A Fish Out of Water

When I was young, I wasn’t very good at math. I struggled when it came to simple addition and subtraction problems and each year, the formulas and equations seemed to get more and more difficult. If you’re familiar with the stereotype, Asians are supposed to be good at math and my mother made it clear that my below-average grades were unacceptable. In an effort to push me a little harder at school, my mom convinced the school to allow me to skip a year of math to an advanced class. It was, as you see, unheard of that an Asian wouldn’t be in one or two years ahead of her peers in math class. The school clearly did not look at my history of math grades because they complied with her request and I started taking advance algebra as a freshman.

Growing up, I felt dumb. School didn’t come easily for me. My grades didn’t just suffer in Math, but in Science, English and Foreign Language. The only class I seemed to excel at was History, which might as well had been drama class in my parents view. I went through school with a small voice constantly whispering in my ear, “You’re just not smart enough.”

It wasn’t helpful living in the shadow of a natural genius. The Chinese women who were friends with my mom were constantly comparing their kids to my brother. He was the all-around perfect kid – perfect grades, played every instrument perfectly, perfect SAT and ACT scores (yeah, I know). I would constantly overhear these women over tea telling my mother how lucky she was to have a son as wonderful as him. My brother was constantly recruited by the Asian community to tutor their kids, teach them violin and help them discover the cure for cancer. I, on the other hand, was never asked to participate in such prestigious mentorship opportunities.

I remember sitting in my room in high school begging God that I wouldn’t be too dumb to get into college. I was so afraid of what people would think of me and if I didn’t get into college, I would have to face everyone and admit how dumb I was. Then my parents would probably have to move because all of my mom’s Chinese friends would look down on them for their disappointing second child and I would end up homeless without a penny for food. This may sound like a ridiculous fear, but I spent most of my high school nights sitting in my closet praying for a brain like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.

There’s a quote by Albert Einstein that says, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I think so often we put ourselves in situations where we are fishes in trees. We’re discouraged and defeated because no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to get past the first branch.

Lately, I’ve been having conversations with friends about the ‘what’s next’ step in our lives. We’re all in our mid-twenties and there’s still so much of life ahead of us. It’s exciting and intimidating at the same time as we try to find a job that we will excel at and make us happy at the same time. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re all afraid of the next chapter and if we really have what it takes to succeed in our lives. We live in a world that measures our worth through Ivy league acceptances, flashy career paths, even the red lining on our heels can pump up our worth a little more. And in the back of our mind, there is a slight whisper reminding us, “You’re just not smart enough.”

If you’re reading this and you’re going through a season of discouragement, take a deep breath and count to 10. Life isn’t measured by test scores or the degrees you have. There will come a point in your conversations where people stop caring what college you attended (unless it’s for sports reasons). When the questions of academic fades away, ask yourself, who are you? To borrow the line from “The Help”, are you good? Are you kind? Did you know you’re important?

In the past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to find my way into the kind of waters where I belong. My mom tells me that her Chinese friends now ask her for my advice when it comes to raising their “rebellious” teenagers. I’ve also received the honor of helping their teenagers prepare for college, editing essays and giving advice on different schools. A couple weeks ago while I was reading a college admission essay for one of these Chinese women’s sons when I heard a little voice whispering in my ear, “You’ve always been smart enough.” Here I am 10 years later being asked to help in academic areas I never dreamed would be possible. It got me thinking about how often we sell ourselves short. Sometimes it’s easier to believe only what we’re told to believe. I never needed a new brain, I needed to accept who I was and be content that that alone was good enough.

And the moment I did, this fish found her ocean.

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