This would not happen again, and I knew it.
When I was younger, I did not know what it meant to be Chinese American. I was green with envy towards others who had what I perceived to be a cultural luxury that I lacked - growing up with traditional Chinese culture, growing up speaking the language, taking steps in the motherland that I wish could be my own. Because I was jealous of a cultural criteria that I did not seem to possess, the importance of being Chinese American to me withered over time.
However, the passing of my Gong Gong three summers ago changed everything. It set me on a path to reconcile broken parts of my cultural identity and piece together contradictions and fragments of myself that I had hitherto kept separate. Drawing from a mantra inspired by some of his last words to me and the family, " 今天我们是中国人," or "Today, we are Chinese...", I grew more determined to work hard and become a stronger individual. I started taking Chinese language courses at UT, using what I learned there to communicate better with my Po Po, become closer with my family, and feel closer to Gong Gong. Finding strength in Gong Gong's spoken words, even though I could not even understand them at the time, allowed me to find meaning in being Chinese American.
As of now, I think it means growing up with holidays in Palmdale, California filled with traditional 12-dish Chinese meals prepared by my Po Po. It also means spending holiday seasons camping and roasting marshmallows over a fire with my cousins. It means getting used to to backyard barbecues and family reunions in Sedona, Arizona; Memphis, Tennessee; and Bandera, Texas. It means finding me helping fold dumplings with Po Po and helping Grandma Sing bake chocolate chip cookies and pumpkin pie during Thanksgiving. It means feeling at home around spoken Mandarin, even if I can't understand all of it.
It means going to China as a Chinese American for the first time this past summer and feeling like everything around me was foreign yet familiar at the same time. It means hearing animated, spoken Mandarin and hearing my grandparents in Palmdale; it means seeing elderly grandparents in the park and seeing my Gong Gong, seeing my Po Po, and seeing my Grandma Sing; it means seeing big families at restaurants and seeing my own; it means seeing parents holding their children's hands and seeing my parents hold mine.
It means knowing that this will not happen again. Being in UT's Shanghai Intern Abroad Program for six weeks during Summer 2017 has fostered a lighting-in-a-bottle type of personal growth within me that I will not be able to replicate elsewhere. As an Asian American student, from gaining global work experience for the first time at an international creative agency, exploring parts of China, to excavating parts of myself that are specific to who I am at this point in time, I have inherited a mindset blossoming with desire for the challenging and the unfamiliar that I did not have before.
It only took one semester in UT’s American Marketing Association (AMA) to ignite my interest in marketing. By attending workshops, speaker events, and being a part of the student-run agency under AMA, I discovered how marketing-related endeavors seemed to satisfy my craving for an environment that balanced my artistic, creative side and my analytical, logistical side.
Thanks to Absolute Internship, I got an opportunity to be interviewed and selected as an account intern by Paper Stone Scissors (PSS), an Australian-based, international creative agency. Within its Shanghai location, I was able to witness firsthand the marriage of creativity and business: from conducting research and competitor analysis, learning how to adapt creative assets into different formats, to using my strong suit in writing to help PSS communicate brands to consumers, I was able to catch a glimpse of the multi-faceted world of marketing through a global lens. Discovering how visual and written communication combine to power design and business initiatives expanded my outlook on the modern, multicultural job-scape.
Apart from my role, the most interesting part of my work experience at PSS was discovering how my co-workers thrived, collaborated, and multi-tasked in a creative, co-working space environment. The workplace itself was bright and open, housing sunlight pouring in from the windows, along with white tables with large Mac computers. Each day I came into work, I would greet the first person I saw, which was normally the front desk receptionist, Cherry. Subsequently, whenever someone else entered the office, every one would always emit a cheerful greeting in unison.
Throughout each work day, someone's music playlist would be playing out loud - from top 50 pop songs, to jazz remixes, to underground rap - the inclusion of free-flowing music in the environment reflected the upbeat yet lax work atmosphere at PSS. It was inspiring for me to observe how PSS kept a balance between maintaining a casual, relaxed environment and simultaneously dealing with multiple projects.
A daily ritual that made the PSS team feel tight-knit was the fact that everyone typically ordered in for lunch - most days I got to eat together with my co-workers at a sunlit picnic table in the kitchen area. In addition to contributing to projects and collaborative creative processes, getting to know my co-workers through casual, funny conversations at lunch enriched my vision of how success and creativity can be achieved through both freeform and structured ways.
Overall, I am grateful that Paper Stone Scissors was a part of my Shanghai experience this summer and that they allowed me to be a small part of theirs. Through UT's Intern Abroad Program, receiving the Freeman Stipend and dedication from Absolute Internship enabled me to not only attain a unique, global work experience, but gave me a chance to undergo extensive personal growth. It gave me the chance to innovate myself in ways that I may not have been able to in the states, allowing me to see a different part of the world, make memories with a diverse group of people, and explore characteristic strengths and weaknesses about myself that may otherwise have been left untouched.
It has been three years since the passing of Gong Gong. Although I have often been inspired by the strength I have found in studying his legacy and life stories, I find I have derived even more inspiration from seeing how his strength has evolved and manifested within my entire family, as well as within myself.
As noted by my Aunt Mona, on the last night Gong Gong was with us, "...he lost his ability to speak and his eyes remained closed, but he was still able to squeeze our hands with his strong grip to let us know he knew we were there.
Family took turns watching him throughout the night - during my watch, I held his hands - noticing how hard and calloused they were. A flood of Dad's stories (okay...really lectures) raced through my mind - appreciating that each one was always about teaching and encouraging you (in his own special - at times abrasive - way) that you are strong enough to get through anything..."
That evening, she wrote this poem to honor his life:
Facing many challenges in my youth
My parent's belief in me carried me through
Reminding me at a very young age
I am strong enough
Growing up during the war, fighting to learn
Later seeking a job was my big concern
Using my mind and strength to find a way
I am strong enough
Marrying Yin, the love of my life
A father I become, caring for my growing family and dear wife
Moving from continent to continent in pursuit of the American dream
I am strong enough
Working hard at different jobs everyday
Needing to make sure my children find their own way
Sending them all to college was my duty to bear
I am strong enough
Now my four children are grown and married
God has blessed me with eight grandchildren who now will carry
My legacy to know that when faced with challenges in their own lives
They are strong enough
Whether it has had to do with fears and self-doubt about school, relationships, or career aspirations, my family has always found the words to give me strength, just as Aunt Mona was able to do for the rest of the family through her poetic tribute to Gong Gong's life. When she read her poem aloud at Gong Gong's funeral, I was moved by the recurring mantra, "I am strong enough," and especially found solace within her ending line, "You are strong enough."
With the recent passing of Gong Gong, my participation in the intern abroad program in Shanghai meant a great deal to my family. In spite of the resume-worthy perks of traveling and gaining international work experience, getting to spend time in China this particular summer was another step for me toward feeling closer to Gong Gong, my family, and growing my own sense of self-realization.
I realize that over the years, my family and friends have always believed myself to be "strong enough" to succeed, even when I did not believe them. Nevertheless, the collective strength they have provided me with during my life is something I have consistently tried to carry forward. Thus, whatever your worries, fears, or feelings of self-doubt may be about future internships, college coursework, or study abroad/intern abroad programs, for anyone reading this who thinks otherwise about themselves, I believe you are "strong enough" too.