09
Mar
07

Stories

I was just listening to Kid Logic on This American Life, and remembering one of my own little leaps of logic as a child.  My grandparents were always shadowy figures to me.  Until my paternal grandmother came to live with us, they were figures of stories and my references for what a grandparent was came out of literature or television– snowy-haired plump ladies who baked cookies (baking in Taiwan is rare– kitchens don’t come with built-in ovens, and most people I know don’t have one), or joking old guys who smoked pipes.

My paternal grandfather I’ve only known through a black and white portrait– a youngish man, serious, wearing glasses, a white stiff collar sticking out of his dark suit, contrasting with his tie.  I only really knew that he died young– when my father was a three-year old baby running around and rejecting clothes as the other stories have it…

I was sitting with my mother, possibly discussing tuberculosis when I was in middle (or, perhaps even high?) school. My paternal grandfather died of tuberculosis, but as my mother stated this, I refuted her with, “But didn’t Grandpa die from eating … food… off the floor?”  I started to laugh as I said it, because by that age, I realized it was ridiculous.  I must have been told as a child that I’d get sick from eating food off of the floor, and then drawn the conclusion that since Grandpa had died from being sick, he must have died from eating food off of the floor.  Until it came up again in conversation, it was just one of those truths I’d accepted in my head along with the importance of brushing my teeth.

Most of my stories about Taiwan come from my mother.  She and I tend to gabble (too much, according to my father).  My mother’s stories involve pranks her brothers played, (although when I was a kid, they were all about how virtuous she and her brothers and sisters were as very diligent students), roasting potatoes and picking pineapples, and how philanthropic and good her father was.  My father’s stories tend to be about how exemplary his brothers and relatives are, and what romantic wooers of women they were.  (My father’s family has a few poets, apparently, and love-letter writers whose words are said to have melted the hearts of a few girls…)  My mother’s stories tend to feel more real– she’s a middle child, practical, and matter-of-fact.  My father is the baby of the family, always looking up to his older siblings with the awe of the youngest who will never be just as old.

I’ve been thinking, as my time in Taiwan wears on, more on why I’ve felt compelled to come here.  Part of the answer is to find more stories, to learn the right questions for the stories that have never come up, and, as Margaret Atwood puts it in a conversation with Bill Moyers about Faith and Reason, Story, Myth, and Language,

“We go back in time as far as we can get in our imaginations.  We want a beginning of the story.  And we go as far ahead in the future as we can.  We want an end to the story.  And that’s not just going to be us getting born and us dying.  We want to be able to place ourselves within a larger story.  Here’s where we came from.  Here’s where we’re going in some version or another.”

As I’ve mentioned before, my knowledge of my own family story has been spotty, and will probably (inevitably, no matter how many dots I find along the lines I can connect) remain spotty.   However, being in Taiwan, looking through old family photographs, or reading through histories, I’ve found more stories to ponder– like my father and uncle being shot at during a protest after 2-28, or family ancestry tracing to dynasties in China and the Yellow River, or my uncle telling my cousin the importance of thinking about helping other people, when he dreamed of his ideal life.

I have only the slightest notion of where I’m going, which version I’ll pick or could be fated (if one believes in Fate) for me, but it helps my imagination to have a sense of what my family past has been.

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3 Responses to “Stories”


  1. March 10, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    Hi MadGrace! I can’t believe I only now figured out you have another blog in addition to LJ. And what a beautiful post – as someone also straddling two cultures, I think one of the hardest things about our peculiar condition is confronting one of those cultures and seeing what’s really there. For me there is always the fear that it won’t be as nice, or perhaps will be much better, than I’ve imagined it would be, or that I would, or perhaps wouldn’t, fit in as well as I thought I would. Ultimately the confrontation is so much better than imagining it, though. I’m looking forward to reading (and seeing) more of your adventures!

  2. March 10, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    Thanks Tamar!

    I think when I first came to Taiwan as an adolescent and old enough to remember it, the anxiety about fitting in was much more prevalent, partially because I didn’t fit in well in the only culture that I knew. It was a bittersweet introduction in a lot of ways.


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