The Lings and the Tans
It sounds like the name of some sitcom but actually, they’re my Dad’s and Mum’s families.
If the problem with my Mum’s side of the family was not talking at all, then the problem with the Lings was that they talked too much. About everything. There was no subject that could not be subjected to relentless scrutiny. I can see why my father could never make up his mind about anything, because none of his family could. Mails, family matters, where to eat, whose house to go to for what affair – rounds and rounds and rounds of endless dialogue that never went anywhere.
Divorce was rampant there. About five (or so) of my uncles and aunts are divorced. About the same number are unmarried on my Mum’s side. Now I would definitely never be the one to say that people have to get married and stay that way, but to be honest I think those numbers tell their own story.
I was taught by my Mum early on that my Dad’s side of the family were horrible and terrible and that I should have as little as possible to do with them. She never said this out loud, of course. To do so would have been Shameful and Embarrassing. But as a kid I got the message loud and clear and apart from my cousins, I sort of semi-avoided my aunts and uncles.
I should also mention here that my father’s family was a lot richer than my Mum’s. My mother’s father was a taxi driver (a fact that I have literally heard THOUSANDS OF TIMES) but my paternal grandfather (whom we called Ah Gong) had a rather successful biscuit business. It was a Big Fucking Deal while I was younger and it still remains one to their family, even after the Old Man himself passed away.
To be honest, the amount of drama, scandal and intrigue among the Lings could very well be enough material for another book. When I was in my 20s I was just terribly sick and tired of the entire affair and wanted to leave for America and design video games and write fantasy novels, but as I couldn’t leave and got to know them better I realized that hey…they were people after all, unlike what my mother had taught me.
In growing closer to them over the years I discovered 2 things 1) unlike what my mother had always told me, they had good sides too and 2) they had a LOT of issues. As of this writing, almost none of my fraternal aunts can sleep without some form of medication, alcohol, companionship or other aide. My uncles have issues ranging from depression, possible brain damage, to rage disorder. Only one of them has ever sought therapy, though about 3-4 are on some form of medication (and in some cases have been on it for more than 2 decades)
I remember mentioning once to my Dad something that occurred to me. Between all of them (7 brothers and sisters or so) they had literally millions of dollars at their disposal, and resources ranging from medical, financial, legal, psychological (courtesy of me) and in fields from philosophy to literature. So why did they have to talk so much about everything and never solve it? Because they didn’t WANT to solve it.
They wanted to parade the wrongs that had been done to them in front of others, to make a whole song and dance about the smallest thing. This is actually one of the few things my mother said about my Dad’s family that I agree with, but she left out the most important part – that it’s not their fault.
Essentially all of them were abused children as well. I don’t think any of them got it as bad as my Dad, but their mother could be pretty extreme. She did some pretty crazy shit, like throw one of my aunts into a dumpster when she was younger, as well as feed them rotten food. (I kid you not) He most definitely got his skinflint tendencies from his mother, who must have gotten them as a single parent bringing up three kids (her brothers and sisters) during the Japanese Occupation.
I’ll admit it – when I was younger and studying psychology there was a great tendency on my part to “play therapist” and tell my family members what to do. Oh, you have such and such a problem, you should seek treatment! Part of it was my fixer persona. But part of it was also that it had helped me so much, I couldn’t understand why no one else would do it. That old hatred against Chinese culture and their hidebound ways erupted again. Oh my God why can’t this be a modern country like the US (or somewhere else) where people actually admit to their problems and seek help?
I asked myself “why the fuck are they behaving in this way?” which as I neared my 30s became “oh, so that’s why they are behaving in this way.”
Despite their own problems and disabilities (who doesn’t have them?) I’ll say that they at least tried to stick together. Perhaps all that talking about nothing did serve a purpose after all. They met regularly and did all the usual Southeast Asian Family things – that is to say, talk about money, talk about property, air dirty laundry in public and play mahjong. My mother’s family on the other hand only met for Chinese New Year and that was that. The sisters did visit each other once in a blue moon but I can’t say they were very close.
I’m painting a rather dismal picture here and I apologize. The truth is that it wasn’t really at all bad all of the time. Yes, everything I’ve said earlier is true. But there were dinners in which an uncle would recount a story and everyone would collapse laughing. There were some good moments with singing and karaoke and more than few good times with my cousins (on both sides) They tried their best to stick together and help each other with their issues as best as they could.
I should take the moment here to talk about Aunty Sunny. Out of everyone in my father’s family (himself included) I think that she alone has managed to make it past the abuse and neglect she must have suffered in her childhood. I quite admire her, to be honest. She recovered from bankruptcy (twice) and a terrible divorce (though one not as bad as my parents) built a successful business and had two wonderful children. On top of that she used to be a national level folk dancer.
How did she do it? God. Like I’ve been saying through most of this document, you gotta have something, and she took the Jesus road. Though she is also a testament to how you can’t rely on God for everything. As she herself said “God is great but we all need our human wisdom as well.” She did a LOT of soul-searching (and I mean a lot) after her divorce and it really showed.
I never thought I would grow so close to her. When I was small, my impression of Aunty Sunny was “very Christian, very Chinese” (which hasn’t changed!) and my favorite memory of her was when she gave my cousins and I about ten bucks to play Captain Commando about two weeks before I was about to leave for America. (I played Ginsu, or Sho in the Japanese version)
She really came through for me one night when things were really bad at home and my mother was defunct (as usual) and my Dad was in Thailand (working in the family business at that time) She came around and said that I could come and stay with her for a while, so I did. Afterwards she offered me a part time job and so I worked for her about 2 months after that, doing general about-the-house chores (arranging her schedule, sorting receipts, that kind of thing) and it was comparatively restful.
Aunty Sunny was quite specific in her choice of literature (or lack thereof) – there were only two kinds of books in her house – skincare and health related (her business), and Christian texts. On that first night, restless and in pain, I tried to find something to pass the time. I found a book that was neither.
It was a simple enough book called Love Is a Choice. It introduced me to the concept of co-dependency. If I skimmed over the really Christian parts of the book I could get through it, and I did indeed learn a lot from that small thing with the pale yellow cover. I gave it to Meimei to read and I feel that she benefitted greatly from it.
So now I’ll talk about my Mum’s side a bit.
As time passed I was able to with my more mature perspective see the ravages of abuse on their side of the family as well. My uncle’s constant borrowing of money and gambling. Another one with an endless string of dead-end jobs, culminating with him leaving the family at the age of about 50 because their “questions were driving him insane.” My eldest aunt’s workaholism (if you think my Mum drowned her sorrows in work you should see her) Another aunt, the fastest and most efficient worker you could ever imagine (and I have met plenty) trying to save money by eating only Cadbury’s chocolate for a few weeks during her first job and getting severe diabetes as a result
I imagine that it’s kind of obvious to the observer at this point it wasn’t just me who was abused, it was everyone else as well. As Terrence once said in disbelief when I told him some of my story “Both parents? Both families?” That simple fact bled away a lot of the anger and hatred that I felt during my mid-twenties.
As you might imagine, over the years I have cross-referenced every detail of my life and personal history with my many cousins (not to mention my friends), trying to find similarities and differences, congruences and divergences. A few things spring immediately to mind – first off, all of them have at least one functional parent. Generally, it is the one that is NOT related to me (since, as we all know by now, both my parents come from abusive families) and generally, that parent was at least around for most of the time. Alternatively, the parent that was from the abusive family was at least semi-functional and did not sacrifice their children to the Great PhD God.
Secondly, most times they at least had money. In the case of my father’s family, except him, all his brothers and sisters are multi-millionaires. I’m sure times were hard for some of my cousins (in fact, I am 100% absolutely sure of it) but I’m not sure if they were 500 bucks a month to buy everything you can hard.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they did not have dependents. Obviously, some were older siblings, and some were younger, but even in the case of the former, the elder sibling was not expected to ensure the complete safety, health and education of the younger.
I know you can’t measure human suffering, and that comparison of any kind in these matters (especially in these matters!) is futile at best and self-flagellating at worse but I did plenty of it in my younger days, comparing and contrasting and weighing what could not be weighed against what should not be. But I could compare constructively as well, and I did realize that my situation was far worse than anyone I knew at that time. It’s tempting to fall into the traps of complaining and envy and I think I tried my hardest to avoid them as best as I could.
So that’s that for my parents’ families. They helped here and there in various ways – not as much as I would have liked, but maybe that’s because my parents never asked for it, blinded as they were by pride and fear. I used to get angry at them for that (we could have used the help!) but the list of things that I used to get angry at them for was at least ten miles long, so well…yeah.
To all my aunts and uncles and cousins, I wish them only the very best. They’ve all suffered in their own way. They’re still my family and I love them all – perhaps a lot more now than when I was a little kid and I didn’t understand them or myself very well. The Chinese say that blood is thicker than water but I say screw that. I’d love them all even if it wasn’t so.