My mother told my cousin something once, something that I’ve never forgotten: “When you try for something hard, don’t tell anyone.”
We were in Taipei at the time, visiting relatives we hadn’t seen since my parents immigrated to the States when I was nearly 2 years old. My cousin — a bright, ambitious 15-year-old — was studying to get into one of the country’s most prestigious public senior high schools.
Yes, in Taiwan, the best schools are public, not private, and everyone must take an entrance exam just to see if they’re good enough to be admitted. It’s like the SATs on steroids, and my cousin was burning the midnight oil six ways to Sunday trying to make sure he could score high enough to get into the top school. His other two brothers were too busy playing video games — and, in his older brother’s case, chasing girls — to bother with studying, much to the disappointment of his parents. His father was the oldest son in my mother’s family, and his three sons had a lot of legacy to shoulder for the family name.
“I didn’t tell my parents I’m taking this test,” my cousin said.
“Good,” my mother replied. “Because if you do tell someone you’re trying, they’ll know to hope for you. And if you fail, you’ll break their heart, because they hoped.” She nudged him. “You don’t want to break your mother’s heart, do you?”
My cousin shook his head, raptly hanging on to her every word of approval. To him, my mother was the aunt who worked full-time to put herself through school when her father — his grandfather — refused to pay to educate his daughters beyond the required sixth grade. The aunt who could’ve been a judge, had she been born a boy and not given up almost everything to elope to America.
She nodded, satisfied that she’d gotten through. “If your loved ones never knew you tried,” she added in a matter-of-fact tone, “they will never suffer your disappointment. Save them from that grief. That’s being a good son.”
“Yes, Auntie,” my cousin said. “I won’t tell them.”
“Not until you succeed.”
“Not until then,” he agreed.
I remember this so clearly because it goes against almost everything I see from the American culture I grew up in, where every attempt, every victory, every failure is celebrated. Fail faster, right? Keep trying, no matter what. Tell your friends and family, because that will hold you accountable.
Whereas in my family, the only stories we trumpet are those of success. Failures are whispered, quiet, so quietly, so that the demon luck that dogs them won’t hear and keep haunting us.
For the longest time, these conflicting views warred within me, too. Bragging is crass, but telling the world about your achievements is good marketing. Sharing the story of your struggles as you go through them is motivating, but sharing anything personal that doesn’t put you in a good light is discouraged. Social media shows only the good, social media shows everything ugly. The yin and the yang, this idea of duality that has defined who I am ever since I tacked “‑American” onto the end of my identity.
I didn’t know which way was best, so ultimately I defaulted to what would make my mother proud. And that was to say nothing. To hope and work for the achievement of my dreams and goals with quiet desperation, to say something only when I experienced success. I never told anyone while I was working in the corporate trenches that I wrote fiction in my spare time. That every November was devoted to NaNoWriMo. That my heart’s desire was to see my name in print — not at a conference program or a trade show where I worked, or even on a glass plaque hanging outside a private office or on the company’s executive board, but on a book of fantasy fiction.
I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want them to hope for me as badly as I hoped for myself. More importantly, I didn’t want them to worry for me, knowing that the odds of succeeding in this business are longer than long.
But if there’s anything these last couple of years of striving in the writing trenches has taught me, it’s that you can’t make it without a support system. Without folks who know what you’re trying to do, and who wholeheartedly support you all the way, no matter what. No matter if you succeed or fail, who are in it for the entire emotional roller coaster that you’re going through, too. Who will cheer you on when the going’s good, and who’ll hold you up when you stumble or cover you with a blanket when you fall asleep at your desk because you were too tired to keep writing but too motivated to succeed to go to bed.
Who don’t mind being disappointed because they love you enough to suffer with you.
I wouldn’t have made it this far without telling my mother, finally, that I was going to try this thing, for real, and that yeah, I would make her worry because it was a huge leap of faith, but I had to do it. This was my time, and the time was now.
And, after a long pause, she said, “Okay. Yes, do it. Go write your stories.” In Chinese, “stories” translates to “little talk.” It used to sound so dismissive, but right then, at that moment, she said it in a such a way that it sounded like a directive. Like my life’s purpose. Which, for a long time, I’d felt but never said out loud .
“Aren’t you going to worry?” I asked, worried that I would make her worry. This part of our relationship has never changed. We’re both worry-warts, and it’s a vicious cycle when it circles in on itself like an ouroboros snake.
“Of course I will,” she said. “But you have a husband now, and an extended family, and a bigger support network. It’s not just you anymore. I don’t have to worry as much.”
And she’s right, of course. She’s my mother. She’s always right.
My cousin didn’t score high enough that year for his top school of choice. But he did wind up, as my mother predicted to her brother, being the son with the most stable success in his life, marrying well and earning a good living. Still, I don’t know if his parents ever did find out that he once tried for a higher goal.
But mine know. And that keeps me going long into the night when I would’ve given up earlier.