ANCESTOR WORSHIP: a reflection on biracial identity
Chinese folk religion calls for the veneration of one’s ancestors – an honoring of one’s family lineage, one’s history. ANCESTOR WORSHIP explores mixed identity and mixed loyalties through Asian American and European American genealogies and oral histories. The complimentary and discordant testimonials of these unlikely ancestors span from 1900 to the present day – intersecting with the experiences of mixed race individuals who must negotiate the “tenuousness” of what it means to be both Other and not.
Oral histories are like hand-me-downs – passing through various people, traveling strange and unexpected routes. They accumulate little details, lose others; they get a bit misshapen along the way, and all the more wonderful.
Many of us have weird family legends – ancestors who hid and survived in cornfields for weeks at a time without food or water, who braved raging storms and swam miles between shores without rest, who had affairs with their mother-in-laws’ boyfriends’ ex-wives and had secret twin babies out of wedlock. (These stories are entirely true.) What were once quotidian anecdotes have become part of a larger-than-life mythos, replete with elements of magical realism and telenovela plot twists.
Our ancestries are cinematic and visualization of narrative is key to history telling. We dramatize the past by replaying events in our minds’ eyes, like little vignettes. In this way, visual culture is a lens through which we reflect on and conceptualize our own lives.
Nationalistic divides between Asian-ness and American-ness mirror racial divides between Asian-ness and white-ness. Multigenerational narratives of immigration, culture and legacy are complicated by the mixed race experience. This understanding of Asian American identity – its facets and fissures – is contrasted with a Rockwellian vision of White America.
The American Dream is an idealized white middle-class narrative of domesticity. Whiteness in American visual culture conjures idealistic portrayals of home life – capturing contrived moments of intimacy, of comfort and belonging. But how do mixed families, interracial partners, and their multiracial children negotiate culture clash? What is it like being raised by parents with whom you cannot identify racially?
When Asian Americans are confronted with this imagery, there is both a disconnect and a desire to conform, to both embody and be subsumed. Biracial people are left at a crossroads.
Mixing History, Assimilation & Loss
In seeking to capture this elusive White American aesthetic, the testimonies of "white ethnics” mirror those of first generation Asian immigrants. Assimilation and cultural erasure are generational processes. While American-born, monoracial individuals may distance themselves from their ancestries in order to fit in, mixed race people struggle to ground themselves – clinging to what those around them have deemed appropriate for them to claim as their own ("Are you Asian enough? Are you white enough?").
Gaps in our personal narratives are created by loss of life, loss of memory, and loss of tangibility – primary sources that are destroyed by fire and flood, that were not properly preserved or never existed in the first place. Genealogical research is a very European American dominated enterprise. How do monoracial people of color discover their histories? How do mixed race individuals navigate the disproportion of their data? Both halves of one's family may be recent immigrants, yet their stories come from contrasting mediums – text and photographs from one side, oral histories from another.
In seeking to navigate mixed race identity, one fashions a composite experience from a network of ancestors, like roots and branches, to call one’s own. What emerges from our makeshift narratives are overarching themes that span time and place. Asian Diasporas are thrown in sharp relief when studied alongside European American immigration. Mixed histories evoke real and relevant connections between the past and present, that keep us grounded even when we are scattered.
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