October 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
I wrote this post a month ago but got sidetracked until now. In this two-part series, I’m breaking down the experiences of having my cousins visit our home from different states. Part I can be found here.
Tian is the daughter of my mother’s second oldest sister [my 二姨]. I think Tian is about four years older than me, though I don’t know exactly. Having just come [immigrated?] from China this past July, she’s currently doing grad school in Houston. This family history is a bit more complicated simply because I’ve spent a lot more time with her family than Jerry’s family. I might get a bit too honest in the following writing, so I sincerely hope that any family members who read this can forgive my unkind thoughts.
I don’t recall ever actually meeting Tian’s biological father. For as long as I can remember, my aunt has been married to my least favorite uncle [step-uncle?], somebody to whom I’m thankful not to be related by blood. This uncle was always a chain-smoker and somewhat heavy drinker, which repulsed my conservative 11-year-old self, but it was his personality that always struck me as most vile.
He always had an air of arrogance [as well as a slight resemblance to Hitler in my paranoid 11-year-old mind]. As a pretty successful English teacher, he made more money than most of my other relatives in China. One time during a meal at a restaurant when I was rather young, my relatives wanted to see who had better English, me or my uncle. So he threw out a word, which I’ve long forgotten, and I probably didn’t know the meaning. After some thought, I responded with “golden retriever.” Ha! That definitely stumped him as he attempted to draw some kind of sports connection out of it. I remember being pleased with my small victory but also annoyed at having to play this kind of stupid game with an adult.
My abhorrence of this uncle meant that I hated visiting their apartment. Unfortunately, this particular aunt has a personality very much like my mother’s: very, very pushy. Like my mother’s other two sisters, she adored my brother and me and would always insist on spending time with us whenever we visited our hometown of Shenyang, which meant going to their home. Last summer when I traveled to China by myself, I realized that I was pretty helpless to stand up to my more demanding relatives without my mother around to protect me. LOL.
Tian is very much like her mother, which meant that I’ve always been somewhat intimidated by her. I have three other older cousins in China, and Tian was the only one with whom I rarely felt a close, sisterly bond. See, she and her mother are almost exactly alike except that my aunt has mellowed out with age while Tian still needs to soften her sharp edges. At this point, it gets hard to describe her personality because I feel like there’s too much to say; I wanted to write all this last year after visiting my relatives but never got around to it. It’s also a pretty harsh analysis of the people who love me and probably don’t deserve this kind of treatment. So there isn’t much justification I can give other than saying that I just need to get it out.
Tian and my aunt are the kind of people who act like they know everything even when they don’t. If it’s clear that they’re wrong, then they’ll make some kind of excuse, shift the blame or change the subject. This kind of personality, I believe, is an attempt to cover up insecurities. While they’re loud and outspoken in certain, more comfortable situations [Tian has no qualms about prodding me about my weight], they immediately clam up in unfamiliar spaces. Tian’s youth allows her to get through events such as large family reunions with more social grace than my poor aunt [and her unsavory husband, whom I suspect my other relatives merely tolerate as well]. It might seem like a universal truth that people are less outgoing in strange territory, but honestly the only instances I’m talking about are the large family gatherings, where they as a familial unit seem awkward and out of place among my father’s more boisterous side of the family.
In observing these kinds of situations, I feel a mixture of sympathy and aversion, which I suppose isn’t an abnormal mélange of emotions regarding family. I want what’s best for the people I love, but at the same time, I know them a little too well and can see inside them a little too clearly.
I thought pretty deeply about their family during my visit last summer. I noticed that my uncle was drinking more than usual, staying out late almost every night to drink with his friends. There was almost zero affection between him and my aunt, and it made me wonder why they married in the first place. They’re so different — how could they end up liking each other, much less falling in love?
My secret theory was that after her divorce, my aunt needed someone to provide for her and Tian, and my uncle [he might have been a divorcee too, I don’t remember] needed a family to come home to and provide some kind of purpose for his money-making. It sounds heartless for me to be speculating about a situation of which I know nothing, but my mind often envisions the worst possible scenario in any given situation, so that’s how I ended up with that conjecture.
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve spent the past 900 words decidedly neglecting to talk about Tian’s visit to our home. This is because I barely spent any time with her. When my parents first told me that she was coming, I imagined staying up late talking about life and boyfriends and such. It probably took mere hours for that anticipation to be replaced with a slight feeling of dread as I recalled her abrasive personality.
As things turned out, I was unexpectedly busy during Labor Day Weekend and didn’t have much time to hang out anyway. I would be in my room working on a story and Tian would come in to ask me something or another, such as why my room was so messy [looked okay to me] and whether she could see my diploma [it was downstairs]. Each time, I would have to tell myself to be positive while immediately feeling bad for having to force it.
I knew she meant well, but I have a very low tolerance for inane questions, and some conversations we had were downright silly. So the second floor of our house has two bathrooms: one between my room and the guest room and one in my parents’ bedroom. On the first night, after my brother came out of our shared bathroom [which has two sinks], Tian asked me without a trace of jest, “If your parents have their own bathroom and your brother uses this one, which one do you use?” What? Obviously I bathe in the mud pit in the backyard. Duh.
Another time, my brother came home from school/somewhere and went into our bathroom while she was in her room, and she came out and randomly asked me who was using the bathroom. Well, if it’s not me and not my parents who have their own bathroom, then it must be the ghost who lives in the attic! What is it to you anyway? At the time I could only avert my gaze and give her a serious answer, but afterward, I was left scratching my head. And despite her stepfather being an English teacher and presumably being an excellent English student in China, she refused to speak any English to me or my brother while visiting. She could barely even recall the English titles of the American shows she asked me about. Maybe she was just self-conscious.
If I sound like a mean person, it’s because I am. I couldn’t be bothered to take time out of my “busy” schedule to hang out with my cousin who flew all the way from China then all the way from Texas, and it was simply because I didn’t love her enough, in feeling or action. I’ve realized that it’s often family members who best reflect your true self, whether it’s a deep love that causes me to do all kinds of random favors for my brother or the just-as-deep ambivalence that results in me not being able to help him with his more profound issues.
I hope I can make it up to Tian someday. Now that she’s in America long-term, maybe we’ll be able to grow close as cousins one day. Maybe.
September 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
There are days when you just can’t escape negativity. It follows you around, nipping at your heels when you try to kick it away before it becomes a fully formed monster leaving long, raw scratches on your life.
I suppose it started on Saturday night. My parents had gone to a family friend’s house up in the northern suburbs and didn’t get home until around 1AM, which is quite late for them. I was in my room, awake, and my mother came in to ask if I was going to church early with my dad the next day [I was]. Our family usually takes two separate cars to church because my brother refuses to wake up any earlier than he has to.
I needed to be in downtown Naperville to cover a 9/11 memorial service right after church, so we had previously decided that my mother would send me there before going off to teach at Chinese School. On Saturday night, however, mother told me that my dad would send me there instead. Sure, whatever. I stayed up until 3:30AM Skyping with B and only got four hours of sleep.
Sunday’s weather was good enough to keep me from hating myself for depriving myself of sleep, but I was still pretty tired. My brain was definitely not functioning at 100 percent. On the way to church, my dad urged me for the fiftieth time to apply to some government jobs from the website he sent me.
“Just get a job and make a living before you focus on finding a job that you actually love,” he told me. “That’s what we parents who immigrated from China had to do; we set aside our previous educations to learn about computers because those were the available jobs.”
I rolled my eyes and thought, I’d really rather not receive life lessons right now, please, but those thoughts are always tempered with the guilt of knowing that my dad won’t be around to give me life lessons forever, and someday in the future [hopefully not too soon, God willing], I’m going to shed tears because I didn’t spend enough time listening to my dad, I just know it.
In any case, the negativity materialized, festering with each curt response that I gave.
When we arrived in the church parking lot, we had to figure out what to do with my camera equipment [which I needed for the afternoon] because apparently my dad was going to park the car elsewhere to save on parking spaces in the constantly overflowing lot. Exasperated, I wondered why he had to be so nice and why he couldn’t just leave the car there just this once, jeez. He then said he would bring my stuff inside with him and transfer it to mom’s car when she got there later. I figured that to mean that he and mother would switch cars after church so he could drive me downtown in her car while she got a ride to the farther parking lot where his car would be parked. I wasn’t sure it made sense but I was late for worship team practice already so I gave him my stuff and went inside.
Being on worship team means having the privilege to stand onstage, which also means having the opportunity to scan the rows and look for my brother while singing. He didn’t show up, and I mentally scolded my mother for letting him “stay home to do homework” again.
After church, I called my dad, who was still on the second floor manning sound equipment for the Mandarin congregation. He came down and gave me my equipment and told me he didn’t know where my mom had parked her car. Then he went back upstairs. Confused, I stood around for a little while and then walked around the whole parking lot in search of mother’s minivan. I figured that he needed to finish up with the adult church service, so it would be best if I found the car and pulled it around to the front to wait for him.
Mother’s vehicle was nowhere to be found. Utterly confused and tired, I called her to ask where she had parked. She told me that she wasn’t even at church, that she had been too tired to come. What…the heck? First of all, missing a day of church for a family as involved in the Chinese Christian community as us is like playing hooky in high school. It’s extremely abnormal. Also, my mother skipping church meant that my brother automatically wasn’t even given a chance to attend. I mean, this might be negligible since normally he resists coming anyway, but I hate the fact that my brother’s spiritual well-being is so neglected in this family, not just by my mother but by all of us. The more he sees us placing God as second, third or last priority, the more reason he has not to care about his own salvation.
My negativity grew, although these were just fleeting thoughts in my mind as the most important question hit me: How was I supposed to get downtown?
At that moment, I spotted my dad and called out to him.
“What are you still doing here?” he asked me.
“Um…what??” I was flabbergasted. “Aren’t you supposed to drive me?”
“What?! I thought your mom was driving you!”
“She didn’t even come to church today…”
Even while typing out this blog post, I still can’t comprehend how this massive rift in communication happened. Obviously it was too much for me to expect my parents to talk to each other, for mother to tell dad about the sudden change in plans. This has always been a problem. I would tell one parent one thing, and then the other one would ask me the same thing later that day or week. Or one parent would call me to tell me something, and a little while later, the other one would call to tell me the same thing. I never understood why this happened; I always assumed that married people would naturally tell each other everything, that when I told my mom something major like “I got a boyfriend” that she would obviously tell my dad all about it. But no.
There have been times when I’ve exploited this fact, like when one parent is mad at me but the other one doesn’t know I’m in trouble yet. But as I grow older, the need to pit my parents against each other fades into a hesitant worry that their relationship is somehow abnormal.
Dad was nonplussed. He and I ended up walking a few blocks away to where he had parked the car. The whole way there, he kept asking when I found out mother hadn’t come to church [um, like one minute ago?] and muttering things like “terrible person.” I could see his cloud of frustration growing. The negativity was spreading.
He waited for me while I did my reporting, and I guessed that he hadn’t talked to mother because she was busy teaching at Chinese school for the whole afternoon. All I wanted to do after getting home was to take a nap; I was tired of fighting the negativity and just wanted to sleep it off. Alas, hours of importing and video-editing and rendering awaited me, so I isolated myself in my room to get some work done.
Eventually, my uncle came to pick up my dad to take him to the airport [dad travels to the east coast to work during the week]. Dad came upstairs to tell me that he had cooked some food, so I could eat it later when I got hungry.
“…Is mom not coming home?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, and left.
Mom came home an hour later and I could already tell just from the way she asked me “Where’s your dad?” that she wasn’t in the finest of moods. I was still working so I tried to drown out peripheral noises but I couldn’t avoid hearing my mom calling my dad, their brief conversation escalating to an abrupt ending.
My brother also picked that moment to go downstairs and complain about hunger [a daily occurrence]. Mother pretty much kicked him out of the kitchen so she could call someone else [her sister, presumably] and bitch about my dad. I could hear Larry cursing about “getting some fucking food” on his way back upstairs. The negativity peaked.
I angrily wondered why, if my parents were angry at each other, they didn’t just talk it out. For me, communication and understanding are the most important things in a relationship. I like to think that I’ve honed this skill from the inordinate time I’ve spent in long-distance relationships, in which problems can’t just be swept under the rug by the sometimes misleading comfort of physical intimacy.
In fact, sometimes I wonder if I’m more willing to date long-distance because that’s how my parents’ relationship is: My dad has been traveling regularly on business trips ever since I can remember. Logically, this should mean that my parents are masters of communicating with each other, right? Unfortunately, as I’ve already proven above, the opposite is true. They are abysmal at communication and conflict resolution and that trickles down to me and my brother and swells into the negativity that continues to thread its way into this family.
There’s so much that’s wrong here. There’s so much more I could write, pages and pages of analysis of my dysfunctional family from my teenage years until now. But how is it going to end?
At the moment, Larry has withdrawn to his lair after stuffing his face with Popeye’s. Apparently my dad’s cooking wasn’t good enough because it consisted of only vegetables, and my mom’s cooking also didn’t make the cut because he already had it for lunch. Dad won’t be home until Friday night. Mother is downstairs making phone call after phone call, catching up with old friends and wishing them a happy 中秋节. She has always loved talking on the phone; I used to attribute it to her outgoing nature, but now I think she’s just lonely. This family isn’t enough to satisfy anyone’s emotional needs.
As for me, I’m sitting in the guest room writing this in the dark because light will strain my tired eyes too much. I skipped dinner to work, and now it’s too late to eat a proper meal.
Besides, I’m already full. Of negativity.
September 11, 2011 § 1 Comment
Two weeks ago, we had two different family members visit our home from out of state. I was originally going to publish these two stories as one post, but it turned out that I had a lot more to say than anticipated, so I cut them into two.
Jerry is the son of my dad’s youngest sister [my 老姑]. Hailing from New Jersey, Jerry is a senior in high school who came over to continue his college visits. Having already seen all the east coast schools worth looking at [Columbia, Princeton and many more], he already had more than his fill of universities, but his parents push very hard for excellence, so he came for three days.
I hadn’t seen Jerry for at least five years, so the 6-foot-tall 17-year-old who greeted me in the kitchen was a definite surprise. I mean, we’re friends on Facebook, but from that I could only tell that he was pretty active in his school’s fencing team. Yes, his school has a fencing team [wtf?], and apparently training for three years in the sport is enough to warrant an almost-guaranteed acceptance into schools like NYU based on fencing connections. [Damn…badminton got me nowhere!] I mean, of course he has to be smart too, but there’s no question that my lawyer aunt and super computer nerd uncle [read: rich family] would have kids with perfect grades.
Anyway, our first dinner with Jerry was a pretty lively affair. Even though he didn’t talk that much, it seemed like his presence significantly improved the mood in the house. I don’t know if he was some kind of good-luck charm or if it’s because we were extra-conscious of our family’s image in front of him. Just from our initial brief conversation, though, I could tell that he was a very likable and mature young person. Also worth noting is the fact that his house hadn’t had electricity for two days due to Hurricane Irene.
I was charged with the task of driving Jerry to Notre Dame on Wednesday morning. He had a scheduled tour at 10 a.m., and taking the time zone difference into consideration, that meant we had to leave the house at 6 a.m., and on the way back, I had to drop him off at O’Hare so he could catch his flight home. Awesome. I was pretty taken aback when my parents first sprung it on me, but I figured I would cherish the rare chance to spend a day with my cousin and visit Notre Dame for the first time myself.
Thankfully, CZ volunteered to come along to check out the Notre Dame business school, so we pretty much had a mini road trip. I couldn’t sleep the night before, so I made the drive on a mere 4.5 hours of sleep, but we managed to get there in one piece. Because of all the hype surrounding the Fighting Irish, I always thought Notre Dame was a big school, but it turned out to be a quiet Catholic school tucked away to the north of South Bend, Ind.
The buildings were very beautiful and almost castle-like. The visitor center, which a pretty blue vaulted ceiling, made me feel like I was walking into Hogwarts. The professors are also quite friendly, as a few of them approached us at various times during the day to ask if we needed directions. [We did.]
After Jerry embarked on his tour, CZ and I set off on our own adventure, which was basically a self-guided tour. As we strolled across the quad, she observed that there was a stark lack of socializing going on. There seemed to be very few students to begin with, a rather extreme contrast for the two of us, who both attended large state universities.
“There should always be people walking around,” CZ said, “but it’s so empty here!” At 10:30AM on a Wednesday, the campus seemed too quiet.
The students who did make an appearance outside appeared to be automatons, as they all plodded along alone, each lost in his or her own world. It sounds extreme, but among the 40 or so people we saw while walking along the quad, only two other people were actually walking together and talking. CZ and I pretended to walk separately in an attempt to blend in better, ha ha.
We visited the basilica, the grotto, the student union and the Mendoza Business Building. People were definitely coming out of their shells by the time lunch came around in the student union, so maybe the students at Notre Dame are simply non-morning people to the extreme [like me! I’d totally fit in here!].
CZ really wanted to attend a mass service, so we both partook in that for the first time. It was quite interesting, though we snuck out as everyone was taking communion because we didn’t really know what to do.
After Jerry’s tour and subsequent meeting with Notre Dame’s fencing coach, we went to lunch at a Cambodian/Thai restaurant that I had scouted out on Yelp. [Though the restaurant itself is unassuming, the panang curry was DELICIOUS.] It turns out that my cousin isn’t too different from my brother; his palate is almost entirely American, refusing to eat curry and harboring a pointed disinterest in rice. Like my own mother, my aunt had to learn to cook American food to feed her son, while her 13-year-old daughter Victoria, like me, adapts to eating anything.
With our stomachs full of yummy food, we dropped Jerry off at the airport without a hitch and made our way back home, where I took a much-needed three-hour nap.
July 25, 2011 § 2 Comments
This isn’t an open invitation to stalkers and burglars, but as some of you know, my parents have been in China for the past month, leaving me at home with my precious brother. I knew this month was coming for a long time, and I mostly looked forward to it. Babysitting my 15-year-old brother, whom I might add should be fully capable of babysitting himself, is totally worth getting mother out of the house for four weeks. And now that this pseudo-independence is coming to an end [my dad came home today], I’m taking the time to reflect on what I’ve learned.
Taking care of a house requires a lot of work — at least, much more work than 1/4 of an apartment. There’s trash to take out, laundry to do, food to keep from expiring, vacuuming, dishes, grocery shopping, piles and piles of mail to open, etc. And why do we have so many plants?! There are flowers both in the back and the front of the house that I have to water every day unless it rains, and the 15 potted plants in the house are watered weekly.
To be honest, housework wasn’t so bad. I generally enjoy keeping my own space clean, even if it means disinfecting the counters every night, which I’m pretty sure even my mother doesn’t do [I’m anal about counters, she’s anal about floors; we just never agree]. If my mom saw me cleaning this much, she’d probably demand to know why I don’t behave like this all the time. And I would tell her that I’m doing this because right now, this is my house, with my rules and responsibilities, and when she gets back, it goes back to being her house and responsibility. It’s rather selfish and ungrateful, but if she insists on treating me like a child, then dagnabbit, I’ll resort to acting like one.
Also, because my parents obviously take care of the bills, I didn’t have to worry about finances like a real housewife would. Does this mean I’m cut out for this kind of lifestyle? I don’t think so. It was fun for a month because I knew it was temporary: Eventually my parents will come home, I’ll find a job and move out to live my own life. I couldn’t imagine doing this kind of monotonous, thankless work for years and years as my main occupation. Then again, it was tiring enough to balance everything — house, brother, long-distance boyfriend — that it seems impossible to juggle a house, kids, husband and a full-time job. How do people do it??
Lately I realized that amidst all the errands and chores, it’s pretty easy to put myself last. Now, my experience was pretty tame, but I’m drawing connections here. I wake up and spend two hours tutoring a family friend. In the afternoon, I drive my brother to soccer practice. While he’s out of the house for two hours, I’d like to use the time to tan on the balcony or something, but instead I have to prepare dinner. After I pick him up and finish cooking, I devote an hour to washing dishes and doing miscellaneous cleaning. Then it’s a few hours on the phone with B. Sure, if I really wanted time, I could make time, but if I amplified all of these obligations by the magnitude of real life, it seems intensely exhausting. Like I said before, how do people do it?
I’ve learned a lot about my brother, too.
He has his good moments: saying thank you after I let him borrow my headband so he can wash his face properly. Mowing the lawn without me even mentioning it [though he did make a prior deal with the ‘rents]. The look of slight surprise when he realizes that the food I cook is actually tasty.
But those tender moments are only considered tender because of what I have to put up with the other 99 percent of the time. Larry is in this exasperating phase of life [fingers crossed that his character will improve one day] in which he respects no one and has enough arrogance for three people. Typical teenage boy, you say? Well, no. That doesn’t make it acceptable, and as all Asian parents know, comparing yourself with the average people in a group will get you nowhere.
I blame a lot of things on my mother because I’m an ungrateful and bitter daughter, but considering I’ve been gone at school for four years and my father is out of town five out of seven days a week for almost 52 weeks a year, I find that quite a few character flaws in my brother can be traced back to my mother, his primary caretaker. [Although I do know that my father bears an equal share of the blame for being absent for most of Larry’s life].
It’s safe to say that my brother is the most high-maintenance person in this family. Sure, I don’t go out without wearing makeup and I’m terrible at packing lightly, but my mother spoils Larry like he’s the heir apparent or something.
For example, he refuses to eat leftovers. If it makes it to the fridge, it’s as good as moldy. When she’s at home, she cooks something new for him every night. It might sound like typical parental labor, but it’s really not easy. Cooking dinner for five days straight this past week — more than I ever did for myself at school — was enough to make me swear it off for all of next week. My mother doesn’t even enjoy cooking that much, not like my dad does. [As fate would have it, Larry refuses to eat anything my dad makes.] I could tell when I got home from school that her cooking had become robotic, fit to a formula of the few foods that Larry will actually agree to consume. Food doesn’t taste good if there’s no love or creativity, and I think Larry could tell too. It’s tragic that the selfish little prick is sucking the life out of our mother, which is why I’m sure this vacation is just what she needed. The sad thing is, my brother treats our mother this way because she allows him to.
Another incident that flared my temper recently was on Friday night, when I was hanging out at LC’s house with her and XZ. At 1AM, Larry called me.
“When are you coming home?” he asked.
“Um, later…maybe in half an hour,” I responded. What the hell? Isn’t this a conversation I usually have with my controlling and curfew-enforcing mother?
“No!” he objected. “If you don’t come home now, I can’t go to sleep!”
“What the heck?? Just go to sleep, who cares?”
“You’ll make too much noise when you get back so I can’t sleep!” He was becoming irate. “Just sleep over there and don’t come back!”
Dumbfounded, I was certainly not going to be kicked out of the house by my teenage brother. “I’m coming home later, just go to sleep!”
“Oh my f***ing gosh,” he muttered as we hung up on each other.
I was pissed, but this was only one manifestation of a deeply entrenched and skewed attitude my brother has. What makes him think he’s the most important person in the house? What makes him think he has a right to give other people orders? What gives him the right to possess almost a negative amount of humility?
I realized once again that it’s because my mother allows him to be this way. She treats him like he’s the most important person in the house. She acquiesces to the majority of his requests. I could write another thousand words on why my parents are bad at disciplining my brother, but another factor is that Larry takes after my mother’s method of dealing with problems at home, which is to throw a loud and violent tantrum. When it comes to stubborn anger, she can’t win against him. And everybody in this house, including my brother, suffers from this mess.
I didn’t mean for this post to deteriorate into venting about my family members, but these are all things I’ve been learning. I can only hope — fervently, desperately hope — that when it comes to raising my own family, history doesn’t repeat itself.