It’s a quarter past midnight. There are about a million jumbled thoughts racing through my scrambled mind, but one common theme interconnects them all: I am completely, utterly, devastatingly unprepared for my chemistry test tomorrow. I can’t tell the difference between an alkene and an alkane, and I haven’t even gotten around to studying NMRs yet.
There’s a certain gut feeling you get in situations like this. It’s a taunting, tiny, yet deafening voice circling the back of your head, whispering “you’re screwed” over and over again; it’s a sinking feeling in your stomach you get when you’re almost to the drop of the roller coaster, like you know the worst is coming and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Life is a highway, and I was about to crash.
“It’s just a test… She’s just being overdramatic,” you might be thinking. And to be fair, you’re right – objectively speaking, it is just a test.
However, my incompetence with organic chemistry was just a symptom of the real disease, a catalyst speeding up my descent into failure and disappointment. It’s only the third month of junior year, and I had just hit one too many speed bumps on my journey towards the promised land: college. Like I said, life is a highway.
Ironically, my journey began with someone else’s – my parents immigrated to the United States from China a few months before I was born. They did so in pursuit of the ever-elusive “American Dream”: a better education for me and my sister and reclusiveness from the oppressive Chinese government.
They took a complete detour on their paths, sacrificing their friends, family, comfort, and sense of belonging, just to remove a few speed bumps on mine; they struggled, picking away at corners and scrambling for pieces just to make ends meet so I could go on and achieve what they were unable to accomplish for themselves.
Every summer, I go back to Nanning, Guangxi, my mom’s hometown. My grandparents still live in the same crumbling building that my mother was born in: a 4th floor apartment without an elevator or air conditioning where you have to boil water on a stove in order to take a shower, where you use a bunch of coolers in lieu of a refrigerator. My grandma has advanced Parkinsons, and my grandpa had his larynx removed and can’t speak. But none of this has stopped me from having some of the best times of my life there with them – whether its holding my grandma’s hand as my mother pushes her in a wheelchair behind us on our nightly strolls, or sitting on the balcony with my grandpa, watching him hum along to the blasting radio. There’s nothing more that I would want than to see them happy and healthy.
And you might be wondering: “why are they still living in that apartment, then?” which brings us to yet another reason why I can’t afford to keep on making speed bumps for myself. They refuse all the money my mother offers them, returning all her checks and pushing her hand away. “We’re fine,” they tell her, “Save it for your new house, for Ruoshan’s tuition.” And every time I hug them goodbye, they shove an envelope of money into my hand, telling me to use it to buy myself a reward once I get into college. An envelope that, no matter the sum enclosed, is a debt that’s impossible to repay, an envelope filled with cracked walls and wrinkles carved with years and years of pain that can never truly be filled in, an envelope filled with radios and TV for company and taking 20 minutes to go up the stairs.
It’s a debt with an eye-wateringly high interest rate. Deep down somewhere, I know that I won’t ever truly be able to repay it. But who am I if I don’t try?
And that’s why every little speed bump matters, because this journey is not just for myself, but for my parents, their parents, and their parents’ parents. Every day I go to school, I don’t just carry books in my backpack – I carry the weight of my parents’ expectations and sacrifice, and the hope and regret of my grandparents. It’s a load I’m proud to bear. They paved the road ahead of me, and it’s my responsibility to travel it well.
Sure, I have high expectations for myself, too, but what motivates me to pull an all-nighter, cram for a test, or lock my phone away isn’t my quest for prestige – it’s my duty to honor the love my family has given me and use it to make them proud. And if Stanford or Harvard or Yale is the way to do that, then so be it.
And so I keep pushing through the practice problems. I scour my notes and the depth of the internet and clench my eyes as if I can force the information into my brain. But it doesn’t work, and my thoughts begin to cloud with frustration and disillusionment. I never asked them to make those sacrifices for me. Why should I work so hard to make them happy?
Just as I’m about to call it quits, my mother walks in, adorned with a sheet mask and slathered with about a dozen skincare products. In her hand she carries a plate of strawberries, all sliced neatly in half with the stems cut off. She leaves them on my desk and pats me on the back.
Sleep soon, she says, Don’t work yourself too hard. You need rest.
I don’t respond. I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of information searching that even a plate of my favorite fruit can’t pull me out of. It isn’t until two hours later when I’ve managed to finish the last calculation and put my now-inkless pen that I even notice the fruit there.
It’s late. I think. She has work tomorrow, she should’ve just gone to sleep. She stayed up, and I couldn’t even have been bothered to glance her way. I didn’t even say thank you.
I try to reason with myself. She knows I’m studying. It’s okay. She’ll be proud once I get an A on that test, the A that’ll raise my grade and boost my GPA a few hundredths of a point. It’ll be all worth it and then everything will be fine.
Denial is a funny thing. If my mother really cared all that much about what grade I got on a chemistry test, she wouldn’t have even come in at all – it would’ve been a distraction, a waste of time.
When she saw my light on, she didn’t go back to sleep, proud that I was working so diligently. She thought of my health, my well-being. She pulled herself out of bed, walked on the ice cold kitchen tiles, and got some fruit for me. Not just any fruit, but strawberries: my favorite. And she even cut them.
Precise cuts right down the center, each slice piercing my heart until it overflowed with regret and shame. I learned many things that night, the most important being that all this wasn’t for college, it wasn’t so that I would make more money – everything my family did for me was motivated by love, not desire. I had read the map wrong. I had gotten caught up in percentages and GPA points and rankings that I failed to see what was glaringly obvious, right in front of me. College was never really the destination – it was a road sign, a guide along the way, to lead me to my true end goal: happiness. It’s a bit of a confusing paradox – I sacrifice my happiness to do what I think would make my parents happy, when in reality what would please them the most would be to see me happy.
That doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying in school. I want to go to college, and I want to go to a good one – not only because I want to make my parents proud, but because I want to be the best possible version of myself.
What’s important to me now isn’t getting into the best college possible, but to love and be loved.
Yes, my family sacrificed an incredible amount for me, but I’ve realized that this isn’t the type of debt that needs to be repaid. All I can do, and all I want to do, is show them that I appreciate every tear they’ve shed, every dollar they’ve spent, and every minute they’ve stayed up worrying about me. I’ll make it worth it for them, not only by getting into a great college, but by finally allowing myself to be happy.
I’ll still pull all-nighters. I’ll still freak out about pop quizzes and lab analyses and essays, but next time, I think I’ll start studying before a quarter past midnight.
About the Author: Ruoshan Dong is a junior at Harvard-Westlake that is extremely passionate about the intersection of entrepreneurship and social good. She is the Assistant Features Editor of the Harvard-Westlake Chronicle, and loves reporting about social issues. She loves journalism because of its emphasis on the truth, and believes journalism is the most powerful force driving progress and change in society.