“Stories Yun Told Me” is a series created by Tenement Museum Educators Jason Eisner and Ya Yun Teng exploring themes of language, interpretation, memory, and community through the adventurous eyes of Yun, a fictitious Chinese American immigrant born in the year of the Pig. At twenty-two, Yun immigrates to New York City from her native Taiwan. She loves to share stories about her experiences—stay tuned for further installments!
I got a call from Jing tonight as I sat at the stool in my New York apartment. Jing called me every now and then to catch up her life in America. We knew each other back home since high school, and later we came to America for graduate study. I remembered, years ago when she first arrived, how excited I was to pick up the phone and hear her voice. Before even meeting her, I was comforted by the thought of us standing together on the same continent.
New school and friends, readings, papers and conversations- everything in English. This new life approached like a swirl of strong current, and Jing was soon caught in it. I was in no better position but, through phone conversations, I tried to offer her tips and thoughts on living in a new country.
Often we simply commented on day-to-day life: how the summers here, for most of the time, were not as brutal they were in Taipei, and how the cold winter winds slit open our flesh and stabbed into our bones.
We exchanged memories, too. Once on a humid, sticky summer day off from school we had drained our energy by relentlessly strolling around Taipei city. Jing invited me to her apartment, and we sat on the cool tiled floor in the living room to enjoy a plate of watermelon. Some music streamed down the hallway from her grandmother’s room. It sounded like folk music from Japan.
Her grandmother grew up during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. The occupation lasted for decades, and impacted many people. Jing’s grandma could still speak fluent Japanese. For her, listening to these tunes was enjoyable.
“Are they very different languages?” Apparently, I knew very little about Japanese culture. Her grandmother was unable understand the lyrics. The old lady pulled out the CD booklet, and read the translation in Chinese for us:
…Although the stars in the sky are countable The teachings of my parents are not Just as ships that run in the night are guided by the North Star I am guided by my parents who gave birth to me and watch over me…”
Who would know that those trivial memories would bond us together in this new country? Jing’s arrival was somewhat magical. Without intending to, she packed parts on my past into her luggage. The song, once incomprehensible to me, now became my root. From it I could measure how much history I owned in this new land.
Unpacking the old memories gave them new life, just as new memories grew and accumulated on this land. I recall a Christmas Eve visit. Jing took the bus to visit me because we were both orphans and had nowhere to go. It was her first year in America. I tried to prepare her repeatedly that we would not see lively streets with busy stores decorated with glittering balls and bow ties. Christmas Eve in New York is very different from images we saw on movies.
The streets were quiet. The stores were shut. We almost could hear the echo from our conversation. On our way home, the stars shining in the dark, clear sky caught our attention.
Here nothing was the same as we imagined- not even the sky.
I was returned to reality from my memory wanderings by some good news. Jing announced that she and her partner might get married, so they could stay together in this country. I selfishly wished that she could stay here. Somehow, I worried that, once she returned, some part of me would be lost.
Jing had more to think through herself. She spoke so fast in the phone, spitting out questions that already started to haunt her. “What does it mean to make this place a permanent home? Is it possible for her to maintain roots growing on both ends? What about her family back home? Who can take care of her parents, once they got old?”
I looked up at the clear evening sky. Several stars flickered, and a song surfaced from the immeasurable currents of time:
…Although the stars in the sky are countable The teachings of my parents are not Just as ships that run in the night are guided by the North Star I am guided by my parents who gave birth to me and watch over me…