I was perusing some of the articles I’ve written in the past and one I found today was a review of the book The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. Amy tells of growing up Chinese in America. The story follows a group of Chinese women who meet to play mah jong, invest money and tell the secret stories of their lives. They call their gathering the Joy Luck Club.
I loved this book when I read it. It came out in 1989. I was living on my own in Boston. What made me take another look at the book is our discourse on diversity today. Watching the elections and seeing how so many cultures are being trashed and devalued hurts. The negative talk, full of disdain and misunderstanding that leads to the devaluing of human life, any life, is fraught with the idea that we are all separate and some are better or more worthy of inheriting the potential in America than others.
The story Amy Tan tells in The Joy Luck Club reminded me of my life as a teenager. At the time I wanted to disown everything my parents were. I didn't want to admit where my parents came from.
I recognized the same shame as the daughters in the book experienced. My parents weren't sophisticated enough, they spoke differently, and they looked different. They thought differently, they just didn't fit in.
I was busy creating a career based on the “American Dream” and they didn't fit into my American way of life.
I remember wanting to be separate from them, not wanting to be a part of their history. I wanted to be separate so I could be an individual. I didn’t want to be defined in terms of my parents or my heritage. I could stand alone as an individual, something demanded of me from this American culture.
It wasn't until later that I understood that I am a part of them and how very valuable this was. I am a part of who they were and how they grew up. I share the same DNA as my grand parents and the uncles and aunts that we have in South America and all my ancestors.
In my twenties, after my father died, I returned to Colombia. I had been there when I was ten and had vague but happy memories. I saw these people as my people. I was welcomed. I fit in. Everything was familiar and easy. And I realized my way of thinking was the same as theirs. And that for a long time I hadn't really fit into the American culture either. The fight to separate from my parents was the manifestation of my own struggle about my own identity.
As an adult, I came to terms with my differences and I decided that it was ok to be who I was, just the way I was with a past and a history that may not be appropriate for where I was living, but it was my past and my history, as much a part of me as my eyes, the color of my skin and the language I spoke.
It was this history that made me an individual. Being separate from my parents did not make me an individual, being a part of their lives and their history made me a unique and special human being. I have cherished this uniqueness since that time. I see how I think like them, look like them, dance like them.
I see my face in the old album pictures my mother has of family and friends. I notice the ancestral connection in the way I walk, in the foods I eat, in my perspective, in my mother’s eyes.
It is in my son’s face. It is everywhere. It is who I am.
I am so happy and fortunate to be connected to this legacy. I have tried to preserve this past by writing the stories told to me by my parents, by collecting photographs of the family, by saving the Latin music my father used to play on the phonograph, by recording those silly proverbs which instruct so well. I want to keep my history and past alive.
The stories my siblings share help keep it alive. It used to bother me that my parents would tell and retell the same stories. Now I hear something new each time the story is told and I wonder at who my mother and father were when these stories were occurring.
I tell their story and my story to my son hoping that he tells his children.
It is important to know where we come from.
It is the foundation of who we are. When we lose this, when we leave it behind or discard it, we lose that part of ourselves which makes us unique.
When we allow someone to devalue our history, to shame us into the shadows or to speak down to us because of our heritage, we all suffer. We lose the foundation on which we are building our lives. Our life loses meaning. As individuals and as a country we cannot be complete without being connected. We cannot find happiness and possibility in a vacuum. Like a tree without roots, our essence will wither and die without the nourishment of family, history and community.
Every time you hear the rhetoric around race, gender, culture or any other “isms”, remember that your roots lie in a rich heritage and history that feeds your life so that you and all to whom you are connected can reach their limbs up to the sky and grow and give life to the next generation.
Be thoughtful. Be wise. Be kind. Support those who are not like you because in the end we are far more like one another than our differences.