It sounds like something out of fictional novel: a young girl leaves her home in the dead of night to pursue her dream of being a writer in a foreign country. However, this story is far from make believe — it’s the story of Myra Lei’s life.
While the characters in Lei’s writings vary, they all are Chinese women who experience some grand revelations about themselves, which the literary world commonly refers to as an “awakening.”
“I only write about women protagonists,” Lei said. “There are so many things a writer could write about, but women’s issues and especially women’s awakenings is one of the most important themes in my writing.”
Lei’s own awakening came after years of being under strict parental rule while growing up in China. According to Lei, it is common for women in China to be pressured into specific careers by their parents, just as her father tried to persuade her to study business.
“I know in China, so many women are like me,” Lei said. “I have many good friends who end up doing work they don’t want to do. One of my good friends became a police woman because that’s what her father wanted her to do. Her father was a military doctor.”
Despite her father’s wishes, Lei decided to leave China to study English as a second language at the University of Idaho in August 2012. According to Lei, she enlisted the help of her friends to talk her father into letting her go abroad.
Lei eventually returned to her home city Changsha in Hunan Province in China during the summer of 2015.
Upon her return, Lei’s parents made it clear they did not approve of her educational choices. One night the conflict came to a head, leading Lei to board a plane back to Idaho the next day.
“I still remember that night: At 2 in the morning I packed everything and I was waiting until all of [my family] went to bed and fell asleep,” Lei said. “My home is in the center of the city, so outside of my room is the main road. I could hear all the car sounds outside and the people outside, and I tried to convince myself ‘You are a protagonist. If you are the protagonist, this is your time to make the decision.’”
According to Lei, the hardest part of fleeing the house in the early hours of the morning was having to leave her grandmother behind — especially since she had to do so without explanation. Lei said she and her grandmother were always close and that her grandmother defended Lei in the struggle against her parents.
“That was a heartbreaking moment because I invited my grandma to my home during that summer because I missed her so much — I grew up with her,” Lei said. “She slept without her door closed, so I could see her and she was snoring. I really wanted to say goodbye to her and I really wanted to explain to her, but I couldn’t, so I just closed her door, walked past her room and went out.”
For Lei, leaving home signified her own personal awakening — the realization that she would no longer live her life for anybody else.
“For 25 years … I did not know that I could have a life — I thought I lived for my family, for my parents. I would do whatever they asked me to do,” Lei said.
However, this realization was not without consequences. On top of focusing on completing her studies in English Literature, Lei navigated through the added stress of her increasingly strained relationship with her family.
Lei and her father did not communicate for a year after her decision, and while she and her mother did keep in contact, communications revolved around trying to convince Lei to return to China. Lei and her grandmother communicated in secret for fear of further escalating the conflict.
Writing fictional stories greatly helped combat the depression caused by conflict in her family, Lei said.
“I felt all kinds of stress and pain, [but] when I was writing stories, I could go into another, fictional world, so I could kind of escape from reality,” Lei said. “For hours I could just write, and I felt so good. I think that’s where my passion is; I really like it.”
This love for fictional writing helped Lei decide to get a third master’s degree in creative writing. Lei originally planned to stay in Idaho, but found SIUE after she missed the application deadline for the program at the University of Idaho.
Even though the road was rough, Lei said coming to her own awakening greatly improved many aspects of her life, namely her ability to form empathetic relationships with others.
“I felt like I was distant from the whole world. If I had any kinds of relationships, for example, friendships or a romantic relationship, I was distant from my friends and my boyfriends because it was hard for me to open up and know people. I didn’t know people: I didn’t know how to know people or how to care for people,” Lei said. “After [my awakening], I started to open up and I’m willing to have deeper relationships with people.”
In reflecting on her experiences, Lei said she wishes young women knew that they have a choice in who they want to become.
“I think every girl should know that they have the possibility to do what they want to do,” Lei said. “They always have the choice, and by doing what they truly want to do, they can become a better self.”