On Family

The past three months of my life has been mainly about family. Being a nomad can be tiring, and I needed a good dose of doing not very much. I ate, slept, read, procrastinated, worried about The Future, and spent time with my family. I haven’t lived with my parents in more than six years and a part of me has missed them dearly. In February, I traveled to the opposite corner of the country for Chinese New Year. It was one of the biggest family gatherings I can remember with everyone there on my dad’s side. It was a week and a half of easy smiles and relaxation and fireworks and enormous amounts of home-made deliciousness. I had to tactfully reply to questions from my younger giggling cousins, mostly about boys. One insisted I let her be a bridesmaid when I inevitably get married very soon (her words, translated).

They told me about their lives and their difficulties and showed me around the city. One afternoon, my future bridesmaid went on a tirade about how much her teachers charge for supplementary weekend lessons. 100 RMB per student per hour was obviously way too much considering the class is overcrowded with more than sixty students. The lessons are supposedly optional, but teachers often skip important material (which will be on tests) in class so students are forced to pay on weekends to keep up with the demanding curriculum. All the teachers do this, she said, but some just charge too much. With the increased fees, they can make more than a year’s basic salary with one weekend of extra lessons. My cousin complained about the worst offenders, but it was accepted practice. She also told me about her daily 14-hour schedule and the backdoor approach to getting students into well-known middle and high schools. She told her stories like it was the most natural things in the world. For her, that is her reality… so far removed from my own. In retrospect, my teenage complaints seem trivial. Again, I’m so very grateful that my parents are my parents and I have the family that I do.

I’m an only child. My entire family, with the exception of one cousin and one second cousin (I had to look this up to make sure – my dad’s cousin, I mean), are all in China. Having spent the majority of life in North America, I’ve had very few family gatherings and even those were small. I know my grandparents, aunts and uncles and their families… and very little beyond that. My mom doesn’t speak of her extended family very much. She isn’t certain where all her aunts and uncles are. My dad occasionally tells stories but only if I specifically ask. This past month, my grandparents came to spend the summer at my dad’s townhouse in the middle of a large housing development (where I am now). The majority of properties here are owned by people from large cities who hold onto them as an investment and the occasional weekend getaway. Few live here on any permanent basis (with the exception of an old couple across the street and a random Portuguese family with two young girls who love our dog. They’ve been here for at least three months. No one knows why… or even how they found their way here.) To me, it was already full house – my grandparents, my parents, myself, and the dog.

Last week, my dad casually informs me my grandpa’s younger brother, whom he has not seen in over forty years, will be visiting from Heilongjiang with his son. (I think he’s called my great uncle… and another second cousin?) This great uncle was driven from their home village for unspeakable reasons (literally, since no one will tell me) and fled to Heilongjiang in the northeast, where he has been living since. He grows grapes. After so many decades, he’d finally earned enough to fund a cross-country journey to seek out his siblings. He found us through my great aunt who hadn’t moved all this time and then… there I was, standing dumbstruck in the middle of the airport watching my grandpa and great uncle embrace and cry and laughing about how much the other has aged.

The same week, my aunt’s husband came to the city for surgery accompanied by my aunt, later joined by his brother and his brother’s family. My parents couldn’t deny dinner with either side of the family and we ended up with a table of 12 somehow-or-other-related people. Great uncle, second cousin… even a cousin’s cousin’s wife. It was so surreal, because my dad had arranged dinner at a rather fancy place with servers who insisted I have varying glasses of water, tea, corn juice, wine, and baijiu (strooong Chinese alcohol). There wasn’t much space left around my plate. Conversation around the table was animated with lots of introductions and questions and toasts. It was surreal and I felt absolutely out of place among family who spoke with at least four noticeably different accents.

Next month, I’m moving to Hong Kong. For now, the plan is some short-term future planning. I never imagined actively choosing to live there since apartments are outrageously expensive and are the size of shoeboxes. But it’s a great place to be, where I have great friends, and though I’ll never admit it to my parents (who won’t be reading this blog since wordpress.com is banned in China. Thank goodness for VPNs), I want to be close to them. Guangzhou is just a train ride away and I could come back and plague them whenever. In the past, I’ve been sadly inconsistent in contacting my parents while living on another continent. Timezones, work, school, stuff sometimes just got in the way. My parents were so understanding it hurt.

Though my grandparents and aunts and uncles have all agreed vocally I should live in Hong Kong, my parents have never voiced that opinion. For them, my choices are my own and if I go back to Canada or Europe or wherever else, so be it. Airplanes are convenient and the world is easily accessible. I would never make a decision based solely on my family’s wishes (self-centered that I am), but I’ve come to realize that their proximity has at least played a part in my upcoming move. Granted, right now I’m certain I won’t stay in HK for forever… but that’s silly, because uncertainty is the only certain thing in the world. Ah, but I’m preeetty certain I won’t be reuniting with a brother I haven’t seen in forty years any time soon. Okay, so I still can’t get over the presence of my great-uncle. Here. He looks a lot like my grandpa. They recognized each other right away at the airport – no preliminaries, no questions, just a look and they knew they’d found their brother. Family. Nothing else like it in the world.

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