Photography by Michelle Kwon
editor's letter
Excavating the Trenches of Chinese Memory

My soul was riveted as I read the story of Marie in Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”. Marie was a Chinese Canadian who grew up with an absent father. The reason behind his trek back to China was a mystery — that is, until the unexpected arrival of the daughter of one of her father’s closest confidantes. This stranger begins shedding light on the life their fathers lived together. Records of family history are uncovered, detailing how and why her lineage led her across the Pacific. 

As I devoured the dismal chronological documentation in this mammoth of a story, I somehow knew that my story was intertwined with Marie’s story — intertwined with the story of every other second-generation Chinese American whose parents grew up in the tumultuous times of 1950s-1990s China. As my eyes scaled the words, I was transported into the past, seeing the world of late 20th century China unfurl through the eyes of Marie’s parents. Her parents were my parents.

• • •

During the 1960s, dictator Mao Zedong launched China into an era called the Cultural Revolution. China experienced unprecedented economic success during this time, but it also resulted in one of the most horrifying human slaughters witnessed by the world. The mounting death toll was 45 million in two decades. In this era of “reeducation”, all cultural artifacts were committed to mass pyromania, and all cultural preservationists were purged. The hong bao shu (little red book of Maoist ideology) replaced all historical texts. Civilians were so possessed by this ideology that they were driven to denounce even their closest family members, leaving their fate to the will of the Party. During this national identity crisis from 1966 to 1976, my parents were merely teenagers. 

China had to ascertain its identity in the wake of Mao’s death in 1976. History, texts, and art that were once rejected were restored. With this came free thought. Autonomy was restored to the universities after decades of thought control. The newfound spirit of autonomous thought gradually brought about a student-led demonstration in the public square demanding political reform to democracy in April 1989. Two months later, the demonstration would become known as the Massacre of Tiananmen Square, when it was met with a militant response. 

Excavating the Trenches of Chinese Memory

My parents lived through two very different Chinas and migrated to America in January 1989, a time when China’s identity was once again in flux.

My parents lived through two very different Chinas.
• • •

My understanding of Chinese identity was worlds apart from my parents’ understanding. I never inherited my parents’ memories. Stories of the past were reduced to the sweep of widespread poverty, often followed by a lesson to be grateful.

Growing up as a Chinese American meant growing up disoriented, dissociated, and detached from any collective story. I internalized my ethnicity as a deficiency because it was always deprecated rather than celebrated. Because of my complexion, facial features, and placement into a bilingual classroom (bilingual meaning nothing more than that we spoke improper English), I was often made to feel inferior through a series of racial slurs. I knew I was American no more than I knew I was Chinese, but the world before me seemed to have conceded that this coexistence was a definitive and indelible impossibility. I was a walking contradiction. 

Growing up as a Chinese American meant growing up disoriented, dissociated, and detached from any collective story. 

In the classroom, I remember listening for stories in which I could ground my identity. History classes presented me with the story of America(n exceptionalism) — Columbus’s “discovery” of America, the abolition of slavery, the Transcontinental Railroad, and our honorable involvement in wars for freedom and liberty. I rarely found the story of either Chinese or Chinese Americans in my textbooks. No mentions of the conditions of labor upon the Chinese during the California Gold Rush, the major contributions of the Chinese in building the Transcontinental Railroad, the Cultural Revolution, or Tiananmen Square. The rare sightings of Chinese history in our lectures were always undergirded with tones of demonization. 

The rare sightings of Chinese history in our lectures were always undergirded with tones of demonization. 

The half of me grounded in rich history was the half that estranged me, and the half that I intimately embodied existed without collective story. I was grounded in my identity as a stranger because I had no other option. Identity and memory are so inextricably tethered together that it is impossible to have identity in my Chinese-ness without memory of it. I was going through my own identity crisis.

Remembrance of collective story is essential for the community of God. “You shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness ... ” (Deut. 8:2 ESV). Both Deuteronomy 8 and Hebrews 11 show us that it is impossible to maintain our faith identities if we forget the cast of characters and wealth of experiences in our collective story. Hebrew faithfulness was to remember the exodus and to remember exile. Christian faithfulness during the Roman Empire meant remembering life in the diaspora. Collective story can be suppressed, but it can never be erased. Recounting the past is the only way to navigate the future responsibly. Recovering memory of our collective stories is faithfulness.

Collective story can be suppressed, but it can never be erased.
• • •

My resolute search took a turn the day I asked my mother about the grandfather I never met. 

My Gong-gong (maternal grandfather) was the principal of a school. He was also a general of the Kuomintang, so he was considered a convict in opposition to the Communist party. He was jailed many times and eventually died in prison by hanging himself with a noose. 

Excavating the Trenches of Chinese Memory

I sat amazed and speechless at this artifact dug out from the deep trenches of our collective memory, once inaccessible. I continued to excavate these trenches and found that my mother’s family was surrounded by political controversy because of my grandfather. My Paw-paw (maternal grandmother) was endlessly brought into the chambers of the Red Army to confess and denounce those within her family throughout her life. As the youngest child, my mother could do nothing but watch her family be torn apart by the politics of the republic. A decade later, she watched from a TV set in San Francisco, as the nation was torn apart in Tiananmen Square. To be Chinese during this era meant unwavering submission to the Party, a life under political tyranny, and national disarray.

Listening to these stories was tragic. Living them was likely even more horrifying. The guts it took to escape this cultural climate can only be matched by the guts it takes to continue remembering it. I inherit more than genealogy and physiology from my parents; I inherit culture and stories as well. 

I inherit more than genealogy and physiology from my parents; I inherit culture and stories as well. 

My story has become a complex amalgam of understanding the status of inferiority imposed upon me, the national confusion repressed in my parents, and the resilience of my parents’ migration across the Pacific. I am not proud of the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square. I cringe with sadness as the pain slips through, not by their expressions, but by their sequence of recollections. Collective memory isn’t always meant to be grand or glorious — at least, it wasn’t for me. 

Excavating the Trenches of Chinese Memory

As much as certain memories should be appropriately reserved for mourning, others propel us forward. Like many Chinese migrants during this period, the journey to America was a journey to freedom. Their journey has informed how I make sense of what it means to be free in America for asylum seekers, minorities, and my Chinese community. Not only so, but my family’s memories of experiencing a national identity crisis has freed me from my own identity crisis. Excavating these memories was like waking up from oblivion. 

• • •

I am not surprised that my mother and father kept these stories from me. Remembering this era meant being confronted with political complexities they were never able to completely understand themselves. Chinese migration to America meant more than leaving behind a nation; it meant leaving behind memories and repressing identity. Little did they know that the only thing more harrowing than remembering these stories was forgetting them.

I finished the last pages of Thien’s epic as I stood in a subway station in the center of Manhattan’s Chinatown, waiting for my train to arrive. In the distance, I heard the sorrowful notes played on the guzheng — a Chinese stringed instrument — by a gentleman who looked about my father’s age. I stood, sensing the sweet release and liberation of his notes. 

The words of Viet Thanh Nguyen resound: “You can evacuate a person from war, but you cannot evacuate them from the trauma of war.” 

I dropped a dollar in his case and smiled. In that moment, I knew that our stories, too, were intertwined.

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