Ally's childhood home in China

The time and place I grew up that shaped the mom that I am today

As I sat down to type my very first real blog entry, I have so much in mind. Yes, there’s so much to share. But where do I start? I found myself face to face with my own history as a child observing parenting (not just of my own parents but also that of my friends’) in a different time and place.

I was born in the 70s in China. Both of my parents graduated from a teacher’s college. My dad took various jobs until he landed on a permanent one in a state-owned company. My mom, who is now retired, was a middle school Chinese language art teacher. I must have gotten the “teacher gene” in my blood from my mom, always “playing teacher” since very little. It was pretty rare back in those days that both parents were college graduates. I was lucky in this respect. I was very rarely spanked or harshly yelled at when making a bad choice, unlike many of my peers back then. By today’s standard their parenting wasn’t perfect at all, and their way to reason with me had a lot of baggages marked by tradition and time, but I do acknowledge that they were way ahead of their time when I was little.

We lived in a bungalow that my dad built with found bricks and other materials, in the courtyard of my extended family along side the old tile-roofed houses that belonged to my maternal grandparents and my uncles. My grandparents were hardworking, kind people, but they could not escape the mindset of their own time. They saved the “real” houses for their sons, although they allowed my parents to be with the extended family. By tradition, my parents should move out on their own or stay with my dad’s parents. But since my paternal grandparents lived in a really faraway city and my material grands loved my mom so much, they were OK with them staying. On the other hand, my parents were not allowed to get a share of the family houses. This and more that I saw, heard, and experienced very early on in my life clashed with the strong sense of justice that I was born with and contributed to my increasing desire for bringing about profound changes from within through education, one individual at a time.

None of those bothered me too much when I was little, though. I loved playing in the safety of the family courtyard and observing the tall sunflowers (they were taller than me!) with their huge “heads” ever turning toward the sun. I loved picking the morning glories of varied colors and braiding them into my hair. I loved to see the butterflies and dragonflies that visited the flowers. I loved picking up fallen date fruits in the fall from our huge date tree when my uncles shaked its branches. They would fall down like it was raining date fruits. In the fall, we also harvest our sunflowers. I would stroke its “face” for the seeds to fall out on a tray. My grandma would put the tray out for the seeds to dry. We baked the seeds and ate them over the long winter for fun. Sometimes a mouse would steal some seeds. I actually saw a mouse in action. Have to admit, it was cute! But the family cat took care of it… I loved our family cat, an outdoors cat who occasionally came back home when he couldn’t find food. I would stroke his fur and listen to him purr contently. My grandma would take me outside of the courtyard to play in the alley in front of us. There was this tall, tall telephone pole with an extra support that provided a “hole” where I could go threw back and forth. It was “my size” and I thought that was fun. I also made friends with a boy who was my age. We would play date right besides the pole, where we played with “real clay” — the dirt road was rammed with lots of clay. I was the only child of my extended family for four years until my cousin was born.

By tradition, I call my cousin “my little sister” although she’s my big uncle’s daughter. I was already 4.5 years old when she was born and pretty independent already. So, I had different needs and was totally OK with my grandma taking care of her. Grandma was a very kind woman. She treated me well, even though she believed that my cousin was more family than me because she is her son’s child. I didn’t really “get it” until my cousin’s mom told me that I wasn’t really part of this big family. I was really upset, quarrelled with her to protest for justice, to no avail of course, since everybody was telling me that she was right. I remember my head filled with “why’s” — to me that logic was and still is twisted. I was also confounded. I knew they loved me and treated me well; but I was not considered as much “one of them” as my cousin. I didn’t hold grudge and outwardly moved on, though. My cousin and I like each other and were nice to each other. We had a lot of fun playing together once she reached the age of two and became fully interactive with me. Then two more cousins were born of my two other uncles and we kids were all nice to each other. But the hurt was not gone. There were many other times that I quarrelled with my uncles to protest against their unfair labelling of me. With me growing bigger and becoming more knowledgeable and eloquent, they found it harder and harder to appear to be right. I was, time and time again, reminded of the rule of deferring to the older generation just because they were older. Time and time again, I broke that rule. I couldn’t help it. I longed for a more sensible relationship across generations.

I was an observant and reflective child. In my quest for an equal and just relationship among people in general and between generations in particular, I read extensively and wrote my thoughts into my secret diaries. Just by chance, I was very good at English even though my parents learned Russian in school. I went to college majoring in English. Being able to read in another language opened my eyes and heart to new perspectives, new ways of thinking, and new practices that I never knew before. By that time, I was already introduced to the idea of critical thinking, so I wasn’t taking in new things without good judgment, just like I wasn’t rejecting old things unthinkingly. I love exploring new worlds in books!

When I first came to America, everything was so new. I was fully fluent in English with very good pronunciation but felt really dumb at times for not knowing how to function in many situations! For example, in restaurants, it was so hard for me to order food because after reading the menu, I still didn’t have any idea how things might actually look like, not to mention many of the items do not look like English. So on my second day ever in this country, I walked into a fast food type of restaurant — it was late in the morning but still a little too early for lunch, and so nobody was there except me. I went in and said to the only attendant there, “Um, it’s my second day here in this country. So, I don’t know anything even though I talk fluently. I’d like a hotdog, but I can’t name all the toppings, just give me whatever you feel is right.” LOL, the man looked at me in amazement and we both roared with laughter. We chatted quite a bit, as the place just had the two of us. It was hilarious. So, I learned first-hand that in a new place, I just need to relax and be myself. It’s OK not to know things; it’s OK to learn from the start; it’s OK to take risks. It’s important to open my mouth and give myself a voice in any situation. I became one of the most vocal among my classmates in graduate school. I learned much more in similar fashion and enjoyed it. And here I am.

Trained as an educator, I naturally love to challenge my students to think deeply and independently. I loved teaching and enjoyed the ups and downs of the academic journey together with my students. Being an explorer, on the other hand, I had this angst in me to go off another tangent or two before I would really settle down and accept my self-set lifelong mission. I longed to start a family after getting my Ph.D. from the U of M and at the same time explore how life could be like outside of the ivory tower. Starting a family wasn’t as easy as I thought. So, as my husband was sent back to Shanghai to work in a branch of his company for 3 years, we went together. I visited my mom, my relatives, and my old friends. I visited a lot of cities, big and small, and met a lot of different people. I explored Buddhism and various local religions, as well as psychology and local blends of psychology and Buddhist/Christian philosophy. I did a lot of soul-searching. I learned a lot about human nature and understood people more. Above all, I learned a lot about myself and understood myself more.

It was not until I had my daughter that I really started to think about how I can apply all that I learned to real life. All the pieces are slowly but surely falling into place as my daughter grows. I am determined, more than ever, to respect her as an equal in spirit and in rights, to show her with action that girls/women are as powerful as boys/men, and to listen to her as if she’s the wisest soul I’ve ever encountered. She has been my little teacher and mentor who never hesitates to tell me what I did was good and what does not work. Sometimes she speaks the deepest and wisest things. I am ever so thankful that I have this precious little soul who unconditionally loves me and unreservedly trusts me. I strive to be a mom who dares to be her own self and find her own path, for love of her daughter. We constantly remind each other of how important it is to be ourselves, to be a wholesome individual first as we navigate our worlds and cultures.

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