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.

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