The essay below, which was required by The Common Application, successfully got Lim Sheau Yun admitted into Yale University, Stanford University, Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, Brown University, University of Chicago, Duke University, Barnard College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. Share your story.
“Chinese girls don’t shave their hair.”
Or at least, that’s what my grandfather, traditional man and Feng Shui enthusiast, told me.
“The only people who willingly shave their heads are true believers in Buddha. Others are being punished or are psychotic. You are none of the above.”
“And to top it all off, you’re a girl.”
So imagine his expression on the 22nd of May 2010, when this eighth grade girl went bald. To him, it didn’t matter if it was to raise money for a local cancer hospital in need of repaying a loan.
Understandably, my grandfather felt betrayed. Years ago, he and his father fled Mao’s China, choosing to preserve their Confucian legacy in Malaysia. My actions were against everything he fought to maintain: tradition, order and filial piety.
Chinese culture is a difficult environment to dare in. The primary school I used to attend had a strict rule: your hair had to be between three and five centimetres below your ear. Not one, not two, but between three and five, to be measured every two weeks or so. I was one of those in-betweeners caught between the paralysing boundaries of a ruler: a statistic, a short-haired bob in the midst of other girls who were taught to look and act the same. Feminine, but not too feminine. Intelligent, but not too bold, not too original. We were taught to be bright, but not to have a spark.
I don’t dwell too much on the why I shaved. It was mostly a blur of forms and raising money. What I do remember is that I cried a total of five times after. I was an outsider in my own home, at the mercy of my grandfather’s disapproval. After all, I was an absurd sight to see with my buzz cut, and my chin held so far high you couldn’t see the tears in my eyes.
But what I didn’t expect was the eventual respect my grandfather had for me. The ridicule stopped, and he started taking an interest in my academic and extracurricular pursuits. I think he had to begrudgingly acknowledge the courage it took to dare. As my mother once said: “If it’s one thing Chinese admire more than anything else, it’s strength.”
In some sense, it took a drastic act of rejection of tradition for my grandfather to realise that I was beyond a child, beyond another granddaughter he could safely protect in his anachronistic bubble which forbade risks. Certainly, my head shaving wasn’t the only event that spawned his change in perspective, but I like to think it helped.
The day I shaved my head was the day I discovered that a ruler could not define me and tradition would not hold me back. Fear used to be my breakfast, lunch, dinner. Fear of consequences, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of losing family, friends. I feared to venture outside the age-old path traipsed by countless Chinese women before me. But I did. And my grandfather’s mindset for his remaining two years on Earth also diverged from a path I once thought was concrete: he came to respect me not only as his granddaughter, but also as an independent woman who was free to make her own choices.
And I continue that legacy today. I’m certainly not fearless yet, but with each day, I grow a little bolder and a little more willing to dare, changing perspectives and destroying boundaries like the twenty-first century hybrid I am.
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