I thought I’d share this personal narrative that I had written a few months ago on International Women’s Day. It’s about the women before me, my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother. How each generation of women in my family for the past century has lived lives deemed impossible to the one before them. So with that, Happy International Women’s Day my lovely sisters and siblings, in all the brilliant genders and attractions we share.
This summer when my mother and my sister were in Boston, we went to go see the Asian Megacities exhibit at the MFA. My mother had grown up in one of these cities, Beijing. And me and my sister, had grown up in Shanghai, another megacity.
My mother looked at the art created by Asian artists reacting to such a rapid social change and started reflecting about our own family history. It was rare, prompted I think by the art around us that bleed a kind of diasporic reaction to rapid capitalism. We don’t talk about our history much in my family and I’ve often thought that family histories were only for those families who were proud of their history and mine included civil war, revolutions, and immigration. Stories that while, from the white gaze seem exotic , in my family carries to much pain and unresolved suffering to be anything worn proudly, or even at all.
When I sat down to write this personal narrative, I had this story in mind about being in an abusive family when I was young, and how I dreamed about running away every night, how infatuated I was the idea of Western democracy, how much I’ve learned through the deepest disappointments of my life. I had this great analogy of childhood abuse and internalized racism. About how both make you feel so incredibly powerless and that was why I was an organizer. All that is true, and it is my story. But when I actually started writing, I felt like I couldn’t start my story just from my birth.
Two years ago, when I was walking up to Capitol Hill as intern for the first time, I looked at the marble dome which is the ultimate symbol of American power. I stood there for a second and I thought this is so strange because only two generations ago, my great grandmother had her feet bound because she was a woman, then unbounded when the communists took power, lived through the Japanese invasion and then the Civil War, and then the cultural revolution. And here I was, all prepared to begin my political career that since I was a little girl always involved a White House and a lot of self important speeches. Because as a kid growing up in an abusive household, I loved locking to door to the bathroom and pretending to give my inauguration speech. Because it made me feel powerful and in charge of my life. I hated my family, and I wasn’t interested in my family history. Because I only knew that history as something my mother would use against me when I misbehaved. “I didn’t move to America for you to -insert disappointment here-”
But as I’ve gotten older, as I’ve understood better the history of America, the history of China, of feminism and racism and colonization and white supremacy, I feel more connected to my great grandmother, and grandmother, and my mother than ever more. I realize that all the opportunities I’ve been given in life, every personality trait I think is so uniquely mine, can be reflected through the generations of women before me and traced back to decisions that each made which brought me to the front steps of Capitol Hill.
I didn’t know my great grandmother but she helped raise my mother and taught her that as a woman, the most important thing you could for yourself was get an education. And that lesson lit a fire in my mother that got her into one of the best universities in China, that propelled her to move her and my father to America shortly after they were are the protests in Tianmen Square, refusing to have the child that was growing in her body because she didn’t want her to be born in China, giving birth to me and my sister in America and always working hard to make sure we got the best education possible.
In many ways, I think each generation of women in my family for the past century has lived lives deemed impossible to the one before them. My great grandmother had her feet unbound and gave birth to my grandmother who was one of the first female pilots in China. She gave birth to my mother during the Great Famine who was able to move to America because of her persistence and because of timing and luck. My mother then gave birth to me, a queer, radical political theorist, poet, and organizer.
I was worried that telling this story wouldn’t be personal enough, but I reminded myself my understanding of person, of the individual was greatly shaped by a Western liberal idea. I was worried that I wouldn’t have a point to this story, because as an organizer I know the kind of story that gets people rilled up, how to connect my story of self, with a story of us, with a story of now. But I think telling this story is important to me right now, because this year as I’m trying to connect with the Divine, with God, with whatever you like to call it, I keep reminding myself of that Sandra Cisneros quote where she declared that for her to be able to accept God, she had to be a woman like her. And for me, in my life, the only only blueprints I have are the women who have gone before me.
And yet, the world that I am constantly fighting for is a world that these women did not live in. But all of them did live in times of great unrest, swept up by forces greater than themselves and propelled by forces within themselves. What shaped their lives was a combination of their own resilience and histories beyond their control. Even though the work that I do now may seem so far removed from them, I see it as part of this collective story. This story of constantly navigating new worlds, new social orders, and meeting them with incredible strength and resilience.
To imagine new worlds that do not yet exist, built upon foundations that sometimes you feel too broken to lay is no small feat. Indeed it is not simple or easy. But that does not mean the work is not worth doing. It means, more than anything, that it will be the work of my life. To make meaning out of the chaos and allow that meaning to constantly shift and make itself irrelevant.
Back in the exhibition, my mother told me that the Beijing of her childhood no longer existed. She said, there is no use looking back because what is important is survival. I didn’t say anything then, but I thought. If this is what survival looks like in the women of my family, imagine what I can do if I’m thriving.