56: The Pie Chart of Me

56: The Pie Chart of Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

The Pie Chart of Me

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

~Albert Schweitzer

The infamously rigorous International Baccalaureate program was always the most popular topic of discussion for everyone, from seasoned alumni to anxious Pre-IBers. Stories of sleepless nights sustained by cans of iced coffee and mental breakdowns at 1 a.m. were passed around like urban legends.

Those of us entering grade eleven didn’t have time to be fazed. But the panic first started setting in when we received our physics lab on the third day of school.

“This is harder than anything you’ve done,” our teacher chuckled—almost snidely—as he passed around the instruction sheets. “No one will get above ninety.” My confidence was shaken as I looked at the page of tauntingly unfamiliar symbols.

With a heavy heart, I managed to make it through the rest of the school day. When I finally dragged myself home, my father only added insult to injury. Pointing out my lack of progress in the SATs, my dad reiterated for the millionth time that I would not be able to get into a prestigious American university without good SAT results.

The last straw was the e-mail from the Red Cross. As the vice president of my school’s Red Cross chapter, getting rejected from the Regional Red Cross Youth Council was a possibility that never crossed my mind. It simply couldn’t happen. Not only was the Red Cross my passion and inspiration, but it was also what I relied on to set me apart from all the other college applicants with ninety-five percent averages.

My future had seemed so bright and certain, yet in reality it was so fragile. Any small blockage could force me to veer off the narrow path to success. I felt like a rubber band—it can only take so much stretching before it snaps. After that e-mail from the Red Cross, I snapped.

I ran out of my room and the first person I saw was my mother, the woman who left behind her family, her friends, and her life in China to emigrate to a foreign country just so I could receive a better education and have a brighter future. The woman who gave up her highly esteemed job in Beijing and could only find a job as a part-time office assistant in Toronto. My mother had spent her life bringing me to the most advantageous starting point, and yet I did not have enough stamina to reach the finish line.

When my mom finally noticed me, I was already a sobbing mess. “What’s wrong, baby?” she asked, her face a mixture of alarm and worry.

My answer was “everything,” and so that’s what I told her about. My mother let me blabber on and on.

After I was done, she stared at me with so much emotion in her eyes. Her brows were furrowed as she bit her lip. I recognized the expression on her face. It meant she had too much to say and didn’t know how to get her message across, which rarely happened. The only other time I clearly remember seeing that look directed at me was when I was six and took a bouncy ball home from kindergarten. It was years later that I learned that, at that time, she thought she was a failure as a parent because I didn’t understand the fundamental principles of integrity and honesty.

“This pie chart here,” my mother began hesitantly after a long silence, tracing a circle into the felt table cover with her forefinger, “represents your time.”

At this point, I was thoroughly confused. Rarely has my mother chosen to use mathematics to prove a point; it just wasn’t her forte. It was me, rather, who had such a dominant left-brain that I saw the world around me in numbers and statistics.

“Eighty percent is school work,” my mom carefully darkened the majority of her impromptu pie chart.

“Ten percent is the SAT and ten percent is extracurricular activities.”

It made sense. I mentally recorded everything my mom was saying.

“But most importantly, at one hundred percent,” my mother’s voice was starting to shake and she was tracing the circle so furiously that it was starting to look like a shapeless blob, “is your mental health.”

I stared at her, a little dumbfounded, because that just didn’t make sense. She looked back at me with the same look as when six-year-old me asked why it was wrong to take home the kindergarten’s bouncy ball. It was a look that said “Trust me” in the most affectionate way possible.

“Nothing is more important than your health, Aileen. Why do we want you to go to a good university? Because you are more likely to have a good, well-paying career. Why do we want you to get a good job? Because you’ll be less stressed if you’re financially stable. This, right here, this is not healthy. This is not happy. If you feel so burdened by every little mistake and mishap along the way, then this isn’t worth it. If you’re happier working flipping burgers, so be it. There’s absolutely nothing more important than your physical and mental wellbeing.”

Maybe, to another girl in another family, such a lecture was the norm, but not to me. My parents did not immigrate halfway across the globe so I could be healthy. Yet I couldn’t help the immense relief I felt in my chest. A rubber band doesn’t have to keep stretching. A rubber band that wraps around your hair during the day and is allowed to rest on your nightstand at night won’t ever snap.

That night, my mother and I stayed up all night chatting about my plans for the future, yet there was no impending sense of doom. The incessant fear of failure no longer seemed so terrifying.

To an outsider, perhaps nothing changed. I was still the girl who arrived at school at 7:30 a.m. to study before tests and stayed behind until 5 p.m. to get as much extra help as I could. Yet to me, everything changed. When I received a less-than-satisfactory result, there was no calm façade that crumpled as soon as I was safely hidden in a bathroom stall; there was only me carefully analyzing my mistakes so I could improve in the future.

I’m still reaching for the moon, but I’m no longer afraid. For I know that if I miss, I will land right in my mother’s arms.

~Aileen Liang

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