By Chelsea Lin
Babysitting the silly trio was never a chore. Rather, their careless, gleeful babbles were a timely source of solace.
My sister’s eyelids grew heavy. I tucked the fluffy unicorn into her arms and hummed her favorite lullaby until she fell back asleep.
I glanced at the clock, worried I’d miss the train again.
When the front door clicked open, I crossed my fingers, hoping it was Mama. Instead, my stepfather’s fatigued eyes greeted me. Disappointed but relieved, I smiled and ushered him in. “They’re still sleeping. Breakfast is on the table.”
“Thanks,” he muttered, as I rushed out for school.
My stepfather drove for Uber at night to keep the family afloat, so I was responsible for my baby siblings after school until the next morning. That was our routine in the months Mama ran away after another explosive fight with stepfather. She wasn’t the first parent to disappear from my life, though.
When I was born in Xiamen, China, my birth father abandoned me, refusing to register a girl as his firstborn under the one-child policy. Without proper documentation, I couldn’t attend school until Mama paid a crippling fine. While my younger brother went to taekwondo and piano lessons, I taught myself to read and write in a quiet corner of the apartment.
When Mama and I moved to New York following my ninth birthday, I found myself even more alone. Mama blamed me for her divorce and I became, in her words, “a curse on the family.” Even the smallest infractions sparked hateful recollections of my birth father’s betrayals. The only results of my attempts towards reconciliation were ripped homework and arms full of bruises.
The atmosphere at home was suffocating, but things weren’t any better outside. Longing to fit in at school, I spent nights studying the lyrics of every Taylor Swift song, only to be mocked by classmates for my pronunciation. With a towering five-foot-eleven stature and my heavy accent, I stuck out like a sore thumb.
In those dark moments, I welcomed three siblings who arrived in rapid succession more than a decade after me. Babysitting the silly trio was never a chore. Rather, their careless, gleeful babbles were a timely source of solace. When I cried after Mama’s disappearances, they’d always hug me and say: “It’s okay, Chelsea, I cry too.” For them, I pulled myself together. I cooked, cleaned, and took them to the playground, hoping they’d never feel the absence of love as I did. Together, we’d analyze plot holes in Disney movies (why did Cinderella’s shoe slip off if it fits perfectly?), fold paper cranes, and discuss why hippo milk is pink.
Through those moments, I became more at ease with myself. It started with small acts, like holding the door for classmates and greeting my neighbors in the morning, but I enjoyed brightening other people’s day, just like my siblings did for me. I gained the confidence to talk to others about ideas that fascinated me, like music and entrepreneurship. I made friends—friends who also collect Filipino folk music cassettes, friends who also enjoy the rush of adrenaline as we pitch our startup under a blazing spotlight, friends who genuinely respect me.
Together, we founded a youth activism club: Redefy. With a community of like-minded students, I channeled the pains of my childhood into writing about social issues such as sexism, mental health, and domestic abuse. With the accent that I was once so ashamed of, I share my story and build a space for others to do the same. Even after Mama came back, things still get intense at home sometimes, but I’ve learned to observe Mama’s subtle expressions and tiptoe around her when she’s having a bad day. It hurts me that we’ll never have a close relationship, that she will always blame me for my birth father’s prejudice, but I’ve learned that although I can’t choose the family I’m born into, I can build my own community. And I have—with my siblings, with my classmates, and with my friends at Redefy.
Inspired by the ‘Your Unique Life with Scholastic’ workshop, this essay details my unconventional family situation and the unique lessons it has taught me.
Chelsea is a freshman at USC studying Business Administration. Chelsea is an environmental activist, a social entrepreneur and a writer. She is inspired by her experiences growing up as an unwanted daughter in China and she writes about her childhood in hopes of empowering others like her. Chelsea enjoys reading many genres, especially fiction and mystery. Some of her favorites books include The Three-Body Problem and the Hercule Poirot series. In her free time, Chelsea can be found bowling with her friends or baking with her siblings.