In China, they call a family picture 全家福 (quanjiafu), which literally means happiness for the entire family.
It is happiness if you can have the entire family together to take a photo. And, in John’s family, this happy day usually comes during Chinese New Year, when the whole family returns home to celebrate.
The whitewashed facade of John’s family home reflected the filtered sunshine that afternoon of Chinese New Year’s day, brightening the yard like backdrop lighting in a photography studio. It was a perfect spot for the family photo, where John’s father and mother sat in front, holding baby Kaiqi, with the three brothers and sister-in-law standing behind. I stood before them all, digital camera in hand, as I framed the family through the lens for the perfect photo. I snapped several shots, including one of just Da Ge, his wife and baby Kaiqi.
Even as I finished taking the photos, I still didn’t have a clear picture of John’s family. No photo is complete without the stories behind it. I didn’t know the real stories from John’s family, because we hadn’t truly connected since my arrival. Instead, my time there, up until that afternoon, was like an unnarrated slideshow, where the outside observer could only guess what was happening.
But, sometimes, to get the full picture, you have to give a full picture in return.
It was that afternoon, when John and I sat listlessly indoors, warming ourselves around a wok of hot coals, that John suggested it. “You should take out the photographs you brought, and show them to my family.” I had packed a small album of memories, including many family and travel photographs.
I raised an eyebrow at him. “You think they would be interested?”
“My father loves photos. He would really enjoy seeing them.”
So I retrieved the photographs from my backpack upstairs, and told John’s father about it. “I have some photos from the US, if you would like to see them.”
It was as if a warming flash went off, suddenly animating John’s father, who had previously been sitting on a stool in the dining room. “Sure, we can have a look.” He jumped out of his chair and sat at the table where John and I were sitting.
I spread the photographs on the table, and began explaining to him the picture of my life and my family: my immediate family — including my mother who passed away when I was 17 years old, an older sister in the army, my father and stepmother; my grandmother who embodied the spirit of my lost mother; the trips I had taken, from Barcelona, Spain to Yosemite, California; and my achievements, such as graduating from a full scholarship program, summa cum laude.
John’s father loved the photos, pointing to them and commenting on them with such delight: “You look a lot like your mother.”; “Your grandmother looks so young.”; “America has some beautiful places.”
As he saw me, and the picture of my family, more clearly, he began to paint a picture of his own, just for me. “I came from Chun’an, near 1,000 Island Lake. When I was only 10 years old, I had to immigrate here to Tonglu. My town disappeared beneath that lake. And at the time, there was no compensation or assistance from the government for immigrants, like there is now for the Three River Gorges Dam.”
As I listened to the stories of John’s family, through John’s father, I felt elation at the photograph developing before my eyes, different from the one I first knew, of a family where their son could be friends with a foreign girl, not date her. This new picture, between John’s father and I, was of new understanding, curiosity, and respect. We weren’t a complete family yet, but we shared a moment of complete happiness.
What was it that helped you make a new connection with friends or family in China (or another country)?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.