I’m proof that slackers can fulfill their dreams

betty ming liu Health, Inspiration 32 Comments

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a teacher. But my parents told me to be a doctor. To thwart their plans, I screwed up in college. So instead of teaching the ABCs, I covered my college transcript with A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s.

Somehow, I eventually went from this passive-aggressive disaster to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and an exciting career as a newspaperwoman. That’s another story. For this post, I just want to marvel over the power of youthful passions. The teaching dream, which was lost for decades, is finally mine.

Here’s where the teaching dream started:

Our ghetto school on Forsyth Street was demolished. The nabe is now the hipster Lower East Side.

Check out tween-aged Betty! That’s Judy in front of me. We met in the 7th grade and have been inseparable for the past 42 years. We hung out in Chinatown and even attended the same college. Today, she’s a teacher too — at a public elementary school in California.

The campus has really changed a lot since we were students in the mid-'70s.

When she visited me last month, we made a pilgrimage to our alma mater, City College of New York (CCNY). It’s part of the City University of New York, the largest public university system in the country.

Judy was a top student who graduated in three years, immediately married and went West. Meanwhile, I never left the state and graduated from a different college.

Going back to the campus after 35 years gave us a chance to re-examine our pressure-fraught past. Afterwards, we felt very peaceful and resolved.

By the way, if you’re wondering why I chose CCNY, it was because of my lousy, barely-80% grade point average at the illustrious Stuyvesant High School. Back then, City College had a controversial open admissions policy. Basically anyone could get in. Hello!

A key teaching moment and its impact

Even though I had proved to my parents that I wasn’t fit for med school, I actually found one course that took me to this building where the pre-med crowd hung out:

That prof really inspired me during his class. Have I ever unknowingly made a difference too?

As the adult-me stood there again, I suddenly realized how the class shaped my teaching values:

  • The professor was a cute, young Puerto Rican activist with dark hair and wire-rimmed specs who gave inspiring talks about community-based health care. He was only the second teacher of color that I’d ever had in my life.
  • He insisted that we call him by his first name. Wow — I was raised to obsessively respect titles.
  • He believed that the herbs used in African, Latin and Asian cultures had healing properties worth examining, and that immigrant heritage should be valued.

The impact: Kids of all colors say I’m the good Asian mommy they never had. I don’t know what this really means, but I like it. I also make them call me “Betty.” And of course, you know that I’m totally into acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. Oh, I wish I could remember the prof’s name! He’ll never know that he mattered to me.

Another teaching moment and its impact

In 1976, my father died. I was 19 and the first-born of his two daughters. Dad left us a little business in Chinatown and Mom didn’t know how to run it. So I decided to major in accounting and transfer to Baruch College, the city university’s business school (where I collected more A’s, B’s, C’s and D’s).

It was time for a talk.

These family responsibilities made a mess of my last CCNY semester; I failed every single class. It led to a meeting in this building with a gray-haired, balding administrator; all I remember about him was that he had a Jewish surname.

I can’t recall if I cried to make him feel sorry for me. But I can still see him sitting there, thinking. Then he picked up his pen, crossed out all the F’s and changed them to D’s. “I hope I won’t regret this,” he said.

The impact: As a teacher, I totally relate to his struggle to do the right thing by a troubled student. I wish I could’ve let him know that I turned out pretty good and that he had taught me to trust my instincts.


Well, that’s the college tour. I am left feeling more positive about my on-going daddy issues too. It’s also comforting to know that even though my own father was difficult, I found two adult male figures to guide me in critical moments. That was another youthful dream — I craved fatherly kindness and gentle advice.

Hope in a young person is such a precious thing. It has the power to survive.

I don’t think it’s ever too late to recover a dream and find yourself. So pay attention! Because one day, you might get what you wanted after all. xoxoxo.

On the left, us on campus. Judy & I also revisited our old Chinatown stomping grounds. :-)

Comments 32

  1. Totally inspiring! I love your openness, you have that tough/fun attitude that makes me want to kick myself in the butt! This post actually made me cry =°]

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    aw, erika, thanks. it’s so, so hard for me to write about my father. i actually kept tweaking this post until just a minute ago. finally satisfied with it.

    btw, i feel like i’m blogging such long essays every week. would a change be nice? next week, i want to try a really short post. that was actually my goal this week too. but look what happened!

  3. I like the long posts, but then I’m a bit of a babbler and I like to read =•p. I think that if there’s something more you feel you meed to say, then it’s probably worth saying, unless you want to turn it into a series…

  4. Please write long posts because then I won’t feel so bad if I write those really long responses. This post move dme in a way different from the last one, but kinda made me want to cry, too. I love reading teacher-related stories and I watch teacher movies over and over again. I always know how they are going to end up, but I love ’em anyway.

    I’ve always loved my teachers and I have my son send greeting cards to his teachers for holidays or when they retire or go on maternity leave. He’s had some of the remaining gems in the public school system. He wants to be an art teacher, too.

    My teachers from grade school on were the people I bonded with, as much (or more) than with my peers. My HS creative writing teacher is getting married Saturday in the city and I am honored to be attending her wedding. I’ve known her since I was 15 and kept cool with her right after HS graduation, long before the advent of Facebook. Certain teachers have had their stamp on me and it means so much.

    Hint, hint…there’s a reason I still read your blog or hit you up for advice or complain in those e-mails…because you let me call you Betty.

    I’m always so proud of you but feel kinda good you let me feel I can be proud of myself. Plus, you put me on to the memoir “Teacher Man.” I love a good teacher memoir as much as a Hollywood-tinged teacher flick.

    You’ve made your stamp on many. We’re a lot happier, healthier, thoughtful, and way more honest. And (except for me on this blog, but @ work, I’m better!) we are more concise and clever writers!

    I love you, Betty! You’re an Asian mommy figure to me, too…because you help me write about my own father. Maybe it is the child of immigrants thing; I forget you are of Chinese descent sometimes, you may as well be Haitian to me. Because you don’t come with hype, I can’t even call you a cult leader, lol. Would you settle for being our NYC Oprah?

    Thanks for another great Thursday. Um…waiting for a long post next week to not make this one look so bad. Stay cool and hydrated!

  5. Great post! Puts me at ease as I am now struggling to figure out where I want to go in college and life. The photos of Chinatown and your essay remind me of a Times article that appeared last month about children of immigrants taking over their parents’ restaurants, including Nom Wah. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/08/dining/based-on-an-old-family-recipe.html It seems like a far cry from what their parents would have wanted but they’re following their passions and doing what feels right.

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    well, if you all don’t mind me blabbing on, i’ll keep doing it. but variety is important too — so watch me struggle with short next week! it probably won’t work.

    the thing about being asian mommy is that it feels inclusive rather than exclusive — everyone needs a good asian mommy! but it’s also the idea that in the specific, you will find the universal. i think the photographer diane arbus said that. the immigrant experience is something so many people identify with. to get it, you don’t have to be chinese, asian or even an immigrant.

    and gavin, that story about nom wah sent me back to the restaurant! thanks for including the link here. i stopped eating there because it had gotten so dingy. but it’s delightful now. judy and i actually had a fabulous food crawl through chinatown. i want to blog about that soon too. we need to spread the word about good, cheap eats.

    thanks to you all for the love. i really appreciate reading your comments because it’s a reminder that we all need to relax. who says we have to figure out our lives all at once? isn’t that what got most of us into trouble in the first place???! xox

  7. What a moving post, and it’s inspiring that tough family situations and childhoods can be overcome. I believe that if you are never give up on finding your true calling, you will eventually get there. You must be such a fun professor for your students!

  8. I really like this entry as well. It’s really tough when you are forced to take courses that don’t even interest you at all. And no matter how many times you say, that you don’t want to be whatever desired profession your family wants you to be, your left being ignored. You had no choice but to decorate your report cards with a,b,c,d and lovely “e’s”. I’m really glad you wrote this entry so other children of immigrant parents can relate to you.

    It must have also been more tough for you too since you were also a young woman. I know that in Indian culture, men take precedence over women in so many facets. I’m not completely sure how it is in Chinese culture, but based on your past and recent entries, your struggles mirror that of several Indian women too (like me). I think another entry that truly affected me the most ( though a majority of your entries are very heartfelt to me), is this one entry about you confronting your swimming lessons.

    I’m too in a similiar situation like you. Growing up, it was all about water ( pools, lakes and largess oceans) being the one thing that will definitely kill you ( well, according to my family members) and I was stuck with a ridiculous phobia.It felt reassuring to know that I wasn’t the only one in that predicament ( your mom did it to you too). Now, I am still half-scared. But a lil less scared than before to confront this fear.

    I felt so isolated, ostracised, and odd ( like an awkward duck) for never knowing how to swim and for having family members against me learning ( because.. oooohh the water is scarey to them so it should be scarey for me?). You felt that way too so you understand all the emotions that comes into dealing with water. So, how are your swimming lessons? I’m a bit scared to go back to take more and to confront my fear head on. My mom’s voice is always in my head that I am either going to die or get sick from the chlorine. How do you deal with it?

    Sorry for the long comment. I would love to hear how you dealt with everything so, I, too can finally combat my own parental demons.

    Again, sorry for going on a tangent. I know resposes must correlate with recent entries but your blog is a wonderful open forum for candid conversation after all.

  9. Hi Betty:

    Yeah for the instructors and educators that influenced us. I am sure everyone has their own story to tell and how these folks unknowingly at the time shaped our lives. As much as we both know my mom never did anything for me (referencing your tiger mother post), my dad actually steer me on the Japanese language path that gave me my foot in the door at the place where I work now. He died when I was 21, so he never got to see where I am at now. For my kids, I want to encourage an open pursuit of their dreams with the only caveat that it’s legal and they are gainfully employed. Keep writing the long posts! :)

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    how nice that you’re all in the mood to chat! and thank you for the validation on the longer posts. this one runs about 800 words. but i appreciate your patience in reading!

    erika’s second comment is just sinking in…is there anything that i’m blogging about that feels like it would make a good series? i’m guessing a topic where i write about it a few posts in a row? and for those of you that subscribe — which means you get an email alerting you to my latest post — would you want to receive an alert more than once a week? i worry about that being too much inbox clutter.

    rita, it’s worth being optimistic! especially since my business friends keep telling me that the economy isn’t looking that upbeat. but we don’t need the experts to tell us that. it means that we’ve all gotta work harder to stay motivated.

    hapamama, you’re an optimist too…yay! and yes, i do try to be fun in class. at least, i try not boring. sometimes i succeed, sometimes i don’t. :)

    sherryn, the swimming is going really well for me. the thing that changed my life was an adult swim class — which meant it was for people with water fear. you could see the terror in our eyes! i highly recommend that. or, take some private lessons.

    i know swim at the gym a few times a week. it’s very good exercise. i’m not strong on syncing the head-turning that goes with breathing. so i bought a snorkel and snorkel mask. now i can do laps for half an hour straight! it also helps that my gym’s pool is a lap pool. that means that the deepest it gets is 3.5-feet. you can stand up in it. swimming is liberating. it feels like floating in the womb — and that, ultimately, seems to be my real dream. haha! also, feel free to go off on any tangent you like. the comments section is for chatting. and i appreciate all of your thoughts!

    skye, love you too! btw, students teach me stuff all the time. there’s a high that goes on in the mutual exchange. very addictive.

    jackie, it’s lovely to read your ability to appreciate your dad for getting you onto japanese. i wish my dad could see me now too. although, who knows, he’d probably be a major pain. hopefully, we’ll all be more supportive with our children. we’re capable of being more loving in a truly sensitive way!

  11. Hmmm…I don’t know…fulfilling dreams even for a thorough-going slacker can be out of reach. I always dreamed, for example, of being recognized as the rightful long-lost Grand duke of Luxembourg. So far it has not happened. I have made myself available – even went so far as to concoct a back-story about how I was stolen by gypsies from my cradle in the castle and my ostensible parents bought me at Englishtown flea market. They had gone to purchase a goat that day but goats were a bit pricey, whereas they got a good deal on me from the gypsies. I’ve let that story be known in all the right places but it just hasn’t taken hold. The goat part might be the problem. Anyone who knew my parents would not exactly think of them in the context of goat purchasers. Still – one never knows what goatish desires lurk in the hearts of men. My parents, when they were still alive, denied all this absolutely – but then, they would, wouldn’t they?

  12. I love this Betty! I can relate in many ways. My parents (especially my father) had very strict expectations of me as well. I’m considering applying to Columbia for Journalism, but am feeling like- I didn’t have a 4.0 in my undergraduate work and I have very little experience! I’m going for it anyway!!

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    toby, you always make me laugh. if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…based on my personal experience, being a fulfilled slacker means that i get what i want. but, it doesn’t always come packaged the way that i expected. so maybe you should just accept that you are the duke. claim your birthright, honey!

    or to quote my first shrink: “everything you need, you already have!!”

    natasha, good luck! who knows how i got into columbia. i’m sure it helped that i was a person of color and that i wrote a kick-ass application essay. just work from a place of passion and don’t be scared. no matter what happens, you’ve done the important thing — you’ve publicly declared your love for journalism. and because you’re a city kid applying to an nyc school, you’re also saying something about your love for new york. :)

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