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 § 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.