How writing saved my life: Part 1

betty ming liu Relationships, Writing how-to's 19 Comments

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series about me, writing and how writing saved my life. Everyone needs to write — everyone. By the time we get to Part 3, you’ll know why your words are so important, too. Okay. Here we go…

My Chinese immigrant parents expected my birth to make them lucky. Instead, they felt cheated. For a long time, I felt like a failure — until writing saved my life.

Even though Mom and Dad loved me (in their own way), I was somewhat worthless. When my mother was pregnant, they wished for a boy. But they got me, the first-born of two daughters. Birth order made me their Fake No. 1 Son. There was less pressure on my sister because she was the baby, The Pretty One.

So it was on me, the first American in the history of the ancestors, to bring the family glory. My parents dreamed of me as Dr. Betty, a Harvard University-trained physician who played exquisite piano. Of course, I would marry an equally accomplished Chinese man. We would produce at least one grandson.

Little Betty, saying ouch as writing saves my life.

Well, none of that happened.

Before writing saved me, I was on a solitary journey. It was lonely because my choices meant breaking with tradition. I took crap from the elders for marrying a husband who happened to be Black. We were blessed with a wonderful daughter and celebrated her gender. Then after nearly a quarter-century together, I shamed the Liu tribe. That was me, the first divorced woman in the history of the ancestors.

In other firsts, I was the first Asian American staff writer at every newspaper that hired me. After more than 16 years as a full-time journalist, I traded the newsroom for college classrooms. Even now, in a diverse, 21st century America, I’m still a campus rarity. For most students taking creative writing, journalism and communication courses, I’m usually their first professor with an Asian face.

Today, all of us are breaking barriers in everything we do. Maybe, like me, you long for someone to talk to while you experiment and pioneer. So here I am, sharing what I learned during my 60 years on this earth.

Maybe sharing my mistakes can save you some heartache and get you the life that you want sooner.

Maybe you’ll relate to the most important lesson I’ve learned: Writing got me to my honest, true self. And this is the story of how writing saved my life.

Little Betty’s battles

The battle for control began with crayons. My dad used to rip them out of my chubby, little left hand. He came from a generation that believed lefties were unlucky. He also believed it was his duty to break me of a terrible habit.

Eventually, the scared, confused toddler surrendered. As a little girl, I went righty with scissors, forks and chopsticks. But my left grip held tight to pens and pencils, which led to many fights. Starting at that early age, being miserable and insecure felt normal.

Writing saved my life, in black-and-white

This was the mid-’60s, when we lived in Lyndhurst, N.J. We were the only non-whites in the entire town. On TV, the evening news showed cops beating up black civil rights protestors. In our neighborhood, young guys drove by our house yelling “chink!” My father worried about anti-Asian violence. When I was nine, he moved us to New York City.

We relocated to Manhattan’s Chinatown. Safety in numbers. I started 4th grade at P.S. 1, suddenly surrounded by “my people.” But even though these kids looked like me, I was still an outsider with a very different personal history.

To help us fit in, our parents sent my sister and I to Chinese language school. I hated the drills, the testing, the memorizing. After repeating Chinese 4th grade twice, I flunked out. From here, things got worse.

Search for self

Like other Chinatown girls, I took lessons on the piano, an instrument of torture. Recitals left me in a panic as I fantasized about playing the drums. Chinese folk dance classes were a nightmare, too. I was the fat, pimply, four-eyed beast in a class of slender, graceful maidens.

Home brought more misery. Our parents, who slept in separate bedrooms, fought all the time. They argued about everything, from investment decisions to the correct technique for steaming fish. Mom found comfort in her Chinatown church. Dad focused on perfecting me. Meanwhile, I prayed for their divorce.

As home life drama escalated, elementary school became a safe place. My English teachers loved me! They said I had writing potential. But my unimpressed parents saw these educators as privileged white meddlers. None of them had ever been called “chinks.” How dare they raise false hope in Little Betty.

“Be practical,” my father told me. “A Chinese cannot make a living as a writer.” (This was decades before Chinese American novelists Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan broke literary ground as bestselling authors.)

With Asian Americans practically invisible, my parents wanted me to focus on the Holy Trinity of Most Revered Professions: doctor, lawyer, engineer. As a talented test taker (when I put my mind to it), I passed the Stuyvesant High School entrance exam.

Getting into New York City’s most prestigious public school thrilled my parents — until reality hit them.

I loved my English classes, aced them all. But math and science? Sometimes I brought home Bs, Cs and even Ds and Fs. Did I mention yet that my dad was an accountant and my mom, a chemist? Oh, the shame!

Yet, there was hope as writing saved my life.

Writing saved my life in college

Poor grades limited my higher education options. So I stayed home and commuted by subway to City College of New York (CCNY). The campus is in Harlem, the now-gentrifying Black capitol of America. Even today, it’s a great school, filled with children of immigrants from around the world. I made lots of friends. Many of us felt like outsiders, fighting for a shot at our dreams.

But my parents felt shame. Most of their friends had never heard of CCNY. Their kids went to universities like Princeton, M.I.T. and Cornell. To save face, my mother acted fake-humble. She told her friends that she thanked God for me. She said I sacrificed going away for school because I wanted to take care of her and Dad.

While my mother managed our family image, my father managed me. He personally chose my classes, loading my schedule with Economics and Biology. English courses were forbidden. I retaliated by bringing home more Cs and Ds. He and I were at war.

“You never finish anything!” he screamed. “How can you be so stupid! No English classes! No art classes! You can’t be a teacher! Teachers have no prestige in this country!”

Father-daughter drama

One peep from me and he’d lay on the guilt. “Why can’t you listen?” he’d shout. Then, he’d reach for his Valium or one of the many other prescription meds he took for high blood pressure and stress. To make sure I heard him, he would add: “You’re killing me, you’re just killing me!”

And, on Jan. 10, 1976, it seemed that I finally did kill him.

That morning, I was 19 and he was 70. My tearful mother woke me up in a panic. “Something is wrong with Daddy,” she said.

So we went to his bedroom. He was slumped in a sitting position on his neatly-made twin bed, dressed in his usual white shirt and necktie, dark suit and socks. His heart failed in a massive, fatal stroke. He had been out drinking with friends that night before and popping prescription meds.

My mother made me call Dad’s doctor. After I explained the situation, he said mixing alcohol and Valium makes for a deadly cocktail.  I heard the words. But in my heart, I felt my dark thoughts had committed murder.

Now, because of me, he was dead.

At least, that’s how I felt. Memories led to a collage of emotions. Love, guilt, shame, defiance — and, freedom. What happened next surprised even me.

Writing saved my life!

What’s next? Read more about how writing saved my life. Part 2: my hot career, celebrities, the bling. Then Part 3, when I crash — and crawl my way to who I am today.

Comments 19

  1. Betty,
    You have an interesting history as a rebel in your family. While most of your white peers would have seen you as a very studious, high-achiever, who was much more “family oriented” and respectful of authority than the average teen in those days, it’s sad that you had to go to war with your father in order to live your own life. But that, as they say, is the American way. Even a lot of caucasians had to fight similar battles with parents just to be themselves and find their own way in life. I am grateful to you for sharing, but am also surprised that these family history issues would still be weighing heavily on your mind at age 60. In any case, i’m glad that your writing has been a saving grace for you!

    1. Post

      Dan, it’s a little embarrassing, isn’t it? For sure, I thought I’d be over my parents by now. And in recent years, I’ve come to much peace and appreciation for their struggle. Remember — there’s still Parts 2 & 3 to go!

      But what you point out is so important to my story and similar stories. Kids need to grow up and find their own way. That’s the American way. But it is NOT acceptable in some cultures and families. Those of us who step out can end up paying a high price with repercussions for the rest of our lives.

      Thankfully, healing and happiness are possible at any age, right? :)

  2. What an amazing story, Betty. I had to laugh at the “doctor, lawyer, engineer” trifecta. The career “choices” were the same for me growing up with a Persian daddy. Somehow I became a journalist and later, a yoga teacher. Ha! Excited to read parts 2 and 3 of your journey. You continue to inspire me by sharing your story. Thank you.

    1. Post

      Bria, when I was much younger, I thought my issues were very “Chinese.” But as you point out, many of us had parents with similar values. How much of the immigrant experience feeds into the way they push us? I’m glad you can laugh. Lightening up definitely helped save me. It took me forever, but I finally understood that my mom and dad were people too. They were just going the best they could with what they had. And thanks for reading. More tomorrow!

      1. I’m glad I can laugh now, too, Betty. For many years, I could not. Especially when I was younger. The “trifecta” seemed like a prison in the making. And being told my other dreams and explorations were “bullshit” really stung. But like you said, our parents are generally doing the best with what they have. Funny, I am now the age I was now when my dad felt like my harshest, most powerful critic. And I see now…he very likely wasn’t as grown up as I thought he was. Ha! A lot of the things he said to me, he said to me with good intentions, but he said those things out of fear. Fast forward: He’s really mellowed with age, and is more easy-going and open-minded. Miracles do happen. I’m glad you continue to heal yourself and your entire family by speaking your truth.

        1. Post

          Bria, I’m glad you’re healing too. Your relationship to your dad sounds lovely. It’s so much more satisfying to love each other than to fight. And he can’t hurt you anymore. You’re your own woman.

          I think our ability to have compassion for our parents is a sign that we’re truly grown-up. I mean, really — how long can I blame them for everything? In Part 2 of this blog post series, I finally get out of the prison our parents imposed on us. At the very end of Part 2, feeling vindicated brought bittersweet relief. But it would take Part 3 for me to feel whole. :)

  3. Blessed are those who don’t have leftover emotional baggage from their childhoods. I don’t want to jump ahead of you but when we turn 18 the relationship dysfunction just morphs into new faces as we choose our own circle of drama. Most people including myself start unpacking that excess baggage around the half century mark and are still unpacking a decade later! I think ‘owning’ your life’s journey with all of its good bad and messiness is the most important thing we can do for ourselves. It’s how the healing happens. That’s my take. I thank you for sharing and for reminding me yet again to WRITE! Rock on Betty!

    1. Post

      Haha, Debra. I like how your phrase: “our own circle of drama.” Just like you, turning 50 started changing things for me too. So funny, because when I was younger, “50” sounded like the onset of death. But the 50s were such a ripe decade; I grew tremendously. Now, 60’s pretty good too. I definitely agree that owning our decisions makes the difference. Thanks for explaining the process so clearly. Great to get your thoughts here! You keep writing too!

  4. Great read, Sis!
    While the writing is awesome, so is the artwork!
    You were the first to display artistic talent and it is evident here as well. Despite hardship, there is joy both your writing as well as your graphics.
    I wasn’t very good at following instructions when we were growing up. I can see that from the photos too. I always look a bit out of step. The photo with the plaid coats is downright scary. If our parents thought you needed to be managed, they didn’t let me in on it. Instead, I kept hearing, “Oh, you are so slow. You need to be more like your sister.” They told me, you were the pretty one, which is why I chopped half of my hair off at the roots when I was five. I was trying to look more like you! But without a mirror and no experience with scissors, the results were never going to be promising. It was a messed up childhood, wasn’t it? Glad that we’re figuring things out. It’s never too late! :)

    1. Post

      My dear sister Pauline, thank you for sharing your love and support here. You’re giving everyone a chance to see that the parental craziness impacted us both. And who cares about being first — Mom and Dad made us rivals. The story of the plaid coats says it all, haha. When our parents said I got to things first, they somehow forgot I’m two years older, which made me first on the scene. You make such lovely art, we both do. They were actually creative parents who had no opportunity to make art. But we can get what we need for ourselves, right? Funny that they told you I was the pretty one! I never heard that. Clearly, we have a lifetime of things to talk about. And thankfully, as you say, it’s never, ever too late. xoxoxoxoxo

  5. I disagree with your father about the prestige of teachers. There is a story about a young rural school master approaching Sir Thomas Moore and asking if Moore could get him a place at the royal court. Moore asked why he wanted it and the young man replied “to be someone – to have my talents seen and appreciated.” Moore replied “you’re a teacher. If you are a good teacher, your students will know it, their families and friends will know it. You will know it. God will know it. That’s not a bad public.” I agree with Sir Thomas. This past week I attended the funeral of a man who was a dedicated college professor for 57 years – an inspiring teacher who affected many lives as well as a dear friend. There was a large crowd at his grave side, every one of whom, student or colleague, had been affected in some positive way by that good man. Who could hope for more prestige than that?

    1. Post

      Toby, I’m sorry for your loss. But what a great run your friend had. Wow — 57 years! That makes me feel young.

      Well, now we have another thing we share in common — we disagree with my dearly departed control freak dad. I’m with you. I had a great run as a full-time journalist. But I always wanted to cheat and love the classroom.

      The mid-semester can be tough. And the final weeks are torture. Trying to drag everyone through them challenges every cell in my body. But the work is satisfying, isn’t it? Making a real connection in someone else’s life means more than prestige.

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  11. A wonderfully written bio salvo to understand what made you tick as a writer, etc.
    No doubt enough Asian-Americans/CAnadians have already responded with similar past experiences of expectations. I think my parents, especially father gave up on me re hard sciences.

    1. Post

      Thank you, Jean. I was so glad when my dad gave up on the science fantasy. Too bad that disappointing our demanding parents is the only way to find freedom. But things worked out and I’m grateful to be in my next life!

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