Turning Point: Cracking My Family's Mysteries

Carol Lin  and her mother i i

hide captionFor most of her life Carol Lin (left) was scared to ask her mother about her past.

Courtesy Carol Lin
Carol Lin  and her mother

For most of her life Carol Lin (left) was scared to ask her mother about her past.

Courtesy Carol Lin
Carol Lin's mother and father i i

hide captionCarol Lin's mother, Hsi Chuan Chen, and father, Po Chen Lin, in a park in Glendale, Calif., in 1952. The couple had been separated for seven years by WWII and the Chinese Civil War. Carol Lin did not know how they had met until recently.

Courtesy Carol Lin
Carol Lin's mother and father

Carol Lin's mother, Hsi Chuan Chen, and father, Po Chen Lin, in a park in Glendale, Calif., in 1952. The couple had been separated for seven years by WWII and the Chinese Civil War. Carol Lin did not know how they had met until recently.

Courtesy Carol Lin

Where there's a secret, there's a great story to be told. I've learned this as much as a journalist, as a daughter.

All my life, I wondered how my parents met, what my grandparents did for a living and whether my mother had siblings. These were questions I would not hesitate to ask the subjects of the stories I covered for news organizations. At home with my mother, however, such inquiries took on a sinister coating.

I vividly remember when I was only 6 years old, I asked my parents about their life in China and my father snapped at me, "Never ask that again!" I didn't understand what lurked beneath his anger, but it smelled like fear.

When my mother told me she'd been diagnosed with cancer, I realized I had a choice: Cave in to my grief or disobey my father and dig out the family story. According the doctors, the deadline was quickly approaching.

I opted for the latter, but my mother did not want to cooperate. She stared at the microphone distastefully as I asked basic questions such as, "How many siblings do you have?" "How did your father meet Grandma?" Occasionally, she'd appease me with e-mails containing a few facts, but for the most part my "research" was treated like an invasion of privacy.

Our big breakthrough came when my Auntie Lois, one of my mom's friends from China, self-published a biography about her life. There was always a friendly competition among the Chinese families I grew up with. So when I told my mom that NPR might be interested in our story, she started making the effort to record. It makes me smile that it wasn't so much cancer that motivated her as the opportunity to show off!

Suddenly, facts and stories were flowing out of my mother's mouth. I learned that my mother and father met through an arranged marriage; she was promised to him when she was only 16 years old. I learned that during the Japanese War, my mother would lie under the floorboards of her house, hiding from marauding soldiers who had raped her neighbor.

I'd always assumed that I was a renegade in my family for going into journalism, but I learned that my mother had reported for her school newspaper about the corrupt ways of the Kuomintang, or the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. Tears welling up in her eyes, my conservative mother also confessed that she still regretted not marching in the Communist student parade.

Throughout all this, I came to realize that my parents' walls of secrecy were rooted not in fear but a desire to protect my brother and me from the life they left behind.

Our original deadline came, and thankfully nothing happened. In fact, thanks to an experimental cancer treatment, my mother is doing just fine — giving me more time to drive her crazy with questions.

Carol Lin has been an anchor and correspondent for the past 12 years at ABC News and CNN. She is also the founder of www.cancersocialnetwork.com, due to launch in June.

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