What language can tell us: reflections on dying words and meaning

Two things I love to talk about have collided: National Geographic has published in their July 2012 issue a stunning 33-page spread on the crisis small languages face in a world run by business, the Internet, and a demand for global citizens to all be able to communicate across political and cultural boundaries. On my favorite podcast, we've been discussing the many crises and endangered languages for years, and all the many facets of culture and identity that are threatened by the loss of these smaller languages. Let me first say, that is a truly large amount of printed space to dedicate to this topic. Add to this, the challenge photographer Lynn Johnson faced in trying to capture the story of three dying languages in the frame of her camera, in frozen, singular images. The whole thing is brilliant. Her photos absolutely succeed in telling a complicated story of words, meaning, and meaning lost as fewer people learn these fascinating, enigmatic words and phrases.

Russ Rymer, the author of the article, has perfectly introduced this complex piece of globalization to the regular public, and then highlights three specific languages under threat: Tuvan, spoken in the Russian Federation territory Republic of Tuva; Aka, spoken in the Arunachal Pradesh state of northeastern India; and Seri, spoken in Mexico by two remaining settlements along the Gulf of California.

SERI: [ Miixöni quih zó hant ano tiij? ]: Where is your placenta buried? Caption: This is how the Seris ask, Where are you from? Those who were born before hospital births know the exact spot where their afterbirth was placed in the ground, covered in sand and ash, and topped with rocks.What we can take away from this story are some of the larger questions involved in the phenomenon, because the answers are neither obvious nor easy. Yes, it is actually quite inconvenient to have over 7,000 languages spoken on this planet, but so much is lost culturally, deep-rooted perspectives and beliefs from tiny corners of the world are slipping away, as one language dies every 14 days (as its last speaker passes away). What it comes down to is reckoning with what will remain, and what will be folded in to the larger culture. For example, people who speak Aka might also speak Hindi or Bengali, which both have millions of speakers and are holding strong in the international boxing ring, but what elements of Aka culture will never be properly translated into Hindi? Rymer writes:

Increasingly, as linguists recognize the magnitude of the modern language die-off and rush to catalog and decipher the most vulnerable tongues, they are confronting underlying questions about languages' worth and utility. Does each language have boxed up within it some irreplaceable beneficial knowledge? Are there aspects of cultures that won't survive if they are translated into a dominant language? What unexpected insights are being lost to the world with the collapse of its linguistic variety?

These are excellent, complicated questions that are brilliantly captured with actual words littered below each of Johnson's photographs. The perfection of this combination, word and definition alongside image, still astonishes me, days after first exploring this article. I keep coming back to the words. I'm having an experience with these words and images. Here is an example of the way the story plays out on the pages of the magazine:

The word accompanying this image is [tradzy]: a necklace of yellow stone beads. The Aka have more than 26 words to describe beads. Beyond being objects of adornment, beads are status symbols and currency. This toddler will get this necklace at her wedding.Not only is this a topic I already find important and fascinating, but here my favorite magazine has most exceptionally presented the real and complicated lives, stories, and meanings within threatened languages in a way that appeals to those outside the field of armchair linguistics. (Maybe, it will convert a few more to that pastime.)

One of the most important components of culture that language variation clues us into is the vast difference in worldview across linguistic borders, which widens across continents and geographic distances as well. It is something that first blew my mind as I was learning about other religions, and which continued to surprise me as I studied language as well (and is a reason I love both subjects so much).

Western civilizations, for example, have developed their cultural and mental timeline and calendars on the concept of time as linear, heading in one direction, ever forward. Hindu culture places time in a circle, curving round itself; this is why reincarnation makes much more sense within their concept of time than that of western culture and order. You're circling back on yourself, rather than moving ever onward into future time.

The Tuvan language featured in the article has its own notions of past and present that also highlight these basic, structural differences in world view:

Different languages highlight the varieties of human experience, revealing as mutable aspects of life we tend to think of as settled and universal, such as our experience of time, number, or color. In Tuva, for example, the past is always spoken of as ahead of one, and the future is behind one's back. "We could never say, I'm looking forward to doing something," a Tuvan told me. Indeed, he might say, "I'm looking forward to the day before yesterday." It makes total sense if you think about of it in a Tuvan sort of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn't it be in plain view?

These are the kinds of concepts and cultural traits that risk being forgotten. As anyone who spends time with words-- whether in their native tongue or another they have learned--readily knows, language is part and parcel to one's identity. Expressing emotions, dreaming, bonding with other humans all revolve around language. This is the kind of comfort and familiarity entire tribes have to lose as their language languishes against the bigger, tougher giants.

If Aka, or any language, is supplanted by a new one that's bigger and more universally useful, its death shakes the foundations of the tribe. "Aka is our identity," a villager told me one day. "Without it, we are the general public." But should the rest of the world mourn too? The question would not be an easy one to frame in Aka, which seems to lack a single term for 'world.'

Aka might suggest an answer, though, one embodied in the concept of mucrow--a regard for tradition, for long-standing knowledge, for what has come before, a conviction that the venerable and frail have something to teach the callow and strong that they would be lost without.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-conceived articles and photographic essays I've ever read in this magazine, whose journalism and photographs set the standard in the field.

These are a few of my favorite photo/word pairings from the story.

From the Tuvan langauge:

From the Aka language:

From the Seri language:

This doesn't even scratch the surface. Explore the online gallery and the print edition for more of these stunning pairs. Like this one. 

"This is part of our family history" - meaning in the AIDS Memorial Quilt

I want to share with you the meaning behind Parnell Peterson's quilt panel, which is in Block 2744 of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. I have learned so much about Par through his sisters and my mom since I first visited his panel in January, and much of it shall remain in my unpublished writing and memories. However, I think his quilt panel is an extraordinary example of something that occurs on a larger scale within the enormous memorial--the largest piece of folklore in the world--and that is still expanding with new panels submitted every year. (It currently contains over 48,000 panels.) You can look at a hundred quilt panels and see things that look similar to Par's, which is pictured here.

Now I want you to read his sister Margi's description of their process, each piece, and the meaning of it all:

Making Par’s Quilt panel was a wonderful and healing endeavor for all of us – indeed, many of us.  We had sent out a letter, inviting friends and family to make a small square that we could then incorporate into the larger panel.  We got so many, with so many wonderful stories attached that we soon realized that we would have to make a double panel.  The top of the panel symbolizes the Northern Lights, which became our symbol for Parnell, after an amazing and miraculous experience we had with them, the night Par died.  (That is a story in itself, which I will share at another point.)  We had decided to use a tree as a symbol of life continuing, nature, the land that Par loved in his professional life, as well as personally, having grown up in the UP!  The photo we placed in the middle of the upper panel was the inspiration for the whole thing – and then at the last minute, we decided to attach it because it is so beautiful and fit so well.  The inscription, “Your Light Shines On” refers again to the Northern Lights and our belief in his continued presence which lights each of our lives and always will.  We then decided to put all the small squares on the lower panel and to run the roots of the tree down through and amongst them….symbolizing that this is the ground and foundation from which Parnell came, grew, was nurtured, and lived – all these people who were somehow a part of him.  The hands at the bottom of the tree are those of immediate family members, including niece and nephew, protecting the memory and holding it close.  We loved how it turned out!  We each actually have a small photo album of each square and the story that came with it…such love and grace in each one!

There is a stunning amount of meaning put into every, single, thing in this panel. Knowing how much thought went into his, I imagine similar kinds of deep meaning in each quilt panel. It makes me stop, linger, ponder and examine each square that I do see even more closely. What was compelling and inspiring these people, or this person, who loved this other person, who we are now remembering? If even the dyeing of the denim fabric behind Parnell's panel had boundless personal meaning for his family, imagine this same thought multiplied by the number of people memorialized on this Quilt.

The past two Mondays, I have confirmed a few more of these meanings, backstories, which remain so mysterious and anonymous to most people who visit the Quilt on display, or view its panels online. I have been volunteering to offer my small amount of help to the larger effort of bringing the Quilt back to Washington, D.C., where it will be for almost four weeks this summer. The first team departs this week to bring the acres and acres of fabric to the Mall, the Smithsonian, and various other locations in the capital.

My job has been quite extraordinary: check, assign a working panel number, and document each new square that has arrived this year, so that these unfinished panels may also make the journey to Washington and be sewn into the larger Quilt during the ceremonies and viewings. It will be a very active way of sharing the Quilt, having these newest panels sewn in as part of the displays themselves. So I also go through and record any additional things that arrive with the new panel, like a letter, photo, or other momento.

Last week I read a letter from a woman explaining that this panel was made in memory of her mother, who died in 1994 or so. But it was made not by her--it was a surprise from her fiance. It was he that was also going through the sadness; I don't even think he knew her.

Today I read a letter from a mother asking forgiveness for "mistakes" or "imperfections" in her panel, which she submitted in memorium of her son, Scott, who passed away in 1997. "I've never done anything like this," she wrote. It is so interesting to me to read people's unsure, honest thoughts when mailing in something so personal, so much a part of them. Margi, Parnell's sister, said actually handing over Par's quilt panel, after all that work, was much more difficult that she anticipated. Almost like giving up a piece of Par himself, some of that closeness and memory.

It makes me smile, as I cannot imagine anything that would be similar to submitting a panel to the AIDS Quilt; of course this is new territory. But she described the lovely details she incorporated into her son's panel: dark denim and light denim from the pants of his older and younger brother; velour from his niece's jacket, and a patterned piece of his maternal grandmother's blouse. Once I opened up the panel to see, I was struck by her use of the bits -- not as a random assortment, but as mountains in the landscape she created for him out of fabric--he was also a lover of nature. Again, I am struck by the meaning behind some simple stitched mountains.

Another of my favorites, steeped in meaning and yet so simple, is the family who submitted several squares for individuals in their family who have been taken by HIV/AIDS, and this other panel to accompany them all in the Quilt. "This is part of our family history," it says simply.

This is absolutely so. I hear a lot of family histories in my work at the National Archives. Every other person has a family tree to rattle off to me, a Native American chief ancestor, and several on the Mayflower. HIV/AIDS is such a significant part of human history, and it is now part of the family histories of so many.

"Life in the Age of AIDS is the Story of Us All."

This is the adage that hangs printed in the front offices of the NAMES Project Foundation, the headquarters and keepers of the AIDS Quilt. This sentiment speaks so much truth, and relates exactly to that family's panel, an actualization of their grief, and their insistence on making sure this remains a part of their story. Because we all own it.

I cried only once during 5 hours of processing new panels. I opened one up, unfolded it gently on the table, and pictures of a young man stared back at me. I read his lifespan: January 5, 1987 to September 11, 2010. He is, he was, my age. He was lost to AIDS at the age of twenty-three. How does this still happen? I felt outrage, sadness, shock, anger, thinking we were at least more equipped to handle HIV in the 21st century. But Ricardo did not survive it. This is why the Quilt is still important; and it is not a problem existing only far away from us, in Africa or in the 1980s. We are not immune in the United States and it is crucial that young people have the information they need. Seeing Ricardo's square was a reminder, a wake-up call that this is not an abstract health crisis. He died, and he was my age.

What are the words to properly explain this, to come to terms with it, to understand? I can only keep offering my time, skills, and love to a cause.

 

Little Boxes... made of ticky-tacky

... and they're all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.

This little ditty was the opening theme song for the television show Weeds, whose primary theme for the first three seasons was a critique of the suburban culture, lifestyle, vanities, and contradictions. Housewives and business professionals are smoking dope far more often than you might assume (but then again, this is the southern California version of the suburbs we are talking about, in the show).

But the theme song has always been the great, obvious reminder of the writers' criticism of the suburbs as somehow more safe, with less vice, and the fledgling perception that it is somehow filled with more wholesome people. Most obviously, it points out that all the "little boxes on the hillside," while they might be green, yellow, and blue, are all the same. Little cookie cutters set up for a life of Jonesing (by which I mean, keeping up with them).

One of my favorite exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art on our recent visit was an exploration of the city, the suburb, and our relationship to these different kinds of spaces. It revolved around the Buell Hypothesis, which is brilliantly simple at its core: change the dream and you change the city.

This deeply resonated with me; because, yes, I have taken a class on the history of the U.S. city and its development, the fallacies we have believed about them, and the many mistakes we have made in expanding them. We have had some victories too, and I think we are in an era now where we are becoming better equipped at adjusting the errs. Urban sprawl, the desire for the suburban "space"--which is, having a little yard next to your neighbor's little yard--the single-family house, the two-cars-and-garage, the desire for this "American Dream" has resulted in enormous masses of Metropolitan Statistical Areas--giant areas that now constitute the urban area of a city, and with tragically awful commutes for the people living an hour outside, as the only transportation system to accomodate the two-car dream is the interstate highway.

The Metro Statistical Area of Atlanta includes 28 counties, including the city of Athens, more than an hour east of the center. I think MSAs are fascinating beasts, and I've written about my thoughts on the cityscape before. Atlanta is one of the worst offenders of sprawl, the expansion of low-density development that saps the previously natural and open spaces that once surrounded a city, and replaces them with strip malls, big-box stores, retail centers, and many series of little rows of houses surrounding a singular winding street.

Plenty of people get really angry about sprawl, including the guy who wrote this book about it. In an article I talk about about here, the environmental benefits of reversing sprawl are explored: people in cities are using way less energy per capita to survive, period. The thing is, it is so hard to stop, to reverse, because we have not yet worked to redefine "the dream," as the Buell Hypothesis so simple stated. It was like a lightning bolt struck me. Of course. When we redefine what it means to be successful in this United States of the 21st Century, where, ahem, we are no longer the powerhouse leader of the universe and we better get over it fast, we can begin to properly analyze, repair, and improve the lives of so many living in our urban areas--as far out as they have spread. We can change our own perceptions of the kinds of spaces in which we live, work, play, thrive, towards more sustainable living in the population-seven-billion world of today. And it all, fundamentally, comes down to one uncomplicated sentence. Change the dream and you change the city.

Plus, it was just very fun to browse the theoretical models for housing systems of the future, when cities are a much larger part of the dream, and the family dwelling space for the majority of urban/suburban people might look quite different. So exciting. But I love cities. You already knew that. 

 

Taryn Simon, exploring bloodlines and stories that bind us, through photos

 

In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, in midtown Manhattan, we were near collapse after a morning exploring the Upper West Side and Central Park, then shopping around midtown. Then we went to the Modern Museum of Art. I felt it essential to visit at least one of the major, internationally-renowned museums New York City has to offer, even while we were resisting the traditional tourist visit to the City.

Taryn Simon, artist and photographer, has a knack for amazing titles. Her current show: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, I-XVIII. At some point as we neared delirium, we wandered into the photography section of the museum, tucked on one of the expansive floors, and found Taryn Simon's stunning exhibition of photographs. To be honest, the named intrigued me first, as names and titles nearly always do. A great name is the fastest way to get me interested. (I read Angela's Ashes in sixth grade--I know, right?--because I desperately wanted to know who Angela was, and what was her relation to the little grungy boy on the cover; no other reason.)

We found ourselves surrounded by austere faces, portraits of men, women, rabbits, sitting each by themselves, amid a series of people (and sometimes things) who are somehow related, whose lives and stories intersect by some grand or small event. There was something about "bloodlines," as after looking deeper at the panels and photographs, I was confused about the organization of the show and its larger meaning. I left intrigued deeply, wanting to spend more time pondering this series, these "chapters," later, but not wanting to buy the $125 exhibition book--which was the show in its entirety, amazing.

Hours later, I am in the hotel room taking a much-needed rest, and flipping through a Time magazine I'd brought with, when there is this bold headline: "There Will Be Bloodlines: Taryn Simon untangles the ties that bind."

I kid you not, I got goosebumps. If I had looked at this magazine a day earlier, I might have overlooked this name, skimmed the article at best. Here was this woman, and her explanation of this newest project, which was four years in the making, and took her to twenty-five countries.

Now I have a proper explanation of the project's theme and meaning:

The organizing principle for this project is what she calls bloodlines: all the living descendants, plus any living forebears, of a single man or woman who sets a story in motion.

And the reasoning, the messy ties and stories and variable havoc that occurs within these "bloodlines" is where her project becomes truly fascinating. It echoes what I see and know deeply: that family lines, genetics, and genealogy have little to do with  the way our lives turn out, have almost nothing to do with the events that shape our individual lives in the present.A simple concept, really; and this explains why the tribal man with ten wives, dozens of children, and many dozen grandchildren appears in a massive sequence. And also, why there is a man missing from his own story--a blank canvas appears instead; he was executed for war crimes after the end of WWII and Nazi Germany, but descendants appear after his spot, along with more missing people, via their empty canvases, as well as pieces of clothing that act in lieu of a person, who preferred not to share his or her face in association with this man. Meaning becomes clear.

Simone depicts bloodlines as flowing charts of small portraits--like a living periodic table of the elements. What resonates is the persistence, and finally the insufficiency, of ancestry and kinship as systems for making sense of unruly destinies. To show that blood lineage can be an extremely loopy line, she sought out unlikely subjects; one is a Lebanese man who claims to be reincarnated, so he pops up more than once in his own family history. "I was always looking for a surreal twist," she says, "something that would lead to a collapse of logic."

All the same, even the most outlandish chapters have their universal element. As Simon put it, "We're all the living dead, pieces of what came before." What she means is that we all carry the DNA of our forebears; there ghostly current pulses through us. The intricate machinery of her project is designed to show that blood ties are a weak line of defense against the blows administered by history, politics, or sheer unlucky circumstances. [italics my own.]

Yes. This entire work is more stunningly magnificent than I ever could have imagined, aligning greatly with my own theories on this whole world and what happens to us during our time here.

Community. My community.

Atlanta

Tonight Alicia Philipp came to my nonprofits class to speak to us about her thirty-five years working as the President of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. Community foundations are organizations where donors who want to donate large sums of money, but don't have $25 million required to start an individual foundation in their name, can place their money in order to help a community they are invested in, or care about immensely. She is currently working on a project to fund a for-profit co-op owned by workers living in an inner-city area who will grow hydroponic lettuce to sell to large institutions like Emory University; they needed to raise $1 million this year to start by January 2013. She spoke with six individuals and among those SIX people, raised $800,000 of it. She has been doing incredible things like this in Atlanta and the 26 counties that make up its Metro area since she became the Foundations' president at age 23. 

Someone asked her why she'd chosen to stay in Atlanta for thirty-five years, and working with the CFGA. Why had she never gone elsewhere?

Well, certainly the offers were there over the years, she said. And there were times she really felt like she needed a change. But she would get an offer and then, an extraordinary new project or opportunity would arise with the Foundation here in Atlanta, and she would know immediately she needed to be in Atlanta to make it happen, to help it succeed. She understood after these moments that it wasn't about working for a Community Foundation anywhere, it was about working for the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. It was about this place, these people, this city.

Her words were hitting my straight through the heart. I was near tears (burning throat, watery eyes) several times, as the meaning of what she was saying sunk in. Yes. Atlanta. I want to be here and be a part of this community. I am not ready to leave it behind.  I am invested here.

Is this what it feels like to be vested in a place? To care dearly about its citizens, to wish to see it grow, innovate, improve? To want to make it a better place? Not that I don't want everywhere to be improving, but I have this deeper feeling that I really want to be a part of Atlanta's improvements, history, community.

I remember going to interviews to receive scholarships in high school, and the adult panel members would ask these questions about what I was going to do in college, in life, in career, that would improve Dublin, Georgia, and did I plan on returning to the city after school. I was completely honest -- "nope!" -- and received no scholarships.

But now I see what they were trying to do, for their community. Invest in its future, help it thrive.

Here I am, after six years in Atlanta; I've recently made a commitment to a lease that will keep me here post-graduation, and I could not be more excited about staying here. Alicia's words felt like a giant prophecy, or a reaffirmation I suppose, a reminder that there is a reason I am excited to be here. It is OK, in fact exciting, to reach this point and understand that I care about one particular place.

After all, haven't I been learning about playing with the notion of "place" for over two years in graduate school? One of the themes that keeps reappearing in my own work in public history is that Place plays its own role in the past, present, and future; it is a character all its own, in the human narrative. A place holds special meaning for the people "from" there; and I feel "from" Atlanta. I really do. (And that's quite weird to say, to feel. Michigan-Georgia hybrid with 13 addresses under my belt in 24 years.)

Yes, I see. It is about place. I know the history here. I want to work here and be a part of the community that includes this amazing woman who has dedicated her life to this urban space. To this city I am part of, where I am staying.

I love Atlanta. I love that it's a refuge of blue in a red state (or at least a refuge of dark, dark purple). I love that it's known in the culinary world as a city of great burgers. I love that the NAMES Project Foundation and AIDS Memorial Quilt is here, relocated from San Francisco. I love that we have Emory University, where the Dali Lama is an honorary professor. I love that we have an urban National Park, where the park ranges wear their official park ranger outfits and green hats, but walk on the city streets where Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up. I love driving on I-285 to work in the morning and watching the Delta planes land right over my head on the runway/highway bridge. I love my scrappy public school, Georgia State. I love that they're building the National Center for Civil and Human Rights next to the World of Coca-Cola, which will be a forum (and living museum) on all things important in modern, international civil rights. I love my quilt and fabric shops. I love that I've found a converted factory space to live right in the center of this place that is distinct, in a city that has arguably cookie-cutter apartments. I love that we have one of the three permanent StoryCorps booths in the whole country--the others are in NYC and San Francisco. We have the Centers for Disease Control and the only CDC museum in the whole country.

Atlanta is my home, and it matters. How could I leave it now, just when I can begin to contribute the most to it? Alicia reminded me that's OK, and it is important, even, to care about a place in the world enough to stay long enough to make a difference. This is a recent realization for me, truly new. Atlanta is my community. There are things I want and need to do here. I'm not done yet--I've barely begun.

A day with Marie

I took the day off work to spend time with my friend Marie, and go to the Sewing & Quilt Expo in Atlanta for the first time. She was quite delighted when we first met to discover I quilted, as she has three daughters and they mostly aren't interested in her hobby. (Her daughters are all Chinese adopted--that's how I know Marie. All three are teenagers.) I was a delighted guest of hers, as we trekked over to Gwinnett County and spent a few hours fueling creativity and getting inspiration. We both had projects we were shopping for, which gave us goals. The quilt show that is also a part of the Expo was smaller than usual, Marie said. All the quilts were nicely done, but bland, generic, traditional, and in general, very ehhh. Except for one row of extraordinary mini quilts, all around 1' x 2', designed each by a member of the NYC Metro Modern Quilt Guild. (Add this exhibit to the list of additional reasons for me to live in NYC in my life. What an awesome guild.) There were panels along the bottoms of the display that told about the inspiration behind each of the mini quilts, a form that offers so much potential for creative juice, because no technique is too big to get overwhelmed by when the final product is tiny. The driving force behind these quilts was the question, "what does modern quilting mean to you?" And the results, in both work of art and words explaining, were captivating, creatively inspiring, and beautiful.

My favorites are here. My photos do them terrible justice. All the mini quilts were beautiful--you should read more about them and their meaning.

The first, Back in To-Day, features two photographs transferred onto the fabric, the first from the Library of Congress's folklife photograph collection, of a woman--in her own modern day--working on a quilt. The second is the creator of this piece, working on her own modern quilt. Quilting, she says, is modern always--for the person doing it. It is happening right now. Interesting perspective on modern quilting.

The second one is scanned images of the quilter's deceased cat, which he started playing with in ditigal form after sorting through some papers years after the cat had died and realizing that chopping the images up yielded graphic and interesting results.

The third is all creams, tiny stitches, and one patch of teal. Right up my modern quilt alley. They are all stunning in person.

I also loved the African textiles and traditional patterns and quilting motifs, but anyone who's ever heard me gush about these motifs from when I was researching them for my material culture class already knows I'm crazy for them. The things they have done with narrow woven pieces of fabric, and created so much movement and pattern... amazing.

A good day.

 

My life is richer, simply because I asked

Or: An oral history project, incredible families, much talk on adoption, China, love, and family, and how I found a title for this project

Last January, I was struck with an idea for a project. I had read a book about a generation of Chinese girls who had been adopted into families worldwide, with a huge number of them becoming part of American families. (I wrote about it too.) Tens of thousands of these girls are growing up Chinese-American, in predominantly upper-middle class families, and they have a distinct perspective on the world, and their spot in it.

 

That Americans have been adopting from Asia is not new information to most people; American families with an adopted Chinese (or more generally Asian--Korean, Vietnamese) child is more and more common in the general public. On the sitcom Modern Family, Cam and Mitchell adopted their daughter Lily from Vietnam, and that diversity is one of the mainstays of the "modern" aspect of the family composition on the show. In your own community, at the grocery store or Target, multicultural families are an ever more common site within the larger populace.

 

What I realized--in one of those sudden ideas that come to mind only when a combination of other triggers intersect perfectly--is that there is an important historical story here, and that I could help to tell it, begin to collect it, with the tools I have. I had been thinking a lot about identity, and the concept of "roots," genealogy, and biology, and thinking about how much, how deeply, it doesn't matter in the end. I had been thinking a lot about how much I want to adopt in my own life. And I had been thinking about the group of people--oftentimes members of Families with Children from China (FCC)--who is here, connected, who live this story every day: the families. Also being a public radio addict, I love podcasts and the new media we have to share stories and collect and share history, and decided the internet combined with an audio format would be the perfect way to tell this story.

 

Over the course of a few months in early 2011, I wielded in and narrowed my enormous original scope, and decided on what would become the final capstone project for my master's in public history.

 

I would collect oral histories of families who had adopted children from China (mostly girls, but a few boys as well), who live in the Metro Atlanta area. They will be delivered in an online format, much like a podcast, and often in small series that connect the stories of various families to each other.

 

I wrote a paper to end the semester, with grand ideas, plans, and notions of this project. Then in the fall, I had to begin to deliver on my many (many) promises. An important thing to point out is that I knew not one singular person in the Atlanta community who had adopted a child from China. I am not in the age demographic of adoptive parents, and I am not even married. Nor do I have kids. I spend a lot of my time at work and at school. So I started cold-calling people, with a very strange request, indeed, when they did call me back or answer my unknown number: "Yes, hi, I am a graduate student at Georgia State, and I am working on a project about families who have adopted children from China. If you are interested, could I explain a little bit about what I am doing?"

 

Strangely, I only felt really nervous the very first time I did a dialing session. That first, painful, jump into the icy water. Turns out, the water was not cold at all. A few returned my calls or answered, and connected me with people who were either more directly involved, or spoke to me themselves. In each case that I have spoken with a mom, dad, or family as a group, I have been allowed a little more access into their lives, and they have shared my project with their friends, people also connected through FCC--the Atlanta chapter and beyond. It has been extraordinary.

 

What began as a few contacts in the fall has snowballed in 2012. I have been graciously welcomed into homes, invited to hear personal tales of how these families became what they are--decisions about family, ethnicity, fertility, biological children, and all other manner of real, complex lives.

 

I ate Chinese food to celebrate Chinese New Year with one very active playgroup, the kids averaging about six to ten years old, and it was a rowdy, wonderful evening, meeting parents and further discussing and explaining this project and my goals.

 

I watched a rehearsal performance of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, which has become a haven and passion for a number of adopted Chinese girls over the years, many of whom continue to dance into high school and college.

 

I was invited to a monthly book club begun by mothers of adopted Chinese girls and boys, who found there was a need to read the literature (spanning many topics) on kids, adoption, China, parenting, and a number of issues within these topics, and that reading them together was more meaningful. I have begun attending them, and the most striking note I took away from my first session was that there are issues of confidence, perception from outsiders, and even simple semantics that arise in every adoptive mothers' mind, and that the support from small groups like this one is indispensable for these women. It was so lovely to sit and discuss their most recent selection, Lucky Girl, with them--quite frankly, most I did was listen.

 

I listened to one mother console another on the fear that she, who had never had children biologically, somehow loved her daughter in a less, or different, way than the mother who had two biological boys before adopting her Chinese daughter. This second mother listened earnestly, and then vehemently countered that, having both, she promises there is not one thing different in the love for each of her three children, biological or adopted. She repeats this for emphasis, staring her friend straight in the eye. She is brought to tears when talking about it further.

 

It is moving. There are many times I am near tears in working on this project. The stories, the love, the shared experiences are so moving. I am up to my ears in adoption stories, and pictures of young, growing, and grown-up families; it only makes my conviction and desire to adopt stronger, if that was possible.

 

I was invited by two girls, ages 8 and 9, to watch the videos their older sister (film-producer earning her master's at Columbia, might I add) made of their respective adoptions, after I had finished interviewing their parents. It was the first time in the course of this work that I watched, in moving picture, the moment when a little two-year-old met her parents and sisters. It was remarkable, joyous, and scary, and sad all at once--many in that room captured on film feeling so many varieties of emotions all at once. It is a moment not everyone would perhaps want to share with me; I was honored, yet again, by their gracious invitation into the lives of others.

 

Is it that adoptive families tend to be willing to share, because they are used to being the ones in the room who created their family in a manner somewhat different from "normal"? I don't know the reasons, but I am grateful for their positive responses to this project, the excitement some have expressed, and the thanks others have shared. We all recognize that these are stories worth telling, collecting, connecting, sharing. I think they are especially rich in the aural format, voices captured in this moment in the lives of these families. The little girls, little boys, teenagers I have spoken to--those voices are being saved, and their notions of themselves are now recorded, as documentation that this is how they felt in 2012, about their spot in this wide world. I giggle, I cry, I am in awe as I listen back to the words and thoughts that I have collected. How far I have brought this, into fruition, into something quite extraordinary--something I wanted but that, if I'm being honest, seemed impossibly large to attempt.

 

I have been invited into homes, back into homes, met kids, siblings, parents, friends, interviewed many of them. I've met with people without the voice recorder on as many occasions, listening and talking and proving that I can be trusted with their family's history.

 

I was most recently offered two beautiful, hardcover books that have been compiled from families' personal photographs ad writings, on the China adoption experience. The collection is from photo collections and families across the United States, who all have this same experience in common. The first of the books was compiled and designed in the basement of the family I most recently interviewed, and they insisted they had "too many copies" lying around, so gave me one of each of these two books. They are cherished additions to the resources I have already compiled as I entered this world to begin work on this project. From one, I found the inspiration to finally settle on a title:

A Thousand Ways Richer:

The China adoption experience in Atlanta, An Oral History

 

I have been shown unbelievable support, consideration, and openness as I have thus far explored the China adoption community in Atlanta. The most striking discovery has been confirmed and reaffirmed by nearly every mother or father I speak to: the adoption of their daughter, son, or multiple children has brought them more than just a child--their lives have been enriched in a thousand ways they could not have imagined before. A child, yes. Also, culture, dance, food, language, history. Also, activity, sports, small businesses, and an entire community of support, best friends, love, play groups. Some who share this initial experience go on to become lifelong friends. One man's Chinese daughter has already made him reconsider his perception on race, and interracial marriage--and she's only eight.

 

I will explore many of these facets in the forthcoming website, where I post the stories and some of the audio. But the quick thesis to this thing, what has inspired the title, is a combination of the thousands of ways life is changed by adoption, and the countless ways I am also richer for knowing these incredible women, men, daughters, and sons. The ways my life has been enriched are too numerous to count, and I would have missed every single one of them if I had shied away from doing this, in favor of something easier, smaller, with people I already knew. It has been exhilarating to know what I am capable of, if I just pick up the phone and ask.

1988: "History will record..."

The day I visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt, I went on Amazon and bought a used copy of Cleve Jones's memoir, Stitching a Revolution. Jones created the Quilt, with a small team, after having a vision of it during a memorial event for Harvey Milk in 1985--years after Milk's death but when the new virus was devastating gay communities--and hitting particularly hard in Jones's long-time home, the Castro district in San Francisco. He is a wonderful writer, and has survived when so many of his friends have not, and he seems to feel that burden, and it comes through in his continued activism, public speaking, and writing over the years. In 1988, the NAMES Project staff and an enormous group of volunteers brought the Quilt to the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. for the second time (a year after its first memorial display), and he gave a speak that can be found on YouTube--filled with emotion and setting much of responsibility for where we stood in 1988 on inaction from the government of the United States, the one country in the world with the most resources to act. The story behind the Quilt, its legacy, meaning, and growth--not to mention the hundreds of thousands of stories contained within its squares--are incredible. I thoroughly enjoyed reading of its provenance and meaning through Cleve's eyes.

But I will not share all of this here. I will share an excerpt from that 1988 speech.

We stand here tonight in the shadow of monuments, great structures of stone and metal created by the American people to honor our nation's dead to proclaim the principles of our democracy. Here we remember the soldiers of wars won and lost. Here we trace with our fingers the promises of justice and liberty etched deep by our ancestors in marble and bronze.

Today we have borne in our arms and on our shoulders a new monument to our nation's capital. It is not made of stone or metal and was not raised by engineers. Our monument was sewn of soft fabric and thread and was created in homes across America wherever friends and families gathered together to remember their loved ones lost to AIDS.

We bring a quilt. We bring it here today with shocked sorrow at its vastness and the speed by with its acreage redoubles. We bring it to this place, at this time, accompanied by our deepest hope: that the leaders of our nation will see the evidence of our labor and our love and that they will be moved.

We bring a quilt. We've carried this quilt to every part of our country, and we have seen that the American people know how to defeat AIDS. We have seen that the answers exist and that tens of thousands of Americans have already stepped forward to accept their share and more of this painful struggle. We have seen the compassion and skill with which the American people fight AIDS and care for people with AIDS. We have witnessed the loving dedication of volunteers, families, and friends and the extraordinary bravery of people with AIDS, themselves working beyond exhaustion. And everywhere in this land of ours we have seen death.

In the past fifteen months over twenty thousand Americans have been killed by AIDS. Fifteen months from now our new president will deliver his first state of the union address. And on that day, America will have lost more sons and daughters to AIDS than we lost fighting in Southeast Asia--those whose names we can read today from a polished black stone wall.

We bring a quilt. It grows day by day and night by night and yet its expanse does not begin to cover our grief, nor does its weight outweigh the heaviness within our hearts.

For we carry with us tonight a burdensome truth that must be simply spoken: History will record that in the last quarter of the twentieth century a new and deadly virus emerged and that the one nation on earth with the resources, knowledge, and institutions to respond to the new epidemic failed to do so. History will further record that our nation's failure was the result of ignorance, prejudice, greed, and fear. Not in the heartlands of America, but in the Oval Office and the halls of Congress.

The American people are ready and able to defeat AIDS. We know how it can be done and the people who will do it. It will take a lot of money, hard work, and national leadership. It will require us to understand there is no conflict between the scientific response and the compassionate response. No conflict between love and logic. Some will question us, asking how could that be. We will answer, How could it not?

We bring a quilt. We hope it will help people remember. We hope it will teach our leaders to act.

There are many, many things more I could share. There is so much meaning, lore, love, and anger contained in the Quilt. Over time, I will share more.

I have also learned so much more about Parnell Peterson and Craig Koller, the two men whose squares I visited, since writing about what I wish I knew and then about visiting their panels. In some way, over time, I would like to share that here, too. I must figure out how best I want to express it, share stories. For now, they are mine, held close, and written in the notebook I've dedicated to the stories I collect of their lives.

Visiting the AIDS Memorial Quilt

The squares are bigger than you could even imagine. They command the room, the space. What a powerful source of memory, of honoring those who we have lost to AIDS.

As I have written about a few times already , I have been exploring the many squares on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and have been remembering especially two men who were important to my Mom, to our community, and to my perception and experience with the death tolls from AIDS. Almost as soon as I learned, via their website, that the Quilt is stored and the foundation headquartered here in Atlanta, I called, left a message, and asked to visit--especially to see the two squares I had been pouring over, Craig's and Parnell's.

Richie, a veteran of the NAMES Project Foundation, called me back after the MLK holiday weekend, and I planned a visit for today. This morning I spent some time crying, touching the quilt, reading the many lovely words, poems, thoughts contributed to each of their squares, and learned more about these two men via the wonderful memorial that this Quilt provides. It provides a way to remember, in a very communal and large-scale way, yet allowing for quite private and personal time with those who are being remembered. Richie pulled up the information on these two squares, 2744 (Parnell's) and 5508 (Craig's), so I could see where they had traveled, where they had been requested, and where and when they were each on display.

I learned that the demographic who has been contributing the most new squares--they receive on average about 400 new squares each year--are nieces. Girls my age, who have memories, however clear or unclear, of their uncles who died while we were young, and who have now reached the age in which remembering them properly has been an important part of grieving, or becoming an adult, of understanding how this illness has devastated families. I am exactly that generation, that demographic, though I have to consider myself an honorary niece only.

I made a donation in honor of my parents, who have been caring, compassionate examples for my brothers and me, and in honor of Craig and Parnell, obviously, and for each of their families. The wonderful (small) staff gave me a book of some quilt squares, and a calendar I have already poured over several times. I felt so welcomed, and depending on how much longer I am in Atlanta, I want to help quilt squares together as they need me. Seeing a modest and hard-working organization and staff like that also reminds me that I am in the right field; non-profits, working to educate and engage the public, and ensuring that life has been well-spent by taking care of the issues that matter most.

Take a moment to drink in how enormous each panel of this quilt is. Each square is intentionally 3 feet by 6 feet, about the size of a human grave. I was not prepared for the commanding presence, and for how much more meaningful seeing each component up-close truly is.