I don’t remember much about you, except that I wasn’t allowed to attend your funeral. I was 7 or 8 at the time, and a Chinese tradition I didn’t quite understand only permitted the men in my family to go.
To be honest, I was unbothered by the news of your passing. I didn’t understand what death was, not even when Dad broke down when he was tucking me in that night. That was the only time I’ve ever seen him cry.
On the rare occasion that Dad will talk about you, there’s always this shimmer in his eyes, like he’s miles away. He tells me how funny you were and how exciting your life was.
“He was a rebel artist during the Cultural Revolution,” Dad said, casually flipping through photos you’d taken. “He became a photographer after the revolution and documented China reclaiming its cultural identity.”
My favorite ones were always the photographs you took of people you loved: the ones of your friends playing cards, of your family sharing a meal or of Grandma all dressed up in her opera costume. It’s always in those moments that I wish I remembered you, even just a little.
I like to think that we’d get along.
Since I could hold a marker, I also wanted to be an artist and make some sort of impact on the world, just like you did. I built up my foundational skills for years and started doing photography and digital art. For the longest time, I knew it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
When I got in to my dream art schools, though, I decided to give it all up for UC Berkeley — a decision I don’t know if I regret. Maybe I made a smarter life choice by choosing a school where I have more options and maybe more stability. Or maybe I gave up the biggest chance I had at seriously pursuing art.
Then again, I feel like anyone who has had the smallest notion of pursuing fine art has been met with the crushing realization that if they do decide to go through with it, they may end up as the stereotypical jobless family disappointment. To some extent, pursuing art began to feel selfish and self-indulgent too. Out of all the artwork in the world, how would mine be any more valuable? How does art contribute to anything meaningful? Why should I be working toward something that might not even guarantee me a stable income?
If you were here, I like to think that we would have talked about it. I’d ask you how you were so sure you wanted to do art, even during a time when it could have cost your life.
I remember one summer, I was working on a piece in the studio until late at night. Lugging the equipment back home with me when it was finally done, I wasn’t tired at all — there was this buzzing feeling of elation in my chest, and a strange sense of purpose. Maybe that’s the point of it all: the feeling that you’re making something you’re proud of, something you can share. I thought about you, then. Maybe that feeling is what made you risk your life for it during the revolution.
I haven’t encountered that feeling again in a long time, but last night I decided to draw for the first time in months. It was a rather impulsive decision, given how many lectures and assignments I have to catch up on. I suppose it felt important, or maybe it was just another form of procrastination. Regardless, I drew.
There was something about going back to it that felt like I was finally taking care of myself. Even if I was just drawing an egregious number of cartoon chickens, it was comforting. I wasn’t overthinking about the inherent contribution or value of what I was making. I suppose that’s what scared me away from art school in the first place.
I don’t know how this habit of toxic productivity came into existence, but I tend to deny myself things I value because I think they aren’t contributing to any greater good. Art isn’t the only form of expression that gets looped into this: I see myself and my voice as a waste of space sometimes too.
It makes me wish you were here, Grandpa, even though I only know the vague parts of you that Dad will tell me. Sometimes I wonder if you ever felt powerless like I do now. I think you’d have a lot of great stories, or that you’d give me some deep, mind-blowing insight. But the truth is, I’ll never get to talk to you, and you’ll never get this letter.
I don’t know where I belong or what I want, but when I do manage to get there, I’ll at least know it was on my own terms.
In the meantime, I’ll keep drawing. In some small way, it makes me feel close to you.
Jessie Wu writes the Thursday column on exploring the intersection between risk and self-discovery. Contact her at [email protected]