There is a reason children shouldn’t use knives. I heard the story of a 4-year-old boy who decides to cut his own fruit, as he sees his mother do countless times. He balances an apple on the kitchen table. It’s a situation that could make a heart stop: an apple bobs around the table with a knife in the hands of a child, diligent on chasing it. The knife slips from his grasp—and lands straight through his tiny, bare, left foot, the handle sticking straight up. The boy howls and cries, immobile, and terrified. An uncle rushes out to the desperate scene. He steadies the boy, pulls out the knife, puts pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding … and puts a band-aid on it.
My husband finishes the story, “We never went to the hospital in those days. You just patch it up with napkins. Then he gave me a Coke. I was happy about that Coke.” He pulls up his foot to show me what is left of his knife-wielding ordeal—a thin pale scar.
I recall many times my folks decided against taking us to the hospital, too. That’s where people go to die, not be treated, they’d say. Asian parents—many of whom didn’t have healthcare—clean and patch up injuries with what is available, such as cleansing wipe packets from KFC.
Scars are storytellers. It’s a record of our lives, from innocently accidental moments to serious, transformative ones. I’m reading Tina Fey’s hilarious autobiography, “Bossypants.” Fey worked as an Emmy award-winning head writer and main cast member on Saturday Night Live for nearly ten years, wrote the script for the hit film “Mean Girls,” and currently stars in another popular show, “30 Rock.” For her to excel in so many fields—acting, comedy, writing and producing—is an inspiration. She’s famously quick-witted and open, but barely discernable, stretching across her left cheek and chin is a mysterious scar. She revealed in a 2008 interview that as a child, a stranger slashed her 5 year-old face in the alley behind her home.
Fey’s success is proof the incident and resulting scar would not define her and offered strength to accept who she is. That confidence and humility ultimately catapults her at NBC.
Reading her wickedly funny autobiography reminds me of the physical scars people acquire over their lives and how that shapes who they are.
Scars on the inside of my elbow and neck reveal a long and painful experience growing up with excema and the Chinese herbal treatments inflicted upon me for years. I remember the teasing by classmates, but most often I recall children in my elementary school days, when the rashes were at its worst, shun me as if I were covered in leprosy. Luckily, I outgrew it and since then learned to shrug off the opinions of others because like the excema, there isn’t much you can do about it. As a result, I gained a soft spot for bullied or misunderstood people, never feeling intimidated to stand up for others. Perhaps that sentiment brought me to the IE, an organization known as a voice for a community often misrepresented and left out of the equation.
Prior to escaping from Vietnam in his mother’s arms, my husband contracted polio at just a year old. His whole life, he never let this difference—a weaker right leg—limit life’s experiences. As a child, he doggedly followed his older brother as they “ran the streets”—so to speak. In middle school, doctors at Children’s Hospital performed surgery on his legs. The procedure’s aim was to limit bone growth in both legs, avoiding the debilitating probability of having legs of unequal length. “See these scars?” he describes, pointing at long, smooth scars at the knee and ankles. He stares at the scars for a moment. “I really think this made me a better person; to feel more for people.”
And I think this is what many of our most meaningful scars do. Scars—with their jagged lines or round smooth shapes of varying lengths and depths, are like a map on a person’s body, of where they’ve been, what they’ve done, who they are, and how they’ve healed. They’re the physical remains of a battle fought and won. Sometimes it showcases survival, other times character or personal history. In retrospect, I’m glad our folks didn’t take us to the hospital and instead, just put a band-aid on it. I suppose they knew it would heal on its own.