Edward Yau grew up comfortable in Westchester County, on stories of his parents’ struggles in Panama and rural China.
“When I was your age, I used to walk 5 miles barefoot to school!!”
How many of us have heard that line from our parents growing up? Fatherhood has given me much perspective on my own childhood experience and why parents do the things they do to raise their children. The word “generation” is a vague term that people use to describe an age demographic that can span across decades or even just a few years. The “millennial” generation may only be 8-10 years younger than myself, but they undoubtedly possess far different ideals and philosophies than I do. As far as the collective character of age groups go, I don’t think anyone would argue that passing generations usually grow softer and softer over time.
My mother was born in a small farming village in rural China in the late 1940s. With her mother busy tending fields and her father away in New York trying to earn enough money to bring the family over, her eldest sister was the primary caregiver of a pair of twins and another younger brother. My grandmother managed to get the family over to Hong Kong on solid ground, but many of her peers had to swim across the harbor. Eventually, my mother and her family did make it to New York when she was in her teens, successfully fleeing civil war, communism and the cultural revolution.
My father was also born in a small farming village in rural China ten years earlier in the late 1930s. As young child, he had to hide from Japanese invaders with his grandfather. By the time his dad managed to move the family to Panama, my father was 8 years old. Not until he arrived in Panama would my father meet his dad for the first time.
Such was life in strife torn China at the time. Panama in the 1950s was no bargain, as discrimination against Chinese people was rampant. If you had a Chinese face, you were treated like a monkey. Nevertheless, my father grew up frolicking in the jungle, fishing with dynamite and tending to his dad’s grocery store and bar, where on occasion he was required to smash beer bottles over the heads of unruly customers. He stayed in Panama through college and immigrated over to New York City in his twenties.
My parents would connect in New York and marry… after only 6 months of dating. (Generational difference!) My mother was a traditional housewife, taking care of four kids full-time and my father was an engineer bringing home the bacon. Eventually, my father became a successful businessman and our family prospered. I grew up in cushy Westchester County, New York, never having to worry about invading armies, gang violence, or whether or not there would be food on my plate.
However, unlike us, my parents didn’t have the time to read books or watch videos about parenting. My father worked long hours and normally came home after our bedtime and he was gone before we woke up. My mother was only 19 when she married and 20 when she had her first child. What does a 19 year old know about anything? Discipline was enforced with spankings, deadly aimed chopsticks, feather dusters, coat hangers and rubber hoses. When we were really bad, my father reached for his belt. My mom was certainly not a tiger mom, but she did not appreciate grades that didn’t start with “A.”
Meanwhile, My father had a lecture for every moment. He reminded us everyday about how we were born “at the right place at the right time.” My father didn’t believe much in downtime and there was always some chore, task, work, or learning opportunity to be taken advantage of. When I finally made it to college, he reminded me daily about how much money my tuition was costing him.
As a child, I could only resent the type of discipline my parents employed and it undoubtedly had its effect on me. But, as an educated adult and father, I can now understand just about everything my parents did and I can appreciate that they were only doing their best as they knew how. Knowing how much work ONE child takes, I have absolutely no idea how my mother took care of FOUR children, who were all almost evenly spaced around two years apart in age (except me, I’m the last and four years younger!) I cannot even picture taking care of a newborn, a toddler and a four-year old all at the same time, all by myself! When I was 19, I was only concerned with passing classes and finding the next party to attend. Despite not having graduated from high school, my mom still taught us all how to read. My dad worked like a dog, but he still took the time to impart his wisdom whenever he could and we still spent family time together, going on trips every so often. I could only hope to live up to his example. Even today, he continues to watch our back! Though I can’t relate, I can understand and appreciate the hardships my parents endured while they growing up. I can’t blame them for any parenting approach they took, even if I don’t agree with it. I had it easy, really easy.
I often wonder to myself how our son is going to turn out. Unlike my parents, we do have time to read books, watch videos, talk to others and craft a child-raising plan as we see fit. I had it easy, and my son will have it even easier. I just hope we don’t screw him up too badly! The other day, while the young children of our family’s next generation gathered around one of the uncles, he reached for his belt to see what they would do. All the children did was smile back at him! I know my son may end up softer, but I hope he’ll be smarter, intellectual and more adept to succeed in our new and incredible digital age.
I call that progress.
This was previously published on the NYC Dads Group blog.
—Photo credit: KaiChanVong/Flickr