A Confluence of Personal, National, Global, and Modern History

Recently I read Zami: a New Spelling of my Name by Audre Lorde and was really swept away by her writing. I think some of what I admire about Audre Lorde’s writing is that her details are not laborious or burdensome. Her realizations are simple, elegant, and moving, never cliche or trite. The way she understands a truth about her life offers her readers a new language — a new way to understand — and I think that impresses me the most.

It’s hard to start writing after reading something that feels so effortlessly powerful. I put off writing, then publishing this blog for a long time. As I read and re-read it seems eternally unfinished. As a meditation on what it means to have a family lineage you aren’t well connected to, on grief, on being Chinese, I have Audre Lorde level feelings about these things, but my thoughts don’t always assemble into as smart or compelling words and phrases as I would like.

My mom sent me 5 pictures of herself, her sisters, and her parents. She sent these 5 pictures to me several times, still not quite understanding how to translate the pictures from Whatsapp to iMessage. I was, at first, confused. What are these pictures and why did you send them? I’d seen some of them before, but not all. I wonder how important to Mom it was that I see them, as if her accidental duplication of messages were made out of an urgency to ensure I saw them. And by virtue of seeing them I begin to keep some of her history, her parent’s history. My 公公 died almost 2 years ago. 婆婆 is longer dead now, 10+ years. I wonder what these pictures evoke for my mom and what she hopes will live on in me as I (barely) remember them. 

My grandmother (婆婆, po po) and grandfather (公公, gong gong)

I think this way when I share things about my dad sometimes. So much of my life is asking others to bear witness for me, to hold sadness and joy with me, of course, but I think history is becoming my most important ask. We are the keepers of others’ histories, and I remember this every time I talk to my middle school friends. To even remember that someone existed and loved fishing and motorcycles and and all of their specificities is to hold a place for them and that’s the best way to honor our dead that I’ve found. 

Moving from confusion, I was quickly mesmerized by these pictures. I am mesmerized by these people I don’t really know, but their imprint in my life is deep and still felt through their shaping of my mother who has, of course, shaped me. I love looking at my 公公’s face and identifying my mom’s nose and lips. I love looking at 婆婆’s mysterious (to me) and quiet beauty, truly knowing so little of her other than her back-breaking work for her family, stern demeanor, and surprisingly gentle expectations. I love wondering who they were. I love looking at their pictures together and wondering about the love and time they shared together. How did they grow together and grow apart? How did they love and understand and care for each other? I don’t know. 

I look at these photos and wonder about how to hold ancestors in your heart. How to think about how people you think of as generally removed from your life and your creation of self, have actually woven themselves through you and continue to exist in you. Isn’t that one way to become immortal? We continue to exist through shaping people who will inform and shape other people therefore continuing something of ourselves … or whatever. Look, I’m not trying to find a definitive answer to meaning or existance, because, really, we’ll eventually all be forgotten. I’m just thinking. 

Looking at these pictures of my 公公 and 婆婆, something else stirs in me. In loving their faces and loving the thought of them and the ways they’ve influenced my mom and myself, how is this an entry point for learning to love Chineseness, my Chineseness? I find Chineseness incredibly hard to embrace sometimes. An ethnic group that occupies both oppressor and oppressed, I can’t always distinguish between a) internalized racism, b) anger at the ways in which some Chinese Americans have desperately sought to align themselves with whiteness (eg: mobilizing against affirmative action and embracing anti-blackness), and c) anger at the ways the Chinese government enacts neo-colonialism in East Africa and violently oppresses Tibetans, Uyghurs, and their own people. However, even in this paragraph I’m reminded of how “Chineseness” isn’t simply one thing, or a group of things. The Chinese diaspora is large, approximately 50 million people, not including the 1.4 billion people living in China, and has several significant political, historical, and cultural schisms (eg: Taiwan and Hong Kong). 

I almost always err on the side of disagreeing, mistrusting, and finding frustration with Chineseness. I don’t always find things to love or find pride in. However, at this time, this COVID19 time, I am reminded that we weren’t given the name “Yellow Peril” for nothing. White America has never loved Chineseness either, and at best accepted a highly muted, restricted, and sanitized version of it. I am reminded that American has and still continues to associate yellow and brown bodies with disease, danger, and untrustworthiness. Don’t forget that Chineseness in America has long been monitored, controlled, disparaged, our labor abused, our ethnicity tested and found to be unworthy, inscrutable, disgusting, only palatable now if within a very specific, affluent, white supremacist paradigm.

Loving Chineseness is hard and having pride in it is hard. Maybe loving Chineseness, for me, begins with seeing beauty in my mother, and in her mother and her father. I am finding a new pride in their strength, calm, consistency, and compassion. It is unfamiliar and halting, yet exciting. I am reminded I am still growing into myself.

I write this blog not confident that anyone will read it or even sure my writing has a point. I write because I hope to untangle my thoughts into coherent ideas and it would be a great side effect if it had the power to touch someone else. 

2 thoughts on “A Confluence of Personal, National, Global, and Modern History”

  1. Thanks for your blog post Guilu. I am touched by your writing and feel similar conflicting feelings about my “Chineseness.” You make an important point when you mention that a single factor/event/characteristic does not define Chineseness. It made me think that all the different parts of what Chineseness (the good, bad, and confusing) means for me (because our identities are subjective and tied to experience) are what make me Chinese. These different parts complete the whole that has influenced who I have become.

    Your bit about honoring our dead through our memories also resonated with me. Thanks for your thoughts, they certainly touched me.

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  2. You mention how your life has been one of asking others to bear witness to you, and how we’re all keeping one another’s histories. That makes me think of writing and conversation both as always-happening forms of memorializing: if I don’t commit this event or moment to paper, or try to make sense of it by writing about it, I might still talk about it with someone, and then they go on to remember it in some recognizable shape for many, many years… Everyday we journal in-person with other people out loud, we consent to be one another’s memory banks, we keep each other bound together… I will remember for a long time how vexed you describe your relationship to Chineseness to be, knowing it to be true for me, too

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