Hello friends and welcome to Color the Shelves!
I’m so happy to be hosting my first guest post of this series and for it to be on such an amazing topic as the importance of found family for the children of immigrants. Especially one written with so much heart and honesty as the one Mike Chen wrote. I wrote this post a few times already and keep on rereading it or excerpts of it every now and then because of how much I loved it, so I hope you’ll all love it as much as I did and that some of you will be able to see pieces of yourselves in it.
The Importance of Found Family for Children of Immigrants
During an interview for my upcoming second book A BEGINNING AT THE END, I was asked about the book’s specific themes. “It’s about found family,” I said quickly. Then, with a laugh, I added “you can probably infer a lot about me from that.”
Let’s frame this in proper context: A BEGINNING AT THE END is a post-apocalyptic tale of four survivors crossing paths in a rebuilding society while learning to emotionally lean on each other when the old rules of family don’t apply anymore. It examines the meaning of family through the lens of a massive pandemic — in a world where five billion people have died by pandemic, there are gaps that blood relatives can’t fill because they don’t exist anymore.
As a child of an immigrant, this idea rang true the moment it popped in my head.
I’m an American-born son of Chinese immigrants. My childhood was filled with situations that made me question my identity. Most of my blood relatives remained faceless names that lived overseas, referenced only in passing — photos of giant family gatherings and annual reunions were strange ideas to me. My family had thick accents which led to mockery, even by my middle school gym teacher and my racist neighbor. As a child, I saw families on TV talking about their feelings but the one instant I tried to talk with my parents about a crush, I was instantly shut down, as if such a thought couldn’t possibly exist.
It was clear that they were different, and I was at an age where belonging meant everything. This led to a deep feeling of ostracization, a burning anger fueled by shame. But on the other hand, my parents didn’t try to bridge that gap. They were old-school Chinese, and simply lacked the tools necessary to communicate about that.
I’m lucky, then, that I eventually pieced together the people I consider my found family. It was only when I discovered them, in all their forms, that I began to understand myself — and ultimately, my parents.
It certainly took effort and deprogramming to synthesize both sides of this. My parents, like many Asian-born people of the last generation, emphasized family above all else. In their eyes, family always knew best. If I questioned their ways or sought to push beyond them, my parents responded by mocking the sheer nerve of it all — which ultimately presented a mirror to when people mocked them for being an other. They were convinced that their experiences were set to define my experiences, something they reinforced with fairly strict emotional boundaries.
Which, as a first-generation child who often felt a sense of “Why hasn’t anyone explained this shit to me?”, made things worse, not better.
It all crystalized into a single night as I visited from college. I’d always had a bit of a rocky relationship with my brother, and years later, I’d look back and realized (thanks to my insightful wife and a ton of therapy) that my parents almost always pitted us against each other. It was subtle and probably completely subconscious on their parts, and it always manifested via passive-aggressive comments when the other was out of earshot. The scars of that still linger in my relationship with my brother, and during a conversation with my dad, I’d mentioned that my closest friends felt like family to me, like brothers and sisters.
My dad literally laughed in my face. He said, “You think if you were in trouble, they’d actually help you like your brother would? Come on. They’re not family.”
To take a quote from Luke Skywalker, every word of what he just said was wrong. They are family. They’re my found family, and for anyone with gaps to fill — be it from immigrant parents or a world-ending pandemic — all types of found family could be as important as real family. Maybe even more important. I’ve explored this theme a lot in my writing because in the past fifteen years, it is vital to who I am.
It’s easy to assume that I’m not close to my blood family, which is completely untrue. I love my blood family; I’ve also realized that they may never understand me. Which is fine, because at least I’ve come to understand them and why they’re set in their ways. As immigrants, they came here for an opportunity born out of education. They set down roots and assimilated in their own ways, from their love of American sports to their appreciation of American food. They relish the opportunities this country has given to them, and the many ways American culture has integrated into their daily lives. They love being Americans, through and through.
But emotionally, the rules they live by were etched in stone before they arrived here. No amount of watching the NFL would change that. These internalized cultural norms, taken from China and transplanted here, created a sense of divergence within me, and instead of embracing the positives, it generated a storm of self-loathing, something that culminated in my teenage self searching for a sense of home.
In hindsight, I can see this fueling all of my choices as a teen. Any time I took an interest in something, I was all in. When I discovered hockey, I didn’t want to just watch it, I wanted to play it and read books on it, and talk about it with as many people as possible. When my personal soundtrack became punk and indie rock and electronica, I spent hours searching for b-sides and reading zines, ordering obscure t-shirts and playing in bands myself. From those things to sci-fi to writing, they weren’t just hobbies, they became part of who I was. And when I discovered people in college who shared them, they brought a sense of community. Finding people that understood me finally helped me feel complete.
And here’s the thing: discovering my found family, my place of belonging — be it real-life friendships or virtual communities — took nothing away from my blood family. In fact, it helped to finally make me whole, and in doing so, provided me with the context to understand why this gap existed between myself and my immigrant parents. By planting each foot in separate worlds, a bridge finally formed. Rather than resent my parents for their strict cultural beliefs, I began to understand where they came from and what was positive and negative about it — and why it was okay for me to try and fill any gaps myself.
My parents still don’t believe that friends or community equal the relationships established by blood. And maybe during their generation on another continent, that was true. But here, now, community is as vital as family. In many ways and for many people, community is family.
As I write this, my daughter is five years old. Though she only has a handful of blood relatives close by, I take solace in the fact that she’s growing up more loved, more understood, and more heard than I ever was. Because my found family is now her family, people who’ve earned honorary titles as aunts and uncles. Turns out, the people I considered my found family proved my father wrong. They’ve stepped up when needed, celebrated birthdays and holidays with us, and filled her life in ways far richer than a closed network of blood relatives could ever have.
Years from now, after my daughter forges her own path, if she tells us that her friends are as important as her blood relatives, I won’t take offense. In fact, I’ll be thrilled for her. Because someone’s immediate family comes with limitations, which create gaps. I hope we’ve given her a strong enough start that her gaps are few, but also that we’ve taught her how to find her people. Because as the child of an immigrant, I needed my found family to make myself whole.
In fact, I wrote a book about it.
About the author
When he’s not writing about sci-fi for Tor, The Mary Sue, StarTrek dot com, and other geek media, Mike Chen writes sci-fi books. His second novel A Beginning At The End (January 14, 2020, MIRA/HarperCollins) is an intimate post-apocalyptic story with “heart, hope, and humanity” (Publishers Weekly). Visit his website www.mikechenbooks.com or follow him on Twitter @mikechenwriter for geekery discussion, dog photos, and many curse words.
About the book
Publication date : January 14th, 2020
Publisher : Mira Books
Genre : Adult | Science-fiction
Page Count: 400
Synopsis : How do you start over after the end of the world?
Six years after a global pandemic wiped out most of the planet’s population, the survivors are rebuilding the country, split between self-governing cities, hippie communes and wasteland gangs.
In postapocalyptic San Francisco, former pop star Moira has created a new identity to finally escape her past—until her domineering father launches a sweeping public search to track her down. Desperate for a fresh start herself, jaded event planner Krista navigates the world on behalf of those too traumatized to go outside, determined to help everyone move on—even if they don’t want to. Rob survived the catastrophe with his daughter, Sunny, but lost his wife. When strict government rules threaten to separate parent and child, Rob needs to prove himself worthy in the city’s eyes by connecting with people again.
Krista, Moira, Rob and Sunny are brought together by circumstance, and their lives begin to twine together. But when reports of another outbreak throw the fragile society into panic, the friends are forced to finally face everything that came before—and everything they still stand to lose. Because sometimes having one person is enough to keep the world going.
That’s it until next time.
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.