When senior Laurence Chau walks into a family reunion, he is sometimes the only Asian. The dinner table is filled with chicken bok choy one night and spaghetti noodles the next. Some days, music traverses time, and songs from the 70’s and 80’s play throughout the house, filling the silence with rock and dance pop. The integration of American culture from his stepfather and Chinese culture from his biological mother is evident just by stepping foot into Chau’s home.
Chau was two when his parents divorced and his father moved out, leaving him to live alone with his mother for four years. This period of time consisted of late evenings at a babysitter’s house while his mother worked tirelessly.
“I didn’t realize that I was lonely back then until after I got a stepfather. I thought things were more boring, [than anything] because I didn’t really understand sadness and was just living a normal 4-year-old life. I wanted someone the same age as me at the time to cope with the boredom at times,” Chau said.
When he was six, his mother married his stepfather and four years later, they had his half sister Sara. Chau admits that during this emotional time he was not mature enough to understand the positive effect having a younger sister would have on him.
“I obviously have a greater responsibility as part of the family, and more sacrifices have to be made. By responsibility, I mean how I present myself and how that influences [Sara’s] behaviors. This also means having forgiveness and sympathy. By sacrifices, I mean time, money and nonexistent money,” Chau said.
But when asked what he felt most toward his sister, Chau answered with one simple word: protection. By encouraging his sister to explore and enjoy her childhood, he shares the knowledge that he gained from recognizing many of his childhood mistakes.
“I want to protect her from [social media]. The fact that it’s so easily accessible makes it addicting. She starts to become unresponsive, and it puts her in a grumpy mood if she watches too much. As a brother, I feel like [I should be] able to step in and tell her what’s right or wrong,” Chau said.
Cultural differences and the abrupt change of having a new father prompted Chau to adopt a defensive mindset, in which he initially chose not to accept him into his life. As time passed, however, he realized that family meant more than just shared ethnicity and blood.
His shift in attitude opened his mind to a more accepting definition of family, allowing his mother, stepfather, biological father, half sister and extended family to all be supporters in the pursuit of his dreams.
“I learn about the completely different lifestyles between them. The distinction between village life and a more industrial life, where education is more prominent, and food and other basic necessities are more accessible than ever before,” Chau said. “Their stories make me appreciate where I am.”
Living in a multiracial household, Chau has learned to embrace both his mother and stepfather’s cultures. Over time Chau learned practical skills which enrich his daily lifestyle: his mother teaches him to cook traditional Chinese dishes while his step father passes on some of the life skills he has acquired by showing Chau how to replant grass and fix sprinklers.
“I was introduced to American culture. I’m more Americanized. It’s like a cultural shift, from Chinese to American. I’m getting both now, and I can see [my stepdad] having to adapt to Chinese ways too. It’s like a diffusion of cultures, and I thought that was interesting,” Chau said. “[The fact that we have to adapt to our cultures] brought us closer together. I don’t think it’s like a direct change; it’s more like we appreciate both cultures, and we acknowledge and accept their values.”
Despite his school work and conflicting schedules, Chau still makes time to visit his biological father at least twice a month. Chau sees the value of including all parts of his family, especially his biological father, regardless of how often he contacts him.
“Things would be a lot different if I lived with my biological dad. My dad is quiet, humble. Sometimes, I forget that I have a real dad because I don’t spend as much time with him while I see my stepdad every day. They both have very different personalities, but they’re both fathers to me,” Chau said.
While his family members do not look the same or even share the same last name, Chau counts his blessings and loves and protects what became his reality 15 years ago.
“Sometimes, [my sister] asks, ‘How come everyone in the family has the same last name but you?’ I don’t define family by genetics. It’s those who have stayed through the happy and tough times that define family,” Chau said. “It’s not necessarily pushing aside cultural differences, but more of an adaptive, accepting mentality that makes us compatible.”
By Julie Lee and Sherman Wu, Feature editors
Photo by Airi Gonzalez