Humans of State High
“I remember there was this mall that me and my mom would always go to. Or, she would always take me to, on the weekends after ice skating or something. We had to cross this sky bridge to get to the mall from the parking lot, and I remember on that sky bridge, there would always be this homeless person, the same homeless person, sitting in the corner. At that time I was maybe seven or eight years old, and I’d never really seen many homeless people ever. So when I saw that, my first instinct was to be worried, and a little scared, I think. I was like, ‘Why is this person sitting there,’ and like ‘they smell kinda funky,’ and ‘why is he dressed like that,’ so I wasn’t really sure what was going on. And then I remember the first time I walked past him, I held in my breath. I was so scared. I didn’t want to breathe the air that was next to this person, and so yeah.
After that, we walked past this person, and I remember my mom took out a couple of coins from her purse and asked me to give the person some change. I was a little bit reluctant, I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t really want to get too close to this guy,’ and then I was like, ‘Whatever, I’ll just hold in my breath and I’ll quickly drop the coins in his hat, and then I’ll run off.’ So that’s exactly what I did. I was like, ‘Okay, so that wasn’t so bad,’ and then I started asking my mom a bunch of questions, like, ‘Why is this person there,’ and ‘Why is he like begging for money,’ and I don’t think my mom did a really good job of explaining it. She was just like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s homeless,’ but I remember really clearly something else that she said. I don’t really know how to translate this into English, but she said that it’s xingfu (幸福) to do something like this. And uh, xingfu is a tough word to translate, so I’ll just use fulfilling. ‘It’s more fulfilling to give than to receive,’ is basically what she told me. I think that quote really stuck with me, and week after week, we’d pass through that sky bridge again, and the older I got, the easier it was for me to feel more comfortable dropping change into his hat.
One day we walked past the same homeless person and my mom forgot about it. And so I reminded my mom, and I asked her if she had change, and I was like, ‘We should give this person some change if we have any.’ My mom was like, ‘Oh yeah! I totally forgot about this.’ And so I think maybe it was a total span of about two years where we would pass this homeless person and try to give him our change.
As I reflect back on this whole experience, I feel like I definitely saw myself go from complete ignorance, and a completely privileged place, to a place where I was kind of able to empathize with what was going on and why this person was there. And I feel guilty for that initial moment where I had this kind of instinctual disgust, or despise, for this person. So even though this isn’t that good of a memory because it comes with a tangible guilt, and a ‘Oh wow! I was such a brat’ moment because I didn’t know any better, I think that it’s part of the reason why it’s stuck with me.
Even now, this memory still inspires me to always be aware of the world around me. I meet a lot of people as a part of my work, and that memory helps remind myself that in every interaction I have, there’s always privilege on my part, and there will be blind spots that I’m never going to be aware of. I’m never going to be able to understand where the person sitting across from me is coming from. As much as I can try, there will always be moments that because of how I grew up, and how I was raised, that I will never be able to fully, completely understand this person sitting across from me. That’s a memory I never want to let go of.” (1/2)
“I think an important tradition that was passed down from my family was that it’s really important to take care of your physical health, and you should do it as much as you can. And I think that this was a really important point to me because I moved to the United States by myself at a very young age. I was thirteen when I first moved here, all alone. I was a kid. I went to a boarding school, but you know, it was boarding school—you get a schedule telling you when to study, when to eat, but it’s very different from living at home, and having food served to you at a set time and having your laundry and most of your chores taken care of.
Overall, I think living with family versus living alone in a foreign country forces you to grow up a lot. When you’re a kid you don’t really have to think about, ‘Oh! I have to do laundry,’ or ‘Oh! I have to feed myself,’ or stuff like, ‘I have to make sure I’m feeding myself the right food.’ So I’m glad that my family has always had this tradition where it’s like, no matter how tough it is, or how tight money is, how tough our financial situation was, we always made sure that physical health was being taken care of.
My mom would always say, ‘Oh, you know, we don’t have a lot of money, but food, we always have to buy the freshest kind. The meals we eat have to be balanced, we cannot go any lower than this. We have to make sure that we are taking care of our bodies.’ And I think this has really stuck with me, because even now, I feel like I still cling onto that value even though my stress is coming from different angles. From this capitalist culture of, ‘We always have to work!’ and whenever we take breaks, even if it means having a healthy meal, you feel this sense of guilt, like, ‘I shouldn’t be taking this break because these other people are working harder than me.’ So, this was a cultural shock, moving to the U.S. and realizing that everyone here is go, go, go. It’s always about the hustle, the grind. I see a lot of my friends around me that are like that; they neglect their physical health, like getting enough sleep or ignoring food just because they want to get this thing done. That was tough, and so I picked up on some bad habits after moving here.
But at the end of the day, whenever I call my parents, they say stuff like ni chi fan le ma? This is like a very common greeting in Chinese, like, ‘Ni chi fan le ma? (你吃饭了吗？Have you eaten yet?)’ or ‘Ni chi bao le ma? (你吃饱了吗？Did you eat enough to feel full?)’ and I think that goes to show how subtle it is, or how Asian culture doesn’t really express their affection or love overtly or explicitly. But hearing that always reminds me that yes, my parents are telling me they love me just by asking if I’m feeding myself. And then I interpret and connect that back to our family value, which is a reminder that physical health is one of the most important things that you have to take care of.” (2/2)