Bearing Brave Battles with Barb Peng

Barb working at President Optical.
Barb Peng

“I remember when my dad came out of a chemotherapy treatment and he took me to a wonton restaurant in Richmond. He didn’t really have enough of an appetite and told me that he would have what I finished. Despite, being the patient, he had always cared so much about me and my sisters and put us first; always telling us that if we were happy, then he was happy. He was selfless. Always focusing on us, the family, and making sure that we were taken care of. We were his everything.

His passing has a hundred percent shaped who we are. He has inspired us to live life by seizing each day and to live it to the best we can. We have often asked ourselves, what would make him happy and try to emulate it.

This year would have been ten years since his passing. We’ve been so preoccupied that we have forgotten the vividness of what we went through, but we still miss our father. For the past ten years, we didn’t have a father. Even now, it’s so weird to say the word ‘Dad.’ I’ve forgotten that I have a Dad and sometimes, I am still in shock that he’s gone.

His impact on our lives has been a wakeup call. We all grieve in different ways, but I can acknowledge how lucky we were just to have been in his presence and to be raised by him and also have the support of our friends and community” – Barb Peng.

Barb with her family.
Barb on her graduation day with her Mom on the left, sister Deb to her right and younger sister Pam at the far right.

C: Barb is an extraordinary individual. Someone I am grateful to call my friend and shapes the way I live each day because I cannot stop thinking about what her resiliency instills in me. She has taught me that beneath each individual’s daily life there is a constant balance of beauty and bitterness. Her character is attributed to independence, dedication, selfless compassion, and sacrifice. She epitomizes the values of family and hard work. As someone not that much older than me, I truly mean it that when I grow up, I hope to be her someday. And through the undue privilege I have in sharing Barb’s story, I wish to do her story justice and help proliferate her contagious love and laughter.

Barb, I know that I’ve been lucky to have a few but quite meaningful conversations with you spanning many different topics but I want to ask you to introduce yourself. Who are you? What are you passionate about, what are your values, and what has shaped you into the person you are today?

B: My name is Barb and I have a lot of passions! I owe that to my mom for putting me in a lot of activities when I was little. The most important thing is that regardless of what it is that I did or was confronted with, she helped me develop the ability to find a passion in anything… especially amidst unexpected circumstances. Finding passions within any situation allowed me to give it my all through accepting the situation. I very much value living without any regrets by seizing the day and so I strive to give my all in everything I do.

I also believe in authentic human relationships. Being in a position to connect with people on that level is extremely powerful. I feel as if my meaning has to do with something larger than myself which propels me to contribute in different ways but also fuels the desire to make some sort of impact.

But a big part of who I am is also tied to my family. My story, our family story…Ten years ago, in our grade nine year, we lost our father to colon cancer after ten months of battle. Before his passing, we had really believed that the world would stop spinning and we would crumble without his presence in our lives. However, throughout the years, we’ve learned how to be strong for ourselves and seek happiness, which is something we know that he would have wanted us to do. But people often wonder how we could have moved on so quickly.

Barb and Deb with their father.

The thing is, the world wouldn’t stop spinning. Life had to go on. When our father left, he passed on his optical business and my mom became the new business owner. She took on the business right away after his passing. But she not only took on the roles as a business owner but also as both a mother and father to us. While we were preoccupied with grief adapting to this new life, my mother invested all of her time and energy on us. However, to our surprise we would then be taken advantage of by one of our own employees. Despite working for us for over a decade, he had not disclosed the fact that he was secretly our landlord and had been plotting for a while to kick us out of the business property to run his own exact business. The most difficult thing throughout all this was the amount of time we had to re-establish our business again because we had found out at the last possible minute. Our new location ended up being directly across from our old location, in fact, only a couple metres away within a mall. Yet we had decided to stay because of our previously established 20-year reputation at the location. Each day for the past few years, has been inexplicably difficult to live through as we have had to witness this man establishing his business in our old location all the while, misleading his customers and our previous clients into thinking that he is the authentic store and creating false stories about our store.

Unfortunately, this would take a toll on our mother’s health. Not shortly after we discovered the plans of our previous employee, we also discovered our mom’s diagnosis with an illness. We were completely devastated. Has it really come to this? We hit rock bottom. We felt overwhelmed and extremely disappointed and unmotivated about life. And this was truly an understatement. The constant question we would ask ourselves was: why? Why was everything falling apart?

My sisters and I never asked to grow up this fast. Especially as the older sisters, Deb (my twin sister) and I quickly faced a steep learning curve. We wanted to be like most kids our age who had control of their lives. First year university has always been a tough transition for students, but for us, it was one of the most stressful, emotionally draining, and surreal years we’ve had. We even considered taking a year off, but we ended up never pursuing it because we realized that it was the only thing, we could still have control of. We could still have hopes to make a mark on this world and goals to chase after. And as hard as it is to carry a full course load, run a business and take care of our family responsibilities, giving up on that one thing has never been an option. *Barb has since graduated with a BA in 2019 and Deb has recently graduated with a BSc in 2020.

Barb and Deb Peng
Barb graduating with her BA on the right and her sister Deb on the left.

It’s difficult to even begin explaining this story to the people we meet. We don’t want to make it awkward as we don’t want other’s pity, and we definitely don’t want to carry this burden, but this has really become a part of us, whether we accept it or not. When you experience loss and betrayal, you see life in a different perspective. That is, we have to be grateful for the control, in any way, that we have in our lives and remind ourselves that things will fall in its place when the time comes. As hopeless as we have been, we are beginning to appreciate the strength that has been accumulating in us. Even though we know that there are too many things that are beyond our control, at least now we know that we will have control in at least one thing. And that is, by sprinkling happiness on something we do every day.

C: I remember when you first shared this with me as we walked across the Burrard Bridge during a late fall evening. The barrier between sea and sky was broken with blackness but lights twinkled beneath us in the harbour and all around us in the distant mountains, in the vast and open sky. I can’t even begin to grasp the extent of circumstances with which you and your family have endured and still go through. I can only like I did that night is be still while you emanate such courage and such light. To embrace you with the best of my understanding and as much compassion as you need. Thank you for sharing your story with me that day, and today again with so many others. I know since, both our shared experiences of unexpected circumstances have catalyzed countless conversations. They have spanned our similar upbringings where we watched our parents sacrifice everything when they immigrated to Canada, our similar experiences of navigating the intersection of our cultural identities within Western society, and our shared ambitions of achieving dreams while remaining rooted to family values. What is something that you still deal with or live through on a day to day basis that is hard to reconcile?

B: I grappled with freedom and autonomy; to really go out there as ‘the world is my oyster’ and make it into something. I used to have a lot of dreams but with my circumstances and what has come up, I can’t dream so crazily and think of doing this or that. These circumstances have really pushed me further away from where I want to be as inherently, I’m very ambitious. I like getting out there. To make something, to do something. But in the sudden aftermath of our father’s passing, re-establishing the business, and navigating having our mother’s health battle, I had a small business and family to take care of. Putting my dreams or own interests in the backseat. I’ve had to slow down on where I see myself in the future and be okay with it. And it has been a sacrifice but one that was out of my control. I feel as if there’s only some extent that we are able to control our own happiness because there are so many things that are out of our control. Things like being a young twenty-year-old while having responsibilities of running a family business and taking care of a family. The onus is on me to make sure nothing slips through the cracks that everything is taken care of.

For the past five to six years of running the family business, which has been a big part of my life, I have been thinking a lot about autonomy to do what I want to do and to not be tied down. Especially after graduating and watching a lot of my peers or friends be able to start their own journeys the way they see fit, which for me at the moment I still view as a huge privilege.

Back when my father passed away in high school, I didn’t know how to control my own happiness and I didn’t know how to have my own life. I was overwhelmed with guilt, if I did anything for myself that made me happy, I felt guilty to choosing myself first. But I needed to learn how uncomfortable it can be to be in a place that I do things for myself and to feel okay with the level of freedom, autonomy, or control I can exert. Selfishness. Being okay with that. Since then I’ve been able to mostly overcome this feeling of guilt. To recognize that I can work hard but also play hard. To do something fun and to be okay with being young.

C: Wow. This is something we’ve both talked at length, but I relate a lot to that feeling of guilt and of selfishness. Especially, within the Chinese community for me and the Taiwanese community for you, there are many similar values of family above everything else. Often growing up, I never really had the option of voicing what I wanted for me mostly because I would see everything in comparison to what my parents had scarified for me. And I felt in some way communicating what I wanted directly would be disappointing and selfish. It was this guilt as if I was to ‘choose myself before the family’s responsibilities or priorities.’ Though this has changed, it’s definitely something I still grapple with too.

Speaking your truth has been so powerful and captivating. I know we could go on and on, but I do want to give you an opportunity to share your reflections about all of this. What have been your biggest takeaways?

B: Obstacles are often spoken about in the past tense. People often ask you about what has happened like it’s in the past. But the thing is, it’s an ongoing thing. The chapter hasn’t closed, for our family we haven’t finished writing it. We’ve been better at managing our emotions day to day but it’s very hard to not be hardened by everything.

Every day is a test of strength and courage. Each thing is something to be overcome. And the accumulation of all these things I will deal with have amounted to who I am today. I’ve developed the capacity to deal with problems on the spot and many of the nuanced skills that come from running a business. I’ve learned how to embrace things. Realizing how strong and brave I can be. I don’t know a lot of things such as the many aspects of running a business or how much I am capable of withstanding.

This strength and courage are emanated by my brave and perseverant Mom. I witness her grit and unwavering sense of humanity in everything she does, and this has definitely impacted my attitude towards obstacles. She also taught me that as long as we do the right thing and put effort into whatever we do, we will be on the right path to whatever the future holds. I hold this dearly in my heart.

Barb with her Mom.

Uncertainty is the biggest thing. But I’ve been working on overcoming that fear. We’ve been constantly on the defense mechanism for the past years. Oftentimes I find myself thinking of the worst that could happen in order to mentally prepare myself for anything that can happen. My Mom and Dad and all of us were never like that. But with the business betrayal, I had to learn the hard way that I can’t be too naïve, and I can’t depend on anyone else but myself. People have their own intentions and self-interests. We’ve been constantly scared and on the edge. But in the end, God has placed kind people within our lives to show us that we can let our guard down and to trust people again.

All in all, I am so lucky to have a twin sister who is on the same page with me. To have experienced what I had at the same time and be my support system.

We have learned how to be okay with ourselves and to be lighter on our hearts. Not to be so hard on ourselves. For the longest time we asked what’s wrong with us, what did we do to deserve what happened? These experiences made me different like an outsider with people my own age. But now I see that it’s okay to be different…that it’s okay to not be perfect yet strive to be the best version of myself.

I still live through my battles and I still go through them. And so much hell has happened to all of us but at the same time, it has pushed us to be extraordinary in different ways. These skills I’ve learned over the years and have accumulated within me, I can’t just wake up and learn it or know it. Running the business is now like second nature to me; it’s transcended beyond and helped me with my extracurriculars at UBC such as running Pre-Law Society.

Barb working at President Optical.

I’ve had to think for myself and to always think ahead. And as my sister Deb also shares, she knows what she now wants in her life and what really matters. She’s learned that she can only count on herself and can’t depend on anyone else. That life always holds the capacity to make decisions, to make choices. And for her, it’s about taking responsibility and control back. That she is in control of her fate through choosing the mindset she approaches in life.

I’ve realized ultimately that it is okay to go through hell and have shit come at you. You just need to know that it’s okay and be forgiving of yourself and know that it’s going to make you an extraordinary person and resilient. It’s okay to be imperfect or to feel “damaged.” Know that it’s okay. Also, acknowledge that the shit doesn’t get easier, you just get better at handling it.

We all have a lot of shit going on. But be proud of the shit that have shaped us to who we are.

As I currently look back on my life, I know I’m not sure about a lot of things… but one thing I am sure of is that one day when I look back, I will not regret anything because I would have given my all and I would have lived as my dad would have wanted me to.

Barb and her dad.
Barb with her father playing piano.

Barb started working at President Optical, her family’s business, right out of high school in the summer of 2014. Since then, she has helped to sustain and build the business to be community friendly and a welcoming place for all through modernizing services and running two projects in partnership with charities. As a recent UBC graduate, she was heavily involved on campus, playing an integral leadership role within communications for the Arts Undergraduate Society and Sociology Students Association. After being involved with Pre-Law Society for two years in a Vice President role, she became Co-President in her third year and launched inaugural events such as Life Beyond Law. Learn more about her family business here or follow on Instagram. To connect with Barb, find her on Instagram.

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