In this blog post, undergraduate student Kristin Chang shares her thoughts after attending Nyssa Chow's class during the January 20 One-Day Oral History Workshops at Columbia University. If you too would like to attend our One-Day Workshops, another event has been scheduled for this spring on May 5.
In my family, orality is a form of survival: I was raised by my grandmothers, both of whom are illiterate. The language my maternal grandmother speaks is entirely oral, transcribed only by missionaries who gave up when they realized their translated bibles were being burned for cooking fires. My mother is the first woman in our family to be able to write the name she was given, a name that contains the Chinese character for orchid, my grandmother’s favorite flower. I remember fifth grade science class, when I took home a diagram of a plant’s cross-section that I had to complete by morning. When I begged my grandmother to help me, she left each line blank, but together we filled the paper with an entire landscape: a sky thick with clouds, a river and waterfall running down the page, a dozen orchids sprouting along the borders. I failed the assignment, but it was the first time I’d seen my grandmother’s hands do something that wasn’t sewing in a factory or cooking something skinned.
In Nyssa Chow’s oral history workshop, we talked about recording the stories of the elder women in her family. It was my grandmother I thought of: the way she laughed through her nose, the way she coated her fingers in oil every night, pinching my nose to make it grow taller. The way she told stories, often starting at the end, telling everything backwards. During the workshop, Chow described the first time she brought one of her video interviews to class, how many of her peers told her that they couldn’t understand her great-aunt and grandmother’s accents. Immediately, I thought of my own fear of recording my grandmothers’ stories, only to have them be erased, misunderstood, or mocked. Chow’s decision to use a combination of subtitles and stillness - to preserve the natural pauses in the video, lingering on every breath - made me realize that translation is not always compromise. Rather, the act of translating or transcribing a story could be a form of returning agency to the speaker. Growing up in a Euro-centric education system, the histories I learned about were often the product of stealing, of appropriating a voice by erasing its speaker. But Chow restored my faith in my community, in the intimacy of storytelling and the intergenerational nature of all language. She helped me understand that storytelling is about trust, the shape of the story becoming its own body, its own mouth.
In my family, the names we are born with are the least important: instead, we give each other nicknames on a nearly yearly basis. As a migrant family, we know what it means to be temporary, to change names the way we change homes. But through most of my years, one nickname has stayed the same, though only my mother calls me by it now. Once, when my mother was driving us home through central California, my brother and grandmother and I shoulder-to-shoulder in the backseat, we decided to stop at a rest station. My brother, jittery from so many hours of sitting still, chased a plastic bag across the street, kicking it like a soccer ball. I stayed with my grandmother in the backseat, dozing against the window until she tapped me on the shoulder. Look, she said, pointing out the window. It’s your name. I saw immediately what she was pointing at: a neon sign that said Krispy Kreme.
When I told my mother, she laughed and called me that for the rest of the year. My little Krispy Kreme, she said. I liked the nickname because it sounded American, the way sitcom couples called each other Sweetie pie or honey. Years later, I still can’t drive past a Krispy Kreme without thinking that’s me. I realize that was the gift of it: it isn’t my grandmother’s misrecognition that astonishes me, it’s the fact that she thought my name could be lit in neon in some unknown town, that my name was important enough to be a place where people gathered.
The communal nature of storytelling is something I’ve learned to value during my time as a Resist/Regenerate/Recycle fellow with the W.o.W. project. Run by the oldest business in Chinatown, the W.o.W. (Wing on Wo) Project created a program for Chinese-American girls to learn about community issues, immigration history, and art-making. During the Chinese New Year parade, we gathered a dozen bags of confetti to recycle into hand-made paper, which we plan to use for our own art projects about community, storytelling, and lineage.
Chow’s work, which draws from the lineage of oral storytelling as homage and reclamation, is everything I want to emulate in my own project (an interactive storytelling performance centering on paper objects). My grandmother taught me that stories aren’t important because they’re written, they’re important because they’re living, embodied in the teller and the listener alike. So much of my family history has never been recorded because of war and poverty and misogyny, but what I always forget is that every structure of oppression births one of resistance. When Chow speaks about trust, I remember the feeling of handing my grandmother my homework, knowing that though her hands do not write, everything they do is a story.
Like this blog post? Learn more about our One-Day Oral History Training Workshops here.
Kristin Chang is a second-year undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College, currently studying literature and Ethnic Studies. She is a Resist/Regenerate/Recycle fellow with the W.o.W. Project in Chinatown. Her debut poetry chapbook, "Past Lives, Future Bodies," is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in Oct. 2018.