The Missed Childhood

The Missed Childhood

I had no idea my parents existed until my teenage years.

Until the age of 12, I never gave it a second thought why I was living with grandparents. My grandma would show me a photo album filled with photos of my parents. On each one of the photos, they were always two young adults, a man and a woman, wearing worn-out clothes and large-sized glasses.

They are your parents, my grandma told me, they are doing PhD in another country, very, very far away.

It was the 1990s, a time when Mark Zuckerberg was in high school, a PC was considered a luxury, and Google had just been launched.

Once or twice a month, we received letters from my parents, with their photos enclosed in the envelope. I could neither read nor make meaningful conversations. When my parents phoned us once every other month, Grandma would ask me to stand close to the telephone receiver and sing a song I had just learned in kindergarten.

I was living a contented life with grandparents and never imagined a life otherwise. With grandparents’ pension, we lived in a reasonably well-decorated but small apartment. Despite never been breastfed, I was reasonably well-nourished with milk and bread. I was never required to do chores or walk back from school alone. I would receive medical care when I had a fever, which happened frequently. There was a McDonald’s right outside the children’s hospital, so my grandparents would buy me a fish-o-filet each time we walked out of the doctor’s office.

Because of their old age, my experience was far more limited than my peers. The farthest place I had ever been was the children’s hospital 2 miles away from home. I had never walked alone on the streets. I had never been to a real movie theatre or an amusement park. I had never ridden a bicycle. I had never boarded a train or an aeroplane. When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out, I was puzzled why everyone made a fuss over Platform 9 3/4, since I had never been to a train station. At times, my grandma would promise to take me to amusement parks, but she

1 A very early draft of this essay was written for two Quora questions on June 2017 and February 25, 2018, under my elementary school English name “Alex.” lex-C-Lee-1; t-you-exist/answer/Alex-C-Lee-1

always changed her mind at the last minute because she “didn’t feel like going.” It was not until the age of 18 that I first stepped onto a roller coaster ride with twists and turns.

My grandma, being a victim of the Cultural Revolution, was very paranoid. She was constantly afraid that others might harm me. Therefore, she banned me from hanging out with other kids, rarely allowed me to watch TV, beat me up when I failed an exam, and refused to let me participate in any activities organized at school, including field trips, visiting museums, and doing community service. My grandparents always dropped me off or picked me up from elementary school, which was only five minutes’ walk from home. I was never allowed to walk alone or walk with a classmate.

On my fifth birthday, I got a set of Chinese checkers. For the most part of my childhood, I sat alone in the bedroom and entertained myself by spreading the large Chinese checker’s board on the bed, my left hand playing against my right hand, trying to imagine each hand being an individual.

My childhood was filled with boredom and fear, yet I thought it was life — life was supposed to be like this.

My world was turned upside down when they finally showed up, over a decade after I was born.

The day when my parents were finally back from the “very, very far place” with their hard-earned PhD diploma and a fancy resume with dozens of publications, was also the day my world was turned upside down.

For the first time, I greeted my parents, the two people I should have been living with.

Mother: Hi, I’m your mom.

Me: oh, hello mom.

Mother: here comes your dad.

Me: hello dad.

Father: Hey, kid! Do you still remember me?

Me: no, not really.

Father: how could you? I played with you all day long when you were an infant.

Me: now I’m 12. I can’t remember things that long.

It was the most peculiar and uncomfortable conversation I ever had.

They soon found teaching positions in a distinguished university in China. For the first couple of years, they were not yet full professors. The immense and constant pressure in academia was hovering over them every single minute. As their life alternated between teaching, doing research and basic administration duties, there was hardly any time left for me. Several times when I explicitly said I wanted to hang out and play with them, my mother accused me of being too clingy and emotionally demanding.

My parents’ lifelong regret is that they never get to see me as a toddler and they miss the chance to witness a lot of my “first time”s — when I uttered the first syllable, when I walked the first step, when I staggered with the first bicycle, and when I attended elementary school on the first day, etc.

My lifelong regret is that I never feel comfortable using the two words “mom” and “dad.” The emotional bond between them and I was never really established. The feeling that two strangers invaded my life never disappears.

Ten years after they were back to China, I boarded a plane and headed towards the same “very, very far away place.”

Author: Usman Raza

Usman Raza is a freelance writer, marketing specialist and co-founder of Usman Digital Media. When not working, he’s probably spending time with his family. Follow him on Facebook @usmanraza40 and Twitter @usmanintrotech.

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