Alec Austin (alecaustin) wrote,
Alec Austin

All Our Differences and All Our Stories

Hey, all.

So in my last post, I mentioned that there's a Kickstarter up for the Hidden Youth anthology, which I'll have a story in if it gets funded.

I know not everyone has money spare to support the anthology directly, so if you could help spread the word about the Kickstarter, and maybe link to this essay if you think it's worth sharing, I would appreciate that.


In high school, both my girlfriend and my best friend lived in multi-generational households in Nu'uanu valley. My best friend lived up towards the Pali (the vertiginous mountain pass from which King Kamehameha reportedly pushed over 700 enemy soldiers to their deaths) in a multi-story building renovated to allow his parents and grandparents to live separately. My girlfriend lived at the bottom of Nu'uanu in a four bedroom bungalow, and her grandmother was a constant presence when I visited.

I don't think I ever exchanged more than two sentences with her at a time.

My girlfriend was Hakka, while I was half-Hunanese. To a lot of people, that would've meant we were both Han Chinese. But it didn't mean that to my girlfriend's grandmother, who didn't speak Mandarin. (I took Mandarin in high school. My girlfriend took Latin.) It wasn't invisible to my father, who told me my girlfriend was Hakka before I knew what that meant; before I learned about the centuries of ethnic tension between the Hakka, Punti, Manchus, Miao, and other ethnic groups that helped motivate the Taiping uprising and innumerable other revolts and conflicts. At this remove, I can't say my heritage was the reason my girlfriend's grandma treated me like a non-person. (Maybe she just didn't like me. I was kind of obnoxious as a teenager.) But it easily could have been.

Most historically literate people in the West have heard of the Boxer Rebellion. Far fewer have heard about the Taiping Rebellion, which preceded the Boxer Rebellion by five decades, and lasted much longer. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, led by Hong Xiu Quan--the self-proclaimed brother of Jesus--was an uprising against the Qing which began in 1851 and was finally suppressed in 1864. The earliest Taiping rebels were predominantly Hakka, recruited from the villages where Hong and his adherents took shelter and preached their message that Hong was the second son of the Christian God. After capturing Nanjing, threatening the Manchu capital of Beijing, and trying (and failing) to muster Western support based on their shared religion, the Taiping rebels were ultimately crushed by the Xiang army, which was recruited from Hunan and included a fair number of my forebears. (See Jonathan Spence's excellent God's Chinese Son for more details.)

Now, do I really think my girlfriend's grandmother was nursing an ethnic grudge dating back to the Taiping Rebellion? Probably not. My point is simply that history--particularly imperial, ethnic, and religious history--is dense and twisty and complicated, and ramifies into the present. We often paper over these twists with simplified narratives and labels, but that doesn't make history's richness and complexity go away.

It just means we've chosen to close our eyes.

This is why I feel anthologies like Long Hidden and its sequel, Hidden Youth, are so important. By telling the stories of marginalized groups and pushing back against dominant narratives, they help highlight the incredible richness of personal and cultural diversity, and how it's been present throughout human history. That doesn't just mean the half-Hakka exorcist heroine of my story, mind you. It means the people I grew up with who spent their whole childhood living under the same roof as their grandparents, or pounding mochi at the Bon festival. It means all the hapa and biracial people who grew up in places where no one gave them or their parents side-eye, as well as the ones who weren't so lucky. It means everyone who grew up hearing stories about the Ali'i using their relatives as human chairs, and King Kamehameha pushing people off the Pali. It means me, and it means you, with all the food and traditions and family stories you have which are just how things are and are not weird at all, no sir.

The world is wide enough for all our differences and all our stories.

Let's try not to close our eyes any more.


If you enjoyed this essay, please consider sharing it on social media, and backing Hidden Youth on Kickstarter.
Tags: personal history, short stories, writing

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