Lesson 1: Appreciate your family, especially your parents

The first valuable life lesson that I acquired during my twenties is about being appreciative of your family, especially your parents. During times of adversity such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of family is only heightened. It helps remind you just how fundamental it is to appreciate your family and to build a better relationship with them.

For those who have known me since high school, I spent a big chunk of my teenage years being quite reserved and shy with very little opportunity to make new friends outside of school or to do anything fun. There were no house parties and almost no extracurricular activities apart from playing competitive sport for my high school. This was partly because I had very strict, first generation, immigrant parents who were all about their children focusing on academics and working hard around the clock towards a better future.

To them, having fun was considered a luxury and an unaffordable concept for them during their own childhood and adolescence. Mum and Dad had lived through some very chaotic times, such as China’s Cultural Revolution, a purposeful movement by Mao Zedong to destroy all traditional and capitalist elements from Chinese society, and to re-impose his control over the nation. Countless families were torn apart and millions suffered from unprecedented abuse, violence and deprivation of basic human rights. My parents had grown up very familiar with food stamps, strict censorship and witnessing hardship every single day. They had very little time to play with their friends or to ‘have fun’ when their families were just trying to figure out how to survive.

Personally, I struggled to understand or relate to their experiences because the life I had known was the one I had in Australia. I had been born in China but moved to Sydney when I was only three years old. I had very little recollection of my life in China and it felt very foreign and alien to me. Like many situations in life, it’s difficult to put yourself in the shoes of others if you haven’t personally experienced what they had. You can listen and try to be understanding but you don’t have that true sense of empathy or feel that connection unless you’ve lived it and breathed it yourself. And I really struggled with my parents in the past with their experiences and why they chose to raise their children in a certain manner.

One Sunday morning, I remember asking them if I could go to the cinemas with some friends that afternoon and they bluntly told me “no, don’t waste your time like that. Go and study more”.

It was always like that with them. Whenever I wanted to do something fun with my friends, they would always disapprove and then tell me to go bury my face in my textbooks. I felt confused and even resentful at their immediate objection and disapproval.

“Why are they so uptight about everything?”

A lot of my non-immigrant background peers never experienced this growing up and found it puzzling whenever I told them that I couldn’t attend their social gathering because my parents wouldn’t allow it. While they surfed and swam at the beach, I was stuck indoors solving and re-solving boring mathematical equations and memorising the entire periodic table. At the time, it was a big mood crusher and I found myself increasingly growing annoyed at my parents. My replies to their questions about how school was became brief and close ended. I would feel tortured sitting at the dinner table, forced to make conversation with them. I would always hurriedly finish my food and retreat upstairs to my bedroom. And that’s how I lived for the majority of my time in high school. It was wake up, go to school, go home, do homework, surf the internet, go to bed. Rinse and repeat.

That’s why when I finished high school and started my university studies, I really wanted to make up for lost time. I had missed out on so much. I felt quite repressed and it was now time to unleash myself. I forced myself to be more social and to take more risks because I needed to venture outside my comfort zone, in order to grow. Over a span of six months, I made a lot of new friends and was always out every evening, weeknights and weekends, meeting a friend or going on a date.

I lived very fast as well and I drank very frequently. Partied quite hard and enthusiastically too. Almost every night for three years straight. My grades were suffering too, and I could barely maintain a solid GPA. But I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was have a good time, knock down shots at the bar, and chase girls. I became known within my new circles as a great drinking buddy, a party goer, and a dance machine. I would run into classmates from high school on nights out and relish in how surprised they were at how much I had changed. I also stopped spending time with my family and grew quite impatient with them, often dismissing them and not answering phone calls. I was living this new life, it felt liberating and nobody was going to get in the way of it.

I’m not proud of this period of my life. I wasn’t a very good family member at all. I was just young and dumb. I don’t regret it because without going through it, I would never have learned to appreciate the importance of family and never would’ve understood my parents better.

However, it all changed when I was 21. I had just finished off a night of heavy partying in Kings Cross and lost the keys to my girlfriend at the time’s apartment in Darlinghurst. She was visiting her family in Cairns and I had been given the important responsibility to mind her place. I had messed up big time and I knew she was going to be really disappointed in me.  

Without any options, I decided to give my Mum a call to pick me up and spend the night back at my parents’ place. She came immediately and didn’t even sound annoyed that I had woken her up at almost 4am. When she arrived in her car, I remember her sighing and shaking her head with disappointment as she noticed how drunk I was. I had been lying on the grass next to the footpath, absolutely wrecked.

I passed out in the ride home and woke up when we had reached the destination after she repeatedly called my name and prodded my ribs. I remember vomiting in her front yard for a solid five minutes after alighting from the vehicle. After she ushered me inside, I sat at her dining table with my face buried in my hands, nursing an incredible hangover. While this was all happening, Mum was busy in the kitchen making me a bowl of Chinese beef noodles. When the meal was ready, she set it down in front of me and instructed curtly “eat”.

I slowly lifted myself up, blinked a few times to find my bearings and breathed in the aroma from the noodle soup. It smelt delicious and was exactly what I needed in that state.

As I clumsily slurped the soup and ate the noodles in my inebriated state, Mum sat opposite me silently with her arms crossed, staring at me with a deep frown. Periodically, a tear would slowly stream down from her eye, but she did not sniffle or make any sound. She did not say a single word, but I could feel how hurt she was and how disappointed she was in me. I had never seen her like that before and it really affected me. Her heart had shattered into a million fragments and I knew I was responsible for that. I finished up the bowl of noodles, showered and then went to bed. As I stumbled from the bathroom to my bedroom, I could hear tap water running in the kitchen sink downstairs and Mum scrubbing the bowl I had been eating from.

The next afternoon, after a very long sleep, I woke up and recounted everything that had transpired the night before. I felt bothered not by the pain from the raging hangover but from the heavy discomfort of knowing I had let someone down who unconditionally loved me. I felt horrid and was overwhelmed with guilt. I laid in my bedsheets and stared at the ceiling blankly for what could’ve easily been an hour or forty-five minutes. It was very difficult to hold back tears. I could feel Mum’s disappointment and I felt ashamed.

After I freshened up and ventured downstairs, I saw Mum busy cooking yet another delicious Chinese meal for me. It was pork and chive dumplings this time, pan-fried and the aroma was so captivating.

“You’re awake”, she commented without taking her eyes away from the pan that was simmering gently on the stove.

“Yes, Ma”.

I was incredibly touched by how she was still doing all these things for me even though inside she was hurting.

They say pain and disappointment can cause you to alienate yourself from others, but it also can forge character and fuel personal growth. After that evening, I took a long and hard look at myself. And subsequently in the weeks that followed. Sure, I was a young man and there would be more drunken nights ahead with friends, but I had to be more mindful of my actions and more considerate about the impact it may have on my family. I had to live a more balanced lifestyle and not just party recklessly all the time and think about myself only. It was time to change my mentality, be more thoughtful, and become a better person. That meant changing my attitude towards how I viewed my family and parents.

The first step was to understand Mum and Dad better and to learn more about their background and why they did things in certain ways. I made a concerted effort to better communicate with them and asked them to share their past experiences.

In 1989, Dad moved to Australia with less than AUD $100 in his pocket, a hastily packed suitcase and a Chinese-to-English dictionary. A few years later, Mum joined him in Sydney, dragging along a reluctant toddler. That toddler was me.

My parents had sacrificed so much to create a better life for their children than the one they had known. They had given up respectable careers, bid farewell to their friends and family, and moved 10,000km to a new country where they didn’t know anyone or speak a single word of English. All they had was each other, their only child at the time (it would be some time until my brother was born) and several suitcases with personal belongings. They had no job or support network, only a treasure trove of faith and hope. Mum’s first night in Sydney was spent cramped in a tiny room above a dry-cleaning shop in Enmore. That was where Dad had been living alone for almost three years.

During their first decade in Australia, both of them toiled diligently without any complaints. Dad packed boxes of shampoo products in a factory during the day and was a taxi driver during the evenings. Mum scrubbed toilets and washed dirty dishes whilst also having her hands full looking after me. They saved and scrapped for a number of years before they had enough capital to open a small business, a taxi rental company on Botany Road. It was a lot of hard work for them and they were working around the clock. As a result, I spent a lot of time staying at the neighbour’s home or alone after school. I would often see them in the morning before I went to school and at 9pm that evening after they had finished work. They did this for 365 days a year, with barely any time for a breather and certainly no time at all for a vacation, or to pursue extracurricular hobbies. What compelled them to do so was their sense of duty and love for their family.

A few months after I had disappointed Mum, I decided to go spend some time living in Beijing. I yearned to seek a deeper understanding of my parents and felt this was an appropriate method. The best path to achieving that goal was to learn about the environment they had grown up in and to discover what Chinese culture really was about. I also needed to do some soul searching to figure out what type of life I wanted to live and what kind of person I really was and wanted to become. What better way than to transport myself to a different environment and start fresh?

For the first time in my life, I felt quite embarrassed to know very little about my Chinese roots and I could barely string together a full sentence in Mandarin, the dialect that my parents spoke. I had grown up in a deeply conservative, White Australian part of Sydney and had been bullied and ridiculed terribly for being Chinese and ‘different’. In addition, my parents were constantly working multiple jobs and had very little time or energy to teach me about Chinese culture because there were more pressing priorities such as keeping food on the table and a roof over our heads.

The decision to go to Beijing proved to be life-changing for me. Not only did I learn how to speak Mandarin, I also developed a newfound appreciation for Chinese culture and for the first time in my life, boldly embraced my Chinese heritage. Chinese culture was so multi-layered and intricate. To many, especially in the West, it may seem shrouded in mystery, negative and alien at first glance but when you peel back the layers, you realise just how beautiful and meaningful Chinese culture is. There is so much emphasis placed on how an individual should conduct themselves, how they should live their life, and what kind of path they should embark on. There is also sagely advice and wisdom provided for just about every situation in life, both personal and professional, and how to find the right remedy to address them. The Chinese were and are such a smart people.

I found myself gradually understanding my parents better and why they had been so strict with me when I was growing up. You see, in Chinese culture, everything revolves around family and people are raised with the notion to look after their families and work hard to create a better life for their descendants. There are no excuses or buts, you are expected to perform your familial duties and put the needs of your family above your own. That was certainly the case with my parents. They were strict because they had sacrificed so much and didn’t want their children to waste their efforts by not striving towards building a better future than the lives they had. In retrospect, they could have handled it differently and been more balanced in their approach when it came to raising children and providing more liberties for them. However, I can’t fault their good intentions, especially after learning the context behind their thinking.

The more time I spent in China, the deeper my appreciation and love for my parents and family also blossomed. I truly realised the extent of their love and care for their children and I began to feel a desire within me growing with each passing day to apply the same principles in my life. I would definitely do things differently with my future kids, but I understood and appreciated their intentions. I grew to love them deeper than ever before and all the resentment I had felt from my teenage years eventually dissipated. Instead, I channelled the negative memories into positive energy and was inspired by their unwavering love and sense of duty.

By extension, I also got to understand my grandparents better. I knew they had survived a World War and then a civil war before being subjected to torture and exile during the Cultural Revolution. To learn about that tumultuous period in Chinese history and to hear their recounts about what they did to survive and look after their families allowed me to develop greater respect for them and all the hurdles they had to overcome. It also highlighted further why my parents had made that decision to move to Australia to create that better life for their children.

Nowadays, I really embrace the opportunity to be more of a family person. I still have a long way to go but I’d like to think that I am making progress. I can say with certainty that I would love to start a family someday because I look forward to becoming a husband and a father. And everything that comes with the territory, such as commitment, an aspect that my parents lived and breathed consistently.  

I also embrace being an older sibling as well. My brother is almost a decade younger than me and it’s been really wonderful seeing him grow into an upstanding, young man with such strong character and a bright future ahead. I am very proud of him and feel blessed to have him as a sibling. I want the best for him, and I know he will be become a much better version of me. As an older brother I want to see him succeed in life and am prepared to support him in reaching his goals to the best of my abilities.

There is no perfect family out there and your parents, grandparents and siblings are not perfect, as are you. My love for my family continues to grow as I progress into my thirties and I find great comfort in knowing that I can turn to them and rely on them if I ever need help with anything. They never judge me based on my flaws and always are supportive of me because we possess the same blood running through our veins. Our bond has grown stronger over the last decade and I know it will only strengthen in the years to come.

Your parents and grandparents will one day be gone from your life so try your best to spend quality time with them while you can. Don’t hesitate to show them how much you appreciate them, that you care about and love them deeply, as they do for you.

*The following post is part of a 12-part content series revolving around life lessons that I learned during my twenties.

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