Good Fortune: Life In A Chinese Family



At some point during my middle school years, I realized other families weren't like mine and that I was one of the lucky ones.

My mom comes from a really big family. Of her many siblings, five settled within driving distance of ours to raise their families. My sister and I had cousins for entertainment; and we had lots of them. When our families got together, I had extra brothers, sisters and parents and all of them shaped who I am today.

It was a time that TV shows were on specific days, the internet didn't exist, and paying for summer camps would be unheard of (and may I say ludicrous if you were from a Chinese family). We would travel into Toronto from our small town and then easily fill our days with bike rides, baseball games at the park, trips to the swimming pool, and marathon Commodore 64 competitions, like many other kids of that era. But being Chinese meant we also had late night mahjong sessions and spent afternoons making pork dumplings in my aunt's kitchen.

My family's many cultural traditions and quirks were what set my childhood apart from those of my friends, especially in our hometown: the six hour dinners in Chinese restaurants, where the kids served themselves endless cans of pop from cases tucked under the tables; the meandering trips through the Chinese grocery store with our head aunt (there's always a boss lady in a Chinese family), where upside down roasted ducks were like beautiful window decorations; the slurping of congee and noodles on plastic covered tables in Chinatown that trumped any fast food; the family celebrations during which we would kneel in front of our grandmother so she could bestow her best advice. 

This past month, two of my youngest cousins were married a week apart and there was a lot of excitement and feelings of nostalgia knowing I'd get that time with my cousins (and aunts and uncles, too).

The first wedding brought all the good stuff to the table: the 10-course traditional Chinese feast, the celebratory lion dance, the countless selfie stick photos, and the karaoke. It felt great to be together again.

The second wedding was grown ups only, which meant the "kids" had to travel out-of-town without our partners and children. That dynamic really cranked up the big Chinese family experience and compelled my sister to look at me during one of the chaotic family meals and mouth the words, You have GOT to write this stuff down.

There are some things you can be sure of when you go to a family get together with your extended Chinese family:

  • There will be a LOT (and I mean a LOT) of back and forth she-said/she-said conversations (because women run the families and Chinese moms still try to dictate what their grown up children will do). Many conversations will begin with Auntie says her kids are doing <insert whatever it is your mom wants YOU to do>. But now that we're older and wiser, a quick cousin-to-cousin text almost always results in an I never said that response and a knowing nod of our collective heads.


  • There will be a stream of photos sent back and forth of the moms in their outfits, so the kids can weigh in on who looks the skinniest. Note: it's best to choose your own mom. Also note: Chinese moms don't pay attention to clocks, so these texts will come at all hours of the day and night and an immediate reply will be expected. 


  • If word gets out there is an empty seat in any vehicle travelling to said family function, a quick flurry of exchanges (Chinese moms are high level texters and FaceTimers) will have that seatbelt occupied with a cousin in no time  — even before the driver themselves are asked, but see point number one. 


  • There will be height comparisons made every time you get together, even after all the "kids" have stopped growing. This banter will extend to which Chinese mom has shrunk most. Note: in this case, it's best not to choose your own mom. Also note: these family comparisons may also include bra size, waist size, and wrinkle counts, so it's best to wear your thickest skin.


  • You will be handed plastic bags filled with strange items you didn't ask for — you'll have to take them anyway. Often they are weird snacks or cast offs from your parents' last big clean up. Saying no is not an option. If you feel worried about our family wasting plastic bags, don't be. Every bag has been reused thoroughly and probably for years. 


  • When the food is served, you have to be ready. The chopsticks will be flying. And if there's a server carrying a tray of hors d'oeuvres, (s)he will get to know everyone from the Chinese side of the family very, very quickly. Also: food you didn't ask for will be thrown onto your plate if you're within arm's reach of your parents. If it's a deep-fried crab claw, you can consider yourself the favourite. Again, saying no isn't an option. 


  • When you're with your Chinese family, it will feel like no time has passed. You will still defer to your elders and make fun of the youngest kids on the family tree. Birth order is a really big deal in this culture. So you can grow up all you want, but it won't change the pecking order. It feels good to be around a bunch of grown ups who still treat you like a kid though, so you'll appreciate it even when you're rolling your eyes.   

When I was still living at home, my mom would find time every weekend (unless we were already with them in person) to call her sisters and catch up. I have vivid memories of her sitting sideways on a kitchen chair, phone cord dangling, and the rise and fall of her native tongue filling the space around us. I know she still does this with her sisters, though they've now moved onto FaceTime'ing the top thirds of their faces or competing with each other in online games to combat their insomnia. 

In the Chinese culture, there are symbols and meanings that represent good fortune. And it's believed that by filling your life with these lucky objects, you will increase your happiness and joy. All my life, they've been pointed out to me by my family. But it's only now that I'm grown that I realize the luckiest objects were the people who raised me. 

Because there are some other things you can sure of when you find yourself at a get together with your Chinese family: you will be reminded of your luck; you will realize your good fortune; and you will feel so much joy. 


Dragon Dances And Tiger Moms


The first time I saw The Joy Luck Club,was at the local mall with my roommates when I was 20. I cried so hard, I couldn't speak. There was no doubt I had just seen a stunning re-tell of my history; the stories I'd never been told.

I saw the movie again a few years later, this time with my sister and our Chinese mother. And the tears came again, perhaps even more so, as we witnessed our mother's reaction to a story closer to her heart than ours.

Before I wrote this post, I watched it once more. 

The sounds of my grandmother, aunties, cousins, sister and mom, as we gathered around tables piled with food and competitively clucked about who was taller, smarter, prettier and most likely to find a successful husband, came rushing back.

Our mother was always more cat than tiger. Sure, she had her rules. Good grades? Yes. Good manners? Always. Respect? Absolutely. But play dates, slumber parties, hours of free play? Too many to count.

Her own mother was a tigress in every respect. Twice widowed, once in her 30s and then again in her 40s, she gave birth to 13 children. She immigrated from China to Hong Kong and did not have an easy life. She lost two children to illness and was left to raise and provide for those remaining on her own.

She was forced to make desperate and difficult choices. She was hard on them. She expected a lot.

Watching the film as a parent filled me with questions about my mother's childhood. She said even with so many siblings, it could be lonely. There were restrictions, expectations, and comparisons that left some of them feeling less valued than others.

Even though it was the Chinese way, she told me, it wasn't good enough for her own children. And even though it was often a struggle to let go of her Chinese ways, she tried. When I look back, I can see how many times she succeeded. 

There's a scene in the movie that resonated each time I watched it. I don't know any Chinese daughter who wouldn't identify with this powerful exchange between mother and daughter. I can see myself, my mother and even my own children in the daughter's plea for acceptance free of expectation.


My sister and I were pushed to succeed and failure meant disappointment. We were compared, oh yes, definitely that. But we spoke out and we were always heard. An agreement wasn't always reached, but compromises were made. We always felt valued and loved. And I'm grateful for that.

We also had the fortune of knowing a different woman in our grandmother. Perhaps the burden of raising children had been lifted and, in this role, even with the barrier of language between us, she was able to give unconditional love.

Yesterday, we gathered our family together to celebrate the eve of our new year. I sat with my mom and sister and watched our children perform their yearly interpretation of the Chinese dragon dance. We exchanged envelopes of lai see. We ate, laughed, and prepared to welcome the spirits of our ancestors. 


I come from the heart of many tigers and have this story to share with my daugthers. My mother tried to quiet her tiger heart and she raised us to do the same. But it's still there inside each of us. Every roar the sound of hope. 




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