by Kelly M., 17

1977, Qingdao, China
Age 8

There was no doubt that he was gifted, learning how to write at the age of four, skipping two grades and still keeping his number one spot in the class. He had always been the brightest kid in school; getting straight As was as easy as dusting his mother’s piano, which sat at the corner of her house. He loved watching his mother’s fingers bouncing up and down the keyboard and listening as the melody unraveled. He could listen to it forever. 

For eight years, all he did was watch and listen, until one day he walked to the piano stool and sat down. He placed his hands on the keyboard and pressed on one of the keys. He tried to recall all the melodies that his mother used to play, and of course, he knew all of them. His fingers settled on the keys and he quickly pieced the notes in his head. Silent Night, that was his favorite. It was by Franz Xaver Gruber, a composer from Austria—he had read about it somewhere. 

Spending most of his free time reading, he had gone through every single book from the school’s tiny library. He didn’t mind that the library was small, or messy, or old; it was peaceful and quiet, and he loved it. His favorite thing about the library was a map that hung on the brick wall next to the window. It was a world map—the vibrant color had faded, the corners were ripped away and creases wrapped all over it—he was fascinated. He wondered what people on the other side of the world looked like; he wondered where they went to school; he wondered how they learned; he wondered if they loved reading as much as he did; he wondered if their mothers played the piano. His brown and curious eyes scanned up and down the map and landed on the continent of North America. Many of these questions would be answered in his sixth grade World History class. 

1985, Beijing, China
Age 16

He waved his father goodbye as he stepped through the marble gate of Peking University. It was no surprise, not even to his parents, that he got recruited by the best university in China. He knew that he would end up somewhere good the moment he realized that he could solve the bonus challenge question with no problem. He finished the two-hour test in 30 minutes, the same amount of time it takes to walk around the mountain behind his house with his father. He wondered when he’d get to do that again. 

The path up the mountain seemed easier and easier to hike each year. Perhaps the mountain got smaller, or perhaps he simply grew taller. His father would always tell him ancient stories, legends whose reality he never questioned. He would listen to these stories over and over again. Not even once did he get tired of them. He can still remember those stories like the back of his hand. He looked back at his father and waved one last time before disappearing into the crowd, merging with other scrambling students. 

He was recruited by the psychology department, a brand new field at Peking University. His father scolded him for not choosing math or chemistry. What he really wanted to major in was architecture, but he couldn’t afford to decline Peking University’s offer. He was the youngest in his class, intimidated by how old everyone else looked. Flashbacks of being bullied by middle school classmates rushed into his brain. He swallowed hard and shut his eyes. When he opened them again, he was sitting in the window seat of an airplane on a one-way flight to the United States.

He looked outside the window, the sunlight hitting his glasses. He let out a sigh of relief when he knew his scholarship letter from the graduate school at the University of Michigan was tucked away in his backpack. 

1993, Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States
Age 24

Something changed inside him—he was no longer timid, he was no longer short, he was no longer small, he was no longer quiet, he no longer wore glasses, but most importantly, he was no longer provincial. He looked up at the world map hanging in his dorm, the color still vibrant, the corners sharp, not a single crease or fold could be spotted. His fingers traced along the different cities in the United States he had been to during the past eight years, his eyes skimming over the states he planned on visiting. His heart desired for countries he yearned to travel to. 

It was a bold choice that he made, to continue with his doctoral degree after finishing his masters. Most of his friends left school and entered the workforce. He couldn’t do it. School was his safe haven, shielding him from whatever was out there. He was comfortable staying in school, because school and studying were what he was excellent at. But he knew a day would come when school could no longer protect him, where he must become independent and live the life he wanted. He wanted nothing more than to see the beautiful buildings gifted by the ancient world. He wanted nothing more than to visit all the historical sights and study the tales behind them. He wanted nothing more than to visit all the grand libraries in Europe and spend the rest of his life in a sea of books and stories. 

But he had no money, no savings, no friends—just a top-notch brain, and a fiery heart. He shook his head and brought his thoughts back to the present. Scanning the room, everything was packed neatly at the door. The room looked exactly the same as it did eight years ago when he walked in it for the first time. His gaze went back to the only thing left on the wall—the world map. He carefully pulled the four pins out of each corner of the map and set them aside on the table. He took the map down and rolled it up in his hand, looked around the room once more before shutting the door.

1997, New York, United States
Age 32

Looking down from the office building of Citigroup headquarters, he could see people and cars flooding Greenwich Street. He’d miss this sight. This city was like no other. It was definitely not Qingdao; it lacked tranquility. It was most certainly not Ann Arbor; it lacked feeling. It didn’t have to be either—it was New York. 

He never thought that this would be where his psychology degree would take him. Turning his head, he strode to the back of the office and gazed at the map, now framed, on the wall. The map that he had spent his money on back in Ann Arbor hadn’t aged a bit. In fact, it looked even more vibrant accented by the wooden framing. His eyes examined the map: memories of his travels came rushing back, and a satisfied grin floated across his face. 

He had set foot in all the states that he wanted to go; he flew to every single country he wished to visit; he also read all the books he ever wanted in the most beautiful libraries in the world. All of which were completed during countless paid business trips that his company sent him on. There was, though, one last very important trip that he needed to take. He’d been invited to become the manager of Citibank China, double his current salary. He picked up his finger and pointed it at a spot on the map: Qingdao, China. Time to go home.

2005, Shanghai, China
Age 40

Two divorces, two failed investments, two bankrupted companies, two daughters later, he found himself back at square one.

All the toil and sweat meant nothing. All the late nights and long flights took him nowhere. Giving up felt too easy. He didn’t know what had gone wrong. Looking in the bathroom mirror in the luxurious mansion he could no longer afford, he saw a pair of tired eyes staring back at him. He pitied the person in the mirror. He pitied his failures; he pitied his decisions. He turned on the carved faucet, splashed some water on his face before wiping it off with a towel and walking out the bathroom. 

He followed the sharp laughter echoing in the house and discovered both of his daughters in his office. They were sitting on his desk and scribbling something on what looked like a piece of paper. He walked closer and realized that it was no paper. He turned his head to look at the map that was supposed to be hung safely on the wall, and his heart almost skipped a beat. His daughters were scribbling on his precious world map. The girls noticed his presence and immediately dropped the pens on the table, making a clicking noise. He was expecting to find black ink scratched all over the map, but instead, he saw big and small circles over the names of several countries and cities. Italy, France, Australia, Los Angeles, New York, Korea, Canada. 

He stared at the map just for a little longer. He wanted to take his daughters to all those places. He wanted to show them the most beautiful libraries in the world. He wanted to tell his daughters all the tales and legends that his father had told him. Even though he had no money, no stocks, no companies, no titles, he had a top-notch brain, two daughters, and a fiery heart.

Palo Alto, California