The wooden ancestor tablet presiding over my fourth uncle’s ancestral altar tells the complete history of my father’s family—a history that I didn’t discover until my mid-twenties.
Early in my life, my father wanted to plant the seed of imagination and poetic lineage in my mind. On the eve of my departure for a graduate school program in creative writing, he spun an elaborate and fantastic story of our ancestral connection to the T’ang Dynasty poet Pai Chü-i who penned “A Song of Never-ending Sorrow.” My father and his generation of school kids memorized long passages from this epic poem. On a visit to China in the late 90s, my father made a point of visiting the grave of the concubine, Yang Kuei-Fei, whose tragic tale is immortalized through the poet’s song. My connection to my literary ancestor guided me through my early career.
I proudly touted my artistic pedigree to teachers and literary translators. I failed to become proficient in written Chinese, but I learned the few strokes needed to write my family name. I had a stone chop carved with the moniker. I found a way to connect to my Chinese heritage—though this was years before I would ever set foot on Taiwanese soil or lay eyes on our family genealogy.
In the recounting of my father’s many tales, I notice occasional inconsistencies and disjunctions. As I follow the trail of breadcrumbs, paths fork and stories don’t easily recombine. When he recounted a tale of his sisters being teased for having two last names, before they were married, my curiosity was piqued. My great grandmother became widowed after emigrating from China to Taiwan. A benevolent bachelor bestowed kindness upon her and in return, she asked her children to adopt his name as their own. As a result, several generations of my relatives have two last names—Tsai (“vegetable”) and Pai (“white). In my father’s generation, our family’s original name was dropped from the official records. “Just look at the ancestor tablets, you’ll see,” my father said.
Suddenly, my father’s childhood nickname, “Baby Bokchoy,” made perfect sense. I could only conclude that the familial connection to poetry had been wildly fabricated. “It was just a story,” my father admitted. When I finally traveled to Taiwan for the first time, I lit a stick of joss at the family shrine. As I regarded the characters carved into the tablets. I asked my cousin to point out the character for Tsai—a name I did not know. I folded over in the requisite bows to my ancestral line, but also made silent acknowledgement to the poetic predecessor that had guided me so far, before stepping back to watch my aunt pop a cassette tape of Buddhist chants into the boom box and hit play.
Shin Yu Pai
About the Author
Shin Yu Pai is the author of poetry collections including AUX ARCS (La Alameda, 2013), Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), Sightings (1913 Press, 2007), and Equivalence (La Alameda, 2003), as well as several limited edition artist books. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Stranger, City Arts, Medium, Thought Catalog, and Tricycle. Please visit her website at http://shinyupai.com.