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The stories of my life

Helen Raleigh //June 2, 2014//

The stories of my life

Helen Raleigh //June 2, 2014//

Maybe it’s my accent, because people often ask me where I came from. I decided to write a book so I can answer this question once and for all.

My first book, Confucius Never Said, is about my own family’s journey from repression and poverty in Communist China to freedom and prosperity in the U.S. Writing this book was also a journey for me to reconnect with my ancestors, to reconstruct the past events and to rediscover who I am and what made me to be me.

This book starts with stories of my great-grand father. When I first met him, I was only 8, and he was already in his 80s. I didn’t really know him. Only until I started writing this book, I learned a lot more about him through many conversations with my father.

My great-grandfather was a wheat farmer and owned some land. He sweated on every inch of this land to provide for his family. His ancestors were buried there. He expected someday he would be buried there, too, while his children and grandchildren would continue to plow through this land. When the Communist party took over China, it confiscated all landowners land and redistributed to poor farmers under the “land reform” movement. My great-grandfather was turned from a land owner to a poor farmer overnight.

I can only guess that these losses brought him endless sorrow, but in my memory, he never showed any despair. He always walked tall and with dignity. Years later, when I learned the phrase “Bent, but not broken,” I thought of my great-grandfather. He never stopped working hard until the day he passed away. Writing his stories is my belated way of telling him how much I appreciate and love him. I, for sure, can trace my spirit of never giving up, and never letting circumstances determine my fate, all the way back to him.

Writing this book also helped answer some question. My parents’ generation and the generations before them always had middle names. But none of my siblings and I have middle names. I was always curious about why it was and I found my answer. My father told me our Zhou clan’s used to have a genealogy book which covered 50 generations. Like other traditional genealogy books, it contained a generation poem. The poem had four lines, with five words in each line. The tradition was to use one word from the poem as the middle name for each generation. For example, my father’s generation shared the middle name Yu (玉), which means jade.

After all the words in the generation poem were used, the next generation would start from the first word of the poem again. For a big clan like ours, it was not someone’s age but his middle name that told us his seniority. Our genealogy book was our closest connection to our ancestors. Unfortunately, it didn’t survive communist China’s destruction. Information about our ancestors was lost forever.

Ever since then, the Zhou clan has been living like a tree without roots. My father explained to me that that was why neither my siblings nor I had middle names: no one remembered the generation poem from the genealogy book. Writing this book was my way to reconstruct some family history. It is my way of showing that things like family, conscience, character and truth matter immensely—and are far more permanent than the destructive force of men.

Writing was a labor-intensive as well as an emotional experience. But it was a worthwhile project. As Russell Baker said, “Life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.” Stories of my family were representative of what happened to millions of Chinese people in the first 30 years under Communist rule. Now my parents are in their 70s, I know that I owe it to them and my ancestors to write down what happened and sincerely hope history will not repeat itself.

Do you know where you come from and your family’s story? If your parents are still around, talk to them. Find a way to record their journey as well as yours. It will be the best inheritance that your children will receive.