At 23, Meghan Wong is remarkably accomplished. She has completed two degrees, is the Academic Director of a Vancouver school, and has seemingly bounced from one country to another her whole life. Although she has a barely contained, youthful energy, she speaks with a wisdom that belongs to someone far older. We meet in a Starbucks near the school. She turns down coffee, but accepts an herbal tea.
“Do I look like I need caffeine?”
We sit, and she sips her drink. She tells me her parents names: Ren Rong Cheung and Xi Jia Wong.
“In Chinese culture people don’t usually change their names when they get married. My mom, when she moved to Canada, chose an English name for herself that started with R, so she chose the name Ruthy, which is the worst name of all time. My dad, who should have an English name because no one can pronounce it, chose not to have an English name. Now he goes by Zai-Jay most of the time.”
Her parents live in Shanghai now, although it wasn’t always the case.
“We own two properties, the first time we’ve owned property. My parents bought a house a few years ago. It’s in a suburb outside of Shanghai, in a place where there are only houses and nothing else. Everything in Shanghai is accessibly by subway, and it doesn’t quite reach our house, which is kind of a big deal. It’s far. They own another place, an apartment, on the eastern side of Shanghai.
“My parents went to London, a year ago, to visit my brother, and they went to visit Buckingham Palace, and they discovered that the Queen spends most of her time there during the week, and then on the weekends she goes to Windsor. It’s nicer, more remote. So our house is called Buckingham Palace, and on the weekends they go to Windsor.”
“Why have they only recently owned a house?”
“Until the last ten, twenty years or so, no one really owned property. It wasn’t a thing in China. In 1991 I moved to Canada, when I was 3 years old. We lived in Halifax and then Montreal, and we never had the money, we just lived in shitty little apartments. Then we moved to Hong Kong, and it’s very expensive in Hong Kong. We always had subsidized rent because we lived in the university faculty housing, where my dad worked. It wasn’t until we moved to Shanghai, just because of the money.”
Her mother is an accountant, and her father is a professor of accounting.
“My dad loves his job more than life itself. I think he’s a very good teacher, he loves teaching, he loves accounting, and I think the environment makes him comfortable. He’s not comfortable not being in control. He’s more comfortable when he’s working. My mom loves being an accountant, but she always says she took too much time off to have kids, so she’s not as high in the company as she would like.”
I ask about her family dynamic, and what dinner would be like with them.
“Um…I’m a little hesitant about how to answer that question. Mostly because I think our family is changing. I’m gonna give a long-winded answer. I think the problem with a lot of Asian families is that Chinese people in general have a different level of self-awareness, because they are not encouraged throughout school and throughout adulthood to become self-aware. To embark on a journey of self-discovery is not something that people do. So when they become parents, one of the things I always say is that the biggest difference between a Chinese and a Canadian family is that you can go to any average Canadian family, especially if they’re new parents, and what you will find on their bookshelves is a book about parenting. You will never find that in a Chinese house. Even if they do have it, they will hide it. They don’t want anyone to know. The idea is that this is parenting, you should just know how to do it. So what happens is… parenting is difficult. Here, in Canada, if you tell kids to do something once and they don’t do it, it’s like, ‘Okay, what can we do to fix this problem?’ With Chinese parents it’s ‘Well obviously you didn’t yell loud enough, and you weren’t scary enough, and you weren’t mean enough. And if you say it louder, and more times, and with a stricter face, they will listen.’ I think most kids tend to accept that, that that’s what it’s like with parents. Although things are slowly changing, in general, things are still like that.
“I moved away, and I never had a close relationship with my parents, and I thought the relationship I had with my family is very different from what I see on tv and with my friends. Once I went to university, and I became a lot more… you know, that was my quest for self-awareness. I realized that it was much more about being able to change things, not just saying, ‘This is the hand you’re dealt and this is your family so just fucking deal with it.’ It was more like, ‘Well, I don’t want this for the rest of my life. How can we fix it and how can we make it better?’ What I would say is that the dinner table at my house is…ten years ago very different from five years ago different from today. Ten years ago, nobody really talks, no sharing or opinions. A lot of passive aggressive fighting. My brother doesn’t say anything. My dad leaves early to work in the office. The quieter everyone else is the louder I get to compensate. Now my brother doesn’t say anything, because everyone’s used to me using big jokes and laughing a lot when everyone’s around. I think now it’s less and less like that.
“The whole feeling, when I meet people who have similar families, is that you grow up thinking your family is so different, and that nobody else can understand because you’re just this fucked up family that’s not like any other family. I always feel like my family is inferior. When you do find someone who has similar stories, it’s like an outpouring of relief.”
I ask her if there are any memories of either parent that stand out for her.
“One memory that I always come back to, I think I was eight or nine. Nine. Eight. Seven or eight. I was sitting on the floor in our living room, in this dinky little flat we had in Montreal, and we were about to go out somewhere. I was putting on socks. These were black socks, the kind that had a little pattern. On the outside ankle, there was a little animal, or something. I was putting on these socks, and I was like ‘I don’t understand, the penguins are facing the wrong way. They won’t face the outside. It’s facing the inside!’ I was getting really frustrated, and I said ‘How come it’s not the right way?’ And my dad stood there, and he said to me, in Chinese, ‘Actually, I’m not going to help you. I want you to figure it out by yourself.’ I said ‘Well what the fuck?! If I turn it inside out, the penguins will be inside out!’ And I freaked out and I cried, and I got so frustrated. Oh, okay.”
At this point, an elderly gentleman gently touches Meghan’s arm, and asks her to calm down. She nods and carries on.
“And um…and I freaked out. Eventually, I was just crying, and my dad just came over and said, ‘You just have to swap the socks, on the other foot’. And I was like ‘Oh…’
“I’ll still do things like that today. My dad isn’t like that. I think part of the reason he loves to teach is that he does love to help people learn, and impart knowledge. But he didn’t really do that with me. He wasn’t around very much and he didn’t take a lot of time to do that with me.”
“What about your mom?”
“What about my mom.”
“A memory of my mom. My mom is very small. Shorter than I am, about five foot…maybe even like four foot nine…naw she’s probably about five foot. She’s plump, and super jolly, and probably the world’s least funny person. Like really really not funny. She never says anything funny. But it’s really funny. She’s so not funny. She’s definitely the least funny person I’ve ever met.”
Meghan is laughing as she describes her.
“But as a result she finds everything funny, and if she finds something funny she’ll say it six times. And because she’s small and jolly, when she laughs her whole body laughs. I think it’s great. So, growing up there was a lot of tension, not as the result of a confrontation, just ongoing constant tension. I remember, when I was about twelve, we’d gone out and we saw this watch that had like a million different features. My dad’s kind of pretentious, and he said ‘Oh if you bought this watch it would tell you all kinds of things, blah blah blah.’ And I started making jokes, saying ‘Yeah, because if I’m out, I can be like Oh it’s four o’clock, and I can tell you about the humidity too.’ I made all these jokes. My mom was peeing herself laughing and the more she laughed the more I continued until I spent like a half hour making jokes about this watch. Whenever I picture her, the first image that comes to mind is of her laughing. That’s one of my favourite memories of my mom, laughing at something that’s not even funny.”
I ask her if there’s anything she’d like to add.
“I think it’s difficult for even me to appreciate, let alone somebody who’s not me, or who’s not Chinese. I think that being Chinese is 100% the basis for all of my relationships in my family. Everything is because we’re Chinese. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I think a big part of that is the awareness that my life is so different from my parents’ life. It’s taught me the most patience. I spent a lot of my youth being resentful, impatient, saying ‘I wish my family was like this.’ As you do, you grow up and you learn to appreciate, and you see things in a brighter light. I’ve come to appreciate how different my life is from my parents. They grew up in the Cultural Revolution in China. They had a difficult life, but it wasn’t difficult, because it was everyone’s life. There’s no way they can understand my life and there’s no way I can understand theirs. I’m just beginning to get it, I’m just beginning to get all of these stories. I think every year our family dynamic is changing, as my brother and I grow up, and as my parents loosen up a bit. It changes, because I think it takes a lot to overcome.”
Her tea is cold now, and the old man long gone. I thank her and turn off the recorder.