The first storyteller who taught me the value of stories was my Taiwanese immigrant mother. Her lessons and advice always came couched in a long-winded story or parable or anecdote rather than as a simple, straightforward admonishment, delivered in an “are you listening?” tone that demanded her audience’s attention more forcefully than the most skilled orators. I’m telling you, Rome’s best senators had nothing on my mother.
As an impatient teenager, I perfected the art of the eye-roll thanks to the hours I had to listen to recount the fable about the frivolous prince who pierced his ear and thus pierced his destiny and died a poor, penniless man, just so that our mother could tell me I shouldn’t pierce my own ears. (Because simply telling me “no” was not, apparently, enough. I won’t lie; I wasn’t an easy teenager to raise.) I envied my American friends, whose parents didn’t hold them hostage to the same stories, told over and over again, until our mythology—like the Tamarians’, who warned Picard, “Shaka! When the walls fell …”—became a shorthand for cautionary tales.
When I morphed into a storyteller (to my mother’s dismay), I shied away from telling Chinese-flavored tales. As a Taiwanese-American immigrant, of course I didn’t fit in anywhere. So neither, I assumed, did my mother’s stories. I was too American to be Taiwanese, and too Taiwanese to be American, and hell if knew how to define my mother’s tales other than … well, her unique brand of overprotective motherhood. So I hid them, those weird stories rattling around in my head, because I didn’t know where else to put them.
When I grew older and wanted to reconnect with my heritage? Well, by then, I figured it was too late.
I wasn’t Taiwanese enough to do justice to the thousands of years of Chinese history and culture and literature that had been boiled and distilled down into the tales my mother had passed on to me. I didn’t want to get something wrong—some detail or nuance that I wasn’t aware of because I didn’t grow up in Taiwan. A cousin once laughed at my mother, 25 years after we’d immigrated, for using a phrase that’d been out of style for almost as long. I was terrified that strangers would call me out on the same things in my writing, if I dared to call up my mother’s stories and integrate them into my own, because I could still hear my cousin’s laughter strangling my mother’s voice.
So I kept my mother’s stories buried deep in my silent heart, cherishing them more and more as I grew older and wiser and finally understood that she’d poured her love and hopes for her children into those stories, and gifted them to us as only a parent could. The stories I told were just fine, but there was something missing that I couldn’t put a finger on.
Then I stumbled across a Twitter thread from Astounding Award-winner Jeanette Ng that illuminated for me so many cultural expectations I didn’t know I carried, until she articulated them in a way that set me free from those burdens.
Here’s the start of that thread:
I want diaspora poc to be able to write their half-remembered grandma stories & the haze of c-drama binging.— Jeannette Ng 吳志麗 (@jeannette_ng) April 25, 2019
It shouldn’t be about having an encyclopaedic knowledge.
Your experiences, thoughts, feelings exactly they are, are valid as they are.
They don’t need supplementing.
And it hit me. It hit me so hard, I felt like I could finally breathe me into my writing.
Here was why I’d held myself back. Here was why I was afraid to pull out my mother’s stories and pass them on and say, “We, too, are part of this community. And that community. And that community over there. We came from you, but we evolved to be us, and our stories have evolved, too. But that doesn’t make us or our stories any less you or me or us.”
What my stories had been missing was my voice. I was afraid that laughter from strangers, from those more knowledgeable, from those more Chinese, would strangle my voice, so I didn’t put it in. Because if I didn’t, then I wouldn’t give anyone a chance to kill my voice before I could use it.
This is how a culture’s diaspora loses touch with its communities, and how identities get lost—when one becomes too afraid to claim their heritage, and another becomes too rigid to accept its evolution.
My mother’s stories did have a place. They were stories that had morphed alongside my mother’s migration to a new world, where she barely understood its language, much less its cultures and norms. She feared that her children raised here would forget their ancestors’ culture, so she told us the stories her mother had passed down to her, and her mother before that, and her mother before that, and so on and so forth, evolving through generations, from a coastal fishing village in Taiwan to the skyscraper forests of Taipei to the urban sprawl of L.A. These stories my mother told, they were my cultural inheritance, even though they weren’t learned from history books or university lectures. They were my bridge to my past, and to my parents’ past, and to a key part of my identity. They were my grandma stories, and they were mine to tell, because they were my reality.
Recognizing that, I lost my fear of laughter—not permanently, because I am a writer, after all, and not a comedian—but enough. Now when I tell a story, no matter what flavor it is—Western, Eastern, a mix of everything in between—I hear my mother’s voice. I hear her tell me about a frightened young woman who left behind everything dear and familiar, to join her husband in a new land on a new continent, among strangers who would laugh at their foreign origins. I hear her tell me about raising children of her breast who didn’t speak her mother tongue well enough to converse any deeper than superficially (“plain vegetable talk,” she called it), about evolution and adaptation, and about achieving that elusive American dream.
I hear her fearlessness, and I put it down on paper, and I know that the story I tell is the right one, because it draws upon my reality, and not anyone else’s, nor their expectation of what my reality should look like.
And I know I am me enough for the story.
Feature photo credit: Min An via Pexels.