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Not Holding It All in Anymore
My family doesn’t talk about feelings, but I do
Q.Y.L.
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One June morning when I was 8, my mother woke me up and handed me my jacket. She told me that I would have a good time going on vacation to America with my father and my older sister, who was 12. I was a simple Chinese country girl. I had never traveled more than 20 miles from my small hometown, Taishan. I imagined America would be like Disneyland.

When we arrived at the Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, my mom hugged me so tightly I couldn’t breathe. I could feel her warm breath in my ear. “Take good care of yourself,” she mumbled. “If you need money, your sister has $100.”

My mom let me go and turned to hug my sister. I gazed at my mother wondering why she was crying so hard. What was there to cry about? My sister took my hand. Then we turned our backs, and got on the plane.

Not Disneyland

After 23 hours, we landed in New York. When we arrived at the apartment my aunt had arranged for us, I was astonished by its shabbiness. The small bedroom was cut into two smaller rooms that could only fit a twin bed. I realized that New York was not going to be like Disneyland.

I stared out the two long windows that faced the Malay Restaurant across the street. My heart felt like it was on fire. When my family went on trips together, I always stuck to my mom. But now she wasn’t here. When I dialed her phone number, my words caught in my throat.

“Mama, it’s me,” I mumbled.

“You arrived in New York? Are you feeling good? How’s the weather there? Are you wearing your jacket when it’s cold outside?”

I wanted to say, “Everything is different from what you said!” I wanted to say, “I feel suffocated by New York and I want to go back home.” But I didn’t want her to be worried about me, or think it was her fault that I was sad. So all I said was, “I’m fine, Mama. The weather here is good. The jacket keeps me warm.”

I opened the big window and breathed in the New York air. It smelled like garbage, gas, and machines, completely different than the fresh air in my village where people planted rice and bok choy.

Not on Vacation

In China we had lived in a big house with three floors. There we each had our own rooms, but in New York we had to share. I told my sister I wanted to go home. She felt the same.

After a couple of days, I sat on the wooden floor of our apartment, using the leg of a chair to scratch the floor. The scraping sound was loud and obvious. I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t even notice my dad come in until his reflection appeared on the shiny floor.

“What are you doing to the floor?” he asked.

“Since we are going to leave soon and I don’t like this apartment, I can just scratch it,” I said.

He cursed and I got scared. I knew he was mad.

“We are not going back! You are finishing your education in America, and we are living here from now on!” he yelled. I started to cry.

“Why are you crying? There is no point for you to cry.” He walked back to his room. I lay down on the floor and sobbed, my hand touching the scratches I had made.

Missing My Mom

A few days later my aunt brought my sister and me to Chinatown to sign up for summer school. The teachers were nice and spoke Cantonese to me, which made me feel welcome. I started learning my ABCs and how to say the days of the week. But none of the other kids would talk to me, even though they spoke Cantonese. I had been the most popular kid in my class in China, but now I was all by myself.

My sister was in another class. She took me to and from school, but we didn’t talk much about what was happening. She felt more like my babysitter than a sister.

As the summer went on, I really missed my mom. It had been months since I had heard her voice. But I didn’t have a phone to call her or the courage to ask my dad to use his.

No one had explained why my mom stayed behind. I sensed that it was something I shouldn’t ask about. To this day, my parents have not told me.

When I started school in the fall, there were four Chinese girls like me who were learning English. For a while we formed a group, but then I got left out. My emotions turned darker and I was miserable.

image by YC-Art Dept

My teacher noticed this change in me and asked my father to come to school. We met with my teacher, the principal, and a translator.

“Your daughter said that she wants to change her room, her dad, and her friends,” the translator said. My dad had a poker face, so I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.

“She told me that she misses her mom so much,” my teacher added.

“I don’t know about these things,” my dad said in Chinese.

Drawing My Feelings

Nothing changed at home after that meeting. My sister picked me up after school and took care of me while our dad worked. He left early in the morning and came back late at night. Most days we said only a few sentences to one another, like “Hi Dad” and “Did you call your grandparents?”

But at school I started seeing an art therapist who helped me release my feelings of abandonment and loneliness. She had a bright smile. Once a week I went to her office, where there were art supplies, and I would paint, draw, and plant marigolds in a pot.

My therapist would ask me how I felt that day and why. I often told her that I felt numb. I think it’s because my heart was tired of feeling so abandoned and lonely after leaving China and being away from my mom.

I felt sad when she left the school after two years. In 5th grade I got a new art therapist. But after that year, art therapy was no longer offered at my school.

Without therapy, all of my isolation built up, and in my freshman year of high school I started cutting myself on my left arm and both of my legs. It felt like a way to release my bad feelings instead of holding them all inside.

One night my dad came home from work and I made him dinner as usual. The smell of steamed chicken and cabbage filled the air. He ate in silence and then got up to wash the dishes. I followed him into the kitchen to ask him a question, and at the sink, he saw my arm, red and covered with wounds. But his face stayed blank.

My dad finished the dishes, sat down at the table and lit a cigarette. The smoke made me want to cough. I held back tears and went to my room without saying a word.

I was so disappointed that my dad didn’t ask me about my cuts. I wanted him to act like a father and ask me why I was doing this to myself. I wished he could be like the nice dads I saw in movies. He ignored me so much that I sometimes wondered if we were even related.

Getting Help

Later that year, I went to the doctor for a check-up. I had to fill out a questionnaire about my medical history. “Have you been feeling depressed over the past few weeks?” was one question. I answered yes. My doctor recommended a therapist. I didn’t want to go, but she said if I didn’t, she would tell my dad how I was feeling.

I knew if she did that, my father would lecture me for an hour about telling others my secrets. In Chinese culture, you’re supposed to control your emotions and not share your feelings. So I went to the therapist.

Now I’ve been going to therapy for over six months, and I still haven’t told my dad. I often wonder if it helps. I wish my therapist would give me advice to solve my problems, like my art therapist did in elementary school. But instead she just asks questions like, “How do you feel about this? What’s on your mind?” At least I can tell her about the lonely feelings that had been pinned down by the rock inside my heart.

She’s like a hole in a tree where I can dump all my bad emotions and leave them behind.

Writing Gives Release

Recently I made some new friends on the internet who I feel comfortable sharing my feelings with. Another thing that helps is writing for YCteen. Writing is like talking to a therapist who’s silently listening to your story. It’s similar to how I felt in art therapy. It’s like I’m a towel that’s wet and heavy with depression, and writing and therapy are the two hands that twist and wring the water out.

I used to believe that cutting was the best way to release my pain. But as I started to cut myself more, I stopped feeling relief. My heart felt numb, just like it had before.

Now my cuts are turning into scars. I don’t like that; they’re marks reminding me of all the depressing moments I’ve experienced. I wish my mother had been honest when I was little and told me that I was moving to America without her, so I could accept it quicker. I am not in touch with her these days because I know if we do talk, I’ll get annoyed with her and we’ll have a fight.

My dad still doesn’t say anything about my scars. It feels like he is just a mannequin, playing the part of a father without doing anything to show he actually is one. My friends tell me I should try to understand him. I don’t think I ever will.

But I’ve realized it’s not healthy to hold all my emotions inside. I reached out and told someone I was unhappy, and I’ve moved beyond self-harm. I’m writing for YCteen, which not only makes me feel better, but also comforts others who feel bad.

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(NYC-2019-01-14)

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