Members Writing Family Stories

What do you do with all the research you have amassed about your family’s history? How do you organize, document and preserve your story and your ancestor’s stories? The Chinese Family History Group offered a writing workshop for members in 2022, led by Cynthia Lim. Using writing prompts, participants started with scenes or short pieces about their family and shared with the group. The goal was to get participants to start writing and provide the stimulus to record their family history. A year later, the group is still meeting monthly and sharing stories. We share Linda Louie’s story about her experience in the writing workshop.

Prompt: Write about an activity or ritual that grounds you or comforts you. Write about what makes you feel certain about your identity or sense of self or makes you feel “normal.”

My Ritual

By Linda Louie

“What on earth did I get myself into?” I questioned myself as I settled into my brown, vinyl covered rolling chair, put on my headphones, and watched as the array of rectangular boxes on my computer screen filled with the faces of fifteen strangers. It was my first writing workshop with the Chinese Family History Group in June 2022!

We were given five-minute writing prompts. It created a lot of internal anxiety and angst, “in-the-moment”, for me. “That’s not enough time? Five minutes to write something?? She wants us to share it? Out loud?! Oh My God!! I can’t think of anything!!”  Of course, if I had focused on the prompt instead of my racing thoughts, I probably could have done a better job.  

But Cynthia knew what she was doing, and over the next two hours as she guided us through several prompts, I heard her praise the snippets we read, and heard her provide thoughtful feedback focusing on points that could be developed further. Her voice was soft and gentle, even in admonishment, when telling us to silence our own inner critic prior to a reading! 

I returned for more, finding a desire to record my family’s story using the monthly writing assignments asking us to write about our kitchens, recounting stories we were told by our elders, the person who raised us, a moment of surprise in the family history, someone who comforted us, or how our families arrived in the United States. 

Under Cynthia’s tutelage, and the group members’ encouragement, our stories came alive. We learned to weave in dialogue that captured the voice of a young child’s experience as she eavesdropped on the elders’ gossip after the family meal. Descriptions of platters of steamed fish, glistening pink shrimp and shiny green vegetables made our mouths water. Tears welled in our eyes, as we heard the poignant stories of despair and sadness at the loss of a loved one. We smiled at the moment of discovery, when a previously unknown connection was made with one of the other writers in the group!

Recently, my friend, Mimi, recounted that she had chided her sister by saying, “You shouldn’t dwell in the past. What’s done is done, you should move on and live in the present. That’s what’s important now!”. My comment to her was, “Maybe she just wants affirmation as to why she is the way she is.”

This incident made me reflect on why I enjoy writing to these monthly prompts. They give me affirmation: as to who I am, and to how I have been shaped by my past and family. It’s a record, a subjective one I admit, but one that would be lost if not recorded. 

I so enjoy logging in to hear each of the group members’ unique lived stories which have evolved from the journeys taken by their families. The paths taken are different, but the decisions to begin the journeys are similar. Stories to escape poverty and war. Stories of separation from loved ones for decades in foreign lands. Stories of decisions made for love. Stories of hard work and resilience. In the end, it is always a desire to improve the lives of our loved ones.

I still worry that my story is not good enough after hearing all of the other fascinating stories. And, yes, I still feel the warm adrenaline flush throughout my body when called upon to read, but it’s all good!  The Chinese Family History Group has created a space for us to share our stories and our lived histories.

Linda Louie lives near Boston, MA and has been a member of CFHG since 2020. Her ancestors migrated to southern Africa, settling in Mozambique and Southern Rhodesia in the early 1900s. Her family arrived in the United States in the late 1970’s to escape the political turmoil in Rhodesia and has lived here ever since.

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