fly high, my inner child, you’re now free (it’ll be okay, I promise)

Art by Olivia White

On the eve of my 20th birthday and the start of a new spring semester, I began the process of packing to leave my childhood home once again. I had no idea how to feel. So much was swirling in my mind. Turning 20. Entering my fourth semester of college, almost halfway through. Summer plans. I felt numb to it all. There was so much unknown and unwritten, which quite frankly terrified me. 

I headed down the stairs of my unfinished basement to grab paper towel rolls and napkins. My West Hall quad desperately needed these things, and I did not want to spend any of my own money, so I did what all college students often do when they move back onto campus—go on a shopping spree at my parents’ place. 

Over the years, our basement has become a collection of nonperishables, suitcases, and memorabilia that my mother and I have collected. It has become the site that houses my archives. Old gaming consoles, school yearbooks, painting supplies, and concert tickets tell a story about the different eras of Ziyi Billy Zeng. 

As I found the legendary Kirkland Signature paper towels, I remembered that next to them is where my mother keeps the family photo albums. I had flipped through them when I was little, but I had never thought much of them. To my mother, they have always reminded her of small glimpses into our old lifestyle in the bustling city of Guangzhou—a lifestyle that she will always be most familiar with rather than the conventional American Dream.

I felt compelled to open the photo albums once again. Maybe it was because I was turning 20. Maybe it was because I was leaving for college again, and I longed for the good old days. Who knows. I think I am at that age where I finally feel the desire to learn about my own culture, history, and stories for the first time. 

I opened up the drawer of photo books and picked up the first one I saw on top of the pile. 

This time, the photos were more than photos. As I opened up the book, my body stood still while my brain attempted to write these photos into my life story. My heart was fuzzy like a freshly snapped glow-in-the-dark stick, as bright colors and happiness began to glow inside me. I felt truly connected to a past that seemed so distant but just within reach. For once in my lifetime, it felt like stories that I could see myself in. I saw flashbacks of my extended family that I had not seen in such a long time. Faces of my 表哥 (cousins), 表叔 (uncles), 姑妈 (aunts), and 家人朋友 (family friends) that are now dispersed across the US and China. 

I saw photos of my younger self, a person with whom I have always had a hard time being friends. He was looking at the camera with the biggest smile and finding joy in the most mundane things. I hadn’t seen myself smile that wide in a long time. The photos instantly brought me back to a much simpler time in my life. To a life that was naive, where my biggest problem was worrying about how to spell the word “together” for class spelling tests.

Yet, those photos of little Billy caused me to reflect. To reflect upon my teenage struggles with self-confidence, self-expression, and self-worth. As much as my family photos revealed answers to questions about my own history, there was a part of me that wished these photos were not part of my story. Family has always been a touchy subject for me. I’ve longed to connect with my relatives and distant cousins, but years of financial hardships and traumas slowly obliterated holiday parties, birthday gatherings, and family outings. Just like that, I’m instantly reminded of my reality and why my family spends every holiday without them. 

Sucking the joy out of what should otherwise be happy memories, these photos also resurfaced deep resentment toward my family. The same family faces that I saw in old photos over the years became the source of my fading smile. They took away my childhood—how could I ever forgive them? 

The smiles that once brightened my days have slowly dwindled over the years as the realities of my life forced me to wake up from the gaze of childhood innocence. 

I’ve imagined a chance to talk to the younger me time and time again over the years. What would I say? Where and how would I even start? Would I apologize for the ways I’ve lost my sparkle and shine growing up? How would I let him know that it was never his fault?

On the brink of another milestone in my life, I should be optimistic and grateful. But I’m left feeling empty—a seemingly bottomless void in my heart. I’m left being my own friend and obsessing over how to heal the child in the photos I stumbled upon. I’m left imagining the childhood memories that I’ve never had. 

The first word that always comes to my mind when I think about my healing is the word “play.” Playing is such a privilege, something I did not get to experience as a child. Instead, I was glued to my mother’s side, helping her earn a community college degree. Late nights of editing papers, writing emails, and reading college-level material defined my childhood. 

To me, the very idea of playing is all about expressing oneself. To play is to radically create scenarios and stories that emphasize creative risks and challenge normalized social behaviors.

If I had the chance, I would give my young self a camera to document the world and share it with others. A notebook to write his stories no matter how convoluted the plot may be. A canvas to paint his own world, to share his highest highs and lowest lows with the universe.

Growing up, I did not get the chance to express who I really was. I grew up obsessed with stories because my story appeared to be written for me. I was born into a plot line that I could not escape from. Reading the Percy Jackson series brought me endless joy as I stayed up until dawn following the adventures of demigods. I imagined myself fighting alongside Percy Jackson and his crew at Camp Half-Blood. I envied the characters because they had a community that understood, relied on, and supported each other.

In real life, outside of these books, my story was just me and no one else. I was the one doing the saving in my story. But, instead of slaying Greek mythological creatures and saving the day, I was busy protecting myself from my family and their policing of my eating habits, my sexuality, and my hobbies. 

I would give the younger me the unconditional love and the parenting he needed to have healthy relationships with himself. I would tell him to forever dance like nobody’s watching. To always be the light of every room that he walks into. To keep investing his time in meticulously collecting Pokémon cards. To achieve his dream of completing the Pokedexes on the games that he would play on his 3DS. 

As I close the photo book and stock up on paper towels for the semester, I can’t help but think of the new decade of life I am about to embark on. I wonder if the process of healing my inner child is like paper towels, cleaning up the debris my childhood left behind. 

The remnants of the person I once was, shaped by my family, are being wiped away. Left behind is a clean surface and new beginnings, as my paper towels absorb the past and all of its dark messes.

I am now in control of my own disarray, not my family. I write my own narrative, one filled with radical community, love, and grownup play dates with my chosen family.