Outside the compound, the wind was howling. It was too strong, too forceful, making the straw and mud compound defenseless before it. Yong curled himself into a ball to make himself warm. He had no cotton clothes nor coal, and the wind from the sea took the last bit of warm air away from his compound. Yong had been very familiar with the wind. In fact, he knew wind better than he knew anything else, even his own family. Wind brought him away from the shore on his boat to the center of the sea. It brought him to places where he could find fish, and that was the only way Yong made money.
Yong was a fisherman, living on the north-east coast of China. He came from a well-off family further north. He had a happy childhood, till the foreigners came. In his memory, all of a sudden, his hometown was occupied by flags that he did not recognize. Men with pale skin and big noses took away his house. Within months, his father and brothers were all gone. People said they went away, to places down south where they thought they could make money without being controlled by the foreigners. But they never returned. There was no place that was safe. People died quickly, as if they hated to be born to this world and were eager to return to whatever place they came from. Within years, Yong had become the only person people knew alive in his family. Then wars started. One lord fought another, and bandits visited Yong’s villages more frequently than ever. The people, the land, even the bandits were all as poor as Yong himself. Under the shadow of wars, famine, and poverty, Yong’s hope of living a good life in his hometown like his family used to do got destroyed. He started to go east, and finally stopped when he met the shore. Looking at the sun jumping out of the sea for the first time in his life, listening to the waves coming and going, Yong found the hope and determination for starting a new life.
Sunlight slashed into the compound, breaking Yong’s sleepless night. He got up quickly, got on his little boat, and headed to the sea. Life was like fishing. The time when you think you got the fish was also the time when the fish was most likely to escape. No fish yesterday. No fish the day before yesterday. And no fish the day before the day before yesterday. Yong was not good at counting. But he knew that he had been eating only porridge for a long long time. People on the shore said the fish were gone because China was no more a place of life. The white men left, but the Japanese came after them, together with the slaughters. People fled, like the fish. But Yong was different. He came here for a better life. He would keep fighting for it.
“I should head to the place where the sun jumps out,” Yong told himself; “It’s warm there, and fish will like it.” Yong rose the sail higher and applied a right rudder. The boat turned right submissively, cutting the water before it in half with the help of the wind, heading towards the east. The wind blew hard. Waves rose up from the sea and hit the boat repeatedly, throwing it up and down. Yong felt he had gone far enough. He reefed the sail and took out the net. He turned around swiftly, throwing the net far into the water. Watching the net sinking into sea water, Yong put his hands together and prayed the first time ever, for good luck and for the help of the gods. Having a feeling that the net had reached about the right depth, Yong took out the paddles and began rowing. The boat moved slowly through the waves under Yong’s forceful strides. Before long, the rope connecting the net straightens, and the boat started to drag the net forward. Yong kept rowing quietly, imagining himself to be a tireless engine. Listening to the waves, the wind, and his own heart beats, he felt himself so lonely, as if he was the only one left between the sky and the sea. Mist rose, blocking the sun. Everything that could be clearly seen was now gone, devoured by the mist. Fear arose. The uncertainty of the future, the doubt as to the path he had chosen, and the chance of losing direction on this vast ocean and never being able to meet the shore again all weighed on Yong’s heart. He wanted to cry out for the unfairness of his fate. Yong realized how much he hated the world he was born into, like everyone else. But unlike anyone else, it was also the reason that he wanted to change it. “Change my own fate at least,” Yong thought. He started to row even harder.
The sun was falling down behind the mountains in the west. Yong was back on land and walking slowly on the mud road near the port. The whole day’s stress had crashed down on him, making him powerless. The net hanged quietly on his shoulder, emptier than ever. He didn’t even get any sea grass. All the efforts were put in vain. “Is this really the right way to change my life?” Yong started to question himself.
Noise broke into his thoughts and grabbed his attention. Yong turned left and took a look. A large crowd was standing there, talking loudly. The excitement on their faces was a scene Yong hadn’t seen in years. “This is so unusual,” he thought, walking up to the crowd. In the center stood a man, holding a poster. Yong’s eye was immediately attracted by the man’s tidy uniform and the shining buttons on it. Although short, the man was energetic. “Join the navy, serve our country, and fight the Japanese!” he shouted, “it is the time for us to stand up, to change the fate our nation!”
“Yes. It is the time to change the fate of our nation, for myself.” Yong put down the net gently, walking up to the officer with determination.
The stadium is large and spacious. Under the high roof, the red track seems so much longer than two hundred meters. The starter gun, the timer, and the billboard that is used to show the ranking of the athletes, are all standing by, waiting to be witnesses to the fierce competition. No other teams have arrived yet, and the stadium is so quiet and peaceful, as if it were a church instead. Jonathan and his team climb up the stairs and look for good seats. There is a tough track meet ahead of them. League championship is not something that you can get without a fight. Jonathan feels uneasy. Five laps, one thousand meters. Although having done it many times, he knows that the race is going to hurt. Jonathan sits down among his teammates, putting down his gear. Everyone is busy around him, and nervous at the same time. Jonathan’s heart is pumping fast. He has an urgent desire to run fast, to win, to contribute to his team. The fear of not knowing what will happen stresses him out.
It’s funny that eight months ago Jonathan was still in China, on the opposite side of the earth. He never thought of studying and living in such a different place, nor dreamed of sitting so close to his teammates on a track team. It was a sunny afternoon, if he recalls correctly. Jonathan climbed upstairs to his apartment with his mom, “If offered a chance, would you like moving to the US?” his mom asked.
“Do we have one?” Jonathan didn’t answer directly.
“Yes, we do,” answered his mom.
Later that night, Jonathan could not go to sleep. He knew very well what that offer meant. It meant he would see the same moon, but from a place far away, at the opposite time. It meant that he would leave the comfortable life and the familiar faces behind and embrace a foreign culture. It meant challenges and fear of the unknown.
With the sound of the door opening, Jonathan’s dad came into the room. He sat down on the edge of Jonathan’s bed, looking into Jonathan’s eyes, “I know what you are thinking about,” he said, “It’s a tough choice to make at such a young age. But before you make your decision, let me tell you a story about your great grandpa, Yong. This may help you make your own decision about your life.”
Listening to the story, Jonathan was moved by Yong’s fighting spirit. There weren’t a whole lot of chances in a person’s life that allow him to start fresh. Now he had the chance. He should take that risk, just like his great grandfather did.
Stepping out of the comfort zone and challenging yourself is what track is all about. Standing on the starting line, Jonathan feels sick. Despite all the warm-up he did, he still feels he’s not ready. The race hasn’t started yet, but the cheering is already so loud. “On your mark.” Everything suddenly becomes so quiet. Jonathan feels like his blood stops flowing. BANG! The loudest sound in the world marks the start of the race. Every athlete sprints across the start line, trying to get a good position. Jonathan stays in the middle of the pack, bearing in mind his game plan: not too fast in the first two laps. In a flash of time, Jonathan is already on his third lap. He is now in the front of the pack. He feels tired, but still has much energy left. The third lap is always the hardest. Jonathan wants to slow down. In fact, he does. He is afraid of the exhausting pain in his muscles that is yet to come. But a stronger voice in his head tells him to speed up. It tells him that all his practices and efforts are for this moment. It tells him what he and his family always do: fighting for the best.
Eight months before, he fought off the thoughts about staying comfortable and protected and came to the US. Now, he steps out of his comfort zone to face the challenge. He does not want to leave any regret on the track. He wants to be able to walk off the track and smile and tell his teammates and himself that he tried, he fought. Jonathan becomes focused once more. He gradually picks up his pace. He runs every stride forcefully, thinking only about passing the person in front of him. He can clearly feel that his opponent is also speeding up, but with less determination, with too many thoughts. Jonathan’s body feels like it is burning, while his hands feel ice cold. His legs are getting heavy, as if someone has put thousands of pounds on them. But he keeps striding forward. The track is hitting hard against his feet. He can feel the discomfort. But he ignores it. All he can think about is to run as fast as he can.
When Jonathan runs across the finish line, he feels like everything has stopped. He knows that his teammates are cheering hard the whole time, but he can’t hear anything, nor can he feel the soreness and the pain. He knows they are there, but all he can feel right now is joy. Not because he gets the first place, not because he breaks his record again, but because he leaves no regret behind. He tried. He fought. And he earned himself a good race.
Sitting on the school bus and heading home, Jonathan looks out of the window with his earbuds plugged in. Bright, colorful lights embellish the city of Boston, like the delicate and passionate strokes on Van Gogh’s Starry Night. “Calling out Father, hold fast and we will …” the soothing yet powerful line of Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire suddenly saddens Jonathan, making him think of Yong, his great grandfather. He wonders what he would do at a difficult time such as this. He wonders what Yong looks and sounds like, and what happened to him in the end. Jonathan has a million questions, but he does not know where to find the answers.
“Maybe Yong’s story will never finish,” Jonathan contemplates, “Maybe my job is not to uncover the end, but to keep writing it, and to pass it down.” Jonathan closes his eyes. He is really tired, but he is excited for tomorrow to arrive. Now he has one more reason to fight for each day.
Jonathan Zhang is a junior at Lexington High School in Massachusetts.