On the same day I found out Donald Trump will be the leader of the free world, the country I’ve lived in for half of my life, I was also informed of the death of my cousin, Mike, at the age of 37.
He was not a good son, and an even worse father who left an 8-year old daughter behind. Not many people showed up to his funeral.
I was one of the very few people in his life who he did not harm but cared for.
Looking at this picture makes me smile now, nearly 30 years later. Mike was the biggest and oldest cousin then, but soon he’d be defeated, height-wise, by all his younger cousins. We were four years part, living in the same household as my grandparents. Our parents left us there for similar reasons – their careers had to come first. Beijing was already a competitive place. For most families, both parents had to work. For some, it was normal to let their children stay with the elderlies.
Mike had been living there since he was six months old. I showed up when I was six years old, just in time for first grade. Until this day, I considered those three years I spent in that house (right behind the gray walls in the picture), the most brutal and scarring time of my life. The second worst was watching my father go through cancer treatment for two years (at least then, I was in my early 20s and I was in control of what I could do to help him and my family). At my grandparents’ house, I didn’t have a sense of myself. Everyday felt like an eternity.
Don’t get me wrong, Mike was not the cousin I had wished for to live in that house with me. He had terrible grades and he didn’t have much talent for sports. My grandparents blamed it on the tiny TV we had so they locked up the TV room. I couldn’t recall a single cartoon or a program for children. Mike also loved eating and he secretly stole many of the fancy snacks my mom brought me from her visits in foreign countries. He was overweight as a child. We couldn’t do much together at the playground. My grandma kept feeding him and me. Most people never imagined me as a chubby child. I was for a while and it felt intolerable. My body wasn’t built to hold all that extra weight.
It wasn’t clear to me then but it is now. Eating lots of food, especially the ones cooked by grandma, was the only way to please her. It was the only thing we, as kids, could do to be in control.
Mike and I were like “inmates” who were sentenced for life. We had a love and hate relationship. Sometimes, I felt like we were selfishly protecting ourselves, not one another. Other times, when we had to hang out with the other two boy cousins, Mike and I were definitely on the same team.
We couldn’t relate to other kids who lived with their parents. It was not fair, we thought. Their parents seem to really like them. They could ask for anything, everything. All we got were rejections. Not in a quiet sense, like a gentle “no”, or “maybe next time”, or “use your words and we will figure something out” but shouting ridicules and blames.
Mike and I were raised in a household that made us believe we weren’t good kids, we weren’t meant to grow up as good people. At the beginning when I was six, I’d cry a lot, constantly. Mike was only ten years old and he didn’t know how to comfort me either. Sometimes he’d make me feel worse. But knowing that he was there made a difference.
One of my aunts lived and worked in the US. One time she gave our grandparents these blue and green gel-like toothpaste. Our grandparents hid them right away but they couldn’t fool Mike. One evening, Mike jumped out when I was just about to finish my homework and said: “Congratulations Fei, we will NOT be using that stupid, crappy Little White Rabbit kids toothpaste anymore!”
He sneaked into a secret cabinet and pulled out the American toothpaste, holding it in front of our eyes like kryptonite. We both lost our minds and raised our toothbrushes ready for the rewards. He was nervous as hell and his hand started shaking. I tried to catch as much toothpaste as possible and started brushing my teeth in joy. Before Mike could reserve any for himself, my grandma sneaked up behind the both of us. Her shadow covered the tiny bit of light I could see to brush my teeth. We smelt death.
She grabbed the toothpaste first and then whacked Mike off balance. The toothpaste was safe and she carefully put it back into the cabinet and lock it up. Mike gave me a gentle nod. He was the superhero that night.
“How was the toothpaste? Was it awesome?” He asked me.
I shrugged and said: “Yeah, pretty good. Sorry you didn’t get any.”
“No big deal. I’ll try again tomorrow.” He struggled to get off the floor, with a still perfectly hand shaped pink mark visible on his chubby cheek.
Mike didn’t just entertain me, which he was really good at, but he also watched out for me in his own ways. He called me “the sensitive little one”, like a Chinese porcelain doll. One day, he thought I was going to really hurt myself so I could go home to my parents (who were renowned artists in China, lived in a comfortable home with a toilet and running water). Mike panicked and started hiding every sharp object inside our grandparent’s home. A few hours later, my grandma shouted out, “Where are all my cooking knives? Nobody is eating tonight. You will all go to sleep hungry. You deserve it!”
Later that evening, my grandma would try to go to sleep and discover that all her sleeping pills were missing. Yes, kids who grew up in China know three common ways to commit a suicide – jump off a building (but we lived a beat-up ranch house), take sleeping pills or slit your wrist. He eliminated the options available to me.
The situation was bad, and it wasn’t getting any better but much worse. After Mike graduated from elementary school, his parents asked him to go home. All hell broke loose. I was 9 years old living alone with my grandparents. It wasn’t long before I had to threaten my parents and make it very clear that I must go home.
At that point, my parents had lived their lives without me for 3.5 years. They only saw me one day during the weekend. Everyone was happy, except I cried every time as I was traveling back to my grandparents’ home on Sundays. Until this day, Sundays weigh me down, for reasons I can no longer explain.
A transition back to my home was weird. All of a sudden I was living with my own parents full time. And I had to enter a whole new school system much more competitive than the previous one. None of the kids accepted me. I wasn’t cool enough as they were, who all grew up in a military-base, upper-class homes. It didn’t take long before they realized that my father’s status was at least two ranks above their parents. (Footnote: my father was successful, talented, and also quite a bit older than my peers’ parents.) As a result of my dad’s rank, we lived in a bigger home, had more playrooms to invite my friends over. Gradually I integrated to a completely new lifestyle with my name written all over it. I was happy again.
My parents, especially my mom, tried to spoil me. New clothes, new toys, and the occasional European ice cream for 5x the money as local ice cream. But I didn’t let my guard down. What if this all disappears one day and I’ll end up back at my grandma’s with a lonely suitcase?
I couldn’t help thinking about what “inmate” Mike was doing. Turns out, Mike’s transition back home was not the same. His mom traveled a lot for work. His father was in and out of his life and never took any responsibilities. He had no one to talk to.
Every opportunity he had, he always came to visit me at my new elementary school, then middle and high school. It wasn’t long before he moved back in with our grandparents. I never understood that decision. I wasn’t even sure if it was his.
The next 10 years of Mike’s life was a wash. He never graduated from college. He never had a job for more than three months. We didn’t know when he told the truth, if any at all. He lived in a world of his own and he seemed ok with it.
“We are different.” He said to me. “You are gonna go places Fei. You are smart, and you have ambitions.” The silence after confirmed what he thought of himself, which had always been the opposite of me. Because he was told repeatedly that he couldn’t be anything. (Yes, I said anything. That was precisely what my grandma used to call us – things, not kids).
I refused to believe her. It wasn’t easy. Because as kids, much of what we do was to please the adults in order to get what we need. I craved for love, stability, encouragement.
As I was reflecting upon this period of my life in front of a psychologist in the US, she asked me: “How did you get through this? How did you find the strength and courage?”
I didn’t know. I had to think for a while. As an only child, I was a really good storyteller. I made up a lot of stories while placing my stuffed animals left and right to create a show for myself. I used that energy to create a different story to survive in that house. Every night, with tears running down my face, under a blanket so no one would see it. I’d repeat over and over again: “I am a warrior. I am a warrior.” Every morning, I’d get up and fight another day. As dramatic as it sounds, it helped me to regain an impermanent sense of myself.
Quick break: Look, my parents were good people and they thought they were doing the right things. I knew they had their best interests at heart. As for my grandparents, they weren’t evil. They were not educated and they both suffered a lot in their lives. My grandparents raised five children with next to nothing. Unfortunately their sufferings were projected onto the next generation, rather than redirected for positivity. My family had asked me to forgive them. “It’s no good to hold grudge against your own family. At the end of the day, they raised you. Didn’t they?”
It’s true. The experience not only made me stronger, but it gave me a different kind of creative power. I honor those who have gone through their own struggles, overcome the pain and made something of themselves. I am able to connect with nearly anyone, everyone, and I find tremendous joy in bringing comfort and confidence to their lives.
But Mike, he stopped fighting. He tried to get up again. I could see, and I can still remember. He found himself a grocery packing job at a nearby supermarket, but grandma forced him to leave because “it didn’t make our family look good.” Everyone else had accomplished something on their own worth grandparents bragging about. Mike didn’t. He was the black sheep.
I was 17 when I left Beijing to study in the US. Mike and I didn’t have an easy way to stay in touch. International phone calls were expensive. Cell phones weren’t available to most people. Emails were somewhat rare. It wasn’t until 2006 when he and I began contacting each other on a more regular basis. The messages he sent me were simple.
“Hey Fei, it’s me your big brother. It’s Father’s Day so I took both of your parents out to dinner. Don’t worry. I will take care of them.”
“Hi, I heard it’s really cold in Boston. Don’t get a cold! Take care of yourself.”
“I got your mom’s travel info. I’ll pick her up at the airport, no problem.”
In between those one or two-liner emails, we always saw each other when I was home in Beijing. He’d tag long to join my parents and me at countless social gatherings. I don’t remember much of what we talked about. In fact, I was annoyed and even felt betrayed at times when he was telling me apparent lies. His new fancy job? Job title? Promotion? Money he made? They weren’t true. I knew him too well, yet he felt the need to impress me somehow.
One thing led to another. I knew Mike wasn’t always doing good things with good people. We were all worried. My parents took many initiatives to introduce him to legitimate, trusted connections, hoping he would make the best of it. But he was in so deep, so quickly that he could no longer pull himself out.
While this was happening, my father was diagnosed with Stage III esophageal cancer. I had been working in Boston for 3 years and came back to Beijing immediately. Mike picked me up at the airport with my mom. He looked incredibly concerned. On our way to the hospital, he said to me: “Don’t get too emotional Fei. Stay calm.”
At the time, I thought it was the most stupid thing I had ever heard. Of course I wasn’t going to burst out in tears and worry my dad. The moment I saw my dad on the hospital bed was heartbroken. He looked terrible, yet he was trying to pick himself up and pretend nothing happened. I couldn’t wait to leave the room and to scream and shout.
The next two years of my father’s survival story was not pretty, yet it was also a miracle after a conservative outlook of only three months of his life. I traveled a lot in those two years, including a three-month LOA (Leave of Absence) that could have risked my work visa.
It was difficult being a caretaker alongside with my mom. My father was so weak. Most of his days were spent in treatment or sleeping. Regardless of how much I wanted to catchup on lost time, he simply didn’t have the energy for it. Then the hospital was wearing me out. The food, other patients and hopeless relatives were part of my world, and often my only world.
Then Mike showed up.
He was already at the hospital a lot, delivering some books for me to read, or better food for us to eat. Occasionally he’d suggest he and I go hangout somewhere else. My parents loved the idea. They didn’t want to see their 24-year old daughter spending every moment of everyday at a cancer hospital.
Mike and I went on a journey we never had.
“Hey, let’s go watch Kung Fu Panda!” Mike said.
“Awesome. I love animations.” I replied with no hesitation.
It turned out that Mike had taken me to the fanciest, newest movie theater in Beijing. The tickets cost 120RMB per person (~$20 US dollar). It was a lot of money back then, still is. Mike and I were introduced to our seats, which were these fancy incline chairs that go all the way back. We were served with Coke and chips too. Mike even extended an offer of a full lunch menu at our seats, I kindly declined.
I felt happy and relaxed for both of those hours. I thanked Mike for it, and he thanked me back because how much he enjoyed spending time with his favorite cousin, after such a long time.
I remember the Kung Fu Panda event particularly well. But small moments mattered even more. There were a few times that I had to go back to the hospital super late at night. The elevator light had a dark green tint that made me uncomfortable. Mike saw the fear through the corner of my eyes and offered to go with me every time.
He was not a good son, and an even worse father. I distanced myself for many years because of it. But he was a good cousin. He loved and cared for me with all of his imperfections.
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