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My skating story, so far

I was six years old when I laced on a pair of skates and took my first steps on the ice. I have vague memories of that day. All I do remember was that I clung onto the boards, all the while watching my brother in the corner of my eye effortlessly skating across the ice--one time around, then two times around, again and again. But I was still only meters away from the rink doors, cautiously taking small steps along the perimeter of the rink.

A lot has changed in ten years. 

No longer do I need to cling onto the boards. But getting to this point has not been easy. Saying that I've been through a lot is an understatement at best--it's been one hell of a journey. 

The beginnings

My early days of skating were marked by tagging along with my older brother. He started skating first, but not long after my first time on the ice, my mom signed us up for skating lessons at the local ice rink. I was enrolled in the lowest level, Snowball, while my brother was enrolled two levels above me in Beginner 2. While we both gradually moved up in the skating school achievement ladder, skating still was just a fun after-school activity we both did--hardly dreaming to become a competitive skater one day. 

We only went to the rink for the classes twice a week and 'practiced' during the given thirty minutes of ice time after our lessons. It was not until my brother was noticed by his group teacher, who noted his potential and how he could quickly improve with some private lessons. My parents reluctantly agreed, and we began to skate more often. Instead of wandering off or practicing on my own during my brother's lessons, I would stay in close proximity to him, close enough to see what he was up to and to hear what his coach was telling him to do. And then, I would attempt to imitate whatever my brother was doing. This continued on for some time, until the coach noticed my "yearning to skate" and my parents again reluctantly agreed to have private coaching for both of their sons.  

Thanks to the private coaching we received outside of group classes, we quickly began to ascend through the skating school, adding another ribbon and certificate into our ever-growing collection as we passed each level. I also began testing in the USFSA category, starting at pre-preliminary 1, and then got my first program (to Puttin' on the Ritz), and began competing at small, local competitions. Along the way, my brother's interest in figure skating began to diminish, and he eventually quit altogether. But I stuck with the sport, and it was something I looked forward to daily. I then spent more and more time at the rink, especially during the summer when I would basically "live" at the rink. My mom would drop me off in the morning, and I would stay until late-afternoon, skating up to six hours a day. I put more and more time and effort into skating, working harder, taking more lessons. 

But many sacrifices had to be made. All the free time I had, I would spend it at the rink. Playdates, sleepovers, family vacations--I had very few of them. Financially, it hasn't been easy for my family either. Skating is an expensive sport--coaching fees, competition fees, traveling fees, costume fees, ice time fees, and new skates add up to thousands and thousands of dollars a year at the expense of my parents' paychecks--but my family has been supportive the whole way through, which I can't thank them enough for. 

Junior nationals, 2008

I qualified to my first national championships in the Juvenile level after placing 2nd at Regionals. I didn't know what to expect when I arrived in Salt Lake City, but I had trained hard and was well prepared. I was still only ten years old, and I was in awe watching others effortlessly land double axels and triples. Then came the day for the qualifying round, and I surprised myself by placing first in one of the two groups. I dismissed my early victory as a stroke of good luck: I had skated my best when others faltered. 

Final round came two days later. I had to once again perform at my personal best in order to place in the top ten. The final result came by surprise--I ended up in first place. I had absolutely no expectations coming in to this competition, and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would end up standing at the top of the podium during the awards ceremony. Initially, I didn't even believe I ended up in first. There must have been one other skater who did better than me, I thought. I even asked my coach to get my protocol and the printed final results to confirm my victory. I looked up to the very top of the list, and there my name was right next to the number one. I still couldn't believe it; I was in utter shock. 

The awards ceremony came right after my event. After receiving flowers, my medal, and a glass trophy, I remember thinking, This must be how all those Olympic champions on TV feel like when they receive their gold medal and a bouquet of flowers and wave to the audience and the millions of people watching from around the world. That was the moment that my dreams of becoming an Olympian began. I dreamed of the day that the American national anthem would be playing, and an Olympic gold would be hanging around my neck.

My (more than) fair share of double axels

After I came back home, I was instantly back into training. I was really motivated after the event to improve my skills and expand my jumping arsenal. First off, I was determined to get a double axel. But days, months, and even a year passed by with no luck. By the time the Junior National Championships in 2009 came, I still had yet to land a clean one. One whole year and still no double axel. I ended up in seventh that year in the Intermediate level--disappointing to say the least. 

When I got back home, I was even more determined to get that jump. Fall after fall, mistake after mistake, miss after miss, I felt devastated and frustrated and angry at myself. I knew and believed that I was fully capable of doing it, but attempt after attempt, my will was slowly diminishing. Even others--my coach, my parents--began losing faith in me. If I don't get this jump by the end of this season, I will quit, I swore to myself. But deep down, I knew I would never be able to give up this sport. I've lived and breathed skating for almost half my life, and I knew I could not give up that easily. I am stronger than that, I forced myself to believe. 

All that only pushed me to work harder and gave me even more motivation to prove them wrong. Then, on a summer afternoon, I landed my first double axel. 

Triples, triples, triples and 'big boy' nationals

After finally getting a double axel, triples were much, much easier to master. Within less than a year, I had a consistent triple salchow, toe and loop. Then came time for my first sectional championships in the Novice division, the 2011 Pacific Coasts. 

A week before the even, I caught a cold, and was feeling ill-prepared to compete. I had lost some precious training time and my stamina was running low. I managed to get through a short program with two triples, but popped a double axel at the end of my program and was in fourth place going into the free skate. Only the top four make it to Nationals, and I was cutting it close. Then came the day for the long program. Feeling uneasy that day, I made numerous mistakes throughout the program and ended up finishing fifth overall. That meant I did not qualify for nationals. I was devastated. I had came to Sectionals, only to end up as the first alternate. 

A week and a half before 2011 Nationals began, I got a phone call from USFSA saying that a skater, who ended up in the top four at sectionals, was injured and withdrew. Since I was first alternate, that meant I was going to compete in his spot; I would be going to my first 'big boy' nationals. My mom frantically booked hotel and flight reservations while I was training my programs once again. I had little time to prepare, but I came to nationals excited and nervous. 

The moment I stepped into the main arena, I was immediately wowed by how enormous the rink and arena looked. I would be skating on the same ice as the elite senior skaters, the same ice that is broadcasted on TV every year. Skating on arena ice was completely new to me: the lights were brighter, the ceilings were much higher, and there were seats surrounding the entire rink, up to the very, very top. This was all very exciting--I couldn't believe I actually belonged here as a competitor. I was in awe, and it was an honor to compete at the 'real' nationals. I had little expectations coming in--I was ill-prepared, and my main goal was to learn from this experience as much as possible. 

In the short, I botched a triple loop attempt and ended up in ninth. In the free skate, I landed three triples, but fell twice. Overall, I ended up in ninth place. The results to me didn't matter. I did my best under the conditions I was in, and since my job was done, I had a whole week to relax and enjoy watching the juniors and seniors compete for the national titles. 

I watched Ryan Bradley win his national title, and Alissa Czisny win hers. Watching the competitors warm up, get on the ice, the rare standing ovations, experiencing the vibe in the arena live, in person--it was all a magical experience. Next year, I hoped, I would rightfully earn a spot at nationals, for real this time. I was more motivated than ever before. 

San Jose, here I come

2012 Nationals would be in San Jose, California--a mere hour drive from my hometown and training town--and I knew I had to work harder than I ever had if I wanted to qualify and skate my best at the championships. 

By the time sectionals came, this time I was well-prepared. After the short program, I was in second place. However, the next day, I dropped down to third. Why? I had attempted a triple-triple combination, and someone realized that it was an 'illegal' element in the Novice Men short program. I had lost nine or so points, but luckily, I was still in qualifying position. With no time or energy to be weighed down with this 'controversy' as to whether or not the scores could be changed after they were posted officially, I went into the free skate knowing as long as I did my job, I would have no trouble making it to nationals. 

I landed six triples and ended up in second place overall. Nationals was just two months away. 

I worked harder than ever before, so that when the most important time came I vowed to have absolutely no regrets. I trained six days a week, mornings and afternoons--and I was exhausted by the end of the week, but I pushed on. I wanted to be on the podium this time so badly, and for this season, I had more expectations and pressure to skate well than ever before. Nationals was just outside my hometown, my training town. My parents would be watching, my family would be watching, my friends would be watching, my school and my community would be watching. The pressure was slowly building up.

When I stepped onto the arena ice for the first time, I instantly knew what I had to do: to go out there and to skate like I have been skating in practice. That's it. I hoped that my hard work was going to pay off. And it did, sort of. I skated a clean short, the best I've skated the program all year, and was in second place. By the time the free skate came, I was a nervous wreak and broke down from the pressure I felt. I popped the first three triples, but went on to land three other ones. It was barely enough to hang on to the podium--I ended up in fourth place overall. Backstage, I cried. I was devastated once again. How could I have missed three jumps in a row? I knew I could have done better, much better. I just wanted to go back out on the ice and erase what had just happened, but I couldn't. 

Injury and hiatus

One month after nationals, I started working on triple axels. And then, I sprained my right ankle on an attempt. I thought I would quickly recover from the sprain, but the pain never went away. 

A few months later, I got it checked by a doctor and was put into a cast and crutches. A whole summer went by, and all I could do was sit at home. It was a tough period to get through. I watched others skate, but I myself couldn't. I wanted to get back onto the ice, but I was stuck at home all day long. I didn't know what to make of it. Then, after I got the cast removed, the pain still lingered. 

I gave up skating altogether after I tried getting back onto the ice, with little success. I tried to remove myself from everything skating as much as I could and distracted myself with school and other stuff. I tried hard not to think that I would never be able to jump and skate again. I went to several doctors but there was no treatment for my injury available, except surgery. And that was it. I was at a loss, not knowing what to do next. My whole life since I was five, for nine years, was surrounded by this sport. Every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year my mind was thinking about skating, skating, skating. 

I tried my best not to think about it.

Recovery (kind of) and comeback

I went back to Hong Kong for more than a month this summer to get traditional Chinese treatment, like acupuncture, cupping and tui-na. My ankle felt better after the treatment, but it still was not 100% pain-free.

I slowly started getting back onto the ice, and though I still felt some pain, I started jumping and gradually got my strength back. I started doing triples again. My muscle memory, surprisingly, was still intact. Most importantly, my self-confidence, self-belief, slowly started building up again--I was back on the ice once again. 

Moving forward

I'm planning to return to the competitive scene, after a year hiatus. It's been one exhausting and extensive journey to one day be able to realize my Olympic dreams. But dreams, essentially, are still just dreams. I'm not sure how it's going to turn out, but nonetheless, I'm optimistic and hopeful as new challenges and a new season await. Hopefully, this is just the introduction, the start, and the beginning of my skating story. 

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Exclusive: Life as a Chinese factory worker

This July, I had the chance to visit a small clothing printing factory in Dongguan, China. This medium-sized factory with around a hundred or so workers has fulfilled orders from many name-brand clients, such as Nike and Hugo Boss. From Hong Kong, I traveled with the factory owner, and we embarked on a two-hour journey across the border into mainland China. 

 

Eating and living conditions 

Female factory workers eating lunch in their rooms

Female factory workers eating lunch in their rooms

We arrived at around noon, just as the workers were taking their mid-day break and having lunch at the factory cafeteria. I had already eaten, but I still took a quick peek at the food they were serving and the dining environment. The food looked somewhat appetizing--lunch for that day was bitter melon with egg and other green vegetables over rice. Only the "harder working men," whose job requires more strength and power, receive a small portion of meat. Most ate in the crowded dining room, furnished with tables and chairs, a small TV, and even pool tables. In the midst of the summer heat, the room was dim and surprisingly cool. 

We then walked to the dormitory located adjacent to the factory and cafeteria, and I got a chance to check out a few of the workers' rooms. The first of which was a room designated for a manager's family. More spacious than the others, the room has air-conditioning and even an old desktop computer. Inside another room for common workers, a handful of women were eating their lunch here instead of in the dining hall. Each room has six small bunk beds, so up to twelve workers live in a single room--it's noticeably small and crowded. All their belongings are kept and confined to their own bunk space, and some even cover their bunk with a curtain for added privacy. 

From around 12 or so to 2pm, the workers are given a rest period and break after lunch is served, and many choose to take a nap after they eat. The workers come from all parts of China, and many are already accustomed to taking mid-day snoozes. Without this period of rest, the owner notes that the workers would not be able to function by the end of the day. 

The factory

Workers doing various tasks on one floor of the factory

The factory building consists of three stories and also includes the main office. The bottom two floors contain long rows of tables and basic wooden tools for hand-printing. The top floor contain the only machines in the building: a few large iron presses that imprint logos and designs onto shirts and other clothing. Almost all the clothing are printed by hand, with the exception of the iron presses. Blue silk screens of various sizes are used to transfer paint onto clothing, creating your generic t-shirt logos or other fashionable decorations. When asked why most of the printing is done by hand, the owner said that the overhead and production costs would be extremely high and unpractical for a factory of his size. So, more workers are hired to quicken the printing process and to keep up with the demand from clients. Managers are hired for the sole reason of pushing the workers to reach quota goals and meet the quality standards. 

The owner recollects one time where some thousands of shirts had a logo printed the wrong way, and the order had to be canceled and money had to be compensated for the client. Because the workers and even the managers have little to no knowledge of English, they apparently did not notice that the letters of the logo were upside down. This mistake went unnoticed until they were sent to the client, and all of the few thousands of wrongly-printed shirts had to be trashed, unfortunately. 

Salary and daily life

 

Interestingly enough, the owner points out that workers are driven by one factor: money. In other words, the workers are looking to send some cash back to their family and hopefully be able to raise their standard of living. They get low pay as a factory worker here, only a few hundred per month, nowhere close to minimum wage levels in the U.S., although housing and food is provided for free. Workers work six days a week and are required to show up by 8 am and stay until the evening, but they are also strongly encouraged to work overtime for some additional income. Workers may work from 8 am to 10pm or even later. 

The work life for many may feel dull and monotonous to some extent. That is why many seek out other ways of entertainment, such as mahjong. For some reason, men are willing to risk and gamble a day's or even a month's salary on a single mahjong game, and they usually end up losing it all by the end of the night. Why? Perhaps it's the lack of stimulation or passion for their job. Maybe it's the desire to seek out the excitement when betting against the odds. In any case, gambling and mahjong has become so popular with the men in the factory that they continue to play and gamble their money away. 

 

Working for an afternoon

Me working with the iron presses, with a worker observing my every move

I even became an aspiring factory worker for an afternoon. I tried my hand at using the iron presses, alining the desired prints and logos before sending it underneath the large press. Not long after I began, the repetitive motions of this task began to tire me, but the reminder of the whole stack of unprinted shirts behind me forced me to quicken my pace and continue on.

Summer in this area is not very wonderful in any way. It's hot and humid, and there are only a few fans in the whole building. Not long after I began, I started sweating and feeling hot and uncomfortable. I really don't understand how the workers can work all day, unfazed by the sweltering summer heat. For a quick moment, I saw a young girl, not much older than me, take a quick break to cool down in front of a fan across the room before returning back to work. Perhaps she was a new worker too?

I also tried other tasks on the other two floors, and by the end of the afternoon, I set out to print a design onto my own shirt.  Printing using the silk screens was probably the hardest task I had to face the whole day. Even with the help of the other workers, I still made a few mistakes. I accidentally hit the blowdryer on the half-dried paint, causing an uncorrectable raised mark to appear. I wasn't able to evenly apply the paint and had to have a worker spend extra time to even out the paint. I didn't notice it at first, but the print I made says "Supergirl" in Japanese. Oops. Not that anyone is going to notice. 

By the end of the afternoon, I was exhausted and ready for a relaxing massage or something of the like. Factory work obviously isn't the greatest or most exciting job of all, but it's the harsh reality that these workers face day to day. To these workers, the opportunity and stable income that factory work provides is enough for them to leave their homes and families behind in order to work in a factory like this--something that I could never imagine myself having to do.  As I was reminded as I ended my "shift" and departed back to Hong Kong, everyone in the building had at least five more hours of work left.

 

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