Interview Your Family Members

CLAIRE: In many ways I am my mother’s daughter: like Mom, I’m always searching for a silver lining. In the B. C. (Before Covid) era, I enjoyed live book talks whose audiences tended to be retirees and readers with ample leisure time. The pandemic snuffed out these in-person events, but once work-from-home virtual meetings became the norm, I met hundreds of younger, fully employed folks on my zoom screen. Many were taking part in the lunchtime affinity groups of their more-often-than-not tech workplaces, as a way to socialize and bond with equally isolated co-workers. This type of audience was unattainable to me before Covid—and how fun it’s been getting to know them!

The impact of a nostalgic book like Remembering Shanghai differs dramatically based on the reader’s age and life experience. I was familiar with older audiences who relive, savor and cringe at stories that echo their own. It’s been refreshing and even revelatory to meet younger readers, with their cleaner slates and clearer lenses, who find that our memoir provokes questions relating to their own ancestry, ethnic identity, and sense of self. How fabulously affirming to hear that one such bright spark, Rebecca Liu,  at the time Salesforce’s AAPI facilitator, created an interview guide with suggested questions to help break the ice in conversation with older relatives.

REBECCA: I love interviews – so much so that I devote a section of my blog to interviewing people in the Asian diaspora and sharing their stories. Over the holidays, I started interviewing my parents (although not for Redefine Dichotomies) for a couple of reasons:

  1. Learning more about my parents’ joys, heartaches, and the moments in between has helped me see them as people (and not just as my parents) and better understand why they’re the way they are. It’s also helped me slowly disentangle the web of cultural, language, and generational barriers between us. As a kid, I was confused by a lot of my dad’s actions: why he made me practice math problems in church, scolded me for using too much floss, drove me to all my basketball practices and cross country matches (even in snowstorms or when they were halfway across the state), and let me go to birthday parties after vehemently grounding me. As I’ve gotten older and learned more about the events that have shaped my parents, I’ve begun to see how their past has shaped their lives (and mine). I also grow more appreciative of and obsessed with my parents as I reflect on the hardships and sacrifices they’ve endured for me.

2. As the child of Taiwanese immigrants, I look to my parents to be my main conduit to my Taiwanese identity. I wonder (and worry) about how I’ll help my children explore their Taiwanese heritage sans my parents in the future. In Crying in HMart, Michelle Zauner grapples with holding onto her Korean heritage after her mother passes away (a theme I really resonate with which is probably why I love this book so much). In interviewing my parents and recording their stories, I hope to better understand and preserve my Taiwanese heritage for myself and future generations. 

I started seriously thinking about interviewing my parents this past October when I hosted Claire Chao for a speaking event at Salesforce. Claire is the author of Remembering Shanghai, which follows the story of Claire’s mother as she grows up in Shanghai in the 1930s and escapes to Hong Kong before the Cultural Revolution. I admire the way Claire meticulously researched her family’s history (she covers the stories of five generations!) and weaves it together with historical and cultural context. During a Q&A with Claire at the event, many people in the audience expressed a desire to better know their families’ stories. Claire suggested we interview our parents and record their stories. 

I think everyone (not just Asian Americans or children of immigrants) could benefit from better understanding of their family’s past. I want to help people get started, so I created an interview guide replete with simple questions that anyone can ask their parents and/or other family members. I’ve listed some of the questions as well as tips and considerations below:

Tips and considerations: 

  • End goal: I’m personally not going to publicly share or publish the interviews I’m doing, but that shouldn’t preclude you from sharing if you’d like. Maybe you could create an instagram account where you feature stories from different members of your family or community. Maybe you put these interviews on a password-protected site for all of your relatives (including current and future generations) to access.

  • Tools: Since I’m not planning on sharing the interviews I’ve conducted with my family, I’ve just been using the “Voice Memo” app on my iPhone to record. But if you want to transcribe or publish your interview, I suggest using to record. You can download it onto your phone and record up to 600 minutes for free each month. Otter transcribes your interview as you record it – it’s probably 60-70% accurate, so you’ll still have to clean it up before you publish it anywhere. You can access your account on your phone and your computer so that you can record on your phone and then edit the transcription on your computer. I actually use Otter for my Redefine Dichotomies interviews; but it only transcribes in English (to my knowledge), so that’s another reason why I decided not to use it in this instance.

  • Timing: With your end goal in mind, think about how long you want this project to last. Maybe your family member is happy to sit for hours and have a long conversation about their life. Or maybe they would rather talk for 10-15 minutes at a time, but are okay with doing this once a month over the course of a year.

  • Order of topics: It might make sense to discuss topics chronologically or maybe you want to start with light-hearted topics to help your family member become comfortable with being interviewed.

  • Be flexible and accommodating: Some of the topics might be more difficult or sensitive to discuss than others. Let your family member talk about what they’d like and avoid pressing too hard. You know your family member better than I do, so use these tips and questions as a loose guide rather than a strict mandate.

Ultimately, I hope this inspires people to get to know their families in a fun way. If you do interview your parents, please let me know – I’d love to hear about what you learned and whether anything surprised you!

CLAIRE: When interviewing family and friends who are initially reluctant to share their memories, I find it useful to employ the senses as they relate to culture (e.g. music, favorite foods, fashion), as they may serve as entry points to potentially sensitive topics. For a seven-year-old boy who wanted to learn about his popo’s Shanghai childhood, I suggested he show her photo albums or illustrated books from the era, and ask her to tell him stories about the images. His mother later wrote to tell me it worked, paving the way for many meaningful conversations between three generations of their family.

This article first appeared in Rebecca’s online journal in January 2022.

Rebecca is available for speaking events on such topics as U.S. start-ups serving immigrants, working in consulting, entrepreneurship, social impact, her Asian American experiences, and amplifying Asian diaspora stories.