Solving a Family Mystery – and Learning to Tell Our Stories

Tonight in LA, I started to solve part of a family mystery. During the Chinese exclusion era, my grandmother was left behind in China when her father took her male cousin to the U.S. instead. The laws were so restrictive, families had to make decisions like this all the time. She eventually made it to the U.S. when she married my grandfather, but her abandonment left deep wounds.

Over the years, I’ve tried piecing bits of this sad chapter together. My grandmother never talked about it and she has been gone for 20+ years now. I’ve always wondered who this cousin was. Was he really a cousin or some other paper son? Why exactly was he chosen over my grandmother? What did he end up doing?

Tonight, I was lucky to meet his grown daughter at my book talk in Cerritos and I got to ask some of these questions.

We still don’t know exactly why my great grandfather acted the way that he did. But it’s clear that the decision was a family affair. Great grandfather was one of 3 brothers. My grandmother’s cousin was his youngest brother’s son. He came to the U.S. in her place but he always felt indebted to her. When he told his daughter about the circumstances of his immigration, he cried and cried. He ended up working in a laundry in Philadelphia for the rest of his life.

History is about studying what has been recorded and asking questions about what is still missing. There’s nothing like looking at the immigration file of your great grandfather and read his testimony claiming that he had “no daughters, only two sons” to make you understand how immigrants, women, and people of color have been literally written out of history (even by their own families and communities).

Let’s keep telling all of our stories and histories widely and loudly.