and so we wind ourselves up

If you ask me now, I could still do it. Not all of it, of course—not now, not anymore. The more esoteric things—the notes for B minor, the exactitude between allegro and allegretto—those have long since been forgotten, faded with time and disuse. But hand me the sheet music, my bent Bach primers and blue Schumann workbooks, and I could play you a sonatina, a minuet, an arabesque, any of the carefully-annotated pieces I once knew by heart. The mechanics, after all these years, are still there: how to read treble and bass clefs, which sharps to match with which scales, the proper way to properly hold my hands (fingertips on the keys, wrist loose but high, fingers rounded as if clutching a tennis ball)—that is all it would take.

And if you were to ask me to play, I could still remember, still try. Für Elise, The Doll’s Dream, Minuet in G Major—though it has been years since I last touched a keyboard, I still find myself humming at odd moments, in class suddenly, unconsciously tapping out snatches of song.

*    *     *

I was a good student. Your typical Asian student, really: straight As, math club, 4.0 and AP tests—everything a good stereotype requires. I took BC Calculus and SAT subject tests, did quiz bowl and National Honor Society, dutifully attended ACT prep classes, where seventy dollars an hour helped improve my score by two points.

 

Years later, a teacher would tell me that she admired that in her Asian students, this tendency to take academics so seriously and settle for nothing less than perfection. Out of politeness, I would smile, say nothing in response.

And then there was, of course, the piano.

Here is how the rest would go if this were a proper story. The curtains, drawing back; the lights, overhead, shining down on a lone figure, the protagonist of this play. A girl, the sole daughter of Chinese peasants born during Mao’s Revolution and now come to the New World—you’ve heard the script; you know how it goes. The childhoods of hunger and uphill both ways; the struggle, long and laborious, to overcome them; the victories; the PhDs; and then America, the promised land that gave both more and less than what it had promised. Classic underdog story, in other words. But remember—that’s all backstory, all lead-up to the grand finale that will make it all pay off. Our protagonist, she remembers: remembers and knows they are important, holds her parents’ stories as close as Narnia and Harry Potter. Knows the stories, and knows she must top them, finish this quest they have begun.

And one-two-three, lights-camera-action—here it is, the first real task on our hero’s journey. Not poverty or politics, but no less daunting: the piano, dark and glossy with its many, many keys. It looms over her, high and proud and oh-so-very complex, but her parents’ memories reassure her, give her back her strength—compared to their pains, this was not so bad, not so hard. They had done what they had, so she could do this. And so she perseveres, and so she practices, plays scales ten times each and practices each song ten times more—until one day it is done, she has done it! And as she sits on the stage, the song she plays so sweet the birds outside quiet, the audience inside weeps at its loveliness—

And when she finishes, she stands up and curtsies to them—accomplished at last, a pianist against all the odds.

*     *     *

Which would have been nice, if I had been able to actually play.

Part of it was natural, I suppose: I had no sense of rhythm, no intuitive sense to tell me the difference between allegro and larghissimo or how to play in 4/4 time. Notes were as long or as short as I felt they were, holistic as opposed to ordered time. I distinctly remember, once, attending a church retreat and clapping along to the hymns out of time.

The other part, though, was practice. My parents started me at eight—late, compared to my friends, but still young enough to chafe at sitting in a chair for forty-five minutes each day, drilling the same scales over and over again. One day without practice, my mother would chide me, shuffling flashcards in the dim light of our apartment, and you know the difference. One day.

At eight, these are the things you smile at, nod at without quite hearing, ignore as easily as your grandmother’s admonishments to wash before and after meals. At eight, these are the things you can let slide away, that you can forget.

At eighteen, these are the things you remember, dredge up through the years as you retreat into an armchair curled up and away, tea growing cold on the cream-colored coffee table nearby. The woman across from you leaning back, smiling as she asks, well, and how did that make you feel?

Funny, the difference a few years can make.

Because you see, at eight, it has not happened yet; at eight, none of what will plague you at eighteen has yet bothered you. Your mother tells you to do your summer homework, and you do it; your father calls you in to practice piano, and you, grumbling, obey. But these are just things you do; they affect nothing of what you feel, who you are. At eight, you have a self, a center.

But just jump five years ahead—and, well. At thirteen, things get muddier. Boys you played tag with begin ignoring you; girls you’d climbed trees with begin wearing makeup and talking about calories and waistlines. All around you, your friends finding niches, taking places as easily as seats in musical chairs—the pretty one, the sporty one, the good one—

And you? You, you get stuck with, “Gifted.”

*     *     *

And there’s the thing, about being thirteen and being “Gifted.” When you are twelve or thirteen, and you’ve demonstrated an aptitude in math or science or English or best of all, all three, then the world narrows. Suddenly, it is just you, you and the four or five other students whose test scores have proven equally high, sitting in the front row of Honors English and eyeing each other across chess club—wary, suspicious.

Or perhaps that was just me, my personal paranoia and neuroses painting sixth-grade friendships in Darwinian shades. Perhaps.

It certainly felt that way, around my parents. At parties with the other Chinese families, while the kids sat in the basement playing Mario or idly browsing through their phones. The adults would all stay upstairs, playing cards late into the night and gossiping like tabloid reporters about their children, who got what grades and who got into Stanford or Harvard. At thirteen, you begin to enter into these conversations; at thirteen, you begin to become relevant, another variable in the bell curve of who would Make It—

One moment, you were eight. The next, you are thirteen, and your parents are buying you ACT prep books and taking you to talks by Harvard freshmen on how to apply to college, and no one is questioning the absurdity of it, the fact that you are taking sixth-graders, fucking sixth-graders, kids who still watch Hannah Montana and blush at French kissing—taking them and sitting down in all seriousness to tell them what AP classes to take, what sports to play, and what tests to take and and and

*     *     *

And look. I like to think, in my better moments, that I’m not that myopically bitter—that somewhere over the course of overpriced medications and specialists, I have gained some degree of self-knowledge. And so I know—I do!—that I am being unfair. That there were other parts to it, social and historical factors that led my parents and their friends to the values they hold—Mao and deprivation and Confucius, tradition and cultural values so deeply entrenched that to reject them would be to reject identity itself. That higher test grades equaled higher income equaled higher quality of life and hence greater happiness—I can still do enough math to understand that. That I am speaking in stereotypes, and stereotypes are not life: do not have the kindness and love that go into them, soften the tropes into something livable. That parents, in the end, are people, too.

 

I think of that: of being barely sixteen or seventeen and already knowing fear, the helpless guilt of lying in a hospital bed and listening to parents, angry and terrified and confused, demand why?

But, well. I was thirteen, then, and higher reasoning is less pertinent when you are entering puberty and a pronounced hating-the-world phase. Thirteen-fourteen, lurking in the enclaves at parties with my diet Pepsi and iceberg salad, I began to despise it all: the constant comparing and critiquing, whose kids are going where and got what grades. Yes, there may have been utility behind it—higher grades, higher income, correlation/causation et cetera—but at some point, listening to it all, aunts telling cousins to follow in the steps of more studious friends, fathers lecturing sixth-graders on the importance of community service not on grounds of altruism, but because it would look good on a college resume—well. At some point, it gets to you.

Maybe I wouldn’t have put it in those words, not then—thirteen, remember, fresh out of three weeks in the hospital and still tearing up over Bs in gym—and maybe I wouldn’t have said it until I was Well and Truly into therapy, but that was how I felt then. That was what I thought.

*     *     *

And like summer vacation, and like community service, music became another casualty, another part of the daily march towards Making It. From the time your parents were putting you through chess club and hiring math tutors, they were taking you to your piano or violin teacher’s house to learn petals and positions. It did not matter if you actually liked the instrument; if you were smart and wanted to get into a good school (a real school), then you played the piano or the violin. And if you were not good at it, then it could not be because you had no musical talent—it was because you were simply not trying hard enough.It was a very Asian belief, that, but also a very American one: self-cultivation and Horatio Alger, the American dream and Mao’s voluntarism mixing in a red-red-white-blue combination that would have made your revolutionary ancestors roll over in their graves. “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step;” “genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration;” et cetera, et cetera. If you wish upon a star and try, try, and try again, then you too can be talented; then you, too, can be special.

Years later, a teacher would tell me that she admired that in her Asian students, this tendency to take academics so seriously and settle for nothing less than perfection. Out of politeness, I would smile, say nothing in response.

*     *     *

A curious thing, about fifteen-sixteen-year-old Amber and standardized tests. I did well on exams generally, had few logical reasons to worry about failing all my classes and forced to attend community college. But I used to work myself up anyways, talking myself into hyper-awareness before tests, rehearsing every wrong thing that could happen—a ball player, winding herself up before a game. After all, if I let my guard down, if I let myself relax for only one second, then that was it, that was the path of stupid errors and bubbling in the wrong answers. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back; stop being smart, and you’ll break her heart.

I suppose, beyond the superstitious hyperbole of the feeling, it made an odd sense. God knows I’d made plenty of careless mistakes by not paying enough attention to the placement of a decimal or the insertion of a “NOT” before “all of the above”—by not paying attention, my mother said; by being complacent, I thought. And hell, maybe it did work—I did pretty well in high school, took all the right tests and got all the right test scores. When the time came, even made it to University of Chicago, which on the nerd ladder is pretty good.

But. But but but but but.

But there were things, other places where winding yourself so tight-tight-tight is not good, does not work. Try talking to people like that—see how well it works. I did that, for a while. Would walk out of AP Chemistry after a quiz, head aching too much to focus on anything other than the tiles immediately before me—only to start, nearly jumping as someone said, “Hi, Amber!” Turning around, heart jumping a beat as I forced out, “Hi”—hating the way my voice went up an octave when I was nervous, dear God what was wrong with you, Amber, so stupid so ridiculous, couldn’t even talk to people without freezing up—and God, God, those had been popular kids, hadn’t they? Cheerleaders and prom queens, oh you knew, Amber that they only smiled at you because they felt sorry for you, because you were so, so very pathetic and they all knew—

Try that. Try that with talking, with writing or drawing or eating or anything else, really. Try that with piano.

At fifteen, I had finally done it—at fifteen, finally achieved the discipline I had lacked at eight and thirteen. Like clockwork, I dutifully played my forty minutes each day—not as much as other students, I was well aware, but an achievement for me. A small victory.

But even then, even with all that, I was still no better than before. My piano teacher, after years of clucking at my lack of precision, now told me I played too rigidly, too mechanically. Relax, she told me, watching the rigid claw of my hand upon the keys, don’t slam them down—let your hands fall on the keys, naturally. And I had tried, tried all the exercises and techniques she suggested, but how could I? How could I, when she there, always a watching eye, always ready to tell me what I did wrong and how? How could I relax, how could I relax when I knew (knew oh so well, familiar lump in my throat, my chest, my lungs) that once I did, once I let my guard down for the slightest, slightest second, it would all come crumbling, crumbling down—

I cried in front of her a few times, I remember. I cried in front of a lot of people. It seemed to be a thing I did.

*     *     *

Like all things, I talked with my therapist about this. I was, what, fourteen?—eighth or ninth grade, a year after I’d done the essentially thirteen-year-old thing of taking a crash course in fad dieting. In any other subject, I would have gotten a gold star; here, all my self-discipline had gotten me was three weeks in the hospital and a doctor’s ultimatum that unless I followed up with a therapist, I could not be medically discharged.

Despite the whiff of coercion hanging over our beginning, I like to think we had an amiable relationship, Cassie and me. There was always plenty of coffee, which I pretended to like without cream, and even more silence, which I actually did like and now did my best to maintain. Occasionally, Cassie would speak—a handful of observations, a few questions to fish out replies—and even more occasionally, I would answer, cool and monosyllabic as a John Wayne character. Mostly, I kept silent.

And then, one day—in response to a journal, a passing comment, some art therapy collage I’d made at her request, I don’t remember what—she said something so radically heretical that I had stared at her for a moment, gaping at the sheer temerity to even think such a thing:

Well, Cassie said, is it really that bad if you get a B?

Later, when she came to pick me up, I told my mother about it. In the foyer of the glass building, we shared the same startled, almost offended stare of disbelief—she had said what? That it didn’t matter if I let myself get poor grades, that it didn’t matter if I had no standards, if I didn’t try?

It must have been a culture thing, my mother concluded, back in our gray Honda, and I agreed. And that, coupled with my extreme distaste for sitting in a chair and talking about my feelings, meant that not long after, I stopped going to therapy.

It has been seven years since then. These days, it is my mother—conscious of my anxieties, as careful around me as if already teetering towards a third hospitalization—it is she who reassures me, reminds me that a B on my transcript will not doom me to a life of mediocrity and trailer park alcoholism. Half an adolescence spent in doctor’s offices, and it is she who has learned more from it. And I—self-dramatizing, self-eulogizing, ninety-eight percent cured and thirteen after all this time—I, I have never quite been able to let it go.

*     *     *

In the end, I stopped playing piano. I was sixteen; college was on the horizon, ACTs and SATs and the roulette of other acronyms I had been preparing for since age thirteen. Forty minutes a day were now a luxury, and my mother—after years of insisting that putting aside an hour each day was not that difficult, not really—seemed to have finally realized that I took to the piano like a lead duck to water—i.e., not at all. Quitting, I was surprised not to be elated. I’d never had any talent, but I had grown used to the structure, thought I might finally have a chance at improving—but well, the piano and I had never been the best of friends. Our breakup was quick, almost painless.

[blockquote align=”none”]I visited new places. I tried new things. Years of practicing discipline, of freeing time for schoolwork by cutting myself down to essentials, the clean, bare bones of life—years of that, and it surprised me how easily I took to having fun, to making friends. 

 

And so came the ACTS, so came the SATs, the APs and the Common App essay and three more from the University of Chicago. And like a good little machine, I wound myself up for them—a little more carefully now from the therapy, a little better oiled now from the meds. Maybe not quite kicking the habit of worrying, but managing it: a lesser vice now, under control. Old habits are hard to give up, after all, especially ones that had been double, triple, quadruple-checked to work.

*     *     *

Walking in from the cold into the warm foyer of Lewis dorm, one of the first things you notice is the piano. Beyond the quartets of soft armchairs and the warm wood, in a corner next to the stairwells and facing the entire room, it stands: a tall, black concert grand, its wood well-kept and well-loved, keys as glossy as the notes they produced.

It was certainly one of the first things I noticed, walking in that first day of college. Not necessarily the most immediate, processed as it was into the overall atmosphere of Old World grace and comforting hominess—oh wow, so I am going to live here, aren’t I?—but still there, still present. Just one brushstroke in the painting.

And that was how it was, for the first few days or so, a part of the decor I noticed but did not linger over.

I visited new places. I tried new things. Years of practicing discipline, of freeing time for schoolwork by cutting myself down to essentials, the clean, bare bones of life—years of that, and it surprised me how easily I took to having fun, to making friends. All smart kids of course, all talented, but not like the smart and talented kids I’d known in high school, aggressive about knowing each other’s grades and always jockeying for the highest position on the academic ladder. Perhaps there was some of that, seething down under. We were all high-achieving students at a high-achieving school; there had to be other similarities outside of the test scores. Or perhaps that was just me. Already, I was noting the similarities, seeing how I measured up—mathletes and poets and fantasy geeks, boys who had taken the same AP classes, girls with the same pained memories of Chinese school—

And then there were, of course, those who had played the piano.

I noticed at the beginning of first week, maybe the last days of orientation. Walking into the dorm lounge, bright chandeliers and familiar faces in chintzy chairs—Hey Dan! Hi Maddie!—I would see, maybe two times out of five, that someone was playing the piano. I didn’t think much of initially—it was the University of Chicago, of course everyone knew how to play the piano—but after a while, I began to wonder. Some of these musicians had been playing for nine, ten, eleven years—meaning they’d been, what, seven, eight when they’d started?  Practically the same time age I’d been.

And I wondered about that. Wondered about how they did it, the way they took such evident joy in learning melodies and technique—so different from my history with playing the piano, the years of parental disapproval and kicking/screaming that had eventually settled into failed hopes and lingering regret. Wondered about that, whether music had been as hard for them as it had been for me. Watching them play, humming even through the missed notes, not cringing but smiling when others paused to listen, it didn’t seem so.

And yet. Maybe it had been—at least at first, at the start. Few eight-year-olds, after all, have the innate motivation to sit still for forty-plus minutes at a time; few eight-year-olds have the discipline to practice scales twenty minutes each day, every day. Concert pianist Lang Lang Guoren tells journalists that he became interested in the piano when he was two, at three was practicing hours each day at his father’s demand—and just look at him now. World-famous, and grateful to his father for pushing him. Maybe, if I had followed his example like I had been exhorted to, I could have gotten there too, that glittering plateau where all the gritted teeth and lifted bootstraps paid off. Maybe. Maybe.

*     *     *

My mom talks, these days, about selling our piano. It would be the logical thing to do, of course; no one plays it anymore, and it takes up space, sitting alone in a corner of our sunroom, a bin of bent lesson books next to it. A secondhand standup, but still good after all these years, keys still mostly in tune despite the years of disuse.

Listening, I brush my hands over the key bed, say nothing. Dust has gathered on the keys, over the years—on the wood yellowed with age, in the flat crevices between E and F. I think of my stuffed animals, missing fur and missing eyes, mutely sitting in the dark of old closets; I think of my mother, eighteen and envious of the other students, girls who had had money, who wore pretty dresses and could play piano and guitar. I tell her, I don’t know.

But when she asks me whether we should buy a new one, a sleek baby grand or sleek new Steinway, I scoff at it: what would be the point of that, spending thousands of dollars on something no one would use? How was that in any way necessary, how did that in any way make sense?

Well, my mother says, smiling wistfully, it would make the room look nice.

Nice.

Because that was why they’d come here, wasn’t it? Why they’d worked so hard in grad school, spent so much money on private tutors, and so much time cutting personal luxury down to necessity—because it would all pay off here, in this land of new hopes and opportunity; because America would be better, brighter. Would be nicer.

My parents hadn’t had very many nice things, growing up. They’d come to America so that I could have all the crisp clothes and bright holidays they’d never had. All the sullen, long drives to Chinese school, all the evenings spent fidgeting on a piano bench, waiting for the timer to tell me my forty minutes were up—it all had been for this, my parents’ simple wish that I have a future better than they had. In the end, that was what it had all been for; in the end, that was all they had wanted.

*     *     *

I still think, with some nostalgia, of being her again: Amber at thirteen, at sixteen, the girl who would sleep four hours a night to study for AP exams and refuse to eat anything before knowing exact number of carbs first. Time makes fools of us all, makes romantic what had in actuality been terrifying and suffocating—but it is tempting, sometimes, to indulge in the lie. It is a simpler world there, brighter colors and sharper contrasts: up is always up, down is always down, and the whole world is yours, if only you will reach out and try.

From a distance, it is a very beautiful world, very white and very pristine.

And then I hear tales from my classmates, Kyoto-born boyfriends worrying about the number of A-minuses on Ivy League transcripts; and then I hear tales from my friends, old classmates’ younger sisters who are already landing themselves in hospitals, already breaking down. I think of that: of being barely sixteen or seventeen and already knowing fear, the helpless guilt of lying in a hospital bed and listening to parents, angry and terrified and confused, demand why? I think of classmates I know, old dorm mates who discuss bad grades in the context of Bs and 88s, while the next moment dismissing Sylvia Plath’s suicide as selfish. I think: alright. So that is how it happens, how the story goes now.

And then fourteen-year-olds come to me at parties, eager to ask how I had done it—what AP classes had I taken, what clubs had I joined, which standardized tests I had taken and what I had scored on them. And then I look down at them, these rows of young faces so sincere and intense, and I realize that at twenty, I have done it—become the success story, the Harvard inductee instructing others on how they could do it, how they could make it. I look down, and I do not know what to say.

And then I come home, and my parents are nearly in hysterics over the B on my brother’s report card, berating him for not doing as well in Honors English as he does Honors Chemistry, asking him, why can’t you be a little more like your sister—not completely, of course, because God knows how well that ended, but still. Just a little.

And then I think of lying in a white hospital bed, at thirteen, bones brittle as those of an old woman, heart rate resting at the 30s, sobbing not from frustration or fear, but because I was missing school, because I had quiz bowl practice I was missing and teammates I was disappointing, because they were going to make me gain so much weight and people were going to know—I think, and then I remember: this is not a way of life. This is a way of dying, by inches.

And yet. Malcolm Gladwell tells us you need to put in ten thousand hours of effort before greatness. Stephen King tells us that you need a million words of practice before writing anything worthwhile. Marie Curie fainting because she had forgotten to eat. Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged in temples and living on tea and clean mountain air. High school students in China opting for intravenous feeding in order to carve out more time for studying—these are the stories we tell, the idols we make for myth. Privation and self-deprivation the paths to sainthood and transcendence and not egoistic want.

And yet. And yet.

*     *     *

And in the revised, reedited edition of my life, here is how it would happen. In the final draft, I would go back to sixteen, to thirteen, to eight, and this time around, all the equations would add up precisely—time plus persistence equals success, equals happiness, equals the America dream without any thorny remainders left over. This time, the story would run better, smoother, stagehands in their places and actors knowing all their lines—this time, it would go right.

*     *     *

But in the end, it is always the same story. In the end—after all the hours of self-doubt and self-recrimination, of staring at still-familiar keys and wondering what if, what if—after all that and all the years, it always ends the same way.

I stand up. Take my fingers off the keys: Put my old sheet music away, thinking maybe, someday as I push the bench back in, brush the dust off the music rack. Glance one last time at middle C and F sharp, before lowering the fallboard over the keys.

And then—because it is late and I work best at night—I make myself a cup of coffee, stirring in two packets of sugar to cut the tinfoil taste of instant, make it tolerable. Then, kissing my dog goodnight, I go upstairs with my coffee and my laptop, and I write.

 

Amber Wu is an aspiring academic, part-time writer, and former pianist. An alumna of the University of Chicago, where she studied comparative literature and creative writing, she currently lives in Chicago with her books, a collection of dog-themed paraphernalia, and her plans to pursue a PhD at the University of Southern California. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in Memoryhouse Magazine, daCunha Global, and The Other Stories.