Why My Family Isn't "Normal"

by Lynn Qu

I was born in the People's Republic of China. Soon after my birth, the
Chinese government implemented a rigid birth control system. As a
result, my immediate family consists of only my mom, my dad, and yours
truly. Being sibling-less certainly cuts down on the kind of wacky
stuff you can talk about, but there are things about my family that
are rather unique nonetheless.
	Like many couples, my parents met in college, but the setting
was China in the sixties. While the spirit of the young people in the
US was centered around sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, China was going
through its infamous Cultural Revolution. College students, especially
those with "capitalist" family backgrounds, were sent to rural areas
to "reform"-to purge their minds of the differences in social
classes. It was in one of these places that my dad "courted" my
mom. It is hard for me to imagine him wooing my mother at some awful
reform farm, where six people (of the same sex, of course) shared a
huge, family bed, and they were allowed to bathe only once a week. The
government wanted affluent families to experience what it was like to
live in such poor conditions, to rid them of their classist
	Well, anyway, that was a lifetime ago, according to my parents
(although that never stops them from reminding me how charmed my life
has been compared to theirs). Now the three of us live in a nice
two-story house in Austin, Texas-about as far as they can get from the
memories of their youth. Dad is a senior engineer at IBM, and Mom is a
bio-statistician for a pharmaceutical company. They put a lot of
energy into their work, far beyond the typical nine-to-five
schedule. In his spare time, Dad adores ballroom dancing; Mom likes to
read and shop with her favorite shopping partner-me!  Nothing
Ventured, Nothing Gained
	After the Communists took over, all the connections China had
with the West were severed-class struggle did not permit influence
from corrupt European and American countries. It was not until
President Nixon's visit in 1979 that a relationship between the US and
China was once again established. The Chinese government decided to
send some of its scholars here to learn the latest Western technology.
	Barely three years out of the reform farm, my dad was offered
the opportunity to go abroad as one of these scholars. It was
considered an immense honor to be among the first to study in another
country other than the Soviet Union. But I was only two years old, and
our family had just settled down. No one had any idea, at the time, of
what America was really like. My parents heard all kinds of rumors
about how it was full of racism and homosexuality. It would be
daunting, if not downright scary, to set foot in such a place. My dad
was faced with a big dilemma: should he play it safe and stay in the
comfortable little nest which he and Mom had worked so hard for, or
should he take the challenge and pursue this once in a lifetime
opportunity? He chose the latter.
	In September 1979, six months after Nixon's historic trip to
Beijing, Dad boarded an airplane for the first time. His destination
was the University of Wisconsin at Madison where, in six years, he was
to complete his last year of undergraduate work, a master's, and a
doctorate in computer science. Looking back, he made the right choice,
but his decision was not without sacrifices.
	After Dad left, Mom decided to get a master's degree at the
Nanjing Aeronautical Academy. It would be too difficult for her to
study and take care of me at the same time, so I was sent to Shanghai
to live with my grandparents. I got used to growing up without either
of my parents around. Grandpa and Grandma absolutely doted on me; I
was their favorite grandchild. But it was great when Mom visited,
which she did quite frequently on her numerous business trips, because
she took me out to eat and bought me lots of clothes and toys.
	When my dad returned for the first time in 1982, I did not
recognize him. It felt really weird calling him Dad; my mom had to
coax me into doing it. The first impression I had of my father was of
this skinny, sallow-complexioned man with glasses and longish
hair. Later I learned that this was pretty much the generic "look" of
the Chinese scholars in the US. With little or no knowledge of the
English language or American culture, the scholars had to struggle
just to adapt to a new lifestyle. In order to obtain financial
assistance, they needed good grades, superior to those of the American
students. Dad said he often went to the lab before dawn to get an
early start, and did not come out until well after dark. His visa
status did not permit him to work, and he only received an eighteen
dollar monthly allowance from the Chinese Embassy. Month after month,
he saved to buy a color television for his parents. He said one of his
worst fears was that someone might ask him to dinner-a gesture he
could not afford to reciprocate.
	Mom did not join Dad until 1985. She had kept herself very
busy during those six previous years. After getting her degree, she
took on a teaching position in the Chinese University of Science and
Technology, doing research on the side. Except for a brief period when
I lived with her, she was alone. I don't really know how she felt,
living without her husband and child, but she was always happy and
upbeat whenever I saw her. Ironically, now that we are all together, I
hear her complain once in a while that her friends are not here, and
that she wishes for the kind of social interaction she had back in
	My dad's choice to come here was decidedly the most
life-altering step of my family history. I can't imagine what things
would have been like if I had a "normal" childhood, with my parents
around. I would have turned out very differently.

Under One Big Roof

	Two years ago, after lengthy discussions via letters and phone
calls, it was decided that my father's mother and his two sisters
would come to the United States and stay with us for a while. Our
family in China missed us a lot. Rather than having the three of us go
back to visit them, my parents thought it was a better idea to fly
them out and let them see what America was like.
	My grandmother and two aunts arrived a week before
Thanksgiving. As expected, they gushed over how I had grown and
changed, and what a pretty young woman I had become. I had always been
fond of my aunts, and flattery will get you everywhere with me. So I
was glad, from the very beginning, that my relatives were here, even
though Grandma and I weren't particularly close (this was not the same
one who raised me).
	Our home impressed them a great deal. In the eyes of someone
from an overpopulated city like Shanghai, where it's not uncommon for
three generations to live together in a tiny two-bedroom apartment,
our three-story colonial home in Virginia looked like a great
mansion. Grandma almost got lost in it! My aunts, Yi and Yu, shared
the largest guest room; Grandma occupied the smallest; and I had the
medium-sized one. We kind of went against the tradition of letting the
guests have the best rooms, but I was a senior in high school and
needed my own room. Besides, they really did not consider themselves
guests anyway.
	The size of my family had suddenly doubled, which was nice,
for the most part. When it was just the three of us, we never saw each
other, except at dinner time. Mom would be tired from work and
cooking; Dad's mind was usually on one of his projects. I was the only
one talking, and I couldn't really find much to say, lest my parents
start to take a keener interest in my school work. Now things were
much different: my aunts always had a sumptuous meal prepared when we
came home, and the six of us ate and chatted at the dinner table. Mom
and Dad would talk about the American workplace, and I would talk
about high school; Yi and Yu would tell us how things were in
Shanghai; and Grandma would occasionally comment on what it was like
in the old days, when she was my age.
	It was enormously distracting for me to have relatives around,
though. I would ask questions about China, and talk for hours with my
aunts, sometimes forgetting about homework. Having left there at the
age of nine, everything they had to tell me sounded so new and
fascinating. I really think they brought me closer to my roots,
because I was becoming very Americanized-hanging out with white
teenagers at school and everything. Thanks to them, I took on a
renewed interest in something that would have become more and more
	The presence of my relatives really made our home more
family-like-I actually ran into someone else in the bathroom or on the
stairs. Alas, their visas expired several months later and they had to
return to China. It wasn't a particularly emotional farewell, though I
knew it may very well be the last time I saw my grandmother.
	Then we moved to Austin. And, although our new house is quite
a bit smaller than the old one, it seems more empty than ever,
especially since I left for college.

An Agreement

	My parents were absolutely ecstatic about my acceptance into
MIT. In fact, I think my dad was even happier than I was. He was
already in Austin at the time, while my mom and I were in Virginia
trying to sell our house. He had me fax over the acceptance letter
immediately. It was one of those moments when I felt that I had truly
honored my parents like a filial daughter should.
	Tuition money became a problem. I did not qualify for any
financial aid because our family income was high. However, neither of
my parents, especially my mom, had worked very long compared to native
born Americans their age. They didn't have a lot of savings put away
for my college fund. The cost of attending MIT is, of course,
astronomical, and as my parents could only afford to pay for half, it
looked like I would have to take out loans.
	Unfortunately, I could not get subsidized loans, either. And
when my mom saw the interest rate of the unsubsidized loans, she
nearly threw up. It took some heavy-duty persuasion, but finally my
dad agreed that they would take money out of their retirement fund and
lend it to me.
	Now came the original part-this loan had its conditions: it
was only good if I pursued a five-year master's program in Course VI
here. In other words, if I should decide that I wanted to be an
economics major instead, I would have to come up with the other half
of the tuition money on my own. The interest rate on the loan was
determined by my academic performance-it would be inversely
proportional to my GPA. A 5.0 meant zero interest, 4.75 and above mean
1.5%, and so on... a 3.5 equaled a whopping 9.5% interest rate! If my
GPA ever fell below 3.5, I would have to withdraw from MIT and
transfer to the University of Texas, Austin.
	This arrangement has to be the first of its kind. Whenever
other people hear about it, their response is predictable: parents
rave about what a brilliant idea it is and wish they had thought of it
and the kids say, "What a bummer," and expressed their sympathy for
me. But they always add, "Wow, you guys sure are a family of engineers
and problem solvers, aren't you?" ...or something to that effect.
	I suppose the agreement works out well, at least I don't have
to deal with all of the paperwork that comes with bank loans. I am not
really sure I'm interested in Course VI-it is known to be the hardest
major at MIT. But I also don't have any idea what I would rather
do. The interest part will cause a great deal of stress next year,
when I'm on grades, and I'm definitely not looking forward to
that. However I can see it from my parents' point of view: they want
me to take my studies seriously, and I am much more likely to do so
now that I have financial commitments.
	By the way, the "contract" was fully typed up with signatures
from both parties-my parents as the lenders, and myself as the
borrower. It was as if I was doing business with them or something.

The Invisible Ties

	My family was separated for a long time before we finally
started living together. We do not appear to be particularly close,
because we aren't really comfortable showing our affections. But the
bonds we share are strong in the sense that we can count on each other
for support when we need it most.
	Having gone through hell in their lifetime, Mom and Dad have
learned to be strong. They try to instill the same kind of strength in
me. I, however, grew up in a very different world, and believe that
environment shapes a person. So, in some ways, I do not think I could
ever live up to my parents' expectations. I try my best to please
them, as they try their best to accept me-even if I am less than the
ideal daughter.

[thistle homepage] [Volume 9] [9.7 - contents]