I fell in love the first time at sixteen years old. I met him on the beach in Los Angeles while I was on a journalism field trip. It was my third year in America, and I still had not quite assimilated into California student life. At school, some girls laughed at me because of my Chinese accent and said things like, “You speak English? You understand what we say? Your English is so bad.” They didn’t want to pair up with me in group projects and told others not to choose me. They said during a practice presentation once, “You shouldn’t have come here for high school. It’s too hard for you. How are you going to do the presentation?!”
At lunch time, most kids avoided me. In freshman year, I spent a month having lunch near the restroom. I’d sit there in the hallway, eating my homemade dumplings, thinking about what I should do to change my accent. The Asian American girls would sometimes pass me and roll their eyes, judging my clothes: “Why does she wear hoodies in summer?” I’m sure they thought I couldn’t understand them. I stayed in the corner, looking at them with no facial expressions or words. They would laugh and leave. I took my backpack and tried to cover the hoodie I was wearing. But it just did not work.
Every time I saw cute couples hanging out together in the hallways, I felt jealous. They sat together every day under the freshmen tree, smiled at each other and hugged. When it was rainy, the boys pulled their coats over the girls. In the education system in China where I grew up, the only thing students could do is study. Girls and boys, especially girls, were expected to avoid relationships in high school and college, keep their noses in the mountains of books and test tubes, but quickly get married after they graduate. During this journalism trip, all the girls had boyfriends back home. Some boyfriends were athletes, others budding scientists, others on the robotics team. At night, the girls would go out to the hallways and Facetime them. And I was always the one staying in the hotel room alone, turning on the television to the international Chinese news.
Our journalism class was staying at the hotel near Santa Monica Beach, where the roller coaster and the Ferris wheel lit up the sky at night. One evening, at the golden hour of sunset, I sat out on the hotel chairs with my leopard print sunglasses watching the sun go down. That was when I saw the glow shining on his body. All I remember now was his face. He walked directly toward me and handed me a cup of pineapple juice. It was around six o’clock in the evening, when many people had started to go back to their hotels. He took off his sunglasses, and I realized who he was.
I knew him from childhood, and our families were long-time business partners. We went to middle school at the same time, but at different schools back in Beijing. I remembered his mushroom cut back then, but my own goal to get first place in academics at my school made me pay no attention to him. Studies were my life back then. I would stay up all night and not even eat for ten hours just to study. I often stayed in the classroom after the school closed with other classmates so we could finish studying before finals.
He looked at me and smiled. He had just gotten out of the water, and the sun reflected on his abs. As a young woman who had never been in love, I thought he looked like a movie star. “Hi, pretty girl” was the first sentence out of his mouth. I should have known then.
“Aren’t you Rusal?” I asked, ignoring his greeting. I could tell he was surprised that I didn’t respond with giggles. “I know who you are,” I told him.
“Of course, I’m pretty sure I’m the cutest boy around here.”
It was really weird, the words that came out of his mouth because I knew him when he was still in primary school, when he cried near the basketball court because the teachers took his ball. But he was cute, and my stomach was full of a sudden crush and some jealousy because I was the only single girl on the journalism team. So, I smiled at him and said his last name. “Rusal, right?”
“What are you doing here in Los Angeles?” he asked.
I told him I was at journalism camp, and asked what he was doing here. “I’m on school break. I live here in Beverly Hills now and go to Sierra Canyon High School.”
The next day, he picked me up at the hotel in his dad’s Lamborghini and took me to Disneyland. I wore green shorts, a black crop top, pearl earrings, and a shell necklace, which I broke and lost in the park. I should have realized that that was a sign. But in a place like Disneyland, all the air around me felt sweet and romantic. On Mickey’s Fun Wheel, he held my hand, and we looked through the wire grate windows out at the scenery. I never thought the manmade lake could be so pretty. It was gold, with blue, flowing and shining like glitter wallpaper. I looked at Rusal, and he looked at me, and suddenly, we kissed. I’d never kissed a boy before, but it felt safe that he was someone I knew from childhood, from my homeland where people ate moon cakes to celebrate, where they understood that the Money God controlled wealth, where they believed in good luck charms like the color red, and bad luck like the number four.
I felt the door in my heart that I’d locked had suddenly opened. The next evening, we sat on the beach together, the wind of the night blowing on my face, and he put his hands around my shoulder. We looked at the stars in the sky, bright and charming, like a Hollywood romance. He told me to close my eyes, and when I opened them, there was a ring on my finger. “What’s this? What’s this for?” I asked him.
“It’s my grandmother’s ring. Now, it’s yours.” He kept his charming smile on his face. I looked at the ring, made of gold. In the middle, there was a turquoise-colored jade. From the experience of living with my grandmother, who loved jade, I could tell it was expensive and meaningful. In my culture, jade means “Forever love.”
In between my journalism camp activities, we spent time together. Over the next few days, we swam in the pool, ate eggs benedict on the balcony, and watched Kung Fu Panda. We promised to love each other forever like the white cranes that mate for life. We promised we would never ever break up. We talked about marriage and future plans. We talked about China and the food we missed from home. If I hadn’t known him since I was five years old, I wouldn’t have believed what he said.
When my journalism trip ended, I flew back to my town in Northern California. On May 20th, Valentine’s Day in China, I posted his photos on my WeChat and Instagram, and I said, “I love you so, forever,” followed by a heart emoji. He responded, “You are my girl forever.”
At that time, I began to feel good about myself for the first time. I saw myself as successful in all I did: schoolwork, writing, music. With all the efforts I put into becoming skilled at my passions, I had begun to receive what I wanted—acceptance to a journalism summer program, first place in a music competition, the slow but certain publication of my stories in American literary journals. I was back to the girl who I was in China—the girl people believed in before I’d come to America. Now I was a successful young woman who had a boyfriend who loved me so much that he gave me his grandmother’s ring as a promise.
Three months after this relationship started, I received a photo on my phone. In the image, Rusal was in a hotel room hugging a young woman who had long blonde hair and Kardashian makeup. There was red lipstick on his neck. A friend of his had sent the photo to me as “a favor,” so I wouldn’t keep trusting Rusal. Apparently, Rusal had become a player of love.
For two months, I couldn’t get away from the image. It was my first relationship, and I experienced this terrible loss. I suffered different levels of sadness that involved the consumption of cheesecake, popcorn chicken, and cup noodles. All the shining points and achievements in my life felt suddenly wiped out. I started to question myself. Maybe I wasn’t good enough? Maybe I didn’t have the right body shape? Maybe my nails were the wrong color? It was foolish but it was also like a death, the first of many deaths that I was sure to experience in my whole life. They came to me all at once, and I was like the single flower in the grassland, suddenly wind blows, I was swinging but I still stood there and stayed strong.
But a few months later, I found myself on the award stage again, this time for playing zither. One young woman came up to me afterwards and said, “You played with such a true heart and real feelings.”
I realized then that I hadn’t lost anything. Nothing but some self-confidence, trust, and pride. Sure, my young heart had been broken, but I was still myself, and I had gained a story
As a freshman at University of Iowa majoring in creative writing and musical theater, Yuwei is a creative writer, musical theater actress, journalist, page editor, and professional Chinese Zither player. She is actively involved in school and enjoys joining the community. Yuwei is a professional Chinese Zither player, a 21-string traditional Chinese Instrument for almost 2000 years old, which she has done since the age of four and already passed Level 10 at 11 years old. She enjoys doing competitions and won first place in the National Chinese Zither Competition from 2009 to 2016. She also writes her own zither pieces included: Summer; That year, that river; Childhood; Homeland grassland, Homeland river, etc. As a member of the High School Music Collaborative and the leader of PLAY Chinese Ensemble, Yuwei enjoys using music to share the joy and happiness with other people in the community. Yuwei is a creative writer, even though English is her second language and she just came to America 3 years ago, she has already won the Scholastic Writing Contest, Bay Area Book Festival Writing Competition, and the Tri-Valley High School Writing Competition as the only double winner. She got the scholarship to study Creative Writing in CSSSA in the summer of 2019. She is also the page editor of Amador Valley Journalism class. She always tries her best to make the school and the Pleasanton Unified School District better as a leader in LINK, an active member in Pleasanton SIAC and a student representative in LCAC and DCLC. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music, reading books and cycling.