I have supposed my past is a part of myself.
As my shadow appears whenever I’m in the sun the past cannot be thrown off
and its weight must be borne, or I will become another man.
But I saw someone wall his past into a garden whose produce is always in fashion.
If you enter his property without permission
he will welcome you with a watchdog or a gun.
I saw someone set up his past as a harbor. Wherever it sails, his boat is safe—
if a storm comes, he can always head for home. His voyage is the adventure of a kite.
I saw someone drop his past like trash. He buried it and shed it altogether.
He has shown me that without the past
one can also move ahead and get somewhere.
Like a shroud my past surrounds me, but I will cut it and stitch it,
to make good shoes with it, shoes that fit my feet.1
Connecting to our past can shape how we understand ourselves today. The stories passed down from our parents or the relationships we have with places, people, or culture can deeply influence our perspectives and how we weigh decisions. The context in which we understand our past is also critically important.
Chinese writer Jin Xuefei, who now writes under the pen name of Ha Jin, was born in 1956 and came of age during the tumultuous time of the Cultural Revolution.2 In his poem “the past,” Jin writes of his connection with his past and with his home country of China. In 1986, Jin Xuefei came to the United States to complete his PhD. Following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, he decided to remain in the US with his wife and son.
Today Ha Jin consciously writes only in English as a way for him to “[cre- ate] a kind of distance . . . [and] write more objectively.”3 In 1999 he received the national Book Award for his novel Waiting and in 2002 he joined the English Department at Boston University as a full professor. In 2012 Ha Jin’s novel Nanjing Requiem was published, which is based upon the lives of several individuals who survived the Nanjing Atrocities.
Charlene Wang, a Chinese American born in Hong Kong in the 1960s who now resides in New York City, shares another connection to her past more directly related to the Japanese occupation of China in the winter of 1937:
My mother was born on December 14, 1937 in Guangdong as the Sino-Japanese war ravaged China and the Nanjing Atrocities were in full swing. Her childhood was to be shaped by the 8 years of war. The world was an unsafe place as the family suffered the death of her father as they fled as refugees to Hong Kong. Her memories as a little girl were that of starving people on the side of roads and frightening encounters with Japanese soldiers on the street. Her family lost most of the wealth they had and she and her 6 siblings were raised by her mother under these dire circumstances.
The trauma of these early years set her in a state of depression that she could not shake off for the rest of her life. She had trouble being optimistic or hopeful, as the uncertainties of life were just too scary. Little did I know as a kid that these frames of reference could be passed on to the next generation. In turn, recollections of my childhood years bring back feelings of fearfulness and uncertainty even though there was no doubt about my mother’s love. We were always told to be ready in case our world should collapse at any time. There was no protection from the elements that we could not control.
My mother has long passed away, but the reverberations of that war are still affecting my life as I know it. As I raise strong daughters of my own, I try to rediscover the little girl in me that never felt carefree. I have to reassure myself that the world is indeed safe, that life has a way of always moving towards a better place as long as hope is in the human spirit.4
- 1 : Ha Jin, Facing Shadows (New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1996), 63.
- 2 : See Facing History and Ourselves’ study guide Teaching “Red Scarf Girl” to learn more about the Cultural Revolution.
- 3 : Writing Without Borders: Chris Gogwilt interviews Ha Jin,” Guernica, January 14, 2007.
- 4 : Charlene Wang, email to author, November 6, 2013.