I just finished reading Ghosts of Gold Mountain by Gordon Chang. The book describes the experiences of the Chinese immigrants that worked on the Central Pacific Railroad. My mother told me years ago that my great great grandfather helped build the railroads in California but gave few details about what he had gone through as a young man leaving his small village in China for the great unknown of America. All I can remember of what she said is that he worked so hard and saved every cent he made to send back to China for his young family. Reading this book made me realize what his experiences must have been like in those days, and they weren’t good. Most likely, he had to deal with racism, terrible working conditions, low wages, physical and verbal abuse, loneliness, and homesickness. No first-person accounts by actual Chinese railroad workers are known to exist thus far, but there is now an organization spearheaded by Stanford University to find artifacts, mementos, memoirs, more photos, and letters from the railroad workers and their families. It’s wonderful that these men are finally getting the recognition and respect they deserve for their tremendous work and the sacrifices they made in building the Transcontinental Railroad. Anyone interested in knowing more about these early immigrants and other aspects of the Chinese immigrant experience should visit MOCA, the Museum of Chinese in America. I visited the museum over the weekend with my mother, and she was able to corroborate much of I what I saw and read. It was a nice visit, made even more special because I got to spend time with my mother.
My mom is 84 and doesn’t get out much because she is the sole caregiver of my grandmother who is 107. Grandma is in good health, but her mind is no longer sharp, so I can’t rely on her for details or stories about her childhood in China or what it was like for her and her family when she first came to America. It’s such a shame because she has lived through so many major wars and pivotal events both here and in China, that her recollections could be of so much value to my thesis project, but in some ways I’m thankful that her memory is failing because she has lived through some very tough times, best to forget most of them.
However, I can’t help being frustrated every time I visit Grandma. She was (is) an intelligent woman, able to read and write, and in her youth, very articulate. I wish she had left something for me and my siblings and cousins to reflect on. I wish she had kept all the letters to and from my grandfather and pictures of her family from China and Hong Kong. I wish she had written down her stories. I wish someone had told her how important they would be one day. Oh well, no use in dwelling on what might have been. I’m just glad she’s still alive and always happy to see me. My visits with her and my mother always remind me that time is passing by very quickly and if I intend to leave any stories of my own for my children and grandchildren, I better stop procrastinating. This is why my thesis project is so important and urgent to me. Presently, my children have almost no curiosity about their cultural background and my childhood growing up as an immigrant. But someday they and my grandchildren (God willing) might, and when they do, my memoir vignettes will be ready for them.
As I don’t like to work on too many things at once, I will give my vignettes my full attention after I’ve done the majority of my research and lit review. For now, I’m just jotting down memories and ideas for complete stories. I can’t write on demand. I need lots of time to remember things and reflect, then write, then think, then reflect some more.