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  • Tributary
  • Jessica Yen (bio)

When Dad was in elementary school in central Taiwan, he would sometimes recite, “Woshi Zhejiangsheng Yuyaoxian ren.” My family is from Yuyao County, Zhejiang Province, China. “Xiahe Yanjia.” The Village Yen, next to the River Xia. I can see him now, wearing what I imagine to be the standard Taiwanese school uniform of the 1950s: blue shorts, grubby white shirt, skin dark from summers spent outside, hands clasped behind his back. He stands next to a peeling desk as he chants out his paternal lineage, the teacher ready with a ruler in case he misbehaves. According to family lore, we sprang from a well-to-do branch of the Yen family tree when a wealthy merchant married off a daughter to a man in a neighboring village. Upon hearing her new town lacked a convenient source of water, he bragged, “I’ll bring the water to you.” For her dowry, he commissioned a canal to siphon water from the neighboring river and divert it to her new home. The village was thus named Yen Family Village, and it was in this town in southeastern China that we originated.

My grandparents fled China when the Communists took over in 1949, and for years Dad longed to seek out the family village. In particular, he wished to pay tribute to the village shrine where the members of each generation are recorded. He wanted to fill in the lineage of Yens transplanted to American soil, and to inscribe female names within the shrine for the first time. He mentioned this in passing every couple of years, and as my brother Michael grew older, the idea took hold with him as well. Michael had romantic visions of a triumphant return to the village, and to a land none of us had known (Dad [End Page 33] was born just as his parents left China). Yet I was the first in our nuclear family to live within geographic proximity to the family village, when I accepted a research fellowship in China in 2005, straight out of college.

My interest in Chinese began early, when my parents enrolled me in a bilingual immersion program to learn a language my mother barely knew and which we thus did not speak at home. It was the 1980s, when Japan held America’s interest and China was the boonies, and my parents were lucky to find one of the nation’s first Mandarin immersion programs, a school so young there were just 56 students spread over eight grades. Thanks in part to my early introduction to the language, I have always loved Chinese.

Yet I was also drawn to it because our household was so much more assimilated than those of my first- and second-generation Chinese American peers, and learning Chinese felt like the single component I could control. In the Bay Area it felt like everyone else’s parents cooked Chinese food, spoke to their children in Chinese, went to temple or Chinese-language church, and got their news from Chinese TV channels or newspapers. And for all that my peers scoffed at their parents for being “so Asian!” they also scorned those who were “not Asian enough,” who didn’t speak Chinese well or know which non-Americanized dishes to order. This assumption of shared experience, though intended to build community through commonality, served to flatten the Chinese American experience, for it narrowed the archetypes and paths that were expected, or even allowed.

None of my peers understood the third-generation quandary. Once you’re several generations removed from your cultural heritage, how much connection is truly possible? Bits and pieces might be integrated into home life—a cultural event here, some ethnic food there—but for the most part the upbringing is American. I craved acceptance, and thus Chinese slowly became the center of my universe as I attempted to study my way to a cultural fluency that others osmosed from their home environment. I majored in Chinese literature and then, still seeking to become Chinese enough, I moved to China.

Thus presented with an opportunity to resurrect the dream of finding the ancestral village, Michael and Dad flew out to...


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