How unlikely relatives are! With this connection, it is entirely appropriate that I walked up to strangers, embraced them, and treated them instantly with my most utter respect. That I was taken immediately into confidence, and that I searched for and found (within minutes of meeting) pieces of myself in the face and character of those strangers.
This is Shanghai, and I am irrevocably strung to this city. There are over 23 million people there, and in the faceless mass of population, my relatives fling themselves forward, claiming their identity.
There are many family stories buried in the relationships between my relatives in Shanghai. Although I have heard some of the details of what today's generation terms coarsely as "drama," I cannot judge what is truthful and what has sprung from decades living in the constant change of China's history. This branch of my family went through the Japanese invasion
, The Great Leap Forward
, Cultural Revolution
, Open Door Policy
and now, Shanghai's great prosperity. My grandmother's three siblings (two older sisters and one younger brother) watched my grandmother leave for America. How could they know that within 5 years, China's borders would be shut, and that they would never again live together? Both sisters were women of extraordinary beauty. Like my grandmother, one sister married an academic. But she never had children, and then they put her husband into a labor camp where he pulled carts with a shoulder harness. Some of his colleagues never recovered use of their necks. How could she have foreseen how the difficulties would change her? The younger brother's family worked their way from poverty to prosperity over the last three decades as successful restauranteurs. In their newest restaurant - they welcomed us, treated us to a menu of Shanghai's up-and-coming culinary creations that they'd selected for us, and showed us how good life can be in Shanghai today.
My great aunt in her mid-twenties. and, My grandmother and her sisters, 9 years ago.
In two short days, I found myself threaded into their lives. Like my grandmother, her sisters (ages 89 and 92), live on their own. You may think that a 89 year old woman with a bad hip has no business cooking soup on a 90 degree day in an AC-less apartment, but you will never convince my great-aunt of this. Nor will you be permitted to lift a finger to help a 92-year-old carry her things, because she already has a fabulous system of storing her bags in her rolling walker. Their hearing is impeccable, their health is good, they have no eye problems or tooth problems. Am I made of this stuff? I wonder. They are ferociously independent, proud of it, and yes, still beautiful. Their memories are long, as are their emotions.
Mom and her aunts (my great-aunts).
My great-uncle is 75, and has a full head of long, grey hair. My grandmother was an artist, but he loved acting and music. He peers at me later, across the couch we share, as if trying to figure out what I mean. Who are you? Why have you come?
I know that I don't have a real answer. How lame to say: I just wanted to know you.
It is exhausting, all of it. To hear the stories, to meet all these strangers who are inside of me, to constantly be translating in my head and asking the right questions to understand them. I know them, because they are coursing below my skin. And yet, I don't know them at all. I know less about their thoughts than someone I met last week. They have no idea about me. They think I "count tigers" for a living and tell me I look like a foreigner. That is, when they're not telling me I most resemble their niece (this news excites me at first - I look
like I'm part of the family at least! Then they reveal that this niece is half-Russian).
But I would make this trip over a thousand times if given the choice. I wrote in a letter to a friend today, now I understand why the places we came from are called "roots."
When you grow up in America, 3rd generation in a family with a culture of immigration, your "family reunions" are very small. They involve immediate family only - because everyone else is just too far away. So you grow up, and all you know about where you came from is a state, or a city. You know a generation or two. I never understood how my long-standing American friends had so many cousins and uncles and aunts - how could they possibly
have a family reunion with 200 people in it?
My family in America is a true gift. We love,and take care of, and trust, one another. Because of them, I was able to take this trip and find out that I, too, have an enormous extended family. It's geography, not force of emotion, that comes between us.
As I left Shanghai I felt the sensation of being closer to the earth, grounded. My relatives are cool, in the most California-praiseworthy sense of the word. And I am thrilled to think that because I now know them, so will every next generation of my family in the U.S. I hope they will know these deep, strong roots even better than I do.
(back) Mom, my 2nd cousin who helps run the restaurant, Robert and me. (front) my grandmother's oldest sister, her younger brother