A Smoking Gun Behind the Screen of Migration
My father kept his family secrets, with consequences he could never admit
I suspect that every family keeps secrets. That’s why they’re a staple of family stories. I might go so far as to say they’re the reason we tell family stories at all: to expose and decode those secrets. But when families are divided by migration, cultural differences, and language barriers, secrets take on added significance, especially for those charged with concealing the truth.
If you’ve been following my newsletters for awhile, you know that I’m a little obsessed with the secrets I’ve long suspected my father kept about his biracial family. I’ve written two novels, Cloud Mountain and Face, in an attempt to imagine my way into experiences that my father claimed he couldn’t remember. Before he died in 2007, I interviewed him as best I could and pried a good many photographs from his hoarded archives. Since then, I’ve been working on a memoir based on the additional material I discovered after his death.
The new finds range from scrapbooks from Dad’s teens in Shanghai, to parcels of letters written in Chinese calligraphy, to travel wallets containing cryptic notes scribbled during his wartime travels in China. Over the past 15 years I’ve had the Chinese language materials translated into English, and I’ve puzzled over several perplexing letters signed by young men who referred to themselves as Dad’s “brothers,” including one who mentioned meeting him in Chunking in 1942.
To my knowledge, my father only had one brother, who emigrated with him to America in the 1930s and never went back. Dad insisted that we had no family left in China after his father died in 1953.
Recently, I learned of an agency called My China Roots that helps research Chinese genealogical connections for overseas Chinese. Last month I started working with them, and, as I wrote in my last newsletter, the research promptly upended a cornerstone of my family’s mythology. We are not descended from a lineage of viceroys, as Dad always claimed, but of magistrates. That’s not the end of the world, but it’s like learning that your great grandfather was a local mayor rather than a state governor.
The real bombshell landed this week, though. Records in China indicate that Dad’s father had a wife that my American family knew nothing about. I may never learn whether he married her before or after my grandmother left him for America, but I do now know that Dad met his Chinese stepmother— and, most likely, her son—when he visited Chunking in 1942. This fact was hiding in a smoking-gun letter that I’ve had all along but could not decode until I had my step-grandmother’s name.
I’ve written this detective story in detail on my Medium site:
The point I want to add is that, when you do this genealogical research, every answer seems to unfold new questions and implications. Why did my father guard this secret so diligently, yet keep the evidence for over 65 years? Did he really tell no one? If so, how did that guardedness grind his soul? How might the father I knew have been different if he weren’t living in fear of betraying his father and incurring his mother’s wrath? How corrosive must it have been to sit on this powder keg for two thirds of his life?
The real tragedy is, I think I know the answer to these last questions. Secrecy made my father habitually remote, anxious, and inscrutable. It shut him down and numbed him to intimacy. It distanced him from his wife and children, as well as from both parents and siblings.
So, another of the questions now looming is, how did Dad’s stealth as gatekeeper end up affecting me? I spent decades knocking on his emotional door, trying to join him inside, but he never opened it more than a crack. I never doubted his love, but love for him was evidently a minefield too dangerous to explore in depth. He loved both his parents, after all, and look where that got him.
By comparison with most immigrants, my father had relatively little to hide. His mother would surely have viewed her husband’s late marriage as a transgression, given that they never divorced, but in Chinese culture such arrangements were common, if not the norm. The more serious betrayal, from my perspective, was my grandmother’s rejection of her estranged husband’s request to come to America in 1948, when the Communists were closing in on Nationalists like my grandfather. Dad always insisted they didn’t know the danger he was in, but that doesn’t change the fact that her refusal amounted to a death sentence. My grandfather died in China in 1953. We may never know the circumstances. Again, though, this is not an uncommon scenario among refugees and immigrants. Loved ones frequently get lost and left behind, and many of their stories involve much darker betrayals than my family’s.
What does that mean, writ large? We all are descended from immigrants, one way or another. The layers of guilt and shame, loss and trauma of divided families have got to add up. However far removed we may believe ourselves to be from the exodus that brought our ancestors to the shores where we now reside, we carry the repercussions within us. As with my father, the burden shapes how we see ourselves, how we communicate, how we connect — or fail to —with our family’s next generations.
My father’s secrets did not die with him. Their effects won’t die with me. But by bringing them into the open and examining them honestly, I hope to arrest their harm. We can always employ the truths of the past, however painful and conflicted, to make us stronger and wiser as we embrace the future.