Nice to Meet Me!

Sumz, Samantha, $umdog Millionaire, Summé. This is just a sampling of the many creative nicknames for me floating around the Internet. But who is the girl behind the oh-so-punny Twitter handle @Sum_Dog and Tumblr blog (500) Days of Summy, and how did she get here?

First, to clarify, I am a girl. My name is a derivative of my Chinese name, Shui Sum, which means “faith” and “heart”. I have had many written correspondences with people who believed Summy is a man; I’m also friends with two different male Summy Lau’s on Facebook.

I was born in Hong Kong but raised in the suburbs of Chicago. My family and I lived in the same modest-sized home for fifteen years. The bottom half was brick; the top half, yellow paneling. My brother and I often forgot our keys, so we’d have to sneak in through the front windows or climb a tree to get onto the roof. Such were the privileges of growing up in a safe neighborhood. We shoveled snow in the winter and raked leaves in the fall, two excruciating chores that I’d come to miss dearly when we moved to a condominium halfway through high school. We had a ping-pong table in the basement, a wok in the kitchen, and slippers, not shoes, on our feet.

I’m not white, which made growing up in a predominantly-white suburb a uniquely uncomfortable experience. I still remember the first day I realized I wasn’t white. I was sitting on the bus between my two best friends, Leah and Molly, forming objects in our imaginations from white cloud puffs against a blue sky. Robbie Tomal (the Third) called out my name to ask a question.

“Where are you from?” Everyone turned to watch.

“Park Ridge.”

“No, you’re not,” he said with a smug smile. “Where are you from?”

I still wasn’t sure what he meant, but his tone bothered me. His question automatically labeled me as foreign. Other. Since preschool, I grew up successfully assimilating to everyone else but always being aware of my race. Unlike most of my classmates, I dreaded substitute teachers because I knew they’d butcher my official name. While my friends were eating Lunchables, I had rice and veggies in my Velcro bag. My mom showed up to school and passed out candy to my class for Chinese New Year.

One of my favorite things to do as a child was read chapter books, especially The Babysitters’ Club. I believe that my current career interest in reading and writing fiction comes from the time our TV broke and we put off buying a new one for months. I’m not sure if we were poor or just lazy, but it fostered a love of reading that changed my life. My favorite books are Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter and Great Expectations. What can I say? Something about an adventurous young boy in a coming-of-age story resonates with me.

I grew up watching The Simpsons, which I believe explains the “Most Sarcastic” senior superlative that I won in high school. However, people always tell me that I come across as genuine, so I don’t know who to believe.

My dad is a pastor, physicist, audiologist, and avid fan of model planes. My mom is a social worker in Chicago’s Chinatown and yummy cook. My brother is getting his Ph. D in nuclear engineering and a Corgi. I use the term “best friend” too liberally, but my best friend in high school was two years younger than me and we went trick-or-treating until I was seventeen. He always wore the same mad scientist mask. Now he’s a Yale man.

Besides my family and friends, traveling abroad has shaped me in a way that no other experience has. Three summers ago, I traveled to Mexico City on a missions trip and saw true poverty for the first time. We did a lot of home visits to families in the slums, and I couldn’t believe the conditions that families lived in, one-room homes with dirt floors and cement walls, in the darkness, with one big bed for everyone. Yet they were so happy and grateful just for our presence, buying us fizzy drinks and thanking God for their American guests. With its dry climate, blue skies and colorful food, I felt at home in Mexico and vowed to someday return.

The next summer, I lived in Bangkok for seven weeks with the same organization and saw true poverty for the second time. I lived with a host “grandma”, an old woman called Grandma Pensri who lived in a slum on the outskirts of Bangkok where the forgotten, elderly poor gathered. All the two-room wooden homes were perched atop pitch-black water filled with litter and trash. I took bucket showers and counted a hundred insect bites. I listened to the monsoon-season rain slam against the corrugated tin roof. I met prostitutes, ladyboys, beggars and monks. I realized that my life trajectory, career goals and passions had changed.

Shortly after returning from Bangkok, I studied abroad in Madrid. I strolled down long and winding streets that had existed for hundreds of years. I rode a bike for the first time. I drank wine and turned red. I watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night, passed on the London Eye because it was too expensive, and ate a waffle in Belgium. For a few months, life slowed down.

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