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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Family Ties

On June 6, 1976, a family from China immigrated to the US with hope of opportunity and a better life. Shan and Choi Wong, along with their three daughters, Joanne, Joyce, and Jennifer touched down in the land of opportunity. Shan Wong is the son of my grandfather, Gar Wong, Sr. My grandfather had two families, one family through an arranged marriage in China of which he had two sons. (Believe you me, the ironic reality that my grandfather may have been a polygimist is not lost on me.) He had "traditional" American family here in the states. And by traditional, he had 4 kids in 5 years with my grandmother and then the divorced after the youngest (my mom) over unknown reasons (perhaps the other wife and kids back in China had something to do with it).

My grandparent's courtship was somewhat unusual given the circumstances. Grandma was a mere 18 years old (had already been married and annuled once, so the story goes). Gar was in his early 30s. The Japanese had bombed Peal Harbor, and in the minds of American, anything that looked Japanese was Japanese. At a dance hall one night, my grandma and good friend of hers went out in the international district (the story goes that they were the only white women there). Gar approached grandma, asked her to dance and she swept her off her feet.

Meanwhile, while my grandfather and grandma were busy having a family here in the US, the Wong family back in China was being raised by a single mother. Gar Sr.'s lives were literally worlds apart.

Over 57 years later, the results of their actions gathered around a table enjoying dim sum, sharing stories and reminicing of times gone by. I sat around the table watching the definition of family evolve. I watched as generations tried to piece together what happened, what were the motivations, how difficult it was to leave Hong Kong, listen to stories of growing up very different lives.

Our family history on the Wong side is something out of The Joy Luck Club, maybe even more salacious and titilating. I think about opportunity, pioneering, and the American dream as all members are citizens raising families and living generously here in the states. I think about the struggles they faced, lives they have built for their families and the opportunities On all sides of the family there as been a violation of probably every one of the 10 Commandents handed down to Moses, some of them multiple times. But I can't help but believe that they did the best they knew how.

These past few months have been very extendend family-intentsive. With two deaths in very large extended families, and the reunion of the other families, I can't help but think about the definition of family. In chinese culture the definition and provisional responsibility is very much based on blood lineage. In Western culture its very much based on a neat nuclear concept. But, as we attempt to define what is family in modern Americam and who belongs to whose family, I look at my extended family, and sit in awe and amazement. We are separated by culture, age and even language, but the familial energy and the eagerness by every to learn about each other was amazing to witness and be a part of.

We live in a culture that wants to define the family as a man and a woman, who have children, raise them, who then grow up to be coupled and procreate. Repeat. Perhaps, the Western definition of family is what complicates our relationships and prevents us from reaching out a helping hand, or begin a healing process, or establishing new families when our blood ones deteriorate. It permiates our legal system, our religious structures, our commercial structure, all the while, including and excluding people from belonging. Once we define boundaries of who and who does not belong in a family, people allow themselve the excuse of, "oh, that's not my responsibility, that's someone else's kid," further removing ourselves from each other and pushing more toward insular, small lives. There is a larger social issue at hand in the last statement that is much larger than this space, but I hope that acknowledging that the nuclear family in today's American society is at the very least a partial contributor to the status of our nation's swelling numbers of foster children, broken homes, single parents left to fend for themselves and depend on government assistance, etc, helps to identify where we can start to solve problems.

Don't get me wrong here, I love the notion of the nuclear family and when it works it works really well. I have been blessed with goodly parents who have loved, raised and provided for me well. I hope to have one of my own one day. But when it doesn't work for some people, the definition of the family excludes those whose nuclear family has failed them. I have no solution but merely wanted to acknowledge that beyond family, I believe we have a responsibility to one another that crosses blood and familial lines. I believe we are called to care for one another, provide for one another, give to one another, and learn from one another and forgive one another as families do. I can't help but think that my family, with all its excentricies, would not be what it is if it weren't for people who openned their hearts and homes and accepted them as family.

There are countless stories of generosity that have ensured my family's survival and success. To all those who reached out and provided, I thank you.


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