Learning About Family History and Celebrating New Traditions

During the endless days of STAR testing, we all got used to our No. 2 pencils, reading comprehension stories about inane things, little paper rulers for the math sections and the countless bubbles dedicated to our personal information: name, parents’ education, social security number, birthday, economic standing. When it came to identifying my ethnicity, I was stumped. My family was never big on talking about “our people.”

At first glance, I am just another white girl. I sunburn when I stand outside for 2.5 seconds, I eat a ton of cheese and I cannot take any sort of spice on my food. So when it came to filling out any forms, I always marked “white” without a second thought. But a search into my family history showed me that my background is more than that.  I am a mutt: Irish, English, German and a quarter Chinese. My paternal grandmother Marge, was born into a wealthy family in Shanghai in 1923.When she was 12, she moved to Germany with her mother, siblings and her stepfather whom my grandfather called “The German.”

My grandmother embraced German culture, learning the language and the country’s way of life. She loves listening to me attempt a German accent and reminisces about the days of German beer and rouladen. Following the end of WWII, my grandmother escaped back to China where she met my grandfather. My grandfather, Jesse, was born in Morraco, Indiana in 1909. Though he jokingly tells people that he ran away and joined the circus when he was 18, his story is much more complicated. Growing up a farm boy, my grandfather apprenticed at a blacksmith before joining the military.

He worked as an airplane mechanic and part-time boxing ring announcer for the army. It was not until 1944 that he became part of the Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots placed in China during the end of World War II. My grandparents met in Shanghai and were married in 1945, where they stayed until they were kicked out of China in 1950 during the rise of communism. Together they moved back to America and settled in Burbank, California where my grandfather could look for pilot jobs at the airport. The Giles’, my mother’s side of the family, are fifth generation Californians with strong English and Irish blood. I inherited a deep love for tea, fair skin, a taste for bland food and a love of corgis, the Queen’s dogs.
My mother’s family doesn’t practice European traditions; instead, we celebrate our own traditions. When someone opens a present, it is required that they pass the gift around so we can get a good look at it. We add new people and friends into our family. We tend to tell long stories that diverge from the point so many times that we never really arrive at a conclusion. We eat more avocados than all the inhabitants of Florida combined, play Ping-Pong and croquet at most birthdays and actually enjoy one another’s company.

My strange and varied family has taught me that it’s valuable to know your history, but also that it doesn’t completely define you or your family because we make our own history and traditions with the people we love.