On a recent interview, a kind young man asked me, “So, what’s it like never to be rejected anymore?” I laughed so hard that I couldn’t answer. Of course, I still get rejected all the time. Being an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author doesn’t mean you get to avoid rejection. It only means that different people reject you.
What I have learned is that no form of success comes without rejection, whether it is the rejection slip from your dream agent or the cute boy who falls in love with your best friend. When I was growing up, I spent some time thinking about what success truly was. I moved from Hong Kong to New York and worked in a Chinatown sweatshop with my family when I was only five years old. For a long time, success meant simply escaping that ruthless, draining life of manual labor. Then when I was lucky enough to study at Harvard, the world opened up to me. Suddenly, I had access to some of the brightest minds in the world. I began to realize that success might mean more than simply escaping. It might mean contributing too. That was when I made the decision to become a writer.
All along my path, I slipped and fell and got up again. When my family and I worked as hard and as fast as we could in the sweatshop, the factory owner cut our wages so that we couldn’t earn any extra money. At school, I was the awkward, badly-dressed Chinese girl and on top of everything, I was a brain too. Few girls wanted to be my friends. The boy I liked didn’t know I was alive. My first teacher didn’t care that I didn’t speak a word of English and gave me a zero on every test. There were times when I felt rejected on every front.
As I became older, I learned English and became better assimilated. I was lucky enough to have a gift for school and achieved some success there, but with every step that I took, I faced new challenges and the possibility of rejection again. Do I hate rejection? Absolutely. If I could, I would incinerate every rejection letter I received. I want to curse and scream and stomp my feet like a three-year-old.
Then I take a deep breath. I tell myself that we all need to follow our own paths, whatever they are. I remember that I am worthwhile, even if I have just been rejected by this person or institution. I bear in mind that the world is big, and I will have another chance. This allows me to go on when I get rejected. I’ve seen that every person who succeeds in some way – whether it’s professionally or privately – has faced rejection many, many times and overcome it.
In fact, rejection lets me know that I’m continuing to challenge myself. If I only did things that came easily, I would stay in the safety of my comfort zone. That’s not enough for a full and satisfying life. So when it comes to rejection, I say: bring it on.
Jean Kwok immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She won early admission to Harvard, where she worked as many as four jobs at a time, and graduated with honors in English and American literature, before going on to earn an MFA in fiction at Columbia.
Her debut novel Girl in Translation (Riverhead, 2010) became a New York Times bestseller. It has been published in 15 countries and chosen as the winner of an American Library Association Alex Award, a John Gardner Fiction Book Award finalist, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, an Orange New Writers title, an Indie Next Pick, a Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award nominee and the winner of Best Cultural Book in Book Bloggers Appreciation Week 2010. It was featured in The New York Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue and O, The Oprah Magazine, among others. The novel was a Blue Ribbon Pick for numerous book clubs, including Book of the Month, Doubleday and Literary Guild. Jean lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two sons.
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