Multiple generations under one roof was considered fortunate in China back then. Old basic stuff come full circle. What amuses me is this kind of living arrangements – making a lot of practical sense – happened in China to the rich families in the bygone era and poor or middle class in USA nowadays.
SEVEN o’clock on a Thursday morning: time for bao, Chinese breakfast buns. Dressed for school in striped leggings and a pink shirt, Mebrat Yong, 9, waited for the baby sitter to arrive at her family’s building in Chinatown with a red shopping bag filled with the steaming treats from her uncle’s bakery a few blocks away. Mebrat was dividing up this day’s buns.
She slipped a plain bun into her Hello Kitty backpack, then set aside another for Gung Gung, as she and her siblings call their 86-year-old grandfather, who speaks only Cantonese and occupies the first floor. She took a half-dozen — one coconut, two plain, one roast pork, one bacon and scallion, one cookie — up to the third floor for her aunt and three cousins, who washed them down with fruit shakes.
Then Mebrat returned to the second floor, where she lives with her parents and three older brothers, handing out buns amid reminders from Mom to the children to tidy the bathroom and take homework to school. The second-floor kitchen is the heart of the building, so Mebrat set a plate of buns in the middle of the long, dark wood table, where they would remain all day for snacking.
Such is breakfast at the Lees, where three generations live together in a household at once retro and revolutionary. Gung Gung and his children, May Wong Lee and Warren Lee, bought the building for about $700,000 a dozen years ago from a Jewish family that had owned it for generations. An addition brought it to 10,000 square feet, with room for each branch of the Lee family to have its own space.
The family rents out the basement to a Mexican restaurant, and the fourth floor is a free-for-all, where the children play, everyone entertains and Warren, who runs the bakery and cooks dinner daily for the adults, tends a roof garden of herbs and vegetables. The brother and sister and their spouses, Jennifer Lee and Benito Yong, split the mortgage and the bills for food and building repairs.
The percentage of households in the United States containing three or more generations has nearly tripled over the past 30 years, to 7 percent in 2009 from 2.4 percent in 1980, according to Census Bureau reports. The living arrangement is even more common, and growing more rapidly, in New York City, where immigrant values and expensive real estate have combined to make 10 percent of households span at least three generations. And there are untold others like the Lees, who file separate census reports but live under one roof, sharing chores, parenting and, in their case, caring for the patriarch — whose real name is Kuey Wing Lee — all of which, at times, can lead to conflict.