Inauthentic Chinese Food; Authentic Family Legacy

Ordering takeout from HoHo’s is one of my favorite parts of being at Blair. I have grown to love American Chinese food. Whether consuming fried rice from an oyster pail, scientifically measuring the perfect ratio of soy sauce to duck sauce (which was certainly not served in Asia), or opening a pseudo-philosophical fortune cookie, I savor the experience. But, before coming to the U.S., my parents had warned me about American Chinese food’s inauthenticity. Indeed, I had never seen this type of food served in Hong Kong or anywhere else in Asia. But I loved it nonetheless.

When my friends, inevitably, ask: “Do you think this is authentic?” I answer: “No.” This should end the conversation since, having lived in Hong Kong for most of my life, my American friends seem to think I have authority in the matter. Nevertheless, authentic or not, HoHo’s has had a significant impact on my life, an influence I will explain more fully later.

So, if Ho Ho’s has not been an authentic influence on my life, what has? The simple and complex answer is: my family. I have lived a privileged life, but many members of my family are survivors of horrific incidents during the Chinese Communist Party’s turbulent rise to power. The tragedies they lived through have influence my decisions and outlook on life.

My grandmother was born and raised in a rich family in the British colony of Hong Kong. After becoming the principal of a private school at just the age of 27, she decided to marry my grandfather, who was sick with tuberculosis, stomach ulcers, and diabetes. When she followed him back to war-torn China, her family members ostracized her–– she didn’t speak to any member of her family for 10 years after her departure to China.

My grandfather was a playwright who lived during the period of time Mao Zedong came into power after the Chinese civil war that lasted from 1927 to 1950. After Mao’s ascension to power, one of his first goals was to minimize the influence of Western ideas. My grandfather, as someone who had gone to college, was targeted through a campaign known as the Hundred Flowers Campaign (AP Comp Gov students, remember this term). In 1956, the party asked people like my grandfather for input on how the government should be run. Soon after, though, there was a major crackdown on those who criticized Mao’s regime. Oblivious to the risk, my grandfather unapologetically wrote many pamphlets addressing injustice and poverty in rural areas. With pure goodwill, he wanted to help the country. It was tragically ironic. The true patriot became an enemy of the state and the people. He was labeled an “anti-revolutionary” who did not believe in the progress of the party.

He immediately got fired from his job. My grandmother, too, lost her job. My grandfather was sent to a prison and a labor camp, and my grandmother and her three sons had to help the family survive. Because of my grandfather’s reputation, the only way they could make a living was by folding paper boxes. They could not find work elsewhere. As one of Hong Kong’s former best teachers, my grandmother must have felt absolutely degraded.

Soon after, my grandfather died at age 35. At the same time, my dad was diagnosed with a heart defect and could not afford treatment. He was barred from sports and his only pastime in life was playing a cheap violin our family had saved up to buy. This violin eventually became a central part of my dad’s life. He practiced at least 5 hours everyday, hoping to succeed through music. At the beginning, his hard work seemingly paid off. He became one of two people in the Guangdong Province (which is geographically similar to North Dakota in size)… one of two people in the Guangdong Province to pass the audition for China’s Central Conservatory of Music. However, his dreams were shattered when he received notice that he was not allowed to attend. My grandfather’s reputation as a political dissenter ruined my dad’s chances.

That day, my dad decided that there was no future for him in China. He had to escape to Hong Kong.

He spent the next several years training. He learned how to swim, and even with his heart defect, he practiced every day in the lake. On a fateful day, 2 months before his 14th birthday, he began his escape. He left with 5 close friends, in the dead of night. They hiked into the mountains until daybreak and hid in the forest as the sun came up. They could not move in the daytime––the Chinese Communists offered money to catch “runners.”

They kept running for the next 8 nights until finally, they saw the shoreline. Across that great expanse of churning black waves was the British colony Hong Kong; they were standing at the brink of freedom. But the six young men attempting to travel across had no time to appreciate the significance of that moment. The police were right behind them, chasing them with a pack of dogs, teeth snarling, eyes glowing against the reflection of the eerily bright flashlights. With no time to lose, they jumped into the freezing cold. It was the first time any of them had ever swum in the ocean. The waves instantly choked them down. With no sense of direction, they had no choice but swim, hoping Luck would lead them in the right direction. They swam for 7 hours. One of them got lost and presumably drowned in the chaos. Luckily, my father reached the other side, relatively unscathed. There were many others who were less fortunate. My uncles, for example, only made it across after multiple attempts. One of them tried this trip 8 times before succeeding.

After arriving in Hong Kong, my father and his brothers fought for success. My uncles have switched many jobs, which included pretending to be a dentist–– even though he never finished high school.

My dad, on the other hand, stayed true to his passion: music. Eventually, his talent and hard work gained the attention of renowned violinist and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra music director Lim Kek-Tjiang, who took my dad under his wing as his protégé. 4 months later, he officially joined the HKPhil as Assistant Concertmaster.

At age 18, my dad travelled to the States to study. He enrolled in the Curtis Institute of Music as one of two violinists accepted worldwide that year, and later to the Juilliard School where he pursued chamber music and orchestral performance. A few years later, he triumphantly returned to Hong Kong and the philharmonic with renewed passion, eventually playing 37 seasons with the orchestra.

All my life, I have heard these stories. Growing up, my dad never told me any “real” bedtime stories. He used to tell me the same story–– his story–– every night before I went to bed. My dad, my mom, my grandparents tell it to me every time they have the chance. They would lecture me about the grit, determination, and pride they have gained from battling with hardships in the past.

I understand they were drilling the importance of hard work, perseverance, and tenacity into me. But their stories gave me a mental burden as well. It is the mental burden of not being able to live up to my legacy and not being able to tell my parents about it.

I am the first person to go overseas for high school. I go to a private school here at Blair Academy, a luxury light years away from scraping food off the ground. I feel as if my parents have extremely high expectations for me. Even if this is a giant illusion, even if my parents don’t really place unrealistic expectations on me, I feel obligated never to let them down. I want to measure up, even if I never have the opportunity to change the world. Even when I do something I find impressive, it’s hard to find something they will find impressive about me. Everybody in my family has encountered problems much more formidable than mine: slipping grades, girl trouble, and bad days. My daily wins and losses, fights and struggles seem mundane when compared to this mountain of movie plotlines and JK Rowling novels.

How do I compare to heroes who fought for their political freedom? “Don’t complain–– remember when you have a failing grade at school, I didn’t ever get education past the 7th grade” “You got benched from your squash team? I had a heart disease and still swam hours across open water” “Things are not going the way you want it to? At least you have a roof above your head and food on your plate” “You have no idea how unbelievably lucky you are to be stressed by these small problems–– I fought much bigger ones for you to enjoy this luxury”. Of course, they have a point. How can I complain when my worst struggles do not compare with those faced by my family members? And so, when I am sad I never truly confide in my parents. What is there to complain about? Everything is overshadowed by an overtone of my legacy: who I am, and who I am to my family.

I’m not complaining about my family and my immense luck to be here right now. In fact, I am absolutely grateful for everything that has been done for me. I have a supportive family that have sent me here to broaden my horizons; I have wonderful friends who have my back. I look up to my family; I am particularly fond of my dad.

Instead, I’m saying that I feel I have it too well.

So often I feel like I have to earn this life–– my parents did. They struggled through political strife to be here. If I fail or disappoint, I don’t deserve the luxuries I have. That’s why there’s always a ring of hesitation when I enjoy myself. There why there’s an air of discomfort when I talk about my family. That’s also why there is an extra weight on my shoulders to succeed. Everything I have now uncannily mirrors everything my family lacked. That makes me so afraid to fail. And most importantly, that is why I could never tell my parents this. In fact, I never did… not before deciding on making this speech.

This mindset has plagued my life in the past. But recently, I stumbled upon an article that helped me gain a new insight. It is a web-comic titled How to be Perfectly Unhappy by Matthew Inman. According to Inman, if somebody says “I’m happy”, there is an unspoken recognition that his or her life is full of joy. He has slain the dragon and become King. He has defeated the final boss and is sitting atop his mighty throne of happiness until the end of time. This happy-ever-after state-of-being is, of course, purely fictional.

Simply put, happiness is hard. Really hard.

So, what do I think?

Happiness is too often thought of as the final arbiter when that’s far, far from the truth. It should not be thought of as the decider of whether our lives are “good” or “bad”. The goal isn’t to pursue this abstract idea. It is, instead, contentment. Small everyday things drag us down. But we can still enjoy life. On top of that, we shouldn’t have to justify how we feel. We shouldn’t have to say to ourselves: today’s successes means that I can be happy today. Or that “I’m hurting because of this and this and this… which means I can hurt”. Just because people are less fortunate than you doesn’t mean you can’t feel pain. Just because someone is starving, doesn’t mean your broken leg doesn’t hurt. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be upset. It’s more than enough to just feel content about everything you have done and achieved.

I have come to think of my life like… HoHo’s. Sometimes I feel like some General Tso’s Chicken Fried Rice. If “authentic” is defined as genuine or of undisputed origin, I am not an authentic person. I have definitely been Americanized to an extent. I am the grandson of a political criminal, the son of a fighter mother and a father with a musical dream, I am a friend, I am a prefect (sometimes), and I have definitely been Americanized to an extent. I am a mishmash, a confused mixture of American and Chinese.

I realize now that I don’t have to live up to the mountains of expectations my family has for me and be the perfect student and person, to never let my parents down, in order to be authentic to my origin. It was my desire to be perfect, to live up to my pedigree, that made me less than authentic in the first place. My identity cannot be defined purely by my roots (just like HoHo’s cannot be defined by its Chinese origins).

HoHo’s is delectable in the end. What matters is not whether HoHo’s is authentic or inauthentic. In fact, this measuring stick feels too superficial to describe a non-concrete idea. Maybe there even is an authentic inauthenticity… who knows?

Well, it doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is that I am content and authentically who I am now. It is hard, and it will always be hard that I come from a family of giants. It is gruelling to deal with mounting expectations from myself and my family. It is exhausting when I feel like I cannot open up to my parents. It is awful when I feel like a disappointment. But I know we all have feelings like this too.

And it’s okay.

Contentment and disappointment can co-exist. One does not preclude the other. We don’t have to ignore negative emotions. We just have to accept them along with all the positive ones. So don’t ever let small obstacles take control over you. You can be content with all you are, regardless of what you face.

Seniors first.


(Copyright 2018 Alvin Fan)