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Tending my Internet archive.

J. M. W. Turner, Sunrise with Sea Monsters, 1844, oil on canvas.

J. M. W. Turner, Sunrise with Sea Monsters, 1844, oil on canvas.

This summer we’re introducing a series of new columnists. Today, meet Wei Tchou. 

My parents visited me a few weeks ago, when I was feeling blue for the normal New York reasons: another breakup, a looming eviction, the smell of dead rats wafting up from the basement of my building. (The exterminator hadn’t been by in a while.) My father brought along a few things to cheer me up. The two-and-a-half pound tin of “European Formula” Ovaltine turned out to be something of a ruse; he’s diabetic, so my mother doesn’t normally allow him that sort of indulgence. But he also brought three beautiful, hard-to-find bottles of baijiu, a high-proof Chinese liquor, along with a memory.

“I was reading through my date book from this time in 1983,” he told me. “Thirty-three years ago, I was receiving a notice every week to arrive in Philadelphia to be deported.” 

Dad said that by that time he’d been living in the United States as an undocumented Chinese immigrant for four years; he’d recently passed the entrance exam to attend a medical residency despite his shaky English. During that year of weekly deportation notices, he applied to around a hundred schools and was rejected by all of them.

“But this week in 1983, I received my last and only letter, accepting me to Emory. They ask for your citizenship status on the form,” he said. Lost for an answer, he wrote down the code that had appeared on his deportation notices, which identified him as an illegal alien. “It wasn’t until I’d matriculated and been offered an assistant professorship that anyone knew I hadn’t been a naturalized American citizen.”

It’s difficult to complain about, well, anything when your parents are immigrants who lived through the Cultural Revolution—of course nothing in my life will likely ever be as traumatic or as heartbreaking as my parents’ pre-American history. But they didn’t bring up the trials of their past to be emotionally daunting. Instead, they wanted to help me rearrange my perspective, as though to say that everything, no matter how terrible, will one day become just a memory.

Dad has kept a date book diligently for most of his life, and it’s become a shared family responsibility to find him a new one each Christmas. Brooks Brothers used to issue a beautiful and small leather edition, but after they discontinued the product a few years ago, the rest of us have competed to find a book that he’ll deem worthy. I inherited his graphomanic impulse—accumulation of any kind comforts me—but not his affection for pen and paper. (I’m only really diligent about keeping journals in the turbulent months after a breakup.) Instead, I’ve scattered the written coordinates of my life to disparate pockets of the Internet.


My father’s date book came to mind recently when I learned that many of my friends were erasing their old tweets and using services like tumblrpurge, Instant Cleaner, and DLLTR to regularly delete their personal Internet archives. A Fusion article from last year found that neither fear nor shame was driving Twitter users to look to these services, which often leave only posts from the most recent three or six months. The motivation, rather, was a desire “to reflect their present states of mind and interests.” A past version of myself might have very much preferred this digital short-term memory loss to the impulsive deletion of an entire LiveJournal, two WordPress blogs, a few Tumblrs, and who knows how many Instagram photos. (Deleting, for me, isn’t only an electronic endeavor: In a breakup journal from 2006, I used Post-It notes and packaging tape to cover five pages I wrote about cheating on my high-school boyfriend. On top of that, I’d scribbled the words “it doesn’t matter.”)

I’ve never been tempted, however, to prune my Twitter account, which I started in 2009, my senior year of college. Reading through the early years of my account, I see that at first my feed was somewhat lopsided, alternating between the coolly sullen and the peppily earnest.

Here I am soliciting advice on buying a DSLR camera, because I was artsy but also practical.

Here’s me going “veg” and discovering that I like to eat beets.

Here I am feigning political relevance…

…and cultural relevance, too:

I know that none of these are particularly embarrassing or interesting. At most, they sound like exactly what I was, a teenager. But looking back on those tweets, I can remember exactly the feeling of that year: the urgency to appear as DGAF as possible, an inability to suppress my dorky earnestness, the all-encompassing insecurity of transitioning from one stage of life to another.

For a few years after 2009, most of my tweets were just links out to a Tumblr that I kept until I became embarrassed by it. I deleted the blog in its entirety a few days before I moved to New York, fretful that my future city friends might find it provincial in a way I felt too unsophisticated to forecast. (tbh it wasn’t cool or pretty enough.)

But now, as I skim through the dead Tumblr links still live on my Twitter archive, I’m disappointed that I can’t read what was certainly a careening, joyful post about landing my dream internship after college:

Or what seem like my first stabs at reviewing. What movie had I gone to see?

And what stupid hipster joke was I trying to make here?

The Internet makes it astonishingly easy, at least superficially, to erase any trace of yourself with the click of a button. But perhaps we should be more generous than to dismiss those archives so readily. I don’t really care about posterity, but reading those past Tumblr posts may have revealed something otherwise invisible to me at the time. At the very least it might have served to reassure me, in the way my early Twitter feed does, that, fundamentally, some parts of me remain the same. We’re blessed with faulty memory so we can continue forging ahead as fearlessly as possible, but the disadvantage is that it can be hard to consult our old selves when things get tough in the present. Like my father, I feel better knowing that I can return to a previous self, or at least read about her. The present may or may not be quantifiably easier or better than the past, but it is reassuring to be reminded that life, at every point, has seemed vast and complicated.

Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and a regular columnist for the Daily.