As a little girl, my grandfather would read me fairytales every night before bed. I was transported out of our lonely apartment in the bustling city to a magical princess fairyland where anything was possible.
As I’ve gotten older, the only aspect of my life that has remained unchanged is the inevitably of change. Many people have a misconception that we are either born as optimists or pessimists, but I disagree.
Optimism may not be ingrained in your roots. It may not be tattooed all over your body, coursing through your veins or woven in your bone marrow. Optimism is the ability to find lingers of sunshine in the seemingly never-ending darkness. I’ve depended on stories to be my constant amidst the chaos of life; an optimistic spark in the mundane gray.
In grade one, my parents and I immigrated from China to Canada. Although it was only an ocean’s distance, it felt like I was moving to another planet. It was during my isolating struggle to learn English that I discovered my love of stories. I learned English by watching a yellow sponge on television every evening.
As I’ve grown up, this ray of optimism has grown along with me. When I fought with my friends, I turned to Harry Potter’s whimsical adventures and recognized the value of friendship. When I felt insecure about my relationship with boys — or lack thereof — my father narrated melodramatic tales about our relatives’ love lives that made me feel like I was inside of a Jane Austen novel.
When COVID-19 swept the globe and wreaked havoc, I was caught completely off guard. Stuck at home in quarantine, I was left alone with pessimistic thoughts that infected my mind: “Am I wasting my time? I am doing enough? What if I get left behind?”
When headlines reported physical assaults against Asian Americans from people looking for pandemic scapegoats, I was forced to confront the internalized racism I had tried to bury. All immigrants desire to leave a part of their past behind and create a new life.
There are various reasons for immigration, whether it’s to escape poverty, war, violence, racism or dictatorship. My family immigrated to Canada chasing freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the freedom to use your voice. But somewhere along the journey to build up a reputation, you blend into the background and forget why you came here.
You forget the casually cruel manner the fifth graders on the bus used “ching chong” as a joke. You forget sitting in your elementary school chair, dreading that pause before your name on the attendance list. You forget the mask you constantly wear to prevent infecting everyone with your lame personality. But with one glance at that news article, it all comes back.
You remember standing in the bathroom in sixth grade, wishing that mascara would look the same on your stubborn short Asian eyelashes. You remember awkwardly staring at the Chinese menu, not knowing how to read the characters. And you remember worrying for your grandparents in China at the start of the pandemic when no one else took it seriously yet.
You look back at the photo under the headlines, with an Asian old lady, her face covered in crimson blood and bruises, thinking about how this could have been your grandmother. But as you drown in your worries, you also remember why your family moved here.
When all the world is silent, the only audible noise is the sound of your conscience. It’s the voice in your head forcing you out of your comfort zone and screaming for action. It’s a voice that demands to be heard, over excuses and protests of fear.
In isolation, I rekindled my love of stories in a new light: with journalism. Online, I found a youth journalism organization that provides a platform for young writers. During the quarantine, I worked on a series of news articles illustrating the mental health struggles young people face in a pandemic.
After numerous interviews, I’ve realized how many of us fight the same battles. Fear, loneliness, anxiety, anger, frustration and helplessness are struggles we share. Although these reactions are natural, we feel isolated in our conflicts.
By sharing our stories, I hope that we can heal each other and not feel so alone. Although my story certainly isn’t a fairy tale, perhaps it can offer you a lesson in resilience — and a few minutes of optimism.