Issue Five: Memory

Asians Between Cultures

寻根: Exploring my roots. This is the reason I give when asked, “Why?” Why did I move to China?

Ironically, my first memory here is paralysis. Lost in a mosquito-infested forest, gazing up in terror at a sprawling web of giant, glittering spiders on every branch in sight. I wish it was a nightmare, but nope, this “day-mare” defined my first visit to my grandfather’s hometown in Fujian province. Trudging after relatives in search of my great-grandparents’ graves, I never would have imagined returning on my own accord, twelve years later, to unearth their stories and close the gaps within my diasporic identity.

Wherever I go, my Chinese face masks my American upbringing, while my frizzy waves betray my Malaysian heritage. As an artist with a dusty neuroscience degree and better Spanish than Mandarin, I know shame by name. The year my grandparents passed away, I grieved not truly knowing them. Yet it was precisely because I had no words that I turned to art to speak. My first video was a simple tribute in their memory, based on stories shared at their funerals. Who knew that Ah Ma pursued an education against her father’s wishes, launched a successful business, then sold her home for my dad’s one-way flight to a liberal arts education? Since when did Yeye chair an arts society that bridged artists from the mainland and Malaysia?

Retracing their steps, one hometown at a time, I’m discovering that I’m not the first or last to struggle or dream in ways I’ve thought “only I do.” I recently found paintings of my great-grandparents in Fujian that my grandfather commissioned and mailed home from Malaysia. I’m lost – and found – in wonder: Perhaps he felt ashamed for being overseas when his parents passed away. Perhaps he, too, found in art the language to love his ancestors from afar, to preserve their stories for generations to come.