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Fences
By Olivia Zhu, Age 12, Saratoga
Regional Winner, Central Santa Clara County
Essay on Growing Up Asian in America


There is an Asian philosophy instructing children to obey their elders. In fact, the old are respected for their wisdom, so different from knowledge, which can be acquired, that can be locked in a room and forced into the brains of anyone. Wisdom is a byproduct of experience, a result of time spent, and thus attributed to age, just like the best wines are locked in cellars for years and the finest meat is cured. I always believed that this was an idea specific to Chinese culture, because I grew up in a Chinese family.

Mr. Robert McWeeny, who I know as Bob, lives in the house next to us. He is a widower in his late seventies, with white hair and a long, slightly hooked nose. He lives alone, though he invites his children and grandchildren to his empty house for parties often, just to talk to them and play. My brother plays baseball in the backyard, and occasionally, he hits a homerun too far and the ball will land over the fence. The next day, the baseball that had been lost and never expected to return will surprisingly be found in our yard again, thrown by a thoughtful neighbor with white hair. When my family first moved into our current house, he gave us a blue photo album, filled with pictures of our house being built - the foundation being laid, the construction workers in hard hats working to lay a frame of wood on brown dirt. So I saw my house being built, one day after the next.

On New Year's Eve, a large tree fell onto part of the fence separating our yard from Bob’s. Nobody was at home when it fell. Bob's seventy-foot tall pine tree also crushed a tool shed that ah-gong (grandfather) had painted when I used it as a playhouse.

Ah-gong stayed in America for a few years during my childhood, caring for us for about two years. He could not drive a car or speak English, so his time was spent at home, making tiny animals from Fimo clay and baking them in the oven. I used to beg him to make my favorite animals - a horse, a lion, and strangely, a rhino - and he always complied. One day, he found some plaster of Paris and an old picture of my brother and I, and he started to make a bust of each of us. The pale white faces were hung in the playhouse along with all of the miniature animals.

As soon as we arrived back home, Bob's son came over and brought some of ah-gong's artwork and our childhood drawings that had been scattered when the shed had been destroyed. This thoughtful gesture completely touched me, as the items he had brought were my favorite ones, and the most valuable objects in the playhouse. He also came over to discuss a few details about the fence reconstruction with my parents on the behalf of his father.

A few weeks after this incident, the fence was rebuilt due to the care of Bob's son. Even though this fence was put up, I realize that the stereotypical fence between white and Asian cultures never existed between Bob's family and mine. From the beginning, they have treated us with the same amount of respect that they have treated everyone else on our street. The “fence” between different ethnicities subsists because of the lack of respect for trivial differences such as food, dress, and traditions. This misunderstanding is not a difficult thing to change, and large steps have been taken to accept other cultures. Living in the Bay Area, this is something I continually experience, because of the multitude of races here.

Bob's son respected his father by talking to my parents for him, as well as visiting him regularly with his children. I realize that the belief that the elderly should be treated with respect is spread across the world, and it is not centered on Chinese culture.

There is a proverb that states: “Good fences make good neighbors.” In the case of my family, the destruction of a fence caused a closer relationship between Bob's family and mine. I am happy that I have had the opportunity to live in such a wonderful neighborhood with equally amazing people, who have no prejudice against me because I am Chinese. Because of Bob and his family, I realize that ethnicity has no relation to the respect one has for their family, their friends, and their community.


Growing Up Asian in America is a program of the Asian Pacific Fund, a foundation established to improve the well-being of all Asians in the Bay Area. The largest program in the nation celebrating Asian heritage, Growing Up Asian in America provides a unique forum for youth to explore their ideas on being Asian and American through art and writing. Students in grades kindergarten through 12 compete every year for $27,000 in savings bond awards, and the winning entries are displayed in public libraries throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more about this program, visit the Asian Pacific Fund web site,http://www.asianpacificfund.org/awards/guaa/, or call (415) 433-6859.
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