Her Life as My Childhood Stories

Prologue: I know I’m supposed to write about someone in New York, but a phone call with my grandma caught my attention. Instead of a single story, I guess I want to capture the sequence of impacts from a single historical event on her life. I’ve always known the stories she told me since I was very young, but listening to them once again with a new attitude, a set objective and a phone line distance was a provoking experience. And I wish to share this with all of you.

My grandma was a typical girl with a relatively rich background—well, at least for a while. She was the youngest among four girls. Her family had a business in Chinese wine making, but unlike those greedy landlords shown in the Chinese soap dramas, her father and the generations before him had worked out a trust-worthy reputation. They were respected by the town, and her life was happier and simpler than most of the people at her age, who often had to worry about the next meal while eating this one. Of course, this changed dramatically when the downfall of China arrived.

She was adopted by one of her close relatives. When the Cultural Revolution came, the red guards took away all the properties from her house. The story gets complicated here; she often stops for a while, acting like I don’t want to know what happened to her parents. Sometimes, she may let a couple words slide through her mouth, but oftentimes that is not the case. So, after gathering the “couple of words” for a while, I think that even though her parents were not hurt physically, they were going through some emotional ups and downs.

Anyway, so she was adopted along with her three older sisters, and with three more cousins, the seven sister-flowers made up the youngest generation in the family. They all changed their names (first and last) so that they could be safe. She never told me how exactly would her name affect her, but I guess it was a pretty big deal at the time.

Then the story jumped to her life as a student. She was hard working and was very smart. I can often sense the pride in her when she talks about her experiences in school—academics only. Now that I think about it, I never heard anything about her childhood friends or events related. It was always one sentence through her school life, maybe in the end a couple of sentences about her sisters. Even during the interview, she didn’t say anything more. Did she censor them on purpose? I don’t know, but she always did it so naturally that I forgot to ask her for the little details.

At the time, she couldn’t choose her own career, so she became a chemical engineer. She always said to me, “…I realized later when I went to the office of Dr. Zong (a close friend of hers who studied Chinese medicine, I call him Zong Ye-ye) that I was more suitable for a doctor. All the senses a doctor needs—he always told me that I have them all…” When I asked her why she didn’t change her career, she answered, “It was too late. I was good at being a chemical engineer, though. I chose it only because one of my uncles was doing this, but I found it interesting, so I put it down as my first choice. At the time, you have to put down your top three career choices, and the government would choose it for you. Many people didn’t get their first choice, and a lot more had to work in an area they didn’t choose at all for the rest of their lives! Plus, chemical engineering was a very hot choice—I was lucky enough to get my first.”

So, as her nature pushed her, she soon became the best within the factory. She worked on several projects, and successfully completed every single one of them. However, because of her background, she was unable to achieve further in her career. She often faced problems with her boss regarding the supplies and the procedure of experiments. One time, she succeeded in developing a big project on her own, but someone else stole her work and replaced her in getting the leading position. Of course, she was angry, but there were nothing she could do. Luckily, all the people in her workplace recognized my grandma as the best. Well, actually, my grandma never told me this part, but from her expression, I knew that they respected her for her personality and her work. I guess that was why she didn’t complain at all and continued to work as she had before.

When I was younger, every time she told me these stories, she sounded like she was talking about somebody else. But this time, when I heard these stories once again from a distance, I realized one time: it wasn’t that these events didn’t affect her; in fact, they impacted her so much that she had to depart herself from her own life to avoid showing too much emotion. That was the only way she could tell the stories—from a third person perspective.

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My Model

One of the few people that I revere is Yu Qin Chen, my mother. Not only because she is my parent but also because of her dedication and altruistic attitude towards my younger brother and me. Not long after she arrived with us to New York City from China, she found a job in a garment factory. She worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, as my brother and I were attending elementary school. The money that she earned all went to supporting our education, food and clothing. As for herself, she rarely used it. While I knew and had witnessed her efforts and hardships in America, her past was a mystery to me.

Yu Qin Chen was only a child during China’s great revolution under Mao Zedong’s rule. The Great Leap Forward plan lasted until 1961. As a result, millions had died while famine and poverty continued to spread many years after. My mother was born two years later in 1963. During the time, around the 1970s when she was just a little girl of eight or ten, she already had to work to earn money for the family and balance her time with her studies.

Life in China was very difficult. Every day was very much a struggle, but she was able to make it through because of her family. My mother was the youngest of amongst her siblings; she has two sisters and a brother. Because she was the youngest, her siblings and parents were always helping and supporting her. At the time, almost everyone in the village in Taishan was very poor. Even though she was supported, she was also independent. To repay her family’s kindness, she began working even though she was still in elementary school. Every morning, she would get up around 5 or 6AM, sometimes with her sister, and “[they] would go to the shores to pick chicory, tie them up and bring them to the market to sell … We would be overjoyed if we sold one renminbi.” One renminbi was a considerable amount of money back then even though it didn’t sound like it. That value has not change much over the years. I still could recall that with fifty renminbi, I could buy pretty much anything I wanted as a kid—that was around 2001.

Without a doubt, from my mother’s efforts to earn as much money as she could, the economical situation for the people in the 1970s was grim. Her home was build with clay bricks and wood. With no or little food or money, my mother’s family managed by “[eating] half a bowl of rice and [filling] the rest of our stomachs with potatoes.”

Life began to improve around 1983 when the restrictions on immigration were eased because of China’s Open Door Policy. Thousands of Chinese immigrated to the United States as a result. Subsequently, my mother’s sister decided to immigrate to the United States too. With the Open Door Policy, China gradually gained wealth and the people’s lives were slowly improving. My mother added, “Land was distributed so people could farm and grow things to eat.” Even though her family was still poor, they could now grow their own food to eat. She then worked together with her family in the fields. My mother was twenty by 1983, however, that fact didn’t lessen her family’s support and bonds with her. She told me sincerely, “Your uncle and aunts worked very hard on the fields. I was the smallest so I was relief from work some of the times.”

The struggles she faced as a child and the years of support that she received because she was the youngest must have motivated her to do the same for her children, my younger brother and me. When we were still little, my mother told me that we were very active so she couldn’t take her eyes off of us. When dinner was ready, she had to feed us first. She said, “By the time you were full, my food was already cold.” If she wasn’t watching us, she said that we might break things. She then told me an anecdote of the time when my younger brother—or me but I didn’t recall it probably because I was too young—broke a newly bought hot water container. I was surprised when she explained to me, “[your little brother] took it outside and smashed it with a rock.” As she was telling me the story, my mother seemed to get a bit excited, and perhaps somewhat angry. I could sense that these memories really meant a lot to her. After all, she was the only one left in the family after my grandparents and father immigrated to America. She only had my younger brother and me, and wanted to do her best to care for us.

My mother’s past and stories helped me visualize how experiences had shaped the person she is now and explained to me why her was do everything for our sake. She worked meticulously as a child and received warm support from her family, all which nurtured her kindness. She had to raise the two of us alone until we immigrated to America and reunited with my father in 2003, which deepened her bonds with us through memories that she treasured. Even after arriving and living in New York City with my father, she continued to work selflessly with hopes that my younger brother and I would succeed in the future. Knowing this, I revered her even more and dedicated myself to my studies so I could repay her kindness and altruism.

Yu Qin Chen

(Sorry for the bad quality. I took a picture of the picture…)


My mother does not speak English. Hence, her answers or perhaps story in response to my questions was in Taishanese, her native dialect (forgive me for whispering the questions but I usually don’t talk louder than my parents when I’m around them). Below is the audio file:

Interview With Mom


I translated it so that you know what was said:

Me: How was it like in China when you were little?

Mom: When I was little, I studied and worked.

Me: Studied until what grade?

Mom: Until high school.

Me: What work did you do?

Mom: While I was studying I picked chicory* and sold them

*(“猪菜” I think means chicory—but I’m not certain. It is a plant that pigs eat though)

Me: How old were you?

Mom: Eight or Ten. I would go to the shores to pick chicory, tie them up and bring them to the market to sell. We could only eat potatoes. We were very poor. My sister and I woke up very early every day, around 5 or 6AM, and carry the chicory to the market to sell. We would be overjoyed if we sold one renminbi* or so. We would continue to save and save. When we had saved up to about ten renminbi, we were very happy. At that time, everyone was very poor. We had very little to eat, only potatoes! Our family would eat half a bowl of rice and fill the rest of our stomachs with potatoes. Until the 1980s when people were allowed to immigrate to America, life was getting better. Land was distributed so people could farm and grow things to eat. When we were little, it was very tough.

*(Unit of Chinese currency—equivalent to saying dollar here)

Me: So did we get farm land as well?

Mom: You were born yet. I was still a girl. But of course we got land as well. Your uncle and aunts worked very hard on the fields. I was the smallest so I was relief from work some of the times. They were older so they worked a bit more while I worked a bit less.

Me: How did grandpa immigrate to America?

Mom: Your grandpa? Your aunt helped him. Your grandpa and grandma moved to America around 1990s while your aunt moved in 1984. Only after five years could your aunt help your grandparents immigrate here. Then your father came and he helped to get us here.

Me: How did you feel when you first got to America?

Mom: Nothing much really. I started working right after we arrived to earn money while you (my younger brother and I) were going to school. That was all…

Me: Why did you work so hard for?

Mom: Of course to raise you guys. It’s very difficult to raise a person. Look at your cousin’s baby, he’s so small. When you were very little, I fed you first before eating. By the time you were full, my food was already cold. You guys were always playing around so I had to keep an eye on you so you don’t break everything. Do you remember? When your younger brother was little, I bought a new hot water container to store boiled water. He took it outside and smashed it with a rock. It was no more. The container was considerably expensive. I didn’t even know when it was broken. It might have been your younger brother or you. I don’t remember very well anymore. It’s been so long. Back then, I had no one to help me. Your grandfather and grandmother had already gone to America, your father too. I had to raise you two by myself.

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The Moment that Changed Everything

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As a business major in St. John’s University, my aunt Linda’s dream was to work in the Financial District in Downtown, NYC.  She grew up believing that she needed money and a title in order to succeed in life.  Her main goal was to have a leadership role in her company.  Switching from accounting to marketing at Morgan Stanley, she believed that she had found the career that she was going to stick to for the rest of her life.  When I interviewed her, she had a bright smile on when recounting the many projects she completed as a member of the marketing committee. She stresses that she was comfortable with accounting, but marketing was right for her.  Sitting in her office in one of the World Trade Center buildings, she believed that she had everything under control: her career, her future, her life.

My aunt Linda is a person who likes to plan out everything in her life. She knew when she wanted to get married, have children and how she was going to live a fulfilling life.  She believed strongly in her abilities to achieve a position at her company. Looking out of her window from the 64th floor of this tower, she was tall enough to oversee a large portion of Downtown. The WTC buildings also provided a great working environment. People were very friendly and welcoming. She was comfortable in her building.  This environment motivated her to work harder so she could move up in ranking—she had confidence in herself, and it was only a matter of time.

This confidence was ephemeral.  If she were worrying about something on that fateful day, it would be preparing for her next conference call. She, or any of her colleagues, never imagined that a plane would crash into her building, but it happened.  There are many accounts of how people tried to flee the collapsing structure, but my aunt had her own unique story.  September 11, 2001 was the day that threw everything she knew off balance.  The environment she was so familiar with turned into chaos.

She had first heard the news from her colleague. All she knew was that something happened and they should leave.  My aunt describes the scene outside her winder: debris was flying everywhere, and 1 WTC had been hit. That news was enough for everyone to panic. My aunt was scared, but she was able to stay calm and composed.  During a time when everyone was panicking, her and her friends decided to run around and announce this news to everyone on the floor.  Everyone was evacuating, but order was necessary.  My aunt helped keep order when everyone else tried to run down the stairs as fast as they could.

Screams and cries echoed in the staircase as my aunt and her colleagues ran down from the 64th floor.  The planes hit their building when they were on the 20th floor.  Everyone was scared, including my aunt, but she managed to scream aloud that everything was going to be okay.  She was afraid that people from behind would trample over her. No one was sane at this point.  The only thoughts that crossed my aunt’s mind were to hold onto the railing and run down stairs.  Even at times of chaos, she was able to calm people down, even if it was for a very brief moment.

It only took one hit to bring down 1 WTC, it was not going to take a very long time for 2 WTC to collapse after it.  Running out onto the streets, my aunt turned around to see the building that she was so familiar with collapse in front of her eyes.  Pedestrians continued to scream and push.  There was nothing else she could do to help her colleagues, so she ran.

Watching the buildings come down made my aunt realize how fragile life is.  We can be alive one moment and dead the next.  No one can guarantee whether they will be alive in the next moment. Because of this experience, she values life a lot more. Goals such as earning the most money or gaining a title were all superficial.  In the end, nothing is more valuable than one’s life.  Life was too short for a person to waste it doing something they didn’t like. Although she was happy with marketing, she wanted to stay away from the work environment because this is truly what she wanted.

Every year, there are services held in memory of those who passed away because of this attack. However, for my aunt, they served as a constant memory of the experience on that dreadful day.  It is difficult for her to watch the news coverage again every year.  To watch the collision again was similar to putting her in the same staircase and having her listen to screams echo down the staircase.

That one glance back at the building was the point that changed her life. It was almost a wake up call for her. She came to learn that life was too short to do what she was doing.  Soon after, she had her own family. She values every moment she has with her husband and her son.  Although she no longer earns the same salary, money is not important to her anymore. The job title and amount in her bank account would not give her a happy life.  She is aware that she does not need to have money in order to succeed in life.  The suburban lifestyle she has chosen is happier than the one she led when she was working at WTC.  A job title and money can be taken away from her any day, but the moments she spent with her family would always be with her.  These moments are priceless.


Who She Was/Is

During the stressful season of college applications back in junior year of high school, everyone was applying to their dream school. Getting in was a different story. They say it depends all on that one college essay. Make it your best writing you’ll ever write. Not only did I learn about myself when I was writing it, I was amazed and moved by the narratives my friends were telling. Their stories were so inspiring. Whereas I was living this normal life, nothing I could ask for more. So thinking back on those stories, I asked my best friend if I could interview her and let her tell me her story once more.

Tian Tian Lin came to America with her single mom at the age of eleven. Born in America but raised in China since the age of two, she could only speak Chinese, and English was completely foreign and confusing to her. At the age of eleven, learning a new language seemed impossible. She faced her first rejection from the town’s better middle school. She recalls, “They asked me what my telephone number was, and I was so confused what they asked me.” So she went to a middle school already populated with other Chinese immigrant kids. The new friends she made were all within her comfort zone. English was never a language she had to really encounter, despite living in America. It was hard for her already at home. Her mom didn’t quite have a steady job. She missed her father. In the last year of middle school, she took the Specialized High School Standardized Admissions Test (SHSAT), aced the math section, and got into the HS for Math, Sciences and Engineering. It’s a small school of about four hundred kids total, averaging a hundred per grade. It wasn’t hard to know the names of everyone in the grade. I remember freshman year, Tian Tian was one of the quietest. She sat alone during lunch. We all thought she was shy! Hearing from her now, about four years later, it was in actuality, she had no idea what was going on in classes, or what people were saying to her. It was very difficult for her to keep up in school. However, she realized she had to step up her game, and forced herself to learn the new language. English speakers constantly surrounded her. At the time, we were also learning German as a ‘second’ language. She struggled to learn German when English was already not her forte. She didn’t receive the best grades in freshman year, but it was clear on her transcript she worked hard and improved tenfold as she climbed to the top ten in class rank by senior year. To top all of that, she made her mother proud by getting into Cornell University, winning scholarships, and receiving a great deal of financial aid. Her mother does not have to pay much, and she’s receiving  an Ivy League education. She worked hard for it – she deserved it. I’m very proud of her too, and indeed it inspires me to work hard in my studies.

I wasn’t able to interview her in person since she’s in upstate New York at the moment, so I don’t have any audio to attach. She’s still a bit shy, so she suggested I could share a drawing of her portrait instead.


My Dad

My dad has always been there for me and thinking about all the things he has done for my family and me, I sometimes wonder who exactly is this man that I see everyday. Who exactly is this man that I look up to yet ironically I look down at because of his height. That man is my father, a husband, a son, and much more.

His story begins in the year 1962. He was born into a Chinese family but his life was already fated to be unique from day one of his life. He was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela into a family that had little to offer. He recalls that times may have been tough, but they were simple times where running around and playing with any of his brothers was extremely fun and enjoyable.

In his early years, he experienced change and that was ultimately due to the relocation of his family in order to find new opportunities. At the age of six, he would find himself in Colombia where my grandfather opened his own business, a Chinese restaurant. The restaurant became a reliable source of money but life was still hard. He didn’t mind it because everyone played a helping hand. “In a family with six sons, it would only make sense to have them help out around the restaurant,” he said. The restaurant soon gave my grandfather enough to venture into other businesses and in the course of a few years he would have money invested in various businesses.

Growing up in South America my Dad learned Spanish as a second language and started learning basic English. He loved living in South America.

He noted, “The food was great and the weather, while hot felt nice to be in. We didn’t have any of these chilly winters back then.”

But there were times where he did not enjoy it as much as he could have. The reason? Racism.  Even today it is uncommon to see a Chinese family in South America. He remembers that he would often hear “chino” or “chinito” when new people met him.

My Dad still remembers the day he would leave to go to America along with the rest of his family. All of them had their passports in hand and all of them had faces of uncertainty yet hope. He was already aware of the American dream but finally, his chance to experience it first hand has come at last.

America was a new place for him. For starters, he did not know any English and it was through a family friend that on their his first day here, they all went to eat Dimsum. For the rest of the week, they spent their time in the apartments and houses of my grandfather’s friends.

Then he finally bought a house. It is a pretty big house but considering he had five other brothers and later on four other cousins living in it, the living space got incredibly crowded at an incredibly quick rate. My father grew up becoming almost like a father to my uncles. He mentioned, “I was the second oldest, but Big Bro was traveling with Grandpa so that left me in charge most of the time.”

Most people usually mention one thing when it comes to a great change in their lives but in my dad’s case, he said there were two things that changed his life.

The first takes places in college. After graduating from high school he went off to college with some of his close friends. After his sophomore year he made the decision to drop out of college. He no longer found school interesting and felt it was a waste of time. He was a young man who wanted to be out there in the world and just have fun all the time. So he dropped out and found a job that was good enough to give him cash to thrive on. He recalled that it was fun being able to just go out with his friends and hang out.

Things quickly changed though. He got married but barely had any money. Although, my grandfather could afford to take care of him, he didn’t want to live life like that.

He states that, “I did want to be a leech and become the son who cannot take care of himself.”

The second thing that changed his life was having his first son, me. He knew that he wanted to become a father who could provide an opportunity for his child. With the experience of dropping out of college, he realized how much it has set him back in life and because of that he does not want to see the same thing happening to me. Having a newborn son come into his life “set [his] life back on track” as he started looking for a job that would be able to provide more money to help him raise a family.

My father experience many difficulties over his life but he would not change a thing. Although he comes home tired and oftentimes complaining of the work he does, he has his children and family to come home to and because of us, his complaints are drowned out.


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One More New Yorker

For a few generations, my family has been moving from place to place, often following where business was flowing. We lived in mainland India for a long time, until Burma became an up and coming trade city. My great grandfather settled in Rangoon, Burma and had his first two children there (one of which was my grandfather). However, events took a very sharp turn in Burma and the area became a very hostile area to live in. At the time, Burma was still a part of India and there was a big effort by locals to separate and create a new country. One night, my great-grandparents took their children and snuck onto a boat and out of Burma in the middle of the night. They came to Jaipur, India where my family has been for several years and where I visit once a year.

In Jaipur, my father was born and raised and he even took in the family business: gem stones. When my great-grandfather came here, he started a gem stone business which my grandfather inherited and passed onto my father. At an early age, my father was forced to travel to Europe, Hong Kong, Bangkok and even the United States to help my grandfather do business. I specifically use the word “forced” because India then was much more isolated from outside society than it is now. To my father, familiarity was key and being home was most important. Going abroad was never as convenient as it is now because the language barriers were much stronger (since English wasn’t as widely spoken as today), communication with home was incredibly more difficult, and it wasn’t as convenient to travel.

However, with business booming, my father was forced to move abroad. My grandfather had several offices set up in New York, Bangkok, and Hong Kong and he needed people to go and manage them. My dad was one of them and he already knew he couldn’t live in Bangkok and Hong Kong. Many of his friends were moving to the states so it was the only option worth considering; however he didn’t want to even consider it. As I mentioned before, familiarity was key in India and still much hasn’t changed, which is why the decision proved to be so difficult for my father. He was ultimately allowed to postpone his decision, for a brief amount of time, because his cousin was moving to New York then. My grandfather and father came to an agreement that they would send him for short trips and if he really found it unmanageable, then he could stay in Jaipur. Until then, my dad would spend brief business trips in New York, living with my Uncle.

My dad finally came to New York and fell in love with the city instantly- any other response would have been shocking. He was able to manage life here just fine, and even found a great place of belonging amongst his friends that moved to the city from India. He realized that he wouldn’t find it completely easy living so far away from home but seeing that it wasn’t as difficult as he imagined and that someone needed to manage the New York office, he agreed.

However, what was going on during his constant trips to and from New York was that he met my mother in Jaipur. They met, got to know each other, and eventually decided to get married. However, if my dad was traveling throughout his life and was still reluctant to move, my mom had no intention of leaving her home city. She grew up in Jaipur and was even more confined than my father. Her trips were only outside of the city and to different parts of India, yet she became homesick very fast. To her, moving abroad was a ridiculous idea and to this day she doesn’t know how she managed to agree. When I ask her if she would have preferred to stay she immediately answers with a “YES!” It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy life in the United States, but everything familiar to her is still important and it’s with her parents in Jaipur. She’s always been visiting on a yearly basis, but finds it insufficient.

After a few years in the United States, my parents became accustomed to life here. They had three children, me and my two sisters. My dad began to run the family business and says he is very grateful for moving. For him it was the initial push which caused all the struggle, but he’s never looked back on his decision to move.


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Right Place, Right Time

Credit to baruchakpsi.squarespace.com

Bailey Hu is a junior majoring in Finance. When I asked him if there was any particular moment that shaped him into whom he is now, his eyes lit up and said, “Yes,” without hesitating. This experience is what sent him on the path directed to where he is now.

Originally, he was going to go into marine biology because that is something he is passionate about and truly enjoys. He even applied to three other colleges, other than Baruch College, for their marine biology major. Realistically, he knew that this major isn’t exactly something he would want to study to eventually form into a career. He was first introduced to finance when he joined the entrepreneurship club back in high school. Through this club, he was able to meet some friends who started their own line of clothing and accessories and he learned the basic things about finance from them.

What really swayed him into the business field was an opportunity he was given after an internship he had in Shanghai in his junior year of high school, which was, ironically, related to marine biology. I guess that experience of his is what really struck me and convinced me to base this project off of him because how often do you meet someone who was able to land an internship while in high school in a completely different country?

This all started when he was at a gathering with his family and friends of his parents. He struck a conversation with a guest at the party who happened to have connections with a lab related to marine biology. Bailey contacted someone from the lab and applied for an internship position that he was soon given an offer a few days later. This is when his story really begins.

After the one-month internship in Shanghai, Bailey had a layover in London so he spent some time traveling around and sightseeing the city by taking the tube. Somewhere along the way, he was reading a newspaper when a businessman struck up a conversation with him. Turns out, the man is a recruiter who was looking for someone to work for the company. After talking for a bit, the man gave him a business card with some contact information and told him to call the number as soon as possible. Before he got on the plane back to the States, he dialed the number he was given and soon enough, he found himself another internship. The most exciting part of this opportunity for him? It’s in London for an entire month.

The first issue that arose was where he was going to stay and what he was going to eat. Of course, the standards of living in London were quite high. He had been interning in Shanghai for a month, the money he earned wasn’t really enough for living and eating costs. That didn’t stop him and he wasn’t going to pass up this offer. He convinced his parents to lend him money that he needed for that month which he would eventually pay. But – it wasn’t that easy for him because his parents charged interest. Not just a small interest rate, either, but a pretty large rate that cost him not going out whenever he wanted for the rest of the year.

He ended up missing the first two weeks of school and had to fly back as soon as possible because of the troubles he could face if he had anymore absences. It was worth it for him because he had such an amazing experience to suddenly have the chance work and live in the UK. He learned a lot about finance through this internship and opened his eyes to many different aspects that he was able to apply to courses relating to finance in college.

However, his experience in London didn’t end there. When he came back to New York, the company reached out to him a few months later about the recruiting firm opening an office in the city and offered him another opportunity to work there. Now, when the firm started running into troubles with the manager leaving, he is able to take all the work that was left over with no problem. When there were any difficulties back at the firm in London, he knew enough about the company and its progress to fly back between semesters to give reports.

His story is fascinating to me because he happened to be at the right place, at the right time, for multiple occasions. Here, many juniors in high school are busy burying their nose into SAT textbooks, applying to college, or writing their college essays. Unlike many others, Bailey had the chance to go out to the real world to work at such a young age – all on his own, too! This is an inspiring story because it can show others that when you are given a chance to do something, do it! Even if there are obstacles that come along with it, push yourself through because nothing in life will be obstacle free and in the end, the experience will be worth it. Finally, it’s an example to show that opportunities don’t come knocking when you keep yourself at home. I’m going to end this with a quote that Bailey quoted at the end of the interview, by Danny Wallace: “Probably some of the best things that have ever happened to you in life, happened because you said yes to something. Otherwise things just sort of stay the same.”

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Who She Is: Babushka Raisa

Raisa Kaydanovskaya is my grandmother.  But I can’t call her my grandmother because she speaks little to no English.  Instead, I call her Babushka, the Russian word for grandmother.

She was born in 1928 in the city of Orsha, Belarus.  The 1930s were a rough time in the Soviet Union.  Between 1932 and 1933, it was known as the голод года, Russian for the famine years.  Still, her parents did their best to provide food, shelter, and education for her and her sister.

Then, the true horror came.  In 1939, she had finished 5th grade in the Soviet Education System.  On her last day of school, she was sent to summer camp.  Coincidentally, it was the same day World War 2 had started.  The parents were notified immediately and her father came to pick her up.

It was only the beginning.  When she was home, her entire city was being bombed.  The main reason was that Orsha contained an important railroad junction.  In the midst of all of this, she and her family drove off to friend’s house in the woods.  But they weren’t there for a long time.  The Nazi military front was advancing.

So, her dad asked one of his friends if he can drive his family to a different city.  The friend agreed and when the car came, her father told them to get into the car and drive to Viasmo.  Then he said that he would regroup with them later.

The ride wasn’t smooth at all.  Many times they had to stop driving, go outside, and hide.  They did this whenever they heard a German plane.  According to my grandma, the Soviet planes made little to no sound.  While the German planes had a “wooooo” sound.  When they heard it, they would need to stop driving and hide.  The reason was simple.  If the aircraft saw a vehicle driving, they would come down and bomb it.

With all this stress they were dealing, there was a funny moment.  One time as they were coming back into the car, her sister, who was six at the time, accidentally sat on a box of eggs.  At first, she didn’t realize this.  But then she asked, “почему моя попа мокрая?” (Why is my butt wet?).  Everyone started to laugh.  Babushka says that it was interesting that in the heat of this serious moment, laughter found its way to creep in.

Eventually, they made it safe and sound to Viasmo and her father got there safe as well.  Still, the officials in Viasmo told them that they needed to head towards Moscow because the front was closing in.

They got on a train and went to Ciziram, a city near Moscow.  They were there for a few days as well.  It was because her father’s job was being relocated to Kuybyshev.  The family followed suit and that’s where Babushka stayed until the war ended.

Life in Kuybyshev was hard as well.  It was the main city where all the refugees went to, including my grandfather.  Babushka lived in a small room and shared a bed with a girl who would later be her best friend in life.  She attended school, cared for her sister, and worked on farm in order to support herself and her sister.

When the war ended, she went to Medical school in Kuybyshev.  Then in 1947, her parents decided to move to Minsk.  Not be alone, she transferred her studies to the Medical Institute of Minsk.  Then in 1950, she graduated and started to work as a doctor.

It is very interesting to see how little sacrifice Americans went through during the World Wars.  I am not saying that the American men who died in Europe did so in vain.  I am stating that the common US family wasn’t affected that much by the war.  The Germans didn’t cause Americans to evacuate.  It’s a side of history we don’t see: the people who were affected most by these terrible wars.  That is why I chose to interview my grandma.  She witnessed first-hand how everything was and how they needed to escape.  It’s nice to read a textbook and imagine how it was like.  But to hear one individual aspect is amazing.  It can be compared to when you ask an American who was alive when John F. Kennedy was assassinated or when the Twin Towers fell.  They could tell you everything they did on that day.  The Soviet version would have to be when the Nazis invaded.  My grandma sometimes doesn’t know what day it is and also forgets to take her medication once in a while.  But when I asked her to elaborate on how it was to live when the Germans attacked, she remembered everything to almost the exact detail.  I was shocked at how she recalled every city that she went.  Sadly, her generation is dwindling and one day, there will be no more of these eyewitnesses to history.

This project was an initiative by me to record this important account in the world before I regret not doing so. I do regret having the sub-titles up on the video.  Though it is necessary for the entire class to understand what she is saying, it takes away from her voice.  When she speaks, it sounds like a story that is being told. It is very soothing and keeps one interested.  As people are reading the subtitles, they would be reading it through their own voice and not hers.

Raisa before the War

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A Losing Bet

This is the interview that is cited in my essay

Paul Woo is my father and he has always had a very confident attitude and outlook on life. Though he has always been like this, a moment in his life secured this feeling, a moment that was shocking to me based on the way he looks now.

My father was heavy during all of his youth. He says he was “fat since day one,” maxing out at 350 plus pounds at age 19 and at a 52 inch waist. He always knew being heavy was unhealthy but there was not much he could do about it. He had a busy schedule with Chinese school in addition to regular school and he ended up eating 5 meals a day around his schedule: breakfast, a 12 o’clock lunch, 3 o’clock meal before Chinese school, 7:30 dinner and an 11 o’clock meal while doing homework for both schools. During grade school, he was picked for a childhood game only because of his weight, a sad story if you think about it. But I chose to ask him about it during the interview because his first-hand details could not be replicated in my words.

He was picked on at Xavier High School for being fat. Xavier was an all boys Catholic school that was predominantly Caucasian. Being Asian and fat did not help his cause. Other students felt that Asians weren’t supposed to be fat, and he was an outcast because of his weight. He was introverted and held back from the social scene. But to his parents who recently immigrated to the U.S. from poor China, fat was accepted because it showed you had the money to eat well. It was a striking cultural difference.

In his teenage years, he tried to lose some weight, but diets didn’t work for him. He ate less and exercised more but nothing seemed to work. Even the diets that seemed to be successful were only short lived. Eventually he would put back the weight and more. But in his junior year of college, he made a bet with a coworker who he had met the previous year. The bet was that he could lose weight on her recommended Scarsdale diet. My dad felt he would not lose weight and it was an easy bet to win. I chose to get these details from him during the interview because it was very personal and it would ring better if he told the story. But the bottom line is that he lost the bet and weight and this got him believing that he could lose weight. He started going to discotheques since they were in fashion in his time, and danced for a few hours for aerobic exercise. He gives more details in the audio clip because I think it makes for a more amusing story.

Soon he dropped 160 plus pounds and was 190 pounds at age 23. Losing the bet gave him the confidence he needed to start losing weight. Although he always liked himself, he liked himself even more when he was thinner. He was more confident after the weight loss and he knew he could handle anything. He says, “I know what I can do for you, what can you do for me?” That attitude has stuck with him until now, even at age 52. He is still confident in himself and feels that it is someone else’s loss if they don’t get to fully meet and understand him. While he was fat, no one bothered to get to know him and he knows they missed out. Now at 52, he is happy and still 190 pounds, working out 5 days a week to stay healthy. But he would not have the same mindset, or figure, if it weren’t for that losing bet.

From this…

…to this, in four years



Who He Was/Is: John Scanlon

Who He Was/Is

On September 22nd, 1972, one of the hardest working individuals was born into this world, my father, John E. Scanlon.  As a child, he didn’t have much.  He was the youngest of four children to my grandmother, Julia.  They grew up in a small two bedroom apartment in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn just off of Avenue U.  At the age of two, his father walked out on them, ultimately leaving the family financially inept.  Although he does not have much recollection of his father, my dad remembers the impact that he left on the family.

Throughout his childhood, John watched his mother work two jobs just to make ends meet.  My grandmother did the best she could to raise four children, but with two jobs, she wasn’t always around.  Consequently, my dad and his siblings relied heavily on each other while growing up.  As the youngest of the four, my father was always the last one to receive all different kinds of hand-me-down clothing.  Despite their economic struggle, each of them did their part to make sure their home was up and running because my grandmother could not do it all by herself.  By working two jobs, my grandmother did everything she could to assure her kids had the best childhood possible.

So where did John get his work ethic?  He says he gets it from watching his mother struggle all of those years to make his life a little easier.  He didn’t want to experience the distress that his mother did, so he sought a way out.  His hard work began in elementary school, and it ultimately carried over into high school.  To this day, my grandmother and his siblings speak of how good of a student he was and how well he did in school.  Besides being at the top of his class, my father began to work during his freshman year at the age of 13.  He got his first job at S&K, an auto body shop, where he would sweep up the place after school.  He became very interested in the business and wanted to learn more about it.

At age 16, he left S&K to work for De-Ko, another body shop in the area.  This is where my dad began to pick up the tools of the trade.  When his senior year came, he was asked where he wanted to attend college.  My father told his guidance counselor that he didn’t want to attend college; he wanted to own his own body shop.  My grandmother was extremely bothered by his decision because she worked countless hours just to send him and his siblings to Catholic school.  She feared his choice would come back to haunt him, and he would wind up dealing with similar economic hardships.

But my father didn’t think negatively of his decision.  In his mind, he was living the life and chasing a dream.  For the rest of his senior year, he spent days upon days working in the shop, learning everything he could about it.  After high school ended, he went on to work for a 3rd and final body shop, where he learned the essentials of running his own business.  From this point on, John knew he wanted to own a body shop one day, and this opportunity came about quicker than he expected.

He met his partner Steven in the auto shop industry, who my Aunt Brenda would eventually wind up marrying.  After much thought and collaboration, John and Steven decided that they wanted to open up a body shop of their own.  In the fall of 1991, they saw a window of opportunity.  An old, rundown building was for rent, and they figured they could fix it up and use it to start their own business.  In December of 1991, my father signed the official documentation to rent the building.  They spent the next two months renovating the entire place and gathering the resources necessary to run the shop.  In February of 1992, Narrows Body Craftsmen Inc. was born, and my father was only 19.

My dad at Narrows, 1992

Although my father was living the dream of owning his own business, he knew this was going to be no walk in the park.  There were dozens of nights where my father would work additional hours to make an extra few dollars.  There were plenty of nights where my father wound up sleeping at the shop after working the entire night.  To put it quite simply, my father was a “go getter” when it came to business; nothing stood in his path.

By the age of 21, my father had me, his first child.  At such a young age, he had the responsibility of running both a business and a family, but this didn’t stop him.  Most people his age were out enjoying the final stage of their youth, but my father wasn’t.  Instead, he was out doing business on a daily basis to make sure that my mother and I didn’t have to live the way he did.  After he spent a few years in the body shop business, he later went on to partner up with my Uncle Bob in both the potato chip and juice distribution. In 2003, they saw the golden opportunity of becoming distributors of Boar’s Head Cold Cuts.  Currently today, my father and my uncle each own their own routes.  My father’s is located all throughout Staten Island and Brooklyn, the place where he still calls home today.

So as I conclude my first Macaulay Honors Seminar in the Arts, I have become more aware of the cultural realities in the world around us.  Socioeconomic class is often one of the most difficult barriers to overcome in society.  Often times, it is more difficult for impoverished families to move up in society regardless of how hard they work.  My father, however, is a prime example that the American Dream still exists today.  His hard work from a very young age was turned into a success story like no other.  Because of his diligent work ethic, he not only achieved his own goal of starting his own business, but he also made it possible for me, his son, to dream higher than him.

My father winning a prestigious Boar’s Head                       Deli of Distinction Award
December 2012


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Who He Was/She Was Who He Is/She Is

I know that you are all under great pressure so I am pushing back the deadline for the

Who He Was Project  from Tuesday, December 11th to Thursday, December 13th!

Prof. B.

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William Henry O’Dowd

I’ve also been fascinated by war and WWII in particular. I am an avid fan of history, and for me WWII is really the turning point for the world in entering the “modern age”. Life has changed so much since the late 30’s and early 40’s, an era marked by the bloodiest war in history. Millions died around the world, each called to fight for their country. It was a time of national pride, but also tragic in the number of young American boys lost in a war marked by so much evil.

My grandfather’s brother, William Henry O’Dowd, grew up in Miami, the first of eight children. He graduated from high school in ’39, a time when the country was still stuck in the Great Depression. There were no jobs available and so two years out of high school he joined the army. I cannot fathom such a decision being made by a 20 year, only 1 year older than I am now. William died just a few years ago, and everything I am able to relate about his life was recounted to me by my grandfather, James O’Dowd. The great pride that he has for his brother can be heard in his voice, and the excitement with which he describes different stories his brother must have told him.

William, Bill for short, wanted to join the Army Air-core, the segment we now call the Air-force. Unfortunately, because he didn’t have perfect vision he could not become a pilot as he dreamed. He had to content himself with loading the “bomber aircrafts” that went on raids. Through my grandfather, I learned that he and his loading crew would always count how many planes returned from the mission, and often, especially in the beginning of the war, only about half came back. Through this counting of plans, the winning side could be learned. In the beginning of the war, many planes did not return. However, as the war continued and Germany became over-extended in their aggression, a larger percentage of planes returned. The Allies were slowly beating back the aggressive Axis of Powers.

William stayed in the Army Aircore all throughout the war, serving his country from the age of 20 to 25. Can you imagine being a war during your early 20’s? Still today, we see young men enlist in the marines for no other reason than for their eagerness to serve their country. I’m very proud of my great uncle William and his duty to our country. I hope that I may also be able to contribute to a better America and help further the world with acts of courage and justice.

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Background Reading and Viewing: Who He/She Was/Is Projects

Dear Arts in New York City Students:

For our discussion of the Who He Was/Who She Was/ Who He is/Who She Is project

please read through past stories. They can be found at:



See you on Tuesday, November 20th!


Prof. B.

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Who He Was, Who She Was… and Is

A series of in-depth profiles of inspiring New Yorkers. Who were they when they arrived, and who have they become since? Who were they at one point in their life and how did they change?

The idea is not to relate someone’s entire biography but rather to relate a period in their life, an event, a moment that is illuminating. If they were an immigrant, how, why did they end up in America and what were the specific challenges? If they were born here, what obstacles did they face?

Try to use visual details, stories, dialogue, stories, and anecdotes to flesh out your subjects.

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