My individual experiences with my Chinese heritage have shaped who I am, now, and who I aspire to be. Growing up, I couldn't fully understand and embrace my Chinese American heritage. I hated the shape of my eyes, my name (which was given to me after my beloved grandmother), and the special attention I thought I got for being "different." And so, I spent most of my youth ignoring my Chinese identity. Maybe it's because my Irish-Chinese mix made it seem as if I didn't need to commit to it. Maybe it's because of the way I imagined I stood out from my friends. Maybe it's just because I was young and bullies were aplenty, eager to pick on anyone for anything. But – as with all things – it's likely I needed time to grow into myself and to learn to love the entirety of who I was becoming. To understand that I was different… and that everyone is.
My sense of family, however, was something that remained unchallenged for 24 straight years. I understood it as the four people I knew best in this world. I remembered it as driving one block or town away to see cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. It was a sleepy 45-minute drive to Great Neck to laugh and heckle over corn soufflé and turkey. Family had its repetition of scents, sounds, palettes, vocabularies. And though time has passed and dynamics have changed, I've never really felt compelled to alter or expand my conception of the word.
But I am now beginning to see things through an awakened lens. I am fascinated by my distant ancestors Yuan Shikai and Tong Shaoyi, historically noted Chinese generals and the first Premier of the People's Republic of China. I am inspired by told stories of how my grandmother's aunt stood on a hill, bare-skinned, to distract and stall Japanese troops during the Second Sino-Japanese War as her village people in the Chinese town below her fled. These stories evoke so much pride for who I am and where I come from. And I cannot wait to meet the place that created me and the people I love most.
NYC → HKG
On September 30th, 2015, I step into a banquet hall in Wan Chai, Hong Kong that is filled with 75 Chinese men, women, and children – all of whom are part of my very bloodline. It is compelling in a way I have never experienced. People are smiling, hugging, shaking hands formally and pinching cheeks candidly. Cantonese, Mandarin, German, and English chatter rebound off the sapphire walls of the room, which is ironically embellished with wedding decor; this is, after all, a forever kind of union.
All of these faces reflect a bit of my own, though my Irish freckles and summer-stained skin undeniably set me apart. A woman rushes up to me, speaking first in Chinese and then switching to English when she sees the panic (and shame) on my face. She ushers over a man who is in his mid-thirties, and then introduces me as "Aunt Mimi." I look at my sister, eyes wide, laughing. This is, apparently, family.
I meet over 75 cousins that I never knew had been out there, breathing, living, being. Though the majority of us are mutual strangers, we all encircle and celebrate one man specifically, all week long: my Uncle Richard, the 91-year-old light of benevolence, love and pride that is responsible for organizing this reunion of the Suns.
In the days that follow, we share memories and stories over bottomless dim sum and tea. We speak in nods, smiles, and broken English. Richard's son, Tim, opens up the world of Hong Kong nightlife, cuisine, and culture. He buys bottles of champagne and toasts to our name under a full Hong Kong Mid-Autumn moon and explosion of neon lights. Tim instantly becomes someone we felt we'd been sharing and growing in parallels with, all of our lives.
Together as family, we spend the weeks recalling and remembering. We listen eagerly to narratives about our grandparents' lives as children. We learn about my grandfather's travels across Burma and India and how he was famous in Shanghai for his handsome allure and frequent attendance at the downtown Shanghainese disco halls. How he fell in love with my grandmother's unusually elegant Pekingese accent. We confirm the mythical stories about my grandfather being a reserve for the Chinese Olympic basketball team at the Beijing Olympics.
I took comfort in these stories shared by my elders. They rekindled old sparks of what love had meant to me in a distant childhood. They were current experiences of the past – reminding me how lucky we are and my purpose for visiting. And I photographed them constantly.
At the last family banquet, old photos are passed around and identified by eager, wrinkled fingers, and it inspires me to live consciously, gratefully and reflectively. We take ten rounds of photographs, each generation depicted separately. We raise our glasses to Uncle Richard and to our Sun legacy. We hug and we say our goodbyes. We feel reassured: some manifestation of our individual selves will be reunited somewhere by another ray, whether it be in five years or another hundred. Perhaps someone will pass around my photos from this trip and will recount September 2015, year of the rat, as the moment that our family was displayed in its purest, most celebratory form...the moment that we decided the Suns would never be forgotten.
HKG → NYC
It's bittersweet to leave this place – to leave behind the country I've experienced for the first time and its culture, one so vastly and beautifully different from my own. A muddle of emotion unravels me – and it's rooted in this newly illuminated conception of ‘family.' This connection to my heritage – seeing 75 faces and recognizing them as my own – it has altered me.
It takes us all by surprise. I look over at my brother as we're waiting to board our flight back to New York, our last bao tse in hand, sitting before a full view of the haze and mountains and skyscrapers that make Hong Kong the confusing, exotic, urban jungle that it is. And he says to me, "I'm going to miss this place." And it hits me deeply in my chest. Feelings and thoughts – too many too count – overcome me. But I nod and say, "Yeah, me too."
I will never again concretely define "family." It is the most infinite realm of marvel you could ever possibly imagine. Expect surprise. It may just come in a package of 75.
To my family: thank you. I love 'You People' with every bit of my radiant, heart of Sun.