Back to the roots

By Jess Smee

Tabu (Ausgabe I/2021)


Photo: Per-Andre Hoffmann/Picture Press

The Chinese word “xiangqing”, expresses a longing for one’s native place. In Welsh, “Hiraeth” is homesickness for a past which is now over. In German “Sehnsucht” conveys a deep longing for a person or a thing. For Jessica J. Lee these three concepts almost—but not quite— explain her urge to explore Taiwan after the death of her grandparents. “Two Trees Make a Forest” is part travelogue, part exploration of family history, charting displacement from China and migration to Taiwan after the second World War. In the 1970s, the family moved to Canada, where she was born. Her curiosity was sparked by the discovery of an autobiographical text penned by her grandfather, prompting her to hunt for the missing pieces of the family puzzle. The book that emerged is a biographical and geographical journey, and also one of self-discovery.

Jessica J. Lee, an environmental historian, embeds the narrative in the varied landscapes of Taiwan. Hiking through the backdrop of her family’s past, she gains new insight. Walking a trail with her mother “it felt as if we were finding in the landscape and expression of this place and lives beyond my grandfathers death, beyond a past I did not fully understand.” 

“Lyrical descriptions conjure up verdant forests, precipitous slopes and the enduring background threat of an earthquake”

From above the Taiwan is shaped like a “sweet potato,” but over the course of the book the gets a close-up view of Taiwan, its history and its environment. Lyrical descriptions conjure up verdant forests, precipitous slopes and the enduring background threat of an earthquake: the country is hit by an average 1,000 quakes a year — and those are only the ones that can be felt by people.

“On memory, migration and Taiwan,” is the tagline but when it comes to memory, it soon emerges that there is not a set-in-stone family history. Instead it is a collection of histories, anecdotes and hand-me-down facts, often blurred by the passage of time. This poses interesting broader questions about what makes it into a family history and what is left out, either by chance or design. Who chronicles it? Her grandfather Gong’s biographical letter, for example, was increasingly incoherent: written under the “burning haze of fever” of malaria. Her grandmother Po kept many memories to herself, especially difficult ones, with the author referring to one anecdote as “the only story she told my mum from that time.”

“How do places influence us or even define us? What stories move with us when we move to a new country?”

Lee, who divided her time between London and Toronto before settling in Berlin, also questions her own assumptions about China and Taiwan, constructed as they were from the habits of individual family members. Bamboo shoots, she concluded as a child, were not eaten in China, but rather were a filler added to suit North American tastes. The book is split into Chinese-named sections, each containing short chapters.

As she paces demanding hiking paths, the text roams widely with her thoughts. From her pilot grandfather to the conservation battles for the Cyprus tree. From languages to the fate of the black-billed spoonbill birds, many of which congregate for the winter in an estuary in Taijiang. The book is all the richer for these Seebald-esque excursions of thought, these loosely linked thematic asides. How do places influence us or even define us? What stories move with us when we move to a new country? These questions linger after the book ends. But Lee’s message is clear: “Place memories, however precarious, work their way into the body.” 

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