Chinese American authors dig up buried family stories on Thanksgiving
As a kid, “Seeing Ghosts” author Kate Chow recalls hearing about her family history like it was far away lore — separated by thousands of miles and language barriers.
But those obstacles didn’t stop her from excavating the sort of deep family stories that so many are unearthing around the Thanksgiving table today.
Chow’s book focuses on her relationship with her parents — the “mythology around her mother and father,” as she puts it. Her mom died of cancer when she was a teenager, a loss that her father treated almost like a taboo.
“It was very painful,” Chow says, “and we rarely spoke her name.”
Only later in life did Chow start to come to terms with her mom’s death and her dad’s own quest to find the remains of a father he never knew.
Family, loss and the search for identity also animate Here & Now host Scott Tong’s 2017 book “A Village with My Name.” The book details Tong’s journey through mainland China as he rediscovers the ancestors whose lives illustrate the country’s tumultuous history, and the experience of Chinese Americans who immigrated in the 20th century.
Tong sat down with Chow at her home outside of Washington, D.C., said hello to her adorable dog, Charlie J. Bear (Charlie, for short), and dove into how their family stories intersect — and what they mean today.
Scott Tong: “Your book talks a lot about finding your mom, seeing her in different places. You actually, as a kid, had to find her because she liked to play hide and seek. So my question is, as you wrote this book, as you finished it, what did you find about her, about yourself?”
Kat Chow: “I was really trying to discover and unpack these layers of loss within my family. So loss of my mother, of course, who passed when I was only 13, who grounds much of this book, which I actually think expands so much more to other types of loss — loss of a sense of home, a sense of self, a sense of body and really trying to see how my father, for example, learned to experience loss. I had actually a really interesting conversation with the poet Tracy K. Smith for NPR’s Life Kit. And she basically said, ‘We all have our own language for what we’ve lived and what loss feels like.’ And that was actually something that I really thought and saw when reading your book too, just experiencing and reliving through your own experience, just exploring ‘A Village with My Name’ about your own family’s history.”
Tong: “The discovery of loss for me in my project, as I’ve spent a lot of time going back to China to find the village, I discovered loss in ways that I didn’t even realize. Maybe you had a similar experience, but I mean, my grandfather, my mother’s father, was somebody whose name was never spoken at the table. It was unspeakable because he was a political prisoner. He was convicted as a collaborator with the Japanese, so that’s the most shameful thing for a Chinese family, and he died in a labor camp, so he was basically erased from the family lore. Talk about loss. So to me, what is owed is a complicated question on one hand — respect for the elders, respect for the family story, all these very Chinese things is important to me, but what’s also owed is a real kind of human examination of the people whose lives are kind of buried behind shame. Which to me is the most powerful force in Chinese society: shame. And it erases people. And so to me, it was important to kind of get behind that. And I feel like in your book it is so personal. You felt like you really needed to put all that out there. I felt like you almost kind of owed it to yourself and your mother and your family to share so much of it with us.”
Chow: “I think this was a story that I’d been trying to understand and tell in many different ways throughout my life and throughout my career as a journalist, too. And it just kept coming back to me wanting to understand the mythology behind my mother and my father, right? And you know, when you’re a child, you often hear about family history as if it’s vague lore. It’s so far away. It’s in another country. You’re separated by thousands of miles and in my case, language barriers and the fallacy of memory. And I wanted to, I guess, create this archive of family history and loss and try to understand it through a memoir because I wanted it to be real and I wanted it to be grounded in experience and to have this record.”
Tong: “Something very concrete. You write about what is owed at the end of your book. There are promises you and your sisters and your father made to your mother. You have a brother who died as an infant.”
Chow: “Yeah, Jonathan.”
Tong: “And Jonathan’s remains were to be buried with her. And you write that you kind of owed it to your mother to have a proper gravestone, I mean, is part of the book completing that obligation as it were?”
Chow: “Definitely. I mean, I think that bigger question of what do we owe our families, ourselves and our ancestors and our ideas of country or home that propelled so much of this book. And once I understood that question, it helped me see that so much of my life, and so much of adulthood was trying to fulfill my mother’s last wish of being buried. Many years later, after her passing with her son, my older brother, who died just shortly after birth and as I was thinking about this and writing this book and trying to put it together, I understood that there were so many other things and parallels between my father, for example, and me and my father and I, for many years, I hadn’t understood or really been able to see his grief of my mother, his wife, and the way we talked about my mother was as if she was like a taboo subject, almost like your grandfather. It was very painful and we rarely spoke her name. But I understood my father in a different way when, later in life, just in recent years, he started wanting to look for his father, who was one of many of thousands of men who left the Pearl River Delta in the 1920s and 1930s, in southern China, to go to Havana, Cuba, and work. And we don’t know much about my grandfather, just that he worked in seven different restaurants, the story goes. He might have had a Cuban wife. And he eventually passed and died in Cuba. And my father never knew him. And it became this lifelong search to want to look for his father’s remains in Havana.”
Tong: “For Chinese Americans, these stories all rhyme. At least they start off in such a similar way, and that is we were fortunate to end up in America because our parents left China during or ahead of the Communists. Same story with my mom and my dad — and they found a way out. And so there’s such family separation, or separation from generations. My father was separated from his brothers for almost 50 years. He was the oldest son, so he was taken away, but his younger siblings were left behind. And I learned decades later about the suffering that they went through because they were stained with this association of being connected to Americans overseas in communist China. But the story about your father going back to try to find his father’s remains is so powerful to me because we hear in Chinese families all the time, you need to bury your ancestors the proper way. You need to go back to the village, you need to find the story. And what I experienced because I went back with my mom to her villages and I went back with my dad to one of his villages, was how it awakened them, it just kind of animated them. And I feel like you were writing about that, about your father, too, and in many ways, he presents as very stoic in this book. He doesn’t always have the vocabulary that you have to try to understand his grief and to try to talk about it, and then he goes to Cuba and he’s trying to complete the circle and find his father’s remains. And it really kind of animates him. I mean, what did you see in him? You went to Cuba with your sister and your father, and what did you see in him that kind of awakened?”
Chow: “He came to life in such a different way than I’d ever seen, and there was this urgency being in Cuba, you know, as an American citizen for many years. He couldn’t figure out or wasn’t able to go to Havana because of restrictions. And we had this very brief maybe week-long window to go through Havana’s Chinatown and search through these Chinese associations for any records of my grandfather. And when my father was just drawing on this set of facts that he had about his own father, the same set of facts — his name, what year he died, what village he came from and things of that nature. I understood how little of his father he actually knew and how this connection that he had, this need was really about wanting to do something for his mother, but also wanting to understand his father in a different way. And that opened up so many things for me. It made me realize that so much of my father’s life and the trajectory of his career opening a Chinese restaurant was just trying to get closer to his father, and I found that really, really beautiful. Hopefully this doesn’t give too much away about the book, but my father was able to find his father’s remains in a crypt in Cuba.”
Tong: “It’s remarkable, the discovery.”
Chow: “And seeing my father successfully find his dad’s bones in this crypt in Havana, Cuba. It was so powerful because I hadn’t really expected my dad to be able to do that. Those boxes and those crypts were unmarked. They had Spanish names on them. We didn’t know if my grandfather had a Spanish name. Some of those ballot boxes just had numbers on them, and so it felt as though the odds were really stacked against my father in this quest to find his dad’s remains. And seeing that it made me realize maybe it’s time that my sisters and I come together and we figure out a way to rebury my brother’s ashes with my mother and fulfill her own request that we left hanging for a decade and a half. And that had been sort of this ghost-like figure haunting us. This shame of not really being able to get ourselves to fulfill this last request.”
Tong: “You know, Kat, as I hear you talk about that, this closing of the circle. That’s how your book ends, this burial, this fulfillment of the promise. My book too, I don’t think all books have to end with the burial, but mine does too.”
Chow: “I know, I loved it.”
Tong: “And it is the symbolic burial of my grandfather who died in a labor camp in northwestern China, the Siberia of China. And I went and a lot of people who I didn’t expect to help, these government officials, and they tried their best. And in the end, they said, you’re not going to be able to find remains from the 1950s. And this one woman in a government office said, so many Chinese people are after the same thing. So many Chinese people have ancestors who died in — hardly anybody made it out — these labor camps. And she said, ‘Well, one thing I can suggest to you is, you know, go to one of these mass grave sites and just grab some of this soil and you bring it home. And you bury it and you have something to remember, your loved one, by your grandfather by.’ So I took her advice. I grabbed the soil and put it in a bag and brought it back to America, apparently in violation of law. And I brought it back and we had a ceremony in Houston where his wife, my grandmother, is buried, and we kind of sprinkled the soil on her grave site, and now he has a stone there as well. And again, I feel like it unlocked something in me because growing up, I never felt like these filial responsibilities were that important, but over time, as I got older, they became important, but also to my parents and to my mother who started to, I think, kind of articulate, what her father meant to her all these years of not saying anything about her father. And suddenly it all started to come out, and just one of these meaningful days of my life, it was just kind of this remarkable thing to see in the family. But I want to talk about your mother. … Your mom was such a jokester, I have to ask you to give me an anecdote or two because she was such a practical joke person.”
Chow: “Oh my gosh, my mother was so funny, and I really wanted to capture her sense of humor because she was more than the circumstances of her passing. My mother had a very dry, macabre sense of humor where she loved to play practical jokes on my sisters and me, where during thunderstorms, when we were so scared because power would cut out, she would separate herself from our kid grips. And she’d just run through the darkened house and scream, ‘Come and find me!,’ and we’d have to play hide and seek, and it was terrifying. Or she would jump out of corners and just always surprise us or do things of that nature. And I really wanted to try and capture all of those moments or as many as I could that would bring her to life in a different way.”
Tong: “Well I will always remember the bathroom stall moment in your book, where you’re in one stall and your mom somehow sneaks into the stall next to you, unbeknownst to you and grabbed your legs or whatever. And I’m like, what Chinese mom does that?”
Chow: “I know, while I’m on the toilet and I’m only four years old or so, that was really scary. But I loved, also, the way Scott you wrote about the search for your family’s village where you were driving a minivan. And it seemed as though there were just so many people piling into the minivan. And you looked at this situation with such a wry sense of humor where it was almost like this expansive, endless group of people in this car.”
Kat Chow: “It was hopeless. And I guess in retrospect, we — my dad and I — we kind of knew where it was, and we were just asking people, have you heard of this village in the name of the village we had was a pre-communist name. So this is a pre-1949 name of the place. So finally, one guy says, ‘Well, I think I’ve heard of it before in this little town.’ We come into this town and we find this guy and he says, ‘Well, I think I’ve heard of it before, but I’m not from here, so I know one of my friends will have a better answer for you.’ He goes, ‘so I know a guy.’ And so he gets into the van and we kind of drive down and make a couple turns and we leave the town and it’s kind of more rural and somebody else gets in. And we said, ‘Is this the village?’ He goes. ‘No, but this is his friend,’ he said. ‘I don’t exactly know where it is either, but I know a guy.’ So he gets in. And we keep going, and a third guy kind of stands in front of the van. Kind of very confident, he has a totally different body language and he kind of gets in the car very quietly and the car goes quiet like a priest has just walked in. And this is the party secretary. So this is the big — well for this little place — this big, important Communist Party person. And he knows where it is, and he kind of leads us to where we need to go, and it’s the great triumph of this discovery with my father to find the village where his grandfather first kind of left, you know, had this dream in the late 19th century to get out. The earlier stage of globalization, when Chinese people were so dirt poor, wanted to try to get out the same instinct that, you know, people in the world have to let it kind of get out and we found it. And this was this defining moment. I guess for my dad, maybe it’s a defining moment because he took pictures and he loved to talk about it. And for me, it was maybe just the start of the journey, the start of the research to kind of figure out how it fits into the other pieces of the story.”
Chow: “It really felt like that. And I loved how you really established those differences where something that felt conclusive to your father was really just the beginning for you. One thing I’m so struck by, Scott, talking to you is how our family’s stories are so, so, so different, right? I mean, China is a huge, huge country and I was.”
Tong: “Well, and your family speaks Cantonese, mine speaks Mandarin. It’s a giant place.”
Chow: “Exactly, and I mean, I think driving it would take 30 hours to get from my family’s ancestral village to your family’s ancestral village. And I’m struck by how many resonances we have in just the process of telling these very, very different stories. And I find that I find that really profound.”
Tong: “I think a lot of them start in the same place. But then they kind of take us to these different life experiences that to me, Chinese Americans don’t write enough about. I think we know some of the authors that have done this quite well, but ours, my sense is, is a story that’s pretty largely untold. There’s still a whole lot to tell out there. And maybe the job of the Chinese diaspora, to me, is to tell its story. A little bit more than it does now, especially now, because China is a place that kind of matters in the world and people have all of these assumptions, maybe dark assumptions, about China. So I think it’s important to tell our stories — and I want to just applaud you for telling it in such a human and personal way that’s such a window into your own journey.”
Chow: “Well, thank you so much. Thank you. It feels like a privilege and an honor to have my family trust me to tell this story, one version of it at least, and it’s going to be really interesting what else I find out because this is real life. So I think that’s really wonderful.”
James Perkins Mastromarino produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Perkins Mastromarino also adapted it for the web.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org. [Copyright 2021 NPR]