Project 14 – Day 4: Hobbies

Day 4 is about my hobbies which is the sand in my life, in the old parable about using your time wisely. I like leaving big gaps to fill up, though.

If you’re not familiar with the aforementioned parable, it’s about how a college professor explains priorities to his students. He pulls out a container, a bucket of rocks, a bucket of pebbles, a bucket of sand, and a beer. He dumps the rocks into the bucket, and then asks his students whether the container is full, to which the students say yes.  He then takes the pebbles, and fills the gaps between the larger rocks, and then asks his students again whether or not the container is full, to which the students say yes, again. Finally, he takes the sand and fills the gaps between the pebbles and the rocks, and asks his students again, whether or not the container is full, and the students, again, say yes. The jar symbolizes our lives, the rocks the things that truly matter in life, like health, mental well-being, and family, the pebbles are things like work, school, and friends and the sand is everything else. The moral of the story is if you fill your time with the small stuff, you won’t have time for the big things, so take care of the things that matter first.

I’ve already written a lot about my bigger things, so today, I’ll take some time to think about my little things – my hobbies. I have a LOT of them, so many that I’ve had a lot of them also fall by the wayside. My mom used to grouse at me and ask why I didn’t just stick with one thing and get really good at that, but honestly, I like trying things out. I’m okay with being a “Jack of all trades, master of none” because it’s fun – none of my hobbies are something I’d do professionally, and while I am committing to less in the future, it’s nice to know I’ve already developed all these skills.

One of my favourite things to do is read and write. I’ve written about how my parents didn’t really have money when I was a kid, so the library was one of the cheapest forms of entertainment. As a pretty equal opportunity reader, I enjoy everything from John Grisham, to Harry Potter, to Lord of the Rings, to the New York times, to Jane Austen, to modern blogs, to Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. Anyone who asks me what my favourite book or author is gives me a headache, because I can never decide. Out of sheer perversity and some honesty, though, when I am asked that question, I like answering Lolita, by Nabokov. It’s not because I condone the subject matter, like the plot, or even like any of the characters; it’s honestly the best written piece of English prose I’ve ever read. It’s so well written that the really frightening thing about Lolita is not the monsters like Humbert Humbert, or Lolita, or Clare Quilty in the story, it’s that you actually start to sympathize with them. There’s the additional bonus of discouraging people from asking you that question again.

I actually didn’t start writing until much later, because for some reason, it never occurred to me people would be interested in exploring my worlds with me (I’m still not sure they are). It wasn’t until I started roleplaying on an internet forum that I really started flexing my writing chops, and it was a very, very good baptism by fire. If you’ve never roleplayed before, roleplaying is essentially like collaborative story writing, where you write the bits where your character is involved, and you sometimes have to elbow your way into the story. It’s fast, it’s messy, and it’s a really good learning experience, because you have to get everything mostly right on your first edit, you have to roll with mistakes that you and other people make, and most of all, you have to just write – if you don’t, you get left out of the story. I learned really quickly what makes a good story, what makes a bad one, and once, what makes an amazing one that sucks people in.

I’ve had a really hard time turning everything I’ve learned into a story to be completed though. I have a million worlds in my head, and not one of them has an ending. My hard drive is a dusty graveyard of undead stories that just yell “write me! Finish me!”. I’ve turned to short stories and essays and blogging, just as a way to keep my skills sharp, but someday, someway, I’d like to be able finish a full story, with beginning, middle, and (some how) an ending. I’ve slowly started cannibalizing old ideas and old worlds and cobbling them together into a new Frankenstein, and with fewer things to write, maybe I’ll actually get this one done. In the meantime, however, I like blogging, and I like creating little gems that help crystallize my feelings and experiences at the one moment.

My list of artistic endeavours is enormous, and I’ve had to give a lot of it up. I’ve had classical drawing training, some informal paint, watercolour, calligraphy, printing, and pastel training, and far too much time scribbling in notebooks to come up with whatever. I’ve experimented with some less traditional forms, like quilling, paper cut, embroidery, and jewellery making (I make really awesome presents too, when I have the time). I also used to paint sets, act, and write reviews, as well as sing, play the piano, and play the tin whistle.  I’m starting to dabble in Kinetic typography, combining my love of words and art, and I’d like to try lampwork and pottery if I ever get the opportunity. Art and I are old friends, and I think she’s still trying to find something that will consume my soul like so many other artists in every genre. Until she does, I’m just going to enjoy everything she presents me with.

I have other hobbies too, somehow. I got lazy towards the end of high school, but I used to play badminton and volleyball competitively, and do some track when I was younger. I’d like to try a martial art, Muay Thai or Capoeira, if I ever get the chance. Like everyone else in this generation, I’m also a big gamer – I currently mainly play Aion and Pokemon, and I’m trying (not very successfully) to learn League of Legends. Travelling is another thing that brings a lot of joy into my life – I always joke that when I get married, I’m going to skip the expensive nightmare of a Chinese wedding and spend the money on a world tour for a honeymoon.

My last hobby that I think has really shaped me as a person is competitive trivia. It’s a sport of the minds, where contestants try to show that they know more than the other team more quickly, so it tends to attract a lot of know-it-alls, smart asses, and generally awesome people. I recently “retired” after playing for six years with some of the best, meeting amazing people all across Canada and the US, and learning some really valuable lessons, like teamwork is more effective than working on your own, competition and high pressure situations can bring out the best and worst in people, and Margaret Atwood is the answer to everything. It was a really rewarding experience, and one that will stay with me for a while, especially since my colleagues don’t seem to know what the meaning of retirement is.

I think I’ve been shaped just as much by my hobbies than any other one area of my life, because hobbies and past times are something you can choose to do, or not do. There are millions of things in this world to try, so I strongly encourage you to reach out and try a few more if you have the time; you never quite know what to expect or what you’ll learn.

Project 14 is how I’m going to start my journey of self discovery, to memorialize  who I am when I start chronicling my life. Each day, I’ll approach who I am through a different paradigm people use to define themselves. Read more about it at my About page.


Project 14 – Day 3: Ambitions and Goals

“Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.”
Sylvia Plath

Day 3 of my project 14 is about what I want for myself, and until a month ago, how true that quotation was to me.

In my previous post, I wrote a lot about how I knew my childhood was over a month ago, and how my priorities in life shifted around then. However, if you’d asked me a week ago about what I considered my goals and ambitions in life, they would’ve followed my old priorities pretty closely. It wasn’t until I had a loud shouting match with my mom about a week ago, that they snapped into focus as well.

To understand what drove my goals and what I still do in part think, you have to understand what I consider the difference between what we call “Western” and “Eastern” civilization. Now, as a disclaimer, this is not true for every family or every individual in the “Eastern” or “Western” cultures, and I will probably make some generalizations that will annoy some people; however, I am not claiming that any one way or system is better than the other.

Western culture, what we associate with places like Canada, the US and Europe, emphasis the individual: Individual freedoms, individual rights, individual responsibilities, and individual success. The so-called American dream is all about working hard and to the best of your abilities to become wealthy, successful, and upwardly mobile. This seems like a “no-duh” statement to anyone who also grew up in the west, and it’s what we all strive for,

When I was in high school, however, I asked my mom what she’d consider the Chinese dream. She looked absolutely flabbergasted at me, so I explained the idea of the American Dream in the Great Gatsby. Very impatiently, She responded as if I was asking a question that I already should’ve known the answer to: the Chinese dream, to her, was seeing my little sister and I happy with families and steady jobs, having enough money to support her own parents in China, and (since I was nearly eighteen at the time) she mumbled something about grandchildren. And I guess it’s true, I should have known. In most Chinese families, there’s an understanding that a child owes her family the ultimate obedience for them bringing the child into this life, and nurturing her until she was old enough to be independent. In return, parents are expected put their children’s well-being far above their own.

There’s another big difference in “Eastern” and “Western” cultures. While most “Western” parents say words like “I’m proud of you” and “I love you” all the time, most “Eastern” parents do not. It’s not because the Eastern parents love their children less or any less proud of them, they just take it as a matter of course that the child already knows, just like they know that the child loves them even though the child often forgets to say it or show it.

Growing up in both cultures means I grew up with both sets of expectations: become wealthy and successful, reach for the top, become the best, or otherwise I couldn’t support my family. It somehow conflated in my mind to I need to be the best, I need to be perfect, I need to be happy, it’s what my family expectS of me. It’s a pretty laudable sentiment, but it’s a really, really stressful one.

As far back as I remember, my big life goals have been job and education oriented. My family is big on education, as it’s been our ticket out of poverty for as far back as I can remember, so I’ve never considered anything but a top tier university. By nothing short of a miracle, I’ve also never considered a career that hasn’t required a university education, but that might also have something to do with my upbringing (I like to joke that in my family, there are two directions to go in: finance with my dad’s family, or science with my mom’s family. My parents are the black sheep, as they’re both in Computer Science.). When I was younger, I’ve wanted to be a pediatrician, a politician (briefly), a journalist, and a corporate lawyer. What I really wanted was to be able to wield power in the world, to really make a difference in this world, somehow, so my goals followed that. My top goals and ambitions in life were to rise to the top. Get the top grades, get the top extra-curriculars, meet people who were worth spending time with and learning from and who would rise to the top, get scholarships, make the right connections, all so you can make your family proud.

As a person, I’m ambitious, and I refuse to apologize for that. But anyone who’s lived as a perfectionist or with big, big, heavy dreams that don’t quite fit you as a person knows that you build coping mechanisms. My coping mechanism was to make other little things goals so they’d also be important to me, and it made me felt like I was doing something towards my goals, except in reality, I was just procrastinating on my big goals.

In short, I had a goal for everything in life. I had a goal to become successful and wealthy, I had a goal to get top marks, I had a goal to aggressively network, and I had a goal to become more involved in my program and mentorship programs and blahblahblah. I had a goal to be an artist and a goal to sort out my closet, and another goal to read my mile long list of books to read. I had a goal to hang out with my friends more, I had a goal to make some new ones, I had a goal to find a boyfriend and be attractive (god alone knows why), and I had a goal to become “popular”. I had a goal to try a million new things while simultaneously doing the million old things that I was already committed to. And for some reason, I thought they were tied to my future success, so if I failed any of these, I would never succeed in life and I would be a failure.

You can already see how impossible that was, but I didn’t until I imploded from the pressure. My grades sucked, and I wasn’t doing a very good job of taking care of myself or really doing anything, productive or not. My parents were wonderful through it, but they didn’t quite understand it, until I sat down with my mom and my first 70 and she asked me what the hell happened to me, because I’d never gotten less than a 80 in my entire school career.

I yelled at her, that I was under too much pressure, that I was too tired, that I had too many expectations piled on my head, that I’d made mistakes, that they’d never told me I was good enough or that they were proud of me. She sat there open mouthed, and then responded much in kind, and what she said totally changed my worldview.

She told me that my parents had always been proud of me. That she thought the fact I’d gotten into my double math and business degree program with a 93 average was excellent. That she’d been proud of all the crazy extra-curriculars and AP classes that I’d done. That all she and my dad had ever wanted for me was to be financially stable, and have a decent job for the future. That if at any point in my 20 years, I had said “This is the best I can do” or “I don’t want to do any more”, they would’ve supported me. That all they’d ever wanted from me was for me to be normal and healthy, that they’d only supported me in my dreams of wild success because they thought it was what I wanted. That they didn’t want me to have regrets.

Now, I only ever remember my dad being disappointed that I didn’t go to Harvard or some other American Ivy league. That my mom had tsked and told me that if my average was two marks higher, I would’ve qualified for an additional scholarship. That they’d both complained that I should’ve dropped my AP classes to get a higher mark, even though classes had been more fun for me, and that they’d both reminded me that they’d never gotten less than 100 in any math. But then I also remembered that my parents hadn’t said anything when I came back with my first less than stellar mark in any math in first year, or that they’d told me that it was perfectly fine if I went to the local university and became a teacher instead, because I didn’t have the right temperament for business. I used to take that as a reminder that I was failing them somehow, but really, it was as much an expression of concern as I would have listened to.

It was like this massive weight fell off my chest. I could be normal. I didn’t have to excel at everything I did. It was okay to fail every once and a while, so long as it didn’t stop me from doing what was important. And my family would always be there for me, pass or fail, success or mediocrity, stress or not stress. I realized I was so afraid of disappointing them and just being mediocre that it’d paralysed me, because I felt they’d always expected me to be extraordinary, even when the stress of it was too much.

This hasn’t changed a whole lot. I still want to be a power broker when I find a job, but I’m not so worried as to what will happen if I fall flat on my face or if I don’t “make it”, because I know I’ll find somewhere else to make it to. I’m ambitious – that’s part of my personality and that won’t change, but I have fewer goals. Now, my goals are to get a co-op job that really interests and challenges me, to get an A or more in my five classes next term, and to hit the gym at least four times a week, and I can focus all my considerable energy and ambition on these things. Everything else, including exploring kinetic typography, working on a story about zombie geese, finishing those Discworld novels and writing this blog, is a want that I refuse to feel guilty about putting aside.  Maybe I’ll even actually get something done, with those goals, instead of starting a million things and never finishing anything.

Project 14 is how I’m going to start my journey of self discovery, to memorialize  who I am when I start chronicling my life. Each day, I’ll approach who I am through a different paradigm people use to define themselves. Read more about it at my About page.

Project 14 – Day 2: Childhood

Day 2 of Project 14 will be dedicated to writing about my childhood and upbringing, which only ended recently.

I’m going to tell this story backwards, from the end, instead of the beginning. My childhood ended about a month ago. Before then, I’d always thought that it was over when I first became a teenager, when I turned 16, when I could vote or drink, or when I first moved out – artificial boundaries that society tells us make us adults. But part of me always whispered, “no, not yet.” Part of me never really felt grown up.

But a month ago, I knew it was over, with the same certainty that someone facing an avalanche feels in knowing that he will be buried. I fell to pieces. A guy I’d loved dearly had left me (in a very decent, polite, if surprising way), I wasn’t ready for my professional exam, I was behind in school, I had a million things to do and only enough energy to shut myself in my room and cry my eyes raw.

I was a mess.

I didn’t feel smart, I didn’t feel lovable, I didn’t understand what was going on, I didn’t feel happy, and most of all, I didn’t like who I was any more. And this was a big deal, because even through the uncertainty of preteen-ness, the ravages of teenagerhood, and the scary newness of university, I was always certain of myself, and that I liked myself.

Suddenly, I wasn’t and I didn’t.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I am the daughter of immigrants. My mom and I joined my dad in Canada when I was two, as my dad had come over earlier as a PhD in Chemistry candidate. My parents worked really hard when I was younger to establish us, and times were tough (my dad likes to tell the story of how he came to Canada and basically lived on cereal for a month). My parents spoiled me in every way they could, though. They spent every moment they were free from studying for three degrees between the two of them or working to spend time with me, they staggered their classes so one of them could always be with me, and they even took me out to McDonalds as a treat when I did well, even though we really didn’t have the money for it. They would put off work or coursework until after I slept so they could do things like take me to the library to read, or teach me math (I still remember my dad being more proud of me learning to multiply at seven than they were when we got our citizenship) or teach me to ride a bike.

I think my parents always felt a bit guilty that they couldn’t give me the toys a child usually has, but I had a pretty rich childhood. I spent a lot of time at the park, playing with my friends, or reading in the library. I built castles out of the leaves, adventures from my imagination, and ghosts from whispers on the stairs. I also spent a lot of time alone, which is an ability I lost as I got older.

While it lasted the normal span of time, my elementary school career seemed far longer than it should have, probably because I changed school so often. I made friends in my first school mostly because when I was six or seven, making friends basically consisted of meeting new people. I switched schools in grade two, when my parents graduated and found jobs in different cities, so while my mom and I were settling down, I got my first taste of what being the new kid felt like. I switched schools again about three weeks later, when my mom found us our little one bedroom bachelor pad. Then, I really became the awkward new kid, who also was too smart for her own good and a bit (okay, a lot) of a teacher’s pet. I’m pretty sure I was bullied in that school, but back then, my memory was very good at forgetting things I don’t want to remember. I honestly remember the books I read in the library next door to the school more than I remember the people or my teachers (but to be fair, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are hard to match up to). When I was in grade four, my parents then bought our house, and I moved schools again, to a newly built school where most people were refinding friends anyways. There, I learned the art of actually making friends – it involved having something in common with them and actually spending time talking to them.

My little sister was born around this time, and while I had been my mother’s stalwart pregnancy companion ever since I started asking for a sibling for Christmas two years prior and since my dad lived in another city, my own life interfered with my plans to be the best big sister ever. It was a messy time.

I switched schools again at the beginning of grade five because I was diagnosed as gifted. To those not familiar with the term in the Ontario Education system, it designates students who memorize and absorb knowledge much more quickly than normal, so they’re put in special classes to allow them to focus on the other four levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: applying, analysing, evaluating, and creating. When I was in school, we so-called “gifties” were identified by IQ tests, and they pulled the top 2% out, which effectively created classes of people like me – people who were wildly intelligent, potentially mostly teacher’s pets, but perhaps more than a little socially awkward. It also created, to my eternal mystification, an uneven number of boys and girls – in my grade five class of 18 people, there were three girls including myself.

Nevertheless, in this school, I had my first real best friend, and met my first real sociopath, who, unfortunately, were the same person. My selective memory still worked during this time, because while I have vague memories of being miserable at school, I can really only remember the good times. My selective memory also won’t let me forget that I was a bully during these times. Since the only time I’d been left alone in my third school was when I fought back (and I got really good at it),  I had a really bad reflex of causing physical pain whenever I thought anyone was bullying me, even if they were just lightly teasing me like boys are wont to do when they’re preteens. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve made my peace and my apologies for it a long time ago, and learned some better conflict management tools in the mean time.

Grade five and six were my first real brush with drama, the kind of stuff people sell trashy high school dramas on. But they were a mere baptism, compared to the drowning that happened in middle school. My best friend and I got into a massive fight at the beginning of grade seven, and between us, we essentially split the class into two. It continued like that for a solid two years, with the boys on her side and the girls on mine, and the two of us alternating between sniping at each other and ignoring the other group’s existence. It got to the point where the teachers were very quick to catch on to the obvious split and were smart enough never to force the two sides to work together. It also made for some really interesting romantic situations.

I made my first real friends during this period, who I still talk to today, and I also learned the value of keeping myself as far out of the drama as humanly possible (which, I also learned, is not very far when you are the main target). As strange as this sounds, this is the first time I’d really cared that other people didn’t like me, and it was interfering with my emotional well-being. I developed a thicker skin, and just focused on having fun with my friends – I was thoroughly enjoying the novelty of having more than one close friend.

High school was actually a much more peaceful, and drama-free experiment than middle school. We used to joke that we were all too busy to really be bothered with it, especially around grade 11 and 12 when we were applying for University (My high school was known for being really “nerdy” – I think we had the highest percentage of gifties in the city). I really came into my own during this period. I met another wonderful group of people (guy friends included this time!), had hobbies and extracurriculars that involved other people, was really challenged for the first time in school with many teachers that both gave me room to explore and fascinating subjects to think about, and fell in love for the first and second time. It wasn’t free of drama, but after two years of constant sniping, it was wonderful to know that most people didn’t care about me or liked me. I’ll always look back fondly on it, even though I hope it’s not the best four years of my life, like some people say it is.

High school made me more than a little arrogant, and I believed in my own invincibility. I was brilliant, capable, independent, and someone people expected to do well, someone I expected to do well. However, if high school inflated my ego to unbearable proportions, University created a slow leak that suddenly exploded last month. Don’t get me wrong, I made some awesome friends, but I didn’t immediately find the same wonderfully supportive circle that I did in high school. I also learned that when I don’t immediately share all the same classes with people like I did in middle school and high school, creating and deepening relationships is difficult and a lot more work. I didn’t put as much effort into my relationships as I should.

I also carried a lot of arrogance about my intelligence, forgetting that I had once thought that potential without hard work is useless. I managed on a bare modicum of work in high school because I devoted a considerable amount of time in my extracurriculars. Nothing was ever too much – until I reached University and refused to admit that everything was becoming too much. I as a person changed, but my habits or personality didn’t change with it. I also combated feeling overwhelmed by taking more on (I’m not sure why either).

It came to critical mass last month. Suddenly, after the catalyst of the break up, I’d lost control of my life. I could no longer pretend that it wasn’t too much work, too much stress, too many expectations, too many things making me sad, too few things making me happy, too many things left undone, too many things left unsaid. I felt lower than the worm crushed underfoot after the rain. I was getting 70s and 60s for the first time, I failed an exam for the first time, and I felt so hopelessly lonely yet so guilty for reaching out to the people I did reach out to because I’d neglected those relationships so badly.

My childhood is over now. I no longer believe that I am invincible, that I can do everything, that things in life will just come to me, that I am perfect and that the rest of the world is wrong. I now believe that I am good, but I can be a better person. I now believe that I have to work really hard for what I want, and even if I do put in that work, I might not get what I want, and that’s okay, because the work itself is the reward. All the natural ability and previous experience means nothing if I can’t manifest them in results. I now believe that if I think the world is wrong, I need to work to change it myself and not expect it to correct itself.

I also figured out my priorities, properly, for the first time. If you’d asked me two months ago what they were, I would’ve said school, finding a good job, my relationship, family, friends, and having fun, which is pretty standard. Now my priorities are me, my family and friends, my education and learning, finding a good job, and being happy. The difference might be small, but to me, it’s profound. I’ve never been on my own list of priorities before, but putting myself at the top makes me go to the gym instead of hanging out with my friends for a little bit longer, or saying no when I really can’t do something. With my education and degrees further down my list, I feel like I can do better at them because I’m no longer terrified of failing. I’ve recognized that putting myself first means I can celebrate my singleness with a carefree heart, and do whatever I want for my own good and forget about being rude. I can cut ties with friends who don’t enrich my life, and reconnect with those who I genuinely care about. Most of all, I’ve learned a very important distinction between having fun and being happy, which are two different things: having fun doesn’t necessarily make me happy for long, but if I’m happy, I’ll always have fun.

I know for sure my childhood is over because I’ve lost that innocence, that faith that everything will work out. I know now that I have to take responsibility for it and work it out myself. And yes, I think it’s a ridiculously obvious lesson that people have been telling me all my life, and I’m probably a late bloomer in this respect, but I don’t think I’m the only one. I think some people continue to be children long after they call themselves adults. I’m just thankful that I learned this lesson before I screwed anything up permanently, and I can continue with the rest of my life.

Project 14 is how I’m going to start my journey of self discovery, to memorialize  who I am when I start chronicling my life. Each day, I’ll approach who I am through a different paradigm people use to define themselves. Read more about it at my About page.

Project 14 – Day 1: Family

I’m starting my Project 14 by talking about Family, how it means resilience to me and how it’s defined me.

I’m honestly not sure how much your family and your family history define you as a person. Some people are very proud of who they come from and who they’re related to. Some people don’t know their family, or consider people outside of their immediate blood relatives their true family. Some people just don’t think about it.

To me, my family has played a major part creating in who I am. I draw strength from my family tree, which happens to be littered with many successful and surprisingly resilient people. I like knowing that I can take comfort in my roots, that stubbornness, perseverance and the ability to grow from suffering is written in my DNA. Of course, there may be other things written there that my parents don’t like to tell me about, but that I can willfully ignore.

My immediate family is pretty small – just my parents, my little sister, and myself. We immigrated to Canada from China when I was two, leaving behind an extensive extended family – My mom has three siblings, my dad has five, so I have a lot of cousins. It’s a fairly supportive family, as far as these things go, but there are barriers of oceans, different languages and different cultures to cross. However, I do know for sure that if I’m ever in a pinch, I will be able to rely on my family, immediate or extended, no matter what happens.

My parents are both immigrants who have led very difficult lives. They do everything to ensure my little sister and I never have to suffer through the difficulties that they did, but they never let us forget where we come from. When I was younger, I used to be so frustrated that they weren’t perfect – and they did make mistakes – but as a whole, I think they’re both amazing people that did their best by me, and I love them both dearly.

Both my parent’s families have rags to riches to rags to riches stories in them. Both of them have also been heavily influenced by the Communist Revolution, and the land redistribution that happened in 1959 in China beggared and nearly crippled both their families. Both them and their families have used education, perseverance, and a little bit of luck to find their way to comfortable affluence, if not wild success. They both like to remind me of our family history when I think things get too hard.

My dad likes to remind me of my grandfather. He was a very astute man, a peasant understood the value of education and learned to read and write. This lead to him rising to become a wealthy landholder, who then donated everything and beggared his family to become a small functionary of the communist party. This actually turned out to be a pretty smart move, as not long after he made the donation, the wealthy were forced to give up their lands, beaten, shot and their children were denied anything beyond basic schooling until 1977. Many chose to flee, like my mom’s uncle. Grandfather was a survivor, though, and even managed to duck a trumped up embezzlement charge by  hiding in the Li family village. My oldest uncle, in the spirit of filial piety, had to jump moving trains to avoid pursuers who want to shoot my grandfather to bring him food and clothes. I think my youngest aunt dropped out of university or made some other large sacrifice to support her three younger brothers (my dad and my two uncles). It was a period of great hardship and poverty  for my Dad’s family, but there is a happy ending – my grandfather managed to come out of hiding and become a successful bank manager and led a long, fulfilling life, and the rest of my Dad’s family are pretty successful by most people’s standards today.

My mom, on the other hand, tells me more about her own childhood. She grew up on a farm, with very little money and a lot of hard, back breaking work. She used to tell me about having to work on a farm, and study hard – she started school a year late, and finished early, all while raising pigs for market (which, if you’ve ever been on a farm, you know how much work that is). She also taught me to treasure food – for example, an egg was considered a special treat, saved for birthdays and big occasions. Every time I eat one now, I always give it a kind of hushed respect, even though there are 11 more sitting in the fridge. She’s an absolute genius as a cook – people say I cook well, but honestly, I have nothing on my mom. It’s not something you can really teach, as well (she doesn’t believe in recipes), it’s just a sense or an instinct of what tastes good with what.

Now, I have to add a disclaimer here: my Chinese is terrible, so I’m pretty sure I’ve got some details wrong (sorry Mom, Dad, if you ever read this), but the general idea is that I come from a family that’s resilient and resourceful, and I’m glad I can take pride in that those same genes are in me. Whenever I feel like life’s too hard, I just have to remember that someone in my family has probably had it worse, and they’ve survived, so I will too, and I have a family that will support me through it.

My little sister is the most recent addition to the family, and I adore her to pieces – I am the worst big sister bragger you will ever meet. She’s smart, she’s ambitious, and she learns so quickly – hopefully, in another 5 or 9 years, you’ll see her on the Olympic stage!

In her, I think my parents and I both see her as a way to do better.   Don’t get me wrong, they did their best by me, but two poor university students struggling to raise a daughter while simultaneously completing two masters degrees and one PhD between them and immigrating to a country where they barely spoke the language is very different from two Canadian citizens raising a daughter with money, more time, and an older daughter to help. I like the way I turned out, and I’ll always be very grateful for everything they did for me, but my little sister will grow up with advantages that I will never begrudge her for. As a family, we’ll all do our best by her – that’s just family (Ohana!).

Not all my family is blood related, though. I’ve also adopted a big brother, or sister, depending on how I feel. He’s way out in the States (I don’t hold it against him :P), and we met over chocolate-covered strawberries. It’s a very strange relationship, but one I hold very close to my heart, as he’s been there for me through my best and worst times. Knowing him taught me that family is not just blood and genes – it’s anyone you know you can reach out to and anyone you would reach back to, without hesitation.

To me, family is a source of strength and resilience. I get that family might not mean the same thing for everyone, that it might be a source of shame or pain or apathy – I won the genetics lottery. But I also think that you can find family anywhere, if you trust yourself to look and form those bonds.

As a side note, I think my favourite family story is still my great grandfather. A Tofu and Sticky Rice merchant, he was also a wushu (Chinese martial arts) master who used the 100 kilogram stone that you use to make sticky rice as a weapon. It inspires me to do more when I’m at the gym weight training!

Project 14 is how I’m going to start my journey of self discovery, to memorialize  who I am when I start chronicling my life. Each day, I’ll approach who I am through a different paradigm people use to define themselves. Read more about it at my About page.