The photo above was taken last July, during our family’s summer vacation. My parents had booked a weeklong bus trip with a Chinese tour group, and — somewhat grudgingly — my brother and I agreed to join. We drove across Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota, listening to the tour guide rattle off facts about Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park in rapid Mandarin. The trip was fun, but the irony of the entire tour was not lost on me. There we were, the rare Americans who chose to explore the wild west with a group of foreigners. Juxtaposed with these quintessential American landmarks, we were speaking Chinese and eating at Asian restaurants that appealed to the group’s Eastern tastes.
In many ways, this combination of Eastern and Western cultures represents the heart of my family’s recent history. As first-generation Chinese immigrants, my parents and I moved from Shanghai to Richmond, Virginia in 1995. My younger brother, Matthew, was born in 1999, and since then the four of us have embodied a relatively “normal” middle-class Chinese-American family. We lived in the suburbs, went to work and school every day, and came home to a two-parent household without significant financial hardship. When I left for college in 2010, it marked the first time I had spent more than a few days separated from either of my parents. Relatively speaking, we were (and still are) a stable, close-knit, low-conflict family.
In interviewing my parents about their experiences with work and family, I didn’t expect to learn much about the mechanics of their day-to-day lives. Both of my parents have always played active roles in childrearing, and when I was living at home, I rarely went a day without spending significant amounts of time with both of them. What I did seek to explore, though, was their subjective histories — the childhood memories, youthful ambitions, and personal sacrifices that have profoundly informed their perspectives on our family today. As a consequence of the social and historical context in which they were raised, my parents carry unique cultural values that permeate every aspect of their own parenting. Ultimately, their stories reflect an ongoing commitment to each other and their unwavering dedication towards building a stable, nurturing family environment for their children.