“Oh my gosh! I’ve never met anyone that looks like me!” These were the first words my teenage cousin, we’ll call her Sis, said to me after a decade of not speaking or seeing each other’s faces.
A divorce when we were young meant that those who were too young to keep in touch, lost touch. When I was finally old enough to make my own contact, and determined enough to find a current phone number, I reached out. After a phone call filled with joy and surprise, we hopped on facetime later that day, and the first words to leave my baby (though not a baby anymore) cousin’s mouth were like a shot to the heart. I was lucky enough to have remained in contact with the family from whom she had become estranged over the years. There are so many of us, and we all really do look very much alike. Yet, for her, at 15, to see herself reflected in someone else that wasn’t immediate family was a completely new experience.
My family is spread out across several countries on three separate continents. And while it’s cool to have lots of free-housing vacation options, it also means going years, and sometimes decades without seeing each other. Now, in my mid-twenties, I find that while it does take a concerted effort, keeping in touch with most people is definitely doable. But as a child, if I had never met you, or was too young to remember meeting you, it was basically out of sight out of mind.
I remember having a similar experience to Sis when I met some of our cousins for the first time a few years prior. I had always known these cousins existed, and had gotten the occasional email or card after a particularly joyous or tragic life event; but I had never met them, nor had any sort of meaningful relationship with them. I clearly recall walking around a corner and seeing my cousin’s face for the first time and thinking, hey, you look like me.
It was a rare family vacation during which a lot of us were meeting for the first time, or for the first time in many years. We spent a remarkable amount of time commenting on our similarly slender hands, wide noses, bow legs, and squinty eyes. Most of us were teenagers, living completely different lives with arguably very little in common. Yet, we saw ourselves in each other and that made us feel like family.
This experience of literally seeing myself in others is pretty central to my experience of family. However, in Carmen Rita Wong’s memoir Why Didn’t You Tell Me? she describes a photo taken after a family dinner by noting, “Most people would look at that photo and not see one family but a hodgepodge of what looks like unrelated people of all different races. But we were family and are.”
In her book, Wong rivetingly accounts how uncovering a metaphorical Russian doll of her mother’s secrets leads her to question not only her familial relations, but also her entire racial and cultural identity. Wong’s story is shocking, and sometimes sad, but the aspect that really amazed me was that with every uncovered secret, she never lost a family member, she only continued to gain them.
Wong grew up in a family in which she felt like an outsider, not quite looking enough like her mother or sisters or brother. Yet she never reneged on the conviction that they were indeed her family, as disjointed and unconventional as they might be.
For me, oftentimes, I can physically see myself in the faces of my relatives. They literally remind me of the face I see in the mirror every single day. Wong, on the other hand, may not have literally seen herself in her relatives, but they shared so much more than a physical resemblance.
What if you looked at someone else and didn’t see your own face, but you saw your culture, and your language, and your childhood stories? Does this not lend the same immediate sense of recognition? Carmen Rita Wong’s incredibly diverse and convoluted story of family has caused me to question: What is it really that makes family familiar?