The story goes that while still a young man in China, my paternal great-grandfather fell gravely ill one day, then died soon after.
Wrapped in a simple white cloth, his body was being carried by the village folk to the graveyard when the sky rumbled and a great storm began. The men decided to drop everything midway – yes, including my great-grandfather’s body – and seek shelter. The following day, there were sightings of my great-grandfather at the village. No, his spirit hadn’t come back to haunt them. It was … him! Literally.
As it turns out, he had been mistakenly pronounced dead and the rain had woken him up.
I know it sounds pretty out there. That’s how I felt too when my father first told me the story when I was a teen. But it’s the only story I have of my great-grandfather. Apart from the fact that he was a tin miner, it’s the only thing I know about him.
So when my dad brought up the story again last Chinese New Year, it got me thinking: How well do we know the family members that came before of us?
I don’t know much about my paternal grandfather either, who died when I was 12. All I remember is that he was a carpenter who was extremely quiet and serious. Adding to his fearsome aura, he wore an eye patch over his blind eye, an injury sustained in a brawl.
I have so many questions, if only he were alive! How did he get into the fight? Why carpentry? And the question of all questions, how did he and my grandma, a woman so full of life and passionate conversations, fall for each other?
Unfortunately, I’ll never know. And the things that I do know about him are based on what other people have told me – which brings me to my next point.
Why do we only have oral accounts of these stories? Shouldn’t they be written down and locked in a safe somewhere for the benefit of our future generations?
Why is it that historical events about great civilisations built and destroyed, about wars won and lost, can be so well-documented but not the history of the very people we owe our existence to?
Apparently there are websites and services that can help with tracing our origins. I haven’t tried them but even so, it’s not my ethnic composition that I want to know, but real, complex stories about my ancestors’ greatest joys and pains, their failures and successes.
My goal is to sit down with as many family members as possible one day, turn on the voice recorder and learn as much as I can about their lives and the lives of those before them.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be so rigid. You can simply keep an ear out when family stories are shared at the dinner table and ask questions.
After all, it’s these stories about our loved ones that inform us of who we are and even inspire us.
There’s a reason I still remember the story about my great-grandfather. Without sounding overly dramatic, it’s particularly helpful when I’m having an existential crisis.
You see, he was an only child, and at the time of his “death”, he was unmarried and had no kids yet. So if he had been buried alive that day, well, I wouldn’t be here to write this.