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Dysfunction runs in the family

Dysfunction.jpgI just finished Reservation Blues. Sherman Alexie, does indeed, rock. His writing shimmers with bittersweet touches of reality–– because he writes fiction based on personal experiences.

With that in mind, what are the stories in your life that you want told? I think every family has character-driven dramas and mysteries worth exploring.

Here are a few skeletons from my familial closet:

1) My biological grandfather was born in China and adopted by Western missionaries. He was given the name George William Ford when he arrived in America. He married my Grandmother (Yin Yin), had one son, and died shortly after. Yin Yin remarried and would never speak of him. And nobody else did either. I don’t know his real name or how he died. I sense that he was a pretty bad guy. It makes for awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversations.

2) I have a cousin in Mainland China that became pregnant for a third time. A big no-no. The penalty was twice her annual salary and an abortion injection. Instead, she had the baby in secret with a midwife––then left the baby girl on the steps of an orphanage. An auntie, who lives in Seattle, arranged to adopt the baby. She paid $20k in adoption fees (and bribes) only to arrive in China for the final pick-up and find the baby missing. She’d been given to another family a week before.

3) My Great Uncle Tommy was sold to another family in China. Not adopted out. Sold. Cha-ching. His family was indescribably poor. His mother later immigrated to the U.S. where she had six other children. Her youngest son, Francis joined the U.S. army before WWII and was a clerk assigned to an air unit in China. It was there that he met a Chinese air force colonel––his older brother. The one sold decades earlier. It took 30 years and a mountain of paperwork, but that retired colonel was finally allowed to travel to the U.S.––to see the rest of his family. I met him in 1979, when I was twelve.

Stories like these are why I love the gritty power of non-fiction. After all, who can’t relate to a dysfunctional family?

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Reader Comments (11)

Are you planning to write about any of this? I think it would make for a fascinating read. I've got plenty of skeletons in my family's closet and I plan to use every single bone for a good tale!
March 4, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdana
I dunno. I have a lot of weird family stuff that's worth exploring, and bits and pieces of it may find its way into other things I'm working on. I have some missing pieces in my family history. Mysteries that I'll never solve. But I could fictionalize the whole thing and fill in the blanks as I see fit--there might be a story there somewhere. (Although I'm not sure if there's a market for a male version of Amy Tan).
March 4, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie ford
<i>Although I'm not sure if there's a market for a male version of Amy Tan</i>

Not that I think anyone should aspire to be a version of anything, but, there's market for anyone who is any version of Amy Tan.

<i>I met him in 1979, when I was twelve.</i>

What was that like? I've always found that meeting older family members when you're young is a missed opportunity. Later on you wish you'd asked them stuff that as a kid you couldn't care about.
March 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJen
Woops sorry didn't read the directions and see that the tags would be ignored!
March 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJen
(What was that like?)

I couldn't comprehend how special it was at the time. He spoke very little English, so my dad translated anything I said to him. He was very kind and somehow seemed more dignified than my other relatives. I assumed that was from a life spent in the military. But what did I know, I was twelve?

I also remember him taking a lot of pictures. He had an entire suitcase of film--more than 250 rolls. I guess he had a lot of catching up to do.

In college, going through some old photo albums, I finally realized what a big deal it was. I found all the newspaper clippings. And these incredible then-and-now photos of everyone. Amazing stuff.
March 4, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie ford
Got here via Jen's blog--this is fascinating stuff. I hope you do write it out someday.

My father was a P2V pilot during the Korean War, his mission to fly over mainland China to take aerial photographs.

He was raised in part by his grandmother and Italian was his first language--and, my point here--he has a certain "old-world" charm akin to what you describe in your uncle. Makes me wonder if we Americans are not all that dignified or charnming anymore.
March 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRoy
Jamie - a male version of Amy Tan would be SO cool! We've all seen what it was like for girls to grow up Chinese American in San Francisco, and how girls were treated in WW2 China, but what about the boys? I would definitely read a book like that.
March 5, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdana
Wow! That's one hell of a family tree you have there. Fascinating. I think all three could be wonderful if you could pick a focus and pull from each. Though each may deserve its own novel. My Great Grandfather was a Presbyterian Minister who made it his business to convert Cochise, his tribe and decendants...all the while, taking a Native American wife, while leaving my granfather, his three siblings and mother in Portland, Oregon after they'd had enough...Nice...
March 5, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterkathie
Thanks for visiting Roy, come back soon.

I do think there is a graciousness that's been lost in the last generation. In some ways for the better. Still, there are little things that I miss. Yin Yin always wrote me in college and addressed the letters to "Master James M. Ford"--she was so old school it was cool.

Dana & Kathie--thanks for the encouragement. Maybe there is room out there for a male Asian-American author spinning lyrical tales of heartbreak and redemption.
March 5, 2006 | Registered CommenterJamie
I have often daydreamed about becoming the female David Sedaris. Only my family has a lot less of a sense of humor than his family seems to have. I have plenty of material though. Seems a shame to waste it. Perhaps I can change the names of the guilty and write under a pen name.

Thanks for sharing those stories, Jamie. Fascinating stuff.
March 6, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJaye Wells
Wonderful insights. They would make a great book. I enjoy genealogy and if nothing else these stories would be great for your children and grandchildren to read.
March 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterZenPanda

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