(Reprinted from the Santa Monica Star)
My parents raised four children during hard times in 1960s China when ration vouchers were issued for daily necessities such as rice or salt. Summer relief came from a paper fan in our hands, and a lucky birthday present, if our mother could afford one, was a hard-boiled egg.
During stormy winter nights, we hugged each other for warmth and comfort under old quilts. And on long summer days, we entertained ourselves with little more than a pile of pebbles, some rubber bands, and a few dozing chickens in the yard.
I still remember how my older sister, Ping, and I played school at home, pretending to be each other’s teacher, assigning and correcting “homework.” In spite of the harsh environment, all four of us went on to college and three of us eventually obtained graduate degrees in the United States.
Contrary to Western perceptions of Chinese-style parenting, we never had a “Tiger Mom” or a strict father who disciplined and pushed us. Our parents’ lives were consumed by the Cultural Revolution, worrying about their personal safety, and putting food on the table.
During those ten long years of revolution, our father was often accused of all sorts of made-up crimes and detained for long periods of time in unknown places. Sometimes he was kept away from us for six months or a year at a time. Being a child, I was the happiest when he was by our side, all six of us could sit down and have a dinner together, and sleep under the same roof. Growing up at that time often meant observing what was going on around us and learning by how our parents dealt with life in its most difficult moments.
I particularly remember an incident that happened on what should have been a very good day. It was blue crab season and the market was filled with them. There was no refrigeration then and we often survived by buying the leftovers. Mother was steaming a bunch of the clawed creatures for dinner, and we were all waiting in a state of hungry anticipation, when I tried to pour myself a mug of hot water from one of our two precious thermos bottles. I’d done it many times before and never had any trouble. But on that day, the thermos slipped from my hands. It made a scarily loud noise as it hit the ground and I stood listening with trembling hands and heart beating in my throat.
We only had two hot water bottles and depended on them every morning until the stove was lit. And it would be many months before my parents could afford to replace it. I watched with guilt as Father silently swept a pile of shards into the dustpan.
That night, as we sat in front of a big bowl of persimmon-red crabs, waiting for the dinner to start, Father rose and picked out the biggest one and placed it on my plate. “Here is a special one for you,” he said, looking lovingly into my eyes as I tried to avoid his.
I was shocked, puzzled by what Father tried to teach me that night. I slowly tackled my crab as I searched answers for many questions in my head: Why did he reward me for breaking a precious thermos bottle? Why didn’t he send me to bed without supper? After all, it was the obvious thing to do….
That was the most memorable meal I’ve ever had and my first parenting lesson, as well. I think of it often after I became a parent. Whenever I got angry and wanted to punish a child, I thought about my father and that crab. He taught me that when bad things happen, a parent’s job is not just to give out growls and punishments, but sometimes to give out another generous helping of love.
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Qin Stubis is a regular columnist for The Santa Monica Star. She lives in Bethesda, MD.