Immigrants to the United States are not the only ones who have to deal with the frustrations of adjusting to life in a new country. Often, their American-born children also struggle with questions of identity and belonging. New American Voices introduces Chinese-American musician Evelina Chao. In her new book, Yeh Yeh's House, she describes her own journey toward understanding and accepting her family's past -- and present.
When Evelina Chao was growing up in the 1950s, hers was the only Chinese family in her suburban neighborhood. She recalls being embarrassed by her mother's poor English, and resentful of her mother's otherness. Long into adulthood, she was reluctant to delve into her family's background, and resisted all attempts by her grandfather, Yeh Yeh -- an eminent poet and philosopher -- to entice her to visit him in Beijing. Finally, some years after her grandfather's death, Evelina Chao decided to embark on her long-delayed pilgrimage to Yeh Yeh's house. “I went thinking that I was going to trace my ancestry in the person of my grandfather, and that I was making a pilgrimage to his house in order to understand the Chinese aspect of myself and what it took me to evolve as a Chinese in America,” she says. “Because my mother was my guide, and I depended on her because she spoke Mandarin, in a sense I had to step back and see her in a different light as she made her homecoming. And to witness her return to her home country, and to the lap of her family, transformed my view of her. And it also transformed our relationship.”
Ms. Chao says the biggest stumbling block in her relationship with her mother was communication. Language was only a small part of the problem; the bigger divide was cultural. “She came here as an adult, and really had to acclimate in a country where foreigners were not as common as they are now. And she had severe difficulties with being accepted as a foreigner, especially as an Asian,” she says. “I, as a first-generation born here, I had all the advantages. I became fluent in English, but also the mores here, the customs… So we had our differences in terms of where we were in the world.”
As a girl, Evelina felt that the world she lived in at home was totally different from that of her classmates and friends. “I was always struck by how free and easy people were at school, and how my friends would dare to stop by at the store to buy a piece of candy on the way home, whereas I was expected to come directly home, and be in a household where children were expected to remain quiet until they were spoken to,” she says. “I was really so surprised when I was invited to go to someone else's house for dinner, a Caucasian friend, and everyone was talking and laughing and making jokes and being naughty. I was shocked because people were just being themselves,” she says, “whereas in my house it was very, very quiet and almost tense. So I was really quite struck by the difference in how my friends lived and how I lived in my household.
But for all that, the Chao household was a nurturing intellectual environment for the young Evelina. Her parents both played instruments and were happiest when making music together, he on the violin and she on the recorder. Evelina took violin lessons, and later attended the renowned Julliard School of music in New York City. Today, in addition to writing, she has a busy professional career as a viola soloist and member of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota. She says she now realizes “the real value of excelling in school, of trying my best, of really loving reading. And the intellectual energy, the values of honesty, integrity, and pride in one's heritage, in one's ancestry” she absorbed from her parents, and these formed the foundation for her success.
During that first journey to China to visit Yeh Yeh's House, Evelina Chao hoped to discover the wellsprings of her identity. As it turned out, her greatest discovery was her mother, who shed her defensive armor once back in her native land and became relaxed, charming. Evelina Chao was able to establish a connection with her mother that had always eluded her, except for brief episodes during her childhood.
“When I was in elementary school, we had this 'show and tell', where you could bring in something and just talk about it,” she recalls. “And I remember I asked my mother to come and talk about her being Chinese and to show off some of the Chinese things that she had. And before, I had felt vaguely ashamed, because she didn't speak English very well, and she seemed so different from all the other mothers in our school. But somehow during the show, she came dressed in a Chinese dress, a silk cheongsam, and she brought a few pieces of jewelry and other artifacts that came from China that even smelled Chinese from her sandalwood box. And all of a sudden I felt so proud of her, and my classmates were just all agog, she was so beautiful. And in that one instant it was like I was spinning from being ashamed of her to being proud of her. And the sense that I was a foreigner here in my elementary school, but then all of a sudden proud that I was different, and that my mother represented all that I was.
Evelina Chao recounts the dramatic story of her journey to China and eventual connection to a family and culture she had never fully acknowledged or understood in her new book, Yeh Yeh's House.