Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Ancestor Room (fiction)

Any number of stories in my family clearly never were true. My great great grandfather never had a brown cow that produced chocolate milk. I have no ancestor who visited the moon on a giant kite pulled by geese. No family members inherited a dragon’s egg that their descendants then guarded for three continuous centuries as they waited for it to hatch in our village in Southeast China. For the most part, these were my grandfather’s stories.

It was his habit to gather his available grandchildren in what we called the “ancestor room” of the house.  The space wasn’t exactly a separate room as much as it was the smaller part of a single L-shaped space shared with the grand piano and chandelier of the living room. The ancestor room was a hundred and sixty square feet of Confucian China separated from the living room by a small stretch of hardwood floor and an archway. On the other end, a single step and a curtained-glass door separated the ancestor room from my grandfather’s office with its three telephones, swivel chair, and electric adding machine.  In this way, the living and the dead in my Grandfather’s house stayed in constant though not direct view of one another.

In the early fifties, Mao banned Confucian rituals in China. Fifteen years later, it became the policy of the Communists to replace ancestor worship with Mao worship.  During that time, traditionalist Chinese hid altars behind curtains or in closets and gave up the practice of burning incense lest the odor tip off an unsympathetic neighbor or passerby.  There are many stories from the Cultural Revolution of especially clever families simply putting a portrait of Mao up above their altars then pulling it away to reveal the portrait of their natural grandparents.

In that period, overseas Chinese had the luxury of practicing the rites of offering food, bowing, and burning incense to their grandparents openly in their homes.  Because no one could go back to China to observe the practices, the practices in each overseas household began to vary from the original with all practitioners gradually less and less certain about any shifts or changes in the rituals. Was it three sets of bows or just three bows?  Did one take the food away as the sun set or after the sun set?  Just how many sticks of incense did one have to burn at a time?

This is a  pattern in California with any peoples who stay there for any period of time.  California wineries were started with cuttings from French vineyards. Generations later a blight nearly wiped out the French wine industry which was then rescued by shipments of California vines returned to their biologically native soil and climate. It happened to all the customs and ways of people who stay in California. Mexican food added avocadoes, mounds of shredded lettuce,  snowballs of sour cream, and drinks made with tequila and crushed ice.  Guitars replaced church organs.  Cars became four-wheeled sculpture, carriages to drive around imaginary town squares in places that only had a single street to define the center of town.

After the cultural revolution, hundreds of California Chinese restored Confucius to their familial villages with pictures, banners of inspirational writings, and small statues. Like the taste of California grapes grown in French soil, no one knows what precisely may have shifted, disappeared, or been added in the exchange.

I’ve come to think of California as that place in the world that absorbs and changes its people’s histories and grafts their memories onto things that may or may not have actually happened. It’s the reason the movie industry flourished there once production moved from New York City. It had nothing to do with being able to film outdoors 365 days a year. It is the nature of this geological drifting island that belongs neither to the Western hemisphere nor the East that things be they vines, customs, memories, or dreams take root in California’s soil but never stay rooted there.

When I was a child though, Grandfather’s ancestor room seemed permanent and rooted enough to do its job of stretching across generations into the future. A thirty-inch tall bronze incense burner decorated with carved lions and dragons held the room’s center, a Confucian compass unfailingly pointing our family to its Chinese origins. A circular marble-topped table that never seemed to gather dust of any kind supported the incense burner. Out of fear that we might knock it over, our mothers insisted that we never play within two feet of the table.

The far wall held what was best described as floor to ceiling stained-teak altar that stood between two identical brass-knobbed storage cabinets. A set of metal incense burners sat alone on the highest shelf, dragons crawled up their legs and  sand filled the inside.  Three red textile banners fringed in gold thread hung above the incense. No one, even a visiting Chinese scholar, ever managed to translate the Chinese writing on the banners word for word.

To my boy cousins and myself, the most exciting object in the room sat in the highest shelf of the left-hand cabinet next to the altar.  That shelf held a cigar box with a flimsy tin latch that in turn held a revolver.  While my Grandfather looked to his ancestors to protect his household and family, that trust only went so far.  Both my Grandparents lived in constant fear that that someone would try to rob Paperson’s largest and fanciest domicle.  Their fear had basis.  In 1962 Uncle Leon, who was still living there with his wife and children, had to come out to the back porch and fire a shotgun in the air after the dog kept barking at three in the morning.  A pair of men were seen jumping off the far end of the garage into the alley behind the house.

My grandparents refused to call the sheriff . The deputies would have made the too ready connection between the owner of a household full of cash and the gambling house operating just a few blocks away.  After the robbery attempt, every member of the family went down the concrete steps in pairs to inspect the quarter inch hole just below the deadbolt drilled by the robbers.

Soon after, my grandparents proclaimed that the house was never to be left completely unoccupied.  One adult family member had to stay behind to guard it regardless of the importance of the event.  At the most literal level, my grandparents became prisoners of their own good fortune in America. The revolver was added to the household after Uncle Leon moved out a year later.  The grandchildren weren’t supposed to know about it, but of course we did.

When the adults weren’t watching, we would slip into the ancestor room, pull one of the black teak lion chairs next to the cabinets,  and  one of us would clamber to the top shelf.  That cousin, it was never me, would then bring the yellow cigar box down to the level of the lowest shelf of the cabinet so we could all stare at it.  If my older cousin Theo was the climber, he would stare at the gun while making us wait below for our turn. If we were especially brave, we would touch the black handle or the cylinders, but usually we wouldn’t dare touch the trigger or safety. Once done, we would take care to leave no evidence of our explorations of the ancestor room.

To anyone who wasn’t a young boy, the single most interesting item in the ancestor room were two black and white portraits the size of a tv tray that served as the focal point of the altar.  My grandfather hung them just high enough so that anyone looking at them always had to be looking up, but not so high that one couldn’t feel the presence of their subjects.

A man and a woman stared straight into the gunpowder flash of a tripod-mounted box camera as if they were seeing this optical miracle from the future for the first time. Both wore traditional Chinese dress. The man had on a padded jacket with cloth buttons and the woman wore a black suit of brocaded silk. Neither smiled. These were my grandfather’s parents, my great grandparents. I assume the photos were taken before my grandfather left China in the first decade of the 20th century or not long thereafter.

Neither of my great grandparents ever visited California.  Both died before my Grandfather, their fourth son, became a wealthy man. I don’t know what they did for a living. I don’t even know their names which should be a deep source of shame for anyone Chinese. I have no idea what they thought of their own son who became wealthy in California. Because all we had to go on was these two pictures, I was convinced that my greatgrandparents never smiled.

Other than that, I could tell you only two things about them for sure. They wore those Chinese version of yarmulkes and satin slippers instead of shoes. They expected us to kneel on pillows directly in front of them at least once a year, usually during Chinese New Year’s, and bow to them three times each time to assure that even descendants who knew them only as black and white photos continued to venerate them.

On these occasions, my grandmother would steam a chicken, surround it with oranges and a red ribbon, then place the chicken on the counter space below the portraits on the altar for a full afternoon. Later that evening, she would chop the chicken into two inch pieces which we would dip in oyster sauce and/or saltpeter.   As strange as it felt to eat offerings to the dead, we all had to consume at least a piece so that the family’s offering to the memory of our ancestors did not go to waste, the Confucian version of communion.
I would have preferred that my grandfather honor the memory of his own parents by telling us stories about who they were and what they did, something he always avoided. At that time, the model for ethnic family histories was Alex Haley’s  Roots, the first TV miniseries.  I even suggested it once in the ancestor room, but it horrified my grandfather who sputtered, “No one in you family was slave.  We always free.  This family not like that.”

Before I could say, “Alex Haley’s family didn’t have a choice,” my grandfather cut our ancestor session short by telling us that he had to work in his office.

There are two possibilities to explain why my Grandfather who clearly loved to tell stories never seemed to tell stories about his actual family, our ancestors. He never explained clearly what his own parents did for a living, the sorts of jokes they told, any odd habits they might have had, or things they might have done to or for one another.

My Grandfather left for California when he was seventeen years old. He may simply not have had any stories that he remembered. As Chinese as he seemed to us, the truth was that he’d spent his entire adult life in the United States. He did not marry until he was thirty two. He thus lived almost fifteen years in California with virtually no one to share his family stories. He may have substituted his more colorful lore of dragon’s eggs and magic cows  for drabber stories about generations of life as not particularly successful subsistence farmers in a river village that few family members ever left.  

Just looking at those portraits, it also seems obvious that my great grandparents weren’t much for telling stories themselves.  This is the sadder and more likely possibility. My grandfather was one of nine children of which four sons came to California. I don’t remember ever meeting any of my grandfather’s older brothers. He never spoke of them. We would occasionally meet people who would be introduced to us as my grandfather’s nephews and nieces, all of whom were extremely deferential to my grandfather and grandmother, but their level of formality always made them seem like something other than the close relatives that genealogy and custom would have implied.

Their perfunctory mention of their own parents around my grandfather suggests to me that he perhaps didn’t lack for stories as much as he simply didn’t feel comfortable sharing them with us.  How do you teach respect for elders, if say your own stories are filled with broken duties and strained family honor?  The Confucian duty was to honor one’s elders not necessarily to honor who they really were, what they did, or to specifically remember  less than honorable details. What would be the point of venerating what should best be forgotten?  

My Grandfather taught us to venerate our ancestors in the following way. He would sit on one of the black mahogany chairs that came from China in the back corner of his ancestor room that held a stout cabinet that stored  grandfather’s tobacco humidor and pipe collection. He was actually a short man, but no one ever thought of him as one.  He had a thin mustache that was always perfectly trimmed, a bald head, and eyes that suggested unusual intelligence.

In the other corner, a full-sized four band radio stood on top of the identical cabinet . The feet of the chair had paws carved into them. The back had carved dragons and flowers srouting from  its supports which might have made the chair look interesting but also made it uncomfortable.  He would beckon us to sit around him on pillows from the living room couch and he would ask us what we learned in school about history.

“Who discovered America?”

We would tell him Christopher Columbus or those of us who were more with it would say “Leif Erickson”. My grandfather would listen, take a draw from his cigar, and shake his head.

“What you teacher’s name? What grade you in?”We would tell him.“Is this a good school?”“ Of course, it’s a good school.”

“What kind of school doesn’t teach you that the Chinese discovered America?” he would ask.

We would look at him blankly. My older cousins would whisper to me that our grandfather was just having fun with us. Now and then my grandfather would catch them.

“Sure, you think about it.”

“Think about what?” we would ask.

“There were people in America already when Columbus got there,” my Grandfather would tell us.

“Yeah, there were Indians.”

“And where did the Indians come from?”

My Grandfather would ask us.

“The Bering Strait in Alaska which is part of America,” we would giggle at the end of that answer.

“Alaska’s part of the United States? When that happen?”

It didn’t occur to me then that my Grandfather knew perfectly well that Alaska had become a state in the last five years and that he may have been just hinting at the fact that territories changed masters constantly in history. He would then pause for his big question, “If the Indians came across the Bering Strait to America then wasn’t it the Chinese who discovered America?”

We would shake our heads vigorously. Even if our Grandfather’s argument, but for making it Chinese instead of say Koreans or Siberians, made perfect sense, we couldn’t get our Americanized minds around the concept.

“The Chinese weren’t discoverers and explorers, the Spanish and the English were and maybe the Vikings before them,” we told him.

He would look at us then close his eyes. I know now that he understood that it wasn’t our fault that we thought this way, but he did his best to make us feel that way.  He clicked his tongue against his teeth and shook his head and would tell us, “The Chinese do everything.  China explored the world even when the fan yin thought the world was flat.”

We would shrug back at him as he continued, “You ever look at Indian? They look like you and me.”

We would then start doing war whoops and other now politically incorrect Cowboy- movie- based gestures of Indianess. “How!” we chanted in unison.

“What you mean how? They have our hair, our faces, because they are Chinese and they came here first.”

“But we don’t live in teepees and the Chinese didn’t discover America because the Chinese didn’t discover things.”

Even if we didn’t know what self-image was yet nor was it much talked about, we had absorbed the message too well.

“Who tell you that?”

“Our teacher told us that. It’s in our history books.”

“Who writes you history book. Is it written by Chinese?”

“No, of course not.”

“Do your history book tell you who invented paper?”
He would then  instruct one of us to go get volume C of the Encylopedia Britannica that filled most of the bookshelf in the tv room in the back corner of the house. He would tell us to open the section on China and read to him from the part of the encyclopedia article that listed all the things Chinese civilization had brought to the world. As we read, he would close his eyes and smile contentedly.

Midway through the reading, he would stop us and say “How come it doesn’t say anything about the movies?”

“Because move projectors were invented by Edison.  They’re modern.  Americans invent everything modern.”

Grandfather would sigh.  “Chinese modern too.  You too young.  Someday all things modern will come from China.”

“Sure like TVs and computers,” we giggled at the image of television sets swathed in red silk and cheap plastic.

“Someday, China make the best TV’s, better than Americans.  I be gone, but you old like me, you see.”

We giggled some more and Grandfather tapped his black dress shoe on the edge of the rug exactly six times before speaking as if not to get too angry with his own grandchildren.

“No, no. the movies were invented in Shanghai four hundred years ago. Chinese movies were projected from behind the screen and show people shadows instead of bright pictures.”

“Grandfather, it doesn’t say anything here about Chinese inventing the movies.”

“The Encyclopedia doesn’t know everything.”

He had similar riffs on the origins of cars, airplanes, the Hershey Bar, and even the tv dinner, yet I only remember the details of a few of his stories of the things Chinese invented that never made it into the Encyclopedia Britannica.  One time he showed us how short the Britannica’s article was on a conflict called the “Opium War” where British cannon naturally defeated Chinese virtue. "If a British book leaves out so much about a British war," he told us, "You think about what it means that it says so much about all the things China invented. Maybe it leave out some things too."


I look back at these sessions and don’t understand why I got stuck with an image of my Grandfather as disapproving and unimaginative. By the time I was twelve, he had mostly given up trying to tell us his Ancestor Room stories.  When he was alive, I never fathomed the possibility that the stories and their teller might have much more in common than I could appreciate. As the owner of a gambling house, he couldn’t or wouldn’t let us know the details of his life or whatever embarrassed him about his life in China, yet he still wanted us to know him.

There is, of course, no ancestor room in my house.  I do have a study where I sometimes try to write.  One night at about three in the morning I was getting a little silly as my Chinese built hard drive taunted me with its whirring reminder that it could hold all the information in every Encyclopedia ever printed yet it still held so few coherent examples of my thoughts. I convinced myself that there was a portrait of my grandfather hanging on the wall there, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember how many times I was supposed to bow or whether I should light incense before or after the sun came back up.  It gave me the worst case of writer’s block to contemplate the fact that I had forgotten so much from the Ancestor room.

Other fiction on this site


At 6/11/2006 12:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The chocolate-milk brown cow and the giant kite pulled by geese are hard to resist. My grandfather never had such cool stories.

This is a fascinating piece. Your writer's block obviously came before or after this piece uprose.

At 6/11/2006 10:20:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

It is fiction, but I've certainly had writer's block since I started writing many years ago and more than once.

I have no idea why my real grandfather used to tell us that chocolate milk came from Chinese cows. He used to also call whiskey, "man soda". One problem is that if you never speak the same language as your grandparents, there are so many ways in which you never really know them.

At 6/12/2006 10:37:00 AM, Blogger inkyhack said...

Great post!

At 6/12/2006 12:33:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I've mentioned a few times that I think my fiction is the least read part of this site and yet the most important to me as a blogger.

The below is a story with very similar themes

Chancelucky: Pomegranate Fields Forever (fiction)


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