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Shang-Chi but not really

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

I just watched the newest Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and I was blown away by the authenticity of the movie’s Asian American motifs. I’m sure there are a thousand other movie critics who are much better than I am at noticing the careful film choices, so that’s definitely not what I’m here to talk about. I want to talk about the way it felt for me to see classic Chinese altars depicted—the ones where pictures of the dead are placed, honored by incense and plates of fruit. These shrines for the dead made me realize that I was born into loss. I have been grieving a loss of connection to my ancestral roots the moment my mother gave birth to me in a California hospital. When I saw the scene of Michelle Yeoh (Nan) and Simu Liu (Shang-Chi) in an altar room, my heart felt a deep ache for traditions that I would never have full access to. There’s a language barrier, geography barrier, lifestyle barrier, culture barrier—so many walls, thick like cement, blocking me off from my ancestors’ way of life. How many stories of my family have been lost, because my American ears couldn’t grasp the Chinese vocabulary that described them? Each foreign word a treasure box I did not have the key to.

As the first child to an immigrant family, there were many ways in which my upbringing felt guideless. For the most part, I went through the natural stages of having a chip on my shoulder about it, then transforming the pain to realize my strength, and now channeling my experience for good, like making sure my younger sister doesn’t feel the same lack of support that I did. But I’ve never considered the grief involved in losing out on an entire culture’s teachings and practices. The Asian American community is wonderful, but it can only ever be an abridged version of the experience of growing up in a country that is wholly your blood. I can never trace my lineage back further than my grandparents. I can never be fully immersed in cultural superstitions or mythologies. The tales and stories that carried my people generation from generation were stopped at a barrier when I was born in America. I will never get the full picture.

This is not to say that I haven’t had a good life in America. This is simply to say: I am grieving the loss of an experience that I had no chance of partaking in. I am grieving the loss of thousands of years of lineage that I do not know how to honor now. I suppose the generation of Immigrant-Americans are beginning something new, and that’s beautiful, too. But there simply isn’t space for both the new and the old… is there? Not in their entirety, at least.

I wonder if my ancestors feel connected to me here, all the way in America, far from where their bones lay. I wonder if they are kept away by the same barriers that keep me from fully understanding them. I wonder if they aren’t, and it doesn’t matter where their bones lay, because they have actually lived on in mine all along.

I wonder how to connect to them.

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