Memories we choose to keep

Cal in Color

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Do you ever worry that you might forget your favorite memories?

I personally don’t worry about this enough. Especially because my overall life mentality is to look forward rather than to reflect upon old memories, I’ve realized that I have let many moments from my past fade away; I’ve allowed them to pass me by when I really should have held them closer.

I had this realization the other day when I was on a walk in my neighborhood, looking around at the scenery: a bush bursting with fuchsia and pale petals; my neighbor’s shiny silver car; an arching tree spotted with bright red apples. Wait — an apple tree!

It made me smile for a moment as I was reminded of my younger self, pestering my old nanny to pick me up so that I could grab an apple from a drooping tree. I remember kicking and giggling in her arms as she lifted me up, laughing her throaty laugh. When I was in reach, I grabbed the prize: two shiny, ruby-red apples, bringing them down to the ground, where my nanny held me close and examined them, saying, “Hǎo piào liàng, Bella!” — how pretty. Her warm Chinese accent made her sound my name as Be-dda.

My old nanny, or Ayi, as I called her — auntie — played a huge role in my childhood. She was a small woman, but she had the energy of a tiger. Ayi used to bustle around cooking dinner for our family or cutting fruits for me to eat while I played with toys or worked on puzzles on the floor. Even during warm, lazy afternoons, Ayi would find some excuse to bring out a mop and wipe the floors or clean our windows.

Ayi could only speak in Chinese, which I mentioned in a previous article is a language I am not adept with. Still, I grew up listening to her teachings, making my time with her the closest connection I had to my Asian background, as both my parents speak to me mostly in English. Many of the habits she taught me — using only one napkin when I wash my hands, getting chips from the back of the shelf at the supermarket instead of from the front, holding onto my shirt sleeves when I pull on a jacket — are still ingrained into my everyday life, to the point that they’ve become second nature to me.

My Ayi had her own family, which makes it even more impressive that she spent so much time with me and my family. In many of my memories, she is there to hold my hand or there in the background. Even when I go to see her today, she still remembers that I love eating her soft white mantou bread, always giving my family bagfuls of it so that I can eat them in the mornings. 

It’s her connection with me that I often think about when I am touched by the familial quality of relationships in Asian culture. Even with other Asian aunties and uncles I meet, whether it’s in Taiwan or in my hometown in Washington, I am usually greeted with an inundation of comments or questions as they exclaim over my height, haircut or anything else about me they can think of. It’s something uniquely beautiful in Asian culture, this natural social inclination to treat everyone around you like family.

I’ve mentioned this today because I take a lot of moments from my Asian culture for granted. For most of my life, I’ve wanted so badly to look American and to feel innately American. I’ve realized over the years that this mentality has made me resent both sides of my identity. I’ve resented American culture for not accepting me fully; I’ve resented Asian culture for clinging to me too much.

With that mindset, I’ve blindly gone forward into my future, hoping that I will find a decent mixture of the two. I’ve hoped that somewhere along the way, things will click for me and I will finally be able to understand how I fit into America’s diverse cloth of people.

My drive to become my own person and to pursue the future I want is so focused that I often forget memories such as picking apples with my Ayi unless I miraculously unlock them in a hidden, faraway place in my mind. I never realized that forgetting these memories as I go forward means forgetting the thoughtfulness of others who shared these moments with me; it also means forgetting the small moments of joy that slowly helped shape me into the person I am now. 

As I continue to develop my character, my writing and even my sense of identity, I want to take a step back and remember how lovely my Asian American culture is, how every memory should count in my mind as something that I want to remember. I want to remember my Ayi singing in the kitchen as she chopped vegetables. I want to remember the discoveries I make with both my Asian and American sides. I want to remember that it is truly special that I am always asked about my life and my well-being when I see my Asian aunties and uncles.

I hope that I can hold onto as much as I can carry, because just as much as I dream about where I am going, I want to always cherish where I came from.

Bella Chang writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.