“Shoko seems to have a hard time listening,” my fourth-grade teacher told my mother at a parent-teacher conference. “After I give instructions for an assignment in class, she asks me afterward to repeat them.”
Hearing this later that day through my mom’s retelling, I felt a pang of despair. At nine-years-old, I still looked up to my teacher as if she were an older sister. I wanted to sit next to her on field trips, help her take roll, be chosen to monitor the class if she needed to leave the room. My friends and I were still at an age when staying in at recess and helping prepare for the afternoon lessons was all we wanted from the day. We hadn’t yet discovered boys, the lure of leaving campus, the thrill of breaking rules.
So this criticism, however minor, stung. The worst part: I knew I wasn’t a bad listener. I’d been asking my teacher to repeat herself because I was terrified of disappointing her by doing the assignment wrong. If we were writing poems, I wanted to be sure I’d counted syllables correctly. If baking soda volcanoes was the project of the day, I’d hold my breath for fear mine might not erupt. If we were building trees out of toilet paper rolls, I wanted mine to be the tallest, and the prettiest.
Whatever it was, I wanted her to smile, to pat my head, to look over my work and find I’d made no mistakes.
When I first moved to New York, I lived on a street in Bushwick that, today, is home to a shoe store, an organic market, and a café with tables on the sidewalk, each with an umbrella in the center and four dainty white chairs.
Five years ago, it may as well have been a ghost town, with streets covered in dust and littered with newspaper and shards of glass. My building - one of the few residential structures on an otherwise industrial stretch of road - seemed on the verge of collapse. When my parents came to visit one chilly October, they instructed their cab driver, who’d picked them up outside their hotel in lower Manhattan, to take them to my address. “Why?” he’d asked.
It was here, and around this time, that I began to realize that the world I’d left behind in LA – along with my parents and old friends and everyone who knew me as a child – was vastly different from the one I was entering.
I’m startled sometimes, even at twenty-eight, to remember that I’m at a place in life where I don’t need to ask for validation about whether I’m doing the right thing, or whether my life looks the way it should. That I don’t need to ask for permission to speak, or to do my work any certain way, or to stay out all night if I feel like it. That I don’t need to run my choices by others before making them.
It’s taken most of my twenties for this to sink in. It’s been hard, sometimes, to find a balance between reminding myself where I’ve come from and adopting new ideas as I go - it’s a dance between borrowing and remembering.
Maya Angelou wrote once in a letter to her younger self: When you walk out that door, don’t let anybody raise you – you’ve been raised.
I have. I have a strong foundation to build on, but I’m still building. On top of it all, I think, there’s room to rise further.
Two months ago, while traveling through Sri Lanka, I spent an afternoon walking along train tracks that wound along the side of a mountain. This struck me at the time as a dangerous thing to do. I had a flashback of visiting the Grand Canyon when I was four or five years old, and watching my dad create a row of rocks a few feet from the edge, which I was told not to cross.
I love that memory. He did that to keep me safe, and I didn’t cross the line.
Back in Sri Lanka, I considered what would happen if a train rounded the bend. There was room on either side of the tracks to escape. There would be time to dart away.
Ahead of me was a cluster of trees, thin as pencils. A tiny cloud of neon butterflies hovered at my feet.
All was quiet. I trusted that if a train approached, I’d hear it.