Sometimes a family memento is just one more thing to keep for keeping’s sake; other times it holds the weight of memories and then, when it’s really special, it becomes a portal for the hopes, dreams and wishes of generations before. This month, we’re celebrating these objects and unpacking some of the intergenerational dynamics and immigrant stories behind them.
From grandma’s 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
“My 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’s 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, ‘OK so what’s the meaning of any of these?!’ 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, ‘I don’t want to remember.’”
“During 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’re able to accomplish that — and that’s the dream — leaving things behind feels purposeful. And now that they’re here, they can build up the abundance and give that to their kids and grandkids.”
“When 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’s significant and I see the storyline. There’s a lot of history in this ring and I’m very thankful that we got to keep something to pass on to the next generation.” —Helen Wu
Helen is cofounder of AsianBossGirl, a podcast for the modern-day Asian American woman. She’s 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
″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’ve actually kept it with my passport this entire time because it makes me feel safer, like having family with me. It’s 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’d come to visit me and my family in Hong Kong, he would bring two suitcases full of food from Taiwan — things like local mantou [steamed buns], homemade chili sauce and the best sesame shaobing [baked flatbread]. So having the amulet — something that I could hold on to and keep with me — was significant.”
“Not 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’t 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, ‘I will wake up at 5 a.m. and make you beef noodle soup from scratch for breakfast.’ 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.” —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
“The calligraphy scroll is from my grandma. I remember growing up and seeing it hang above her and my grandpa’s 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.”
“Calligraphy 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’ve started to go back to the respect for communication and language.”
“I can’t read what it says but it’s 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.” —Janet 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
“This 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’t know if it really does anything. They’re only five bucks in Japan but they’re 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’s always there but you also forget that feeling.”
“Has it brought me good luck? I think so. I’m the first generation to move to the U.S. and I actually didn’t 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’t 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’s something very unique to the culture to pass on to the next generation.”
Born in Japan, Rie McClenny is the host of the hyper-viral Tasty series “Make It Fancy.” 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
“I 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, ‘I’m taking this!’ I think about the bracelet’s significance a lot and lately I’ve been wondering about her childhood too.
“In 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.”
“My 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.”
“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’d be an entrepreneur but maybe it skipped a generation (or maybe it was in my blood this whole time and I didn’t know). I’m 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’s part of that.
"For Asians, jade bracelets are like our Cartier gold — just classically part of our culture. When I look down, I think, This is so grandma. It’s nice to know it’s an heirloom and I can pass it down." —Melody 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.