Finding My Chinese Roots In An Irishman

How Frank McCourt’s Memoir Helped Me to Embrace My Culture.

Picture by The Square Foot

Every writer, blogger, journalist, author will tell you that they are a lover of books — the two goes hand-in-hand; most writers develop a love of writing from a love of reading. Just like we all have that sad, suicidal love song that we listen to on repeat when we’re nursing a heartache, or that movie we love so much that we can watch it X-amount of times; so too do we have books that inspire and enlighten us enough to actually change us.

I have many such books. Too many for me to write one article about, because they each deserve their own separate article. The one line I remember from Great Expectations was Pip saying there’s nothing worse than being ashamed of your own home. Everyone loves a tale of woe and misery that they can relate to.

For me, it was Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes. I love that book. It was one of many motivations for me to get a college degree. They didn’t just grow up poor, they grew up poor and miserable.

It was a New York Times Best Seller and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. McCourt had been accused of greatly exaggerating his impoverished life, but many great books are based on the life of the author without it being completely autobiographical — like To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Kitchen God’s Wife — just to name a few off the top of my head.

I related to the book in so many ways. The memoir has various stories of McCourt's childhood. It starts with his Irish parents and how they met upon immigrating to Brooklyn, New York; his early childhood in Brooklyn, but mostly on his life in Limerick, Ireland. It also includes the family's struggle with poverty and the father's alcoholism.

Life in Ireland is described in all its grittiness. Despite all the hardships, many passages of the story are told with heartfelt humor and charm. The story ends with 19-year-old Frank arriving back in New York, ready to begin a new life back in his birth country.

I thought about Angela's Ashes when I moved to North Carolina, and when I moved to Iowa... and now again, when I'm about to move to Georgia. I'm just moving to another state, he moved to another country.

Me, the daughter of immigrants, who grew up in grinding poverty; the epic story of woe... but despite the popular myth on immigrants — we were never on any public assistance at all, not even Medicaid. Oh, it wasn’t because my parents were too proud for it, it was really because they never knew about any of it!

I saw in this book similarities to my own miserable childhood in New York City. It's the universal story of most immigrant family. Who's to say which childhood was not nearly as miserable as McCourt's, or even more miserable than his or someone else's? But my childhood did suffer.

My mother can barely understand English, but yet she still managed somehow to pass a citizenship test that required her to know about the US government — there are Americans who don’t even know about their own government! After her citizenship, she had no interest in English anymore, after having completed her goal. She’s been in this country for over 30 years, is a citizen, and the woman can hardly speak a word of English.

Why does she even need to? It’s New York City, she doesn’t need to. She watches Chinese TV, reads a Chinese newspaper, goes to Chinatown or Flushing to shop or meet up with distant relatives and friends to "drink tea" at restaurants. Looking at her adult children now, you wouldn’t think our lives were ever so miserable at all.

I am often reminded of the universal "immigrant story" when I turn on CNN in Trump-era, when I watch movies like The Joy Luck Club or My Big Fat Greek Wedding... or especially when I read books like Angela’s Ashes. For a long time I never understood why my mother would want to leave China if she had no intention of assimilating; but now that I’m older, I can understand her reluctance to give up her cultural identity.