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Beginning To Understand My Mother... And Myself
By Ashley T.
age: 13

Though I have always loved my mother, there was a time when I was somewhat embarrassed by her. She often got on my nerves by eating strange foods, using double negatives and setting strict rules. But one night over dinner, I discovered first-hand the meaning of the saying, ''Don't judge a man until you've walked in his shoes.''

I was downtown. Next door, the 7-11's neon sign was in terrible need of replacement and across the street, Macy’s Christmas decorations were on full display. We were at my mother’s favorite dim sum restaurant. The run-down façade was less than inviting, but the smell of fried noodles and pork buns lured the taste buds. The cacophony of Mandarin was fading into the background, signaling the end of rush hour. We were silently awaiting the next food-laden metal cart--an awkward silence that seemed to occur too frequently-– when my mother spoke up and chose to share with me a profound glimpse of her past.

Tears ran down my grandfather's cheeks as he watched the train carry my grandmother away. In his arms lay my unsuspecting mother (only two at the time); she neither saw nor was able to contact my grandmother for the next 11 years. Soon after, my mother was sent to military camp where she trained to be a ''little red guard.'' My grandfather was to be executed, but was saved and put to work for the next seven years, whereupon he developed a chronic stomach cancer that would lead to his death at the premature age of 45. My mother was subjected to mental and physical torture. She had to recite Mao's books by memory, snuck out at night to dig up raw potatoes out of hunger, was compelled to ransack her friends’ homes, and much worse. At the age of 13 (the age I am now), the Chinese Cultural Revolution was nearly over, but her father was dead, her home was destroyed, and an irrevocable rift had come between her and her mother. This is her account of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a calamity that led to over 20 million deaths and countless scarred lives.

At the story’s completion, a shock overtook me. It was the most amazing allegory I had ever heard, yet it was true. How could I have misunderstood my mother to this extent? She had gone through so much, it is amazing that she managed to pull her life together and raise me. A flame awoke within my heart. Everyday after school, I would spend hours talking to her about the Chinese Cultural Revolution and reading books on the subject... I was often brought to tears.

I wrote a speech and competed with it at the Mercy High School speech competition. It was the final round, but the thoughts going through my head as I awaited my turn were not on last-minute repetitions, but something very different. The least I could do to help bring justice in some minor way to the victims of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was to inform the audience of this horrific, oft-forgotten disaster, and take one more small step towards preventing it from ever happening again. When it was my turn, I presented the speech with a fervor I have never before experienced. I knew that it was not about winning anymore. My speech hit home; the audience understood, and I accomplished my goal.

This speech brought me a first place trophy and, more importantly, a new understanding of myself and my mother. I discovered that being half-Chinese was something of which I should be proud, something not to be taken for granted. My mother's idiosyncrasies seem now trivial. They are far over-ridden by a new respect that I have for her--who she is and the hardship she has gone through. This speech (inspired by a dinner conversation!) lit a flame of passion inside me, one that will burn forever. The Chinese Cultural Revolution made me realize how lucky I am to be in this world, to have a home, provisions, and people who love me.

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