POV Shorts: Where I'm From

Stories on home and how it shapes us.

AIRED: September 06, 2021 | 0:53:47



[ Birds chirping ]

-Oh, my goodness. They have upgraded.

I came here for grade one, two, three, I think.


This is surreal. It's --

Well, mind you, so much has changed.

I'm trying to look for the very essence of it

that reminds me of what it was like.

-So, you haven't been back here in like a million years.


I was gone for 43 years.


[ Both laugh ]

[ Piano playing ]

-I sometimes forget that my mom was once a child, too,

with dreams of living in a castle

and eating nothing but ice cream and cake for dinner.


Growing up, I didn't understand

why my mom rarely hugged or kissed me as a kid,

and why "I love you" was not in her vocabulary.

As I got older, I realized that there was a reason

for why I felt like a piece of her was missing.


My mom was born in Taiwan on March 4, 1960.

She has very little memory of her childhood.

She couldn't tell me what her favorite bedtime stories were

or if her parents ever sang her a lullaby.

-[ Humming ]

-All she remembers is that when she was 5 years old,

she was suddenly separated from her family,

never to see them again.

And she never understood why.

[ Piano continues playing ]


-[ Continues humming ]



-You know what?

For one reason, when I have a dinner,

number one, I hate people don't have enough food to eat.

Number two, yes, I would always love

to have more people to be here.

And yes, indeed, I would love --

-You want to make sure everybody's taken care of.

That's all.

-Ask my mom.

-Finish that thought. -Ronnie.

-[ Crying ] Yes, I love to have my family here.

-Oh, God, look what alcohol and bad conversation does.

Jesus Christ. -I hope this --

I hope this isn't recording the volume.

-Tiffany, stop it.

-[ Crying ]


It's okay.

That's true.

-[ Crying ]

Tiff, stop it. -What?

[ Indistinct conversations ]

-When my mom first told me that my grandmother, Popo,

was not her biological mother,

I finally got a glimpse

of what might have been missing from her life.

My mom never asked Popo about her birth family.

She couldn't bear the guilt of possibly offending

the only person who raised her all these years.

But how could my mom live without knowing the truth

about such an important part of her past?

I knew I needed to do something.


If we get -- if we are so lucky to find either your mom,

your dad, even your sister, what would be your number-one,

like, questioning that you would like to know?

-I guess answering some questions that I've always had.

-Like what?


why -- why didn't they keep us, you know?

Why was I sent away?

-So, Mom? -Yes.

-Okay. I know you don't think

I'm going to find them and stuff like that,

because you're being pessimistic.

-No, no, no, no, no. -But that's fine.

-It's not that. You -- First of all, Tiff,

you're going to have, first of all, the --

the foremost difficulty,

which is a language barrier.

-But I'm trying, no?

I'm going to start by going to City Hall.

-Mm-hmm. You think they really care?

-Look, I'm determined to find them.


Minding your own business

is a habit of traditional Chinese families

and was always so frustrating to me.

It was stifling to watch my mom hold back

on saying what was really on her mind

and keep silent for the sake of not causing trouble.

This made me promise myself that I would never be like that.


It's totally overwhelming.

Like, this is a place, like, where my mom grew up,

and I am here.

The next generation of her is riding a bus

to go and...

seek her parents and try to make this work.


So, in case I do meet her parents,

which, that's my goal --

It starts with that.

This is her when she first came into Canada, starting.

And then this is us a little bit older, all three kids.


My mom was not optimistic about my search.

No one was.

This was the furthest I'd ever been away from home,

and all I had with me were two names on a napkin

that I couldn't read

and a pocket translator that didn't work.

But I was stubborn

and determined to prove everyone wrong.


Mom, it's Tiff.

[ Chuckles ] I'm trying to call you.

It's like 7:00 in the morning in Taiwan.

I just want to tell you everything is okay

and that the city is nuts here.

It's completely, like, I don't know.

I'm learning how to speak Chinese, though.

You'd be so proud.

[ Speaking Mandarin Chinese ]

Hi, there. I have -- I just have their names.

And I know they're from Taipei.

I love how everyone knows now.

[ Telephones ringing ]

-You have been so lucky.


Really? -Yeah.


[ Chuckles ]

[ Crying ] I found your mom and your dad's address.

I know where they live exactly. I know --

And I got the exact same address and --

No, I'm not in the hospital.

Mom, I'm trying to -- I got your --

No, I got your mom and your dad's address,

and I'm going to go see them tomorrow, yeah.





I can see that we're slowly coming

to our place.

I can't breathe.

Just breathe. Just breathe. Just breathe.

[ Speaks Mandarin Chinese ]

[ Elevator bell dings ]


Okay. Alright.

How do I look?

I look good?

Button up a little bit? Yeah.

I should have took my piercing out.

This...freaks people out.

-[ Speaks indistinctly ]

-No, I can't. My hands are dirty.

[ Door opens ]

-[ Crying ]

-[ Laughing ]

-[ Crying ]

[ Crying ]

[ Indistinct conversations ]

[ Laughter ]


My mother's never seen a picture of herself

as a baby in her whole entire life.

This is her -- This is -- This is her.

Never seen a picture of her as a child.

Here's her family photo.



The moment I found my mom's birth mother,

there was an instant familiarity.

Suddenly, I was no longer in a foreign place.

I'd found another home with this woman I just met.


One afternoon, she tells me

that it has been difficult for her to sleep since meeting me,

because she keeps thinking about the past.

I couldn't help but feel like

I had just opened up a Pandora's box.


[ Indistinct conversations ]

So, Mom, you're back in Taipei.

How does it feel?


I can't believe it.

I, uh --

[ Sighs ]

Oh, my God. That's my sister.

Did you know that?


-[ Speaks Mandarin Chinese ]

[ All speak Mandarin Chinese ]

-[ Sobbing ]

[ Sobbing ]

-How was it, seeing your mom for the first time?

-[ Sighs ]

I don't know.

Actually, it was funny.

When I finally...

...held her, like, she was hugging me,

and she hugged me so hard,

and I hugged her right back.

The embrace was something that I had --

[ Sighs ]

...had been longing for

for so, so many years.

Especially when I was --

whenever I was depressed, whenever I was upset,

I always wished that my mother would be there.

Someone who could be there to comfort me.


-[ Humming ]




-[ Speaking Mandarin Chinese in distance ]


-[ Continues humming ]



-As her mother revealed the reason for their separation,

I watched my mom transform back to her 5-year-old self.


In 1965, my mom's parents were already divorced.

Her father was a gambler.

He had taken all the kids and threatened to kill them

if their mother didn't give him money.

So she called the police,

which resulted in him being locked in a jail cell.

But my mom and her siblings were in there, too.

Once they were released, her father sold the kids,

one by one, to pay off his gambling debt.


For months, my grandmother searched everywhere for her kids

and was able to buy all her children back,

except for one -- my mom.





I didn't ask my mom

if it would have been better to not know this truth,

because deep down inside, I knew the answer.


-[ Speaking Mandarin Chinese ]



[ Bell dings ]


After reuniting my mom with her mother,

they had a few more visits,

always thinking that there would be more time.


Before my grandmother's stroke, my mom finally asked her,

"Why was I the only one you didn't buy back?"

Because of martial law,

1960s Taiwan was not an easy time for women.

Fewer jobs were available,

especially for those who didn't have any education.

My grandmother borrowed and sold whatever she had of value

to purchase her children back.

And after months of searching, she did find my mom.


She watched my mom walk to school with Popo,

neatly dressed in the school uniform,

with shiny black shoes on her feet.

She realized that Popo could provide

a better life for my mom.

For the next few years, she would just silently

watch my mom grow up through the playground fence.

-I can't imagine if I had to do that.

I just close my eyes and try to imagine

if I was to send any one of you away

and not being able to -- to be with you,

to see you,

or even have to go through what she had to do to,

like, sneak up, you know, somewhere,

hiding in schoolyard

and peeking through fences.

It must be heartbreaking, just --

But whatever little comfort she could get out of seeing me,

I guess it helped.

It's unfortunate, whatever happen now.

[ Sniffles ]

[ Piano playing ]

-My grandmother's sacrifice was not in vain.

Popo was able to provide for my mom.

She was a widow with two grown children

that had already left home.

Popo and my mom didn't have a maternal relationship,

but they had each other.

And when my mom had children of her own,

we had a grandmother that fussed over trivial things

like us not wearing enough clothes in the winter

or eating enough at dinner,

the unspoken stuff that meant, "You matter to me."

-[ Singing softly in Mandarin Chinese ]



[ Singing echoing ]



-[ Speaking Mandarin Chinese ] -Happy New Year.

-[ Speaking Mandarin Chinese ]

-[ Wheezing ]

[ Both laugh ]

-[ Speaking Mandarin Chinese ]

-Good luck, from my sister.

-[ Laughs ]

-[ Singing in Mandarin Chinese ]



-She has the same eyebrow raise as you do.



-[ Singing in Mandarin Chinese ]


-[ Groaning ]

[ Continues groaning ]

-Okay, shh.

[ Vocalizing ]

-[ Continues groaning ]

-[ Singing in Mandarin Chinese ]

-[ Singing in Mandarin Chinese ]




-I know you guys always ask

how come I don't hug or kiss you guys as much.

How do you do that when you never experienced that yourself?


But you do know that I love you guys very much.

[ Both continue singing in Mandarin Chinese ]

[ Both laugh ]

Okay, go on.

[ Air popping ]

-I know.

[ Both laugh ]

[ Both continue singing in Mandarin Chinese ]


I may have started out looking for my grandmother,

but in the end, I also found my mom.

-[ Singing in Mandarin ]






-This is where I source all my found objects --

my dried plants, my miniature furniture,

Christmas ornaments,

shells, paints, nails, stones.

This knob here is a radio switch,

but what I see in it is an exploded engine.

This is my stash of miniature toys.

Sometimes the furniture I find is already broken,

and the shop owner says, "Well, I can't sell you that.

It's broken. What are you going to do with it?"

[ Laughs ]

This is from my previous marriage

wedding cake.

That's what's left of the marriage.

[ Buttons clicking ]



Before the Syrian war,

my art was very therapeutic,

was very cathartic.


I was just making, making, making.

I wanted to build the Damascus of my memories.


A lot of generations came here.

A lot of paint happened on these walls.


So, that's exactly what I'm going to do --

paint, scrape, paint, scrape.


Before you know it,

the architecture was telling the story

of the human that lived within.


And that would bring me home.


-Bye. Take care.

[ Video call ends ]


-I always wanted to come to the United States

to study architecture here.


After 9/11 happened,

there was a travel ban in place

that wasn't called a travel ban.

My visa was stamped as single-entry only.

And I realized that I was stuck here.

I was extremely homesick.

I was giving up being with my parents,

being with my older brother, my sisters.


I missed my sister's wedding and the birth of her children.

I was very close to my grandmother,

and I couldn't go to her funeral.

It felt horrible.

I would say to my parents,

"Okay, this is it. I'm coming home."

They'd say, "No, don't do this. Don't jeopardize your career."


It was one of those nights.

It might have been Thanksgiving break.

Nothing's open. Where is everybody?

They're home.


They're with their families.

And I was in this open architecture studio space.

I was the only person in there.

I remember I was so frustrated.

And I had a photograph of an old Damascene facade

that was on a candy wrapper.

And I think a little bulb turned on in my head.

And it told me, "Well, stop whining.

If you can't get home, why don't you make home?"


And I would collect all the wood scraps

that my peers would throw away on the floor,

the plastics, the styrene.


That's when it really kind of clicked,

like, "Okay.

This is me.

This is where I'm from."

[ Indistinct shouting ]

It's hard to pin down when exactly the war started.

My parents hesitated to leave home.

It's not until the clashes broke off 100 meters away

and shook our whole house,

they realized, "Okay, the conflict is now on our doorstep,

and we need to leave."

They came and lived in my small apartment.


I was a very young designer

pitching $200-, $300-, $400-million buildings.


I had to keep a straight face at work and still perform.


But I was very troubled.

Extremely troubled.


I had a monitor literally on news channels

10 hours a day.

I'm working, and I'm seeing the Arab world blow up.


I lost my appetite.

I didn't do any art for maybe two years straight.


And I've internalized it, internalized it.

And I'm boiling.


I took to my models like an explosion.


If something did not look right,

I took a hammer to it, and I broke it,

and I snapped it, and I would throw ash at it and burn it.


People were so sick of seeing blood and bodies

as a way to build empathy.

And I get that. I was sick, too.

I mean, how many dead bodies can we see?

You just go like, "Oh, my gosh,

not another Syrian kid washing off the shores."

Swipe away to the next story.


There was this fire inside me

to start humanizing refugees

and to tell their stories.

[ Light bulb shatters ]


[ Chuckles ]

I was interviewing a refugee one time,

and the man started crying.

And he said, "I'm very grateful for their help,

but the night we arrived here, the lady welcoming us

was teaching me how to turn a light switch on.

Could you please translate to her

that I had a very beautiful house in Syria

with a lot of appliances and a lot of things in it,

and I really know how to switch a light on?"


We come from established lives.

We had a life.

You can't explain millions of people with one stamp,

"Refugee," full stop.


Hiraeth is a Welsh word

without a direct translation into English.

It describes a state of extreme homesickness

to a homeland that is no longer existent

or has never, ever existed.


I have certainly fallen in love

with the idea of Damascus and Syria.


I only had a moment there.


When I opened my eyes, I was swept away.


The Syrian War resulted

in a lot of marriages failing.

[ Speaking Arabic ]

My mom moved back to Damascus

because she became extremely homesick.

She was saying in Arabic [speaks Arabic]

"Whatever happens to everybody will happen to me, as well."

[ Speaking Arabic ]

I can't go to Syria

because I will get drafted to the military.

Going and seeing my mom in Lebanon

is the closest I can be to home.

[ Water pouring ]

-My nice lemon, growing and growing.

I love my lemon.


-The news was not showing

what we were losing culturally.

Undoubtedly, the most expensive price being paid in conflicts

is the human life.

No question.

But also, there is something to weep over

when you see a thousand-year-old minaret

being bombed out of existence.

[ Muezzin singing in distance ]


You wipe a nation's history,

you wipe their architecture...


...two generations later,

it's as though they've never existed.


What does a civilization leave behind

when they live there for thousands of years?


How many layers do they leave, of paint and stories?



I was painting a picture

so that people can fully understand

the magnitude of destruction.


[ Children laugh in distance ]



For a split-second,

you are transported to a different place.


-[ Smooches ]

-[ Laughs tearfully ]


Okay, okay. [ Speaks Arabic ]



-[ Smooches ]


Wars tend to change people.

They change souls.


The memories that I have

could very well

not exist today.


The grace and warmth...


...could very well have vanished.






We don't have a full family portrait

that is newer than 1999.

The four siblings of us and the two parents

have not been under a single roof

in 14, 15 years.

I've stopped counting.

And I miss it. I miss home.

I miss home.


[ Thunder rumbling ]



-I'm trying to figure out how to put this in words.

-Take your time.

-We had that little talk, and I said,

"I've been hiding this for a long time."

And you said, "Okay."

[ Bird chirping ]

And you accepted it.

I figured one of the best times

you ever really understood me and my gender

was, um,

that very first evening, I think.


[ Bell chimes ]

-It was so hard keeping that secret.

[ Bell chimes ]

[ Bird chirping ]

[ Bell chimes ]


I never intended to tell you.

I felt like I shouldn't.

I mean, like, even I was doubtful.

I'm just a little kid. How would I know?

And then my brain went and took over and said,

"You're doing this."

And I went ahead and said it. And...

I didn't mean to tell you, but now I'm so glad I did.

[ Children chattering indistinctly ]

Do I really care what everybody thinks?

-Mm-hmm. -Yes.

Everybody on this earth,

every human being

cares at least one tiny thing

about what people think about them.


-But if you still have that heavy weight

of caring about it too much,

then it will stop you from being who you are.



-I thought I wasn't ready.


[ Children continue chattering ]


'Cause it was kind of overwhelming to tell you.

-Mm-hmm. -And talking about it,

I'm starting to feel overwhelmed again.


-Whoo! -Whoo!

-Whoo! Whoo! -Whoo! Whoo!

-[ Continues whooping ]


-'Cause I'm just feeling that come back to me.

I need a big push here.

-You need a push?

Big push?


-You're free!


-Like, it's -- it's probably the best memory I have...


...telling you...

I'm not a girl...

for the first time, but it's probably the worst, too,

'cause that was so hard for me.

[ Crying ]

[ Sniffles ]

-I'm sorry it was hard.

-[ Crying ]

-Oh. Hey.

-[ Sniffles ]

[ Wind chimes tinkling ]





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