I finished Amy Tan’s memoir “Where the Past Begins”, cross legged and hunched over and crying a little bit, and immediately sought out a Chinese restaurant with the greatest combination of proximity and high ratings. I found one a mile away, and drove immediately there to get my fix (foregoing any prior plan to do homework).
Seated again, cross legged and hunched over and eating fried rice, I ran my mind through the book. I tend to finish readings quickly, and if I don’t re-track my steps I’ll forget parts that I had loved.
She talked about a neediness to know. Specifically the whiney type of nosy that isn’t satisfied by finding something out. The discovery of her family’s culture, of her father’s beliefs, of her childhood IQ tests, of her grandmother’s life, they all spurred from a neediness to know that could not be fulfilled. She dug and dug, and wrote and wrote, and was suddenly left with a book to publish that was full of her life’s secrets.
I relate both the needy nosiness and the writing as discovery; despite completely different upbringings, lives, cultures, and experiences, from these two things I felt like I understood the famed writer that is Amy Tan. (This feeling in particular makes me laugh to say since in an interview with her about the book, she explained that no one ever understands what she means [and that that is the only way she has the courage to publish books that are so personal], but we can leave that alone for now).
Almost every creator will argue that their medium is the best way of communicating, of course, it’s why we all choose our mediums. We hear that a picture is worth a thousand words, with a thousand different details that tell stories. We are sucked into movies and forget that the characters aren’t the same as the real people, bringing real emotions to the surface at the hand of a screen. We get goosebumps and are carried by the melodies of music.
Maybe reading writing isn’t the best way of communication, maybe you feel more by watching your favorite character die in a movie or hearing the crescendo of a symphony; but, I will make the argument that reading writing is the most personal way of connecting. I, in reading Amy’s memoir, am directly connected to the things she felt and wrote in those given moments. There is no one else involved in the presentation of her ideas. The story of her life played out in my mind as I read it, with me as an ever present but invisible piece in her story. In this, I crossed the distance that separates us. I was all at once a child feeling the pressure parents put on you, a teenager with grief and confusion, a college student worried about the future and impressing my mother, an adult discovering secrets of past lives. Any boundaries made by race or ethnicity were, for a brief time, removed.
Of course and conversely, I don’t know anymore than what she told me. I made assumptions and conclusions based on how I’ve felt in situations like hers, I am only as old as I am, I do not have a family story like hers, I am white. There are some things that I cannot understand or overcome, simply because I am not Chinese, and am not living her life. As who I am, all I can do is read (and watch, and listen, and visit) to better understand the places I am not a part of and the people I do not belong to.