Navigating Turbulent Waters

Jimmy Liao - Ithaca, New York
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, December 17, 2007
Jimmy Liao

Jimmy Liao had a difficult relationship with his father, but he fondly remembers the fishing trips he took with his dad. Liao is now a biologist and he says that fish taught him how to handle life's rough currents.

Age Group: 30 - 50

I believe in using the turbulence in my life. I learned this studying fish.

My mother and father emigrated from Taiwan to New York City to raise a family. They bussed tables at a Chinese restaurant and worked double shifts for years. On Sundays, my father and I would go out with our fishing rods. I was two years old when I caught my first fish in Prospect Park with my dad. No water was off limits: golf ponds, marble quarries, private estates. We packed a lunch and we took off. Sometimes we got in trouble, and laughed about it later when we told the stories. Our best times together were spent trying to catch a fish.

But there was another side to my father. He had a temper, and sometimes he got angry and would hit me. In those moments of uncontrolled rage he could only see things his way; he would never let me win an argument. I was held under his will, unable to break out. When I challenged him, he struck me in the face. It didn’t break me, but it left me petrified, powerless, and resentful. Just the same, come Sunday, regardless of what happened that week, we would fish together.

Years later, I followed my interest in fish to graduate school in biology. I was always a good student, but was often wracked with insecurity. I didn’t have much confidence. I felt it was beaten out of me. I tried to find my direction but just ended up spinning around and dissipating my energy. Then one night something wonderful happened. I was researching how fish swim in turbulent flow and discovered that they could surf on swirling eddies without using much muscle. What I suddenly realized was that obstacles could actually help you struggle less. That was what I’d needed to know for a long time.

I dove into my experiments and published them quickly, culminating in an article that made the cover of Science magazine, and I received my Ph.D. from Harvard in 2004. My parents took a rare day off from the restaurant and were by my side holding my hand when I stood to receive my diploma on a cloudy afternoon in June.

I believe I can get around the obstacles in my life not by fighting them, but by yielding to them and pushing off from them. It is what Taoists call Wu Wei, literally to go with the flow. Now I could take the energy of my father’s violence and move through it, to surge past that turbulence. I could let my father be himself without giving up on myself. This is different from forgiveness. It’s the way I choose to define the events in my life — by my response to them.

There are natural streamlines in our lives. I find by letting go I can harness the complex currents of my life to propel me forward. It was the fish my dad introduced me to that finally taught me this.

Jimmy Liao is a post-doctorate fellow in the neurobiology and behavior department at Cornell. His ichthyologic studies have taken him to Ireland, Brazil, and Tasmania. Liao is also a professionally trained actor who enjoys bungee jumping and skydiving.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.