by Ashley Chou //
This piece was originally published in Issue 1: Secret Edition (Spring 2022). To see past print publications, click here.
Every generation grows up with a new set of generational issues. My great-great-grandmother used to tightly wrap my great-grandmother’s feet with cloth bandages to stunt the growth of her daughter’s feet. Apparently, large feet for young girls during the time of my great-grandmother’s youth were not a huge selling point for male suitors. My great-grandmother was the living definition of a matriarch. Since the eighties, she lived mostly alone (by choice), in an apartment in San Francisco until she passed at 103 years old. My great-grandmother’s son (my paternal grandfather), escaped on a boat from China to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war. My grandfather was the oldest of three siblings. On a day to day basis during the war, he struggled to find food and clean water for his younger siblings. My grandfather became a diplomat. Because of my grandfather’s job, my dad grew up in Spain, Bolivia, and Columbia. His first language was Spanish. In case you don’t believe me, my little sister’s name is Marisol.
I grew up the eldest of four sisters. I was born and raised in Silicon Valley where kids speak in Java, college drop-outs are inventing flying cars in their moms’ garages, and CEOs are getting sued on a daily basis. My mom graduated Berkeley Econ, and my dad graduated Berkeley Computer Science (shocker, I couldn’t believe it either).
My dad and I were never very close. One of my three younger sisters, Natalie, was born with Asperger’s Syndrome. Understandably, Natalie’s needs were more dire than mine. She had weekly occupational therapy, behavioral therapy… you get the gist. But as Natalie’s only older sister, I carried the grunt weight of Natalie’s responsibilities. When caretakers and therapists took breaks during the week, I spent my weekends caring for her. My parents, who were still learning how to parent during this time, were often upset at me when I couldn’t manage Natalie’s needs. I was diagnosed with panic disorder at 17 years old. In hindsight, the panic attacks started around 4th grade. I came out as part B of the LGBTQ+ community in the seventh grade to my dearest middle school friend (PS, if you’re reading this, I haven’t talked to you in years, but I miss you!). My first love, a girlfriend from early high school, revolutionized my second coming out after I started attending a private Christian high school.
I didn’t tell my parents until the last couple of years. I resented my parents for most of high school. We had a tumultuous relationship. They’re trying to make amends now, especially my dad, who I love dearly. I came home drunk from a frat party and admitted to him on the phone that I once hotboxed his Tesla. He didn’t mind too much I don’t think. He sent me this the other day.
I’ll share some things in the hopes that it’s useful to you. None of these stories are likely to be what you are experiencing, but hopefully they help.
My college friend Oliver told me once that a boy in his high school asked Oliver to go out on a date. It was never clear to me whether Oliver was gay or bisexual. It was also unclear why he told me that story, but he never brought it up again. You met Oliver once. Oliver is blonde with blue eyes, athletic, tall, a good student and generally considered good looking during our generation. He dated a number of girls that were very good looking. But he ended up marrying a girl that is less conventionally attractive in terms of looks but is super nice, fun and very competent. I’ve never spoken to him about this, but I think if you’d ask him, he would feel that he’s had a very good life and made good choices. He’s the one that was on the Berkeley tennis team and used to do crazy things. He doesn’t do anything crazy anymore. If he was bisexual or gay, he definitely ended up taking the “safe” path when it comes to what society was willing to accept but he also didn’t take the path that was “expected” of him.
I don’t have anything similar in experience to you.
When we were about to leave Taiwan, I was 15 finishing my first semester in high school. I was doing well in school. I attended an allboys school (with Uncle Connor) and we would arrange hangouts with other girls’ schools. I started dating a girl a few months before leaving Taiwan. It was weird as I meant to date her friend but I can’t really remember what happened. At the time I fell deeply in love, but afterward, I realized I barely knew her and that I really liked her friend better. When I was leaving, I fought with my dad because I wanted to stay in Taiwan. I asked around about what it would take to get an apartment for myself and all. Not for the girlfriend, but because I felt I liked Taiwan and was doing well. My dad forced me to leave with him. In hindsight, opportunities in the US were vastly superior to those in Taiwan and that was a good decision. Leaving was the “safer path.”
Once in Spain, I had very good grades and was very good at soccer. I attended an American school and the kids were generally nice. I never dated anyone in Spain, as I wanted to be loyal to my girlfriend in Taiwan. That was generally stupid as I barely knew her, and later we stopped writing letters to each other. I stopped thinking that I had a girlfriend after a few months, but I never dated in Spain. Then my dad got a stroke and spent every dollar he had on medical care so I had to leave, as the school in Spain was very expensive. Same tuition as Berkeley.
In sharing all this, I think what I’m hoping to do here is that you go and discover yourself and find your own path. We all have what we think are things we must do when we are young. Figuring out which of those feelings we must act on is a difficult thing to do. I think as humans, we are wired to want to feel that we have conviction for everything. But the choices lead us to very different paths and outcomes. Regrets about one’s choices are the hardest on us later on in life. So I would advise you to be flexible when you can be and pick the battles very carefully one way or another. And be flexible with the people around you that may not share your convictions. It’s hard for everyone, especially when we are young. Every path seems like we should die for it. Every relationship feels like one we will stay in for the rest of our lives. Be patient and honest in figuring that out.
Now, I must admit this is an excerpt of a very long essay that he drafted for me one day. It took 19 years for my dad to open up to me, and when he did, I did too. I’m not sure why. I still need to ask my therapist about that, but this is my theory: there are secrets hidden between every generation. Secrets that are devastating to tell, secrets that are just for a mother and son to know… But for my dad, I think he felt it was time for him to tell me his secrets as I left for college. And perhaps that is exactly the point of secrets—to be revealed when they need to be. And maybe the timing of my dad’s revelation was what mattered most.