Memoirs of a Slightly Above Average Asian American — Pt 1

It was a Monday morning in February 2007, and the only thought in my head as I walked across the campus quad of Cambridge Academy to get to 1st period English was, “I’m better than most people here.”

That definitely came off snobbish, elitist, arrogant, or — mildly put — prideful. But besides the refreshing scent of my hair gel in the cold winter air filling my tired lungs, it was the only thing holding my self-esteem together between 5 hours of sleep, my mounting To-Do lists as student body president, and the thought that most people in my class and somehow the class below me hate me.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t just the fact that I was arguably the highest-ranked student leader on campus (again, I know it sounds snobby, but keep reading a few more paragraphs) nor the fact that I was academically in the top percent of my class that made me feel better than others.

It was my skills as a classical competitive pianist.

I had trained with a renown teacher-performer and amassed accolades and awards throughout high school for solo and group chamber. I was certain no one else in that school could beat that. Sure, there could be other club presidents or even regional leaders, but nobody was competing at the national and international levels of piano like I was. And that somehow was what I needed for my self-worth. Or perhaps, on top of that, it was the self-assurance I needed to ease the anticipation of college acceptances in the spring. College acceptances — the culmination of my “life’s work”.

By this point, my first-world self-esteem issues probably sound like I’m from an upper middle class family with parents who work white collar jobs, are executive business moguls, or inherited wealth and are now comfortably raising me.

But that’s far from reality.

My parents were immigrants from Taiwan who never went to college and both worked blue collar jobs all their lives — and worked hard, I must say, to feed and invest in their only child.

As a toddler, my parents both worked at a sandwich restaurant. Then, my dad went on to partner in business to sell kitchen restaurant supplies. The bulk of his job description was delivering boxes of inventory. My mother worked part-time as a server and tailored her schedule to suit my school and extracurricular schedule. She always tried to be the one to drive me and never complained. Honestly, my mom and I were the dream team.

My parents never talked about family finances. In fact, there wasn’t much to say. We were in deep credit card debt, had refinanced our house at the peak of the housing bubble and basically spent it all, and were living paycheck to paycheck. They didn’t want me to worry or waste mind space on that. My mom spent her wages and tips to pay for my piano lessons, Chinese school, math tutoring, English tutoring, and all the expensive school activities I had to go to because I was basically planning them or supporting them.

Eventually, I would realize, she also spent her health to pay for these too.

The sacrifices of my mother to dream big and reach high I couldn’t let go to waste. I pushed harder, convinced myself it would only be enough if I really…REALLY tried my best.

And we did it. I ended up getting into MIT. And Harvard. And Stanford. And Yale, Princeton, Columbia, etc. It was one of the best feelings in the world (more to come on post-high feelings).

If only she could enjoy with me the slightly above average achievements I have today. If only we had dialed some things down, prioritized her health earlier, or been more informed. These are not as much regrets as they are wishes. It wouldn’t have been possible to have done otherwise in our circumstances.

But I do wish. So much. If only she could be here today so I could hug her. Kiss her. Again, and again, like I used to, never taking any moment for granted.

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My Secret Notebook

Quirky, curious, and philosophical Asian American gay Ivy League grad living in Southern California.