A favorite podcast I listen to, Pop Culture Happy Hour, featured an episode about turning your toddlers into nerds (in the pop culture sense), their recommendations for things to get your children into, from Calvin and Hobbes to Nancy Drew to Chaplin’s The Tramp. It’s fun to listen to, and interesting to consider the relationship of our senses of nostalgia to how we love and nurture our children. That film we watched at that pivotal moment in our lives, that album we played again and again when we first learned to groove, that dog-eared book we carried around when we first found something to read obsessively… those things that transported us when we were children, somehow they transport us back to when we were children.
Nostalgia is a funny thing for me, though. When I was a kid, a Chinese immigrant growing up in the Bay Area, I somehow found my way to a weird sequence of cultural obsessions. Pretty typical, I guess, and typically nerdy: comic books, movies, mystery novels. But I burrowed deep into the shelves of my library and perhaps discriminated less than my peers, and so I read all of Calvin and Hobbes, but also Pogo, and Nancy, and eventually Gasoline Alley. Those Encyclopedia Brown books had me rapt for a couple months, but I soon exhausted them, and then I was reading Sherlock Holmes, Hammett and Chandler, and was maybe the only 12 year old subscriber to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in my zip code. And I liked movies, especially as an adolescent when I sought role models for how to be a man, and so I watched Bogart in Casablanca and James Dean’s short oeuvre and then Brando and Clift and Newman and Pacino and soon I had worked my way through several eras of Hollywood and much of the way through the canon of classic American movies. Michael Jackson to Boyz to Men, but also somehow to Sam Cooke and Cannonball Adderley and Miles and Bird and Satchmo. Nostalgia was fresh for me, fedoras and drive-ins and bomb shelters, the originary state of something now pastiche and bygone and weathered.
And I realize now that I ate up nostalgia, but not nostalgia that was my own, nor that even had anything to do with my public identities, little to do with being a teenage Chinese boy, trying to be gangsta and attract attention from girls, win the student body council election, pass Earth Science class. And it was nostalgia that was rarely a memory for my parents or older people I saw around me; my mom and dad might have known the old movies and music I dug up, but they neither introduced me to it, nor shared my enthusiasm for it. Rather, I think it was I who sat my parents down in front of A Place in the Sun, trying to remind my mom of how stunning Elizabeth Taylor was. The seventy year old midwestern lady who could talk to me half the culture I consumed was nowhere to be found in my real life.
It was a world potently American, saturated with Whiteness, built on an interlocking net of references that I had no real reason to know that well. Other than they echoed in my adoptive country as signifiers of some kind of belonging and knowingness. Some lineage, some architecture, that made the present day intelligible, that made the Simpsons twice as funny and Harper’s readable because had contained the multitudes of American culture.
Those experiences were precious to me, and so were the objects associated with them. They came be discarded with time, with consciousness, with opportunities. And now that mu daughter nears the age when this question arises, what will I sit her down in front of in an attempt to make her fall in love with what I fell in love with… what will it be? What do I think of this past self who searched so hard and searched in vain to find a mirror in a world of shadows? Yet would I deprive her of that, when that immersion meant so much to me? Or does she in fact grow up in a time when the consumption of nostalgias does not mean the same as it did for me, no longer means one definition of the world and one exclusionary framework of discourses, but just one among many? Will my daughter obsess over nostalgia about Korean television dramas and Afro Cuban music and The George Lopez Show? What will happen inevitably, and what do I want to introduce her to?