The Living Room

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 / 3:00 PM

When you walk through the door of my parents' California home, you're immediately placed in an impeccable living room. The white couch is adorned with silk pillows, the piano is dusted and ready to be played, and my mother's glass cabinet of international collectibles is unmissable. It's a living room, by name, but I don't remember much of my life happening in that room.

The room was always a room for entertaining, a room for visitors. The real living room, as far as we were concerned, was through the dining room toward the back of the house: the "family room," we called it. There was a plush floral couch, a TV next to shelves of videos and books, a corner for our toys when we were young, and a desk that held our computer--before laptops ever entered our lives. It was a room where we did all of our living. It was a room just for us.

But in every TV show I watched growing up, there were never two rooms for living as a family. On the sets of every sitcom family's home, the front door opened up straight into what I knew asthe "family room." It was the main room where the sitcom family would sit down for "family meetings and where conflicts and resolutions would often take place.

I could never understand how a family could keep its problems so close to the surface. How was it so easy for the Tanner girls to open up to their father? How could Will Smith be so candid with Uncle Phil after his father walked out on him yet again?

I never saw a family that looked like mine on TV. The TGIF lineup I watched religiously contained a variety of non-traditional families (single parents, extended families), but there were hardly any characters I identified with at all. In my family, we didn't talk about problems the way the families on TV did. When my parents fought, when my dad got mad at my sister and me, when I was bullied at school or got a bad grade--our first instincts were never to sit down and talk about it. In my family, as with many Chinese families I came to learn over the years, we kept our problems in the back--in the family room.

If TV shows were a portrait of American families, I often wondered what that said about mine. 

But what I also learned over the years as I got to know my Chinese-American family was that there was something special about them, whether it was confirmed by Hollywood or not to be the kind of family that made sense. Situations and relationships were never perfect, but the bonds that held us together as a family always was.

My grandparents and their children arrived in America from a broken land in hopes that they could lay down a strong enough foundation to lift up their future generations from the chaos from which they came. The reason we never sat down to talk about our feelings as a family had nothing to do with how much they did or didn't care. It was because during the war and throughout the journey to the U.S., there was no time to talk about the things that could hurt you or weaken your resolve. You just kept going.

You kept going when your father was taken by the communists, tortured and killed; when you spent your childhood helping your siblings hide from the bad guys; when you were forced to abandon the diploma you worked so hard for in order to flee; when you left behind the only life you'd ever known to go to a place where you don't speak the language and everyone looks at you with a suspicious eye.

When my grandparents were my age, they were at the tail end of the civil war that would send them running to Hong Kong. At that age, having to push through the darkest of histories to bring your family to the don't want to be perceived as weak--not to your children, who depended on you the most.

That style of parenting is what my own parents knew, and they didn't have the same TV families to show them anything different (and, even if they did, they didn't know enough English right away to understand them entirely). When you've never had a model of how to be strong while also being able to express your feelings and let those walls down, it can be a challenge to understand where your child is coming from when she asks why you never talk with her the way the parents on TV did with their children.

But even though we never had those TV family-style heart-to-hearts, I don't think my upbringing ever lacked the same love that fueled those types of conversations. Just knowing where my family came from gives me the understanding to recognize now that we are as American as the families that lived next door, and as American as the faces that looked back at us on TV--whether our front door opened to a living room or a family room.

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