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Celebrating their roots

Local teens share stories of their ancestors and culture of their families

Serena Zhang's great-grandfather Wang Xi San and his wife Duan Cui Juan. (Wang is his last name; this is the Chinese way of writing it, Zhang explains.)   Whether it’s the story of Lake Oswego High junior Serena Zhang’s “notorious playboy and gambler” grandfather or the one about the two legendary Welsh bonesetters in Lakeridge High junior Claire Williams’ past, local students have tales to tell about their families’ history.

Members of the Student Writers Advisory Group — who attend Lake Oswego, Lakeridge, Riverdale, West Linn and Wilsonville high schools —decided to take a closer look at their ancestors this month, finding out just who the people are with whom they share genetics.

West Linn High senior Talia Lichtenberg describes the struggles her family went through before and after leaving a suburb near Tehran, Iran. Other teen writers discuss the rich culture of their families in the here and now, such as West Linn High sophomore Anisha Arcot, whose parents are from India, and Wilsonville High junior Katie Trese, whose parents are from Korea and “wildly exotic” Indiana.

Language, customs and laughter all are intermingled in their pieces. Here’s what these teens discovered:

You can’t choose your family

By Serena Zhang

ZHANGLearning about my family’s history feels a lot like setting up a great joke, only to stutter at the punch line.

Apparently, my family used to own a fair amount of farmland in China during the early 1900s. Had we carefully invested our money, there’s a good chance we would have accumulated over seven digits in the bank.

Unfortunately, some prodigal dunce in my ancestral line almost single-handedly led us to bankruptcy.

This person was my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, a notorious playboy and gambler. He was an only child, and his parents spoiled him rotten. They sent him to Shanghai to attend China’s most prestigious art school. My great-grandfather paid for his own tuition by lugging a trunkful of silver coins from home every year.

You’d think he’d have produced at least one measly piece of art while at university. Maybe a watercolor on the cloud-kissed Yellow Mountains. Perhaps a charcoal rendition of the Longhua Pagoda, thick Chinese calligraphy slinking down the paper’s edge like lazy memories.

Nothing. My mother says she never saw her grandfather even touch a paintbrush.

In fact, the only things my great-grandfather picked up at art school were women. Despite being married, he managed to bring home a different hot, young thing every year. He showered them with expensive gifts and then dropped them like hot potatoes — like a true gentleman. Of course, this sort of womanizing was the norm back then, so nobody batted an eye.

While his ostentatious habits depleted most of our family fortune, it wouldn’t be fair to paint him as one-dimensional. Some redeeming qualities were his charm and his penchant for theatrics. He was a fantastic storyteller and would often wander off into crowded marketplaces to earn some money. If you ever wanted to find him, you would simply follow the crowd!

As for his infidelity, there were no hard feelings. He treated his wife exceedingly well, helping her move around (her feet were bound) and always serving her the best dishes. He was an exceptional writer, and surprisingly, he became an extremely frugal individual near the end of his life.

Would it have been nice to have a secure college fund? Sure. But you can’t choose your family. Besides, I’ve buried the hatchet.

That is, until someone invents a time machine.

Serena Zhang is a junior at Lake Oswego High School.

The language of my family

By Anisha Arcot

ARCOTMy parents are from India. India is about one-third the size of the United States, but it is more than three times as populous. It is a vibrant, culturally rich country with an ancient history.

Did you know that the concept of zero was introduced in 650 A.D. in India, or that the currently used numeric system was invented there?

India has 22 languages, with 13 different scripts and more than 720 dialects. It is common for most Indians to speak more than one language. My mother is fluent in three and conversant in another three, as well as a few foreign languages. My dad speaks four Indian languages. But since my mom’s family is from Northern India and my dad’s family is from Southern India, they only have one language in common besides English. They both speak Hindi, the national language of India.

It is very common for Indians from the big cities to carry on a conversation in multiple languages at the same time, often starting a sentence in one language and ending it in another while peppering it with words from English. Just listening to a group of Indians from Mumbai converse makes me smile. The conversation is fast-paced and animated, with lots of gesturing and laughter. You can hear many languages flying around without a pause between sentences.

But the first thing you will notice is that many Indians speak very fast. When my Mom first moved to New York to study, she was a teaching assistant for a physics course at her university. A few weeks into the course, the professor was out sick and Mom had to cover for him. She spoke so rapidly that she had covered the entire content for an hour-long class in about 20 minutes, and the dazed students didn’t learn a thing — so my mom tried to go back and cover all of the material again. Some of her ex-students still tease her about that class and her failed attempts at slowing down.

In 2013, we spent five months in India. I traveled extensively across the country and attended school in Bengaluru. When I arrived in India, I knew about five words in Hindi; by the time I left, I could read, write and speak a reasonable amount. I plan to visit again and stay for an extended period, so I can better appreciate this colorful land that is a part of me.

Anisha Arcot is a sophomore at West Linn High School.

Teens should get in touch with roots

By Claire Williams

WILLIAMSWhat do two legendary Welsh bonesetters, a Civil Rights activist in the 1960s, a northern soldier in the Civil War, an engineer for the Manhattan Project, an abolitionist governor in the 1800s, a Danish immigrant to the United States after World War II and an Israeli Gulf War veteran have in common?

They’re all related to me.

I love learning about my family’s history, because there are always surprises and fascinating coincidences to discover. Many of my friends have varied backgrounds, too, with family members who have experienced events straight out of our history books. There is an undoubtable value in young people conversing with our older relatives to learn about their life experiences.

For example, several weeks ago, I interviewed my grandfather about the Vietnam War for my history class. Although I didn’t expect him to know anything that was particularly extraordinary, over the course of an hour I discovered countless little stories from his life, such as the fact that he participated in the Civil Rights Movement and marched on Washington, D.C., with other lawyers to protest the conflict in Vietnam. I’m glad to have learned this, because now I can connect the activism he did as a college student with the advocacy I’ve done with Lakeridge’s Secular Student Alliance.

I have also been able to connect my own artwork about sexism to my grandmother’s experience of starting her own business in New York in the 1960s, when the bank wouldn’t allow her to take out a loan because of her gender. I have learned so much about history from her, and I’m grateful that she lives in Lake Oswego, as she’s been able to show me the incredible items that she has saved, from Danish ration stamps from World War II to a copy of the New York Times from the day of the moon landing.

At the Student Writers Advisory Group meeting, I was surprised to learn that many of my peers didn’t know their family history. I am glad that this is our topic, because I believe every teenager should ask their parents, grandparents and other relatives about their past. It’s always valuable to know our own story — for example, why my grandmother always hosts a traditional Danish Christmas every year or why we live in Oregon. In addition, hearing from those who actually experienced historical events is far better than listening to a lecture about them. Finally, storytelling is an entertaining way to bridge the generational gap and connect with our loved ones.

Claire Williams is a junior at Lakeridge High School.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Talia Lichtenbergs family includes, from left: back row, Khosrow Shadbeh, Manzar Shadbeh and Ali Shadbeh; and front row, Nargess Shadbeh, Layla Lichtenberg and Maryam Shadbeh-Evans.

The wound is the place where the Light enters you

By Talia Lichtenberg

LICHTENBERG“When did you know,” I asked my grandmother (momon) as we cleaned up dishes from our celebration of the Persian New Year Nowruz, “when you left Iran ... when did you know you wouldn’t be able to go back?”

Manzar and Khostow Shadbeh lived in a suburb north of Tehran, she as a principal of her own elementary school and he as a colonel. Having a son (Ali) and three daughters (Maryam, Nargess and Layla) meant that their house was always frantic with activity.

“We had a good life. It was like here (in the United States),” she told me. “No one covered their hair; no one covered their beliefs. Before the Mullas came, it was like here. Khostrow would take Layla Jan to the Caspian Sea, and the kids went to International School (where they were taught basic English),” Manzar sighed.

A few years before the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution, Ali had gone to the United States to study at Oregon State University.

“Then Maryam and Nargess told me they wanted to go too,” she said. “It was me, Layla and Khostrow left. In 1976, we came too. I left my brothers and sisters. I left my momon.”

By this point, all the dishes were cleaned and I poured some tea (chai). Before us was the ceremonial table Sofreh-e Haft Seen that shows symbolic dishes of life — rebirth, health and happiness.

“The (Iranian) government promised us our money,” she said. “Every month, I took a check out from the bank, until one day the accounts were frozen. Khostrow and I picked berries for 75 cents per hour, but he had two hernias. We worked other jobs. The work never stopped. We felt too soft for this new life.

“But we could never get our Iran back,” she recalled. “I lost brothers and sisters during the war. I couldn’t go to my momon when she died. I couldn’t go back, and it was very hard.

“Listen, Talia Jan,” she turned to me, “I sent my kids here. They have had two lives. They saw a good life in Iran. They have a good life in United States. I could live in Iran now like my sister, but I don’t go because my family is here. Life is here. I don’t worry about what they say about my country now. No ... what is important is that we always think good, speak good and do good. That is all you need to know.”

Talia Lichtenberg is a senior at West Linn High School.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Katie Trese's parents, Paul and Joanne Trese, provide her insight into the Asian and Midwestern American life.

Boldness and luck

By Katie Trese

TRESEWe spend our whole lives seeking interesting stories — things that we can relate to, admire and feel. We thrive upon the drama of movies, plays, sports and adventure. Some even are drawn to the stories of the past.

Interestingly enough, some of the best stories are actually found close to home — literally.

My family is unique, to say the least. My mom was born in Korea and moved to the United States with her family when she was in high school. On the other hand, my dad grew up in the wildly exotic Midwest in a tropical place called Indiana. Since all of my mom’s siblings married other Koreans, that side of the family retains a strong sense of Korean culture. On the contrary, family reunions on my dad’s side are generally held in English.

The truth of the matter is that my family’s history is far too rich for the limited space I have in the newspaper. I could write for days about how my great grandparents were landlords who were saved by their generosity. Or about how my grandpa’s boldness and luck led him to cross from North Korea to South Korea when he was only 19.

I could explain the strength of my mom and my uncles for learning English while taking classes and orienting themselves to a new country. Or how they ended up graduating from the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford after coming from a family that owned only a small corner store in a dangerous part of town.

I could curse cancer for making my dad and his four younger siblings grow up with a single parent — or I could share the hilarious stunts they pulled as kids.

All of these stories are great conversation material, but they start to become really important when we can use them to learn more about ourselves. Having a blended family isn’t particularly rare in the melting pot of the world, but it’s still misunderstood.

Living in the suburbs of Portland makes me distinctively Asian by contrast. However given the chance to go to any Asian country, I would be white beyond compare. It’s not as if I wake up every morning and face a huge existential crisis of defining who I am, but it can be confusing and frustrating at times.

Thankfully, I believe I’m at peace with who I am. I’m both Korean and white, but neither completely Korean nor white at the same time. I like my food spicy, but enjoy a good grilled cheese and tomato soup on a rainy day. I can smile, nod and pretend like I understand when my grandma speaks to me in Korean, or I could just respond in Spanish to make the situation even more confusing (which has actually happened before).

Whatever I make of it, I know I have enough reasons to be proud of what I come from.

Katie Trese is a junior at Wilsonville High School.