Magnetic Tape & the Power of Memory

“Hey sis, will there be a place for me to crash when I arrive?”

“Don’t worry, we’ll have your room all set up before you return,” she said reassuringly over Skype. Her reply made it sound as if I were booking a hotel, but somehow it was just the answer I was looking for as I prepared for a long, dreaded trip back to Taipei via Frankfurt. My grandfather had succumbed to a long battle with Parkinson’s, leading me to book a last minute flight to pay my final respects. I would need somewhere to stay for the short term and, having my room “all set up” entailed temporarily resurfacing my tatami bed from a layer of boxes. It was always a temporary measure; the boxes would reconquer my bed after I left Taiwan. I didn’t really live here (anymore); my parent’s home had been “de-nested” for years. So, boxes ruled this domain.

When we were children, I shared this room with my older brother for a couple of years, almost twenty years ago. We didn’t have many memories in Taiwan. At least, none that I can remember with particular fondness. Oddly, there’s still a large framed picture of Donald Duck, along with posters of the English alphabet, tacked onto the walls as if we never had the time to pack before leaving for the United States. Returning to Taipei in the summer of 2012, I sat down on my bed (the only uncovered surface in the room, thanks to my sister), surrounded by the low hum of the A/C and the waft of incense meant to ward off mosquitos, feeling claustrophobic, worn out and jet-lagged.

I also felt “at home.” Looking at Donald Duck, I resolved myself to the thought that after my grandfather’s funeral, these leftover memories of our pseudo-American dream would be laid to rest too.

My parents were idealists — they fervently believed that living in two worlds would enrich their children’s characters and expose them to all sorts of ideas that might be useful in the future job market. It’s as though they had a roadmap worked out to mold us into global citizens from the start: “Chinese hardware + American software = infinite possibilities.”

In practice, it was more like running constant firmware updates and rewriting the user manual year after year. And, although we, their children, do have a knack for intercultural proficiency today, another prominent legacy of this decade and a half journey was the accumulated material possessions of life over there. After I graduated from high school in 1999, we faced the semi-monumental task of getting all the stuff shipped to our small apartment in Taipei. I remember the sleepless summer nights when my older brother, sister and I tried our best to box everything up in a week. Even after donating and landfilling, there were at least 200 Taiwan-bound boxes. Fifteen years later, many of these boxes have been opened (more than once), their contents vetted, categorized and some even reintroduced into the family’s daily life. But the majority have been resealed and repositioned in stacks, dutifully gathering dust. What was the point of keeping used books from the 1970s, and old newspaper and magazine clippings that no one had time to read? There was also the issue of the mammoth family VHS collection. Languishing for years in Taiwan’s subtropical climate in precarious storage conditions, these cassettes probably weren’t in the best of shape.

As I lay down surrounded by cardboard, wiping sweat and tears from my face, I discovered that I was only now, for the first time, trying to understand why it was hard to move on. Why was this stuff still here? It was less of a manpower issue than a psychological one. Warped by years of humidity and weight, these boxes – once a convincing depiction of a Stalinist metropolis – increasingly resembled a dilapidated rendition of Kowloon’s cramped and chaotic Walled City. It reminds me of nuclear waste storage: meant to remain forgotten, and hardly a sustainable solution. Above all, these boxes had become the wreckage left by a family of global nomads; a cruel reminder how memories and experiences carefully collected may never find a fit in another place and time.

Living before the era of TiVo, DVD-Rs and YouTube, my mother basically archived any television program broadcast on the local Public Broadcasting Station affiliate and any movie the San Jose Mercury News had rated above 3 stars. The collection also branched out to Saturday morning cartoons (Tom and Jerry, The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show, Garfield and Friends, and even the Schoolhouse Rock episode on “How a Bill Becomes a Law”). We hardly ever erased or recorded over these shows, as if unconsciously performing the task of selective archivist. Maybe we imagined having a craving for 90s sitcoms in the 2020s.

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There were treasures: selections of Great Performances and Masterpiece Theater, even baseball World Series games and Superbowl broadcasts. As custodian of the collection, my mother not only wrote down the title and date of recording, but meticulously estimated how many hours were left on the tape based on the speed of the recording (these included EP for regular recording speeds and SP which recorded at better quality but consumed more space as a result). This practice came in handy when the VCR started to rewind the tape automatically after the cassette ran out of free space in the middle of recording a show.

“Hurry up and get one of those tapes on the lower bookshelf!” she would call out, and one of us would scramble frantically, fishing through cassettes desperately searching for a few extra minutes remaining here and there, the TV running oblivious to our technical wrangling. What seemed like a standard operating procedure to catalog what we had recorded proved to be much harder to reorder, as I discovered in dismay that parts of Gone with the Wind spanned beyond one cassette, with certain parts showing up after a Nightline episode from 1995, and the burning of Atlanta sandwiched between Demolition Man and an episode of National Geographic.

A couple of weeks after my grandfather’s funeral, I worked out a tentative compromise with my mother: with pragmatism as our guide, our decluttering attempts would bring us ultimate victory over disorder (or so I convinced myself). Moldy tapes would be trashed, and the survivors would be digitized into more permanent formats. As I started sorting through the piles, making swift and unrelenting progress, I eyed my mother from time to time, as she worked beside me without a word. For years we had argued about the fate of these boxes, and now they would find their ultimate place in a roadside dumpster having traversed the Pacific Ocean, three American presidencies, even the end of the Cold War. Yet, somehow these recordings were part of my mother’s dreams. I pictured her retired, enjoying ice cold lemonade with the A/C on full blast, watching some long forgotten Hallmark Classic, transporting her to moments way back when. Would she fast forward through the commercials or watch them with good humor? Maybe these recordings went beyond mere sentimental value, just like the shelves of paperback children’s books we had bought throughout elementary school from the Scholastic Book Club (boxes of books, by the way, are taking up half of my sister’s old room). Perhaps these items were destined for her future grandchildren and all they needed were some dusting off from time to time. The pace with which I added items to the toss pile slowed.

“Let’s just throw them all out,” Mom said a couple hours into Operation Liquidate, snapping me out of my reverie. Her voice had changed: it was neither accusatory or bitter, just a disquieting resignation. A letting go at last? For me, recalling the collective process of video archiving transformed the boxes from an shameful attachment, to clutter, to knowing them as a labor of love — a love that didn’t in any way mesh with our cramped apartment — for a dying medium and a changed family pastimes. I tried to imagine this moment and wondered if I had lived it before: rewinding and fast-forwarding the image of unboxing, re-boxing and putting the boxes back into the room, over and again. As I looked away from her toward the videos in my hands: Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, and MacGyver (“EP, ½ hour remaining”). I couldn’t tell if there was mold on the tapes or not. Maybe they were just very fine flecks of dust.

“Let’s just keep sorting,” I replied, my voice scratchy. “We don’t have to throw them all out today.”

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About The Author

Yuan-Ming Chiao

Yuan-Ming Chiao

Yuan-Ming Chiao was made in Taiwan, assembled in the U.S., refined in the U.K., rebooted in Taiwan and is now being road-tested in Germany. He is working on a doctorate in political science in Germany, but is also (slightly more) interested in sitting on southbound trains, reading maps incorrectly, and walking in the woods and getting lost (though not necessarily in that order).

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