Recently, my husband and I went on a road trip to the Yakima Wine Valley, planning to stop by my old stomping grounds in Pasco, WA., where I lived for a short time as an 8 year-old, but was among my most memorable and impressionable years. I also wanted to visit an uncle in nearby Kennewick and introduce him to my husband. I had little idea then how much the experience would propel me back in time and leave a profound mark on my sense of who I am and its influence on my work.
In the late 1980s, my family owned and managed a small Asian grocery store in Pasco, and I helped as the quickest bagger this side of the Columbia River. We operated the business on the busiest street in the city – Court Street – so finding where the store once stood wasn’t as tough as I expected. But it had been 22 years, and I worried that nothing of the memories I had shared with my husband would remain. But it was all there: the small adobe business plaza with a tiny parking lot, the gravel alleyway behind the store where my brother and I played baseball, and the rival grocery store that sat right behind us. The surroundings were the same, too: the convenience store I’d brave a busy street to cross to savor their chocolate malt ice cream, and the bank next door I’d walk to with my mom who’d clutch her daily deposits after closing the store. I’d serve as her bodyguard, sometimes gripping a little tree branch as a weapon. I was a tough cookie.
We rolled by my old elementary school, named after the poet Robert Frost, where the first teacher in my life encouraged me to pursue writing. Mr. Kenfield was his name. Then there was the apartment complex our family lived in, just blocks from the store. It was a cockroach-infested studio. My brothers slept on the floor in sleeping bags, which I was responsible for rolling out every night for them.
It amazed me everything was still there – as if frozen in time. My memories hadn’t fooled me. But we better get going. We’re scheduled to meet with my uncle. We headed to the neighboring city of Kennewick.
I hadn’t seen my uncle in ten years — since the last family road trip to the area – but I have fond memories of him from my childhood. I remember he taught me to count and always sat me on his lap, fanning me during hot days.
I entered the modest convenience store he manages with his wife. We didn’t think it was open initially – there wasn’t a sign of anyone on that block, which was lined with vacant lots and empty storefronts. He looked the same – lean with a sure walk, like his brother, my dad. He had the same mannerisms and gentle demeanor – which for some reason, made my heart ache. The entire conversation in his store, I held back tears. I hadn’t realized I missed him. He was in his early sixties now and looked older than the robust young uncle of my memories. For someone I loved, it was painful to see him working and living in down-trodden conditions. He lived in a loft above the business, which was empty except for a few Mexican customers who straggled in buying beer and cigarettes.
My uncle insisted on treating us to dinner at a local casino, the Lucky Moose – the fanciest spot in town. He held on to me the whole time, as if he didn’t want to let go. Then I realized, I was holding on, too. Our conversation was made up of mostly him talking about our family’s history – a great-grandfather who served as an ambassador to Cambodia, a relative who tried to do the right thing as a police chief, and how our family endured despite the sufferings of war. I had wanted to learn more about our family history in Vietnam and appreciated my uncle’s story-telling.
After dinner, we dropped him off to his small loft on a now dark street, with hardly a streetlight to shine his way. When he stepped out, I felt a rush of gratitude for his stories, and that knot in my chest I tried to keep down for the last few hours rushed forth and I embraced him, as if not wanting to let go of him and what he symbolized – my identity as a Vietnamese woman and the legacy that has passed down to me.
On the long ride home back to our hotel in Yakima, I felt an inexplicable sense of longing.
A sense of place and history is crucial for all people. It shapes our character, our actions, even our legacy. A community is like a person. It longs for reunification with its loved ones, cries out for acknowledgement of its history and who it is today, and desires to find meaning in its life.
This edition of the IE helps highlight that sense of community identity, whether it is remembering beloved local activists killed 30 years ago, preserving the memory of Chinese pioneers, profiling the stories of neighborhood historic buildings, or dipping into the background and meaning of the food that frames our personal and cultural memories. Our community is made up of all of our memories and is worth holding on to.