"We are enough for our ancestors and for our children."

Readers respond with stories of loss & immigrant identity; Michelle thinks about grief during Covid; Albert gives an update on the pandemic and shares a scene from the Tale of Genji.

We’ve been overwhelmed by the response to last week’s tributes to Michelle’s grandmother’s life. We’re so grateful to you, dear friends, for reading and for reaching out.

We wanted to share a few messages we received.

Our friend V. writes:

Today is the anniversary of both of my parents’ birthdays—both born on November 8 one year apart. No longer living but their essence lives within me and in many ways is stronger each year. I wish this peace for both of you as you celebrate the life of such a wonderful woman.

A., born in France to Vietnamese parents, and whose father passed away when she was fourteen, shares:

It got me thinking a lot about my own family, about all the things I know, things I don’t know, things I will never know or understand. I often am amazed or even shocked at changes happening from one generation to another, especially in families who migrated. I sometimes wonder what my grandparents or great grandparents would think if they saw me or my daughter and how my family got through war, relocation, French society; or if my mother who dropped out of school at 13 could have imagined having a daughter in France, who would manage to go to university, or if my father who left everything behind because of the war would be disappointed at me for not speaking Vietnamese.

Y., who was born in Korea and immigrated to Michigan when he was three, remembers disliking “Grandparents Day” in elementary school:

I loved reading about your grandmother's life and it made me wish I was closer to my own grandparents (figuratively and geographically). I remember not liking Grandparents Day at school because I knew I would be the only one with a "special friend" or I'd be an adopted grandchild for a day, since my grandparents were in Korea.

I remember calling them more often as a family when I was younger, or we would Skype or whatever it was back then. But as my sister and I grew older, we both started to lose our Korean. I think I was in middle or entering high school when we switched to using English when talking to each other. So now, we kind of run away from the phone when grandparents call. It's like we have to dig deep to find the formal Korean words we need and often we don't really have the chance to get into deeper conversations.

S. was born in Japan and immigrated to the United States when she was eight:

I could really relate to the what ifs, and I cried reading them. Also made me think of my own grandparents’ reticence and shame about the past, their losses, and also their love, generosity, and resilience.

For a few months after we moved to San Diego, grandma was so upset that we left that she and my mom didn't talk. For many years, we just had very brief phone calls (international calls were expensive!), maybe about once a month, and we visited them for a few weeks over the summer, about every 3 years. The turning point was when I went to Tokyo for grad school, and they took on the role of my surrogate parents. I talked to them on the phone every day. They came for my entrance and graduation ceremonies, and I visited them for holiday weekends every couple of months. They would send me care packs of fruits they grew in their garden.

Many readers wrote to say they had called their own grandma. Here’s K.:

Hearing about your nainai made me cry and think about my own grandma back in Taipei (whom I have not seen in over 3 years). I just got off the phone with her in the morning and made me appreciate what little time we have.          

J. lost her grandma last month:

My grandma also passed away recently (last month), and it was hard on top of everything else going on in the world. Most of my family still lives in China, and my grandma was living there, too. My parents were the first in our family to come to America, so it’s always been tough keeping up with the extended family. I think this added to my lost sense of identity growing up, which is why I so connected with Reading with Patrick.

Another friend, H., thought of an aria from Handel’s Messiah

Your "in the fullness of time" quotation had me thinking back to the funeral service for my maternal grandmother. The postlude was the aria from Handel's Messiah, "The trumpet shall sound ... and we shall be changed." It has stuck with me ever since. There is this wisdom that says when someone dies, people who were close to them unconsciously take on traits of theirs. I think my dad mentioned it to me—this is his line of work—and I noticed it in myself and later seeing others mourning loved ones. One could cultivate it intentionally but the point is that it seems to happen on its own, and it's interesting to see which traits manifest themselves. It can be simply a mannerism or way of speaking, which is easiest for another person to observe, but I think there can be deeper translations as well.

A., who has impeccable taste, shared this poem about grief from the twelfth-century poet Xin Qiji:

Michelle’s relatives Rosa and Richard sent pictures of their visits to Nainai in California two years ago, for which we are grateful; her brother Alex & his wife Maria shared memories.

We close with the words of J., who reflects on how we strive to be worthy vessels and concludes that “we are enough for our ancestors and for our children”: 

When you write about the doubts and the loss and the legacy of grief and separation, all these feelings haunt me too. There is so much I don’t know and I am too scared to learn the depth of the not knowing. I suspect that even though we may sometimes doubt our worthiness as vessels for our family’s memories and culture (and I don’t think I possess an insecurity deeper than this one), I think about you and realize I need to be gentler with myself too: We are different but we are also enough. We are enough for our ancestors and for our children. 

Michelle thinks about grief during Covid and separation from loved ones

“In a society of migrants,” writes the anthropologist Engseng Ho, “what is important is not where you were born, but where you die.”

My parents are now making burial plans for my grandma. Both of them are in their seventies and have health problems, and I’ve pleaded with them not to fly to North Carolina to bury her alongside my grandpa. (Whether she’d want to be buried with him is another question!) I also made the painful decision not to travel myself.

This week had me thinking about tombstones, how they scatter across the world as generations of migrants accrue. I thought about a historian I met who worked on the westward migration of Black people from Arkansas. I asked her a question that continues to puzzle me: we know why many left, but what accounts for those who stayed? There wasn’t enough research on this, she said, but one reason might be that some whose parents were dead wanted to stay close to the graves. If they left, they would be leaving their family behind forever.

When she said this, I immediately thought of Albert’s vivid memories of grave sweeping. Growing up, he took a yearly pilgrimage to Taiwan’s hilly eastern coast, where wildflowers bloom by the sea. There he met family that spanned four generations. A cousin greeted him with a machete in hand; aunts carried bags of pomelos. Together they cut down weeds, lay fruit on the stones, and burned paper money. Afterward they relaxed, sitting on the earth they’d swept, smoke mixing with the mountain air. They ate a few pomelos (hey, the ancestors would want them to get some vitamin C) and left the rinds on the grass.

They made the shrine; it didn’t make itself. It was holy because they were there.

Graves make pilgrims out of us all, but this year it’s been hard to visit them. The peculiarities of grief during COVID—in particular not being able to travel to say goodbye—has been an invitation to think about families for whom separation is the norm, and is preventable. There are banished exiles, undocumented people who cannot return home, mothers whose children are taken away by child protection agencies, and those who are caged. Today, when I hear the phrase “mass incarceration,” I hear “mass separation.”

In the United States, many prisons are situated in out-of-reach rural areas. Family visitation is not a legal right, and withholding it arbitrarily, as wardens and guards do, breaks no laws. The state of Michigan banned family visits for those convicted of drug laws; the Supreme Court upheld it in a 9–0 decision. This means some parents in Michigan have gone decades without seeing their incarcerated children. Across the country, there are incarcerated mothers and fathers who see their children only rarely. First steps, first words, first tantrums—goodbye to all that. But goodbye also to the feeling of being linked to a chain of generations, which mothering and fathering can help provide.

That loss is tragic for any family. For those who migrate, the dilemma seems almost irreconcilable: the part of you that you want to keep alive is the part you’ve left behind. Like death itself, leaving puts things to rest. “How long do immigrants take to be assimilated?” Ho writes in The Graves of Tarim. “Some never are. Those who do, disappear. Absence, rather than presence, shapes diasporic experience.”

* Thanks to friend and sociologist Julia Chuang for sending me the Engseng Ho book years ago.

Albert remembers a scene from The Tale of Genji

H.’s quote from Handel’s Messiah—“The trumpet shall sound … and we shall be changed”—made me think about a moment from The Tale of Genji, which I happened to be teaching this past week. 

In chapter 40, Minori (The Rites), Lady Murasaki knows she is going to die. Genji (an asshole to the very end) refuses her wishes to become a nun, so she takes her salvation into her own hands. She commissions an elaborate Buddhist ceremony, which includes the dedication of a thousand copies of the Lotus Sutra. The rites culminate in dance, music, and “ceaseless drumming” throughout the night.

She sends this poem to a consort of the emperor:

Although these holy rites must be my last,

The bond will endure for all the lives to come.

The lady responds:

For all of us the time of rites is brief.

More durable by far the bond between us.

The exchange of poems made me think about the potentially infinite karmic bonds that connect us, and the subtle ways our actions imprint each other beyond this lifetime.

Michelle: Some happy news

It’s official: my client in a California prison was granted clemency! I’ve been working on his case since July with the Stanford Three Strikes Project and my friend and former co-clerk Chris Lim. A few of my students also helped me prepare his application. We’re very excited, but we didn’t do that much to make this happen, really—it was all him and the record he built in prison of tireless work, generosity, and dedication.  

His own grandma, with whom he was very close, passed away while he was in prison. “When our grandma passed away, it was hard for us all but it always felt like there was a hole because he wasn’t there,” his sister writes. “She missed him dearly, as we all did, but she missed him the most. With him not being there with us to mourn, it amplified our feelings of sadness. It didn’t feel right to bury her without him.”

Nonetheless, his sisters, brother, and parents can’t wait to welcome him home. I’ll write more when he’s out.

Albert: Pandemic update, French nonsense edition

The numbers are still bad. Last weekend, the country had a record high of eighty-six thousand cases. France now has the fourth highest case count in the world, after the U.S., India, and Brazil. There are some signs of hope; for one thing, the hospitals are not overwhelmed, and seem for the moment to have the situation under control. 

The French government, however, continues to bumble through this crisis. The most recent controversy centers on the survival of independent bookstores. (This is a global problem—I was sad to hear that the pandemic forced University Press Books, one of our old haunts in Berkeley, to shut its doors.) When the reconfinement was announced on October 30, books were categorized as “non-essential” and bookstores were ordered to close. But big chains like Fnac (think Best Buy meets Barnes & Noble) were allowed to stay open on the grounds that they sell computers and other electronics “essential” for teleworking. This exception immediately outraged small bookstore owners, as it presented an unfair advantage to huge chain stores where people could still browse books.

In response, the French government issued an absurd policy: big businesses like Fnac can keep their doors open, but must shut down their “non-essential” sections. As Liz Alderman reported in the New York Times on November 3, this has led to a ridiculous scene:

Supermarkets such as the retail giant Carrefour were given until Wednesday morning to drape giant plastic tarps over items considered nonessential, including books, clothes, toys, flowers and even dishes, to put them off-limits to consumers during the monthlong lockdown. Since smaller stores can’t sell such items, the thinking goes, big stores shouldn’t be allowed to, either.

I don’t understand why the government couldn’t have commissioned a couple of studies when it started relaxing lockdown regulations in May: what was the rate of transmission in small stores? How did it compare to the rate in larger supermarkets and other grands magasins? Personally, I feel safer in smaller shops—the local ones we frequent do a more effective job limiting the number of people who enter. People wait patiently outside for their turn, letting the stores air out more. Of course, small businesses have adapted too; almost all stores have a click-and-collect option. Some have also ingeniously rebranded themselves: a clothing shop near us now sells cookies and cakes.

Meanwhile, Amazon, because it sells everything online, has not been affected by the confinement measures at all. The mayor of Paris urged Parisians not to buy there: “Amazon represents the death of our bookstores and neighborhood life.” (I wrote an article several years ago about how independent bookstores are at the forefront of the anti-Amazon fight; of course, the political power of small businesses has been apparent ever since the Popular Front mobilized them as a political bloc.) That’s an encouraging stance for the mayor to take, but will it be enough to help our local scarf-and-cookie shops resist Amazon’s ever-consolidating power? Time will tell.

Links for the Week

  • The brilliant and iconic historian Natalie Zemon Davis read our newsletter—we can’t help bragging because, well, she’s Natalie Zemon Davis—and told us that poetry also plays a part in Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. (We’ve just ordered it—not from Amazon, obviously—because everybody is telling us to read it!)

    Natalie and her husband Chandler pointed us to Thien’s amazing NYRB review of several new books on Li Bai and Du Fu. So many gems from this piece, which vividly captures the lives of both poets. For instance, it seems like Li Bai would have been a riot to be around: 

    At seventeen Li Bai set out to make his mark. In elite salons, his heavy Sichuan accent made him seem like “a country bumpkin in an expensive robe,” yet the ingenuity and spontaneity of his poems brought him immediate acclaim. 

    Li Bai crisscrossed the country singing his songs and writing them on walls. It was said that he could drink anyone under the table. His closest friends—barmen, recluses, farmers, aspiring officials—lent him money, gave him shelter, or shared their home brew. Listeners called him zhexian (banished immortal); he called himself “the great roc,” after the giant mythological bird.

    Thien draws attention to Du Fu’s Daoist cosmology: 

    The fury of the An Lushan Rebellion revealed the decay of a political order in which he, a scholar-official, felt implicated; Hinton notes that his poems combine the “despair of a Confucian loss of faith” with an “almost metaphysical sense of displacement.”

    She ends her essay with a meditation on the untranslatability of Chinese poetry, and how the Chinese language creates its own world: 

    This is a difficult thing to wrap one’s head around; the dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface. Cheng [Francois] observes that the writing system “has refused to be simply a support for the spoken language: its development has been characterized by a constant struggle to assure for itself both autonomy and freedom of combination.” To add to the constellations of meaning within any given poem, the disciplines of poetry, calligraphy, and painting are not considered distinct but rather facets of a single complete art.

  • In The Atlantic, Amy Zhang writes about her ambivalence about becoming an American citizen in the midst of the pandemic. She calls for us to reject our old narratives of American exceptionalism and forge new stories in their place: “Instead of identifying with an old notion of the American dream, new citizens like me can advance a truer story: America itself isn’t going to save anyone, as my parents once believed.” 

  • At The New Republic, Udi Greenberg writes a wonderful review of Mira Siegelberg’s new book, Statelessness. He opens with a bit of personal history—his great uncle left tsarist Russia and ended up in Palestine—which made us think about our own family histories, in particular what it took for our parents to shed their ethnonationalistic upbringing. Although attempts to end statelessness further strengthened ethnonationalism, we can look to other political projects for inspiration: 

    The twentieth century’s most far-reaching emancipatory movements, therefore, did not focus only on obtaining citizenship but also on transforming the social and economic order in which citizenship existed. Struggles for gender equality, social democracy, and racial justice, which unfolded in parallel to the fight against statelessness, aimed to uproot the social, cultural, and political sources of inequality, often within states and their citizenship regimes. Their leaders viewed citizenship not as the ultimate shield from injustice but as a valuable social and legal status. This was also why, unlike Statelessness’s main protagonists, they complemented the fight for formal legal equality with other forms of action, such as challenging cultural representations or campaigning for material redistribution. They articulated broad social visions that went beyond the legal code, visions that helped them to galvanize mass mobilization. Passports alone were never going to eliminate the miseries of the stateless. This task was always going to require overcoming the animosities that led to their exclusion in the first place, even if this path defied universal prescriptions.

  • Our friend Joshua Coleman, a family psychologist, was on The Brian Lehrer Show, Albert's favorite radio program. Michelle had the privilege of reading an early draft of his Rules of Estrangement (pre-order here!), a guide for parents whose adult children have cut off contact. Josh has written a compassionate, insightful book. (Terrifying to read, though, if you’re pregnant, as Michelle was!) This show was devoted to offering advice to family members experiencing conflict or anxiety over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. 

The scene in Paris 

This Friday was the fifth anniversary of the November 2015 attacks on Paris. We live around the corner from Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon, a restaurant and bar that were targeted. There’s been added security for a month now; here are some pictures of police guarding Le Carillon, which is shuttered because of the pandemic. (Back in 2015, we wrote about the attacks and how we tried to teach in our classrooms afterwards.)

Last: We wish you a very Happy Diwali!