AN Essay Contest HOSTED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH
SCHOLASTIC & CHOICES MAGAZINE
Embark on a journey of self-discovery with five Girls Write Now mentees as they share unique parts of their identities in these personal essays, selected by a panel of Scholastic judges.
By Ziying Jian
Listen to Ziying read an excerpt of her essay.
Most days, I act like a fake mom. And I’m good at it, too.
On winter mornings, I’m good at wrapping my younger sister, Emma, in warm jackets and fluffy scarves before venturing out with her to build ice castles and snowmen. On summer afternoons, I’m good at helping her solve arithmetic problems in her quest to ace summer school. And on nights when a small quarrel in my parents’ room explodes, I’m good at reading bedtime stories and ignoring the shouts in the other room, even if they may scare me, too. When my sister is lacking a mother the most, I do an excellent job of faking a strong front to replace that role. Because that’s what you do as a mom. It’s more than just providing for your kids’ physical needs. When they need you the most, you’re there for them.
I like to call my mom, Mama. Mama is older than me but sometimes, I feel like the adult here. Whenever Emma is pestering Mama while she’s on a business call, Mama will launch into an outburst on how important her work is before pleading for me to take Emma out of the room. When we first started living in America, Mama was so cheerful and hopeful for our future. But as our family grew, she’s been overloaded with more responsibilities. Years of handling my dad’s temper, years of dealing with my grandma’s cancer diagnosis, years of trying to resolve family conflicts — and, when that didn’t work, years of trying to make everyone happy has left her emotionally exhausted. She does occasionally plan familial bonding activities, such as museum trips, and is never one to reject a birthday party invitation. But that’s where her obligations end, as far as her children’s emotional needs are concerned. She’s always managing someone else’s problems, leaving her no time or energy to fulfill her own parental responsibilities. In her absence, I feel those same responsibilities unload onto me.
Emma has always been sensitive to other people’s words and Mama has never been afraid of being callous. A couple months ago, Emma and a few of her friends were playing on our porch. I was upstairs in my room when I heard them chasing her and berating her with words like “dumb” or “stupid,” causing her to cry.
I could hear my sister wailing when she entered the front door. Mama could surely handle temperamental children, I thought. I was completing schoolwork, and it didn’t make sense for me to run downstairs if my mom was already there.
“MOMMY, NICHOLAS AND SHIRLEY ARE BEING MEAN TO ME,” Emma said between gasps.
“别跟他们玩! 就回家吧。” Mama shot back. Don’t play with them! You should have just come home.
“BUT THEY’RE BEING MEAN TO ME,” Emma cried. “CAN YOU MAKE THEM SAY SORRY?”
“Just don’t go outside. Shirley and Nicholas—they not nice you know,” Mama replied in her broken English, as if Emma hadn’t understood her the first time.
Emma wailed harder. I could hear Mama’s tone grow coarser. The argument kept going in circles. I couldn’t help but feel frustrated at how they wouldn’t listen to each other. The fix seemed so simple.
When I went downstairs, Mama was standing there helplessly, not knowing what to do and wondering why her daughter couldn’t understand the simple idea of staying home. Mama’s emotional deafness ran deep. In her mind, keeping Emma inside meant Emma wouldn’t have to interact with the source of her problems. It was logical. But emotions aren’t logical, and eight-year-olds even less so. Mama was so stubborn that she didn’t even consider that maybe, all her daughter needed was someone to acknowledge her hurt. I had to step in.
I admit, I never imagined how good it would feel to make two eight year olds apologize. The apology didn’t mean Emma’s “friends” were going to change their behavior overnight, but it provided Emma a sense of closure.
While I understand that Mama had to be tough and independent in order to achieve the immigrant’s dream, I’m saddened by how, in the process, she lost touch with the emotions that characterize our lives. She has always had an iron wall surrounding her heart. To her, emotions were a weakness meant to be overcome in order to get things done. Whether she knew it or not, that thinking acted as a double-edged sword: confronted with other people’s feelings, Mama doesn’t know how to handle them, much less accept them.
Mama is selfless. She makes trips to Chinatown to buy fresh groceries, takes care of my grandparents’ medical conditions, manages all our finances, and keeps our family together after we come to blows. But I also get the feeling she’s tired of being responsible for everything that goes into making our lives so comfortable. Whether she knows it or not, she’s slowly handing the torch down to me, the torch that lit a path for my family in America. I’m expected to continue the legacy. But I’m only sixteen. I may have lived for years longer than my sister, but I’ve lived decades less than the people I look up to and for whom I will eventually be responsible.
I’m a fake mom. Fake in the whole sense of the word. I’m unqualified to handle anyone’s emotions when I struggle to handle my own. I’m still lost and confused on how to navigate my own life. It feels unfair to help to provide for my family’s. But as Emma’s incident shows, I may be a lot more competent than I realize. I’m already starting to demonstrate my maturity, and I have hope that with time, I’ll find my real strength through it all.
An Essay Contest & Story Collection
What’s something that defines you as a person, yet few people know about? Girls Write Now mentees and alumni bravely answered that question in the My Life With… Essay Contest. This contest was produced in partnership with Scholastic and Choices Magazine.
“Are you okay?” The Hispanic woman wearing a disposable medical apron asks me as she comes back into the x-ray check-up room after scanning my braces. No.
Ziying is a writer and senior in high school. Last year, she worked with Brooklyn-based writer Sun Young Lee as her mentor. The pair met up to talk about the inspiration for this piece and their lives in and outside of their writing. Read their Q&A below.
Note: Q&A has been edited for length and clarity
Sun Young Lee: What was the seed of inspiration for this story? Tell me a bit about your creative process when you start writing a piece.
Ziying Jian: My friends have always said I have a natural “mom vibe” and I didn’t really know where it came from. Going home to think about it, I certainly didn’t have to look farther than the eight-year old sister I shared a room with, or the five-year old brother, who unfortunately (or fortunately) was erased from this essay due to word count. When the bullying incident first occurred, I thought nothing of it. But I knew I wanted to showcase my sense of responsibility and going back to that memory, I wanted to know why things happened the way they did. I had to do a ton of mental gymnastics to untangle a ball of complexities surrounding me and my mom’s dynamic. My mom has always been a mysterious but familiar, scary but brave, close yet separate part of my life. As first-generation [Americans], we tend to discover who our parents aren’t rather than who they are. We try to fill the holes of their past in the present of our lives, and I don’t feel like we give ourselves enough credit for that.
SYL: How did you incorporate feedback into your work while staying true to your vision?
ZJ: I’m very choosy with what feedback I choose to incorporate into my work (you can blame my writer’s ego), so I’m very careful with evaluating the feedback I’m given and whether it actually holds up. I don’t know if it’s right to say I stayed true to a vision – my vision of my essay and myself evolved as different feedback was incorporated. For instance, I didn’t think my essay would touch on my responsibilities past my siblings and onto my family, but as my essay grew, I knew my responsibilities would as well.
SYL: Are there any craft lessons you learned while writing and editing this piece that you’ll carry into future projects?
ZJ: My favorite part about writing this piece was definitely the introspective bits. Not only did they require more artistry and craft, but they helped me to put my experiences and feelings into words. It felt freeing having my writing to validate and memorialize my experiences. The entire essay was also a welcoming appetizer for the numerous personal essays I would write applying to college. Having the confidence to expose the deepest bits of myself, as well as learning to put all that in a clear and concise way makes me a lot more comfortable with the college process.
ZJ: Sunny, what made you want to become a mentor at GWN? How do your mentees inspire you?
SYL: I love how brilliant my mentees are! They are super talented with the best story ideas. I’ve always gravitated toward mentoring high school students because of the breadth of knowledge they have. It never ceases to amaze me, so selfishly, I’ve wanted to become a mentor to learn, too.
ZJ: What has been the most exciting part about being a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop and why?
SYL: The time and space I’m afforded is unreal. Plus, being surrounded by other talented writers! I still can’t believe it.
ZJ: What are a few of your interests outside writing, and how do you bring those experiences into your own writing?
SYL: I really enjoy consuming fashion and I think it’s a useful metaphor for when you’re writing from the subjectivity of a different person and/or voice. Your maybe writing from the POV of someone wearing leather pants in one story and a lace silk blouse in another.
Ziying Jian is a junior who immigrated to the U.S. from China when she was five. She loves playing golf, tennis, working as the light technician in her school’s theater production and writing for her school newspaper, where she covers topics like school affairs to guest speakers. She was formerly on the debate team, where she placed 2nd speaker and was the 2021 State Championship winner. She is currently a Girls Write Now mentee, where she is working on speculative fiction. When she's not furiously typing out short rants, you can find her coding Java or Python.