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Outlier’s Path

Letter to Atticus

This is a slight departure from my usual posts. I decided to forward a letter I sent to Atticus about my mother who passed away on Friday and is now in a better place.

Nainai means paternal grandmother in Mandarin.

Dear Atticus,

Your Nainai was an exceptional and particular individual who taught me many things. She asked me to write down these lessons so you might also learn from her life experiences and carry on her heritage.

  1. Find Your Purpose. The statement may not make any sense to you today, but over time, you have to find your purpose in the universe. In your grandmother’s early years, she was the only daughter among four brothers. Her purpose was to stand up to her brothers. As she grew up, her goal was to push against gender roles when her father wanted her to focus on “marrying well.” When she had me and your uncle Edwin, she poured her soul into ensuring her two sons would have the best opportunities to reach their full potential, as your mother is doing for you.
  2. Think for Yourself. Nainai was incredibly curious and asked many questions of anyone she met. She would learn from everyone she could and any books she could find. From the time I was in elementary and through high school, Nainai would always be one chapter ahead of what I was learning. She thirsted for knowledge and did a lot of primary research. At the same time, she took none of it at face value. She did all of the work in pursuit of thinking for herself and drawing her conclusions. She instilled independent thinking in me at a young age. It was not discourteous to challenge conventional thinking. It was only disrespectful not to improve upon what had come before.
  3. Forge Your Path. Your grandmother didn’t accept the path that her father wanted for her. He was well-meaning, but your grandmother respectfully disagreed and found a different way. Nainai forged her path by working full-time and attending college in the evenings. She was the first woman in her family to complete college. She became a commercial banker and was her bank’s youngest executive vice president during an epoch when women primarily served as secretaries and poured tea. After proving to her parents and herself what she was capable of, she focused on the future path of her two boys. Speaking no English and having no familial and little monetary support, she decided to move us all to NYC for a better future.
  4. Do The Right Thing. Like you, your grandmother had a strong sense of justice and about what is right and wrong. Aristotle described “justice” as the “pain felt at either good or bad fortune if undeserved, or to the joy felt at them if deserved.” That emotional tug will keep you on the right path, but it may still be challenging to do the right thing all the time. From a young age, Nainai would tell me to “always do the right thing. When it is convenient, we have no excuse. When it is hard, those are the times when we build our reputation for always doing the right thing.” Since we are human, we will fail to do the right thing, but “it is never too late to take responsibility and do the right thing.” I can come up with countless examples where this advice made me who I am today, but I do not want you to have a convenient record of my missteps. 😉
  5. Be Extraordinary. Nainai had great expectations for herself and those closest to her. She was sometimes very challenging because she had such incredibly high standards. Your Uncle Edwin and I could only go to Stuyvesant and Harvard, and there would be no excuses not to achieve those goals. At a young age, I was taught it is always the best and worst of times, and while the world is unfair, it is fair enough. Therefore, you cannot blame external factors. Figure out what you can control and find your way from there to be extraordinary.
  6. Serve Selflessly. Nainai didn’t just apply pressure with her lofty expectations. She would selflessly put all of herself into supporting those who would pursue great expectations. There were simple and tedious things, such as ensuring I would have extra and newly sharpened pencils for math competitions. There were more arduous tasks, such as staying one to two chapters ahead of her children in school. There was the difficult work of uplifting and supporting her children during the inevitable setbacks and encouraging us to keep going. When Uncle Edwin and I went to college, she directed her attention to tutoring math to her friends’ children, advising them on their college applications, and helping them achieve their full potential.
  7. Find Joy in Simplicity. Your grandmother lived a simple life. Even when your Uncle Edwin and I had the means to give Nainai a better life, she didn’t want it. She found joy in little things, such as solving a math or sudoku puzzle, finding a hole-in-the-wall restaurant serving the best dumplings, eating a simple home-cooked Thanksgiving meal, and observing how her grandsons laughed so loudly chasing each other around the house performing stupid human tricks. When overwhelmed with complicated alternatives and alluring distractions, simplicity reminds us that we can find joy without them.
  8. Finish Strong. Except for your mother (maybe), no one I know has the same fight in her as your grandmother. She always fought as if she had nothing to lose and fought that way to the end. She taught me that anything worth doing requires hard work, dedication, and a willingness to persist despite setbacks until the bitter end. Before Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, she was the first to tell me never to quit on a bad day. You can decide not to continue studying violin after completing junior high school. You can cry after you are cut from the crew team, but don’t voluntarily quit because it is hard. Whatever you start, put in your best effort until you complete that semester, year, or chapter.

Nainai was given a prognosis of 3-6 months to live after being diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. She achieved her goal of living past her 78th birthday and beating her doctor’s diagnosis by living 7.5 months. At the end of her life, she focused on ensuring her sons took note of her life lessons so we could pass them on to you and your cousins. Nainai exemplified all of these lessons, especially finishing strong.

Love always,