Live Through This

The Great Pretender

Telling the truth about lying.

Illustration by Kelly

I started kindergarten in China without a parent at home. My mother and my father were in America, this place that the extended family I was staying with showed me on a map, and whose distance they tried to demonstrate by moving furniture around in the living room. When that didn’t work, they took me outside to our garden, where we grew sour, green grapes in the summer, and drew pictures for me in the dirt.

“We’re here,” my grandparents told me, pointing. “And your mommy and daddy are there.”

But the “there” they showed me was something I could see and touch; the “there” where my parents were I could only see in the photos they sent to us, accompanied by letters filled with promises big and small: that they would bring me to America one day to live with them, that I would get an electric keyboard the very day I arrived, that they would buy me a necklace made of real pearls, that I would one day go on a plane and fly through clouds.

Before my father left, he read me picture books in bed every night, hoisted me on his shoulders when I couldn’t sleep, and took me on long, wonderful walks at night through our neighborhood. One of the books he read me was about a young boy who goes on an adventure to India, where everything glitters with gold and princes ride through the streets on elephants. I was two and a half when he left. Three when my mother left.

It was soon after that that I started the Chinese equivalent of kindergarten. At home, my family spoke Mandarin—the country’s official language—so I had trouble keeping up with the other kids in my school in Shanghai, who spoke to one another in Shanghainese. I understood most of what they were saying, but whenever I tried to respond in their dialect, I sounded like someone with a speech impediment, stuttering and stammering and making weird O shapes with my mouth. I communicated in my own made-up patois that was one part mispronounced Shanghainese, three parts Mandarin.

“She’s probably just stupid,” I heard one kid say to another.

I wanted desperately for the other students to like me, to find me interesting, but nothing about me seemed interesting enough, even more me. So I came up with a new tactic.

“My parents live on a boat,” I told some kid during lunch. “They keep whales as pets. My dad knows how to fly a plane. That’s how he got to America. Once I touched lightning, but guess what? I didn’t die.”

It didn’t work. No one believed me, and I had exactly zero friends.

Meanwhile, I told my aunts and uncles and grandparents that I was having the time of my freaking life at school. I told them that I was friends with everyone, that my best friend was the daughter of a judge and she brought me orange juice every morning. I told them that we learned new songs every day and that the teacher praised me for my singing in front of the entire class and that she told everyone that they should learn from me. I told my family that the teacher took us on field trips almost every day, to the zoo or the movies. When my grandfather picked me up from school in the afternoons, I’d ride on the back of his bicycle and from the moment he started pedaling, I’d begin to tell him all sorts of outrageous lies, like how once, at the zoo, I had been chosen to ride on an elephant and I did it with such bravery that everyone clapped and the teacher had even cried because of how proud I had made her.

Eventually it got to the point where my auntie called up the teacher to thank her for all that she had done for me. She told my teacher that I had been going through some difficult times because my parents were living in America, and she had been worried that I might find it difficult to adjust to life without them on top of starting school, but that everyone at home was grateful to my teacher for filling my days with trips to the zoo and the movies.

“There was a pause,” my auntie told me years and years later. “And then your teacher goes, ‘Well, that does sound terrific. I wish I was that good of a teacher, but unfortunately, we’ve never done any of those things.’ At first, I was puzzled when I realized you were lying to us. I thought to myself, My niece isn’t the kind of child who lies. But then, I realized you were being extraordinarily strong. You were protecting us. You knew we were worried about you, so you tried to save us from worrying by lying to us and telling us that you were flourishing.”

“Mmn,” I said, embarrassed by her theory that my lies were heroic acts and by my theory that I was just a loser kid who wanted attention.

When I moved to New York to live with my parents, I was five years old and I had to learn a whole new language. Learning a language when you are not a baby turns you into a baby. A baby with the face and body of a non-baby. A baby who cannot articulate any of your feelings or needs or wants. A baby who cannot prove to the world that you are smart, that you are capable of complex thoughts, that you are more than the language you do not yet know. I pissed my pants the first time I needed to go to the bathroom, because even though my parents had taught me to raise my hand straight up in the air and say, “BATHROOM!” if I needed to pee, they hadn’t taught me what “Go ahead” meant, which was what my teacher said to me. Not knowing what to do, I remained in my seat, praying I could hold it in for another few hours, and then suddenly, the entire class was shouting at me while I sat there pissing myself.

In my first year in America, I went to my babysitter’s house every day after school. She watched over me and a few other children. When my mother picked me up, I told her that I was friends with every single kid at my babysitter’s house. That they saved their chips from lunch and gave them to me. That they hugged me every hour because I was so cute. If my mother noticed that every time she came to pick me up, I was always alone in a corner, and that the other kids didn’t wave goodbye to me like they did to one another—if she noticed, she never said a word. She was merciful that way.

When I learned English, I started to lie in two languages. In fourth grade, my best friend Hanzhi told me that there was a midget in his class who was like a foot smaller than everyone else, and I took that story and made it about me and told everyone in my class that I had a friend back in China who was so small that he could actually die from taking a dump unless someone held him up and prevented him from falling into the toilet and being flushed away. My father told me that he knew of some distant cousins who had eaten a cat, and so in seventh grade, when my biology teacher said, “You know, in some countries, people eat cats and dogs,” I had the idea to blurt out, “That’s true! I’ve eaten a cat! And it tastes like just chicken.”

For the next two years of my life, I didn’t go a day without hearing some kid say, “Break me off a piece of that kitty-cat bar!” or “Meow…yo, her mouth is watering because she thought she heard a cat!”


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  • spudzine November 14th, 2012 3:12 PM

    I completely understand how the author of this article feels, as I have also had a lying problem throughout my life-mostly in elementary school though.

  • jenaimarley November 14th, 2012 3:12 PM

    I love you so much.
    This makes me cry; it’s so relavent and raw, devastating, hopeful and powerful.

  • saramarit November 14th, 2012 3:41 PM

    I think everyone does this and feels this way. You just have to remind yourself once in a while not to be too hard on yourself and not to take life too seriously (except for the serious bits).

  • DreamBoat November 14th, 2012 3:43 PM

    Jenny, this was beautiful.

    I just realized that I lie a lot about how I feel. I don’t want to be “too-high maintenance”, but I constantly feel really insecure because of my past friendships. It would be really easy to say “I feel insecure” or sad or anything like that, but I fear that no one will like me because I’m not always fun to be around.
    In my old friendships, if you weren’t happy and always smiling, you were ignored. I would yell at them, tell them I was ignored and unhappy and… I was still ignored. I think that’s what I’m really scared of now: will all my new friends leave me if I’m not always “fun” or a ray of sunshine? I’m a human being who has feelings, not a freakin’ toy. It’s really hard, and this was a incredible and helped me so much <3

    • missmadness November 15th, 2012 9:44 AM

      I really always thought it would be best to be “low maintenance” especially in relationships, and it was something I strived for in all my past relationships. One day I asked my current bf if I was low-maintenance and he bluntly said “no, but you’re not a fucking car. you’re a human being. when you care about someone their ‘maintenance level’ should be the last thing on your mind”

      it’s good advice to keep in mind and really changed my perspective on myself and my interactions with other people.

  • Aubrey November 14th, 2012 3:44 PM

    Oh my god, this article is so REAL and good and i am incredibly glad I’m not the only person like that.

    Thank you Jenny, this was lovely.

  • emine November 14th, 2012 3:44 PM

    I just lost my Rookie-crying virginity. This is beautiful, Jenny, thank you so, so much. You’re an amazing writer and I can’t tell you how much I’ve struggled with some of the issues you’ve described here. Your honesty about lying gives me hope and makes me feel strong. You’re amazing.

  • krissyt November 14th, 2012 3:45 PM


    i’m also an asian-american, was born + raised in america and share your feelings of inferiority and pain. they come and go, sometimes i feel as if they will be perpetually present throughout my entire life. i’m not sure what hopeful/reflective thought i can insert here but it’s always good to know you’re not alone. <3

  • erica84 November 14th, 2012 3:56 PM

    This was truly beutiful.
    I exactly feel this way. And also that part about learning a new language, it’s terrible. After switching schools I tried everything just to look happy and non-demanding so that people would accept me and not abandon me.
    Thank you very much for sharing this.

  • rayfashionfreak November 14th, 2012 4:20 PM

    This is a beautiful piece of writing Jenny, I always love your work! There were honestly tears in my eyes as I read this.

    I hate high school too, I’m so insecure and have such little confidence and it really gets me down. I’m awkward and useless in social situations and I’m never open about my feelings. It’s so reassuring to see that other people feel similar to me and that you’re getting back to normal now :) Thanks <3

  • arorab November 14th, 2012 4:39 PM

    this is an beautiful piece and I really loved reading like all of the writing you do.

    After reading this I realized ,I do this all the time just in smaller amounts ,all my friends think I’m walking on clouds and I don’t care about anything bad going on but I’m really insecure ,stressed out and sad most of the time
    Cheers from Iceland !xxx

  • Maggie November 14th, 2012 4:40 PM

    This was really thought-provoking for me. Whenever I’m honest with people about my feelings, I often get embarrassed and regret it later. So it’s hard to coach myself to tell the truth, knowing that later I’ll probably wish I hadn’t. I know honesty is better, but it feels worse. WHAT TO DO

  • Kristen November 14th, 2012 4:57 PM

    This is one of the best pieces on Rookie I’ve read so far. I love your work Jenny.

  • Melisa November 14th, 2012 5:26 PM

    I relate to this very much. I always try to be the person that everyone thinks I am. If I act the way I really want to, I’m afraid that people will think I’m fake, when the truth is, I was already fake — faking being who they think I am. It’s nice knowing people are going through this too because all my friends seem FREAKING CONFIDENT! And I’m always like, why can’t I be like them?

    Aaaaaah afdhskjafh, life.

  • Sphinx November 14th, 2012 5:30 PM

    Jenny, your stuff is always the best.
    Somehow, over the years I’ve created an image that is partly true to who I am, but there’s a lot I omit.
    So the image people have of me is a lot crazier and absurd and stronger than I actually am.
    It really bothers me sometimes, and I’d like to be more honest with people, but I’m afraid that by telling them the truth, I’ll become too vulnerable. There are some people who know more of who I am, but there are few people I can trust to show some sides of me.
    No one is honest 100% of the time, but who knows, we might be happier if we can trust the people who matter to us.

  • soviet_kitsch November 14th, 2012 5:48 PM

    This is gorgeous. Your articles are always so raw, beautiful and thought-provoking.

  • luvcat November 14th, 2012 6:17 PM

    Seriously thank you so much for this. I love human beings a lot, but I do this all the time without realizing it, sabotaging my own chances of truly getting close to other people. This article just reminded me how important it is to be genuine. If everyone was this real with themselves, AH it’d be so easy to make friends and the world would be so lovely. :’) changin the world, one self-accepting teenage grrl at a time. LOVE YOU 4EVR ROOKIE

  • Abby November 14th, 2012 6:46 PM


  • Muna November 14th, 2012 7:40 PM

    I feel as if you took how we all feel and act (from time for some and constantly for others) and put it on paper. Literary.
    Amen for this article.
    (and i am not even lying)

  • MissKnowItAll November 14th, 2012 7:55 PM

    Thanks so much.
    Honesty is hard when lying makes things so much better

  • cassiethetiger November 14th, 2012 8:55 PM

    Thank you. I have lied since forever – hardly any of it seemed like it was for my benefit, but in reality it all was.

    My upbringing was english-protestant vs irish-catholic – if you know anything of that system in Northern Ireland, you will understand. However, most people don’t, and my torn allegiances remain unidentified, unsubstantiated. I can’t talk about it, it’s too specific for people to relate to. It makes me feel very alone.

  • Minkxe November 14th, 2012 9:39 PM

    Thank you; I needed this; this kind of reminds me of Potok’s The Chosen; I volunteered at a place where I taught little Chinese immigrants how to read (it helped that I spoke it myself, I guess), and they really did have the worst of both worlds in terms of expressing themselves, but now I have hope; and in my heart of hearts I’ve always tried to write something that evoked as much emotions as this and thanks again.

  • amazeedayzee November 14th, 2012 10:19 PM

    I started having sex a while into my first and only relationship. After, my boyfriend at the time would keep asking me to have sex with him sometimes, even when I didn’t want to, and I felt bad about that so I lied and said I wanted to as well. When I started feeling neglected towards the end of our relationship, I didn’t say a word because he was always the one mad at me for being inattentive and I thought I didn’t deserve to complain. I was afraid to speak up because I thought he would leave me if I did anything he didn’t like. He ended up leaving me anyway for another girl.

    Now I realize that all this time I should have just stood up for myself, even if I was afraid of being alone. Thank you for this article, Jenny. I always love your writing and this article in particular reminds me that I am not alone.

  • Nomi November 14th, 2012 10:21 PM

    This applies to me so much at this stage in my life its actually scary. I’m constantly lying about large things and small things, and I do it to protect myself. Unlike you though, I’m not ready to stop. I’m scared to stop. I really liked the article though.

  • laurier November 14th, 2012 10:25 PM

    I’m in love with your words.

  • la fee clochette November 14th, 2012 11:06 PM

    thank you, jenny. i love this, and also, do not know what to say. but thank you for this.

  • clairee November 15th, 2012 12:01 AM

    One day I hope my writing is as powerful as yours. I always get so excited when I see you’ve written something here.

  • Blou November 15th, 2012 1:10 AM

    Jenny, this was beautiful, and thank you. I love the way you write.
    I have problems with feeling too boring ans exaggerating a lot when I’m talking to people, even the ones who know me really well. Thanks for reminding me I’m not alone.

  • Hazel November 15th, 2012 2:20 AM

    Such a relatable piece! I find I’ve been doing this a lot lately, mostly with people I don’t know all that well (which is most people from school). I notice that I try to play up my peppiness so that people don’t think I’m boring and an utter loser and I tend to ask a lot of questions to steer the attention away from myself.

  • Shanti November 15th, 2012 2:57 AM

    This was so so amazing Jenny <3 All of your articles are absolutely flawless. I legitimately love you. I can so totally relate to this. I feel like I have to exaggerate absolutely EVERYTHING to the point that it becomes a lie, just to try and be more interesting or funny, because I'm kind of scared that I won't be interesting enough for people how I am without the elaborate stories of my life.

  • Lindi November 15th, 2012 9:45 AM

    This is such an amazing article Jenny. Wow. <3 BIG LOVE

  • sweetvalleyhi November 15th, 2012 11:50 AM


  • Juliane November 15th, 2012 11:57 AM

    It’s so true what you told about your mother. Although people seem to be confident and honest you never know what’s inside them and how they really feel. I think everyone is often pretending to be someone else without even noticing it. But whe you start noticing it and think about it, you start to be honest to yourself and I think then it’s easier to be honest to other people.

  • miss--world November 15th, 2012 6:35 PM

    So beautiful and so true.

  • booksaremyonlyfriends November 15th, 2012 11:37 PM

    I still lie everyday, to my fiance about my former life and how wonderful it was. I’m scared of being weak. I’ve always thought I was completely insane for doing it. Glad to see I’m not alone and maybe not so crazy.

  • cami8 November 16th, 2012 4:19 PM

    Jenny, it was so perfect! Really, amazing, I loved it, specially the end, when you say that you’re still trying to stop lying. And I can totally identify with it.

  • VincentV November 16th, 2012 5:36 PM

    This story is wonderful; not just because it moves every inch of your heart, but because it´s so so brave.

  • barbroxursox November 16th, 2012 11:57 PM

    This is beautiful! Jenny, I just wanna let you know that I feel ya, sista! I know the exact feelings you’re describing in this article, and while I don’t have a huge lying problem (I’m pretty bad at it…), I have lied for similar reasons, and I feel so lame for doing it. It’s nice to know that other people feel the same way as me. :’)

  • calzie5 November 19th, 2012 8:10 PM

    This article is amazing, and I relate to so much of it. When I was in preschool, I vividly remember telling everyone in my class (including my teachers) that I was going away to disney world the next day and wouldn’t be back for a week. Everyone was really excited for me and made a big deal of saying goodbye, and then when my mom came to pick me up she had to awkwardly explain that none of it was true. I think I lied because, like you, Jenny, I wanted it to seem like my life was more interesting than I actually believed it to be. Or maybe it was because I was jealous of the kids who did get to do those things while my parents would never in a million years be willing to spend the money. Now I’m 19 years old and I still lie all the time. I pretend to be a “nice” girl, I pretend to be easygoing, I pretend not to care about things that really matter to me. Like you, I fake orgasms and tell the guys I have sex with that I’m more into giving than receiving when really there’s no way I can know that because I’ve never really been on the receiving end of anything sexual, ever. I think the reason why I behave this way is because when I lie and keep quiet about how I really feel and act like someone who deep down, I know I’m not, then no one can criticize the real me. I know that it’s impossible to please everyone and that disagreement and criticism are parts of life, but it’s still so terrifying for me to put myself out there. Jenny, I can’t thank you enough for writing this article. It really helps to know that other people are struggling with these same sorts of issues.

  • summertimesadness November 20th, 2012 9:27 AM

    This was so poignant and intense and sad and wonderful and accomplished something pretty amazing – it made a lot of people feel less alone, and that’s all you really need sometimes. Thank you so much for your incredible honesty – if all truths were as lovely as these, I don’t think we’d be so scared to confess them all the time.

  • Emma November 25th, 2012 11:33 PM

    I can totally relate. Sometimes I just compulsively lie and I have no idea why. It’s an awful habit…and then I promise myself to be honest but I can’t stop!

  • Jenny November 25th, 2012 11:47 PM

    Wow, all of your comments are making me feel weepy tonight, but in a really good way, like this way that makes me think we’re all gonna be okay <3

  • fridaspace December 10th, 2012 9:41 PM

    this is really relatable. One time I lied about being violently raped when I was sexually assaulted and just couldn’t muster up the courage to keep saying no. I only said no once, and somehow that makes me feel responsible for what happened to me. I lie about what actually happened because I fear the truth is not scary and violent enough for someone else to empathize with.

    It makes me feel good that someone else feels the same urge as I do to lie. Maybe if I was more truthful, people would start acting like the real them. And we could all be more honest with eachother

  • Fronoan April 1st, 2013 5:28 PM

    There was a TedTalk about lying, which was really revealing. I don’t lie. Everrrrr. I never have been a liar, (but I trust everyone implicitly and that’s a problem too especially when I run into tall tale spinners (but I think I can detect naunced falsifications well…)) ^_^
    But I “lie” in ways like “yeah I’ll go to bed soon” and “I’m straight” and I lie to make things go faster, or move along, like concealing my opinions or agreeing, and these lies are for other people and to make my life better or easier (like when I say “Yeah Mam I had your stew yesterday!(:” when evading being stuffed by my Mammy or “I need to go the orthodontist later gtg :/” when in an awkward social situation) soooooo yeah honesty isn’t so great really… It has it’s uses. It protects us.
    But then saying you’re mam works in NASA and that’s why she doesn’t live with you… well that’s trickery, but idk if that’s bad either… It’s fooling, giving people a false esteem boost of you. But maybe you’re just protecting yourself? It’s risky behaviour! :D But sometimes it can hurt other people and that’s really bad :( It could make you seem cooler than someone else, who’ll then be left out, and you won’t even deserve this new popularity! It’s all fabricated D:
    Anyway, there was no very worthwhile information there I just babbled :(