In China, With History

The fact that you, are you, is undeniably certain. But the chance that you, are you, seems so amazing that it is both unfathomable and unquestioned. Growing up in different regions of North America with only my parents and then my brother as a constant presence of family, I saw the concept of family as a small isolated bubble that I was undoubtedly apart of. I thought of my parents’ union as simply an existence, and never as partially a product of coincidence. Therefore, the rarity of me, being me, was not a notion that my mind disposed the tools to even conceive.

Naturally, as we mature, our sense of identity fleshes out. We realize how we are similar and different in character to other people, and these comparisons help us understand our personality. We evaluate our own behaviour and actions, and this also helps us understand our personality. In that way, my sense of identity developed, but mostly with a forward perception of time. I still didn’t conceive my sense of identity by its past, its source of origin.

This all changed during a three-week trip to China. I’d been to China twice, when I was a baby and when I was eight; both times I stayed with my maternal grandparents in the city of Changchun, in North-East China. This trip was different. In three weeks, my parents, brother, and I explored five different cities: Shanghai, Huai’an (my dad’s hometown), Nanjing, Beijing and Changchun. Within these five cities and during our travels in-between, I had the opportunity to experience the sights, sounds, food, places of the various faces of China. But what was ultimately most memorable to me, were meeting the deep pool of family members and friends my parents were connected to.

In Shanghai, we spent time with my uncle (my dad’s youngest brother) and his family. In Huai’an, I met aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives I previously only knew through short snippets of conversation with my dad. In Nanjing, we were taken care by numerous old colleagues of my parents, during their university and early adult years. One of my dad’s colleagues, who he hadn’t seen in 20 years, took us sight-seeing everyday when we were in Beijing. And in Changchun, we were welcomed by such a diverse array of relatives that I had to ask my mom to help me identify who was who.

No matter how much my parents could have recounted their own ties and history, it never would have marked me as experiencing these relationships in its palpable, physical form. The bubble that I always imagined myself living in didn’t seem as legitimate anymore. As I soaked in the conversations, the humour, the recollections of victories, tragedies and changes that my parents exchanged with their friends and family, my view of the two most prominent, but elusive figures in my life branched out of the unexamined terrain and into a richer medium of ungrounded potentiality.

Here are two different people, both with unique origins and their own network of friends and acquaintances, who happened to meet at the right place, at the right time. The implicit guarantee that I once felt about my parents’ union properly fell to pieces.  It was finally clear to me, and conceivable, then, that my existence (and your existence) appeared in the most improbable manner. That the steps of the past, from decisions between family members to shift of hearts among friends, are what has led to me being me, and you being you. Our world could have been filled with a whole different sets of minds and characters, but it is not. The certainty of our existence is pillared by bricks of unpredictability.

I knew learning about my family would deepen my knowledge and understanding of my past and current relatives . What I didn’t expect was this knowledge to also settle in my understanding of personal identity. The massive swarms of people in China, while at first giving me a sense of senseless figures, slowly divided in me in deep, singular stories of creation. Each one of us, miracles of history.

Here’s a short film I made to highlight my trip. If you’d like to know why I chose the songs that I chose, click on the video to head to Youtube, and check out the information bar below the video.


4 thoughts on “In China, With History

  1. Grace, you have such a gorgeous way with words. It’s so interesting to see how traveling (and certainly three week’s worth!) can change or deepen or simply reinforce our own perspectives.

    And your video! Beautifully edited and strengthens my ever-growing wanderlust even more :)

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you so much Bella! If you ever find yourself planning travels for China… I’d be more happy to recommend you places in cities that I am familiar with. Hope you are having an excellent winter break!

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