Personal Perspective: Jacob Zhang

Editor-in-Chief Jacob Zhang shares his story on the grief of losing childhood memories and finding meaning in the mundane.

The only thing that bothers me about my early childhood is that I don’t remember enough of it. I wish I could recall saying my first words or taking my first steps. Instead, what limited knowledge I have of my early years has been supplied entirely by my parents. For example, my mom says I didn’t start talking until a couple of months before my second birthday, which is oddly late compared to most children. When I finally did speak for the first time, however, I didn’t just utter a single word, but rather an entire string of words, much of which, she says, was incomprehensible.

I first discovered the concept of memory at age six. I remember the exact moment: I was standing with my family on the gangway of a cruise ship, waiting for a stranger to take a picture for us. Out of nowhere came the peculiar thought that I ought to remember this moment forever. The stranger positioned the camera. One, two, three … click!

Of course, I have had memories before that — the spaghetti at daycare, the trees I drew for an art portfolio — but it wasn’t until I stood on that gangway that I realized what I was doing all along was making memories. It was as if my life had started; I was six.

What bothers me about this childhood memory loss — which I find to be a biological defect in humans — is that it feels as if I have missed out on part of my own life. Sometimes I wonder if my current love of trees is a result, or simply a reflection, of my obsession with drawing trees in daycare. Perhaps I liked the shape of the trees, or maybe the color green, or maybe I drew them because everyone else drew sunflowers, and I wanted to be different. The truth is, I’ll never know. This redaction of memories has erased the possibility of me ever understanding some of my most inherent qualities. In short, I’ll never know who I really am, let alone why I am the way I am. Now that I think about it, even the words I use to describe myself are borrowed from how my family and friends perceive me.

A possibility is that the lack of memory does not deal with the loss of existing memories, but rather the absence of their initial creation.

I’m reminded of a mile-long section of the Interstate-5, parallel to the Torrey Pines State Reserve, where the highway cuts through hillsides awash with the green and brown of sub-Saharan shrubs. Every day for five years in my early adolescence, I watched the hillsides closely as I passed through this mile of road; if I were lucky, maybe twice a year I caught a glimpse of a family of deer feeding on the vegetation. It was my way of avoiding passive living: the concept of letting life speed by without drawing anything meaningful out of the repetitive or mundane. I could have closed my eyes and let the car take me forward on the journey that is life, but instead, I looked out the side window, and searched. Even in the most boring parts of living — car rides included — there is beauty somewhere, something worth remembering, and often it’s right outside the window – all I have to do is look.

I’ll probably never recover those lost memories from my early childhood. The best I can do now is to focus on making some new ones, so that in 50 years, I can look back, without regret, and try to connect some dots.

For the past four years, with the stresses of high school, it’s been easy to fall into the habit of passive living. Driving through the hills of I-5 last month, I realized that for the past couple of years, I haven’t spotted a single deer. I could attribute this absence to nearby development by biotechnology companies which may have cut off entry to the slopes. I could blame climate change for rendering the hills dead and dusty for most of the year. I could even blame my memory, or point fingers at a million other things. Or maybe, I just haven’t been looking.
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