By Jonathan Shih
Embedded in Chinese culture is the belief in the existence of an intangible force named “e-chi”. Simply put, it is a mysterious aura that attracts two opposite things together for a particular purpose. Often inconceivable and obscure to the individual it is acting upon, “e-chi” initially occurs through a variety of bizarre events and experiences before it blossoms into an exquisite purpose. However, depending on the actions of the individual, it can also act as a form of punishment. In Western Culture we may associate “e-chi” with karma, magic, luck, or divine intervention. As a child, I was constantly reminded about the existence of this supernatural force. My family was very influenced by its existence. They would never consider making any decisions until first assessing whether or not there was a sufficient amount of good “e-chi” present in the given situation.
Although I am now a student here at the University of Southern California, academics weren’t always my priority. Credentials and degrees weren’t relevant or necessary for a career in crime. Because I headed toward the wrong direction in my academic and social life, I joined a gang. My life was consequently overwhelmed with violence, crime, and drugs. The gang gave meaning to my life. The fame of our gang continuously spread until we became hated by many, but respected by all. Once I was exposed to this type of violent and ruthless lifestyle, I couldn’t get enough, even at age 13. I craved it. The drugs provided endless amounts of psychedelic and emotional fun, and in a sense, allowed me to escape many of life’s problems. The money came in by the thousands. We bought new clothes, new guns, new drugs, and even new friends — a new life everyday. This particular lifestyle that I had come to love would not last long, as I was later forced by “e-chi” to experience its dire consequences.
As the criminal lifestyle progressed, so did the case the feds and local police were building against me. I was eventually caught and sentenced in Pomona Superior Court and charged with eight counts of first degree home invasion, two counts of assault and battery, racketeering, extortion, and possession of illegal military firearms. At the federal level, I was sentenced in Los Angeles Federal Court for charges of gang affiliation, obstruction of justice, and withholding information relevant to the case. I was fourteen when I got caught. They gave me a maximum of eight years eight months for the accumulation of all charges, and I was to serve a minimum of no less than sixteen months at the Juvenile Holding Facility, Camp Karl Holton. “E-chi” had finally caught up with me.
Before I was situated in a permanent holding facility, I had to serve four months of “dead time.” Dead time is time you serve before your sentencing takes place. It doesn’t count towards the days served. At first, I hated everything. I hated society; it took away the prime of my teenage years. I hated taking orders from deputies. To me, they were the reason why I was locked up. I hated jail-house academics. Every word in a book seemed coded with unnecessary academic jargon and useless, complicated definitions. I hated my enemies. It was mandatory to fight to gain respect, and you had to be ruthless; otherwise you were subject to severe humiliation and criticism from other inmates. I hated taking two minute showers. They were with 15 inmates at a time, with body soap as shampoo and toothpaste. But, most of all, I hated the food, or the lack thereof. Often we had to drink an enormous amount of water to feel full.
Instead of helping me, I felt that “e-chi” had worked against me. Little did I know, however, that the misery and pain “e-chi” had caused actually saved my life. After realizing this fact, rather than fighting “e-chi,” I began embracing it.
“E-chi” allowed me to remain positive, and battle all odds in the midst of being incarcerated. The year and a half that I spent at Camp Karl Holton Juvenile Holding facility became the most inspiring and life-changing experience of my life. I was given the opportunity to develop the necessary academic and social skills needed for the real world. In particular, Juvenile Hall fostered programs that concentrated on promoting education and leadership.
During my time at the camp I commanded as a JROTC rank of first sergeant. It was the first time in my life I learned the true meaning of teamwork, unity, and respect. I had a responsibility to my cadets and commanding officers to maintain certain levels of ethics, discipline, and academic wellbeing among my squad. In practice, we had activities such as city parades, daily marching practices, and gun rotation that emphasized teamwork ability. The success of these practices forced many inmates, all of whom belonged to rival gangs, cultures, and ethnicities, to depend on each other rather than fight against each other. We had to acknowledge and combine the different complexities and dimensions of all our immates’ personas by working with each other to perfect our craft in whatever the endeavor at hand demanded.
E-chi acted just in time to save my life. Had “e-chi” not intervened, I would perhaps still be on the streets, dead, or in the penitentiary for a more serious crime. Instead, the discipline I learned forced me to appropriately rearrange my priorities. It allowed me to discover and employ reading, writing, and communication abilities I didn’t know I possessed. It also taught me to appreciate others and myself. The once floundering and violent child inside of me had been transformed into a determined, willing, and goal-oriented young man.
After my release, I was still being watched closely by authorities. I went through six months of “extensive furlough” and six months of “high profile probation.” During the one-year grace period, I further enhanced my academic skills, equipping myself with enough knowledge to obtain a GED and enroll full time at a nearby community college. During this time, however, I felt a sense of guilt–for not acknowledging how important “e-chi” was to this accomplishment.
During college, subjects such as science, sociology, and psychology made me question the validity of “e-chi.” My biology instructor proposed that a serotonin imbalance in the synapse caused uncoordinated neural activity, thereby influencing my belief in the illegitimate existence of “e-chi.” My sociology professors suggested that perhaps belief was developed by society’s elite to maintain social control and discipline among the masses. Finally, I deduced that my psychology professor would argue that “e-chi” is completely self-fabricated, emerging in the minds of mentally unstable individuals as a defense and coping mechanism for certain psychological abnormalities. Whatever the case, my standpoint became unclear. Was “e-chi” valid in my life, or not?
My life took a detour during fall finals week in 2002 at Irvine Valley College, right before transfer applications were due. I was applying to USC. I needed strong grades. But my family needed me to go to Taiwan because of a death of a family member. Faced with this dilemma, all hope for good grades was lost. Even just considering not attending a funeral in Chinese culture is considered highly disrespectful. I had worked so hard to maintain the As in my classes. That lurking B, or worse yet C, would be a tremendous disappointment after the term’s relentless efforts. As reluctant as I was, I bowed to tradition rather than academics, and flew to Taiwan.
Surprisingly, “e-chi” played a role in my attendance at the funeral. As I sat in the funeral, passive and powerless, in a country about which I only had marginal knowledge, I stressed over my grades. But as the funeral went on, I noticed a face in front of me I will never forget. It was my writing teacher. It turned out he was a member of the same family line. I greeted him and we exchanged details of our situations after the funeral. He explained everything to my other teachers, and they agreed to let me retake my finals.
I figured out where my faith stood after this event. “E-chi” dispersed my fears of frustration and failure, and reinforced hope. In the end, I got the 4.0 I wanted, got accepted to USC, and at the same time, didn’t jeopardize any family ties.
I have embarked on a different challenge here at USC, giving me the chance for bigger risks and deeper falls. But as long I stay committed and patient, I know the future will not be a series of random events that will lead me astray. E-chi works towards a meaningful plan, filled with seemingly boundless opportunities.
About the Author:
Jonathan Shih lives in Walnut, California, and is currently a junior at USC. He is an American Studies Major, minoring in Theatre and Cinema. In his free time he enjoys watching endless hours of television, playing football, and watching movies in the theatre.