Running Towards Happiness


Clara Sullivan

The author’s mom in Paris while working for Lucent

Clara Sullivan, Staff Writer

Consistent strength in character throughout everything. Perpetual kindness, regardless of the situation. Determination to get through everything and achieve goals, no matter the hardships. These are all qualities for some sort of movie hero, or book protagonist, aren’t they? No one in this ruthlessly competitive world could actually be that stable, that empathetic, that resilient in every single situation throughout life. No one, right? Yet, the person who I know best, and knows me best, is that perfect, unconditionally strong, kind, and determined person. And just like any other main character, she has a story.

My mom lived in Sichuan, China, in a relatively urban place. Nowadays, China is a prosperous, far more stable place, but back in the 1980s, growing up could be rough, especially if one was on the poorer side. My mom was five years old when her parents divorced, and the court decided that her father had custody of her, while her older sister and brother stayed with her mom. She was sent to live with her paternal grandma in a rural area, as her single and working father couldn’t take care of her.

When she was ten years old, her father remarried. She was scared of having a stepmother, despite being treated very well by her father and grandma, and became paranoid from the books she had read about evil stepmothers. My mom told me, “I didn’t know anything about the stepmother, but from the limited stories I read about stepmothers, I was sure she was about to torture me, so I fled.”

One day after school, without packing or knowing where her mom lived, my mom decided to run. She knew the general direction of her mom’s house, so she just started walking, ten years old, through the dusty roads between villages, alone with nothing but a backpack filled with whatever she had left from school. My mom was convinced that her life would be one of pain with a stepmother, and decided to leave, mind made up, and as stubborn as she always was. I would call this persistence or determination, a demonstration of how far she would go to ensure stability and happiness ever since a young age.

After telling me this bit of story, she offhandedly added that it was her father’s honeymoon when she left. I had laughed in disbelief. 

“During their honeymoon?!” I cried out. My mom joined in with my laughter as she too realized how oddly funny it was.

“They were away, so I could flee!” she giggled.

Later on, she clarified that this fear of having a horrible stepmother was all imagined and that no one was going to torture her. She heavily emphasized the influence of the stories she read, making sure that I didn’t misunderstand anyone in her family. This, I noted, was another confirmation of how incredible of a person she is. Even though she could have simply told me the story without caring about how I would view her father and stepmother, she instead made sure that I understood that it was simply her being an imaginative, easily influenced ten year old. My mom hasn’t been in contact with that part of the family in years, as well. She still made sure that I wrote down how it was all in her imagination.

My mom’s walk through those bumpy streets as a ten year old was dangerous. The sky had darkened as the sun set, her walk taking hours. While telling me the story, she mentioned how, “I vividly remember the big beaming lights of trucks on my face and dusty roads..”

Ever since a young age, my mother was determined, and would continue moving forward in terrifying situations, even at ten years old. At the same time, anything could happen. Anything could go wrong. My mom didn’t even know exactly where her mom lived.

“I always thought there was a lucky star on me,” my mom had said as she told me how she found her way to her mother’s house.

It was nighttime when my mom’s music teacher saw my mom walking. My mom sat on her teacher’s back, and the teacher biked her to her mom’s home.

My mom looked me in the eyes as she softly said, “She saved me.”

From then on, she lived with her mother in that urban area.

My mom’s family rejoiced and had a happy reunion. Soon after, they had a “reality check”, as my mom had put it. Back then, in China, people had food stamps, which limited the amount of food each family could have. Her family had limited food, with only food stamps for three people, and another person joining meant one more mouth to feed. With a sigh, she said, “My family became the family that all neighbors knew that had financial difficulties.”

My mom didn’t always experience kindness like she did on her way back from her mother’s house. In 2017, around 35 years after she went to elementary school, my mother received a message from one of her former classmates that read something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry that I was mean and rude to you and your family when we were in school because of your family’s situation.” 

To explain this message, my mom called this situation “divorced and with no money”.

My mom replied with, “I don’t remember being mean, I just remember you being a good friend.”

Truthfully, the girl had been very rude to her and had hurt her in her past while they were in elementary school, all because of her “situation”. My mom stated, “Although I vividly remember her being mean, but I chose to forgive her.”

I believe in this story, my mom’s empathy is obvious enough.

When my mom was in middle school, there was a disabled girl. This was pre-industrial China, which is unlike modern day China, and they didn’t have wheelchairs for people with physical disabilities, only crutches. This girl had been bullied everyday, verbally and physically by boys who “called her names and pushed her around.”

My mom continued on, clearly upset at her former classmates’ actions. “So I decided I was going to walk her to school everyday. I got up every day thirty minutes early and waited for her downstairs.”

Each day for the rest of the school year, my mother would wait outside the girl’s home to walk her to school, and she befriended this girl. To do this, at such a young age, is just unbelievably kind.

“I didn’t know anyone noticed until during an assembly, my name was called for the – what would you call it? Benevolence? – benevolence award and I was very touched,” my mom went on to say how that award was the reason she was encouraged to be a good person for the rest of her life.

My mom grew up in the timeframe when China had a very rigorous college entrance examination policy, with three days of exams that tested on major courses. If one failed, they could never go to college. In highschool, she studied day and night, and said that, “For every minute that I was awake, I studied, for a good three years of my high school.” 

Again, my mom’s undying determination showed, albeit in a negative way.

“I could not eat because I was so nervous,” my mom explained, as she mentioned how she had lost too much weight at that time. She was 18 years old and weighed only 68 pounds. She was so determined to pass the exam that, “I could not eat, I could not do anything else but study.” 

As she told this story, she explained what she called her life’s philosophy. “[In a] developing economy, there isn’t much chance for people to change their mind, the only way to be able to work in a job you like or to live in a place you like, is to obtain higher education, so I continued with my graduate school and eventually got my PHD in 2010, after I had two children.”

After getting her college degree, my mom found a job teaching English in a university in Beijing which was famous in the telecommunication industry. Through that, she got introduced to Lucent Technologies, an American company. She left her teaching job for Lucent, and learned and grew so much there, alongside having the time of her life. As she said, “Through that job I was able to travel around the world and dance to my heart’s content in all the nightclubs around the world, London, Paris, Tokyo, Hongkong, Beijing.”

My mom was ecstatic when I asked her to stop mid sentence so I could write this quote down, the both of us laughing when she proclaimed, “I still think I’m the best Asian clubbing dancer in the world.”

While working for Lucent, my mom was a liaison between American and Chinese colleagues, in New Jersey. She started to go to Stevens Institute of Technology for her graduate degree, pursuing that higher education that she always believed would get her far. 

Smiling, my mom continued telling her story. “That’s where I met your father.”

I had immediately awed, clasping my hands together as my mom kept on smiling lovingly.

To think that throughout all these years she’s been nothing but kind, determined, and empathetic seems impossible, but it was possible and still is. And it’s all paid off with a happy life.

My mom’s story leaves her off with a loving husband and two kids. Our days spent together are full of laughter, stories, and lessons learned throughout our lives. She has been, and never once stopped being, generous, understanding, hardworking, and so, so persistent throughout everything. These qualities are what she has learned from all of the hardships life threw at her, and are exactly what pushed her past those obstacles. Her resilience got her where she is, and continues moving her forward. Just as she has said, “I have lived in many different places. The good feeling I have about this is, every single time I’m moving, I’m running towards something, not running away from something.”