My oldest uncle passed away a month ago today.
On the way to the cemetery, while reminiscing about him and my ba noi (Vietnamese paternal grandmother), my second-youngest aunt remarked that if she had a different mother, the family would not be where we are today. While I've always thought this, somehow hearing my aunt voice it out loud, and in Vietnamese, seemed to make the statement all the more profound.
When my Chinese grandfather left, my grandma was pregnant with her sixth child and my oldest uncle was only 10 years old. A less determined woman probably would not have been able to hold the family together, much less lift us all out of poverty.
During his eulogy, my dad spoke about hy sinh, the Vietnamese word for sacrifice. My dad's family didn't move into town until he was 18 years old. Before then, it was a hardscrabble existence in the countryside as the older siblings helped my grandma while the younger siblings took care of the babies. My grandma used to tell me stories of how when she couldn't afford rice, she fed my aunts and uncles Rau Den (Vietnamese Amaranth), which was essentially a weed that grew quickly and plentifully. She'd slice bananas, dry them, and then sell them at the market and do all sorts of other things to make ends meet. My youngest aunt used to tell me stories about playing with corn husk dolls. Someone else in the village, who wanted a little girl, offered to take youngest aunt off my grandma's hands. Little more than toddlers themselves, my youngest uncle and second-youngest uncle would barricade the door to keep the man out. The family was staying together no matter what.
My grandfather's oldest brother offered to take oldest uncle into town to educate him along with his children. And so my oldest uncle started school, jumping into third grade, but he quickly excelled, learning to read and write Chinese along with other subjects. He hated being away from the family though and always felt the weight of responsibility as the oldest son. And so it was, that after he finished fifth grade, he came back home to help my grandma. That was when my dad was able to begin his education, three years behind his classmates. My oldest uncle never went back to school again, sacrificing his education so my father could receive his. And with his help, and as the other aunts and uncles grew old enough to pitch in too, my grandma was able to educate the rest of the family and eventually moved them into town.
If my grandma wasn't who she was, if my oldest uncle wasn't who he was, I can't imagine the family being who, or where, we are today.