Storytelling unites family

Suitcase Stories Unpacked usually attracts adults. Hence, I was surprised yesterday when a family of four entered the conference room at Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, MA. The two children were likely ten and thirteen. I worried the topics might be too advanced, but the mother assured me it was okay for her children to hear about the Holocaust and violence in Zimbabwe. So I proceeded with the workshop, not recognizing at first the coincidence of their participation on a day when thousands of people throughtout the United States were marching with "Families Belong Together" signs in response to President Trump's escalating harsh immigration policies. 

Suitcase Stories Unpacked is a workshop series that introduces people to storytelling through themes related to immigration and living in intercultural communities. While the courses teaches people to advance their storytelling skills, there is a complementary goal to connect neighbors from diverse backgrounds through their shared stories and experience in the class. 

Each Unpacked session ends with a mini performance. Again, I was surprised when the first volunteer was the youngest participant. Wearing a pink tee-shirt and black leggings, the ten year-old delivered a sweet story about her first visit to China. After an eruption of cheers from her adult peers, I asked her how it felt to share. She said it was easier than she thought it would be with a bright smile on her face. This gave her brother confidence and he shared about fencing at his Chinese-American cultural club. Their mother made everyone chuckle with her story about her first day in the U.S. and how her lack of English combined with her inexperience with American locked luggage carts meant she had to trust a policeman to return with her ten dollars in change.

While I enjoyed their stories, I was as much transfixed on watching them watch each other tell. It seemed that the children had never heard about their mother's first day or her earlier concerns about her English proficiency. Similarly, I saw the woman smile when  her daughter whispered to me that she wanted to share about her trip to Beijing with her mom. I hadn't considered before how storytelling classes could be a family activity, even though storytelling is how our family histories are passed down through generations.  

The father's story felt most relevant to our country's current social climate. He described himself as a man 'in-between,' even though he was born in this country. He described growing up as a Chinese-American in a predominantly white community in the south, and the subsequent advantages and disadvantages. Later in life, some people have even called him 'white'. Although his wife is from China, he noted how that doesn't mean other Chinese immigrants immediately accept him either. His story highlighted how the current 'us' and 'them' culture in the country presents unique challenges for those, like him, who are neither 'us' nor 'them.' His fellow workshop guests nodded in agreement, adding where they have also felt like outsiders. 

I appreciated the father's honesty and vulnerability, and especially because his children were listening. More than ever, I think it's important for adults to acknowledge how immigration and culture are complicated subjects to navigate, and how storytelling provides an important vehicle to build empathy and understanding. I applaud the parents for bringing their children yesterday. We began the workshop with a video where Szifra Birke, the daughter of two holocaust survivors, talks about how families need to share their stories more with each other. By their participation, I trust this family will. 

Click to read more about the Suitcase Stories Unpacked series in the Lexington Minuteman.

Suitcase Stories is a program of the International Institute of New England, a non-profit organization that creates opportunities for refugees and immigrants to succeed through resettlement, education, career advancement and pathways to citizenship. 



Cheryl Hamilton