Hui Lee
Family Photo

from the author:
This essay was an assignment I had for a writing class freshman year. The assignment was to analyze a photograph and determine what it illustrates about family, identity, and cultural beliefs. The writing process was hard for me, because I didn’t know who to write about. But thanks to my teacher, Jeffrey Simmons, I was able to develop my ideas. I decided to write about my dad because I never really had the chance to get to know him. I always thought we lived in two different worlds. He was very strict and he gave up a lot for my family. He came to America so I could have a better life. As a result, he suffered internally and externally. Internally, moving to America led him to betray his Chinese heritage. Externally, he had to learn how to deal with new people and a new language.
from the teacher, Jeffrey Simmons:
I asked my students to analyze a family photograph, locating it in a broader historical or political context. I was deeply moved by Hui’s description of her father’s journey between two cultures. “Uncompromising” is something of a cliché when speaking of writers, but it is the word that comes to my mind when I think of Hui. She always has a clear vision of what she wants to say or do in a piece of writing, and she refuses to compromise that vision just because she is writing in English. She has a great mind and a great heart.
from the editor:
Hui Lee draws from a family photograph to provide readers with insights into Chinese culture. The essay closely examines the experience of living with a distant parent and the difficulty one faces when adapting to a new culture. The colorful details and anecdotes that Lee weaves into this essay make it an interesting read
.

This picture shows where I lived back in China. The background of the room is decorated with Chinese characters and a calendar. There are also coins on the wall, which stand for good luck. My family and I are sitting on a sofa in front of the art. We’re all dressed nicely and seem ready to have our picture taken. Our clothing shows that we are more modern than other Chinese families. My brother is dressed in jeans, a white shirt and a blue tie. My mom is wearing a white blouse and a red skirt. My dad is dressed in a tan suit, a white shirt and a red tie. I am wearing a white blouse and a skirt with a floral print. I’m also wearing a headband to complement my outfit. Everyone, with the exception of my father, is smiling in the photograph. He never smiles for pictures. I wonder if there’s anything in the world that would make him change.


My dad has his arm around my waist in the photograph, but you won’t see that too often. In fact, I was surprised when he did this. My dad and I seemed like strangers when we lived in China. He worked in a plastic factory in Hong Kong. Most of my time was spent with my mother and brother in Guang Zhou, a small city in China. My dad didn’t come home often, only twice a month. This was a picture we took when he came home from Hong Kong. When I was little, I didn’t recognize my dad every time I saw him. I used to think he was my uncle who was just visiting. I don’t ever remember talking to my father about anything,, and we’ve never gone out together. Our distant relationship stems from the lack of communication between us.

 

This doesn’t mean that I don’t know anything about my dad. I know that he loves to wear suits and dress shoes. He was always dressed up, even if the family was just going out to have breakfast. My dad also smokes and drinks. At that time, I didn’t really care because I was a little kid. I knew that adults would never listen even if I did complain about my father’s habits. In fact, I didn’t even know that smoking was bad. One of the rules in the Chinese culture is that kids are not allowed to talk back to adults. Adults are always right because they have more experience.

 

Things changed shortly after this picture was taken. It was eight years ago that I moved to New York City. My dad was fifty-one when he moved to this country. It was then that I came to know him better. I realized my dad was a very strict and stubborn man, as you can see in the picture. He is sitting straight up in his chair like a soldier with a serious face. But all my dad did was go to work and come home. Then he would sit in the kitchen and wait for us to prepare his food because he didn’t know how to cook. He didn’t even know how to use the telephone or do laundry. He was so wrapped up in smoking and drinking that he had no time for entertainment. According to the Chinese Canadian National Council’s website, when “parents are first generation immigrants, the problem of inter-generational conflicts is particularly intense. Due to language barriers and cultural differences, they find little support from the family.” My dad is a perfect example of this. I once asked my mom why my dad was so quiet all the time, and why he didn’t like to go out at all. She said that my father used to spend time with family and friends back in Hong Kong, but couldn’t really find close friends here because of the language barrier. She also said being older made it harder to form new relationships. His problems were a lot different than mine.

 

The shift from working in Hong Kong to America was very hard for my father. He was so used to the work environment in Hong Kong. Now, he has to work in the basement of a dirty food store and face the attitude of his boss everyday. CNCC’s website says this is a natural experience for immigrants: “(For) immigrants the problem of alienation can be worsened by the process of adaptation, a lack of official languages, and cultural support services, and limited knowledge of and access to educational and employment opportunities.”

 

After we moved to New York City, my dad complained every day about how Mao, a Chinese leader, didn’t let him go to college. This is the reason he has no education now. But he still wanted my brother and me to be educated. That is why he brought us to America. He told me that he loved the old days back in Hong Kong where he felt at home, the days where he could be proud wearing his suit. He longed to go back there. He always complained that New York was not the right place for him. He just loves wearing suits. I once asked him why he loved them so much and he said, “Being able to wear a suit creates a sense of pleasure for me. It makes me look polite and nice.” He didn’t think of it as being Americanized. He believed that wearing a suit was not purely a Western tradition. I remember we came to New York City in the spring. The weather was cold, but still my father wore a suit whenever he went to visit our relatives or go sightseeing with my aunt. He’d been taught to be polite and dress nicely. That was why we were all posed nicely in the picture. When our friends and relatives saw it, they would know our parents taught us well. My father never wanted me to go out with nasty, unbuttoned clothing with dragging pants. But then he started to change.

 

It was about four years ago on a cold winter morning. My dad usually worked in the early mornings. On his way out the door, I saw him with this big puffy, dark green jacket with a brand name. I was shocked. My father refused to wear puffy jackets for the first four years he was in this country. He was not wearing his suit, and he didn’t care. “What made him change?” I asked my mom. She told me that it was the weather. She said that my dad had to work with the cold water all through the year, and sometimes he even had to work outside. The working conditions were either cold in the winter or hot due to the heat generated by the stoves in the basement. He also started to wear snow boots that one could buy at Payless, a shoe store in New York. My dad was moving away from the Chinese culture that he reflects in the picture.

 

In the four years since my family moved to our new house, my father has changed even more. He has learned how to cook. My father had always believed that a woman should cook for a man after he comes home from work. He also started to shop in supermarkets. I wouldn’t say it in front of him, but I still think that my mom cooks better. However, he definitely picks out better fruit than my mom. Throughout the first sixteen years of my life, I had never seen my dad eating potato chips. But since September 11th, my dad has bought potato chips every week. I am not sure if it has anything to do with the terrorist attacks, but it shocked me because my dad never liked junk food. He didn’t even like fruit; he only bought it for us. I was shocked because I now knew that under that suit there was the sweetest heart in the world. The funniest thing was that he started telling us about his day at work at dinner. He complained about his work and how bad the boss was. He also complained about how badly the workers treated him and all the funny names he called his coworkers such as “amigo.” I asked him if he knew what that meant. He said, “Yeah, it means Spanish.” I just laughed because he didn’t know the exact meaning was “friend.” He also tried to pick up phrases like “How do you do?” But he always said it as “How do how you?” It was hilarious. I couldn’t believe that such a strict face in the photo could be so funny sometimes.

 

After all these years, my dad is starting to adapt to the American culture unconsciously. He has started to dress like an American, freely and comfortably. He has begun to speak his heart to his family. In Chinese culture, men are not supposed to shed a tear. They were always looked at as the defender of the family and the strong one. That was why my dad never talked about what he did at work. Even if he got hurt, he wouldn’t tell. But now he’s different. He complains and shows when he needs help. He also smiles more and manages to listen to me. A few years ago he wouldn’t listen to a thing that I said because I was still a kid to him. He was in the process of adapting to American culture. It is good that he learned to adapt; but is adapting equal to betraying his own culture by changing and moving on with his life? I never realized the picture was the symbol of my dad’s future until this point. The fact that he was wearing a western suit, sitting in front of the Eastern artwork showed that he was moving forward. I know that no matter how much his life moves, his Chinese heritage will still continue to recede into the background.

 

Works Cited

“Employment.” 21 Jan. 2001. Chinese Canadian National Council. Fall 2002 <http://

www.ccnc.ca/issues/employment.htm>.

“Youth Issues.” 21 Jan. 2001. Chinese Canadian National Council. Fall 2002 <http://

www.ccnc.ca/issues/youth.htm>.

 

 

Hui Lee  
Hui Lee is a freshman nursing major who was born in Guang Zhou, China. She possesses a love for the nursing field, which she says comes from the opportunity nurses have to bond with their patients. “Doctors don’t really spend time with their patients,” she says. “I want to listen to patients and actually care for them.” Lee spends her spare time writing in her journal. “I’m a person that always forgets things,” she said. “Writing in my journal is a way for me to look back at my life.” Some of Lee’s other hobbies include hanging out with friends, playing handball, and watching movies. After graduating, Lee plans to pursue a master’s in nursing. But for now, Lee is just pleased to share her writing with Interext readers. “It’s so exciting,” she says.