The Lost Archives of Immigrant Ancestry

My mom sent this photo earlier this week: a picture of my grandma and grandpa in their youth.

It was the first time I had seen what my grandpa looked like and also the first I’ve seen them pictured together. He passed away when my mom was a child. I had never met him. Grandma came into my conscious life when I was ready to go to school. A strict woman who tenderly knit us sweaters with the same wooden needles that she used to strike us whenever we were acting up. She died last year when I was in Mexico. I didn’t fly back for the funeral.

A sense of homesick nostalgia hit me when the photo reached me.

When the diaspora happened in China, sons and daughters of families dispersed across corners of the world. Immigration happened for survival. Contact in those days took a long time. Letters were lost. Addresses were unfound. Sometimes people disappeared without further trace. Siblings, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts: reunions happened after decades, if at all. It made me long for the stories and voices of my ancestors and family that I could no longer access. The things that they kept locked up inside of themselves, too painful or shameful to share, repeat or want to relive. Stories aren’t the only things that are lost. Heirlooms. Photographs. Sentimental items. Things that once held meaning, disintegrated into dust, worn out by the sands of time.

It made me think of the people in this tree that existed before me. What were their lives like? What were the lessons that they lived through? These lost histories and tales seem to motivate me and give me a sense of purpose to write. I find myself empowered to use the gifts that I have: an education, knowledge of the English language, a skill for putting words together. Using these things to share, to write, to express what I experience for the ones who couldn’t or didn’t.

I find myself feeling sentimental for the dialects I learned growing up. The mother tongue: something that brings deep intimacy when I converse with relatives and friends. Speaking a village tongue that was as rough and tumble as they make them. A dialect that was half slur and slop, rolling off the tongue and expelled from the guttural depths of the throat. “We speak hoisan wah,” my grandma would say. Her tiny village in Toishan, China. I visited once when I was younger. I remember farm animals, dirt roads and we had one of the nicer houses in the area. The ancestral home was simple: a one floor, two room area. Dirt floors. Beds as hard as wooden blanks (because they were). An altar with deep red dishes, family portraits in black and white. Incense and candles. I remember squeezing a chick so tight it lost consciousness. I remember thinking This is the cutest thing as my grubby toddler paws closed around the helpless chick. I remember nothing afterwards.

In this evolving world and as I grow up in an in between of worlds, it’s a strange feeling to be half in and half out. Somewhere between remembering my roots and shifting with the new. The dimensions of my personality are made up of so many things. Some days I feel connected to my ancestry and other times, I understand that this is one drop in the ocean of experiences and lifetimes. That an identity is nothing more than a physical container in the blink of an eye of eternity. To hold on or to let go. Maybe both. Maybe the duality of everything is the reason for existence. To embrace what is.

Somewhere between being grounded and flying high.

So if your family and grandparents are still around, ask them about their lives. Ask them to share their stories. Learn and listen from them. It may offer you solace on your journey.

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