Lou Yaoxiong lives in Beijing. The following is adapted from his e-mails to his children in the United States. It has been compiled and edited by his nephew in Toronto, Ethan Lou, a journalist whose latest book Once a Bitcoin Miner will be published later this year.
Dear My Children,
When I was young, my grandmother told me that everyone had three charms. Each would allow a person to realize any wish after kowtowing four times. My grandmother reminded me several times that, because there were only three for each person, I should cherish them very much and not use them unless I absolutely had to.
I used two of them in ways that were efficacious because both my wishes ended up realized. One was to pass the Chinese bar exam in October 1997. The other was to pass the admission exam of Peking University in March 1999 for my juris doctorate.
The third charm was set aside, for saving my life if I were to be dying in a way I normally would not be able to foresee or prevent. However, I used it in late 2019 when I went to the American embassy in Beijing. I applied for a visa that day.
There was something more important than my own life, so I used the last charm for it — and that was reuniting with my family.
I had intended to give you a surprise. According to my original plan, I would fly to the university first, to see my daughter. Then we would both go to New Jersey to give the rest of the family — my son and wife — a surprise.
Three weeks after the embassy visit, I got a rejection letter. Reading it, I couldn’t even stand up from the chair. The visa refusal meant I could not perform a father’s duty of educating and influencing my children — which is of utmost importance.
My son, you are still young. But for you, my daughter, this period of time is what I would call “thought-puberty.” This is when your worldview is developing most rapidly. If it ends up forming poorly, the blame is mine. According to the Three Character Classic from the 13th century — from which Chloé Zhao quoted when she accepted her Academy Award in April — a child’s ignorance is the father’s fault. I thus have no other way to perform this father’s responsibility but to write you these letters to share my thoughts.
Chinese lawyers are assumed to be versatile, like a doctor seen as a specialist in every disease. A lawyer in real estate, for example, is often asked to resolve divorce disputes. Thus in my 20 years of practising law, I have learned nearly all aspects of Chinese society. I have completely melded into it, the side effect of which is that my environment has prepared me immutably for this culture and no other.
My daughter, I felt this profoundly when I read your university application essay in 2019. My understanding of the content was no different from yours, but I found that my takeaway was the opposite. Evidently, you are learning about and being shaped by an environment different from the one I know.
That made me scared. Will this affect our relationship? Perhaps, my children, that was a milestone for me. I am becoming more irrelevant in your lives day by day due to the difference of culture. You are increasingly melding into another and leaving mine. Eventually, you will inevitably fly away from my embrace. But my line of sight will always encompass you, no matter where you go.
My children, I feel the need to tell you about our heritage. It holds a certain relevance to our current state of separation, if you look closely.
Our family has more than 600 years of recorded history. Much of that was inscribed on the stele of the Lou family — a sort of monumental stone slab, a bit like a tombstone.
The stele was established in 1762 at the site of our ancestral graves, but destroyed in 1956, before I was born. Around that time, my grand-uncle copied its inscriptions and preserved them.
There isn’t much there in terms of details. But we do know that our family’s story begins around 1400, in the Ming Dynasty. A civil war had killed so many that some regions had to be deliberately repopulated. That was when our forebears moved from the Shanxi province into the neighbouring Hebei, the territory surrounding Beijing.
It was a time before planes, railways and, sometimes, even roads. What is now an unremarkable trip was considered immigration back then. And there, in Hebei’s county of Zhengding, was where your grandfather and grandmother were born.
The family eventually moved to the neighbouring Shijiazhuang, Hebei’s capital. I was born in that city, and I moved to Beijing in 1991. Then along came you, my children.
You are, of course, going to be Americans by nationality, and my feelings about that are complex. In deciding to move the family to the United States years ago, I had been reluctant to shear off our connection to Chinese culture. Then, due to circumstances beyond our control, I had to remain behind in China. Thus while I remain tethered to our heritage, I watch as you grow up an ocean away. Sometimes I do feel, in a way, like a thing discarded.
I also feel a bit of fear when realizing that the United States has been experiencing the biggest tear in its national fabric in history. The country was pushed by President Donald Trump into what I view as a “post-civilization” era, rife with white supremacy and anti-immigration, anti-liberalization and anti-globalization attitudes.
I feel helpless. My dear children, you are the first generation of our family in the new land. You will certainly experience discrimination, the hardship of trying to realize the American Dream from scratch, and the loss of identity through the shifting of culture.
And in the current climate, I’m sure even your children will still experience discrimination. I’ve long felt that up to three generations of immigrant families are destined to be spent in turmoil. If not for the sake of later descendants, no one would be willing to bear the pain and struggle of immigration.
Other than writing to you to share my thoughts and experiences, I cannot help you further. Someday, if you find yourself struggling painfully on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, I know all I will be able to do is watch silently on this end.
But I am also proud for you to be the first generation in this new land, and I know I will be proud to see you succeed and overcome the challenges around you. Our family has a long history of travelling, after all. After another 600 years, I can see our descendants calling you forebear, the way we view our ancestors from the Ming Dynasty.
I once visited a Russian clan’s memorial hall in the United States, a building that has been housing that family’s keepsakes and records since the first generation landed hundreds of years ago. I’ve fantasized that our family would have our own memorial hall as well.
My wish for that is not just for my own sentimental reasons. These records are important. They are links to your culture, a part of your identity unrelated to nationality, nation-states or geopolitical boundaries. Such records are reminders that, even as you are growing up elsewhere, a part of our heritage beats within you — and I do not mean this figuratively.
The Chinese say that it takes three generations to cultivate a person of class, a statement on the difficulties of transcending social hierarchies. Implicit in that, though, is also the message that the impact of the first generation can be felt by the third. We are products not just of our parents, but also of their parents.
My behavioral customs, for example, were inherited from my childhood and the environment in which I grew up. And who I am influences the upbringing I provide my children. In that way, you are influenced not just by me, but also the history that made me.
That is a chain that stretches back for a long time, for the wider Chinese history is even older than our family’s 600 years. While there has been little continuity of government in China’s history, the culture itself has developed over thousands of years. Some say as many as 5,000 years.
Now that continuity of culture has arrived at you, my children. Thus you are and always will be more Chinese than it may appear.
This culture that is within you manifests in ways you may not consciously realize, in decisions made on deadline and under pressure, for example, when sometimes you have nothing to guide you but instincts deep and burning in the bone.
Of course, everyone has that within them, and a different form of it. Sometimes a lot of trauma passes down through generations. Your culture is not better or worse. But it is yours, and it is precious for that reason. I hope to stress upon you the importance of learning about our history and heritage.
I have accepted the present situation — that is we will be separated for a long time. But I know I should be educating you through my own behavior instead of advocating these attitudes mechanically, to show instead of tell. As Lao Tzu said in the Tao Te Ching, a true sage teaches without using words.
It is partly for that reason that I recently bought a seaside house in Hebei. Six hundred years ago, our forebears moved to this province, and it is my hope that a small part of us would remain here, no matter what.
I will not allow you or our descendants to sell this house. It is my hope that the house will be inherited generation by generation, the last piece of our heritage to which our descendants can hold on — a record of that small part of our culture that will beat within them.
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