Altar of Mine by Jen Soong

Altar of Mine

After three days of being surrounded by 12,000 writers at a conference in Portland, Oregon, I wanted to escape the chaos of the convention center so I headed to Chinatown, the city’s oldest neighborhood sitting on the northwest bank of the Willamette River. Signs of spring were sprouting; cherry blossoms perched on trees, releasing a perfume trail. I checked my map again and crossed the street to avoid stepping through a coil of homeless bodies stretching along the sidewalk. Picking up my pace, I practically jogged to reach my destination.

Built by Suzhou artists to replicate a wealthy home from the Ming Dynasty, the Lan Su Chinese Garden takes up a whole city block, carved lions guarding the gate. Once I stepped inside, a sense of peace immediately settled over me. A lake sat in the middle of the courtyard garden, reflecting swaying trees and filled with koi. Five-hundred tons of limestone rocks had been transported all the way from China. I admired gingko wood carvings, poems etched on rock walls, a traditional teahouse and plants native to China: gardenia, chrysanthemum, lotus and water lily. I could picture my ancestors in this place. My ancestors were buried in China, a country where they were no longer welcome. My grandparents had to flee to Taiwan in order to survive and build a new home for their children. My parents left their families behind to discover a new land overflowing with possibilities in America. It was like traveling back in time, to another place, to another century — a world in exile. Or, was I the one in exile?

In the Scholar’s Study, an older Chinese man in a black jacket and gray cap sat at a table surrounded by bamboo brushes and bowls of black ink. I stood behind a mother-daughter pair with matching blonde ponytails waiting for him to finish his Chinese calligraphy. They thanked him and when I stepped up to the table, I saw characters representing symbols of hope, love, peace like the tattoos I sometimes spotted on white people. I knew it was a touristy request and felt a tug to leave. Still, I wanted a souvenir.

“Can you write a name for me?” I asked, hesitantly.

“What?”

“My last name — Soong.”

“Fong?”

“No, Soong,” I repeated.

“Fong?”

I shook my head furiously. I’d had this misunderstanding in English before with hostesses not hearing how to spell my last name, but never in Mandarin. I shuffled my feet, fighting an imposter feeling washing over me. Where did I belong if this man who shared a face like mine couldn’t understand my name? It was as if I didn’t belong in either land – America or Asia.

He looked up and studied my face.

“Are you Chinese?”

“Yes.”

“Can you write it?” he asked. To me, it sounded like, “Can you prove it?”

I froze. He handed me a brush. Could I write it? It had been so long since I’d written any words in Chinese. I took the brush and as the ink spread on the paper, the strokes came back to me, relief flooding my fingers. I remember.

“Ohhhhhhhh, Soong!” he said. Finally, recognition in his eyes.

I nodded, gratefully.

He finished with a flourish and rolled up the rice paper. I tucked it carefully into my bag, feeling less like a foreigner exiled from home.

 

Then, I stepped into another room where a family memorial shrine was displayed. On a long altar table, a statue of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, was sandwiched between a pair of black-and-white framed portraits, the great-grandparents of a staff member. Even though I knew this was a curated display, I was struck by the love and care that went into the arrangement of incense sticks, tea cups, a bowl of peaches and blue-and-white porcelain vases. Remembering ancestors is essential in the Confucian tradition. Every spring on Qingming Day, or Tomb Sweeping Day, families visit cemeteries to clean, pray and burn paper money to ensure well-being in the afterlife.

My family never had a traditional altar in our home in New Jersey. We never even spoke about our ancestors. Perhaps when my father crossed the Pacific Ocean on a freighter ship bound for Oakland, those memories didn’t fit in his suitcase. If I had to create a shrine today, I would carefully choose a handful of black-and-white photos honoring both sets of my grandparents and place them delicately on a small teak table with a Buddha figurine, oranges and votive candles. Then, I would place this letter in a crimson envelope atop the table in the hopes of reaching the other side.

 

Dear Ancestors,

As I mined my own past for clues of anxiety and depression, it has led me to you. In the course of my research, I found epigenetics and understood how trauma — and resilience — lives in my DNA. Thank you, 谢谢 xiè xie, for protecting your family, believing in the future and passing on the strength to survive even in the darkest of times.

In gratitude and awe,
小美 Xiăo Mĕi

 

After visiting the family shrine, I walked around the lake and stopped at an outdoor archway. On a table, there were slips of red paper tied with ribbon and an invitation to write a poem. I stopped to think, inhaling scents of plum trees and peony. I wanted to pay my respects to my ancestors, to feel connected to them through this place in time, to belong.

On a slip of red paper, I wrote in cursive black ink:

Grandmother, I want to call your name
in a garden far away from home
so you will never be forgotten

 

Walking away from this arch, I had become a traveler who was bestowed a gift, a memory, a portal to another time. I thought, This is exactly where I am meant to be. I remember. I remember.

 

Altar of Mine

 

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen Soong grew up in a small town in New Jersey and has been on the hunt for extraordinary stories for as long as she can remember. An alum of Cornell and VONA/Voices, she is currently working toward her MFA in creative writing at UC Davis. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest Station, Entropy and GAY MAG. Her memoir-in-progress is a coming-of-age story about family ties, depression and the silences we learn to break. Follow her on Twitter @jenmuze and www.jensoong.com

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