COVID-19 story by Jenie Gao, 2020

Jenie Gao shares a story about her father through the lens of watching films by martial artist Bruce Lee, and the systemic challenges she's facing as an artist and small business owner during the pandemic and subsequent social distancing measures. This story was recorded for the Madison podcast, Inside Stories. Listen to the full episode and subscribe to the podcast here: 

  • Identifier: covid19-037
    Narrator Name: Jenie Gao
    Interviewer Name: N/A
    Date of Interview: Spring 2020

    Jenie Gao: I grew up watching Bruce Lee movies with my dad, and lots of other age-inappropriate things for a child who could barely read. The scene of a man crushing another man to death in his bare arms was a thing of childhood nightmares. When I was very little, maybe five or six, my dad told me that Bruce Lee was an icon, flawless. When I was a little older, maybe ten, my mom told me that my dad never knew who Bruce Lee was until his thirties, after he had moved to the U.S. because of censorship in China.

    Bruce Lee was from British Hong Kong, and died seven years before my dad set foot on U.S. soil. When I was a little older than that, in my early teens, my dad told me, bitterly, one day, how you see Bruce Lee in his films, and he’s amazing. But you don’t see a man who broke his back and nearly ended his career. You don’t see a man who overexerted himself and would lie in bed for days, almost crippled, before he could fight again. Can you imagine if one of those fictitious villains came to fight Bruce Lee the day after a battle, and found him, invalid, at home? That part doesn’t make it into the movies. You don’t see the day that Bruce Lee died, when his brain swelled in his skull, and he was only thirty-two. You don’t see the impact of all the “too much” that made Bruce Lee who he was.

    My dad shared this, only intending to vent, and perhaps demonstrate the inevitable disappointment that comes with learning a person's flaws. My dad hated imperfection, to the point of cruel excess, deeply flawed though he himself was. But while it wasn't my dad's intent, the image of Bruce Lee lying at home, wounded, has become a lifelong metaphor for me instead. For the times in life when I don't feel like the fighter I was supposed to be, but know that after the recovery, the fight will continue. Bruce Lee did recover from his back injury, and keep fighting, after all. He did show up on set, after his most excruciating rest days. And he may not have died had he not obsessed with perfection.

    This week in quarantine was inexplicably harder for me. It wasn't paradigm breaking, like the first week in quarantine. It wasn't traumatizing, like the week Wisconsin's GOP tried to hijack the election. Rather, it was like all my energy to keep forging on vanished. I became torpid and heavy, like a bird with its wings clipped, or a wounded animal in its den. I worked, but I struggled to stay focused. Worse, I struggled to forgive myself for the things I wasn't up to.

    I remember on a particularly bad, stressful day several months ago, Christopher called me in the middle of the workday when he sensed something was wrong. I don't even remember what had happened, but I cried and I apologized that I couldn't be perfect. I want so badly to do things right. Perfection is a trap.

    But it's week seven of quarantine, and there are no right answers. You can run a responsible small business, and still get screwed by politicians and incompetent leadership mishandling a pandemic. You can stay on top of all the business grants and loans out there, but it doesn't matter if only five percent of businesses will get the PPP loan. Back when I was applying for college, even the most exclusive universities I applied to had a seven percent acceptance rate.

    You can roll with the punches and find new opportunities, but it doesn't change the fact that you don't like getting punched, and especially not over injustices that should have been resolved long ago. At one point this week I vented to Chris, "I don't want to just critique the model; I want to break it." I'm not willing to swallow my pride, and deal with the things that just don't change fast enough in this world.

    Bit by bit, I got my work done this week. I finished my client work. I applied for more business relief. I made more online sales. I started a new artwork. I mostly avoided social media. I was highly inefficient. I was not in the zone. I didn't feel a lot of joy. But I showed up, even with my wings clipped. And I am forgiving myself for the rest. My friends, I hope even the toughest among you are finding time to be gentle with yourselves. Even the fighters need to rest.