The Big Story of Where Your Family Came From

Revisiting the village of our ancestors in China

Revisiting the village of our ancestors in China

"I'd like a full order please." - Restaurant Customer

(15 minutes later)

"Sir, here are your four orders." - Mom

This was a story my mom told me when she was a freshly minted immigrant in the US working in a Chinese restaurant in the 80s. Mom had no formal education let alone any English language skills at the time. The customer had ordered a "full order," which she mistook for "four orders." 

She laughs it off now because the restaurant owners (luckily) were nice and could empathize. But It was tough. As much as I can try to empathize, I simply cannot imagine myself moving halfway around the world to a foreign land with literally a suitcase, an address, a few hundred dollars of life savings between 3 people, and no education. 

Growing up, stories of hardships were lectured around the dinner table to motivate my sister and me to study and work harder. That work ethic was ingrained in our minds, but the stories haven't resonated with me until now...

You don't realize how fast time passes until you look your parents in the eye one day and wonder...

"Where in the world did these wrinkles and patches of white hair come from?"

I've always been intrigued by stories, and there is no story more important than the one about you, your family, and where you came from.

Growing up in Chinatown...

Chinatown.jpg told by a young, naive, but pretty happy kid.

7AM: Little rays of sunlight creep through the shanty curtains that tickles my eyelids to announce that Morning has arrived. However, I already know that the day has begun not from the reflective beams of the morning rays but by the sounds of emphatic debate from Chinese passersby, mostly elders, on their way to morning tea or Tai chi. This is waking up in Chinatown...

8AM:I lazily untangle myself from my covers in an attempt to wake up while every little movement produces a loud screech from my metal bunk bed (knowing fully well my sister below me and parents beside me are still trying to sleep). It's Saturday, and Pokemon is on the WB channel at 9 am!

9AM: We don't have a bathroom, so I brush my teeth in the kitchen sink and proceed to use the communal toilet in the hallway that is shared by 20 other families. The grandma in apartment #4 always has her door slightly bolted next to the communal toilet to make sure people are respecting "her" toilet. She's scary. 

10AM: The Chinatown Library is opening! I race up the hill and down Powell street to claim my computer spot in line before the library opens. The doors open, and it's a race to grab the first 1-hour limit of computer time to play MUD (Multi-user Dungeon). Besides sports, playing games like MUD would ultimately become my passion for a good chunk of my youth.

5PM: Holy crap, I forgot to eat lunch. Probably because the boss hunt was so intense. The library is closed for the day, and it was a good day because I "leveled up." Success never felt so good. I follow Stanley and his older brother down to "Chinatown Playground" on Sacramento to hang out with the "cool kids." All these big kids with their oversized North Face puffy jackets and slick haircuts are just lounging around...they seem so cool. Yeah the cool kids, I thought.

7PM: Dinner time. Oh my god. Frog again? Whyyyy? "It cures cancer." However, I've already come to disbelieve anything my parents say about food since they say eating certain foods will cure cancer or give you better eyesight. Why we gotta be so Chinese... 

8PM: Crap I still have Chinese homework to do! I'm dreading having to recite this Chinese poem about the moonlight on Monday. Why do I gotta go to English school AND Chinese? Life is so unfair...

9PM: "Stop playing your Gameboy, you're going to go blind!" Pokemon and Gameboy pretty much made me the first one in my family to become nearsighted. You should always listen to your mother...

10PM: My bedtime routine usually consists of going to bed and fooling around until 10:30 pm before my mom comes in and yells at me and my sister to go to bed.

...what a great day. Looking forward to going to the library again tomorrow to play MUD.

How much "mom" time is left?

"It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end." - Wait But Why

It occurred to me as I woke up this morning, perhaps from a dream or nightmare, but I asked myself the question, "How many days does mom or dad have left on this planet?"

Frightening thought.

It brought me back to a powerful Wait Buy Why article, "The Tail End," that depicted how much time we have left with mom and dad in pictures. It hadn't occur to me that moving away for college and life would mean that I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. Occasional holiday visits would be the only time to congregate with family and even then, I remember those home visits during my early to mid 20s were used to hang out with friends. How young and irresponsible of me.


How much "in-person" time we have left with our parents...

That's why I'm making it a priority to spend as much time with my parents while I'm around. They have this amazing story of perseverance growing up under poverty and hardships during the Cultural Revolution and eventually making it to America to provide a better life for my sister and me. I'm extremely grateful and currently working on a project to document these stories while I still can.