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When Being Strong Was My Only Choice

Updated: Jul 13, 2020


| This is the 45th story of Our Life Logs |


“It is in herself she will find her strength, the strength she needs.”

-Tyler Knott Gregson

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When I was born in 1982 with waves washing on the shore of our small coastal city, China was just starting to struggle to rise as an economic power. We started off as a typical, average-incomed family. Both my parents worked. My father, however, was a very adventurous person. He was not satisfied with what he had and wanted to do something different. Without much hesitation, he quit his job and started his own business. Later, my mother left her job to help him out. They had multiple endeavors, trying one business after another.

My parents were always busy and had no time to take care of me. I was often left to be cared for by my grandparents. I first stayed with my paternal grandparents, but they didn’t really like me, because I was a girl. In traditional Chinese culture back then, it was common to prefer a boy to carry on the family name. I felt like a leftover. Eventually, I complained about this to my parents, so they moved me to my maternal grandparents’ home, where I was treated better. They were more liberal and believed girls were just as important. I felt safer there.

As a little girl, I longed for a normal life living with my parents. I always had this image in my mind that I would come home to see my mother cooking, my father reading a newspaper, and I would share my experiences at school with them, just like a normal child would do. But that turned out to be wishful thinking. It was a luxury I couldn’t have. A dream that never came true.

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When I was eight years old, my parents divorced, and my father got custody of me. He decided to move to a bigger city, Hangzhou, to start a new business. It was like the past repeated itself. My father had no time to take care of me, I could no longer stay with my grandparents on my mother’s side, and I didn’t want to live with my other grandparents since they didn’t like me. My father ended up placing me in a private home in my hometown and paid the family to take care of me.

Luckily, the couple I stayed with were respectful and highly-educated. They taught me well and helped shape me as a person during the critical years when I needed guidance. They were both teachers and were very strict with me, making sure I grew up in the right direction. I learned a lot of talents there like Chinese Calligraphy, piano, and English. I stayed there for eight years, till the end of seventh grade.

Chinese calligraphy brush | Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Chinese calligraphy brush | Image courtesy of Pixabay.

My father would come and visit me occasionally, once or twice a year. During the summer and winter breaks, I would travel to the larger city to spend a few days with him. Those were my happiest days of the year. I was very attached to my father. Even though he didn’t see me that much, he would still listen to my deepest concerns and try to communicate with me. I hold those conversations with him close to my heart.

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My father had a real estate business that he worked to get off the ground. It was an adventurous and risky business to get into, but it had great potential. He quickly became rich for the first few years, and ended up getting re-married when I was in sixth grade. They had a girl, my half-sister. But I didn’t see them quite often as I stayed back in my hometown and only visited them during my school breaks.

My father’s business grew and expanded to a lot of other cities in China. At one point, he started a hotel business in Shenzhen, a big, fast-developing city down in the south, about 800 miles away from my hometown. While I was there during one summer break, I paid a visit to a local school. It was beautiful, very different from the one we had in my small hometown. I loved it so much that I asked my father if I could move there to continue my studies, and he pleasantly agreed. He made arrangements for me to stay with my uncle and aunt who were helping him with his business in that city.

It was 1996. I started the first semester of eighth grade at the new school, in a new city.

The city of Shenzhen, present-day.
The city of Shenzhen, present-day.
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Things were going well. My father had enough money to send a car to take me to and from school every day. One day after school, I waited a long time for the car to pick me up. I waited and waited more, till I became the last person outside waiting. I realized no one was coming, so I went back inside the school and called my uncle. When he picked up the phone, he sounded like a completely different person. I could feel a sense of anger, or agitation, from him. My uncle said,

“There is no car to pick you up today. Just find a way to come back home yourself.”

He was so curt with me that I immediately felt something bad had happened. When I finally made it home and stepped into the apartment, my uncle took me into my bedroom and said,

“Your dad is in trouble. He has left 50,000 yuan in the bank for you, and that’s it. You can’t go to school tomorrow. You need to go back to your hometown, now.”

I was shocked. I asked my uncle what had happened, and he said, “I don’t know the details, but your father has run away. He is wanted by the police for some sort of economic crime. You should probably go back to your grandparents and live with them.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wanted to talk to my father. I badgered my uncle about wanting to call him, but he informed that no one knew where he was hiding.

Then I asked if I could at least stay and finish my semester here in Shenzhen. My uncle was concerned that nobody would be around to support me because they were leaving too. So I made a call to my grandfather and asked if they could let me finish my semester. I promised I would go back to my hometown after that. He was supportive of my decision.

That night changed me completely.

My father was the only person I was emotionally attached to, and I didn’t even know where he was. I fell into a very deep sea of sadness. At 14 years old, I didn’t know where my life was headed.

But that night made me stronger at the same time. I realized that there was no one else I could rely on. The only person I could depend on was myself. I needed to plan what I wanted to be and where I wanted my life to go. I grew up overnight.

Section Break-Mountains

With tears in my eyes, I continued with my semester in the big city. Gradually I learned what my father had done. As he was in real estate and needed a lot of money for investment, he took huge loans from the banks. Some of those loans were not properly processed. In one case, he bribed the bank manager to process a loan close to 100 million RMB (over $12 million US dollars), which was way over the limit. His plan was to construct the buildings, sell them, and return the money to the bank. But that could take a few years.

In 1995, the Prime Minister of China started an initiative that required stricter control over the banks. The banks started checking all their past paperwork and found the illegally processed loan my father had taken before he could try to fix it. Both my father and the bank manager got into trouble.

Section Break-Mountains

I had no idea where my father was and was worried about him. Then one day, in the middle of a class, my math teacher came in and told me to go to the office because I had a phone call.  My gut was telling me that it was my father. I ran to the office and picked up the phone. It was from my father! At the sound of his voice, I burst into tears. I cried out really loud. Then I asked,

“Where are you? I want to see you. Please come back!”

“Don’t worry, I am somewhere, but I can’t tell you now. I will find a way to contact you and I will keep contacting you. And, please take care of yourself,” he said.

So he gave me a number and asked me not to tell anyone else about this.

Then he hung up.

I became the only person in the family who had contact with my father. No one else knew I had the number. We worried our phones were being monitored. When I wanted to talk to him I would take several bus trips, go to a big mall, make sure nobody was following, and then call my father.

Our secret calls went on for a few years until one day, I was finally able to see my father. He told me that when he made that call that day, he was actually thinking about killing himself. He just wanted to hear my voice for the last time, but hearing my voice changed his mind.

Phone booth | Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Phone booth | Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Section Break-Mountains

After I finished that semester in the big city, I moved back to stay with my grandparents and continued my studies in my hometown. Our family was wrapped in sheer sadness. We started to struggle financially, too. We would wire money to my father to support his life whenever he needed while he was running around and hiding. The 50,000 RMB that he had left me was eventually sent to him as well.

During those years, I matured. I learned to make decisions for myself in the absence of my father. I learned to be a strong, independent person.

I did get to see my father twice while he was in hiding. He was living alone in Guangzhou, another big city in the southern part of China. He was basically living under the light while being the dark. Sometimes I wished he could turn himself in so he could face the consequences of his actions and restart his life. But I couldn’t say that. It was my own father.

Those two visits were among the happiest times I’ve ever had. I was getting a taste of the dream I held dear as a child. As my father was hiding and not doing anything else, he had time to spend with me. He cooked for me. We spent our days and nights watching movies together and talking about our life. I finally tasted the sweetness of a close father-daughter relationship.

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In 2000, towards the end of my high school, my family got a call from the police that my father was caught. I had mixed feelings about his capture. Being raised with good morals, a part of me thought it was a good thing he was caught because he did something wrong. I believed he should be held responsible for what he did and that prison would be what he needed. On the other hand, that was my father, after all. I didn’t know what it would mean for me if my father went to prison.

We started hiring lawyers to represent my father’s case. My life was so interrupted. I was preparing for my college entrance examinations at the time. I had to talk to the lawyer and arrange everything on the other side. The case didn’t make it to court until I was already in college. It lasted for two years. During the court hearing, I was not listening at all. I couldn’t stop crying. My heart was heavily loaded. There stood my father. There he was, but as a criminal. It was very difficult to accept that fact. I loved him, but he did something wrong. I wanted to talk to him, but I couldn’t.

My father was facing a life sentence for his crime. The lawyer said it was too much for the wrong he did. Bribery didn’t seem major enough to get a life sentence, but the judge had made his decision, and there was nothing we could do to change it. The only thing we could do was to pull money together so that my father could be arranged into a good prison. And by good, we meant somewhere close so that we could visit him often. We used all the connections we had, and ironically, had to do some bribery ourselves to get him into a prison in the same city where I was attending college. With that convenience, I could visit him every month.

So my life continued, between school and prison visits.

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I always loved English and learning about the Western culture, and had dreamed at a young age of going to study or even live in an English-speaking country one day. Back when I was in my eighth grade, my father told me that he would send me abroad once I reached 20. I never let my dream go but felt it was drifting away. With everything that happened afterwards, it didn’t seem possible anymore.

The desire didn’t extinguish though. It was growing stronger after I graduated college and started working. I began dating and was trying to build a life for myself. I experienced a lot of failures in relationships that made me want to move away from my home country. China is a conservative society in a lot of ways. When it comes to marriages, family background is a critical factor by which one is judged. I got a lot of disapproval from either the men I was dating or their parents after learning about my family situation. It was disheartening. I was hopeless. It seemed I couldn’t find anyone in China to accept me. If watching my father stepping into prison was the saddest thing in my life, this was the second after that.

Girl | Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Girl | Image courtesy of Pixabay.

I wanted to get out and leave the country. I wanted to give myself a chance. But the thought of how large an amount of money it would cost made me discouraged, until a conversation with an old friend opened my mind. She herself had moved to the US a few year ago, and she assured me that it wasn’t all impossible. Scholarships were available, and I could work as Research Assistant or other part-time jobs on campus to earn extra to support myself. That talk reignited my dream.

At the same time, I was lucky enough to have found a man I love who looked past my social status and accepted me entirely. He loves me for who I am and nothing else. He became my husband. In 2013 when I got admitted by the City University of New York to further my education in the US, he was supportive of my dream. He uprooted his own career and moved with me.

I went to tell my father about my decision. I knew going to study in the US would mean I wouldn’t be able to visit him for the next few years. To my surprise and relief, he was very supportive. He told me that he was proud. He was happy. He asked me to go and chase my own happiness. He said for all these years I had been thinking about him and others, and it was time I start thinking about myself.

With his blessing, we made the move and began a new life in New York.

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From there on, my story runs similar to any other immigrant here who is working hard and fighting for a better life. I graduated in 2015 and am working now. Life is not fully stable yet, but I am happy with what we have today. For a long time, I didn’t think my dream of going abroad would come true, but it did.

I see life as a circle. There will be good and bad things in life, but they will not be constant. You have to really trust yourself, because things will get better. Life can be difficult sometimes, but you need to find the strength in yourself through the difficult moments to see a better future.

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This story was told to us anonymously by a Chinese girl who moved to the United States. She had a distant relationship with her family but felt close with her father. When her father was forced into hiding because he was wanted by the police for an economic crime he committed, she was shattered. Watching her father stepping into prison was devastating but changed her for the better. She powered through her difficult childhood to become a stronger person and developed a life for herself. She currently works and lives in New York City with her husband.

Additional notes: Her father was given a life sentence originally, but with his good attitude and behavior in prison, the years got reduced. The latest update she received was that he would be released by 2020.


This story first touched our hearts on November 12, 2017.

| Writer: Kristen Petronio; Manqing Jin | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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