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When An Object Becomes That Special Something: 5 Asian Americans Share Stories Behind Family Mementos

When An Object Is More Than An Object: Five Asian Americans Share Stories Behind Family Mementos
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Sometimes a family memento is just one more thing to keep for keeping鈥檚 sake; other times it holds the weight of memories and then, when it鈥檚 really special, it becomes a portal for the hopes, dreams and wishes of generations before. This month, we鈥檙e celebrating these objects and unpacking some of the intergenerational dynamics and immigrant stories behind them.

From grandma鈥檚 jade bracelet to a traveling amulet, read on as five women share their unique takes, as told to Jeanine Celeste Pang, Head of Voice for Old Navy.

1. A ring passed down through multiple Chinese tea ceremonies

鈥淢y gold ring was passed down through four generations, in the same manner, at a Chinese tea ceremony. As an American-born Chinese American, I knew I wanted the tea ceremony to be part of my wedding and to wear a red qipao, just like my mom did for hers. Here in the US, we tend to focus on the big white wedding dress, but in Chinese tradition, it鈥檚 the tea ceremony that is the actual wedding. My mom came to my ceremony with a huge bag of jewelry and started layering me for what felt like half an hour of time. At the end, I was drenched in 24k and I asked her, 鈥極K so what鈥檚 the meaning of any of these?!鈥 She told me this particular ring was given by my PoPo, my maternal grandmother, to my mom during her ceremony, but when I asked my PoPo about the significance of the ring, she said, 鈥業 don鈥檛 want to remember.鈥欌

This gold ring has been passed down for four generations, during Chinese tea ceremonies. During the Cultural Revolution in China, objects of wealth were stripped away but the ring survived.
This gold ring has been passed down for four generations, during Chinese tea ceremonies. During the Cultural Revolution in China, objects of wealth were stripped away but the ring survived.
Helen Wu

鈥淒uring the Cultural Revolution, her family had hidden their jewelry away because if you wore it, it was a sign of wealth and those in power could potentially take you away. And then there was the pillaging. So when I ask my PoPo about items that were passed down through generations, it pains her to think about the times where her wealth, and those items, were literally stripped away. Also, I was shocked to find out that within our family, there is nothing other than jewelry that was saved. They came to America because they wanted a new lifestyle, so when you鈥檙e able to accomplish that 鈥 and that鈥檚 the dream 鈥 leaving things behind feels purposeful. And now that they鈥檙e here, they can build up the abundance and give that to their kids and grandkids.鈥

Helen [right] pictured with her grandmother [left]. Helen's gold ring was bestowed to her by her mother, who inherited the ring from Helen's maternal grandmother.
Helen [right] pictured with her grandmother [left]. Helen's gold ring was bestowed to her by her mother, who inherited the ring from Helen's maternal grandmother.
Helen Wu

鈥淲hen I look at the ring now, I think about how it was given in a similar manner to myself, my mom, and my PoPo, us kneeling down in front of our elders and expressing phrases filled with prosperity and respect. It鈥檚 significant and I see the storyline. There鈥檚 a lot of history in this ring and I鈥檓 very thankful that we got to keep something to pass on to the next generation.鈥 鈥擧elen Wu

Helen is cofounder of AsianBossGirl, a podcast for the modern-day Asian American woman. She鈥檚 also a new mom of a 4-month-old and can rap the Hamilton soundtrack. Follow her at @hwuwu.

2. An amulet tucked into a passport for safe travels

An amulet for safe journeys, Inga's artifact was given to her by her grandfather when she started to travel on her own. This amulet keeps her late grandfather's memory alive, wherever she goes.
An amulet for safe journeys, Inga's artifact was given to her by her grandfather when she started to travel on her own. This amulet keeps her late grandfather's memory alive, wherever she goes.
Inga Lam

My grandpa gave me this amulet over 10 years ago... He got it when he went to Japan and visited a temple with my grandma. The amulet is specifically for a safe journey and it was given to me when I first started traveling on my own. I鈥檝e actually kept it with my passport this entire time because it makes me feel safer, like having family with me. It鈥檚 really important to me because my grandpa had never given me tokens like this before. Food was his love language. Like how every time he鈥檇 come to visit me and my family in Hong Kong, he would bring two suitcases full of food from Taiwan 鈥 things like local mantou [steamed buns], homemade chili sauce and the best sesame shaobing [baked flatbread]. So having the amulet 鈥 something that I could hold on to and keep with me 鈥 was significant.鈥

For Inga, the amulet is particularly special, as her grandfather normally gave food as his love language. Unlike those gifts, the amulet is something she can keep.
For Inga, the amulet is particularly special, as her grandfather normally gave food as his love language. Unlike those gifts, the amulet is something she can keep.
Inga Lam

鈥淣ot long after he gave me this amulet, my grandpa passed away pretty abruptly from cancer. Something no one in the family knew about because he didn鈥檛 want us to worry. He was a quiet man: the typical Chinese grandpa who showed his great love for us silently, in subtle ways, like, 鈥業 will wake up at 5 a.m. and make you beef noodle soup from scratch for breakfast.鈥 He was, and still is, a big influence on my cooking journey and I want to continue his legacy, to carry it forward and let his recipes shine.鈥Inga Lam

Inga Lam grew up between Taiwan and Hong Kong before moving to the U.S. Incredibly passionate about food and travel, she experiments with multicultural recipes and provides accessibility around unfamiliar foods for her audiences. Follow her at @ingatylam.

3. A calligraphy scroll symbolizing art and language

鈥淭he calligraphy scroll is from my grandma. I remember growing up and seeing it hang above her and my grandpa鈥檚 bed. Someone in her family must have done it because her maiden name is in the script. My grandma was a Chinese literature teacher in Taiwan and I have a lot of memories of her teaching me to write different characters with the calligraphy brush, so the object represents a lot of what she valued. She was the only child in her family who went to school and the value that she placed on the written word was really important to her.鈥

Passed onto Janet by her grandmother, this calligraphy scroll represents a cross between art and language, as well as education, which Janet鈥檚 grandmother placed great importance in.
Passed onto Janet by her grandmother, this calligraphy scroll represents a cross between art and language, as well as education, which Janet鈥檚 grandmother placed great importance in.
Janet Wang

鈥淐alligraphy is a cross between art and language. When I think forward of how I want to carry that through, I also very much value the artistry and importance of language. English was my favorite subject in school (even though I ended up majoring in math and economics!), but especially with ABG [AsianBossGirl], I鈥檝e started to go back to the respect for communication and language.鈥

Janet's calligraphy scroll brings fond memories, including of her writing characters with a calligraphy brush. To Janet, the scroll also symbolizes the importance of communication and language.
Janet's calligraphy scroll brings fond memories, including of her writing characters with a calligraphy brush. To Janet, the scroll also symbolizes the importance of communication and language.
Janet Wang

鈥淚 can鈥檛 read what it says but it鈥檚 so powerful a memory. I was originally looking for one that I took a marker to when I was 4 but when I opened this, I thought, Whoa, I remember this one.鈥 鈥擩anet Wang

Janet is also a member of the AsianBossGirl podcast, a small business owner and meditation and wellness enthusiast. Follow her at @janetdoubleu.

4. A $5 omamori from the Itsukushima Shrine

鈥淭his particular omamori [amulet] my dad gave me is from the Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima, where I had my wedding. I have very special memories visiting as a child, too. I don鈥檛 know if it really does anything. They鈥檙e only five bucks in Japan but they鈥檙e almost like a safety blanket. When I moved to New York in 2007, I brought my omamori with me. I only had one friend here and I was alone, but it made me feel more secure. The effect was also kind of subconscious. Kind of like if you have a wallet, you know it鈥檚 always there but you also forget that feeling.鈥

An amulet for safe travels, this omamori became an item of comfort for Rie when she moved to New York from Japan. Rie believes that this object has indeed brought her good luck on her big move.
An amulet for safe travels, this omamori became an item of comfort for Rie when she moved to New York from Japan. Rie believes that this object has indeed brought her good luck on her big move.
Rie McClenny

鈥淗as it brought me good luck? I think so. I鈥檓 the first generation to move to the U.S. and I actually didn鈥檛 plan to stay long. I came here with two little suitcases and planned to stay just long enough to open a dessert cafe. I didn鈥檛 bring any family heirlooms. Just whatever fit in my luggage. But the amulet is one of the only things that I carried with me. Even Japanese people who are not particularly religious still go specifically to the shrines to buy the amulets. I feel like it鈥檚 something very unique to the culture to pass on to the next generation.
鈥擱ie McClenny

The omamori was given to Rie by her father. The omamori originated from the Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima, where Rie had her wedding.
The omamori was given to Rie by her father. The omamori originated from the Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima, where Rie had her wedding.
Rie McClenny

Born in Japan, Rie McClenny is the host of the hyper-viral Tasty series 鈥淢ake It Fancy.鈥 Her passion? Helping people tap into their inner cook by demystifying complicated recipes while instilling confidence. Follow her at @thedessertsnob.

5. A jade bracelet repping generations of strong women

鈥淚 started wearing this jade bracelet back in 2011, when my grandma was battling pancreatic cancer. I remember looking at her table in Taiwan and saying, 鈥業鈥檓 taking this!鈥 I think about the bracelet鈥檚 significance a lot and lately I鈥檝e been wondering about her childhood too.

鈥淚n her family, three out of the six daughters were given away, including her. And even though her birth parents were wealthy, she was given to a poor family. I wonder how that played into her feelings of wealth and her place in her family.

This jade bracelet was given to Melody by her grandmother, a self-made businesswoman who provided for her family by running a small store outside her home.
This jade bracelet was given to Melody by her grandmother, a self-made businesswoman who provided for her family by running a small store outside her home.
Melody Cheng

鈥淢y grandma liked jewelry and she worked really hard to help to earn her money. As my grandpa ran his rattan furniture business, my grandma ran a small market outside her house selling household goods (like a mini Daiso). She would share stories of being able to communicate with the Americans in town and being able to speak English, despite only having an elementary school education. By running her own market, it shows that she was capable and self-sufficient, which is maybe why she became a businesswoman. Through this, she was able to buy the jade bracelet.鈥

Entrepreneurship is perhaps within Melody's bloodline as she too 鈥 much like her grandmother 鈥 is self-made. When it comes to working hard and making her own legacy, Melody, pictured here wearing her grandmother's shirt, always keeps her late grandmother in mind.
Entrepreneurship is perhaps within Melody's bloodline as she too 鈥 much like her grandmother 鈥 is self-made. When it comes to working hard and making her own legacy, Melody, pictured here wearing her grandmother's shirt, always keeps her late grandmother in mind.
Melody Cheng

My grandma had a darkness to her (maybe due to her upbringing or her childhood), but with me, I got another side. I was close to her and had a different type of closeness to her than I have to my mom. I never thought I鈥檇 be an entrepreneur but maybe it skipped a generation (or maybe it was in my blood this whole time and I didn鈥檛 know). I鈥檓 her lineage and if she was here, I know she would be proud that her granddaughter was self-made. I have a strong sense that I want to do a good job, to make her proud and create my own legacy, knowing that she鈥檚 part of that.

"For Asians, jade bracelets are like our Cartier gold 鈥 just classically part of our culture. When I look down, I think, This is so grandma. It鈥檚 nice to know it鈥檚 an heirloom and I can pass it down." 鈥擬elody Cheng

Melody is the cofounder of the AsianBossGirl podcast, a comfort cook and a Korean drama enthusiast. You can find her at the local noodle shop with a napkin tucked into her shirt. Say hi if you spot her and follow @melodyccheng.

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