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The Land of Make Believe : On Imaginary Neighborhoods, Ye Ye, and the Act of Remembering


Grace Wong

On a Wednesday evening in Manhattan, New York, a dimly lit Soho movie theatre had become a temporary sacred space for I and fifty something other nostalgic adults.

The Land of Make Believe

I was attending a screening for Will You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary film that traced Fred Rogers’ life and career. Fred Rogers or ‘Mister Rogers’ was best known from the celebrated PBS syndication Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood. For those brief, yet slow, ninety minutes, I and the audience seemed to be reminded of our raison d’etre in this world, whatever that centrepiece was, and whatever it meant for each of us.

Flash forward fifteen minutes in, Mister Rogers started to play the piano and sing:

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine? Could you be mine?”

A viewer sitting a row before me surreptitiously wiped away tears from her eyes. I felt tears dripping down my cheeks and my stomach engulfed in weight. It was unusual to witness acts of vulnerability in New York. This was a city where a single sign of weakness could mean being eaten up whole without a thought.

On screen, Daniel Tiger sang about his fear of being a mistake, King Friday demanded for his castle walls to be put up, and Mister Rogers assured us at the end of each episode, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you”. The screen and our childhood memories were replayed, and we retreated back to a time of unguarded adolescence. Beyond the walls separating our selves and the screen, there was a feeling of spiritual kinship with this man who called us each his neighbors.

How do you justify a memory you cannot describe but can certainly feel?

I remember the daily ritual of coming home from school, turning on the television, and watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Yet, if you were to ask me to recount the specific contents of each episode, I would not be able to sketch out more than mere impressions—Mister Rogers’ gregarious manner, the red cable car that traveled from Mister Rogers’ House to the Land of Make Believe, the look and sound of various puppets in the imaginary town. Nevertheless, when I saw him again at this moment, I could certainly feel an immense profundity that Mister Rogers offered. There was a rawness, a transmittance of communality, and a vulnerability that could crack you.

Looking for Ye Ye

Recently, I have been thinking about my grandfather (Ye Ye) who passed away twelve years ago, when I was only ten years of age.

Ye Ye and one-year-old me

Stored in the corner of my parents’ TV drawers were albums of photographs taken when I was between the ages of a few months old to around ten years. I flipped through them one day. Save for some memories of my disastrous fourth birthday party, none of these photographs sparked any recollection from me. Even the ones where I was with Ye Ye: zero recollection.

Going through these photographs was like an out-of-body feeling, as if in these photographs was a doppelgänger of myself performing a series of vignettes with my family. Ye Ye was certainly real. But was that really me in the same picture? Had I really lived through that moment in time? Why did the sight of these photos not compel me to cry? In attempting to remember the photographs of my Ye Ye, I had failed to release the same bona fide emotions that Mister Rogers was able to disclose in me.

What was the root cause of my gross impassivity towards my blood-bound relations?

It is an odd revelation to feel more emotionally invested in— and affected by — Mister Rogers’ made-up neighborhood than in the past photographs of my own family. When I have no logical reasoning to describe my feelings of alienation, I often justify my bewilderment as a symptom of being an American daughter of immigrants living between two cultures. It is easy to ascribe my filial negligence to the modern effects of adversity in my Asian-American identity.

It took me until my college years to understand. It is with time and with one’s realization of the deterioration of one’s own memory, that one finds a value in the act of preservation. Time has estranged the bond between my grandfather and me. So these days, I find myself picking up the lost scraps of memory, the ones I had failed to tend to while growing up.

Grace is a teaching artist and interdisciplinary artist deeply interested in notions of space/place, as well as what meaning and image-making look like in a digitized society.

Acting as both participant and observer, she documents ephemera and investigates human activity across virtual and analog communication networks with the intention of understanding lived experiences, collective histories, and the sociocultural fabric of the post-Internet era. Her work encompasses photography, writing, new media, activism and participatory interventions. 

ig @gwcreative

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