I was recently in California for my cousin Jimmy’s wedding. He was about to marry Janice, his girlfriend of more than ten years. They started dating while in high school. I hadn’t seen Jimmy in over five years, and had never met Janice, so I was looking forward to catching up with both of them–though I wondered if Jimmy even remembered me.
Before the reception began, my other cousin, Chuck, and I looked through a portrait of our extended family. We wanted to get an idea of who else would be at the wedding. “This photo has every member of our family except you,” he said. The picture was from 2009, while I was living abroad in Cambodia.
“Uh…your brother and his wife aren’t in this photo either,” I pointed out. I wasn’t surprised Chuck forgot about his brother. Although he carries a camera to every family gathering, he favors only two types of photographs: himself and food.
As Chuck and I continued to look through the family portrait, we realized other people were missing too. We began to write down everyone’s name, young and old, onto note cards and arranged them by age. A very messy family tree slowly emerged. Some of the cards were numbered and used as placeholders because we didn’t know everyone’s real name. In traditional Vietnamese families, people are referred to by status and title, rather than their actual name. For example, I call Chuck’s father Bác Tư (Eldest Uncle Four), and he calls my dad Chú Sáu (Uncle Six). This becomes terribly confusing if you forget someone’s status.
No! I am Eldest Uncle Four. Uncle Seven is in the kitchen with Auntie Three, making noodles for Little Uncle. What’s wrong with you son of Brother Six? Have you forgotten how to count?
Chuck and I soon identified about 45 members in our family (plus or minus five), which consists of a vast network of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and more. My father alone has 10 brothers and sisters, which extends to my having 21 cousins (that I know of). This pales in comparison to the longest family tree in the world. The famous Chinese philosopher and educator Confucius has a tree that spans 83 generations, and includes more than 2 million members. It is 43,000 pages long and takes up 80 books, which sounds impressive until you realize it’s the equivalent of one flash drive. My family fits on a floppy disk.
Family trees have been used all over the world to showcase the history and connections of a family, oftentimes highlighting the birthdate of different members, along with the number of children they had and distinguished accomplishments. They serve as an important historical record that can be passed down from generation to generation. But unlike Confucius’ family tree, which dates back centuries without interruption, mine is marred with forgotten names, missing members, and plenty of mistakes. There are few accurate records of my family’s existence before the Vietnam War. Even my parents’ real birthdays are a mystery to me–lost in the journey from Vietnam to America. I also questioned the validity of my own birthday (January 3rd is an awfully suspicious day to be born), until I got a hold of my birth certificate. Instead of pride for my heritage, I am left with an overwhelming sense of curiosity and mystery: Who am I? Where did I come from?
However, seeing the rough sketch that Chuck and I put together, I realized how vibrant my family truly is. Although we might not be able to trace our roots back further than one or two generations, our family represents a rich diaspora of Asian and American culture and values. I am very proud to be a part of it. Philosophize that Confucius!
Later that afternoon, the “adults” came home and saw the note cards spread out on the dinner table. Everyone assumed it was a seating chart for the wedding reception and were surprised to see some of their names misspelled. They corrected the mistakes and filled in the blanks. Chuck and I even added in Janice’s name (but with an asterisk until the deal was sealed). Our family tree is flourishing once again.