A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and an award-winning podcast

A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and award-winning podcast

346 Leanne Yong – Failing at Failing

Leanne shares her greatest failures for your entertainment and edification, and as a terribly public method of therapy, one might suppose.

Leanne Yong started her career as an IT business analyst and is now an escape room creator who has designed internationally recognised games with her partner that weave unique puzzle mechanics with narrative. Two Can Play That Game is her debut novel. She performed this story at Sydney Writers Festival.


Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week, Leanne Yong started her career as an IT business analyst and is now an escape room creator who has designed internationally recognised games with her partner that weave unique puzzle mechanics with narrative. Two Can Play That Game is her debut novel. She performed this story at Sydney Writers Festival.

Leanne: You know what scares me? Like, visceral, stomach-churning, reaching-into-a-vat-of-wriggly-worms-and-or-maggots terrifying? Worms and maggots. Okay not really (please don’t test this), but the actual answer is: failure. It’s like the monster in a video game that keeps stalking you, but the game won’t let you defeat it so all you can do is scream, shut your eyes and flail at buttons as you run from it.

My first close brush with failure was my first actual job. I was that stereotypical nerdy, coddled Asian kid. You know, the one with a scholarship to a good private school, and parents who put her in extra tuition, and who didn’t do many extracurriculars because she was focusing on grades. 

All this to explain why, when I decided in Year 12 that I wanted to get a job so I could earn extra cash, I had no practical experience whatsoever. So, what does an introverted, inexperienced kid do? 

She engages in nepotism, of course. 

My parents had friends who owned a Thai restaurant. So at the annual Christmas party, I did the whole spiel of “Aunty, uncle, hello, lei hou, isn’t this gathering lovely, yes I’m doing so well at school but would love to gain some experience, would you happen to be looking for people.”

I don’t know how much was them going ‘Hey we can get an extra waitress at minimum wage’ and how much was ‘We’ll do this for her parents’ sake’, but I found myself a proud new waitress at their restaurant. It never once crossed my mind that I could be a bad waitress – all my life I’d been that overachieving kid who’d never really failed at anything, even if the ‘anything’ tended to be in the realm of academics.

But here’s the thing. I am shy and awkward at small talk, chronically clumsy, focus intently on one task at a time, and have the memory of a goldfish. I also get very stressed under pressure and need distance to think things over.

Yep. The job turned out exactly how you imagine. There’s one particular memory, representative of my entire waitressing experience, that still makes me cringe to this day.

Let me set the scene. The kitchen entryway was a narrow corridor with a wall on one side, and a small table next to the industrial stove where the wok-work happened on the other side. It was a rickety thing one of the chefs had put up, covered in bottles of sauces and oil and other cooking stuff. 

Lots. Of. Bottles.

Looking back, it was a miracle nothing happened before that day. But I started getting comfortable, which is probably a dangerous thing when your natural state does not involve a) a clear sense of your surroundings, and b) general spatial awareness.

This was one of the really busy nights when there’s always at least three things that need to be done right now. I hustled in to put up one of the order forms, spun around and hustled out. Or would have, if the damn table hadn’t been in the way of my leg. 

I can still picture the scene in slo-mo: That moment you know exactly what is happening but there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it. The glass bottles, sliding off the table like raindrops on an umbrella, landing with quite a literal splash. The smell of fish sauce on me, on everything (you really smell that). Glass everywhere. Total wreckage, and me in the middle of it. On one of their busiest nights.

Eventually, I found excuses as to why I was oh so busy with schoolwork and life in general, would’ve loved to keep working there but it’s such a pity. Quick exit stage left, get out, never come back. 

I got really, really good at running from failure. Or reasoning it away. If I could keep enough of an emotional distance. Every time I went into anything new, the first thing I would do is run through all worst-case scenarios and plan any fallbacks. It also mentally prepared me to hold things lightly so I could easily let them go.

Except there are some failures you can’t flee from. You know, the point in a video game where it locks you into an arena with the boss (which you STILL can’t kill) and gives you nowhere else to run while the boss backs you into a corner. Screaming and running no longer works—you’re forced to face it.

In 2021, while visiting my parents, I told my elderly dad to go to the bathroom to clear his throat after a violent coughing fit. I also told him would come walk behind him in a moment because he was rather frail after some serious medical issues.

He stood up ever so slowly. I was reading something insignificant on my laptop. He took one step, two steps, on the carpet, no issue. I looked up. He coughed. Then before my eyes, he lost his balance. He toppled, like that flimsy table. Like the first incident, I can also picture it in slo-mo. 

But this time it’s not mere bottles of sauce. This is my dad, falling backwards. Moving through air so dense a millisecond stretches to a second to ten seconds. My body is lead, my body is bound by the shackles of inertia and gravity and it cannot move at the speed it needs to catch him. To be there when he falls, as he’s always done for me. He topples like a tree, a giant felled. The crack as his head hits the carpet is a gunshot that pierces me through the heart as I reach him too late, too full of useless regrets. He’s groaning, grunting, as though he wants to say something but can’t, as though something in there has ceased to function on a level that terrifies me.

I remember there was a lot of yelling afterwards. For my dad to stay with me, talk to me. For my mum to call the ambulance now as she came running at my shouting. Everything was a blur. All I remember was saying those words to my dad on repeat. Stay with me, stay with me, stay with me. 

Don’t leave me with this kind of goodbye. 

In the end, we were lucky. We had time. But we still had to say goodbye about a month later. I remember endless hours at the hospital, thinking there had to be a way things would work out, that he would regain consciousness for more than a five minute stretch and we would find a way forward. Wanting to hear his voice one more time, see his face soften into a smile as he called me ‘my little one’, even at thirty-plus years. I already had worst-case plans for long-term care that I’d been preparing for years, given his deteriorating condition.

So many long nights on a trundle bed beside his unconscious form, struggling to accept that I’d failed – failed him – so utterly. I could walk away from that disastrous experience as a waitress. I could walk away from all the times I messed up at work, or even in my personal life. I could tell myself that failing at my work, or at being the good oldest sibling, or even at finding a partner—none of these actually mattered. But I could never walk away from everything my dad meant to me.

It made me realise that my fear wasn’t so much failing itself, as it was losing something I cared about deeply, that held the power to leave me with nothing but sharp shattered shards clutched tight against my chest.

It made me realise that the truly terrifying thing is to love; to care. 

That picking yourself up from failure can be, sometimes, less about the courage to try again and more about the courage to care again. 

It’s not a game boss I’ll ever defeat. I’m a mess of a person who fails at little things like basic walking coordination on a footpath and big things like maintaining friendships. I don’t think there will come a day when I miraculously get my life together and become a perfect person.

But to put it a different way, I care. I care that I can’t afford to give my cat a safe yard to roam in, that my escape rooms didn’t make it to a major top-100 list, that no publisher outside Australia wants my book, that I’m so replaceable in my role at work. I care, and I’m constantly terrified.

But I’ve stared down the big game boss. I’ve weathered its attacks despite the screaming and flailing and oh-shit-oh-shit-what-do-I-do-next. The terror won’t ever go away, but at least I can stand my ground and let myself reckon with it. I can care, and it makes the victories that much sweeter.

Just don’t ever ask me to try that with worms or maggots.

Maeve: Thanks for listening. Please subscribe to our podcast, share your favourite tales on socials and follow Queerstories on Facebook for updates. You can also follow me, Maeve Marsden on Twitter and Instagram.

Subscribe to Queerstories


Queerstories is produced by Maeve Marsden and recorded by wonderful technicians at events around the country. Editors and support crew have included Beth McMullen, Bryce Halliday, Ali Graham and Nikki Stevens.