For a long time I had a hard time writing about myself. I didn’t want to share my “sob” story. I didn’t want to open myself up to pity. Besides, would anyone even want to read about a refugee girl and her experience balancing two cultures? Would anyone care?
When I started working with first-generation and low-income students in the Upward Bound program, I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one who struggled with this. Every year I have the same conversation with high school students eager to attend the University of California or a private school. They tell me, short of school and extracurricular activities, they have nothing to write about in their personal statement or personal insight questions. In my head I’m screaming, “Yes, you do!” In reality, I know that the issue is they’ve been looking at their story from one perspective for too long.
Have you ever heard of counterfactual thinking? I first learned this term when I listened to the book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith. Counterfactual thinking is the act of thinking about something that wasn't. This has helped me see my life from a different perspective whenever I had to write about my personal or professional journey, such as in a statement of purpose, which always requires a good amount of reflection and personal analysis. And, as it turns out, I always have something to write about. Counterfactual thinking forces you to look at a significant point in your life, then imagine it happening in a different way than the way it did. It’s a perspective that many young writers and some experienced writers don’t take advantage of enough.
A few months ago, I answered a prompt by Kawm creator Stacey Lo and wrote a letter to myself. In the crafting of this letter, I thought a lot about my trip to Thailand with Mom and my sister and what I might’ve been. I realized that even if nobody else reads this letter and nobody else cares, the most important thing is that I cared enough to write it.
August 14, 2017
You don't know me. You've probably never thought of me--not even once--but I've thought of you hundreds of times. In my imagination, you became a wife when you were sixteen, searching for that love that you heard about in the songs and a Bollywood movie you saw once with Shahrukh Khan and Kajol. Not Romeo and Juliet, not Rose and Jack, and definitely not Katniss and Peeta. Because in your world, you never had a chance to know them.
His name was Koua and when you met him, you did that weird thing where you laugh a little too loud and then slap his arm. You call it flirting. Others call it abuse.
You had only known him three months, but he was tall and handsome, and he had big dreams of owning a restaurant in the village and having a car and a big house, so you said yes. Mom cried when you left at the end of the wedding because you were never going to be her little girl again.
When Kia was born you were so happy because then your in-laws might give you some peace. Koua was the only son and your in-laws longed for grandchildren. Then came See and a Choua and Hue and Mai and Moua, and you realized that there would never be any peace.
Now, as you stop planting rice to drink some water, your back is killing you and all you can think about is how you're going to make enough money to pay off that stupid truck. You had told Koua no but your mother-in-law had said yes. Why not? He works so hard, let him have something.
So you let him have the truck while you worry about how you're going to send Kia to school in Chiang Mai. You worry about how you're going to get new shoes for the younger ones, and your mother-in-law has been talking about getting electricity for the house.
You can do this, Pa. I know because I know me. We may have lived different lives, and we may even be different people, but maybe we’re not so different where it matters most.
I know you are strong and capable and resilient. You have ideas blossoming in your head every single day, and I know that when you put your mind to it, you can solve any problem. I also know that you forget to take care of yourself because you are busy taking care of others. I know that because I know me. So go ahead and buy yourself that shirt you’ve been admiring in the market. Let yourself enjoy a soda once in awhile.
No matter what happens with the truck or the school in Chiang Mai or your in-laws, know that you did your part as best you can. And that is all you can do.
With all my love,
If you’re working on your personal statement or your statement of purpose (or any piece of writing that asks you to reflect) and you’re having a hard time, my next post will include a reflective worksheet to help you make sense of the twists and turns in your life. Stay tuned.