My Great-Grandfather

As a photojournalist, I am fascinated by the more enigmatic elements surrounding memory and storytelling. So much can be learned from the act of remembering itself. I’m 24. The few chances I’ve visited Taiwan, my parents’ birthplace, I’ve sensed a rush of connection to some familial entity far greater than myself. It has something to do with how responsibilities and the reverberating repercussions of individual decisions carry a different weight there. As someone American born and bred, this was foreign for me. I’m using my present understandings to reverse-engineer experiences with my parents that I failed to appreciate in my childhood. I’m recognizing my hunger for family history and wish I knew more.

Recently, I had the sudden thought to ask my father more about my great-grandfather, whom I’ve only heard a few anecdotes about. Maybe it’s something about being on lockdown, an ocean away from family, that has made me want to hold on to them more. My grandfather had passed away just before my older brother was born, and with us growing up in the US, we missed the greater sense of family that is so important in Chinese culture. My father, the memory keeper and historian that he is, wrote back an incredibly special piece. I’m sharing it as is because it is far better written than what I could ever produce.


Hi Kang-Li and Kang-Chun,
 Since Mei Mei wanted to know more about your great grandfather, here I try to write down what I know and send to both of you.

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 Your great grandfather’s name is 鄭鏡湖(pronounced as Zheng Jing Hu). The first thing I know about him is his early adventure in life: One of his uncles, a prominent scholar in the Qing dynasty, who was sent by the Chinese government as a high-ranking diplomatic representative to the United States. Great grandfather Jing Hu was eager to explore the New World, but apparently he had not convinced his uncle to bring him along. The day before the ocean-crossing ship was about to leave Guangzhou for San Francisco, great grandfather went in the big ship and hid himself in a secret place. He came out a couple of days later when the ship was already in the middle of the Pacific. His uncle was very mad at him, but there was no way to send him back at that time. So he fulfilled his first dream of coming to the United States.

We know very little about his adventure in the United States, but Grandpa mentioned that his dad’s first observation of American people in San Francisco was very interesting: young girls (in San Francisco) worked very hard to make a living. They were hired to work in the kitchen when the ocean liner anchored at the harbor. Besides earning meager wages as kitchen helpers, the American girls did not even throw away the potato peels but took them home for food supplements.

While in the United States, your great grandfather learned one trade well: how to make canned food and run a factory. After he returned home, the first canned food company in China 大中華罐頭公司 was established in Shanghai (上海). Your great grandfather Jing Hu was hired as the general manager. The canned food was a new thing and a great hit in China, and your great grandfather was richly compensated in that position during his tenure. Unfortunately, a few years later, he had several clashes with the board of directors of the company, mainly due to his hot temper and pride. The fight was so bad that either he quit or was let go, So he left Shanghai and moved to Fuzhou (福州), where my dad was born (1911), as well as his siblings (one younger brother and sister). [Your great grandmother, her name was 陳珍, passed away before my dad grew up, so he had very little recollections about her.]

In the next few years after your great grandfather settled in Fuzhou, his career was not going well (one of the reasons was his pride and strong personality. He did not seem to have changed at all), and his accumulated wealth from Shanghai started to dwindle. He became an alcoholic, and also treated grandpa very harshly, kind of venting his frustration in life on his oldest son, but strangely, not on the younger son and daughter. As early as in his early teen age years, Grandpa was asked to cook for the whole family. Then the health of your great grandfather deteriorated further (maybe due to depression and alcoholism) and he died when my dad was about 18 years old.

Because grandpa had no close relatives in Fuzhou, a few years later he moved back to Guangzhou and Hong Kong area where he had many uncles (from the paternal side). That was the period before Japanese started the full invasion of China in 1937. During that few years grandpa made many friends, learned the basics of Chinese herbal medicine in his uncle’s herbal medicine shop, and got a good job in the county government in Pan Yu (near Guangzhou in the rich Pearl River delta). When the conflict broke out in Lu Gou Qiao (盧溝橋) near Peiping (北平)(now called Beijing) on July 7th, 1937, Grandpa decided to let go everything there and to join the army. He did not hesitate to give all he had in order to fight for the country against the brutal foreign invasion.

A final note: Your great grandfather were very harsh, even abusive, in treating his oldest son (your grandpa), and it had left a very deep wound in him. But grandpa was healed to a large extent after he accepted Christ Jesus before marrying Nai Nai two years after the end of World War II.

All I know about your great grandfather is in bits and pieces. One of the reasons was the fall of Mainland China to the Chinese Communists. We grew up in Taiwan without any relatives during the cold war era. There were many things kids were “not supposed to ask” in those years. Partly due to political sensitivities, partly due to the a whole can of sadness may be opened up if we naively asked this and that. We children learned to hush when parents signaled us not to ask any further.

Maybe I can get a little bit more if I talk with San Bo and Er Bo.
 Thank you for asking.

Out of Lockdown

There’s nothing quite like banal Kenyan logistics to raise my blood pressure. A local friend said to me, you love being in this country, you should love this part too. Two days ago, we went to Nyayo House in CBD where immigration services are located for me to renew my passport. There’s really something about the manner in which things are done that riles me. It’s that Kenyan customer service, the officer at Nyayo house barely looked up from his phone to tell me that I had to go to a cyber cafe before coming back for a stamp. I’ve been in this country more than 4 months this time, having overstayed my tourist visa by more than a month (because of the lockdown of course), and I barely got a comment about that. Can you imagine? If I were Kenyan and in the US? ICE would probably deport me that day. I paid the 500 Ksh at the cyber cafe we were redirected to (< 5 USD, since the shilling is getting weaker), returned to Nyayo House for a stamp, and were on our way. 2 months this time, I’m thinking, if I just wrote over the loopy “2” months that I was given, I could probably stretch this into 3 more months…

Woke up at 6am this morning to get on the train to Mombasa from Nairobi Terminus. I got here fully an hour in advance, a true sign of how I’ve, uh, aged, and the slowness of each security check and queue was driving me crazy. You get hand sanitizer at multiple points, and all I can think about is how much it’s disrupting the microbiome of my skin. You have workers walking around in ghostly white hazmat suits, plastic face shields, the works. Looks like post-Chernobyl around here. It’s 14C outside, whatever that means. I’m ready to leave behind this dreariness and be in the sun for a while. The good thing is that I have mpesa now, thanks to Nyabuto. The bad news is I no longer have my iPhone, also thanks to him.

I’m on the train now, and I’ve missed public transport a whole lot. The landscape is terribly dreary in a way that is cold and uninspiring, when you’re just working from home in my cold little cottage in Kilimani all day, all week. But from the window seat of this train, the slight draping of fog over the savannah is really lovely. There was a little pool that we passed by earlier, so beautiful it was almost mythical. I wish I had taken a photo of it. Haven’t come across another pool yet– it’s mostly been dry riverbeds. As usual, I’m not quite sure what’s waiting for me at the end of the journey. But it’s good to figure things out.

Running with Reindeer: my first hand experience with Arctic pastoralism in Finnmark

“If I have time on my hands, I would try and get myself onto the spring migration of reindeer – 1 to 2 months from inland winter pasture to summer areas at the coast… People have strong views about pastoralists and pastoralism but how many have first hand experience of moving with them?  And movement is the essence of pastoralism worldwide….Not very wise, I am afraid, but it is at least an idea :)” -Nicholas Tyler

I received this email from a professor of reindeer biology and Sami studies that I had met in Tromsø back in 2018 while I was on fellowship in the Arctic. I aimed to study  the impacts of climate change on traditional reindeer herding culture in Finland and Norway, but as independent projects tend to go, the fieldwork quickly took a life of its own. I became drawn to the migration aspect of reindeer herding, and technology’s role in redefining Sami herding. I spent time learning about reindeer herding– both in theory and in practice– through a series of participatory home-stays in Lapland Finland. I soon found myself in Tromsø after a January stint in Lapland, Finland. Both places have reputations as being gateways to the Arctic and home to vital reindeer herding communities. In Tromsø, I attended a public lecture on Arctic pastoralism that focused on community tensions and responses to Sami herding communities. It was here at this lecture where I met Professor Nicholas Tyler. We kept in touch and he soon became an important mentor to me, a relationship spurred by his curiosity in what exactly I was trying to learn and accomplish. I kept him informed about the progression of my fellowship, and later on, my whereabouts and encounters with herders in Xinjiang

As I prepared to make a cold move to Nairobi, Kenya by the end of the summer of 2018, I expressed my desire to remain engaged in this fascinatingly niche world of reindeer herding. Professor Tyler must have sensed my interest and relayed me dangerously tempting ideas. Even now, I wonder what he saw in me– did he perceive me as the type to take on such projects, daring yet nebulous in a way that most people would never seriously consider.

But ruminate I did. In fact, I planned a whole section of 2019 around witnessing biannual reindeer migrations with my own eyes. I had been living in Nairobi for about half a year, learning the ropes about life in East Africa while working as a freelance photojournalist. I was figuring out how to set down roots in a new place, build a community, and actualize my own plans. It was a difficult and gritty and intoxicating time. But quite suddenly, through Professor Tyler’s logistical magic and sheer force of will, I found myself setting a leave-date to go home and exchange my shorts for boots and a parka. It seemed possible that I would be able to stay with a Sami herding family, the Smuks, up in a place called Varanger, Finnmark.

I self-funded this trip because that’s how much I believed in it. It was as Nick said– there is no substitute for fieldwork. To really learn about reindeer herding, I would have to be there. The Arctic is visceral in a way that’s difficult for me to describe; the desolation and peace there is unparalleled. Life there, although strongly connected to the rest of the world, somehow draws definite boundaries in such a way where the culture is practically tangible. 

I stayed with the Smuks from March until early May. In that time, I witnessed the spring migration, learned how to cook blood pancakes, made endless trips up to the mountains on snowmobiles to herd and watch over the reindeers with my host brother and his cousin. I left feeling like part of the family. Varanger is a place I think about all the time. I can’t help it, you always want to return to what you love. 


I’m writing this long overdue little piece mostly for myself. And from Nairobi, Kenya of all places. The way things come full circle. I’ve spent the past few months trying to get a handle on how fast events spin and trying to keep myself from being washed up altogether. Even now, I can barely admit how difficult it’s been. Only after some forced introspection (Kingsley, I am eternally grateful) do I realize how I’ve really been failing to push myself in the way I know I can, in the direction right for me. I’ve been fooling myself into thinking that survival mode is fine. But why resist this world? Is that even possible? Being back in East Africa has reminded me that there is so much more I could be doing with my life. I can’t help but regret the past three months and all the ways I’ve failed to mentally commit to my own life. The reassuring thing is that even now, it’s not too late.

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