Good Fortune: Life In A Chinese Family

A SNAPSHOT OF SOME OF MY COUSINS (I'M THIRD FROM THE RIGHT) 

A SNAPSHOT OF SOME OF MY COUSINS (I'M THIRD FROM THE RIGHT) 

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. 

 

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She Taught Me The Secret To Motherhood

Mom

My oldest child just entered her teen years, which leaves me feeling like I've crossed the bridge to the beginning of letting go—where my influence will continue to diminish and my seat will move higher and higher in the stands and further from the playing field, where I have always been the coach. 

But the secrets we teach our children, about how to play their best game, stay long after they've left the field.

My mom did not have an average or textbook childhood. And though there were many good things, there was also a lot that was hard. And the early years of motherhood were hard, too.

She was a very young mom in a new country with a husband who worked two jobs to feed and house us. She had to do a lot on her own and while raising us she shared a very important secret with me and my sister (probably without realizing it).

Take care of yourself, too.

My mom likes to get her way. Because at her core she believes she deserves it. Mothers don't do that for themselves enough, and if they think it is for the benefit of their children, I will tell you that it is to their detriment. 

She gave up dreams, she gave us the better piece of food, she went without to give us more. Of course, she did. 

But if my mom didn't feel like parenting us, or getting up and helping us to get ready for school, she didn't. She was there if we needed her, but we learned we could do it on our own. And we were okay and no less loved.

She watched soap operas while we played downstairs, she didn't worry if our favourite shirt was clean, she stayed home while our dad took us tobogganing. 

She left room for us to learn how to do things on our own and she allowed our dad to take on a greater role than most of the other fathers of that time.  

She also she drove me to every painful swimming lesson and sat with reddened cheeks as I screamed in terror at the edge of the pool. She showed up to every parent-teacher interview and concert. She made us our favourite foods whenever we requested them. She let us stay up late and watch TV in her room. And if either of us were sick, she always let us sleep in her bed.

She loved us completely, but never at the cost of loving herself. 

Thank you, Mom. 

Because wanting my own happiness has invited so much joy to my life. 

I hope you see what you have given us. 

Happy Mother's Day. 

xo

 

 

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Home Again: A Storytelling Journey Across Ireland

DSC_0621

If you've ever heard an Irish ballad, then you already know each one tells its own story.

I've known them by heart from the earliest days of my childhood. And though they belong to my dad's home, their sounds and verses connected me and my sister to the stories of Ireland long before we had the chance to stand upon its rolling hills.

I feel like this post needs to convey what those songs make me feel when I hear them—a longing for those hills and a connection to the people who live among them. 

Since returning from a 10-day trip, from one side of Ireland to the other, I've been trying to make sense of my newly-shaped heart; to understand how it could be so full and changed by the moments I experienced there, but also saddened by knowing the journey is behind me now.

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When we first heard that my parents oldest and dearest friends' son was getting married, we had a wouldn't it be great if we could go moment. But then the logistics of schedules and children and responsibilities set in, and we too easily brushed off the possibility.

My dad has wanted to take us home again for awhile. The wedding gave us the perfect reason to go and the what if we went wouldn't go away. At some point it became clear that we needed to think less with our heads and more with our hearts.

Familyselfie

Even though this trip could only happen if my sister and I left our husbands and children behind, something told us it was important. And I know it surprised some to hear I could take a vacation like this without my own family. But if we were going to travel through my dad's childhood and really get a good picture of what it was like, we had to go alone. 

I'm so glad we did.

I've reached a time in my life that plays tricks on me. I still have so much to look forward to, but I've also come far enough to feel the value of what lies behind me and gratitude for each day that I am given. I've gone past the days of taking any of it for granted.  

And it was this trip that showed me how important it is to see every page in my story. I realized how much I want my children to hear about the moments that came before them—the beautiful and the hard—because it has everything to do with the moments I'm creating with them now.

Fourbefore

{Our first family trip to Ireland, 1986}

Fourafter

{Roscrea, Ireland where my dad spent his late teen years after leaving home}

My dad's childhood wasn't an easy one. And taking us back to those places and memories was both good and hard. We were too young on earlier trips to fully appreciate what he wanted us to know. 

In the moments that my sister and I stood and listened to our dad's memories, we were his children more than we were wives or mothers. He was carefully handing us a torch to pass on when we feel the time is right. And with each story it became more clear how much his early life shaped the way he raised us and how much he triumphed over pain to love us unconditionally.

Even in my toughest parenting moments, I am reminded that I already have everything I need to succeed. I only have to love my children the same way I was loved, and I know it will be okay. Because my parents made the choice to gave us everything they didn't have and more. 

 

 

Gate

When we first pulled up at the gate of the farm property, where my dad spent his first 15 years being raised by his grandparents (until he left and made his way in the world on his own), he pointed to the fields through a rusty gate and began to tell us what we were seeing from behind the barrier. At a safe distance.

It was my bold and feisty sister who climbed through it and beckoned for us to follow. There was a brief unspoken moment of understanding exchanged between us, and then we were all on the other side. 

We spent nearly an hour exploring the abandoned buildings (that humbled me beyond words) and hearing things about my dad we hadn't known before, that he hadn't been ready to tell us until now.

Farmhouse

{Newport, Tipperary. Family farm} 

 A couple of years ago, my dad and I were having a cup of tea in my kitchen. My 10-year-old came into the room, long after she should have been asleep, and told us she couldn't sleep. I sent her away with a less-than-understanding tone.

He waited until she left and then told me that at 10 years old, he was often left on his own for days. There was no one to go to when he couldn't sleep. He reminded me, sometimes kids just need to know they're not alone

As we stood looking at the place he had spent his childhood, I remembered the many times I had gone to him in the night to tell him I couldn't sleep. He never sent me away. He never left me on my own. 

  Field

{In the field on the family farm. Newport, Tipperary}

My dad has lived his life with unanswered questions and it was this trip that gave him the courage to face them. It was a privilege to be there for each step that he took beyond that rusty gate. And I'm so grateful for the understanding and compassion he was shown along the way. 

 

Geneaology

{On our way to the North Tipperary Genealogy Centre}

We were welcomed by so many of our extended family members and friends. And I know my sister and I both feel like it will be a homecoming when we go back with our children in the future. Because of this trip, we have stories to tell them and a history to share when we get there.

I hope it changes the shape of their hearts, too.

 

Wallbefore

Wallafter
 

Thank you, Ireland, for giving my family this extraordinary gift. Thank you for reminding me that life is too short to waste a chance.

I've always felt connected to you, but now I know my story begins with you. I know where I come from and so much more about who I am and what a gift my life has been. I can't wait to see you again.

 

There's a spirit that flows in an Irishman's soul,

and carries within it, all the dreams of the past.

In each Irishman's heart,

there's a part of you inside.

In my heart,

I have been here before.

{Back Home To Ireland - Irish ballad)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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