How do families preserve and pass down their culture?
Your Story, Our Story entries invite us to look back, or look closer, at the ways that our families change over time, and how we define our own American identity through the generations. Objects that evoke sounds, smells, tastes and memories connect us to our family’s immigrant or migrant heritage. At the same time, our quests for these objects also involve a sense of mystery.
Claire left China with her parents when she was a young child. She recently discovered a childhood photograph from China, and it made her realize how her parents, struggling to take on a new language and culture, “did not want us to look back.” She wrote, “my brother and I were put on the assimilation express track,” yet “we were undeniably Chinese, we spoke the language at home and ate traditional homemade food.” As the generations pass, the desire to look back is sometimes strengthened: Matthew described the St. Brigid’s Cross his great grandfather gave his mother and that hung outside his door: “growing up as a fourth generation American in my family has always made me feel like I was missing out on great tales of my [Irish] heritage.” Matthew researched the meaning of the cross, and found that it provides protection over an Irish home; he became determined to pass on that meaning, alongside the cross, to future generations.
Food and recipes allow cultural identity to be transmitted over the generations, and to convey complex stories. Blaake-Kirstyn traces cherished and well-used family recipes to her great great great grandmother, who was enslaved on a Georgia plantation and became a cook after slavery was abolished. “When my family prepares these dishes, it is a way of remembering our African history that was taken away from us during slavery. It is also a way of celebrating the African American culture that we created which allows us to have a sense of identity and pay homage to our African roots.” Cora’s comal (griddle) connects her to her Mexican grandmother; it also prepares barbeque for the Fourth of July, showing how she too is creating a way to remember the past, while creating culture and identity.
Our shared interest in our own family stories, as well as the stories of others, help us piece together our nation’s collective cultural adaptation.