One of the challenges of being second-generation Chinese, is that you get caught between two forms of duty. The duty of a child to not question your parents, and the duty to the next generation to preserve family history.
My Aunt Wen passed away tonight, about 29 minutes ago if my Dad’s text was accurate.
For the entirety of my formative years, I didn’t know Auntie Wen existed. And then in my late 20s, early 30s, poof, I had a new aunt who lived in Philadelphia. My dad didn’t provide much in the way of context, but in a Chinese family, that’s just par for the course. I didn’t question the sudden appearance of a new aunt, but I also didn’t really develop a deep relationship with her. I didn’t know what our relationship was to each other, or even if we were blood relatives or not. This information was not volunteered, and as a Chinese daughter you don’t really ask too many questions.
And perhaps, that trait of not asking questions is the demise of Chinese daughters, even now.
A few weeks ago, my cousin shared this picture with our cousin chat group. I didn’t know half the people in this photograph. So I very uncharacteristically asked my dad point-blank, “Who are these people?” and “Where is Auntie Julia (the eldest of my dad’s siblings) and Auntie Wen (the mysterious aunt)?”
My dad is in the second row, second from your right, with the ears that look like wings preparing to take flight. The tall fellow in the tie next to him is his eldest brother, Uncle Eugene (now deceased). Next to Uncle Eugene is Uncle David, my dad’s second eldest brother. Uncle David is quite trendy in the collared shirt and zip up jacket. My paternal grandfather and grandmother are in the front row, the two on your left.
Per my dad: “My uncle’s family, the left most one in the front row (kid in the collared, zip-up jacket) is the youngest cousin who used to live in San Jose and died at young age there. Not sure you remember them. The couple sitting on the right are my dad’s cousin. I believe the picture was taken the year uncle Eugen left for US, cerca 1964.” (stet)
If this was the year Uncle Eugene left for the U.S, then that means Auntie Julia was already in the U.S. She was the eldest, and the first to leave. But then where was Auntie Wen? Uncharacteristically, I pressed my dad for more information. I’m 48 now. I will risk being labeled as “uppity” if that means I’ll learn some family history.
“She was given to a family as a baby bride. They divorced and she remarried, a couple times…She was left behind when we moved to Taiwan. Long and unpleasant story,” my dad shared via WhatsApp. “As a result, she is tougher than all of us.”
From what I gather, communism in China got bad. My dad’s family fled, leaving their youngest daughter (Auntie Wen) behind as a child-bride. Auntie Wen married a few times, probably as a survival tactic during Communist rule.
In one of those unions, she had my cousin Tony. Cousin Tony also appeared out of nowhere during my 30s. However, he has a fun, irreverent streak, one that is present in all of my cousins, that instantly set me at ease.
Despite a highly rational, highly scientific foundation on my dad’s side of the family, there is also an underlying streak of belief in the paranormal. I’ll save my story about my paternal grandma’s death for another day, but tonight, I shared Auntie Wen’s story with Jeff for the very first time. And per my dad’s text, she passed away within a window of seconds during that moment.
As a Chinese daughter, it is engrained from an early age, to not question your parents. Auntie Wen never got to ask, why she got left behind when her four other siblings fled to Taiwan. She just accepted it. Just like I just accepted the spontaneous existence of a new aunt and cousin. But even though there are still so many questions as to how she reunited with my dad and his siblings, I’m glad to come from a line of women with quiet strength. Just because your actions are respectful, doesn’t mean you can’t question the intent.