My mother’s family has been part of the Chinese diaspora for generations. We are spread out across the world. We speak different languages, have different accents, and have married and had children across cultures, shapes, colours, sizes, and sexual orientation. Most of us don’t read, write, or speak Chinese. I speak Cantonese because I live in San Francisco. In Chinatown, most people still smiling say that I am “chap choong” (mixed).
But for about a week a year, we are Chinese.
We are Chinese with all the bells and whistles, with all the baggage and joy, and with all the guilt and love.
Home base is Perth, Western Australia because that is where my grandmother, the matriarch, still resides. Every year, we all try to make the pilgrimage there for Reunion Dinner and a few days of Chinese New Year. When I say “we,” I mean her five children and their partners, 12 grandchildren (including myself) and their partners, plus all the great-grandchildren and their families. As her siblings and spouse have all died, their extended families have also joined, and so have adopted family and families that became intertwined with ours during World War II for protection and survival.
Essentially, we are talking about a lot of people.
This Chinese New Year will be the third Chinese New Year I haven’t been home since announcing I was separating, then divorcing, my partner of 20 years.
The first year I couldn’t even call to wish everyone a happy new year, let alone make the trip to Perth. The next year I called, but still couldn’t bring myself to attend. I explained to my sister and cousins, “I am just not ready to manage the family.” They sighed in sympathy and replied, “Soon.”
My hesitation didn’t come from any sense of shame or embarrassment over the failed marriage (we’ve seen divorces and single parenthood), but rather my own fragility and anxiety. Instead, the anxious state I found myself in kept me away. The Chinese New Year is a time of joy, of wishing for prosperity, health, fertility, and longevity. What’s more, Chinese families can be loud. They are opinionated. There are no polite filters. If you are not emotionally resilient, this is not the space for you. And the past few years, I was not resilient.
I knew my relatives wouldn’t hesitate to tell me exactly how they felt about my marriage and my ex-husband — and I wasn’t ready to hear it. Telling them to refrain from commenting or crying would just add fuel to the fire, so to speak.
After explaining to a friend why I was sitting out our Chinese New Year celebrations, they said, “Oh, so they love with a touch of venom.” It was the perfect description. It also reframed my perspective, allowing me to remember my family’s love rather than their venom.
In 1999, my grandfather died. He was a beloved patriarch, the man who told me I could dream the biggest dreams. After his funeral, I sat with several of my cousins from around the world, sharing chocolate mud cake and wine and lamenting our loss. Eventually, our talk turned to the life expectations we faced growing up “Chinese.”
We had similar experiences. Like how our parents switched so quickly from “You will not have a boyfriend or girlfriend because you need to study” to “When are you getting married?” and “You don’t want to be too old before you have a baby.”
We were pushed from extreme celibacy to immediate procreation with none of the social skills required in between, and we’re left thinking, ‘WTH just happened?’
I belong to a Facebook group called “Subtle Asian Traits,” where people my kids’ ages are struggling with similar issues. I’ll read posts from young adults who have high-paying tech jobs — and a curfew. Others ask how to tell their parents they want to date outside their home culture. These are scenarios my grandparents faced, and I faced… But I was not expecting today’s youth to still be facing.
I felt it before I was married, and again when I announced the divorce. Chinese families are very vocal about their expectations. Feeling as though I’d missed the mark was devastating, and fear of their reaction was one of the reasons I didn’t attend my family’s celebrations. But I was forgetting that these were people who loved me. The bar they set for me is high because of that love — even if the way they expressed it could be clumsy.
Feeling as though I’d missed the mark was devastating, and fear of their reaction was one of the reasons I didn’t attend my family’s celebrations.
My mum and I had a beautiful private call on the second Chinese New Year I missed. She said, "This has been difficult for us because you are so precious to us. To see you heartbroken without being able to fix it made us sad. And when we are sad, we just come up with to-do lists.”
I was loved, beyond measure. I may not have been loved in a way that worked for me at the time, but I was loved nonetheless.
When they said, “When are you getting married again?”, it was an expression of love.
When they said, “You’ll never find a man because you are too smart and make too much money,” they were demonstrating love and pride.
“Eat more!” equalled love.
Still, and even though I’m the CEO of a multinational bioenergy company and I face investors and board members on a daily basis, I was too nervous to go home.
It took a few shots of tequila and a FaceTime call with my parents where I said, "I need you to listen to me. I need you to not say anything until I finish. I love you and I know you love me. I want you to be a part of my life so I need to be able to talk to you. You don't have to agree with what I do or what I say, I just need you to know what is happening."
From then on, when I heard statements such as, "You are too old to have kids with someone else, what is going to happen?" or "How is someone going to marry you and your companies?" my response has been, “I have experienced marriage, and while I am open to a new relationship and a new partnership, I don’t need to ever get married again.” At first, people seemed shocked; conversations were interrupted. I heard, "You'll change your mind.” But beyond a few rocky weeks in the beginning, there was barely any pushback with my life choice.
Now I have an amazing relationship with my parents, one that I only dreamed of in my teens, my 20s, or my30s.
So what am I doing this year? I will be calling in via FaceTime for a few hours to join my family as they celebrate. It’s the next step for me. Next year, I’ll be there. To hug them, to be loud with them, to eat with them. I will embrace how they choose to love me for exactly what it is — love. If they think I am lonely, if they have a line-up of prospective spouses, whatever, I’ll accept it as love.