SanSan Chen

Even though the seat belt kept me grounded, I still got lost among the kaleidoscope of colors. My eyes greedily soaked in the hues, especially in the emerald green of the trees, the sky’s azure blue, and the pale pink that layered the horizons. As we zipped by, the swirls of colors and irregular shapes meshed as though in a vivid, but fleeting painting. The hum of the engine soothed my nerves, and the changing scenery intoxicated me. I felt drowsy but at peace.

Suddenly, my mother cursed under her breath before stomping on the brakes. The screech of tires silenced the engine’s lullaby, breaking me out of my trance. In front of the red glare of the traffic light, my surroundings stilled. The colors no longer meshed, and the irregular shapes morphed into a man with eyes weathered by hardship. He stood on the sidewalk holding a sign that had one word. One word to depict a feeling nobody wants, yet so many people suffer from. One word that deprives the belly of warmth and causes people to steal, to fight, to die: “Hungry.” The word hungry still haunts me. At that moment, my peace shattered like glass, a rude awakening. As we drove past his hopeful face and his scratchy blanket on the concrete, I felt useless, small, but most of all, hungry. Hungry to learn. Hungry to change. Hungry to help.

Luckily for me, I did not have to wait long. In 2014, houses in rural Carrollton, Georgia, were still depreciated from the 2008 recession. I took my savings from working at my parents’ restaurant and asked my mom if I could buy a house. Mom and Dad stared at the small amount, stared at each other, and then laughed in my face. However, they must have sensed my determination because they ended up taking out loans from family members and banks to invest in my idea. Doubt threatened to set me back because I was betting not only my money but also my parents’. Fear permeated my mind, but fear is a good thing. It encouraged me to put in real effort to ensure the success of our enterprise, CNY Properties, LLC.

When I saw my parents sign the mortgage document for our first house under CNY, I knew we had taken a step forward. The lender’s smile was a mask of warmth, ensuring us this was a great decision, and a small part of me wanted to call him out for his fake sincerity. He only benefited from the mortgage; he was not the one carrying the burden of his family’s trust on his shoulders. I imagined so many different scenarios in my head. Sometimes, I would picture the light that awaited us at the end. Other times, I would wake up sweating, thinking about the loans building upon themselves and then crashing down like waves.

My dad likes to think of himself as a professional remodeler. Perhaps in a past life (if the idea of reincarnation happens to suit you), he fixed palaces for kings. Wielding hammers, jackhammers, and other tools came naturally to him despite his lack of prior experience. Our first project was a two-story shoddy building in desperate need of a paint job. Most of the yellow paint had crusted off, fluttering and curling like sparkling spindrifts against the green of the grass. Wasp colonies nestled in the folds of the roof. The 90-degree angles that framed the bottom of the front door looked uneven with huge gaps everywhere and stones jetting in various directions.

For some reason, be it by sheer convenience or a faulty assumption, my dad subjected me to doing only interior work. When I asked him why, he told me he did not want others to see his daughter lathering concrete on the sidewalk. Our indoor work mostly consisted of my brother and I spending hours cutting stained carpet into rectangular pieces, then rolling them up and tossing them into the trailer. Roaches and spiders frequently crawled out, and I took great pleasure in spraying them with Raid and seeing their bodies quiver. In addition, I stood on ladders, sinks, and counter tops to paint every inch of the house. After a while, each brushstroke felt heavy in my hand, leaving my biceps sore but strong, which is probably why I could beat every boy in arm wrestling in Junior High.

The house had no running water, and no lights to see which places I missed painting. My dad would come in when I was almost finished, wiping his hands on his jeans. He sounded like an inspector, always critical. “Repaint,” he would say, or “Paint again using this second coat.” I often complained, asking him why I was always stuck with menial, repetitive tasks while my brother learned new things like unclogging pipes, exchanging hinges, and tinkering with fixtures.

One day, however, as my dad ran a jackhammer, its howl drowned out my unvoiced complaints, reminding me of my initial hunger. I could hear the thunk as it pierced past concrete and stones and into the earth, slicing obstacles like butter. I wanted to be like the jackhammer. The mechanical whirling vibrated throughout the house, infusing me with newfound energy. My dad working hard outside. My brother working hard inside. My mom working hard at the restaurant. My family believed in my idea. In me. Our future was uncertain, but we were venturing together.

As my father went inside the house to do his “inspector” duties, his nose crinkled due to my overuse of Raid. However, as he glanced around the pristine double-coated white walls and hallways, he could not hide his surprise. I enjoyed this moment until he beckoned me to the room where my brother laminated floors.

“You want to learn something new?” he asked. He picked up a wooden piece and grabbed a spare mallet and tapping block.

I watched him fit the piece to the rest of the flooring like a puzzle, place the tapping block on the side, and drive it home with the mallet. As I worked the puzzle beneath me, my brother did the corners and edges of the room, using the crosscut saw to size the flooring. Occasionally, I choked on the sawdust-coated air, but I did not mind. I finally learned something new. As my family and I learned how to work as a team, the light I dreamed of reaching no longer seemed distant.

After we finished renovating the house, I took a final stroll in and around the building. Even though the house reminded me of my miserable labor, I could not hate it. Truthfully, when my sweat dried and my wounds healed, all I felt towards the house was fondness. Later, I transitioned from manual labor to office-oriented work since my parents were not fluent in English. Working for CNY taught me how to draw up contracts, write receipts, and keep track of tenants. I learned how to navigate the courts and deal with bureaucracies like the Homeowners Association. Most importantly, I learned how to communicate with people.

As CNY grew, I slowly began to satisfy my hunger to help those around me. My donations are no longer limited to time. Now, I can purchase resources and donate gifts and food to organizations such as Toys for Tots, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Carepointe’s Food Pantry. I became an active participant in food drives and am a huge supporter of the Adopt-a-Family Program. In addition, CNY allowed my parents to fulfill their dreams in starting a small seafood market in Atlanta, Georgia, without worrying about the stresses that initially tied their hands.

Without my knowledge, my business led me through a journey of being a more mature individual with a broader range of abilities. It opened doors of newfound appreciation for perseverance, mental strength, and integrity. While CNY is mainly situated in Carrollton, the components of a good work ethic and the will to succeed it instilled into my character follow me wherever I go. Be it in school, in the job field, or in college, I strive to work hard. Be it with others, within myself, or my family, I aim to impact. Be it with hunger, I seek change.