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 Adelle Xiao
As a kid, I always covered my hands under layers of oversized and long-sleeved shirts, making sure that they were hidden from the gaze of the world.
Every day, I begged my parents to let me paint my nails to hide how brittle they were, but they always said no, saying that it was a waste of money and time, and I shouldn’t care so much about how I look. At the age of nine, I resorted to makeshift fake nails with tape and paper. I spent my nights carefully cutting colorful sheets of papers and shiny wrappers to perfectly conceal all the traces of my imperfections—to create the illusion of smoothness.
My parents’ hands are similarly worn from piecing together jagged fragments of English and reconciling the dreams they carried with the profound loneliness they found in America. Three of my mother’s fingers are short stubs. Her hands flit awkwardly while typing grammatically incorrect sentences; on long nights she wordlessly traces the lines and creases of my palm like a fortune teller, seeing an opportunity instead of a daughter. I used to be ashamed of her hands—my face would burn hot tomato red when my friends asked me what was wrong with her fingers, or why she couldn’t speak English properly. Every time she asked me to help translate a word or write a sentence, my disappointment in her only grew.
My father is perfectly capable of speaking in English, but his hands grapple with the demons of his abusive childhood, always on the verge of curling into fists. One of my first memories: slamming doors, papers being thrown by my father in explosions of ragged anger. His voice reverberating in the empty stagnancy of our cramped living room, stuttering and lapsing into Mandarin as he called me a mao bing (shortcoming). His firm grip shaking me awake for school at 6:15 the next day; his hands roughly brushing my teeth; his mouth set in a stubborn frown, not uttering a single word. Nothing really changed, but every time I looked at his hands, every time I looked at him, I could only remember his anger.
I reached for the “I love you”s and “I’m proud of you”s that they were incapable of saying. I wanted my parents to be like other parents, to say what seemed to slip off the tongues of others so easily. I thought that their lack of words meant a lack of love.
As I look back on my sixteen years, I now measure my parents’ love with their hands. Love—I felt it when my mother’s steady hands guided my clumsy ones, teaching me to draw a horse for the first time, showing me how to crochet blooming flowers. I felt it when my father brought me to the park, playing volleyball with me even though he was busy going through mountains of bank documents. I felt it when they clapped after my first violin recital, holding my hands as we walked home together. Through their hands, my parents taught me empathy: the ability to understand the language of emotion that they cannot put into words, and to hold onto endearing moments rather than grudges.
I still don’t think my hands are pretty. To this day, my nails are still brittle. My left hand’s fingertips are adorned with calluses: the cost of pressing on metal strings to create flowing melodies and the rich vibrato violin teachers call my specialty. My hands are bruised plum-purple from playing volleyball with strangers. My hands are covered with paint and grease from pastels, the result of hours spent drawing painstaking details and breathing the intangibilities of life onto paper. The beauty of my hands lies in what they can do, not what they look like. The beauty of my hands comes from the imperfect imprints of my parents.
I’ve long since discarded my flimsy, makeshift fake nails. I’m old enough now to paint my nails without needing my parents’ permission, but I never do, and I’ve stopped covering my hands with long sleeves. I have nothing to hide from the world anymore—not myself, my shortcomings, or my parents. My hands will continue to be shaped by the people I meet and the things I experience, and I will embrace all of the imprints and marks that life will leave on me. I will unapologetically use my hands, flawed as they are, to create and help others; to spread the values of love and connection. When words fail, I will find meaning in the unspoken.
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.
Born and raised in New York City, Adelle Xiao is currently a sophomore in high school in Manhattan. She most often writes personal essays, memoirs and poetry about experiences that are important to her. When she is not writing, Adelle spends most of her time making art, playing the violin and doing various forms of volunteer work.