On Gratitude:

An essay on personal growth, family values, and the secret world of giving thanks

I am incredibly blessed.

Deep down, I am very thankful for a great number of people and experiences that have helped me be where I am today.

This year, I’ve been really lucky to reflect back on a year full of growth. Lately, I’ve strongly cherished the ability to grow personally and professionally, and have felt a whopping lot of it these past few months. Many people and experiences have contributed to my overall sense of ongoing happiness and gratitude. I never do it on my own, and have a number of mentors and supporters who encourage me on a daily basis.

From solo-travelling to Cuba to family vacation in France, I’ve globe-trotted around the world and learned many things. From stepping into a new chief resident role at Yale to helping pass Connecticut state legislation, I’ve felt professional satisfication and pride in being part of winning teams and large group efforts. From developing close friendships to finding new romance, I’ve been grateful for an immense number of quality relationships and well-connected ties. From being an itinerant visitor to exploring old haunts, I have been privileged to call the whole world my home and laboratory for exploration and synthesis. Finally, from gathering the wisdom from famed thinkers to discovering meaningful insights, I feel more spiritually whole and overall very content with my life. Even physically, I’ve felt more consistently healthy and alive on a regular basis. (This may partially relate to the fact that I’ve been waking up at 6:15AM on most days for an early morning jog before work.)

Like many mornings, I went on a beautiful run today, and got to see the sun rising and coloring the sky with bountiful vibrancy. As I ran through the surburban town of Holmdel, NJ, where my family lives, I saw some ghoulish trees hovering over me. The trees were changing clothes, and their colors were falling on the ground—I saw the last of the trees’ trembling leaves dropping to the ground. I waved hello to a couple of strangers, who also decided to go on an early morning jog on Thanksgiving Day. Excitedly, I smiled as much as I could, and moseyed my way through farmlands and schoolyards. During my run, I felt incredibly thankful for good health, a friendly community, and natural pleasantries. Despite the chilly 29 degree weather, I appreciated the cool air filling my lungs with life and satisfying freshness.

Thanksgiving Morning at My House

After my early morning jog, I was ready to start my day. As I arrived home, my brother asked me about making a vegan cheesecake. My little brother is now 17 years old, and is a computer coder (and nighttime gamer). He is well-loved and is overall a really cool kid. By day, he has a knack for following recipes and making good food. We have quite the age difference (more than 11 years), and I always enjoy the opportunity to be part of his life. Yesterday, we rummaged through the aisles of ShopRite to gather supplies and find ingredients to make Thanksgiving dinner. The hectic journey took us more than 2 hours, but we got the necessary components (and more) to cook a variety of dishes that would showcase our different cooking styles.

The two of us are more familiar with the American repertoire of a classic Thanksgiving meal, and wanted to demonstrate semblances of Western cooking for our very Chinese parents. My mother and father would have been delighted to make a Chinese hotpot for Thanksgiving, but that idea was vetoed by my brother and me. Our interests were in making delicious vegetable sides and working on heartwarming desserts with a flair for cooking imagination. He, of course, would be cooking the turkey. I barely even buy meat, and most definitely do not know how to cook it.

As we struggled to find appliances that were needed for the vegan dessert dish at hand, we laughed to ourselves that our parents’ house was so disorganized with clutter, and heartily mused that finding things could be such a troubling situation. My parents never really needed a food processor or blender in Asian cooking. After some time, my mom was able to uncover a small food processor that was gathering dust in the corner of some cabinet. She did not even know we had such an item, but we did. The art of hoarding wins yet again. Chinese sensibility typically dictates that one ought to keep everything at home, and store things for later use. Even if it’s only once every 5 years or more.

My mom ruefully mentioned that “fancy electronic devices” were never part of her cultural heritage, but was thrilled she was able to find the appliance that contributed to our culinary success. My brother and I skillfully measured out the ingredients to put together a beautiful cake to be served later. The whole process seemed amusing. With a broken blender and miniature food processor, we were definitely struggling for the right tools. Eventually, the vegan cheesecake came together and was sent to the freezer for finishing touches.

Afterward, my brother hastily went off to the gym with a friend. My dad was already away at L.A. Fitness getting in a swim by 8:30AM. My mother, on the other hand, was reading a novel at her computer. The family seemed together and apart at the same time.

As I wrapped up tidying the kitchen, my mom started talking to me about an antique vase she found in Georgia while on a business trip. She characterized the vase as a Ming dynasty treasure filled with decorative appeal and delicate paintstrokes that depicted a scenic view of birds flying by trees. She had spent $40 on the purchase, and was quite proud of the find. The whole story was pretty charming, and she talked about how she relied on my dad’s eye for identifying skillfully crafted artwork to make the final decision on purchasing the piece. In recent years, she’s moved away from buying junk, but definitely revels in finding a “good deal.”

On Changing Family Dynamics

Lately, my parents have grown more fond of one another, and my mom attributes it mostly to my father quitting smoking. It had taken me years to convince him to stop, and he did so this year in April. I’m really proud that he was able to stop an old habit that frustrated him for years. It’s delightful to watch my parents go hiking together and share stories. Perhaps age has helped them think through historical troubles. Perhaps it’s the knowledge of the impending empty nester syndrome that will occur when my brother goes to college, leaving them to get along on their own. More encouragingly, perhaps it’s their willingness to learn from one another and be more appreciative of each other’s contributions to family. Either way, I’ve been glad to watch their progress and change over the years.

As I reflect about my family experiences, I remember both good and bad times. I think to myself about the different lessons that I’ve learned along the way. My childhood was not always easy. However, my values were crystallized in their home, under their roof. Only slowly did these values get challenged by outside influences. I realize now more than ever that I am incredibly thankful to have my parents and brother in my life. In the past, I used to think that being part of a small family can be very lonesome. My nuclear family consists of four members, since the rest of my relatives are all abroad. Thanksgiving is always just the four of us. Although our nuclear family likely grow any time soon, the relationships among us have definitely shifted as I’ve left home, and my brother has sought more independence within the home.

Similarly, my family was never physically affectionate. My parents were not big on hugs, and never hugged each other when I was little. Recently, they’ve been much more keen on hugs and displays of emotional intimacy, more so than I’ve ever seen them. Maybe they’re finally acculturating to being averagely American. However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that it’s not the number of hugs that counts. It’s the values that lay deep within people, and are passed along to children. My parents have both made very large sacrifices in order for me to attend good schools and succeed in life. They have always wanted the best for me, and were supportive despite some of my own personal setbacks.

My Family Values

Paraphrasing Tolstoy’s famous line in War and Peace, every happy family has the same story, every unhappy family has its own individual problems. As an adult, I have started recognizing many peculiar personality quirks from being raised by hardworking Chinese immigrant parents. The family dynamics I’m familiar with continue to weigh on me and enter my life in strange ways. For example, my level of commitment to another person is always surprisingly high. As a child, my mother and father would not call out sick from work, and would always show up on time. When they chose to do something, they would persist until it was accomplished (and accomplished well). I remember my mother going in to work on her Ph.D. despite being ill because she wanted to finish her work. This may only partially be due to Asian culture, but more likely due to how my parents choose to live. They have always been hardworking, and continue to share this value with me.

My parents have engraved the values of commitment and hard work deep into the kernels of my core being. It’s absolutely anathema for me to call out sick, and I often feel terribly guilty for doing so. Even at high cost to me, I will still show up (mostly) on time, and do my best to respect others’ time by showing up. I am uncannily serious, and take my commitments at face value. In fact, I’ve remarked to others that I’m envious of their light-heartedness and humor. Joking was not typically part of my life growing up, and I was a solemn little child with a peculiar internal world. The concept of hearty laughter was still fairly unfamiliar to me as I entered independent living and college.

Thus, in my seriousness, I am typically vulnerable to being hurt and disappointed when others break commitments toward me. I dislike it when others’ squander my time, and get quite peeved and impatient when another party is tardy. To mitigate this, I’ve started to adapt and meld to the flimsiness of modernity and fate, since I know that the only constant in the world is the constancy of change. Look, I’m not saying that being committed with high expectations is a bad thing. I just feel like it’s sometimes worth it to curb my enthusaism, if only by a little.

Similarly, another way I reflect my parents is through being passionate and hot-headed. My parents always argued quite boisterously at home, and were never shy about throwing word punches around. This can be a dangerous at times, especially if used in the heat of the moment. The biting words that I have let slip through my mouth in the past can really go on to hurt others. In order to protect against poor outcomes, I’ve learned to think before I speak, and now try hard to communicate succinctly to get my points across.

Interestingly, I’m also bad at lying. My mother often remarks proudly about my honesty, and feels the same way about being a truth-speaker. She and I are quite similar in that respect. For me, the truth spills out like water overflowing from a dam — I often can’t control the content as it’s spilling out at a rapid rate. Maybe at some point I should learn to design the dam to be stronger, sturdier, and smarter, so the water doesn’t have to burst out in a fickle and unpredictable manner. For now, I just chuckle at my whims and follies that are the biological mimicry of my forefathers.

I would say the most impressive thing about my mother and father is that for the most part, they value doing the right thing for their families and children. They want to support their children in the best way they know how. They know that paying for college and supplementing education is worth the investment—at any price tag. They understand that the family unit should be placed on a pedestal above all else. They will buy gifts for their family, and send money home because they feel an obligation and responsibility to their elders. They acknowledge that despite harsh challenges, they could overcome just about anything by working together. Being immigrants, the lessons they’ve taught me on resilience continue to resonate deeply as I walk through my journey of life.

Family Above All Else — And the Gratitude that Comes with It

My mother and father have never made me feel insecure about being part of the family unit — I don’t think or feel that they would ever abandon or leave me to be alone in the world. I may disagree with their approach in parenting, but I can always come home and know that I have people who care about me above all else. For that security, I am full of gratitude.

As I watch my parents’ grow closer, and my brother grow older, I feel so thankful that I get to witness a positive directional shift in the people I care the most about. Even though I am not in their lives every day, I know that I love them dearly, and they love me. It’s really worthwhile to be home and to enjoy their company. I truly cherish a strong relationship with my parents and brother, and hope to continue strengthening my relationships with them through thoughtful giving — of time, gifts, and experiences shared.

Lately, I am much more vocal and intentional about gratitude around my family members. At first, my mom and dad were surprised when I started doing this a few years back. When I came home, I would thank them for cooking, and thank them for giving me homegrown vegetables from their garden. I felt and expressed my gratitutde for their nurturing attitude, and shared my thoughts with them. Not being the touchy-feely type, they said, “No need to be polite. We’re family.” My father would remark from time to time, “That’s what we should do for family. Stop saying ‘your’ house; it’s ‘our’ home.” However, over the years, I think both my parents are appreciative of my genuine interest to care about them, and have now become much more open to using emotive words to convey their perspectives and rationales.

I know that not everyone gets to express gratitude and love easily to their family members, but I have felt the need to share regularly with my family.

The Time for Giving Thanks is Always, and Every Day

I am especially pleased when I have the opportunity to be helpful to those around me. To me, altruism is a small word that really packs a punch. I definitely do not allow others to take advantage of me, but feel strongly that a core value of mine is to treat others with respect and true humility. Although I may not be successful in all my endeavors, I try to do my best and enjoy the practice of gratitude on a moment to moment basis. Beyond giving thanks on Thanksgiving, I try to give thanks on random days, just for the sake of it. I don’t think there needs to be a holiday to celebrate gratitude, because every day is an opportunity to be a positive ray in someone else’s life, even a stranger’s. The positive ethos and pathos that Aristotle talked about will connect mankind together in a much more powerful way than the “logos” that is typically conveyed at work settings or at home.

Let’s face it. There’s no harm in thanking someone for doing a good job, and genuinely meaning it. I often find that people typically don’t take the time to acknowledge and congratulate the people around them. Because, if everyone decided to say “hello” or “thank you” to a stranger, we would be 7.4B “thank you’s” and “hellos” richer.

So spend a little time (I implore you)— every day — to give thanks and convery genuine gratitude to the people, things, and structures around you that have allowed you to be free, and have helped you reach your potential.

Even if it’s as simple as being grateful for the air traveling through your lungs to give you life during every little moment of every day…

Because practicing genuine gratitude does lead to more meaning, positivity, and overall happiness.