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 assumptions. 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 China. 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 distant. 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.