I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my parents and my Chinese upbringing*. One of my favorite Oscar Wilde quotes is “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” I began to judge my parents at a very young age. I judged them for being immigrants with thick accents that none of my friends could understand, I judged their social awkwardness and the way it reflected upon me. I resented them for being so authoritative and not letting me go to sleepovers, or for not allowing cable TV in our home. In contrast to the authoritative parent and obedient child relationship predominant in Chinese culture, in American culture the parents often strive to create more of a partnership, even a friendship with their children. I often felt the emotional distance between myself and my parents and envied the relationships my American friends had with their parents. However, through the one avenue my parents would not deny (school), I got the chance to learn about their lives. In elementary and middle school, through all the “interview your parent” or “talk to an adult” homework assignments, I slowly pieced together my parents’ life stories:
My parents grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution – Mao’s 1966 “out with the old, in with the new” socio-political movement that sought to replace all the old capitalist systems with new socialist ones. My mother was the less lucky of my two parents. When Mao came into power, her family was blacklisted because her father had supported the opposing political party. Additionally, my grandfather was a teacher and the previous educational system was considered to be wrong and corrupting. My mother and her siblings were plucked from their home and comfortable urban life in Shanghai to be relocated as part of the “Down to the Countryside” movement where they performed manual labor in the rural countryside for over a decade. My mother told me anecdotes about eating meat once a year, and blamed the farm work for the leathery, cracked skin of her hands and feet. When the fervor of the Cultural Revolution died down a bit and life regained some semblance of normalcy, my mother quickly returned to school and studied to be a science teacher, easily finding a job in a vacated career field.
Although my father’s family had been politically in line with Mao’s communist party, his life and his schooling were also interrupted. However, my father did not let the lack of formal schooling interrupt his education. During the 4-5 years of the Cultural Revolution, my father taught himself the entirety of his undergraduate studies. As soon as universities reopened, he tested into graduate school, receiving top marks – he only got one math problem wrong on his entire exam, he liked to brag to me. After receiving his PhD in chemistry at Fudan University in Shanghai, he came to Cornell and joined the chemistry department as a postdoc and stayed on as a researcher for an additional 23 years.
Though I still fundamentally disagree with my parents on many issues (including some about parenting), learning about their lives and their hardships has helped me to respect them and understand why they raised my the way they did. My parents have invested enormously in my and my brother’s educations, hoping to give us opportunities that they never had, and wishing that we’ll succeed. As Amy Chua wrote of immigrant parents, “Everything they do and earn will go toward their children’s education and future,” and my experiences only seem to confirm this. They have succeeded in overcoming far more hardship than I am likely to see in my lifetime, and for that I can respect them as people.
Finally, to return to Oscar Wilde: I will always love my parents, if at some times more than others. I judge my parents as I judge everyone else, but I do so with the knowledge that they have been shaped by their histories. And so far, I don’t see anything for which I need to forgive my parents, perhaps other than my birth.
*Sorry if you were expecting an Amy Chua-esque** post on how my parents’ parenting succeeded/failed in raising me and my brother. I do have a lot to say about this, but it’d fill many other posts that I’ll write some other day…..
**I actually read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and have a lot to say about it, but again, for another time…