You may have heard folks talking about their grandma stories, especially folks from various diasporas. But if you don’t know where these stories come from, or why they’re so important in diasporic cultures, or why they’re called grandma stories—well then, pull up a chair and stay a while, because have I got a story for you.
The term diaspora comes from a Greek word that means “dispersion.” And oh, how apt that word is to describe how peoples and cultures throughout history were scattered across the globe when expelled and wrenched from their homelands. Cultures have also seen dispersion when leaving their homes as refugees—of war, of politics, of all types of persecution—seeking safer ground to put down new roots and survive. In modern times, cultural dispersion has only accelerated with the advent of faster and easier methods of travel, disseminating immigrants around the world more thoroughly than a wind might carry pollen.
Such immigrants, set adrift from their homelands by geography and time, may find it difficult to remain culturally tethered to their origins when they don’t live immersed in that culture day in and day out. Just ask any immigrant kid what their childhood was like, and I’ll bet you’ll find common themes in all of our stories, no matter where our heritage lies—one foot in one world, one foot in another.
The one thing that more often than not bridges the gap between worlds are the stories that get passed down from our parents, our grandparents, our great-grands. Especially if you come from an isolated nuclear family—meaning no one other than your immediate family immigrated with you, so all you’ve got are your parents and siblings—these stories, more than anything else you’ll see on TV or read in a book, connect you with the extended family and the heritage that you left behind.
And, just like a game of telephone, these stories morph. As they get passed down, they change and shift just a little bit, shaped by the vagaries of imperfect recall. Depending on how many generations removed you are from your homeland, the classic myth that you hear from your grandma might be vary just a little—or a lot—from that same myth told by another grandma who grew up in the same village.
It’s how, in one version of the story of the Chinese zodiac race, we wind up with clever Rat who tricks Ox into agreeing to let Rat piggyback on Ox’s back so that both can cross the river at the finish line–while in another version, it’s calm and dependable Ox who offers to carry Rat. And in yet another version, Rat doesn’t bother with verbal trickery at all, and hides in Ox’s ear. Despite their differences, the stories remain holistically the same and deliver the same ending—at the last moment, Rat jumps ashore before Ox can set a hoof on the riverbank and wins the race, becoming the first animal in the Eastern Zodiac. It’s a story as much about Rat as it is about the results of the race.
And that’s the beauty of our grandma stories: there’s no one right version. There’s the version that’s taught to you, evolved from the experiences and memories of countless storytellers before you, and there’s the version that you’ll pass on. In between, there are many marvelous chances for learning and exploration as you internalize these stories into your own mythology, and re-present them in your own voice.
I don’t know that I have all of the minutiae of the Chinese zodiac race down pat. I can’t tell you who the Jade Emperor—the one who called the race in the first place—was based on, historically speaking, because I haven’t the faintest clue. I never studied Chinese history or literature. But I do know that it’s a story that my mother loved to tell us kids, with gleeful delight at Rat’s antics. It’s a story from her childhood, and so it became a part of mine. It’s a piece of who she is and where she came from, and in turn, who I am and where I came from—a bridge to help me navigate between my past and my future, between one world and the next.
And that’s why grandma stories exist, and why they’re so crucial to those of us who only had stories to rely on to help us flesh out our complex identities. The stories connect the heritages we’ve left behind with the heritages we’re building now, so that we can preserve these stories for future generations, in whatever form that takes shape.
So the next time you hear someone speaking about their grandma stories, ask them to share one with you. Because even if you’ve heard that story before, you haven’t heard their story.
Feature photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels.