How should the self struggle against forgetting? What becomes of a life after it’s gone, if not for other people’s memories of it? Yangyang Cheng grapples with these and other questions while trying to remember her father, who died when she was young.
My mother tried to archive my father.
She used floppy disks.
It was the first winter of the new century. Two weeks after his 36th birthday, my father went to sleep one night after a hot shower, and never woke up.
There are two fires following a death in China. The body is cremated as mandated by the government, so that the land is reserved for the living; the clothes are burned as an offering to the departed, so that they won’t be cold in the other world.
After all the fabrics had been turned to ash alongside the body they once warmed, my mother put away the remaining memories of her dead husband. His photos slept inside cabinets. His books stood behind glass panes on a tall wooden shelf. His old bicycle leaned against the wall, its spokes rusting away with time.
My father was an engineering professor. His most prized possession, also the most expensive item in our humble household, was his desktop computer. Purchased four years before his death, the cream-colored box was slow and dying. My father had spoken of replacing it with a newer model, but his machine outlived him.
“We must find a way to keep what’s inside your father’s computer,” my mother said to me. “All of his precious research must be saved.”
My mother was an elementary school teacher. Her experience with the electrical brain was limited to infrequent email exchanges with my father when he worked as a visiting scientist overseas. At 10 years of age, I had not been allowed near the keyboard. After consulting everyone around her who might know a thing or two about computers, my mother came home one evening with a big bag of floppy disks, their dust covers rustling against each other.
“I bought the best ones in the store,” my mother said. A new electronics market had just opened in our city, a few bus stops north of our residential compound. In this provincial capital in southeastern China, time always felt several paces slower, and several years behind. “The seller told me that even the most expensive disks would not last forever, but a few years should not be a problem.”
“In a few years,” my mother’s eyes lit up, “you will be able to read the files and understand what your father was working on.” Her husband had been on the verge of a scientific breakthrough, my mother believed, and one day her child would reveal it to the world.
On a sweltering afternoon half a year later, a bespectacled man came to our place. “This is Teacher Zhou,” my mother introduced. “He will help copy your father’s things to the disks.”
Teacher Zhou taught computer science at a local university. His son was in my mother’s class. For the next several hours, he patiently took each disk out of its plastic cover, slid it into the machine, clicked around with the mouse, and then waited for what felt like a very long time before removing the disk and repeating the process all over again.
We did not have air conditioning at home. The only portable fan was placed next to the computer, facing Teacher Zhou and set at maximum speed. “Would you like some water?” my mother asked, apologizing for not having popsicles in the fridge. “What about a slice of watermelon?”
Teacher Zhou insisted he was fine. So my mother stood behind him, her eyes fixated on the screen, where a dialog-box animation showed files tumbling out from one manila folder into another.
“It’s all copied,” Teacher Zhou stood up and stepped away from the desk. I heard my mother’s voice in the doorway as she tried to talk Teacher Zhou into accepting a bag of fruits as a token of her gratitude.
Daylight had receded into a thinly lit horizon. A few golden rays peeped in through the window, bouncing off the clear covers on the neatly stacked disks. My father’s computer was turned off one last time. What remained of his brilliant mind was now secured inside pieces of plastic, three and a half inches long, three and a half inches wide.
After she came back into the room, my mother placed the set of disks on the shelf next to my father’s books. “Remember that they are here,” she said to me.
The Chinese word for “remember,” 记住 jìzhù, can be broken down into three distinct chunks: the first character, 记, is formed with a speech radical and the character for “self”; the second, 住, means “location.” To leave a mark, one needs language, as well as a medium — be it oracle bones or bamboo scrolls, paper or parchment, a floppy disk or hard drive.
On the southern tip of Hunan Province, where my father went to college, there is a small town called Jiangyong. Denied access to a formal education because of their gender and socioeconomic status, the women of Jiangyong developed their own written script. “Mosquito writing,” they called it, because the slanted style with long strokes resembled the leggy, hungry insect.
After they attracted the attention of anthropologists in the early 1990s, 女书 nǚshū, women’s writing, became a language for encryption and revolution in the patriarchal imagination. Passed down from mothers to daughters and aunts to nieces, nüshu was incomprehensible to men, hence must harbor seditious plots. In reality, the village women used it openly in their diaries, in letters to each other, and occasionally woven into quilts and scarves. They simply wanted their stories told beyond the transience of the spoken word.
My women ancestors along the Yangtze did not have nüshu. I don’t know how my great grandmothers felt about having their feet bound. My grandmothers survived two wars and a famine, but they never talked about the events of their youth.
If access to the pen is limited and memories fade with time, how should the self struggle against forgetting? What becomes of a life after it’s gone, if not for others’ thoughts of it?
But last night I saw the draft posters,
The Khan is calling many troops,
The army list is in twelve scrolls,
On every scroll there’s Father’s name.
Father has no grown-up son,
Mulan has no elder brother.
I want to buy a saddle and horse,
And serve in the army in Father’s place.
At age 13, I told my mother that I would like to major in science at university.
“But in the sciences you will have to compete with all the boys.
“Girls cannot compete with the boys.
“In this world men take the lead.”
The same conversation went on every evening, until one night I burst out crying.
“All of the disks with father’s research, if I do not study science, who is going to read them?”
My mother looked at me, stunned. Years had gone by since that summer afternoon when those little seeds of fire were sealed and stored away, their existence forgotten in lieu of the more urgent tasks of daily living.
Eventually her face softened into a smile, the silence broken. “Do you know how brilliant your father was, how good he was at math?”
After finishing university in China, I moved to the United States for graduate school. I packed two suitcases, everything else either held inside me or left behind.
Shortly after I arrived in the new country, my mother, alone in China, started scanning old family albums and sending them to me as email attachments. With yellowed edges and grainy pigment, there was my mother as a young woman, a thick braid of black hair dipping below her hips. There was me as a chubby baby, little fists pumping in the air. There were my grandparents before time lined their faces. And then there was my father, at an age not so much older than myself.
I studied my father’s face, comparing it to mine in the mirror. When I was little, neighbors and relatives always told me that I looked like my father, a lighthearted jab as my mother was considered a great beauty. As I grew older, I began hearing from friends and strangers, after seeing my mother for the first time, how much we resembled one another.
“No, I look like my dad,” I always corrected them. I did not see any similarities with my mother. For as long as I could remember, I had resisted becoming like her, as if running away from the conventions of womanhood.
I proudly carried my father’s genetic code on my face. How dare time try to wipe that away?
A friend of mine in medieval studies recalled a session from a recent academic conference. Historians and archivists around the world have been racing against the clock to transcribe old texts, images, and sounds into a series of ones and zeros inside grids of silicon. But digitization comes with its own limitations and vulnerabilities: in addition to malicious attacks and censorship, who can say the storage facilities of today would not meet a similar fate as VHS tapes from a few decades ago?
When discussing what mediums might withstand the culling of time, some experts suggested titanium shells from old Soviet submarines, inscriptions on which could survive the harshest of environments, so they claimed.
I shook my head at the incredible proposal, and we both chuckled. Without questioning the durability of the material, there is not enough titanium on earth for every written word, so who determines what gets etched onto the precious metal?
“That is the big question,” my friend said.
“Why would anyone think their work is important enough that it should be kept for posterity?” I asked.
The quest for eternal life is as old as civilization itself. Each time there is a news article about cryogenic facilities promising to preserve the body until future medicine can revive it, or a tech start-up advertising the “100 percent fatal” service of uploading one’s consciousness to the cloud, I sneer a little. What a privilege it is to demand a continuation beyond death, when so many of us are struggling to survive.
Sometimes, I wonder if I am being cruel for dismissing such efforts, for judging people who can’t accept their mortality: making peace with death seems more magnanimous than tussling with nature to persist. Perhaps it is from my upbringing, my experience of loss and scarcity, that I constantly question my place on this crowded, overheating planet, whether I have done enough to deserve it.
“I have saved all of your writings since you were little,” my mother wrote in an email. “After I retire, I will type them up and send them to you, so you can keep them forever.”
My mother cannot read English. I had not kept a diary since adolescence, and barely wrote anything in Chinese outside of schoolwork. When I was a young child, there was a running joke in the family that every scrap of my scribbles must be kept, not for their literary value, which was none, but for their association with me, or rather, the person I might one day become. My youthful ego blossomed under this tender doting. I believed that I was special, and acted accordingly. I have known better with age, but I also wonder how embarrassed I should be for my childhood pompousness, and if it is actually possible to foresee potential.
At some seven years of age, I told my parents that I would like to become president of the United States. This bold declaration sent my father to the library to find out if a Chinese girl born to Chinese parents in China could be eligible for the office. When the answer came back no, I was devastated.
My mother still speaks of that episode. I picture her sitting alone at our place in China looking over all the mementos of me that she has collected over the years, displays for a future presidential library whose namesake, me, would have had no constituency beyond my immediate family — and how that would have been enough.
Despite my childhood ambition to one day revive my father’s research, I chose particle physics out of personal interest instead of my father’s field of mechanical engineering. My profession traces the origin and evolution of the universe. The tiny wrinkles of heat and light on a smooth, boundless sky hold the answers to our cosmological history. We build powerful telescopes on the top of mountains or the wings of satellites, searching for the faintest signals from the deepest time. We construct magnificent colliders underground, where beams of particles smash at nearly the speed of light, blooming into miniature cosmos in their infancy. We design state-of-the-art computing facilities that store, process, and transmit oceans of data to collaborators across the globe.
A colleague of mine, who manages one of the computing centers, occasionally jokes about the old disks kept in storage at his lab. On the forefront of science and technology when they were born, and barely middle-aged now in human years, the devices are now obsolete, superseded in both their physical form and the information they hold. Yet we have barely scratched the surface of the archive above the clouds.
Nature builds its library with no regard for our attempted reading. As researchers in fundamental science, we like to think of our work as grand, even noble; yet each time I look up from a technical task, I sense a deep humility in our quest. The cycle of a hard drive, the commissioning of an experiment, the life of a person: what mark do they leave on the cosmological scale, when the duration of our species is barely a wink in time?
“Who says humans are the ones to decode the ultimate truths about nature?” another colleague asked at a conference. His question was rhetorical, but it did not imply that our pursuit was pointless.
We are driven by our own desires, compelled to satiate our own curiosities. What we make of our time — the work we do, the stories we tell, the people we love — is what gives our lives meaning. Whether anything we produce has a longevity beyond our bodies is never as important as the act of living.
We beam the signal of our existence into the vastness, however faint, however transient; if we are ever so lucky, there is another pair of eyes looking in our direction, remembering the light, keeping it company.
The floppy disks that my mother carefully stowed away two decades ago have never been read. Whatever information they hold is most likely irretrievable. I wonder if Teacher Zhou knew it then. He probably did, but still spent an afternoon fulfilling a tedious and futile mission as a favor to his child’s teacher, and perhaps to give hope and comfort to a grieving widow.
As I mature as a scientist, I have also recognized the myth of the lone genius who could single-handedly transform a field. My father was not one of those, as such figures do not exist: science, as any other profession, depends on collaborative effort, cumulated over time.
Did my mother understand this as well, or did she genuinely believe in the singular brilliance of her husband? The question is beside the point. My mother needed to hold on to the wish so that my father’s death was not only a personal loss but that of humanity’s. By preserving his research, my mother invited the future into her private mourning, so that she was not so alone in her sorrow.
A recent work trip brought me to the American university where my father once worked. I found his former supervisor’s name by searching for my father on Google Scholar. There were two papers they wrote together, each published with a footnote: “I report with sadness the sudden death of my co-author…”
I was worried that I had waited too long, but the old professor’s lab homepage showed that he was still teaching. “What great fortune it is to have the luxury of time,” I thought to myself, a stinging feeling followed by a flood of guilt.
I emailed the professor, putting the names of both my father’s and mine in the subject line, and inquired about the possibility of a visit. His positive response came when I was standing in line at the boarding gate for my flight over. I giggled and wept, oblivious to the surrounding eyes.
I was there to give a seminar at the physics department. I would see my father’s old boss immediately after my talk, the only time he was available.
My presentation received ample interest. As the discussion went on past schedule, I tried to answer all the questions, but my attention had shifted to the clock on the wall. I keenly felt the passage of time. Every tick felt like a part of my father dripping away.
All of a sudden my voice broke. Between fits of sobbing I muttered, “I really need to go to the engineering school!”
Mortified, I apologized for my unprofessionalism. I tried to give a version of the backstory without the unpleasant mention of a parental death, which probably only confused the audience and made me look foolish, like an emotional child. With a somewhat abrupt windup, I took my leave and dashed across campus.
As my heels clicked through the corridors of the engineering building, a seasoned voice emerged from behind a half-open door: “That must be Dr. Cheng!”
The old professor addressed me by my last name, prefixed by my academic title. My father would have been called the same. Tall, trim, and with a silver beard, the old professor carried a regal presence, a distinguished air that comes with many decades at the top of one’s profession.
We sat down in his office, a large wooden desk between us, covered with books and files.
“I do not know if you remember him. He worked here 20 years ago,” I said.
“Of course I do. Look, I got his paper right here,” the old professor lifted a few sheets from his desk. “So, how is he?”
I felt something shatter inside me. Was it really my father’s paper he was holding up?
I looked at the old professor, his smile warm and unsuspecting. For a brief moment, I wondered if we stared at each other long enough, the shape of my face might jog his memory.
I had wished to ask him about my father: what was he like at work? Was he as brilliant as my mother used to say? How good was he at math? I had wanted to find specks of vividness to color in my pale recollection. But how could I expect a former supervisor of his to carry the same burden of remembrance as I, his only child?
My father’s work had been published and preserved: Was that not enough to give me solace?
I searched for a less jarring response, but there is no euphemism for death. “I am so sorry,” I began. And then the old professor was sorry, too, which only made me feel worse. I did not want him to pity me. I did not want him to feel bad for forgetting. I did not raise any of the questions I had, played out a hundred times in my mind. I no longer wanted him to dig through his memories, if there were still pieces left of my father.
I felt ashamed of my behavior, dragging a virtual stranger into my grief. How naive was I? How selfish!
But remembrance is, ultimately, a selfish act.
The day was getting late. Beams of sunlight slanted through the window, casting on the papers between us the shadow of a cloud. Before we said goodbye, the old professor extended his hand and turned over his palm, as if presenting me with a gift:
“But here you are, still carrying on the family torch!”
Yangyang Cheng and the Science and China Column will return on the final Wednesday of every month. Last month: