As the recent conversation about America's "great" days reminds us, nostalgia is a luxury of the privileged for whom history can afford to be rose-colored or sepia-tinted. Nostalgia assumes too that one has a history, or at least one stable enough from which to cull cultural artifacts and collective memories to celebrate.
As a child of immigrants, I've never been able to quite identify with the nostalgia of such films as The Big Chill, Almost Famous, and Dazed and Confused because their wall-to-wall soundtracks of 60s and 70s American pop songs weren't the ones my parents played for me when I was growing up. I came to love the songs in adulthood, but they didn't remind me of my parents nor did they trigger simpler times. Those films and their songs created in me an imagined nostalgia, empty memories that I tried to convince myself were mine. And for the most part it worked. Marvin Gaye, The Who, KISS. I knew their names and I knew their lyrics.
I'm sure my parents listened to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Whiter Shade of Pale," or any number of other English-language oldies while growing up in Taiwan in the 1960s. But those weren't the cassette tapes they played and replayed for my sister and me in the 80s. I didn't know the names of the artists or the titles of their songs, but based on the folk guitars and the haircuts on the album art, I suspect that my parents' music preferences were locked to Taiwan circa-1979, when they moved to the United States. While Taiwanese pop music evolved and Mando-pop exploded in the 80s and 90s, the songs blearing out of our cloth-covered speakers or our 1988 Honda Accord stayed the same, our cassette collection a musical time capsule of the world my parents left behind.
As kids, my sister and I didn't understand Mandarin well enough to decode the lyrics of love, patriotism, or whatever those songs were about. But we knew those sentimental melodies, the quaint instrumentations, and the singers' earnest declamations like no other songs we heard on the radio. When she was about four or five, my sister started to sing one of the songs phonetically. We didn't know what the words were so we substituted similar-sounding Mandarin words that we knew, even if they made no sense together. My parents were thoroughly amused. Their American-born kids were connecting to the homeland even if it remained completely illegible. Small victories for immigrant families tend to be unexpected and a little absurd.
When we were teenagers, those songs from '79 were more an embarrassment than our beloved family soundtrack. I'm sure our family friends too tired of hearing the same tracks from the same whirring, warping cassette tapes during our dinner parties. My sister and I turned to singers whose lyrics we could understand. TLC, Ice Cube, Weezer. Meanwhile, on subsequent trips to Taiwan, my dad would replace the dying cassette tapes with CD compilations of the same old songs and artists. Higher fidelity to his nostalgia, I guess.
Decades later, I'm starting to rethink what nostalgia means to me, and inevitably, those old cassettes come immediately to mind. As much as family photos do, certain songs and their folk-pop arrangements bring me back to family vacations or the smell of our old car, and I wanted to finally find out what those songs were and possibly what they meant to my parents. I'm sure it was no coincidence that when it came down to writing my film studies dissertation, I chose content that dovetailed with those old songs, which were often movie themes whose singers were big-screen idols. I went to Taipei and unearthed dusty movie magazines from the 70s and watched scratchy VHS dubs of ‘Scope classics. No research I've done has been as meaningful as discovering the narratives of nation, romance, and youth that my parents consumed in the years before they decided to move to the United States for graduate study. I got to imagine my parents' bell-bottoms and what their teenage bedrooms looked like, even while I knew my grandparents could never afford the middle-class luxuries that I saw in the films. But as far as imagined nostalgia goes, these trashy melodramas had me asking questions about my relationship with the past in ways Hollywood throw-backs never did.
Sometime during this research, I came across that mystery song my sister used to sing. It was unmissable. That elegiac violin intro, that golden voice, those opening lines: "duo shao de wang shi." I now knew that the song was called "Ting Yuan Shen Shen," was written by the legendary Liu Chia-chang, and was originally the theme song for a 1971 Taiwanese film called You Can't Tell Him. The particular version we listened to as kids was sung by Tsai Chin and was released in 1979 on her debut album, Frontier Songs.
I also finally discovered the meaning of the lyrics:
How much of the past is beyond recollection?
How much of the grief has gone with the wind?
Two discrete worlds,
Pining, missing each other.
In some paradise they might be together again,
A cuckoo's call, lightly in a forest.
Best return back, best return back,
Ah, it's best to return back.
This frontier song for sojourners like my parents may have transported them to a sonic homeland, but also spoke to the sadness of separation from the physical homeland, the place of family, friends, and a world suddenly cut off. Could they ever really return back? Could the United States ever really be a paradise? I wonder what they thought hearing my sister sing those words, her ignorance of their meanings itself underscoring the line disconnecting past and present, Taiwan and America. But maybe as they laughed and clapped to my sister singing along, my parents imagined a future in which we would all persist as a family nevertheless. Maybe that's the paradise.
I've made it a point to learn the titles, artists, and lyrics of more songs that I grew up with. If history is written by those who still have the words to remember the past, I want to make sure that, out of the rubble of my hazy memories, my elementary Mandarin, and my family's browning cassette tapes, I can fashion my own counter-nostalgia to better tell my own personal stories. I'm inspired by the fact that I'm not the only one who feels the same way. The amazing Asian American filmmaker Leslie Tai made a short documentary in 2012 called Grave Goods, in which she remembers her late grandmother by drawing from the same tin box of trinkets and songs from Taiwan.
I was shocked the first time I saw Grave Goods, which I ended up programming at the San Diego Asian Film Festival, and which I've seen countless times since. It was like discovering a kindred spirit, that there is somebody else out there who has sung the same old songs none of us knows the words to.
"How much of the past is beyond recollection?" Some of the past will never go away. It's lodged in our minds, it's become who we are. Some will take more work to remember and decode, something that non-immigrants can take for granted because of Hollywood films, oldie radio stations, and the money-making mechanisms of canonization. But as Leslie did with Grave Goods, I need to know those songs to forge narratives that are meaningful to me and my experiences. Those old songs followed us everywhere we went, on road-trips long and small. We pumped Teresa Teng, Fei Yu-Ching, and Sylvia Chang as we veined through the United States up to Yosemite, out to Las Vegas, and onward to the Grand Canyon. All over the country, we communed to 99 Ranch snacks and songs I now know the words to. That's the America I've chosen to remember.
Brian Hu is the Artistic Director of Pacific Arts Movement, presenters of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. He teaches at the University of San Diego.