Issue 29 • December 2010

Art & Lit

Art & Lit

Family Tree

Allison Jiang, Groton

 

A bottle of soy sauce, a teal qipao adorned with winding floral designs, a brochure from Chinatown’s new noodle shop… the remaining items in my home that reflected my dark, dead-straight hair. It was several purchases from Home Depot that contained these little snippets of China in my Chicagoan apartment, old COSTCO instruction booklets resting at the bottom of dressers. 

 

Proceeding many car rides of my mother commanding me to repeat my home address in Chicago, (in case of a kidnapping), I began to prepare for my kindergarten project with my mom driving in the dark green Volkswagen Passat. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Wardanian, typically gave me a tumbling feeling in my chest as she spoke, being the most timid student in class. However, when she announced the upcoming project, I felt the sides of my stomach collapse. It was titled, “The Family Tree” project, asking us to present a mini history of our ancestry. “A Family Tree,” she said, “is a tree that shows us people that we’re from- our backgrounds and our ancestors! I want to hear from all of you next week!” The truth was, the age of six marked the first time I properly learned  about my family’s hometown. My mom turning the wheels across Lake Shore Drive, I marked down her words with bright orange washable marker:

 

SICHUAN

CHENGDU

SUINING

 

The three words sat uncomfortably on the edge of my tongue. Though genetically coded to sound out Chinese syllables, my Sichuanese tongue managed to spew out something that barely passed as Chinese, as I felt a gust of shame crawl from the roots of my feet. Nevertheless, I continued to practice: “Sichuan Province is my family’s hometown. My mom’s family is from Chengdu city, and my dad’s family is from Suining city.” My voice struggled to sound as I looked at my scribbly orange writing. There was more information pertaining my culture on this notepad than I had ever had stored in my head: learning my grandparents’ full Chinese names, my parents’ afternoons swimming in the river afterschool, the dinners of steaming rice and mapo tofu. All I had known was my surname, my parent’s occupations, and my favorite meal at dinnertime: seared salmon and broccoli. I bathed in the world I had missed, orange ink spilling as I listened to my mother talk in Chinese-interrupted English about Sichuanese adventures and the fathers of my fathers. For a moment, I almost felt the warm amber water of the river creep to the tips of my toes.

 

The project was best described in a phrase my mother taught me: mamahuhu, so-so. As I returned from school, I observed as my distorted characters of the notecards seemed to droop against the bolstering walls of my mother’s neat pencil corrections. Graded comments in hand,  I returned to my apartment, Mrs. Wardanian proving me with the usual feedback: Allison has amazing content, but she should speak louder! I slid into the warm depths of the COSTCO couch in the living room, and before aggressively turning to the cabinets to retrieve my capri-sun, I took a moment to look at the soy sauce on the top counter.  

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