Friday, August 23, 2013

A Generation Without a Past

When Chang Kai Shek's troops marched into Beijing, the victorious army finally arrived to repossess the Capital of the North from the Japanese invaders, we the citizens of Beijing thronged the streets, craning our necks, anxious to welcome these heroes of war with flags in our hands. It had been many weeks since the Japanese surrender was announced on the radio, and we all waited--for some momentous event to mark the end of the war and, perhaps even more importantly, for someone or something to signal the start of something new and better.

Then they came. Only it was not what I expected. The troops tramped into the city looking haggard and exhausted, foot soldiers with worn out shoes, tattered and grimy uniforms, gaunt and vacant faces as if they had not eaten for weeks. They did not march as much as trudged through the streets of Beijing. It was an anticlimax after eight years of holding your breath for victory. Chang's bedraggled, ragtag army. I will never forget that sight.

That was 1945, and the sight belonged to my father. But the image is etched in my mind as well. Someone once said, "When an old persons dies, a library has burnt to the ground." I know that to be true. When my father died in 2007, many things were lost besides the one who doted on me ever since I was born. With him went my connection to China, my uncles and cousins whom I'd never met, and a hazy past I can no longer retrieve on my own. You see, he was my connection to history, the history of China, the history of World War II, the rise of Mao, and the start of a new government in Taiwan. His stories are what tie our lives--my life--into the big events that happened, like when you look at the directory and map of a multi-story shopping mall, and there's that little red dot that says, "You are here."

Often we study history through textbooks and encyclopedia, but rarely do we learn what it's like to be a person who lived day-to-day through those turmoils. No history book tells you what Chinese children did for school or ate for lunch under the Japanese occupation. No one reported how sorry the Nationalist soldiers looked when they marched into Beijing under Chang Kai Shek's leadership.

I do not know my grandparents very well. My father's parents died while he was a youngster. My mother's parents spoke a different dialect (Taiwanese) and did not spend much time with us. It has always been my cherished wish that my children should grow up knowing their grandparents. As it turned out, my children never learned to speak Chinese, and my parents, for all the years they've lived in America, have never become fluent in English. And we lived six hundred miles from my parents. My children, like me, are estranged from their heritage, a past that belongs to them, yet entirely unknown. They do not miss it now because children live in the present. But I wonder if they might look back someday and reach for that past: How did I come about? Why am I here? Why am I in Washington and not in Taiwan or Hong Kong or Beijing? (I often joke that if it weren't for Mao, my dad would never have moved to Taiwan, and he would never have met my mom, and then where would I be? So I have Mao to thank for my existence today.)

A couple of years before my dad passed away, I asked him if I could record his stories on video. He had always been a natural-born storyteller, a trait, sadly, I did not inherit. So for two weeks I had a video recorder running in our living room, while my dad told me about his childhood, about his teenage years working in a Japanese auto shop repairing vehicles for the soldiers, about his life as an Air Force officer in the Nationalist military, about how he wooed my mom with barely a yuan under his name, about how he, my mom, and the three of us came to America with suitcases stuffed with all that we possessed and three layers of clothes on us because they couldn't fit in the luggage. I turned these into 3 DVDs and gave them to relatives. I knew, even then, that I wanted to preserve his stories for my children, that I'd someday add subtitles to those videos so my children could watch and understand.

Those DVDs are still sitting in a box. I have not touched them since my father died. After all these years, I still do not feel ready to put those DVDs on.  Sometimes the only way to cope with the loss of someone you love is to put some distance between you and the memories. The less you experience them, the less you feel the sadness--and none of us want sadness. We put those emotions in a box and bury them deep in a vault under lock and key. I thought that someday, when the sadness and the feeling of loss is finally gone, I would open that box and revive the DVDs for my children, perhaps even turn them into a book.

I've been reading "Tuesdays With Morrie" by Mitch Albom. There's a a part where Morrie, a dying old man in his seventies, shed a tear while talking about losing his mother when he was ten. "That was seventy years ago your mother died," asked his interviewer, who happened to be Ted Koppel, "The pain still goes on?" Morrie answered him, "You bet."

That's when I realized you never get over the loss of someone you love. The day will never come when I feel emotionally ready to put the DVDs back on. Morrie also has something to say about emotions, especially negatives ones. Embrace them, recognize them for what they are, and wave goodbye. Don't be afraid of sadness. Experience it and then move on. That's a good advice. Obvious, sensible, but not easy.

I'm working up to it. I want to revive my father's stories for a new generation without a past-- my children, who grow up knowing nothing but peace and plenty. When they stare at the big picture of history, they don't see the "You are here" dot. They find themselves outside of that map--a foreign object filled with lines and symbols and names and numbers that do not mean anything personally. They live their lives without reflection or recollection, because when they turn around, there is nothing to see but a locked door and a sign that says, "Collections burnt down, no borrowing until further notice".

Although much of our heritage is lost to me (and nonexistent to my children), those stories contained in the DVDs are what I rescued from the ashes. And I am the only one who can unlock the content for my children.

Recognize your emotions for what they are, embrace them, and move on.

I'm working up to it.


Stephanie said...

WOW! Sometimes I wish I had done something like that with my grandmother. She lived 100 years (1904-2004). Great post!

Helen of SJ said...

She must have had lots of great stories. I hope you did get to hear them from her lips.

Nancy said...

Oh, Helen, what a beautiful post! Thank you. I'm so grateful you were wise enough to get some of your father's stories on video. If you ever put in print, I'd love to read it. He had so much to tell, so much history to interpret.
And thank you for your words on embracing the sadness. I still feel it when I remember my parents who have been gone since 1996 and 2006.
You've blessed me today. Thank you.

Helen Bratko said...

Great post and lots to think about here. We do avoid pain, to our detriment, it really is okay to feel sadness, it's what makes us human and brings the deepest connection with others when we let them in. I know you will watch the videos when you are ready. We have videos of an interview with my hubby's mother, which we haven't watched, so thanks for the reminder. Maybe this holiday season when everyone is here. Keep thinking and blogging.

Andy Padvorac said...

Helen, good words! My Dad's brother, my Uncle Nick, is the only one of his family left. Next time we visit him, I will take a video. Thanks for the respectful admonition to protect our history, the DNA of our families!

adf said...

(I'm a bit slow in reading blogs lately... sorry!)
I really enjoyed this post, and appreciate your honesty. So glad you recorded your father's words, an example to us all to cherish past generations and their narratives and wisdom.