I’ve been living with PTSD and fibromyalgia for over three years now, but my healing journey from my early life trauma actually started much earlier, when I got on a plane to attend my first year of college at NYU in Paris. The writing professor assigned us with an “open letter” to whomever of our choosing. I chose the person who had utterly destroyed my life and robbed me of my very identity. If I could speak to the 18-year-old girl who wrote this, I would tell her: This isn’t love. You didn’t deserve any of it and it never should have happened to you. No one has the right to treat you that way. But real love exists, and the proof is in you.
Professor James Polchin
GLS Writing II
28 February 2010
A Heartfelt Letter a Loving Father
To even begin to articulate the incredible influence you’ve had in my life would take thousands of pages that I don’t have the resources to convey. I’m not even sure if confining these impressions to printed words and symbols could do them justice. You’ve taught me how to view the world in a larger perspective and that I should always strive to improve myself. You’ve taught me that no matter what, I can always be better, and that I should work hard to realize my full potential. I owe a lot to you, for the person I’ve become and the person I aspire to be. However, the mentality of self-improvement that you endorse can lead to a chronic dissatisfaction that can be more hindering than helpful. I realize now that criticizing me is your way of displaying your love for me, but for years, I interpreted it as disapproval.
I remember facing your anger whenever you’d walk into a room and find me sitting on the sofa watching American television. You’d belligerently demand why I wasn’t watching programs in Chinese instead and would launch into a tiresome tirade about how I was wasting my time with my refusal to learn Mandarin. You’ve asserted many times that I would regret not learning the language properly when I got older. However, your reproof did less to make me more earnest about watching Chinese programs than it did to support my conviction that I should watch my favorite American shows in a more secretive and clandestine manner. I eventually got in the habit of either turning off the TV or switching it to a Chinese channel whenever I heard approaching footsteps. Paradoxically, while my ears grew more adept at picking up the muffled thuds of socked feet against carpet, they grew no more proficient at discerning the meanings of Chinese tonalities and phonetics.
You have a tendency to worry so much about the well-being of your children that it drives you (and often us) to insanity. You’ve invested innumerable hours with me and my siblings in an attempt to impart some sort of wisdom in us, and to change what you perceive to be our wrongful ways. However, I don’t think you ever realized that these lengthy “talks” did little besides make our bottoms numb and make us feel thoroughly unmotivated. Even if we felt enthusiastic and productive at the start of the session, this eagerness would be leeched out of us quicker than the minute hand travelling across the clock face.
Many parents would’ve been content with the daughter that I was. I got decent grades, and I never went out to cause trouble. However, for you, this could never be enough. Your reasons could be logically comprehended. Why should I compare myself with the worst of my generation, the kids who were scampering about participating in self-destructive behavior, often becoming involved in drugs, alcohol, and worse? The expectations for me and these kids would naturally be different.
I remember you read an article to us, called “Three: Succeed, Four: Fail.” This article was about the arduous lifestyle of college-bound students in South Korea, and the title referred to the students’ idea that if they slept for only three hours, they could pass the exam, but if they slacked off and slept for four hours, they would fail. I understand your anxiety in sending your children off into a world inhabited by these people, because undoubtedly we, your soft American-raised kids, would lose to these Korean students in any sort of competition. We don’t possess their discipline, dedication, ambition, or zeal. When you compare these sleep-deprived and persevering students to me, who likes to sleep for sixteen hours on a weekend, I’m clearly an incorrigibly lazy and indolent derelict, right? Faced with these sorts of opponents, how could I ever expect to combat them and win? If I can never be as good as them, well then, aren’t all my efforts being wasted? Wouldn’t it be much more economical if we can just cut our losses where we can? Shouldn’t I just give up now while I haven’t wasted my entire existence yet?
You want us to do well in life; I understand that. However, your means of achieving this do not do much more than wear us down and deplete our lives of meaning. Can you imagine leading the lives of those Korean students? Do you think they are happy? Your high school life was a similar experience, and you refer to those years as a nightmare. Sometimes, you tell us, you have a recurrent dream in which you are still in school and trying to get into college, and you wake up gasping in a cold sweat. While this intense academic pressure may result in very knowledgeable Korean students, I would rather enjoy learning than have my spirit broken by the school administration. This level of academic pressure, though it yields results, is clearly not the most efficient way to promote learning among students. As a matter of fact, forcing these students to study for most of their waking hours and pushing them into a state of chronic sleep-deprivation “causes irritability and learning deficits— you learn more efficiently and readily with more sleep” (Miller).
You would constantly remind me of my little faults that would eventually lead to my downfall, if I did not correct them. Of course, satisfaction breeds contentment, which leads to stagnancy and lack of innovation and progress. A bit of dissatisfaction is necessary in order to keep improving. After all, where would we be if Thomas Edison had considered candlelight to already be good enough, or if humankind had determined that walking from place-to-place was sufficient as a means of transport? But this bleak attitude of ceaseless dissatisfaction, far from encouraging me to improve, nearly destroyed my optimism on life itself. There is no motivation to strive towards a goal. Without some sort of shining purpose, the pursuit is simply empty.
Among some of your critiques, one in particular seems to persist overall. I have a habit of letting my internal conflicts manifest themselves in my external expressions. If I’m vexed, it’s evident from my scowling face and crossed arms. You’d explain that having a cold expression distances me from other people, that I would be perceived as unapproachable, and that I would suffer in the job market as well as other areas in life. I understand this, Dad, and I agree. So why, you ask, after so many years, must you continue to point out the same fault in me? Just because I understand your concern doesn’t mean that I can easily fix it. After a stressful day at school, listening to you reprimand my sulky appearance does little to improve my mood. You want me to smile? Well, arguing with me isn’t the best way to achieve this.
You told us many stories about your childhood growing up in Taiwan. Once, in elementary school, your neighbor was strung upside-down from a tree by his ankles and then beaten by his father because his grades were too poor. In those days, it was believed that the more a teacher beat the students, the better the teacher was. When a student failed to complete his homework for the class, it was not uncommon for the student to be called up to the front to receive thrashings. You told me that you can no longer hear as well in one ear as you used to after your teacher smacked you across the face, and you were one of the top students in your class. Since this time, the Taiwanese government has seen to the passage of an amendment to their Educational Fundamental Act that prohibits all forms of corporal punishment (Editorial). Although you share my sentiment of approval and relief that education is no longer run in such a manner, I can’t help but believe that you still carry some vestiges of this outdated system. The way you view education tends to stem from a more pessimistic perspective, rather than an optimistic one. In order to do well, a student must be forced and punished; if the student is praised and encouraged, then the student is more likely to feel satisfied and therefore slack off. However, when something has been imposed on me, I am more inclined to resent it. I was alarmed to once hear a friend of mine complain about the violin, that it was a vile instrument and that she hated learning it. Upon further questioning, she revealed that her vehemence originated from the private lessons her parents forced onto her from childhood. There is no pleasure in being coerced into something.
Some of the most magical moments are created in the most leisurely conditions. I remember one time I played my violin for you, and you told me how much you enjoyed listening to me perform. You asked me if I could play certain Chinese folk songs, such as “Mo Li Hua” (Jasmine Flowers) and “Hong Dou Qu” (Song of the Red Bean). After searching together on the internet for the sheet music in vain, we decided to transcribe the notes by ear instead. You’d sing phrases of the song out loud, I’d mimic it by plucking it my violin, and then we’d write the notes on Finale Notepad. It was slow, meticulous, and tedious work, but I never once considered it laborious. Those hours spent struggling to match notes and keys were enjoyable because there was no real pressure and nothing at stake. Was the world going to end if we didn’t transcribe those two songs properly? Of course not. If it was, we wouldn’t have had as much fun with them as we did. Did you know, Dad, that your simple pleasure of hearing me play made learning the instrument that much more worthwhile to me? In addition to working on symphonies by Beethoven and Kabalevsky, I cheerfully learned these Chinese folk tunes so I could see your smile when you overheard me practicing in the living room.
I know you’re proud of me and my accomplishments, even if it took me years to realize it. As the acceptance letters from various universities came in, I overheard you happily telling our relatives about them, vaunting in delight. But Dad, you don’t have to hide this part of you from me. I would be enraptured to hear your approval, if only intermittently. You don’t need to be so troubled by the idea that I’d stop improving the instant I realize you’re pleased with me.
Confucius told his disciples, “Do not worry because no one appreciates your abilities. Seek to be worthy of appreciation” (Confucius 74). I spent a great deal of my childhood worrying that you did not appreciate my abilities. Confucius dispels my delusion by showing that I was aiming at the wrong thing. I shouldn’t try to impress you and win your accolades; I should instead focus on ameliorating my quality as a person. Confucius is wise in saying, “If he has any energy to spare from such action, let him devote it to making himself cultivated” (Confucius 60). Of course we can always be better than we are. But Dad, just a little bit of recognition from you can make this journey to self-advancement exponentially easier. While it’s true that I will neither perform a concerto in Carnegie Hall nor become the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic in this lifetime, my love for music will never change— and part of that passion has been cultivated by you and your gentle encouragement.
Dad, I love you. And I know you love me. This is why you do what you do. However, I’m trying to let you understand that there are better ways to achieve more effective results. If you relax a bit more and occasionally encourage us, your children, instead of constantly chastising us, not only will we respond better, but you will have less mental turmoil. Both sides have the potential to profit from the situation. I say this not only for our sakes, but for yours as well. You know that you’ve always had a problem with high blood pressure, and that your father and his father before him had died of strokes. You must realize that by worrying so much you are simply adding unnecessary stress and anguish to your life. This can be crippling to your health. What good is a system in which both parties involved emerge from it for the worse? I am left dejected and unresponsive and you are left frustrated that I still haven’t improved. There’s no reason to maintain this attitude when the other is much more beneficial. We should be able to celebrate learning, not be encumbered by it. When the pressure’s off, both for you and for us, we can all be freer to enjoy our lives more.
So please Dad, I’m begging you. Be happier. If you would only consider what I’ve told you, I feel confident that you would be. I urge you to consider more deeply the actual results of your actions and gauge to see if they live up to the expected results. Don’t expend all of your energy berating us when you can be supporting us with encouraging words. I hope you will consider what I’ve said to you, for yourself, your children, and everything we encounter as we face the world.
With all my love,
Confucius. The Analects. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998. Print.
Editorial. Taiwan Journal 22 Dec. 2006, Recent Issues ed., Editorial sec. Taiwan Journal. Government Information Office, 2009. Web. 11 Mar. 2010. <http://taiwanjournal.nat.gov.tw/site/Tj/ct.asp?xItem=23617&CtNode=425>.
Miller, Shayna. “Sleep Deprivation Affects Students.” Miller, Shayna. “Sleep Deprivation Affects Students.” The Badger Herald. 11 Sept. 2003. Web. 11 Mar. 2010. . 11 Sept. 2003. Web. 11 Mar. 2010. <http://badgerherald.com/news/2003/09/11/sleep_deprivation_af.php>.