Sunday, August 25, 2013

Telling Stories is Life

When I was a preschooler, Mom told me many stories of her life before marriage and America.

In the early 1950's phone calls were prohibitively expensive, which eliminated casual chats by phone. You can imagine what a tribulation the inability to engage in the kind of casual conversation that teenagers and young adults enjoy would have been for my not yet 25-year old highly extroverted mother. Mom has never met a store clerk or restaurant worker with whom she couldn't immediately build rapport and share a life story.

Letters posted internationally took months to traverse the oceans, sometimes reaching their destinations, but often getting delayed permanently. Mom said, "I cried when I received a letter from home," and "I cried when there was no letter from home." Loneliness and depression received no attention, although some people were acknowledged to have suffered "nervous breakdowns." Mom, whose grandfather was a Christian in their Chinese village, eventually asked Dad to introduce her to a Christian church so that she would have a place to go to talk to God.

Women who married and left their homelands like my mother had no one else to talk to except their children. Mom talked to me, because I was the eldest, a precocious girl child, and someone who had an interest in stories "from my mother's mouth (a phrase my own daughter articulated almost four decades later)." I learned the stories of the Monkey God, the White Snake Goddess, and the Moon Goddess. I also learned the stories of my mother's family.

Mom grew up in an affluent, land and business owning family, the eldest child of eight children who survived. The family had servants in the house and workers in the fields and shops. They even had bonded servants, what we in America would call indentured servants, and what Mom sometimes refers to as slaves.

When queried by me for clarification, Mom adamantly declared, "We owned them." But they also loved and cared for them. Mom's own personal body servant was a child of 7 or 8 when Mom was a teenager. Mom recounts taking care of and washing the dirty feet of her child-servant, because she was personally responsible for that child-servant's care and training to grow up to become a servant to the family.

The relationship between owners and servants was complicated, intertwined with generations of familial bonds and some flux in marriages up and down the social ladder. In the final analysis, my father's mother's family were servants in the household of my mother's father's family. In reality, my mother married "down" by marrying my father. But in times of impending war following the communist takeover, who was counting?

My father's mother made my mother's life very difficult here in America, not only because a daughter-in-law is valued less than dirt, but also because of the inverted familial and owner-servant relationships. Years later, I would intervene with the "old ladies" of my mother's generation to speak up for my own sister-in-law, my youngest brother's widow, who was being victimized by the older generation of female relations, who were simply and maliciously living into the meme of daughters-in-law being valued less than dirt.

When the communists took over China, my mother's family lost everything. The social strata were overturned. The men fled the country first in fear for their lives. The women and children last. My mother's mother and infant brother were held by the communists for a year before being allowed to flee to Hong Kong to join the rest of the family. Our family has no family heirlooms or photographs from the earlier days. Everything from that time is gone, except for the stories.

Meanwhile, my father and mother sent a portion of Dad's earnings as a Chinese restaurant cook and Mom's earnings as a janitor for a Chinatown tenement house to Hong Kong to support Mom's parents and seven younger siblings. We as a family know from firsthand experience that wealth and social position are chimera, here for a moment and then gone forever.

We know the value of family ties and the strength that sticking together as a family gives every individual family member. Refugees and immigrants are actually strengthened by our lack of ties to superficial types of connectors such as heirlooms and photographs. The most important connectors are the relationships, which cannot be severed by distance or time.

Today, Mom, her relations several times removed, and her childhood friends who have not been in each other's presence for over sixty years chat on the phone regularly. Mom talks to friends in Australia, Hong Kong, Europe, Canada, Mexico, South America, and the United States. They exchange phone numbers and gladly spend their meager Social Security monies and savings on international calling cards. Because telling and retelling the stories keep us alive.

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