I am four, dressed in a beautiful, shimmery, red gown. My shoes are of white leather, brought all the way from China and polished that very morning by my father. A jade, star-shaped pendant hangs from my neck, and my wrists are donned with delicate bangles etched intricately with gold. My jet black hair hangs down in a silky curtain, brushing just past my shoulders. While my mother dresses, I admire myself in every reflection that I sashay by, preening. Then my mother returns, taking my hand in hers and leading me out from her lab office, locking up. She is always the first one there, the last to leave.
My father meets us at the wedding, waiting patiently to greet my mother on the sidewalk when we step out of the limousine. Her co-workers immediately rush to crowd around us. They notice me first. “Oh my God, she is so cute!” one of them exclaims with obvious jealousy. “I wish my daughter was more like her.” Across the road, another girl sits on a worn bench. She looks just a few years older, her blond locks pulled up into cutesy pigtails, but what puts me off is her expression of bitter loneliness as she swings her legs listlessly. She is watching me. I flash her a charming smile before I twirl and flip my hair over my shoulder. Voices chime in, complimenting my dress, my cheekiness—everything. “I love her hair, I wish mine was just like hers!” “Look at her eyes, they’re such a pretty color!” I bask in their flattery, then just at the right time, congratulate the bride on her marriage. They all fawn over me in adoration, over my intelligence. “She’s so smart,” they say to my parents. “You’re so lucky she’s your daughter.”
My father studies me with the eyes of a hawk. "She should've worn white," is all he says.
The third Sunday in March—I am five, trudging alongside my parents with my violin in hand. The air feels cold on my legs, my red parka extending to hang just above my knees. I am careful not to scrape my new, black flats against the concrete of the sidewalk. It is a gorgeous day, the sky a clear blue with no clouds in sight. I leap in the air blissfully, momentarily forgetting that I cannot get my shoes dirty, before I splash into a mushy puddle of melted snow. I freeze. My father glares at me, and I shrink back, suddenly fearful. Then he looks away as he quickens his pace, and I have to almost run to keep up. My mother silently takes my violin from me, freeing me from a burden, and I give her a grateful smile.
We arrive with five minutes to spare. I am out of breath from climbing up the four sets of staircases in front of the concert hall, but as soon as I enter, all the worries from this morning fade away. I cannot quell the flutter of excitement as it races through me, the thrill of performing pounding in my ears. My mother wipes the smudges off of my shoes as my father takes two programs, one for me and one for them. He doesn’t trust me to not crease the paper, and he likes his copies to be immaculate.
My name is six down from the top. For once, they have spelled it right. I shift restlessly in my seat, waiting for my turn. One boy forgets the last half of his piece and almost bursts into tears. Another girl has strings that squeak; I cover my ears during her performance.
Finally, it’s my turn. Everyone’s eyes turn towards me as I stand up, my dress a swirl of black lace. I saunter down the stairs to the stage, each step echoing around the hall. My teacher tunes my violin for me, then hands it back with a smile, saying, “Good luck—just remember to have fun!” Then she retreats back to her seat to watch, just like everyone else.
It’s not the best that I’ve ever played Minuet 1, but the round of applause I get when I’ve swept my bow up into the air pleases me, filling me with warmth and a desire craving for more. I think back to my father’s words this morning, about how the masters always bow three times. His words stare me in the eyes, daring me to do something...distinguishing.
I’ve only bowed once. So I give another bow, and the air fills with chuckling and cheers. Out the corner of my eye, I see my teacher laughing, proudly announcing to the other teachers that I am her student. A third bow follows, the clapping louder than ever, and I finally run off, a smile lighting up my face.
It falls as soon as I get back to my row of seats. My father has a thunderous look on his face, and my mother’s lips are pressed tightly together. “What?” I say nonchalantly as I pack up my violin, a sinking feeling churning in my stomach.
“We’re going.” He says it so abruptly, so sharply, that both my mother and I swivel around to look at him. “Now,” he hisses.
My coat isn’t even zipped as I stumble out of the hall in a whirlwind of confusion. Everyone I pass congratulates me with praise, showering me with smiles, but my former thrill of being in the spotlight has vanished. I only return their grins half-heartedly as my father grips my wrist tightly, dragging me out the door.
On the walk home, the only noises besides the sound of cars driving by are our shuffling feet. Fear grips my heart as I wonder what my punishment will be. Yet what I don’t get is why. Why was bowing three times such a big deal? We’re halfway home, waiting for the light to turn green, when I open my mouth. I have to ask. I have to know. “Daddy, why are you so mad?”
He turns on me, his expression deadly. “Why?” he spits out tauntingly, and I shrink back, immediately regretting my words. “Why? Oh, maybe because you embarrassed me in front of an entire audience? Because you're not a master and you tried to act like one? Because you—”
My mother steps in front of me when he lunges at me. I hide behind her, cowering. He breathes heavily for a few moments, furious, then turns and crosses the street without waiting for us. I clutch my mother’s hand tightly; she is the only thing protecting me from my father’s wrath.
She squeezes my hand. “I don’t want you showing off again,” she says, but I can hear the note of pride in her voice. That her daughter was noticed.
For now, it’s enough.
Third grade. I am eight, and the yearbook photos have just been taken. I show them to my father, and he grimaces when he sees mine. “Why do you look so ugly?” he asks. He points to another girl in my class. “She’s the prettiest. I wish you could be more like her.”
I spend the next few months imitating her, trying to look like her and be like her, so my father will like me more. Every one of his criticisms leave its trail of blood, tearing me up little by little from the inside, because everything he says is true. He tells me of prodigies who win international competitions for violin—why can’t I sound like them instead of dying cats? I spend all of fifth grade practicing three hours a day. He tells me of my cousin who has won first place in a math competition back in China—why can’t I be as smart as her? Sixth grade, I test into New Trier Math. Eighth grade, I audition into Symphony Orchestra, and win a second place Nationals medal for Science Olympiad. But it's not good enough. Nothing's ever good enough.
Still, I keep chasing to appease his changing standards, chasing even after I've fallen and am crawling along the gravel on my scraped knees. I keep chasing even after he tells me he hates me, the words cutting into my skin, reopening old wounds that had never fully healed. I keep chasing, until finally, I feel myself break, one bone at a time, and I can't even cry out because my mouth is so dry from calling out to him. It's then that I grow silent, trying to hide myself away instead of catching his attention so he won't prey upon me, denouncing everything about me.
But the funny thing is, nobody else ever noticed. At the wedding, they only noted how cute I was, but not my father’s remark. At my first concert, they only saw my three minutes under the spotlight, but not the hours of practicing behind it, nor the crying and the marks across my face from my father’s slaps that night. When I spent weekends practicing six hours a day, my friends only complained that I could never hang out with them anymore. “Why do you need to practice? You’re already so good.” They never saw how broken I was, how much I needed my father’s approval.
Years later, I’m finally learning to embrace my passion, my rash temper, my competitiveness. My friends, my mother, my grandparents—they like me for being who I am. And when my father finally notices me, it’s like he’s seeing me for the first time, not an empty sheet with his daughter’s name stamped across it.
Inside, I am the girl who laughs and says what’s on her mind. I’m the girl who writes stories and draws, the girl who doesn’t care what people think of her because she knows they want to be her. I’m the girl they notice when she walks in.
But if that’s who I am, then who is the silent, broken girl watching from the sidelines?