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My father is a self-employed street artist. His work begins when he sets up his easel and paper on Fifth Avenue. Throughout the night, he sits patiently and draws portraits for people. No matter the weather, he is out on the streets. With his parents and siblings back in China and a family here to support, he forces himself to get up every day and drag his little dollie into the lonely streets of the bustling city. He operates on a different schedule from most people, sleeping during the day and working at night. Moreover, there are certainly no vacation days or holidays. Rather, the holidays and weekends are his busiest days.
Two thousand and one: My mom and I touchdown in New York City to join my father in the land of opportunities. Leaving my relatives and friends in China, I started from scratch and began my long trek to assimilate into the American culture. Even though my mom aided me in my studies and progress, I lacked a vital component to my growth: The fatherly bond. When I returned from school, my father was always sleeping. The only brief glimpse and interaction I would have with him would be at dinner, where he ate hastily and left for work. When I went to the park on weekends, I often saw kids playing basketball or football with their dads. I often looked at them with a bit of envy and sadness. Where was my dad? Mom noticed this and tried to compensate for his absence and also fill his shoes – but it was not the same. He was never there.
During my rebellious middle school years, I distanced myself from my dad and often grew angry with him. Never seeing him around the house, coupled with years of grief and envy had amounted in me. I convinced myself that he did not love me. If he did, surely he would spend time with me on the weekends or even during the holidays. If he did, surely he would help me with my homework after school. If he did, then surely he would attend my school concerts and award ceremonies. One late night, after my mom had gone to bed, I stopped my dad before he trotted out to work. I asked him these confusing questions and demanded answers. He looked at me and said in his somber voice, “Son, the Great Wall didn’t build itself” and left. Disappointed, I gave up and went to bed.
As high school began and the workload increased, I devoted more and more time to studying and the interaction with my dad declined even further. One cold winter afternoon when he picked me up from a track meet, I saw him applying chapstick to his hands. Puzzled, I laughed and asked him what he was doing. He showed me his dry and peeling fingers and simply stated, “Son, work takes its toll.” During that car ride, I sat in silence. Dissecting and rearranging those simple words, I finally figured out what he meant. Years of holding charcoal and manually taping glass paper to the rough cardboard frames had taken its toll – so much so that the layer of skin on his fingertips began to deteriorate. With winter underway, the skin had dried up and exposed his hands to the freezing snow. I had never realized the full extent of his efforts and why he worked so tirelessly. Now I knew. It was all for me. As I was getting closer to going off to college, he was leaving for Manhattan earlier and coming back later – just to earn a few extra bucks to save up for my education, even at the cost of severely damaging his fingers.
Yet, since I was eight years old, I had convinced myself and assumed that he did not care. Of course, he wanted to attend my school concerts and award ceremonies, but he would be sacrificing the precious time he could be working. Despite this misunderstanding, I respected him and now knew he still loved me, just as he did, nine years ago. My father only had one request of me – that I study hard so my life would be more comfortable than his. Underneath it all, the concept and philosophy was a very simple one: education is the great equalizer. This would provide the subtle yet intense motivation for me on the days when I was feeling languid. As for me, it was almost as if the concept had been an egg – cared for and passed down by my dad. He simply wanted me to do what he never finished.
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