How My Quest For Tradition Taught Me To Embrace My Family’s Past

Learning to appreciate Chinese folk songs helped me find a means of expression both specific and outside of myself.

How My Quest For Tradition Taught Me To Embrace My Family’s Past The author (bottom right) with her sister, parents, and grandparents in 1997.  

The first video I ever took of myself is from almost exactly eight years ago: I’m sitting in my grandparents’ apartment in Beijing, my face just out of the frame, and I am sawing away at an èrhú — a thin, upright stringed instrument that sounds like perpetual mourning. The song is “Happy Birthday;” my tone and pitch are terrible, and after I giggle my way through the performance, my grandpa tenderly suggests that I should probably stick to my other instrument.

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At the time, I’d been playing the flute for about seven years; the piano, I’d given up a few years prior. My sister was still years away from dropping the trumpet, which disappointed my dad, a longtime brass player. My mom’s dad, the most musical of all the relatives who populate the clipped branches in my family tree, was well along in his slow, post-retirement quest to master a slew of traditional Chinese instruments: èrhú, hú lú sī (which is made out of gourds and bamboo pipes), dízi (bamboo flutes, from which I draw one of the characters for my Chinese name), and pípa (slim lutes). It is not an exaggeration that music ties my family together; my parents met while singing in a choir.

During a recent visit home, I discovered one of my grandpa’s hú lú sī, and on a whim brought it back with me to Los Angeles. It’s been a couple of years since I played music regularly — I’d picked up the mellophone for marching band but have long since lost that breath capacity. The notes came out as pained wheezes; I decided to start practicing regularly, playing lonely melodies on the instrument’s limited range. Then I dusted off the two dízi I took with me to L.A., and started playing tunes I remembered from my childhood, from my grandpa’s practicing and my dad’s whistling.

More curious than anything else, I started looking into getting a gǔ zhēng, a flat board of pluckable strings that, unlike the hú lú sī and dízi, covered more than one octave. When I searched for teachers, I found only a handful of places that even made mention of these instruments, let alone taught them. Interest piqued, I scoured Google and Ebay for both instruments and, especially, sheet music. Eventually, I found my way to Youku, a Chinese video hosting site.

Browsing Youku, I was reminded of this video, shared by my friend Christina Xu: in it, a Chinese woman plays a gǔ zhēng cover of Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again.” This led me down a spiral of covers — from Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” to Daft Punk’s “Derezzed” — and as I listened to the sounds of my family’s past take on the form of the songs from my present, I began to imagine a world in which I’d discovered the former first.

Traditional Chinese music was that shit my parents liked; the folk songs of their youth were shunned in favor of Green Day, Michelle Branch, and Brand New — the music into which I’d plant my assimilation hopes.

For all of the music that hums through my blood, I didn’t start actively listening to and exploring genres and history until I hit middle school, when puberty and self-consciousness swallowed me whole, the tide pulling back in. Having been fed an eclectic diet of Western classical music, film scores and soundtracks (particularly those from the Lord of the Rings movies and The Godfather), musical cast albums (anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and West Side Story), lite FM, and Enya, I had no idea what contemporary popular music sounded like. I lifted my music taste from my more savvy friends; took notes on what band t-shirts were popular in my small New Jersey suburban school; trawled early filesharing sites and BitTorrent for .mp3s and rips of both radio hits and the much less popular songs that opened and closed my favorite anime shows.

Traditional Chinese music was that shit my parents liked; the folk songs of their youth, of my grandparents’ youth, were shunned in favor of Green Day, Michelle Branch, and Brand New — the music into which I’d plant my assimilation hopes. It was only in the later half of my life, as I began to examine my identity and the way it’d been shaped by American cultural straight white maleness, that I started to interrogate my listening choices as well, studiously incorporating more “othered” voices into my listening repertoire.

More and more, diaspora kids, immigrants, and the children of immigrants find themselves arriving at similar crossroads. For my own part, I’ve honed in on the growing numbers of Asian and Asian-American musicians like Mitski, Aristophanes, and Rainbow Chan, who mark new heights in both art and visibility — and, on the ways that East Asian musical influence hasn’t ever been that far away from me at all. “American” music has always devoured international sounds and repurposed them in pieces, such as the case with dancehall and Bollywood. I can hear East Asian instrumentation in Chairlift’s new album Moth; I see the Zodiac myths and language iconography I grew up with in Grimes’s visual work and curated influences and many others (to say nothing of Japanese gibberish in vaporwave art). And yet, for someone who’s played so much music over the course of her life, I had yet to bring the sounds and influences I now craved into my own playing, my own manifestation of art. But I may never be able to achieve the cultural homecoming I seek.

In the past few decades, East Asian pop culture has begun to bend toward Western inventions; the rise of hip-hop across the Pacific has been particularly notable, though the exchange has gone both ways. While mainstream Asian music has its own cultural quirks — such as enormous rotating girl and boy groups and little to no conversations about colorism and diversity — it, like varying cultures around the world, has largely shrugged off the burden of tradition. The only time I hear Chinese folk songs now are during CCTV holiday specials, which my parents illegally stream.

It’s bittersweet to now see Western music critics and audiences latching onto these new East Asian musical imports, both in terms of sound and stars; where was that love ten years ago, when my heritage was a target for mockery and misunderstanding? When I worshipped only white men who played guitars, when Chinese music was boiled down to hokey riffs and gong sounds? But that anger is misdirected; after all, I too had once turned my back on Asian influences, both new and old. It would’ve taken everything I had to correct my descent into whiteness, to move my heart toward the Western border of the Pacific.

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But what I couldn’t see then, I feel now — possibilities thrumming and threading their way through history, of disparate countries and cultures and my family and me. All I have to do is pick up the pieces and play.

How My Quest For Tradition Taught Me To Embrace My Family’s Past