The Histories of Our People

I have always been envious of my friends who know their family histories and genealogies back hundreds of years. Whenever I see commercials for genealogy sites, I sigh, wishing it were available to me, but resignedly accept that it is mostly for white people and perhaps black people. American people. Or Europeans. You know, people with records.

I cannot imagine that being available for countries with recent unrest and tumultuous histories. But if I am real with myself, my family history will dead end in China. (Thanks, Communists!) I am tempted to trace the roots of my family and Hapa Papa’s, if only for the benefit of my children, but the thought seems incredibly daunting. The task seems much too large. But I also know that if I don’t get started now, the last remaining keys to our history (our grandparents’ or our parents’ generations), it will all be lost.

That makes me really sad. If only I didn’t hate my paternal grandmother so much. Perhaps, I could mine her for our family’s stories. If only my husband’s family weren’t so distant – especially his white/German side, I would ask them more questions, too.

I often feel adrift, cut off from my family’s past. I want my children to feel connected to something more than just themselves. That they are part of a long chain of people going back to multiple countries; to the beginning of time. That if we are here, then we are survivors because we descended from survivors. How mind-boggling is that?

As much as I joke about my kids being Chinese and not anything else, I know that is not true. It seems a crime to erase the rest of their heritage just because it isn’t mine and I am too lazy to inquire further.

Tonight, I was listening to the Street Soldiers show on one of our local urban radio stations. The hosts were talking about Black History Month and discussing their personal connections to black history. When did they first learn about their people’s history? What was it about?

A little girl had called into the show and was talking about her school teaching them about slavery. One of the hosts sighed and said he understood why schools always started Black History Month with slavery, but that he really wished they wouldn’t. After all, black history didn’t start with slavery; it started with empires and cultures and thousands of years of history, of pharaohs and kings and goddesses and rich and powerful peoples who were forcibly kidnapped and sold into unimaginable slavery.

When he mentioned that, I realized, it never occurred to me that that distinction seemed small but was of tantamount importance. How demoralizing to only hear about your people as beaten down and oppressed. How weak and small must you feel when all you hear about is your own people being treated cruelly – and to see it mirrored in society still? How truncated is your sense of cultural pride and history if you start at the lowest point?

But how empowering if you start from the glorious beginning, wade through the ignoble middle, and see the struggle and fight of your people not just grabbing for something that they might not deserve, but really a return to the glory and dignity and abilities they always possessed?

If it made a huge shift in perspective in me, a Taiwanese American woman, just to hear that brief five minute conversation on the radio, how much would it mean to a black kid in school for a month?

I remember in junior high, we were in the middle of World History, and in the giant textbook, there was only one page (maybe two) devoted to the history of China. The history of the whole fucking world, and there were only two pages on China. I think it might have been shared with Japan.

Fucking amazing.

In high school, we no longer learned world history and learned solely European history. Such a teeny, tiny part of the world, and a big Fuck You All to the rest of humanity.

No wonder America is so jingoistic. No wonder white America thinks itself superior to all other peoples. (Except the British, because gorram! We sure love the Royals from whom we declared independence.) No wonder so many of us minorities see ourselves the way the rest of America sees us. No wonder we feel small and adrift.

This doesn’t even begin to include the history of our peoples in America.

Do you know that I know more about Black History than my own people? I mean, I take it as a given that I know more white history than any other people, but shit! My own people! Five thousand years of history and all I know is maybe about the Cultural Revolution and random history from kung fu movies. Oh, and we invented firecrackers and paper. And discovered methane long before anyone else.

Five thousand years of history and all I know can be summed up in two short sentences.

This is a huge reason why I want to homeschool my children. I know for a fact that my children will learn nothing about their people except a token mention here or there during Asian American History Month in May. And with that, they’ll learn about Chinese New Year, the Great Wall of China, geishas, Hiroshima, and maybe, Japanese internment camps, the Chinese working on the railroads, and Chinatowns.

It’s like black kids (and all kids, for that matter), learning only about slavery.

Our histories become something we are ashamed of; that we crawled out of the gutter to beg for a seat at the table. When in reality, we were pioneers, brave and courageous, innovative and ingenious; amazing. We came from our own fucking tables.

I think about how eager I am to learn about my own Chinese and Taiwanese histories. And about teaching my children their Japanese and German histories, too. And then, I think about all those histories out there – and wonder why we focus so much on dates and major events when really, the point of history is to learn about all these amazing peoples who came before us. All their joys and sorrows, fears and accomplishments. How did they solve and come through adversity? How did they triumph and rule their peoples?

I think this is why I envy the Jews so much. Yes, persecution since the beginning of their history is not to be coveted, but they have a book that unifies and tells their story. They have a story that is told in every synagogue and church all over the world at least every Sunday for at least the last two thousand years. They are known and seen.

I want my children to know their pasts on a personal scale, but also on a vast, historical scale. That we, people of color, have a past. A history. A place in the world where we lived, loved, and made big things happen. That we mattered in the past.

This is why I find it so important for shows and movies about the future (like Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek) to have people of color in them. To be seen. To be known. That we are important. That we matter for the future.

This is why it is so vital to me that my children – that all children – see themselves reflected in their history books, their current events, and their visions of the future. If we are not in the past or the present, how can we possibly be in the future?

Do you teach your children about your family’s history? If so, how? And if your family is of mixed heritage (I include mixed European heritage in this!), how do you go about it? Is there a particular side you might emphasize more? I am exceedingly curious and really want to know. Please share in the comments and I thank you in advance.