Growing up in a not-so conventional household

When I think of a conventional family, a happy picture of a loving father, a caring mother, and smiling children often come to mind. 

As a young child who was glued to the TV., I often saw images of these so-called nuclear families advertised as a part of everyday life – from cereal and dishwashing liquids to other household goods – and they always looked so happy.  

So when I looked back at the family I grew up with, there were only my paternal grandparents and me, I questioned: “So if we’re nothing like those happy families on TV,. why are we still doing OK?”

Looking at it now, I believe that growing up with my old folks had shaped and prepared me for adulthood, and this was way better than doing just OK.  

Seeing my grandparents as my parents

Before diving into my story, let me give you a brief explanation of why I, along with many other kids in Thailand, was not brought up by my parents.

With my mother and grandmother
Image credit: Eddie Golightly

For Thai children in the countryside, growing up with their old folks or other relatives instead of their biological parents is very common. 

Due to economic reasons, young parents are often obliged to get a job in the city, such as Bangkok, in order to get more income to provide for their families back home. This leaves them with no other option but to leave their children in their parents’ care. 

Left: Me and my grandmother in 2014
Right: Us in 2016. Didn’t she get younger?
Images adapted from: Eddie Golightly

This is why many kids, at least the ones that I know, often call their grandparents ‘dad’ and ‘mom’. 

Sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t it? But let me assure you that I didn’t hold any grudges against my parents as I knew they were always supporting me in every way they could.   

Freedom made me more responsible

That mischievous look when you’re a carefree teen
Image credit: Eddie Golightly

One of the best things about growing up with my grandparents was that I had the ultimate freedom to do whatever a hot-blooded teenager could ever want. From restless partying to spending too much time with friends, you name it, and I did it.

To be honest, I believe the main reason my grandparents didn’t scold me for being a teen my age like my parents might have, was because they knew what it was like with my father and uncles. So, they chose the less-strict way with me.  

During my high school years, my routine was going to school, working until 10pm at a local coffee shop, then hanging out with friends until 1-2am before driving my motorcycle back home on a 10km journey – sorry, what curfew? Can’t relate

Of course, my grandmother was worried sick each time I jumped on a motorcycle and drove out of the house. And oftentimes, grandpa would tell me, “If you get into an accident because of your recklessness, you’d better hope to die because nobody will be taking care of you.” – Ouch! Tiger grandpa right there.

Although I often gave them a dismissive gesture every time they said something like this, I still took their words to heart. Since then, I’ve always learned to be independent, but not at my own or other people’s expenses. 

Grandparents’ frankness thickened my skin

Image credit: Eddie Golightly

You see, old folks like my grandparents have been through a lot in life and they hate to beat around the bush and prefer getting straight to the point.

When discussing something, they wouldn’t waste time sugar-coating their words or telling you that things would get better when they’re not. 

For young parents, it’s quite common for them to not get straight to the point as raising a child is something new to them too. So, for my grandparents who already have been through it, I think they knew better than to be too optimistic about something that would disappoint their grandchild anyway.

During 9th grade, I begged them to send me abroad for high school, without knowing that our family’s business was not doing as well as before. I was super irrational and only wanted things to go my way. 

As I was having a heated argument with grandma, my grandpa just said, “If you can’t study in the country, then don’t study at all unless you can pay the tuition fees yourself.” And with that, 15-year-old me was zipped.

To some people, this might sound too discouraging as something to say to your children – some might even view it as bad parenting. But all I can say is their words really thickened my skin and made me view life more realistically. 

I learned to be more caring because of them

Let’s face it, my grandparents are old and they don’t have all the time in the world. And I’ve grown more aware of this fact as I get older myself and spend more time apart from them.

After finishing high school, I moved to Bangkok for university and continued working here. It has been over 5 years now, and there is not a single day when I don’t think of them. 

It seemed like just yesterday when my grandma was screaming at me for being late for school, and now the only thing that wakes me up in the morning is an IKEA alarm clock.

For this, I try not to take time – or anything else in life – for granted. I started reaching out to them more often, mostly over the phone. And if I have enough time, I’d visit them once in a while.   

As a result of this, I’ve started to pay more attention to other people in my life and express my gratitude to them for being there with me – something the young me would never even think of doing. 

Growing up with old folks helped me become resilient

Throughout my childhood and teenage life, I was never really treated as a child, but rather, as a grown up who also had equal responsibilities and an important role in life. And I carried that message with me into my adulthood, where I had to fend and take care of myself.

Me today
Image credit: Eddie Golightly

Some of my friends would call me an ‘old soul’, which was something I never truly understood until now. And no, I don’t believe that I’ve wandered the universe and come back to Earth every 1 million years. It’s more about how I’ve been shaped by my old folks, making my personality a little different from other people my age. 

After all these years, I’ve learned a great deal from both of my grandparents, including being polite and all-ears, to having a high level of patience and standing up for myself when I need to – priceless tools I could use for life. 

We took this graduation picture in 2019 – time really does fly!
Image credit: Eddie Golightly

A family without mom and dad is not always dysfunctional as it may seem from the outside, and children who grow up in this type of family shouldn’t feel any less than. And this applies to other unconventional households too, be it with single or same-sex parents. 

Caring and loving are traits any family should have, and these were the things I’ve got from my old folks. 

Read more Thai perspectives here:

Featured image: Eddie Golightly/The Smart Local Thailand

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