What I Learned From My Chinese Heritage

What I Learned From My Chinese Heritage

And why I'm proud of it.

We are burning zhiqian again.

My dad drags a lighter gently across the joss paper stack's edges, and flames leap to interrupt the blue-bruised twilight. The zhiqian curl, fire hungrily charring their edges, outlining dad’s face in a tapestry of blood red and ebony. My mom and I hold each other's hands as we both think of gonggong, my grandpa. We remember different things, but our pain is the same: sharp and bitter, infused with a tinge of sweetness like an amplified aftertaste of tieguanyin tea. It has been seven years, and every year, we light the zhiqian, and every year, I worry that the memories will fade. Still, as the zhiqian rustle, I know gonggong’s essence will not.

We used to worry about running out of zhiqian, but being a Chinese-American in Southern California means that a one-hour drive teleports us to Chinatown. There, zhiqian is sold in fat bundles at variety stores along with fake jian that hang so low from the ceiling, their blades skim the part in my hair. None of the jian is worth buying, though. Years of Kung Fu have taught me that the only cheap sword worth unsheathing is one I make myself. Nonetheless, even the masters, our shifu, aren't immune to the cultural love for haggling--anything is too expensive, after all, until it is free.

Shifu also tell us that meditation is the antidote to time, and as I grow as a budding Buddhist, I believe it. When I miss my gonggong, I meditate. When my heart spins, restless with a stupefying thirst to watch the ice castles in Harbin glow as I dance in layers of storm-shadowed snow jackets, my breath smearing the air in arabesque beneath stars as bright as the zhiqian fire, I meditate. Time moves ceaselessly forward, but my culture has taught me that we progress only when we stop to reflect.

A famous Chinese proverb says that a bird doesn't sing because it has an answer—it sings because it has a song. Just as meditation teaches me humility through reflections, Chinese music has taught me vulnerability through its earnestness. My erhu can unleash the wail of a river, though it is not my bow but the soul stitched into rhythms thousands of years old that makes it sing. Amidst the music, I forget to pretend to feel nothing. In the songs of my ethnic minority group, buyi, my emotions betray me again, and I’m left as breathless by the poetry of culture as I am by its ability to so utterly understand me. Not just with music, but with land. For though buyi represent only 0.02 percent of the Chinese population, our home province, Guizhou, boasts jade mountains, bamboo-studded hills, and rivers gleaming in rain-chilled sunlight like silk. The land has so little meaning on a map but so much meaning in my head. It reminds me that the tiny is mighty, the heart is huge and the human is wonderfully small.

The night we burned the zhiqian, I told gonggong my dreams. I told him about this culture that has taught me that I am not singular but plural; that I am the sunset on one side of the world and the sunrise on the other; that I am the legacy of the Tang Dynasty and the carver of the modern odyssey; that I am a child of the dragons and an awe-brimmed cosmopolitan. I told him, with eyes closed but heart opened, that my dream was to make this a world deserving of the beauty my culture has helped me see: quiet love, reflectivity and soul-deep vulnerability.

Glossary (in order of appearance, with links to the Wikipedia entry when useful):

Zhiqian: Joss paper, essentially fake money burnt as offerings/blessings to the dead

Gonggong: Maternal grandpa

Tieguanyin: A type of Chinese oolong tea

Jian: Chinese sword

Shifu: Masters, usually used in martial arts to refer to the teachers (think Kung Fu Panda--Master Oogway)

Harbin: Capital city of the Heilongjiang province in northeastern China, famous for its ice sculptures

Erhu: Chinese fiddle, a two-stringed instrument usually used to play traditional Chinese music

Buyi: One of China's 56 ethnicities, considered an ethnic minority

Guizhou: A province in southwestern China

Cover Image Credit: Moonglass Studios

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VCU "Sign Guy"


VCU's sign guy, Tyler Lloyd, was recently arrested for yelling inflammatory and racist phrases at locals. For the majority of the school year, Lloyd has stood in the VCU compass and has held a variety of signs that project his personal views on to students. Lloyd's urge to stand up for his random beliefs hasn't been an issue until last month when his sign targeted a specific demographic that he is not a part of.

On December 7th, 2017, my friend and I were wandering through the campus and ran into the uproar brought by this man in front of the Virginia commonwealth James Branch Cabell Library. Tyler Lloyd's sign read, "2018 New Years resolution for black guys: prevent nigga moments." Unfortunately, his arrogance simply did not stop at the sign. He tried to convince the crowd that the n-word should be allowed to be said by any race and that people should stop being so sensitive in this subject. He had a few supporters online however, thankfully, most of the student body present disagreed with his racist outcries.

As seen in my friend Noah McKinney's Youtube video, Man yells "N-word" toward police and students at VCU, Lloyd proceeds to yell at a police officer and many locals. You can hear him say things like “you need to learn how to grow up and not be threatened by words” and “you’re the ones being hateful.” Many are arguing that Lloyds approach is not even remotely what the freedom of speech is about while other believe that it was in practice.

Eventually, after the police officer patiently stood next to the man and protected him from being attacked by the offended student body, Tyler Lloyd was arrested for his hate speech.

Cover Image Credit: Noah McKinney

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To Non-People Of Color, Sit Down And Shut Up, This Is My Month

A helpful hint in case no one told you.

So. We all know what month it is. If you don't know , let me kindly and calmly let you know. It is BLACK HISTORY MONTH (BHM). This article does come towards the end and as a closer of sorts, but I celebrate every day 1 to 28 and beyond. This article is for those who have some confusion about why we, black people, bother to celebrate. Some people think the month shouldn't exist, or there isn't a reason why we celebrate because western culture has white-washed history and co-opted celebrations. This article is a Public Service Announcement for People

(Here is the sign for BHM in case someone really needs help understanding that this is our month)

If you are a non-person of color this is your chance to possibly learn a little something about why there is a need for celebration and highlighting of Black culture. Take the time to stop perpetuating your opinion and actually learn about another viewpoint. Of course you can do any of these things at anytime but it helps to have an annual catalyst for exploration.

BHM is a time to connect to your roots

Black History Month is a time for people to connect to where they came from (if they are able to trace lineage). If you can't trace linage there are websites that dictate general lineage and ancestry. It may not be about tracking the specifics, but getting a general understanding of the different ethic groups you could be a part of and understanding their beliefs. Learning your history makes you more informed and can create positive experiences.

BHM is a time to express "Black Joy"

Black History Month is a time for Black people to just be joyous and be themselves. Sometimes in western or white dominated fields it can be hard to embrace one's culture and feel free enough to display their joy and creativity. When February roles around you can feel empowered to embrace who you are and express yourself in your environment that may have no or limited diversity.

BHM is a time of Remembrance

Black History Month is a time for remembering and honoring all the amazing creators, inventors, leaders and collaborators. So many people fought for what they believed and paved a way for a more positive and equal life experience for Black Americans. We can never forget or let go of those individuals because we owe them a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. We can only remember them with reverence and respect.

BHM is a time to give back to your community

Black History Month is a time for giving back to your community. There are so many opportunities to lift up the general Black community as well as zone in on specific segments and industries. If you find yourself lacking time you can always vow to purchase from a couple of Black-Owned companies and small businesses. There is an app to explore the local Black-owned business in your area called Official Black Wall Street. There is also a website called We Buy Black that is really good for household items.

BHM is a time to celebrate your culture

Black History Month is a time for celebration. In general Black history Month is time to celebrate who you are and who we are as a people and you can do that in whatever way you see fit. There should never be a moment where we feel disconnected from each other but sadly it happens from time to time. Black History Month is like getting a booster shot every year to remind you "Be you. Do you. You are amazing." This article serves as a reminder and a "not so subtle" hint to those that critique Black History Month's relevance. It is a kind little post it note on their desk that reads "Sit Down. Shut Up. This is my month!"

Cover Image Credit: Unsplash

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