Until my father died, I did not know where he was born. No matter how many times I had asked him when he was alive, he evaded my question. Consequently, the only think I knew about Dad’s life in China was that he was afraid of water because his father threw him into the river.
My Caucasian mother ran away from Dad when I was nine and took me, my younger brother and sister with her. We were raised in the South and the only Chinese words I remember from my childhood were多謝 duō xiè “Many thanks,” and some words that sounded like “ki doy” and “ki nui” that I thought meant “bad boy” and “bad girl.” I have not found the correct transliteration in any Chinese/English dictionary.
Even though my exposure to the Chinese culture was limited, I was drawn to all things Chinese. I look less Asian than my brother or sister, but I feel Chinese. I feel drawn to China by an inexplicable force.
After I reunited with Dad in 1969, he did not share his story – our roots. Everything changed in 1990 when Dad died, and his ghost stood at his tombstone and wondered “What happens next?” I was aware of him at his funeral but after years of blocking the ghosts I saw as a child, I could not see or hear him clearly until I learned how to meditate and studied metaphysics.
Long story short, through my conversations with my father’s ghost, I began to piece together a crazy quilt about him, about his life in China and his life in the United States. I began to understand why he was so secretive. And I discovered the name and location of his village along the Pearl River. There’s just one hitch. It took twenty-six years to draw his story out. He would be one hundred six if he were still alive. I will be lucky to find anyone in the village who remembers the 华侨 wah que, the young man who went overseas. It doesn’t matter because now Dad knows that I was sincere about wanting to know our history and that I will go back to the village to honor my ancestors, and then I will write his story, our story.
The take-away is this: if at all possible, do not wait too long to learn your family’s story. Gently pry open those shells to find the pearls of your family’s story. Sometimes the shell will be empty, but when you find a pearl, it will be precious. Like the grain of sand inside the oyster, some aspects of our lives are irritating and yet can develop into something quite beautiful.