After finishing her own curriculum of five Advanced Placement courses (maintaining a 4.0 GPA), playing tennis, participating in mock trial, youth commission or debate practices, Rita still finds time for her family. Though her role in the family isn’t that of a typical high school junior.
Rita lives at home with her mom, Chen Wang; dad, Haiming Dai; and 11-year-old brother, Joseph Dai. Though for the past year, they’ve had a fifth family member living with them — Rita’s grandmother JiaCun Wang.
“Her plan was to just stay for six months and go back (to China). And now it’s been a year and a half,” Chen Wang said of her mother’s travel plans. “When she was planning to go back, that was the time that China was really bad [regarding COVID-19]. I was concerned about it, so I applied for an extension for her to stay.”
Rita said in the past, her grandmother’s visits felt like she was just joining the Rochester family on vacation.
“Now, she feels fully integrated as a cog in our family machine since she’s been here for so long,” Rita said.
Though Rita knows her grandmother will return to her home in Hefei, China, once it’s safe to travel, she’s thankful the family has become closer and more in tune with their roots than ever before.
The unexpected stay has found Rita herself embracing her Chinese culture more than ever.
JiaCun Wang makes Mantou, a Chinese steamed bun with her grandchildren Rita Dai, 16, and Joseph 11, on Friday, September 18, 2020, at their home in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / [email protected])
On a recent Friday afternoon, Rita discussed her classes in Mandarin with her grandmother as they took turns kneading dough to make Mantou, a Chinese steamed bun.
While the Dai siblings are immersed in their Chinese heritage at home, they’re aware of discrimination toward Asian Americans since the novel coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China.
Rita hasn’t noticed a change in the way she and her family are treated, but she knows that’s not the case for other families. She said she sees other Asian Americans being more cautious about going outside and the way they interact with each other.
“I recall one of my friends saying that her mom had her entire house shut down, lights off and everyone at home, by 8 o’clock every night because she was scared of being egged or getting rocks thrown at them,” Rita said. “Much like their family, I feel more anxious just living life normally because I have seen all of these terrible things happen to my community, and I don’t want it to happen to me or anyone I know.”
Rita’s family’s roots go deeper than making traditional meals together or speaking Mandarin. The family has always placed a large emphasis on education, learning piano, and in general maintaining a high level of self-discipline when it comes to the kids’ schooling.
Joe Dai, 11, looks up at his sister Rita, 16, as she helps him work through a new piano piece on Friday, September 18, 2020, at their home in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / [email protected])
Being the eldest child and the first in her family to undergo schooling in the U.S., Rita has deemed herself the family guinea pig. While other students may have parents who know the roundabout of the U.S. school system, Rita said she’s had to figure it out for herself and her parents.
The added responsibilities haven’t stopped Rita from stepping up to help when her dad is away on business trips or when her brother needs help with something.
“Rita, really, she’s kind of mature. She’s helped me a lot,” Chen Wang said of her daughter’s role in the family.
Rita Dai, 16, jokes with her brother Joe, 11, as they work through a new piano piece on Friday, September 18, 2020, at their home in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / [email protected])
Rita is aware of that, too.
“I guess for a lot of siblings, they are more like friends. For me and Joe, it’s been a little different since I’ve had to teach him, so it’s more like a mentor situation,” she said.
She didn’t fall into her role immediately, but as the siblings advanced in their schoolwork and piano lessons, they began to move into uncharted territory for her parents. Though her parents both have years of schooling, their experiences were in Chinese school systems and long before distance learning was ever in anyone’s vocabulary.
Rita Dai, 16, helps her brother Joe, 11, work through a new piano piece on Friday, September 18, 2020, at their home in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / [email protected])
“The other day, we had social studies, and we had a question about 911,” Wang said, referring to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “We all know the tragedy, but it’s a little different for me because at the time, I was still in China. Those kinds of questions it’s a little hard for us to help him.”
“Even the math questions, I know how to solve it, but the language I use he thinks it’s hard to understand,” she said. “But if Rita helps him, he understands because they are in the same school system.”
Like many other families, distance learning has changed their normal routine. After clearing her long list of to-do’s, Rita finds herself teaching her squirmy brother the ins and outs of the Pythagorean theorem.
“I see when his eyes light up as he grasps a certain math subject or finally figures out how to correctly play a part of a piano piece,” Rita said.
Joseph Dai, 11, listens as his sister Rita, 16, plays thru his piano piece while helping him on Friday, September 18, 2020, at their home in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / [email protected])
Distance learning has also made the family matriarch realize it’s more important now than ever to keep the kids engaged and learning.
“Usually it’s just for summer slide, but now it’s for summer slide, and also COVID,” Wang said of the extra online curriculum she requires in addition to their schooling.
Rita Dai, 16, helps her brother Joe, 11, work through a math problem on Khan Academy, and online school resource, on Friday, September 18, 2020, at their home in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / [email protected])
“We definitely place more of an emphasis on learning than a normal family,” Rita said. “This means that there’s always some pressure to do just as well with distance learning as normal school, even though the circumstances make keeping up much harder. However, it also means that my brother and I stay motivated to continue doing as best we can during these difficult times.”
When the day is over and the schoolwork is done, the family focuses on what they’re thankful for.
“We are closer because we spend more time at home,” Wang said. “People realize something that they take for granted. Like your family, your friends. You’re healthy, right? Usually you don’t appreciate those things because it’s so normal, it’s just there, you take it.”
“Now you appreciate it,” she continued. “This makes people think. Some people have lost work. You have work, you have healthy kids — even if they are naughty, you still have them. We take so many things for granted.”
Rita Dai, 16, and her grandmother JiaCun Wang watch as Joseph 11, rolls out dough for Mantou, a Chinese steamed bun on Friday, September 18, 2020, at their home in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / [email protected])