Roles, from Generation to Generation to Generation
by Sean Lerche, December 2014
My name is Sean Lerche. I am a second generation immigrant, son of Victoria Xin, grandson of Heng Xin. I am the result of the teachings given to my grandfather being passed down to my mother and then to me. My life is destined to always be influenced by the beliefs and actions of my predecessors, by my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, and that influence by the past is no different for my predecessors. I was taught by my mother, my mother was taught by my grandfather, and my grandfather was influenced by his past. For my grandfather, Heng, speaking of his past meant speaking of being brought up in a poor family, of working to gain an education, and of establishing a family of his own, all the while trying to escape poverty through schooling; for my mother, Victoria, speaking of her past meant working to fulfill her parents’ wish for her to gain an education and establish a stable life of her own in the United States. Just as my grandfather would shape his values and views on life around his upbringing in a poor family and working to escape it, my mother would shape her beliefs around her father’s teachings, and she would influence how I would come to see the world.
Victoria Xin is a first generation immigrant from Hong Kong, having immigrated to San Francisco at the age of two years, and she views the United States as her home, for it is where her family is. To her, China is not where she belongs, hardly where she wishes to be, for her origin is not what determines home to her. Instead of stories of China, she would tell me stories of her youth, particularly how she interacted with her family and how she acted in school. My mother told me that, after school ended, her father would walk with her home. And along the way, they would stop at a few stores. They would buy candy and sometimes a comic book or two. They would return home to my grandmother and my mother’s four siblings. My mother told me that my grandmother would take care of every household chore: cooking meals, cleaning the house, taking care of the children; she would be strict with her children when they did wrong, to the point where she was practically feared. Victoria described, “Mm. Well, Gong-Gong worked as an accountant, and Pa-Pa stayed home to take care of me and your uncles and aunt. She did the cooking and the cleaning around the house. Umm . . . well, she was very strict.” Besides Victoria, who was the youngest, my grandparents had four other children, three sons and another daughter. The sons would fight constantly, as siblings do, and were known to go after one another. The first daughter, Victoria’s older sister, actually had moved out rather quickly, marrying in her late adolescence. While still an immigrant from Hong Kong, Victoria’s life revolved around her family in the United States, not around where she once lived.
For my grandfather, Heng Xin, a traditional familial structure seemed best, one in which the father works, the mother remains at home, and the children focus on attending school and getting good grades; having seen how his father could not care for his entire family, Heng came to see his parents’ family as being unstable and wished never to return to that, eventually pushing his daughter Victoria to seek to establish a stable, traditional family. His father was a polygamist and had multiple wives. As a result, Heng had many half-siblings, a few which he did grow close to. His father however did not make much money, and the family often had to eat what they could. His mother would fight with the other mothers in an effort to get food for her own child, but she rarely spent time with Heng because of it. To Heng, this familial structure, in which the father works to care for multiple wives and many children, may have appeared as faulty. His father could not provide much of a life for his children, and Heng likely saw this as a failure on his part. To avoid ever being in such a situation once more, a family with only two parents and kids, in which both parents had certain roles to play in the structure, had stability. In regards to Victoria, the expectation was to find stability in her own life, to first gain an education and a good job, then to start a family. Victoria noted, “I didn’t move out until I was, mm, 27, I think. It was easier to afford college living with Gong-Gong and Pa-Pa (Cantonese for one’s grandparents on one’s mother’s side; Gong-Gong for one’s grandfather, and Pa-Pa for one’s grandmother). They never really minded, as long as I was in school.” For me, though, my mother actually works. My grandfather, however, never minded. He did still expect me to work to attain a stable job; he did hope that I would be secure in my future and thought that it would provide me with happiness, as it had for him. In an effort to find stability in his life that was absent from his childhood, Heng came to believe that he must push his descendants to seek stability as well, both in the workplace and in one’s family; while Victoria did establish a family, she chose to have her own career instead of being the caretaker at home.
Without the guidance of his parents, being that they were normally too preoccupied as to pay heed to him, Heng learned to act on his own, working to succeed in school so as to escape poverty. In order to attend school, he would ride his bike for miles. When he became tired, he would go so far as to hang onto the back of a bus while it moved down the busy streets of Hong Kong. For him, he came to view school as being an important part of his life, seeing it as the pathway to a new life far from his poor origins. It is completely possible that Heng even felt pressure in his schooling to succeed as well. Writer Lau Sing notes, “Chinese students regarded interest and effort as being a more important factor for success in work than American students did. They also saw having personal assets such as good luck, wealth, and intelligence as being more important,” after reviewing over what students in both Hong Kong and the U.S. view as being the purpose of schooling. Heng very well may have feared that there was no other path than schooling, even if it was at the expense of classmates. Without his parents, Heng learned to act in school independently, finding his own drive to succeed.
Seeking stability in his life apart from the poverty he experienced in his youth, Heng focused on finding stable work and establishing a family, even as World War II and the civil war in China threw his life in disarray. As the years passed for Heng, he went on to study to become a marine customs officer. He actually worked from a fourth-level officer to a first-level officer. He claimed he wished he could have remained an officer. When Japan invaded China during World War II, he cleverly avoided being drafted into the Chinese army by remaining a customs officer, but even he had to escape northward across China to avoid the invading Japanese army. To his luck though, Heng met his wife along his escape. He vied to her parents for marriage and won them over. They would eventually have five kids in total. The war had its losses though. Heng would later find out his sister had been a casualty. He didn’t really voice how close he was to her, and he didn’t show any signs through facial expression. Even after World War II, there was an ongoing civil war between the capitalists in power, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the communist party, led by Mao Zedong. When the communists won, they spread their government control all the way to southern China. Heng was told he had to give up half of his belongings. He found this to his disliking, for he’d long worked for what he owned. He and his family left for Hong Kong across the bridge connecting mainland China to the island, which he said was rarely guarded well. The schools in Hong Kong were incredibly competitive though, and his children were having difficulty. So he left Hong Kong soon after for the United States. I asked him about his political thoughts on the civil war, about whether he agreed with capitalism or communism. As was uniquely my grandfather, he answered with a big smile that it didn’t matter to him. The communists took his stuff, and he didn’t like that. All that mattered was creating a stable life for himself and his family; affiliation to any political side or even China meant little in comparison.
Already having grown used to thinking and acting independently in his childhood due to the inability to depend upon his parents, Heng would come to see that he could not so easily trust either his nation or the rest of the world, having experienced both World War II and the communist revolution, and that his loyalty lies solely with his family. In the midst of fighting between the Chinese army and the Japanese army and between the GMD and the CCP, Heng could not feel any allegiance to the Chinese army or either the capitalists or the communists. No side guaranteed his safety or even the safety of his family, for which he sought stability for. In World War II, his sister died. In the communist revolution, he had to flee with his family to Hong Kong. No side worked to aide him; he could only trust his own thoughts and actions. To Heng, the only ones he could trust were his family, and that was where his loyalty would come to lie; my grandfather would come to instill the same sort of loyalty in me. Growing up, my grandfather came to be aware of my efforts to remain strong for my family, not by asking but by observing the same behavior in me he had displayed. I would not show distress to my family, and he was able to see me acting as such, for he had done so for his own family. Victoria says of her father, “I don’t think I ever saw him cry. He was always smiling.” Working to become the pillar for my family, he would come to be a pillar for me. Having thought and acted independently, unable to see how he could have trusted others to aide him, my grandfather would come to believe that, as the pillar of his family, he could not show his distress; having done so himself, he would be able to see how I acted to do so for my own family and act to be a pillar for me. Having come to believe that he must act to protect his family due to two wars that threatened his family’s and his own safety, his independent thinking and dedication to his family would be what would eventually allow me to relate to him, as we both had worked to protect our families.
Heng would come to pressure his own daughter to seek higher education, and his daughter would come to pressure her son to seek higher education. To him, the education she gained would have been a result of his pushing, and that education would have guaranteed her future, even if it meant she would resent him for it. At the same time though, this very pressure he placed on her would eventually become my own burden. My mother would come to place this very same pressure to succeed upon me. As much as she wished she had not experienced it herself, she would come to expect me to succeed as well. She would come to always remind me of how smart I am, of how, if I made more of an effort, I could succeed. She would come to act as her father had, as his past had pushed my grandfather to pressure himself. For me personally, though, I can’t help but wonder how important an education really is. I understand that an education would guarantee my future, that it would mean my safety in an economy with an expanding financial gap between the rich and the poor. “At the same time, technology is making education a significant barrier between the rich and poor in America. If you have a college degree in the US, the unemployment rate is 4%. If you don’t, the unemployment rate is near 20%,” as Eric Jackson stated while observing the reasons for the shrinking middle class in the U.S. I do question, though, whether that diploma will be for me or my mother, whether it will mean my happiness, or whether it will solidify my mother’s success in raising me. In asking that, I must also question how my grandfather felt as well, as to what his push to pressure my mother to gain an education was for as well. It is his action in pressuring my mother to seek higher education that would eventually cause her to believe that she must pressure me to seek higher education, even as I try to find my own drive in doing so.
Having been raised in a poor family, in which his father was a polygamist and could not provide his family with more money on his menial pay and neither of his parents had the time to pay heed to him, Heng came to believe that he had to act independently, seeking an education so as to find stability in life; when he established a family of his own, Heng instilled the values he learned and placed high expectations on his children, believing that such actions would eventually provide them with the happiness that he found. Heng’s upbringing taught him his views on life and himself, and his past would come to influence his children and even his children’s children, for his teachings would become the foundation for how his children would raise their children. Having sought an education and succeeded, Heng would pressure his children to seek educations, and they would do the same to their own children. The past that had caused Heng to seek an education and search for stability in life would come to eventually affect how his children, including Victoria, would be raised and how they would raise their own children; his past would affect not only him but also the next generation and the generation after that. Even so, while my grandfather believed in thinking and acting independently, I grew to be independent entirely of my own volition, without having been pressured by him to do so; I had chosen to act independently so as to better serve my family, just as he did, and knowing that we had both done so allowed for us to grow close through that similarity. My mother was also able to form a life independently, apart from her father’s influences; while her father believed in a traditional family structure, in which the wife is to fulfill the role of caretaker for the house, Victoria started a career as a lawyer, though her father never really objected to her seeking a career. While my grandfather does still influences both my mother’s and my views on life, both my mother and I are still able to think and act independently of his teachings; however, my grandfather will always be the teacher of my mother and me, teaching us his values and views on life, just as his past had taught him. So it is for all people; their pasts influence the way they view life, and they will go on to teach their children their values, eventually influencing the next generation and maybe even the next one through their children.
Sing, Lau, et al. “Chinese and American Adolescents’ Perceptions of the Purposes of
Education and Beliefs about the World of Work.” Social Behavior & Personality: An
International Journal 28.1 (2000): 73. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 May 2014.
Jackson, Eric. “Why the Middle Class Matters in both the US and China.” Forbes.com
(2011): 21. Business Source Premier. Web. 16 May 2014.