Behind Every Smile Is a Story

Before I begin, I want to let you know that this post digs into some of my personal experiences and raw emotions. For that reason, I held off from publishing it when I first typed it up back in December because the festive season seemed like the wrong backdrop for heavy reading. Alas, I have finally decided to publish this post. It is one that I feel strongly about because it is important to me that I portray myself in the most natural and honest way possible, and that includes talking about the stuff people don’t usually want to talk about. So if you’re the type of person who can’t take the truth, stop reading now.

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In this day and age, where technology and social media allows us to so easily peek into the lives of people, we are able to learn so much about what people do. Yet, at the same time, we really know nothing at all about people because every piece of information we learn about people is spoon-fed to us; we see the pictures they post on Facebook or Instagram, status updates of cool things they’re doing,where they’re traveling to, what they’ve accomplished and perhaps the occasional rant. You all know how it is. I know I’m guilty of doing it. We know – or at least we think we know – how everyone is doing by going online. We make assumptions and judgement about people based on what we see. But what about all the time that passes between each new status or photo update? What about all the emotions, experiences, failures and everything else that people tend to not reveal via a status or photo? At the end of the day, how much do we really know about people?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I come across to those who have been reading my blog over the past months. As many of you know, I made the decision to move to Hong Kong last year. The reactions I’ve received from friends and family regarding my lifestyle change have generally been positive, and most people seem excited for me and my new venture. However, I found myself starting to feel as though I was portraying myself inaccurately. Even though it may seem like everything is good and I’m having a great time in Hong Kong (which I definitely am), it’s not always roses. There are times when I feel unhappy, upset, even angry, and I think it is important to address those times as well. Just because I don’t stop to upload a photo or update my status when I am feeling down doesn’t mean those moments don’t happen. So I decided to dedicate this post to revealing the side of me you never see and by doing it the only way I know how to: writing.

It was early September. We had moved into the new apartment 3 weeks prior and the contractor was still not finished on working on the renovations, even though according to the contract he was supposed to be finished at the end of June. I had personally asked him, on at least 5 different occasions, whether the renovation would be completed on time because I was able to see that the timeframe he gave us was not realistic. We ended up pushing back the move-in date 3 times and renovations were still on-going. I was very angry with our contractor, but I knew that pissing off the contractor is the last thing you want to do when you still need him to finish his job so I just kept bottling up my anger. On that September day, I couldn’t hold back my anger anymore and I lost it. I grabbed a notebook, put a pen in my fist and took out all of my frustration and anger by scribbling on a empty page like a mad woman. My emotions ran wild as random lines appeared across the page. I was out of control. When I eventually stopped, I broke down and cried.

A lot of thoughts went through my head. I realized I wasn’t just angry with the contractor; he was just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is I had spent nearly 2 years suppressing my emotions. It all started in October 2013.

I remember the night when my parents and I went to visit my Uncle Ted at the hospital after he was taken in for vomiting blood. He was on a stretcher in the hallway because they didn’t have a room for him yet, and although he looked like he was doing okay, a thought secretly entered my mind as I stood there looking at him. I had suddenly thought of an old co-worker who had once talked to me about her uncle having esophageal cancer. I guess it was another one of my gut feelings, and it was the one time I really hoped my gut could have been wrong. Of course, the things you fear most always have a way of finding you. My uncle was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer, as if I had predicted it. I think a small part of me always wished that maybe if I never had that thought in my head, perhaps my uncle never would have been sick and he would still be here with us. I know very well that I don’t have the power to make someone sick simply by thinking about it and I know that the gut feeling I had was based on my knowledge and my experiences, but it really didn’t make dealing with the news any easier.

My uncle asked my mom and I to accompany him to his first oncologist appointment so that I could translate for him. The doctor ended up speaking Chinese so I didn’t need to translate, but because my uncle was able to communicate with the doctor, it allowed me to see how vulnerable yet hopeful my uncle was when he repeatedly told the doctor he would do everything they ask him to do because he fully gave his trust to the doctor. By reading the doctor’s body language and verbal response, I could tell that the doctor knew there really wasn’t much he could do. Deep down, I knew what was going to eventually happen, but in front of my uncle I had to put on a positive face and give him confidence to fight his battle. That’s when I began to struggle.

I was quite close with my Uncle Ted. When I was in elementary school, we spent a lot of Saturday afternoons at my uncle’s house. My uncle was an artist who taught Chinese brush painting at home in his basement. He didn’t like teaching young children because he didn’t think young children really appreciated the art enough for him to spend his time teaching them. I was lucky that he was willing to take me on, and he even let me sit at his big office desk. After learning the basics to Chinese brush painting, I asked him to teach me how to draw and sketch with pencil and pencil crayons. I used to colour lightly with pencil crayons, but my uncle scolded me and made sure I understood that to colour properly I had to use the right amount of pressure and colour until the colours came out solid. He was very particular about that. After taking lessons for some time, my parents noticed that I wasn’t really passionate about painting and decided to let me focus on my other extracurricular activities like swimming, piano, and dance. We continued going to my uncle’s house every Saturday afternoon to visit my grandma, who lived with my uncle. When my grandmother moved into a nursing home, we didn’t spend as much time at my uncle’s anymore, and after my grandmother passed away it seemed like family gatherings only happened at weddings or funerals. Since my mom had a large extended family, it was difficult to keep in touch with everybody. To keep the family bond between at least some of the family who lived nearby, my parents and I would often do dim sum or have dinner with my uncle, Aunt May, Aunt Kim and her husband Uncle Bill. The group of us would gather to celebrate birthdays and see each other before anyone went traveling. I always enjoyed our time together and cherished the conversations we had.

IMG_0983b(My birthday dinner – September 2013 – Uncle Ted is in the yellow jacket)

From October through December 2013, I was able to consume myself with work to divert my attention. At one point I worked 21 consecutive days, followed by another 10 days straight a couple days later. Work was the one thing that I could do to take my mind off of everything that was going on. By January 2014 I was feeling exhausted, both mentally and physically, and I could feel the effects of stress on my body and my emotions. I was having a really hard time dealing with the fact that my uncle had a terminal illness, but I couldn’t talk about it because talking about it made it real. So whatever emotions and thoughts I had, I just kept it to myself and forced myself to get on with life even though those emotions and thoughts continued to weigh down on me. In February, I was suffering from so much stress I decided to go away to get a breath of fresh air, so I went to visit my boyfriend in Hong Kong and we did some traveling. When I came back at the end of March, I felt better and regained a part of myself that I realized I was losing. As the months progressed, my uncle’s health deteriorated and my struggle to deal with it became more and more obvious to me. With other family members helping my uncle with translating and taking care of him, I didn’t have the stress of needing to deal with that stuff anymore and I could just focus on spending time with my uncle. But every time I visited him and saw how the illness was taking over him, it made me not want to be there. There were even times when I didn’t want to go see my uncle because seeing him made everything real, and I didn’t want this whole thing to be real. I wanted to wake up one day and realize it was all just a dream. I wanted to pretend that when my birthday came around again, my uncle would be out at dinner with us and he’d order his beer, crack jokes with the waitresses, just like he did every year.

The last time my uncle was admitted to the hospital, I went with my mom to visit him there. I hadn’t seen my uncle in a couple weeks, and when I saw him it was everything I didn’t want to see. He had lost so much weight, looked so fragile and could barely speak clearly. It was extremely hard for me to be there to see him like that, but I knew that being there this time was going to be important. I just had a gut feeling. Two days later, my uncle passed away.

For the first time in months, I didn’t have to put on a brave face anymore. I didn’t have to pretend that I had the strength to support both my mom and I (my dad was overseas at the time). It was over, and I thought I could start grieving. What I didn’t expect was that literally a day after my uncle passed, at a time when we should have been grieving, I was targeted by a group of cousins and was cyber bullied by them on Facebook. A tribute to my uncle became a breeding ground for the 7 or 8 of them to comment about all their efforts in taking care of my uncle and all the money they spent on him, as if any of that even mattered when we just lost our uncle. The most disgusting thing was that they tried to belittle my relationship with my uncle. Their words didn’t hurt me one bit because I know very well what kind of relationship I had with my uncle – the kind that they will never have the chance to have with him. Words won’t change that. What hurt me was the fact that these people bullying me were my cousins, all of which are older than me by at least 10 years. It hurt me that these people I’ve known and respected all my life as my cousins felt that it was okay to gang up and attack me at a time when I was emotionally vulnerable, especially considering I never did anything or said anything that had anything to do with them at all. Perhaps it was because I didn’t acknowledge everything they did in my tribute, although that seems kind of stupid since everything they did was for my uncle, not me. I’m not the person who’s responsible for giving them credit. You would think that older people would be wiser and more mature. That is not always the case. I learned that just because we are associated with people by blood, it doesn’t always mean that they deserve our respect. Respect is a two way street, and having respect is the most important thing in any type of relationship. When there isn’t respect, there isn’t a relationship. My relationship with those people ended that day. I became troubled by the fact that a lot of my relatives were now in an awkward situation between my family and the people who bullied me, and the thought of these relatives feeling uncomfortable hurt me. I was very unhappy and feeling emotions that I couldn’t make sense of. I became so overwhelmed that by October 2014, I left one of my two jobs and went on a road trip with my boyfriend in an attempt to feel better. Our trip to Vegas and LA gave me just enough to make it to the end of the year.

2015 was a year of great change for me. Right at the beginning of the year, my boyfriend started to look into buying a flat in Hong Kong. Being in Toronto, all I could do to help was look up floor plans for various estates to see which flats were better options. I used to draw floor plans as a hobby when I was in elementary school. That skill was handy when it came to picking out a flat because you have to think about where furniture will be placed. In less than two months, my boyfriend bought a flat  and asked me to help with figuring out how to renovate. It was non-stop stress from there. As we were dealing with the renovations and making decisions on every little detail of the apartment, I realized it was time for me to really think about moving to Hong Kong. The move would come with a whole host of issues that I had to sort out before that could happen. Then after I moved, we were completely immersed in our renovation nightmare. The stress just kept piling.

On that September day, when I lost it and let out my emotions on that piece of paper, I realized that it was the first time in nearly 2 years that I was stripped down to my core. I let out all my anger, sadness and frustrations on that piece of paper, and I cried out all the emotions I had bottled up. For the first time, after over a year, I finally grieved the loss of my uncle.

As time went on, I allowed myself to grieve by remembering the best things about my uncle’s life and all the things he taught me. I would see a Chinese painting and know it’s not very good because my uncle and I had frequent conversations about what makes a good painting. I treasure that knowledge I now own. Renovations are mostly complete and the stress of moving to Hong Kong has finally started to subside. I can finally start adapting to a new life of living in a city half way around the world from where my friends and family are. Inevitably, there will be times when I experience sadness, anger, frustrations, failure and everything we don’t want people to know we are feeling. Without a doubt, those times will happen again because moving to a new city, changing your job or traveling somewhere far, far away doesn’t change the fact that life will continue to make us feel things we don’t want to feel in order to make us stronger.

One Comment

  1. Anna
    February 19, 2016

    Thank you for sharing your story Franny.
    for being honest and transparent.
    You are strong and I hope now that you got to post this you can see how far you have come as well xoxo

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