At 13 years old, I was no longer a child, and I hadn’t been for quite some time. Naturally, I did not forgive. Emotionally scarred and impressionable, his hateful comments stabbed me repeatedly; but now I pull them out, cast them aside, and hold my head up high. I push myself to succeed, to be better, to inspire my siblings. To show them that they can be so much more than what their idol of a man is. To show them that they can succeed and they can do so without hurting anyone. To show them that they can be strong and happy and brilliant even with someone yelling insults at them from the sidelines.
But how did this experience shape me?
Despite all the emotional abuse I dealt with, despite all the times I wanted to slit my wrists and end it all, despite all the times I was forced to miss school because I had to babysit or clean or both, I grew into a self-assured, responsible, caring, and intelligent woman who refused to let a junkie control her life. I learned to be the bigger person, to not swing back when provoked, to not let hateful comments destroy my self-perception. I learned to appreciate the little things, like when my mother decides to smile and not to scowl. I learned that I controlled my future, and that I must do all in my power to make it better and brighter than anything I have ever seen before, and that I can make it that way.
I gained an ultimate goal; a goal to succeed. A drive to push me farther than anything ever has and ever will. A love and appreciation for my family, and a respect for the hardships of life.
If I could take away one lesson from my life, it’s that yes, hardships hurt. Yes, people want perfection and ease. But where is the reward? What is the purpose of life if you just float around through clear water, never having to avoid reefs and sharks? Yes, life can be painful and heart-breaking, but you need to shark bites to actively, physically live.
Anonymous Student. "Common App Prompt 1: “You’re not going to school today”" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 08 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/stanford/common-app-prompt-1-youre-not-going-to/>.
In discussing essay possibilities with Yvonne, I encouraged her to accent her heritage, perky spirit, and obviously good sense of humor. She chose to bring out these elements in a statement that reflects her respect of family, cultural tradition, and some of those awkward moments from our youth that we’d rather forget. As you read her words, you can almost picture her in the midst of the scenes she paints. This is quality writing.
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I reached for a fish ball (my favorite), wedging the chopsticks tightly between my fingers. I felt a little clumsy leaning toward that center dish. The dinner wasn’t all that formal, but I was trying to make a good impression. Then suddenly, my hand-eye coordination failed.
Ten pairs of eyeballs watched in horror as my precious little fish ball squirted out the side of my sticks and bounced onto the table. In what seemed like one of those slow-motion dream sequences from the movies, I watched the little sphere leave a telltale trail of sauce as it rolled determinedly toward the table’s edge. I tried to be cool. “No big deal,” I thought, as I quietly tried to scoop it with my chopsticks. When that failed, I tried a stab, which only pushed it farther away.
I quickly tried to cover my embarrassment by plastering a bright smile on my ever-reddening face. My father, who was witnessing this dining mini-drama, deftly secured the little ball and, with skill and grace, deposited it into my bowl. “Hmm,” he muttered with a sigh, “‘Can’t even use chopsticks.” A woman next to him joked, “A Chinese girl who can’t use chopsticks?!” Other guests bit their lips, trying to suppress their laughter. As I pondered this unlikely scene, I couldn’t fault their amusement. After all, it was remarkable how un-Chinese I had become.
My friends call me “Banana Girl”: Yellow skin on the outside and white on the inside. At times, I think I’m not Asian anymore, such as during the fish-ball incident. A while ago, my mother sagely predicted that it wouldn’t be long before hamburgers and pizza would be a big part of my diet (they already represent two of my four daily food groups). “No problem for me,” I said. I was okay with that. “Nothing wrong with being ‘Americanized’,” I thought. What people don’t understand is that, although I am well adapted to America’s culture, I still greatly respect Chinese traditions.
When my great-grandmother died this past summer, we couldn’t attend her funeral due to financial difficulties. Her death was unexpectedly sudden. So, out of respect for her and our Chinese heritage, we created our own funeral ceremony at home. My mother and I went to our local Chinese market and bought a number of items made of paper (aprons, plates, and other household goods). We even got some Chinese paper money. Then my mother got out her large cooking pot and we went into the back yard and put all the paper items (even the money) into the pot and began burning them.
Chinese, especially the Cantonese people, believe that after a person dies, they move on to another life where they still need practical things like money and clothes. The only way the dead can receive these items is if their relatives gather and burn them, sending them into the air as smoke. After we completed the ceremonial burning, we prepared a feast in remembrance of my great-grandmother. This meal is a kind of symbolic “last supper” with the deceased.
I find the tradition both elegant and comforting. As part of the ceremony, I held up three burning sticks and bowed toward the flaming pot. It was a way to say goodbye and pay respect. Technically, it doesn’t make much sense because I bowed to the pot, not to my great-grandmother. I didn’t think it was weird at all. I understand and respect that tradition. It is intended to assure that the dead are well provide for. I understand that many traditions aren’t logical. It doesn’t matter to me, though, because I embrace my Chinese heritage.
I’m pretty sure that I’ll probably never master the skill of picking up food with two wooden sticks. In fact, I greatly prefer knives, forks, and spoons. Throughout my cultural transition, though, I’ve learned that adapting to one culture hasn’t “erased” my original identity or my traditional background. I am blessed to have had the advantage of living in and understanding two vastly different cultures. I’m certain that that this diverse perspective will not only help me adapt to the challenges of college life but also bring an element of difference and freshness to my future college friendships. Please remember one thing, though: If fish balls are ever on the dining hall menu, just hand “Banana Girl” a fork!
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The lesson here for essay writers is to look around your everyday lives carefully. Scenes like those immortalized here in “Banana Girl” happen all the time. The key to success is mustering the writing skills necessary to articulate these little dramas, elevating them to the status of a significance window into who you are and how you think.
TIP: Keep a journal in which you make notes of interesting happenings such as the “fish-ball” dinner party. When it’s time to write your college application essays, you’ll have a treasury filled with all kinds of real-life anecdotes waiting to be turned into winning essays just like “Banana Girl.”