Abroad but not apart: A personal journey of reconnecting with family

Staff writer Cecilia Huang shares personal stories of reconnecting with her family after moving abroad to Canada at a young age.

When I was nine years old, my parents announced that we were moving to Canada. Within a span of a few months, we packed up and left everything we knew behind in Taiwan: the home I grew up in, and our network of friends and family.

Back then, Facebook and Instagram were non-existent, and long-distance calls were deemed too expensive by my frugal immigrant parents, so snail mail was the only way to keep in touch. As we bid our goodbyes, my cousins and I promised we would write to one another.

Every time I spotted my name on an envelope peeking out from under the stack of mail, excitement would rush over me. I would run to my room, plop down on my bed, and slowly unravel pages of stationery decorated with cute animal characters and written with pastel gel pens. To a child struggling to adapt to a new place, a letter from the motherland was like a virtual hug, filled with familiarity and love. 

As I built my life in Canada, new friends and extracurricular activities began to occupy my time. Eventually, my correspondence with my cousins dropped off. 

My family did not make many trips back to Taiwan since our move. Even though I was content with my newfound community, there were moments when I felt rootless and disconnected from the place I used to call home. As I approached adulthood, I began to desire a deeper connection with my extended family and heritage. 

Photo Credit: Man Wong

Spending Time Together in a Foreign City

When I started working in university, I discovered a new-found independence, both financially and personally. I decided to book a flight to Taiwan for the first time in eight years. That trip not only allowed me to learn more about my extended family, but was also the beginning of a closer relationship with the cousins I had fallen out of touch with. 

As soon as I graduated from university, I was eager to chase my wanderlust. My first stop was Europe.

Coincidentally, my cousin studied in Germany at the time, so we made arrangements to meet up in her city. The last time I saw her in person would have been seven years ago, but the moment we saw each other at the airport, we picked up right where we left off.

For a week, I crashed at her cozy room in a student co-op residence. During the mornings, I sat in on her music classes. After she was done, she would take me to all the great places in the city. We talked, ate, shopped, and even discovered our mutual love for leather boots. 

Since it was around Thanksgiving, she invited me to join her at a gathering with her friends, a group of international students from Taiwan. Through the chatter and board game bantering, I could see that this was their home away from home in a foreign country that was so vastly different. This was definitely something I could relate to.

Even though we only spent a week together, living with my cousin in a foreign city and being introduced to her community made me realize how much we had in common. Despite our different cultural upbringings, we were more similar than we thought. 

Photo Credit: Cecilia Huang

Becoming Each Other’s Language Teacher

After rekindling my relationship with my cousin in Germany, we would meet up whenever I was in Taiwan. A few years later, she and her sister visited Vancouver for the first time to attend my wedding.

After the wedding, we hopped in our car for a road trip to Portland. Along the way, the cultural differences between North America and Taiwan, as well as the complexity of interpreting the different languages, became frequent topics of discussion. 

When we arrived in Portland, we decided on an Italian restaurant for dinner. Towards the end of the meal, our server came by to check on our meal. As soon as she left, my cousin leaned over and said, in a whisper, “Did I say that right?”

She explained that the phrase “I’m good” in English often confused Mandarin speakers. “Good” misled people into thinking that it indicated “yes” when it actually meant the opposite. For someone like me who defaults to Chinglish out of desperation, this situation is an example of how complicated it can be to translate between two languages. 

However, regardless of  language proficiency, we can still choose to listen intently and be open to learning.

These “language lessons” have transformed into our inside jokes. During the same trip, my cousins also taught me the Mandarin expression for “hipster,” which has now become the name of our group chat.

Celebrating and Grieving Together

Photo Credit: Killian Pham

With our lives inundated with work and social obligations, sometimes it takes a major holiday or celebratory event for families to flock together, such as holidays, weddings, and milestone birthdays. Perhaps one of the most significant occasions is the death of a senior member of the family.

When my maternal grandmother passed away, I got on a plane within a few days. She was the heart of our family, and her house was where all of my uncles, aunts, and cousins gathered. Whenever I was in Taiwan, I would visit and watch her favorite TV show with her while she sat in her favorite chair.

Being there in person to celebrate the end of her life was important to me. This was one of the few times our whole family came together, except this time it was to reminisce and grieve. 

My grandmother’s funeral was the first time I participated in a traditional Buddhist burial. During the ceremony, we joined in a chant. Later, we moved outdoors and formed a circle with ropes connecting us. In the centre, flames blazed from the burning of the miniature shrine dedicated to our beloved grandmother. As we continued to chant, we guided her into the afterlife.

Even after she is gone, we will honour the beautiful gift of family that my grandmother had bestowed upon us. Because of her, we have each other.

Home: Connection and Belonging

Long distance relationships are challenging, and being apart is difficult. However, while proximity and frequency of contact are strong determinants of close friendships, the most authentic bonds are forged and strengthened through shared experiences and meaningful cultural exchanges.

Through travel, languages, and grief, I am grateful to have cultivated closer, more fulfilling relationships with my relatives abroad. I no longer define home as a physical space, but rather a feeling of connection and belonging.

My cousin and I have both become parents in the last couple of years, and we are already planning for our children to meet in the near future and hopefully form a lifelong friendship. Perhaps they will become pen pals too. 

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