Snapshots of China Past
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and while I hate to only think about or talk about my Asian American heritage during one month of the year, it does present an opportunity to share a small piece of my history with you.
I’m either a first or second generation Chinese American, depending on how you look at it. Here’s the short story of what that means.
My mom’s mom was born here in the United States, but then went to China after she got married. By the time she came back, with several kids in tow, the US had already enacted the 1924 Immigration Act, barring immigration and denying citizenship to all Asians. So her birthright US citizenship was taken away and she wasn’t allowed to come home without a fight.
Eventually, and with the help of some influential people, my grandmother was allowed back on US soil and she settled down in California, and eventually, my grandfather and my aunts back in China came, too, and the whole family was together again.
Writer, Teacher, Collector
My grandma was a teacher and ahead of her time. Born in 1899, she not only was the first Chinese woman to attend Oberlin College in Ohio, but she was one of only a few women with professional careers during that time. She taught middle school science along with English literature and grammar. In 1979, she won an essay contest for her story about fleeing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and she was always willing to share her stories with others.
She also collected things. Lots of things. Perhaps it was because she lived through many wars and hard times when you never knew if you’d ever be able to get something again. Perhaps it was her way of preserving her memories.
When she passed away, my mom and my aunts tackled the piles in her house as best they could, but it wasn’t easy. We were all enlisted to help, and on one of my cleaning missions to her house, I found this photo album. My mom and my aunts were only too happy to have me keep it since it meant that it would be one more thing out of the way.
Snapshots from the past
That photo album held more than just pictures. The pictures told a story of China’s history and my family’s connection to it. My mom and my aunt’s think it belonged to one of my grandma’s older sisters, Mancy, who grew up here in the United States, but took these pictures after living for a time in Nanking, China. So, are these an early glimpse of a Chinese American woman getting in touch with her heritage?
Whatever they are, they’re beautiful, carefully arranged, and they were thoughtfully & poetically captioned, in handwriting very much like my grandma’s. I treasure them for the link they provide me with my own history and how they tell a different story of China than the one we hear in the media these days.
Here are a few of my favorites …
The next few photos capture the Ming Tombs – burial ground to 13 of the 16 Ming Dynasty emperors. Now a huge tourist site, the album shows what it was like before the tombs were restored and readied for visitors – when the land had all but reclaimed the emperors and their final resting place. Compare these to what tourists see now here and here.
There are so many more cherished photos in this album. Too many to share without losing some of the magic. But they’re part of my story – a glimpse into the past and a China that has been lost to more modern landscapes and images. With the rise of the communist-capitalist machine, my parents’ era – and their parents’ and our ancestors’ for generations past – has been largely overshadowed and forgotten by those of us in America. That’s why I hope I’ll always have these snapshots to treasure and pass on to future generations. They remind me of what my heritage is. It’s not the ruthless and deceptive China that we hear about on the news. Rather it is a rich culture, full of personal, human stories of struggle and hardship and tradition and wonder.
Do you have glimpses of your past hidden somewhere? What can you share to honor your heritage? I’d love to hear or see your stories!