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Family Ties: Strange But Familiar Faces

Blast San Francisco Bureau

Guangzhou, China - The face outside the bus window is vaguely familiar. His head is topped with gray hair now, not the shiny black that I remember from 18 years ago. It's my Uncle Shak.

With him to greet us are my Aunt Chun and my cousin's husband Kuen, whom I'd never met before. We shake hands as if we are strangers, all the time aware of our connection.

"You look just like ah-Huong (my oldest brother)," they say to me. I take it as a complement. "But you're better looking," they assure me.

Kuen, a taxi driver, takes us in his red cab to the family home. As I step out of the car, I'm greeted by a throng of people. The faces are strange, but we are not strangers.

"Wah! Ah Cheuk Gi (my Chinese name)." Again they say I look like my older brother, but better looking - of course. I can't help but smile. I'm introduced to two children, who call me "uncle." They are my cousin's children. Immediately, I think of my nieces and nephews back home. The resemblance is uncanny.

I walk into the house and see pictures of my family on the wall. There I am in one of the shots with my two brothers, my sister, my American cousin, their spouses, my parents and the grand kids. It's strange seeing images that are so familiar in a place you've never been to before. But it seems to belong there. Our two families are separated by an ocean, yet we share many similarities.

This is my first visit to this house. My father built the house for his younger brother with gam saan (United States or "Gold Mountain") money 10 years ago.

I'd heard it was a big house. Huge is more like it: three stories, four bedrooms, a bathroom and a living room on each of the top two floors; two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and living room on the first floor. It's big by U.S. standards. It's a mansion in China.

My aunt and uncle have the third-floor bedrooms. Kuen, his wife Gien (my cousin) and their sweet daughter live on the second floor. My cousin Yuen, her husband Huong and their rambunctious son occupy the bedrooms on the bottom floor. My other cousins Mien and Huy live elsewhere. Mien is also married and has a toddler son. Huy, the only son, is single. My dad has enabled his brother's family to lead a comfortable life in China. In relative terms, they appear even better off than my own family here in the United States.

My cousins are all about my age, but this is the second time in my life that I've seen them. The last time was in 1979, when we were just kids with childhood dreams. Gien, Mien and Yuen have grown into beautiful young women. Perhaps their dreams have been answered with their children, husbands and the good lives they lead.

My dreams are still unfolding back in gam saan. I'm 28 and unmarried. I live in a cozy studio in a nondescript San Francisco neighborhood. I've changed jobs five times in five years and have relocated cross country twice in that time.

What are my dreams?

Would I have achieved them had my parents stayed in China? Would I have even been born? Would I be driving a taxi - content with a roof over my head and enough food on the table?

Fortunately, in the United States I've never had to worry about where the next meal was coming from. I can keep dreaming, until I grow up and figure out what I'm going to do with my life.