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Lithium How it feels to Be 18 during Chinese New Year

Mar. 9, 2018
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“When are you going to get married?” I feel a firm pat on the back from my aunt.

“I’m 18.” I looked at her.

“When I was 18, I had two kids.” My grandmother joined in on the conversation, “The times are different.”

How does it feel to be 18 during Chinese New Year? It sucks. 

I’ve always been proud of my heritage—it’s never something of which I was ever ashamed. I always loved finding out more about my family background and heritage. I used to spend hours talking to my grandfather about his boat ride from China to Taiwan, and his career as a sculptor (he specialized in making Buddha statues with wood). Hence, Chinese New Year easily became my favorite time of the year. When I was little, I was all ears for any mythical tales about this traditional festival. Of course, the red envelopes carrying cash never hurt. The adults never really bothered the children, so when I was little, this was a magical holiday about family, security, and getting money that would sustain your sweet tooth.

As I grew older, things weren’t as simple anymore.

Chinese New Year is celebrated in collectivistic countries that prioritize group goals over individual goals; it’s all about cohesion within social groups. In my family, this means family first: you think about how you can benefit your family before you can benefit for yourself. Anything good that happens to you is a good thing that happens to the whole family. I’m personally not against this ideal, but with nine other cousins, an older brother, four aunts, and two parents with high expectations, it’s become tough.

Out of my grandparents’ eleven grandchildren, I am the third youngest and am about to go to college this year. Just like in Western countries, I, experienced intense questioning from my relatives. Except they were all using their own children—my cousins—as markers for the validity of my success. It didn’t matter what I was capable of; to the family as a whole, it always seemed like my accomplishments weren’t enough to benefit everyone. They’d all set a bar for me to reach, the same bar that grows higher after each grandchild achieves a certain level of success. By the time it was my turn, these expectations seemed impossible to reach. I didn’t want to become a lawyer, doctor, or teacher. I wanted to be a writer, the same profession they scoffed at when I was a child, and continued to mock when I told them I want to carry on with it through college.

Even us cousins were growing further apart due to our parents’ endless comparisons. We weren’t raised to be family or friends with each other. We all saw each other as competition, and we could only move up when one of us failed. 

Yes, Chinese New Year brings us all together physically, but it drives us apart emotionally.

Being back home for Chinese New Year is a strange time. Despite the beautiful red decorations and loud firecrackers, nothing can cover some parts of its ugliness. The hints of sexism and misogyny that intertwine with Chinese traditional values never go away. While my male cousins are being asked about their academic and professional success, I’m mostly bombarded with questions about my romantic interests and my fertility plan at the age of 18. Although my parents are equally strict as my aunts and uncles, they’ve remained open-minded about my plans for my future. On the other hand, my aunts and uncles feel the need to be hands-on with my own personal decisions regarding my future. I thought this was just a unique case in my family, but after asking my friends who have similar family backgrounds, I found that we all face the same problems.

The new generation of Asian children isn’t the same as its predecessors. A majority of us grew up under heavy Western influences, some even receiving Western education. We were told to explore ourselves, and we were told that there were no limits to what we could possibly achieve. For some of us, the values we learned at school are quickly challenged as soon as we return home—there, we’re told to have realistic and sustainable goals, the ones that make enough money and are respectable, the ones that will allow your parents to gloat about us to their friends and family.

The difference between 18 year-old-me going back home for Chinese New Year and 12-year-old-me going back home for Chinese New Year is that now, I stand my ground. I don’t flip-flop my ideals anymore to please my relatives. I don’t want to, and I certainly do not want my younger cousins to ever feel the need to compromise who they are in front of their family.

“I don’t really want to have kids. I want to focus on my career when I finish school.”

Happy Chinese New Year.