"Hearts will never be practical, until they are made unbreakable" -- The Wizard of Oz (1939)
I don’t know Janet Liang as well as others in her life. I do not know her favorite color, her favorite smell, the way she combs her hair in the morning, or the small things one should know of another. However, when I found out that she died, my heart completely broke as if I had known her lifetimes over. Although I do not know her intimately, I recalled the way she giggled when I asked to support her cause for the Mr. Hyphen competition in 2009; how she told me -- on numerous occasions -- that my writings and grammar were definitely “rough” -- even as a graduate student. The way she looked when I finally met her at the Asian American Donor Program (AADP) -- when she confided how chemotherapy ravaged her body and about not feeling woman enough -- and the haunting text she sent me after I won Mr. Hyphen: “you’re my guardian angel.” I may not know Janet in the capacities that a lot of people in her life know her, but I know Janet in the ways that only I can.
She was a beautiful soul, attempting to live a vivacious life that adorned the night sky with flashing lights and hidden stars. She was born in Honolulu, and had such a thirst that you could definitely tell that she embodied the “Aloha” spirit. Oh definitely, she had Aloha.
Back in 2009, all I knew of Janet Liang was that she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia while at UCLA. Curious, I began peeking through her life and her homegrown movement, Helping Janet. She worked tirelessly to raise awareness about registering POCs in the national bone marrow registry; about the need to inform and push for solidarity in our communities; and about the discrepancies and marginalization amongst Asian American donors (Currently, only 25% of the national registry represents racial minorities and communities of color. If you're Caucasian, your chance of finding a donor is around 80-85%. However, if you're a person of color, there is only a 35-45% chance of finding a donor. If you're of mixed heritage, your chances are even smaller). All the while, Janet was being housed at UCSF and undergoing new and experimental forms of treatment. After enduring several aggressive rounds of chemotherapy, she achieved full remission in 2010 and was given a second chance. Unfortunately, in December 2011, doctors informed her that she had relapsed.
I think that this is the chapter of the story which most people know by now: how Janet’s campaign became a larger-than-life bond and where we witnessed her heartbreakingly public plea that she didn’t want to die. Communities came together and drives were hosted nationwide, we saw the true power of social media and how it was able to reach far ends of the planet, and people began to fall for a young girl who dreamt beyond all we could comprehend. Additionally, Janet became a public hero and figure, and was recognized by numerous organizations such as Asian Pacific Americans for Progress and A3M for her sacrificial work.
This campaign, which brought so many people to Janet’s doorstep and unmasked leukemia within the Asian American community, also brought about a new hope for this girl I’d come to love. On June 20, I received word that she “found a 9/10 donor match from a 29-year old male.” She was going to have a shot at life. On September 5, after battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2009 and relapsing in 2011, she finally got her transplant, which began "at 12:30 pm PST and [ended] approx 45 min [after]."
As I wrote this at two in the morning on September 12 (Honolulu time), the public had yet to hear the news that Janet passed away. I didn’t yet know the details, but my heart felt and still is completely broken. I don’t know why or how these things happen, but they do and, sometimes, the world isn’t as brilliant as we’d hope it to be.
The last and only time I saw Janet in person was when she was volunteering at the offices of AADP. I remember that meeting. She was short, had a huge smile, didn’t really get my jokes, but immediately hugged me. I bought her a book as a way to suggest that things do get better. It was Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (1999) by Judy Yung. The book is an inspirational account of Chinese American women and the lives they spent in America. In my warped mind, I probably thought Janet would appreciate this documentation of Asian American female perseverance and the ability to endure. Shrug. What do I know? I geeked out.
In my academic naivety, I wrote in the book flap, “Be strong and be brilliant. Dream big, and dream forever.” Although she is gone, Janet is strong. She is brilliant. Her dreams were and are big, and they shall live forever with all those she has touched. What happens to her voice is now unknown. However, people only truly die if we forget their lovingly tireless work, as well as withdraw from re-imagining and paying homage to their legacies. Maybe the point is that it is now up to us to continue Janet’s brilliance. It’s time for us to keep her alive.
Be well, be warmed, and be loved, family. Me Ke Aloha Pumehana (with the warmth of my love)
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!