My first memory of my life was the day I met my parents. No, it wasn’t the day I was born — it was when I was four years old.
For context, of course, my parents gave birth to me. Of course, they raised me at a really young age. But we were an extremely poor Chinese-American family. My parents loved me but seriously struggled to support not only one child but two. My mother who was born in communist China had to take birth control in the form of IEDs to make sure that she didn’t have an extra child after my brother was born.
Well, clearly the birth control didn’t work well enough. My mom would get pregnant in 1996, and I would be born on February 28, 1997. The story of how I got my name was a legendary one. My parents could barely speak English, but they wanted their second son and only son born in America to have an American name.
They decided to go to the hospital receptionist and ask “what should I name my child?” The receptionist didn’t want to make that impactful of a decision for my family, but as my parents tell me, the receptionist thought about it for a while, and then said: “you should name him Ryan.”
My parents didn’t know what Ryan meant. They would be told that it meant “little king,” and they decided to go with it.
To say that my parents were struggling financially was an understatement. Within their first three years in America, they would already have to move twice.
They had to say they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t raise me — they couldn’t afford to put food on the plate, and so they reached out to my grandparents.
It was a very hard decision, but after long conversations, they sent me away to live with my grandparents in China. And so I was sent away to China between the ages of two to four.
Being that young, I didn’t really understand what parents were. I thought my grandparents were my parents. They were the ones that took care of me, looked after me, and gave me candy.
I didn’t know at the time that while these people were related to me, they weren’t my mom and dad, although I certainly felt like they were my mom and dad.
I remember being at an airport one day when I was four. I remember falling asleep. The next moment, I was in a car in America.
When I first met my actual parents, I thought something like “who the hell are these strangers?”
Of course, I said all of this in Chinese. I just didn’t know any English. All I remember, and my memory is extremely scarce because I was four years old, was that there were three people smiling at me in a really creepy way, as if they saw their savior or something like that.
I was getting a little creeped out. First of all, these were a bunch of strangers. My parents were right behind me, and why were they introducing me to these people.
My grandfather would tell me in Chinese that they were my parents and my older brother, but at the time, I couldn’t understand it. It was incomprehensible, and my mind was just blown.
I started to lash out at them:
“You aren’t my parents! I don’t know you and I hate you! I don’t know who you are and you will never be family to me. My real parents are right behind me, and I don’t know who you are! I want to go back home to China!”
I would storm out of the apartment and have my grandparents chasing after me.
For years, I wouldn’t know that my parents and brother spent the entire night sobbing, disappointed and feeling like failures that their own son and brother didn’t even recognize who they were.
I can imagine that it felt like they were absolute failures as parents. I would cry, too, if my child said words like those to me. Who knew four year olds could be so vicious?
But my grandparents would leave soon, and I would slowly be integrated to my family, and also to American society and culture. I started to learn this strange new language called English, and as I started to learn more English, my Chinese started getting progressively worse.
I remember playing on a swingset in my Pre-K playground. I wouldn’t know how to say much as we played with letter blocks and learned phonics, but all I remember is that other kids would laugh and make fun of me because I couldn’t speak English.
I don’t know what effect that had on me, but I remember that I felt pretty ashamed. I started to pick up on their words and their language, to the point where I could make a pretty good sentence, but until middle school, I was still pretty behind on reading assessments. At some point, my reading deficiencies would make the guidance counselor in elementary school call my mother into a meeting and consider special ed services for me.
But I will always remember the look of hope, and then drastic disappointment on my parents’ faces. It is the only memory that has stuck with me from the age of four and below. My parents are still surprised that I remember it, but I’m not. It was the revelation to me that two of the most important people in my life were actually my parents.
For the rest of my childhood, my parents would take care of me, going above and beyond not only to make sure I got everything I needed and a roof above my head and food on the plate, but they would constantly be reaching. They were always trying to be better.
And I can’t blame them — they wanted a much better life for their sons than they had themselves.
I don’t blame myself for not being able to control my impulses as a four-year-old, but I can only imagine the devastation of not having your son recognize who you are.
Obviously, I know my parents now and recognize them really well. But meeting my parents and learning who they were came to me at a much later age than most kids.
Photo From Sam Edwards/KOTO on Adobe Stock
Originally published on July 18, 2020 on The Partnered Pen.