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10/11/2012 12:56 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

What's It Like To Grow Up in an Old Money Family?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
2012-10-11-fwang.jpeg
By Faye Wang

I'm not sure if my family counts as "old money," since we lost our family fortune during the Communist regime. My father was a self-made millionaire, but he lost the company and the family fortune due to some bad investments and other factors I won't get into. So, I think I can consider myself born rich, but now I'm just a normal middle-class person, struggling with student loans and credit card debts.

My family on my grandma's (my father's mother) side was from a minor aristocratic house of old Manchu nobility. I suspect they were one of the lower banner men (下五旗), probably either red or white banner. My grandma rarely talks about her family, since after the CPC takeover, Manchu bannermen weren't all that popular. Qing Dynasty and Manchu emperors are still blamed for many of the defeats and humiliations the Chinese suffered between 1840 and 1949, so it's understandable that my grandma wasn't all that proud about her ancestry and never bragged about it.

But she was born rich, the eldest daughter of a great family in Shenyang (a major northern city). Not only did she receive a proper education, she went to Japan and studied there for a while. That was unthinkable for a girl at a time when almost all girls were illiterate. She married my grandpa, a surgeon. After the Communist Party took over in 1949, my grandma worked as a school teacher, my grandpa as a surgeon. Both of them earned good salaries and had some savings. My father and aunt grew up having live-in nannies and servants. My grandma threw parties and salons for liberal poets and literary friends.

My family suffered a great deal due to the liberal ties my grandparents had, and my grandma's aristocratic ancestry didn't help either. We lost our family house in Beijing, both my grandpa and my father were put in jail as anti-revolutionaries, and were later sent to labor camps.

After the ten year cultural revolution, my father and grandpa were cleared of all charges, the government reissued them salary for ten years, and they moved back to Beijing. My father started a company (I can't say which one, since it's instantly recognizable for those who lived in China during late 80s and 90s). Suffice to say, my father was doing very well. Once he told me: "I have no idea how much I earn every month, or how much I spend." Well, I'm sure he had an accountant to help him with his finances, and he wasn't as reckless as he wanted others to believe. But still, that's how we were back then.

As for me, I grew up with my grandma. And I guess because she had suffered a lot due to her wealth and ancestry during the Cultural Revolution, she was extremely strict with me about money. Being rich was a shameful thing: I couldn't talk about it, I couldn't show it, any kind of bragging was strictly forbidden and swiftly punished, I had to blend in with other kids. My dad bought me a lot of nice, pretty clothing, I never got to wear them. He bought me nice toys; I could only play with them by myself, I was never able to show them to my friends. I never invited anyone to my home either. I was given a weekly allowance, enough to buy regular ice cream and pencils and such, but nothing outrageous, probably a lot less than my friends were getting. I was the first in my class to get a pager, but I had to hide it and only use it in case of an emergency. I was the first one to get a cell phone, same story: I had to hide it until other kids start to carry them. Summer and winter vacations were at various resorts, but I couldn't brag about it, couldn't show pictures to friends. I was the first one to get a car, but only my two best friends ever saw it.

It was weird as a child. I knew I was richer than other kids, my dad was more powerful, but I also felt embarrassed for it. I never lacked anything, but my grandma wouldn't indulge me with anything either, except for books. Books were the only thing she would agree to buy without hesitation, no matter how expensive they were. So I ended up having my own collection of books at a young age.

One thing I remembered clearly, that makes me a total rich, obnoxious, douchebag. It was my best friend's birthday and instead of buying her a present, I took her to a high end store to which my dad had taken me, and I told her she could pick whatever she wanted and I would pay for it. At the time, I didn't see anything wrong with it. That's how my dad treated me, and I felt that I should treat my friend the same way. But my friend was shocked, embarrassed, and furious. Our friendship never recovered, and it took me years to figure out why.

I always wondered why my dad didn't object too much about my decision to study art. After all, as a Chinese father, I thought he'd force me to study medicine or accounting. Later, I found out, he had already decided he was going to support me for life, if I want to become a 'starving artist.' "I should have fought with you harder, if I had known we'd lose our savings and investments, you'd be much better off being a doctor or a CPA," he said. We lost a lot of assets in 2008, and now our house is subject to a second mortgage. But it is really moving to know that my dad secretly decided he was going to support my decision, even though he didn't agree with it.

I just remembered something the other day talking to my friend about this. When I was little, I often went to my dad's office after school, and I attended a lot of company and social functions with him. I've met many of his employees, business associates, and friends. Almost everywhere I went, I got compliments, how smart I was, how pretty and cute, how talented I was with piano. But those compliments meant nothing. My dad and (mostly) my grandma drilled it in my head early on that none of those were true. They just saying it to please my father. It's difficult growing up like that, I ended up believing anything good people said about me was because of my dad, and I'm a horrible kid no one wants to play with if I don't have my dad's power and fame. I've liked many of my dad's colleagues and his friends, they're all so nice to me. But in the end, I know none of them really care about me anyways, it's about my dad. So in many ways, I actually like how I am now, at least I know when people like me, they really do like me for me, not for my money or to get favor from my dad.

Well, now we're just normal middle class family, with loans and mortgages ... My dad often said to me: 三穷三富活到老 (everyone goes through rich and poor in their life). During my father's up and downs, I started to see how people react to wealth, how we have friends when we're rich, and how they avoid us when we're down and out. At first, it's heart breaking, probably a lot harder for my dad than for me. But eventually you start to see that's how people are, and in the end, we're all alone, fighting our own wars.

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