My story started before I was even born. In the early 1930s, a young man became a father for the first time. He was enterprising and founded the first rice milling factory in town. But far from perfect, he was also a philanderer. Like many wealthy Chinese men of that era, he was a degenerate gambler, had several mistresses, and fathered a number of illegitimate kids.
Oh…and this man was my great grandfather.
His story was sparsely discussed around our dinner table as I was growing up and everything I’ve learned about him was loosely stitched together from snippets of Dad’s drunk history lessons. What really attracted me to his story was not only his meteoric rise to power and wealth, but also his eventual collapse.
My great grandfather became a wealthy landowners at a time when populist uprising was brewing in China. Mao and his army of cadres were sweeping across the country, encouraging peasants to dispossess local landowners. An estimate 20 million landlords and dissidents were murdered during this period. My great grandfather was lucky. He was sent to a re-education camp instead and was given a job as a mailman subsequently.
To many of us, this would have been a horrendous event to have experienced. Surprisingly, my grandfather never questioned what had happened to his father. Instead, he became incredibly religious and devoted the rest of his life to buddhism.
Fast forward to the 80s, two love birds were meeting for the first time. Within the span of 4 months, they were married and my mother was pregnant. Dad was always a troublemaker. In fact, his childhood nickname was ri ben (日本) which literally translates to Japan. Being called Japan was not exactly a compliment in rural China.
More than anything else, he aspired to come to America. This was a sentiment shared by many young Chinese men. The 70s was a transformative time in China. A new party secretary was taking office. Deng XiaoPing, the son of a former landlord, rose to power and brought with him free-market ideologies. Under his administration, China opened up to the world again. This not only created export discipline domestically but also gave everyday Chinese a window into the abundance of opportunity overseas.
Along with this new open-market view, the one child policy was implemented. As we know today, this was a monumental shift in social infrastructure but also have implications for Chinese-American relationships. A string of conservative presidents (led by Reagan and Bush senior) made the one child policy a human rights violation, giving grounds to Chinese refugees to claim asylum in the United States.
Unbeknownst to the world, this slight stroke of a policy sparked an exodus of Chinese to America. Every able-bodied men in the village was lining up. My grandfather was among this wave of migration in the 80s. Through the family reunification program, he brought his whole family to the United States, including my mother.
The day I moved here, America was a turbulent place: Clinton was entangled in an extramarital affair, I’ve never seen a non-chinese person before, and we lived in what many now would consider a walk-in closet. But no lack of material wealth could compare to our yearning for an identity, a universal place we all want to claim.
Over the next two decades, I’ve gone on to identify myself as a solid B+ student, I’ve been an amateur Squash Player, I’ve introduced myself as an engineer, and some nights, as a toastmaster. But nothing was ever the right fit.
There’s an old buddhist metaphor that compares your life to a drifting cloud, morphing and taking on different shapes, with and without your control. The cloud goes to a destination that’s not really a destination. And when it’s ready, the cloud cools down and becomes water again.
There’s something really beautiful and nihilistic about this comparison. But I think we’re a lot more than just an aimlessly drifting body of condensation. We’re special because of our capacity to tell stories, our ability to collect all these moments and experiences in our lives, and share them with our friends and families. And the bigger realization was that these stories that you tell yourself and the world is who you are. So the next time you find yourself scratching your head because you’re having a quarter-life crisis, reach back into your personal universe and think about all the infinite number of impossible events that have to collide with one another to bring you here today.