On this day, one hundred years ago, my grandfather left China. He was thirteen. He was alone. He landed in California, but couldn’t find work there. The only opportunity he could find was in Alaska, at a salmon canning factory. Hundreds of Chinese immigrants butchered the salmon before they were canned. Eventually a machine called an “Iron Chink”, ostensibly named for the noise it made, replaced them.
There’s a theory that you can only be insulted if you believe that at least part of the insult is true. For example, if someone calls you a horse, almost no one will be insulted. If you know your identity and like it, can you be insulted?
My grandfather eventually made his way to New York, taking any job that was available. Laundromats, restaurants, you name it. The whole time he saved money and supported his family back in China. He opened his own restaurant in the 1940s. My grandfather returned to China to get married but couldn’t bring my grandmother back to America, so he only saw her about once a decade.
When I was a kid, I was embarrassed when my mom packed my lunch in plastic bags from Chinatown. Sometimes I was embarrassed by the food she packed too. Why did I feel embarrassed? Why did I feel out of place? Was it because I was socially awkward and shy, or was it something else? Looking back, I wonder why it became a formative memory, it seems so inconsequential now. My school was 90% white, but did I feel out of place because I was different or because I felt different? What happens if you stop trying to fit in and just are?
By the late 1950s, the Chinese Exclusion Act was over and immigration from China became easier. My grandfather brought my father to the US, and then my grandmother, and then the rest of the family. The restaurant became a family affair, with everyone helping out. My grandfather supported all his relatives and educated them. His descendants have held almost every job in America, except for, ironically, doctor and lawyer.
There’s a saying that you should never meet your heroes. The reality seldom matches up with the myth. So my view is uncorrupted, perhaps untruthfully. In my eyes, he was a 13 year old boy who created his own future from nothing. He forged his own way and built a future for generations.
Memories are fleeting. I vaguely remember my grandfather cooking custard pies, but that could be because my mother uses his recipe every year. I barely knew my grandfather, he passed away when I was six. I have more memories from the funeral than of him. When I was a kid I idolized him so much that I ate ginger and garlic only because he did (my parents should have told me he liked vegetables).
Throughout my life, I’ve wondered what my identity is. I’ve also wondered why that matters. I think it’s because I feel like I need to fit into other people’s conceptions. Or because I needed a way to describe myself to other people.
Every year we visit the cemetery. I think I've missed it once in thirty-four years. There’s a ritual we do, a series of steps that’s comforting. There’s a sequence of bowing, laying things out, planting flowers, and giving offerings that has been imprinted on me. I feel I take it more seriously than most of my family. I feel it’s my last tie to a man that I owe everything to but I barely know. In some way, I feel it’s my responsibility to get everything right.
Where do responsibilities come from? I think it’s a burden we take on ourselves. It’s an attempt to hold yourself accountable as you fulfill something meaningful. I’ve been thinking about this day for over a year. It seems momentous to me - our family in America for one hundred years. I don’t want it to be lost in the fog of time.
I have so many unanswered questions: What if my grandfather never came here? Who would I be then? I’ve wondered why he came here, if it was his idea? Did he have a dream he was trying to fulfill? Or was it the only chance to escape the famines and wars? All I know is that he overcame every obstacle and he was successful by any measure possible. He forged his own path. He took responsibility for his life and created meaning.