The Human Diaspora

Well it’s been good chillin in these parts for a bit and catching the action these past couple weeks, but the time has come to respectfully bow out with a bittersweet smile, with a warm embrace to our hosts and the new friends I’ve made. And maybe one more tequila shot before hitting the after-party. Tequila distilled from the blue agave pulp of the soul. Perhaps a few parting sentiments, befitting a return to the road.

What I’m feeling, at this particular time, at this point in my life, is the familiar recognition that there’s no real home for me in this earthly sphere, only criss-crossed paths across the surface of this spinning planet. It’s often said that life is a journey; all of us are in transition, marching side-by-side from unknown into unknown. I do understand that folks sometimes experience a different feeling of home, of bodily belonging, of sitting still and satiated atop ancestral roots pushed deep into the earth. I’ve had moments, now and then, here and there, where the hunger and the restlessness and the winding road melt from my being and all that’s left is wholeness. Maybe that’s what we’re all after.

But I think many of us who are children of diaspora, children of the displaced and the unwelcome, tend not to expect so much. We grow up with constant reminders that we’re a long way from home, surrounded by hostile strangers, barred from the center of the public square, shoved into the shadows. They don’t much like our kind round here, we are told in a million large and small ways, we are the ugly ones, the inadequate and intrusive ones, the spoilers of the pristine landscape. For such children of diaspora, there can be no homecoming. Locals in our adopted homes yell at us to “go home”. And our ancestral homes have been taken from us — by invaders and colonizers, by wars and circumstances and decisions, by distance, by time.

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Every diasporic community is, of course, unique. Every people, indeed every family and every individual, has a unique story. I enjoy learning about all those stories. I like contemplating both the differences and similarities between the experiences of all the variegated groups that have ended up bouncing off each other like billiard balls here in the so-called New World. Understanding how we got here helps me understand where we are.

Understanding where we are, for me, began as a teenager, with a headlong plunge into my mom’s bookshelf of African American literature. My mother had been an anti-war and civil rights activist in the 1960s, when she first arrived in this country, literally fresh off a cargo boat from China after 3 months of lashing waves, tumultuous weather, and unwanted advances by seamen. Arriving on these golden shores, my mother had been troubled by the racism she discovered and had hit the books to try to understand the forces that were tearing her new country apart. She accumulated writings by James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, among others. She marched with progressive activists. In the 1980s, in my teens, I followed those footsteps. Her dusty dog-eared collection of Black literature opened the doors. It was my formal entry into anti-racism. I never turned back.

It’s been crucial for my journey as an Asian American citizen and activist to seriously, studiously, steadily explore and contemplate African American and Native American history and experience. I believe that it’s impossible for Americans of any stripe to grasp our own existence on this continent without first grasping those foundations. Obviously I’m steeped in Asian American history and culture, but the unique centrality of Native American and African American stories are not lost on me. To me, those are stories which bring us to both the vital spiritual source and the bleeding soul wound at the heart of US society. That’s how we got here. That’s who we are. That’s the electrical signal within our own heartbeat. Whiteness may attempt to negate this reality, or twist it into metallic square-brained convolutions devoid of visceral meaning, or set communities of color against each other by overplaying the gulfs between us and underplaying what we share; but the truths of our genocidal past, the Door of No Return, the Trail of Broken Treaties, as well as the bounty of gifts we’ve been given by all the forgotten, burn in my chest and in my eyes every day that I look upon the world.

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In 1963, my father made the journey from Taiwan to the United States by way of East Africa. You could say that he took the long way here. My father’s family had ended up on the Kuomingtang-controlled island of Taiwan in the 1940s, after having been displaced from the mainland by the traumatic convulsions of the Japanese invasion in World War II and the Chinese civil war.

Both of my paternal grandparents were doctors, and in the early 1960s they took jobs working for the World Health Organization in Ethiopia. They gradually maneuvered their family toward a new life in the US, like moving chess pieces, one slip of paper at a time, one family member at a time. Being the eldest son, my father stayed behind in Taiwan the longest and took care of family business. All three of his younger siblings were already in the US by the time it was his turn to make a move. It was a big move. He made his way through Hong Kong, Bangkok, Bombay, Beirut, and Cairo, before arriving in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. From there, he traveled northwest to the ancient city of Gonder, where he met up with his parents.

Reflecting on it now, I realize what a profound impact this voyage must have had on my father, and consequently on me. It was an experience which shattered the horizons of his 22-year-old mind and opened his eyes to the grand scale and spectacular diversity of humanity — a vision which he passed on to me. In his memoir, my father writes:

Ethiopia is an ancient country with three thousand years of history. It looks over the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula, and is connected to Egypt by the Nile. The kings of this country had always claimed that they were descendants of Queen Sheba and King Solomon. Legend has it that the beautiful Queen Sheba went to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem, and later bore him a son, who became the founder of Ethiopia. Gonder is not far from the source of the Blue Nile, one of two major tributaries of the Nile. I once took a car to the hilly country nearby and looked down at the source of this world-famous river. You could say that I revered or even worshipped the Nile, but I had actually learned only isolated facts and lacked a historical sense to comprehend what I was seeing; it was as if I was able to mumble a few lines of poetry but knew not what they signified. I can only recall that when I looked at the source of the Nile, I murmured lines of Confucius, “It passes on just like this, not ceasing day or night,” and the poem, “I live by one end of the Long River, and you by the other end. I think of you day by day. I long to see you, but in vain. We drink by the same river.”

During his time in Gonder, my father met Ethiopian Christians and Ethiopian Jews, Israelis, Russians, Iranians. They were doctors, students, and patients at the medical center where my grandparents worked. He eventually managed to obtain a student visa from the US consulate, as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 finally got rid of racist quotas imposed during the Chinese Exclusion era, which had essentially barred Chinese folks from US citizenship and public life since they began arriving in the 1850s. So my father said goodbye to his parents in Ethiopia and set off on the second leg of his journey, through Asmara (which was then part of Ethiopia but is now the capital of Eritrea) and on to Khartoum in the Sudan, where he boarded a flight to Athens. He passed through Zurich, Rome, and Paris, before flying to New York and setting foot on the continent where he would meet up with my mother and raise children, my sister and me. That’s how I got here.

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In 2001 I made a pilgrimmage back to ancestral lands. My great-grandfather’s house, where he made burlap sacks for a living, is still standing in a small village with mud roads where literally everyone shares the same surname. I visited the Japanese prison camps where the Chinese had been subjected to human experimentation for the development of biological and chemical weapons, as well as slave labor for industrial development of the Japanese imperial army which the US faced in the Pacific theater. Approximately 10 million Chinese people died during World War II, yet this isn’t even worth a footnote in the US. Most US Americans have no idea that the Chinese land war against Japan had at least as much to do with their defeat as the US naval war.

That’s how these journeys oftentimes go: we unearth geologies of bloodshed, tectonic plates of pain. We can’t imagine the cruelty and horror which our forebearers endured. Yet somehow we made it, and here we stand, upon the blood-soaked earth, under the aura of our ancestors.

My pilgrimmage ended at a remote mountain lake known as Tian Chi, which is usually translated as “Lake of Heaven” but which I prefer to call simply The Sky Pool. It’s a sacred spot draped in legend and mist and shimmering light. I sat on the shore meditating and gazing into the dark waters. That’s where I saw with definitive clarity that I could never go home, neither in China where my grandparents fled invading armies, nor in the US where my mind and body were formed. I would always be a child of diaspora. Gazing into those misty depths, I saw that ultimately we are all children of diaspora, scattered across the planet over eons of exodus like stars strewn across the sky. We are all migrants. We are all members of the Human Diaspora. Our only home is a bottomless Sky Pool where endless visions of countless tragi-comedies gather and dissolve. “I live by one end of the Long River, and you by the other end. I think of you day by day. I long to see you, but in vain. We drink by the same river.”

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And that’s my light-hearted parting thought, O Feministe readers! Stop by my pad over at Zuky and say hello some time; you can even click on the Alms Bowl in my sidebar if you’re moved to do so by what you’ve seen of my stuff! I’ll try to have some hot tea or cold beer ready to go. I’ll see ya round.


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8 comments for “The Human Diaspora

  1. July 20, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Gorgeous writing, Kai.

    I was stunned recently to hear a reading of a draft Holocaust memoir in which the author, the child of two survivors of the camps, casually referred to China as “having sat out World War II.” To his credit, he took my later correction in good humor, promised to check out Iris Chang’s work, and so forth. But it was rather surprising that a person conditioned his entire life to reflect on the atrocities of that era would, after half a century of life, treat the Occupation as new information.

  2. shah8
    July 20, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    This post has made me very thoughtful, particularly the part about Ethiopia as both a waystation in real life and an endpoint of a kind of emotional calculation. It forces me to contrast the feelings of Renee’s visit to the Door of No Return with the sentiments of the “long river”, which was/is so much the Lethe for us. Death was permanent for some of us, to be nothing more than shark food, with those of us left behind to be Cadmus’s seeds far from the care of ancestors and descendants. And so we struggled in ignorance and violence, with all of our waystations shortened to towns only a few miles apart by raft or rail, but may as well be an ocean for all of us who had loved so well. Even as it feels so cheesy to think of Detroit or Chicago or LA as meaningful waystation at times, if we ever dared to think about the sea, there is nothing but a blankness that ends at a white castle.
    Some of us go ahead and try to come back, put things right, only to learn that there is really no there there. Others of us go just to visit, and simply claim an area to be home, whether that be Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, or perhaps fabled Tomboctou–just so that the trail continues somewheres.

    I am envious, and not just for your skill at writing, Kai.

  3. ZC
    July 20, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    You’ve done it again, Kai — lifted this reader to a speechless place of stillness and wonder at the beauty of a story well told.

  4. Daisy Bond
    July 20, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    What a beautiful post!

  5. July 21, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Ah, that was beautiful. Damn.

    Me, too.


  6. Kai
    July 21, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Thanks for the good words, folks!

    shah8, thanks for your comment, you make a very important point which I really should have included: some of can trace our past, as I have in this piece, across the globe, to a small village in a distant land; some of us must live, as you put it so well, with the blankness that ends at that white castle. It’s a painful subject. Some years ago, one of my friends was very excited (in a certain torn way) to see an exhibit of the wreck of the Henrietta Marie slave ship; her family believed that they may have had ancestors who came to this country on that ship. I spent some time with her studying that ship; it was an emotional experience; she wept and wept and eventually wondered aloud whether her family really had evidence that this was the ship they came over on, or whether they were just desperate to have something to grasp onto, because anything was better than the blankness of not knowing. I never learned the answer to that question; but the asking of it made a deep impression on me. Maybe there’s a necessary place for fabled Tomboctou indeed.

  7. Katie
    July 22, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Amazing. Thank you.

    Me and my roots are going to sit with this one.

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