“I thought you would be Chinese,” she said, as she pulled her motor scooter up to the station exit. My bus had just arrived, and I was standing on a small patch of pavement sandwiched between a public restroom and a food stall pushing dumplings and buns that looked as if they’d been sitting out in a steam cart since the morning rush. By then it was late afternoon and the sky was overcast but warm, the kind of sticky humid feeling I remembered from my first and only vacation with my mother to Florida when I was seven.
I was scanning the horizon for any trace of the woman I was supposed to meet. I had the distinct impression that she would look like me. As family, I had imagined a female version of myself, someone with the round face and high cheekbones of my sister, but older – she was married and had a four-year-old son – and more Chinese. I had never seen a picture of her, but I had been given a telephone number and a name: Sally Tam. That was the extent of my knowledge.
It should have come as little shock, however, that she was the first to find me. On the phone she had asked me what I was wearing and how she would be able to recognize me at the station. My own foreigner-syncopated Mandarin aside, I didn’t have the heart to tell her the obvious: there would be no other half-white people at the bus station in the town of Taicheng. She spotted me immediately.
Under her helmet, Sally had long black hair that framed a tawny hued face. She looked younger than I expected and less serious than her voice suggested on the phone. For a second, I let myself linger on the somewhat elaborate series of events that led me to this moment. There had been messages to family, plans made, tickets purchased. It was a meeting I had played out in my head countless times ever since I’d first come to China a half-decade ago. But the fact that it was actually happening was still hard to believe.
It is a strange feeling to suddenly meet a relative you’d not only never spoken to before, but also never knew existed. Judging from the bewildered expression on her face, I could tell she probably felt the same. We stood there watching each other and Sally looked me over, studying the peculiarities of my Western build – broad shoulders, sharp nose – before finally settling on my eyes, dark brown and almond, trying to tease out something of the familiar.
“Why don’t I take you to my office?” she said finally, as she motioned me onto the back of her motor scooter. “You must be starving."
It is said that when my grandfather left China in the late 1930s, on the heels of the Second Sino-Japanese War, it would have taken more than a week from Beijing to reach the coastal city of Taishan. At the time, there was no comprehensive rail system, and one of the only ways to make the trip would have been by sea, traversing China’s 1200-mile eastern seaboard before arriving at the port of Gongyi, north of Hong Kong, on the Tan River, and then going the rest of the way on foot.
Taishan, then as it is now, is located in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta. In many ways, it was this location that decided its destiny, as a city made famous by its chief export: people. It is estimated that up to the late-20th century, over 75% of all overseas Chinese in North America claimed origin in Taishan. It was the Taishanese who were instrumental in constructing the Transcontinental Railroad. The Taishanese would go on to become the first Asian American actors, pilots, and politicians. And it was the Taishanese, subjugated by xenophobic zeal, who were the chief victims of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only law to ever prevent a single ethnic group from immigrating to the United States.
My Chinese relatives, having never been to Beijing and not revisited their ancestral homeland in decades, had warned me unceasingly about the length of the journey, unaware that, thanks to the advent of modernization, the entire trip took less than seven hours. There was a three-hour flight to the provincial capital of Guangzhou, a bus to the city of Taishan, and, from there, an artery of highways and tributaries connecting cities to rural townships, all the way to the bus station in Taicheng.
Sally was her English name of course. Her real name was Qiuting, which translates roughly as “graceful autumn.” Her business card contained both, each on opposing sides, like one coping with conflicting identities. She handed me one when we reached her office, housed in an unassuming white tile building with the words “Zhongxin Business Service Co., Ltd” in both English and Chinese across the front. The business was hers, a tour agency that specialized in doing trips to the former Portugal-owned island of Macau, less than two hours away. As the only place with legalized gambling in addition to duty-free shopping in China, it was aimed predominantly at spendthrift mainlanders with disposable incomes.
Sally unlocked the door and I sat down on the small white couch facing her desk. She had one eye on her computer and the other on me, her hands folded in her lap.
“So,” she asked, as if I were applying for a job, “tell me about yourself.”
I started telling her about my childhood in New York, my family, the things I studied in school, how I spent two years living in a rural town in northern China before coming to Beijing. It wasn’t everything, but at least it was a start. Another thing my relatives warned was that even simple conversation would be a challenge, seeing as how we spoke in different dialects. But I was lucky that Sally had married a northerner, and so we adopted Mandarin as our lingua franca, a wooden raft floating in a wide gulf.
To even call Sally a relative was a bit of a stretch; technically speaking, we weren’t related by blood. Sally is my mother’s cousin’s sister-in-law’s niece. In other words, she married into the family. But her last name was still Tam, as she said was true of everyone in the village. And more than that, she was the only relative, distant or not, that I had left in China.
Sally had only ever seen her Aunt Xue (my mother’s cousin’s sister-in-law) on two occasions. The most recent was 18 years ago, when she came back to visit Taishan for the first time. The first was when she left for good in 1982, when Sally was only three years old, a time she barely remembers. Still, they have a good relationship and talk often on the phone, her aunt inquiring about Sally, her son, and her mom (Xue’s sister) who still lives at home with Sally.
“She’ll talk your ear off if you let her,” she said with a laugh of the woman whom, for the sake of expediency, I’d also called my aunt growing up. I wouldn’t know, I thought to myself. With her speaking only Taishanese and me English, we’d never successfully had a conversation.
As I was filling in the family tree in my head, I began to wonder: why did my Aunt Xue decide to move halfway around the world to America while her older sister stayed in Taishan? What was the catalyst for the move? What did her family think? Chinese are quick to lecture on the importance of family, of needing to hold your bloodline above nearly everything else. How then, in good faith, could Xue have left?
Sally, who had been nodding along dutifully to my story so far, suddenly cut me off. With a wave of the hand she asked me: “So why did you want to come here?” At first I wasn’t sure if she had meant China or Taishan specifically, but the answer to both was the same: my mom. My mom, who used to burn colored paper in a metal tin on our third-floor fire escape every Mid-Autumn Festival, but didn’t know why. My mom, who had to ask her cousins for the most auspicious time to pay respects to her parents at the Woodside Cemetery. My mom, who had been brought up in the states speaking the Taishanese dialect of her ancestors, but had never stepped foot in China. Yes, I would go for her, I thought, to understand something of her past that she never had the opportunity to see.
But still, even after I answered Sally, something didn’t feel quite right. I hesitated, vacillated back and forth. Was it because of my mother that I came to China? Or was it truly, deep down, for me?
We were sitting around the low coffee table, on the squat plastic stools each adorned with a different cartoon likeness that I came to immortalize as emblematic of my youth. I sat on them for all manner of activity – taking meals, watching TV, playing cards – from my childhood reticence all through my chubby adolescence. And even now, taking to them as an adult, I was never sure which potential shame was greater: that the chair might one day buckle under me, or that I wouldn’t know how to apologize for it when it did.
Gatherings like this happened three, maybe four times a year. Most often they were for a cousin or two’s birthdays, which were lumped together based on the month. But they were especially true of the holidays. We didn’t always make Christmas, but Chinese New Year was obligatory. It was the quintessential reunion of family – tuanyuan – that never ceased to draw relatives from out of state back to the three-story house in Brooklyn where three generations still lived under one roof.
On the ground floor was my Aunt Xue (technically my mother’s cousin’s sister-in-law) with her husband and adult daughter. On the second floor were Xue’s brother and sister-in-law, with two kids of their own. And on the top floor were their parents, both still active well into their 80s. Each floor had nearly the same layout of bedroom, living room, bathroom, and kitchen, and practically the same trimmings; it was as if the only change you had to make when you aged a generation was moving yourself up a story.
On TV was the Spring Festival Gala, a variety show of performances, commentary and well wishes for the New Year that was the Chinese equivalent of watching Dick Clark narrate the ball drop on December 31st. It was seemingly transmitted directly from China, in Taishanese, on one of a slew of ancillary cable channels that my relatives had no qualms paying extra for.
Already, the dishes were beginning to migrate to the communal table in the kitchen and the kids, urged on by the elders, were lining up to take their seats. Around the dinner table, each conversation began the same way: one aunt or another would ask a question and in return I flashed a look of half-confusion and half-panic, gesturing wildly for my mom to provide a translation.
It was the same at age six as it was at 21, and each time, the process perpetuated itself, as if the dozens of tries before had never happened and I had surely, as if simply by getting older, finally learned how to communicate. I thought of my Aunt Xue, with the horn-rimmed glasses from CVS, who could barely contain her excitement every time she saw me. Still, after a few failed exchanges, the progression was the same: disappointment spreading like a rash across her face, the familiar sag of the lips, air blown out between her cheeks. It was like she was a patient with amnesia, recalling anew each time the painful reality that I couldn’t speak a word to her in return.
My mom was the only one to marry outside of her race. This in itself would not have been much cause for alarm, but what was worse was that she had also divorced, and had never remarried. My mother was the youngest of her cousins, and was the only one to spend the majority of her formative years in the United States. As a result of this, and marrying a native English speaker, my sister and I grew up as the proverbial black sheep, the only ones in the extended family not to speak Chinese.
For years sitting in silence at the dinner table, suspended in a state of mute ignorance often reserved only for children, I knew then just as clearly as I did now: that there is something unsettling about not being able to speak your mother tongue, like spending your whole life being perceived one way and constantly underperforming those expectations. It leaves you with a nagging feeling, lying just below the skin, of always having something to prove.
The large flat screen TV stood out like an anomaly amidst the other belongings arranged in the living room. There was a wooden dresser stuffed with stationary and clothes, a plastic tub full of mismatched action figures and cars. On the far side of the room was a balcony with metal bars in place of windows, a light breeze streaming in from outside. And immediately, the whole experience was viscerally familiar: the cream-colored carpet, the pink plush sofa cushions, the stack of tiny plastic stools piled in the corner. It was as if my family in Brooklyn had packed up and meticulously recreated their entire Taishan existence, down to the finest detail, when they immigrated to America.
Sally’s mom was in the kitchen preparing dinner while the three of us watched cartoons. I kept stealing glances at Sally’s son, jealous somehow that he had mastered more Taishanese in four years than I had in twenty five. Sally was pulling double duty, hand-feeding her son bananas at the same time she was pushing apple wedges onto my plate. For dinner, Sally’s mom brought out honey-glazed pork, roasted goose, stir-fried cauliflower and bok choy, all served with a steaming pot of white rice.
“We bought the goose and pork,” Sally told me, “but the vegetables are all from the village.”
The dishes were even more familiar to me than the living room, and I savored the small comforts enjoyed only in the company of family. Over dinner, Sally asked me the questions I had come to expect from first-time Chinese acquaintances: was I used to Chinese food, could I use chopsticks, what I did in my spare time, did I have friends in China. I didn’t fault her too much for it. Even though I couldn’t understand my relatives at home, I long thought that they would probably ask me those same questions if they could.
After dinner, we took a walk around town. Walking after dinner was an essential part of the day, fulfilling the dual role of exercise and digestion. It was amazing how polarized Taishan was. There were parts that looked poorer than I expected, gray brick buildings specked with black mold, glass windows that looked like fallow versions of European cathedrals, aging vestiges of pre-Communist insignia. In Beijing every building looked as if it had been built within the last ten years; here, there were places that hadn’t changed in half a century.
People were still out with tiny single-burner stoves, laundry hanging from bamboo clotheslines, whole houses with living rooms exposed to the elements. There was an open-air vegetable market with chickens and cats alike in wiry cages, a windowless room buzzing with the sounds of sewing machines, and an old temple that had been converted into a storefront for hawking batteries and wallets.
Pretty soon, we had migrated to the nicer part of town, the developed area around a six-story mall complex. I tried to imagine my grandparents there, at a time before cobblestone streets and neon signs and Starbucks lattes. We passed by a shoe store that was the American equivalent of Payless – cheap likely fake footwear, shrouded in the intoxicating smell of leather.
“I’m just going to stop in and say hi,” Sally said. Some of the employees there were old friends, she said, from when her younger cousin Fendy used to work there before immigrating to the states. Sally used to drop by on the walking route after dinner and spend a few minutes with them gossiping and catching up, while her son rooted around the aisles, playing hide and seek with some of the other neighborhood kids.
Fendy left for America a few months ago, at the age of 18, giving up her life in Taishan for a part-time job at Burger King and night classes at LaGuardia Community College. She didn’t study English growing up, and unlike many of my other cousins, didn’t enroll in school at a young enough age that she could realistically pick it up fluently. Life wasn’t easy, but she lived with my Aunt Xue, and had the support of family. I thought about had it been me, uprooted as a teenager, leaving my friends and everything I knew behind, and needing to believe, in the end, that it would all be worth the tradeoff.
“Is this a temporary trip?” I asked naively, imaging Fendy back at Shoe King after getting her American degree.
“No, she’s migrated,” Sally said, “green card and everything.” With family members constantly leaving, I asked whether it was hard for her.
“Mostly, I’m used to it by now,” Sally said, as she wagged a jelly sandal in her hand. Sally said that there was scarcely anyone living in Taishan that didn’t have at least one direct relative living abroad.
I wondered then if perhaps I had been asking the wrong question all along. My grandfather emigrated from China to escape persecution; Fendy left to find a better life. And through it all, family, in spite of the grief, tacitly gave their support. The real question, then, was not why each of them had left China for America, but why, remarkably, Sally and her mother stayed.
“I tried sending you a message, but you didn’t answer,” she said, in a voice expressing simultaneous excitement and chagrin. It was still dark out and I was already disoriented from finding myself in a hotel room and a bed that I didn’t immediately recognize. But most perplexing of all was hearing my mom’s voice at the other end of the phone.
I had spoken to my mother perhaps once in the six months that I was living in Beijing. It wasn’t for lack of wanting to keep in touch, but text messages were technologically challenging enough, to say nothing of the time difference. So I could only imagine that she had acquired some help in order to pull off the former, even if she still caught me in the middle of the night.
“I’m at my cousin’s house now,” she said, over the audible din of kitchen shuffling in the background. “They gave me a number I could use to call.” On the other line was a string of words I didn’t understand and then my name. “They were asking about you,” my mom said, speaking more directly into the phone. “They wanted to make sure you got there alright.”
As the situation became more evident to me, I suddenly found myself full of questions. It was rare that I got the chance to communicate with my older Chinese relatives in ways more meaningful than with smiles and vigorous nods of the head, so I seized the opportunity immediately.
“Everything’s fine,” I said, trying to sound awake. I cleared my throat and sat upright on the narrow cot. “I was just wondering, do you know when your parents left Taishan?”
“It’s hard to say,” my mom said after a short delay. “When my mom married my dad, he left within the year to go to Cuba. He left my mom in Taishan to take care of his parents for about ten years. Then she went to Cuba after that.”
She said it as matter-of-factly as a newscaster announcing a box score. I couldn’t imagine how difficult that must have been, newlyweds marooned on opposite sides of the world for nearly a decade. I thought about my Aunt Xue. Perhaps her reasons for emigrating were the same as my grandmother’s. Historically, husbands often migrated first and only after saving enough money could send for their wives to join them. Maybe Aunt Xue didn’t have a choice about leaving – maybe her new home was already decided for her.
“Do you know how long your parents had been in Cuba before you were born?” Again, my mother’s memory was vague.
“Not really. I’m guessing a few years maybe. They were helping out at my uncle’s store.”
There wasn’t a lot of new information to be gleaned. I already knew the basics of the story over years of discussions with my mom as I’d repeatedly tried to make sense of my past. In every such conversation, my mom always expressed the same lament: that she wished she’d had the chance to ask her parents more questions before they died.
“OK,” I told her, “I’ll see what else I can dig up.”
“Don’t sweat it,” she said, “you just being there is enough.” There was a pause and then she added: “You know, no one else is doing what you’re doing.” The realization suddenly caught me off guard. Of all my cousins with more recent, two-parent roots in China, I was the only one who had spent most of his adult life trying to engage with it in any direct way.
“I’m going to your parent’s village tomorrow,” I told her, trying to stay on task. “It would be great if I could have your parent’s names in Chinese so I can show them to the people there.” I knew that my grandfather had left the village more than 60 years ago, so it would be something of a miracle to think I could actually find anyone who still remembered him, but it didn’t hurt to try.
I myself knew almost nothing about them. By the time she was twenty, my mother had lost both of her parents. They had never seen her graduate from college, get married, or ever meet her children. I realized that aside from seeing my grandparents’ names printed on their headstones in Queens, I had never seen or spoken them before.
My mother, who could speak Taishanese but could not read or write Chinese characters, got my Aunt Xue’s help to transcribe the names on a sheet of paper, and in another move of technical mastery, take a picture of them and send them to me as a message. Though Taishanese and Mandarin are considered dialects in Chinese, they are as mutually unintelligible as separate languages, much closer to the difference between Spanish and French as they are between British and American English. Still, one of the more remarkable features of Chinese is its unified writing system, so that no matter which dialect you speak, the characters carry exactly the same meaning.
“Huagun,” I said, speaking my grandfather’s name out loud, like blowing the dust off a book jacket. It translated roughly as “magnificent trundle,” which I think left a little to the imagination to unravel. My grandmother’s name, on the other hand, was evocative in both languages: Meiying, “beautiful warbler.” Just then, another thought came to me, though I was almost too embarrassed to ask.
“You know, Mom, I don’t actually know your Chinese name.” My mother went by her Spanish name Mirta, which her parents gave her when she was born in Havana in 1955. More words were exchanged in Taishanese, and after a minute, another image arrived on my phone. I still may not have been able to speak with my relatives at home, but I could communicate in the characters we both shared, and maybe that was enough.
“Pearl,” I said, after a moment. “So your Chinese name is Pearl?” There was a pause at the other end.
“Funny,” she said, “I always thought it was Jewel.”
“It looks a lot like Jewel,” I said, tracing the strokes in the air with my finger. “The characters are very similar."
In the storehouse front, spanning the length of a window, was an advertisement touting the health benefits of Taishan green tea. If it was to be believed, Taishan green tea was capable of purifying the stomach, sharpening eyesight, easing morning sickness, soothing colds, stopping coughs, cleansing the oral cavity, clearing lungs, and reducing internal heat. There were small shops just like it all up and down the narrow country roads that we rode passed – Sally in front, and me behind – on her gray motor scooter.
The village was a twenty-minute drive from Sally’s office. We passed other things on the way too, verdant green fields teeming not only with the bok choy and cauliflower from dinner, but dense, sprawling rice paddies, enmeshed in the deluge of planting. Familial plots were clumped together along one side of the road, separate from where people lived. Sally’s village was about five minutes from mine, and her mom still spent the majority of the day working in the field, picking beansprouts and turning the soil, as, I was told, my grandparents had before her.
On the way, Sally suggested I pick up a package of red candies, treats for the kids and retired folks who lived there, in exchange for engaging me in an impromptu ethnography. It was convenient, then, that those were the only people I would happen to find.
The story of my family’s ancestral village in Taishan is a lot like the stories of villages all over China. From housing hundreds of people through the greater part of the 1900s, Eternal Joy village was being rapidly depopulated to the point where at present there were probably less than two dozen people left. The problem was that no one wanted to live there anymore. The village was poor and there wasn’t much to do but till the land. The paved road from Taicheng and a new chemical plant were, according to those who lived there, the only things that had been modernized in the village since the reform and opening up period in the 1980s. People were getting old and dying and all the young people were moving to the cities to find jobs and get married. No one was buying the houses, which lay fallow, and were eventually condemned and boarded up.
Such was the story of my grandfather’s former residence. Though I never did meet someone who knew him, I was introduced to the proprietors of the remaining vestiges of his past property. Meifang Tam and her husband were in their 50s, the youngest couple I met in the village, with a young grandson under their care. They led me to the site of a derelict barn, with a padlock on the door and a pile of trash stacked in front, virtually uninhabitable.
The story goes that when my grandfather left the village, he sold his house and the rights to his land to Meifang Tam’s parents for a cheap price, mostly in exchange for ensuring its protection and maintenance for the time that he was gone. He didn’t see his leaving as permanent then, mostly just as a means to ride out the war and help his brother. It was only later that he would invite my grandmother – his wife – to come live with him in Cuba, and then a decade later, during the tumultuous years of the Cuban Revolution, that they – my mother included now – would migrate again, first to Miami and then up the coast to New York, where they lived until their death.
Cuba had been a primary destination for Chinese migrants dating back to the 1850s, long before my grandparents decided to move there, in occupations ranging from plantation farmers to laundry and bodega owners to merchants. Havana, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, had a thriving Chinese community, replete with labor unions, Chinese-language periodicals, cultural associations, and a bustling Chinatown. Flocks of Chinese arrived, as my grandfather did, solely on the basis of word-of-mouth – the promise of opportunity, jobs, and the means to a better life.
When it was clear, however, that my grandfather wasn’t coming back, Meifang’s parents lived in the house, and after they died, it was converted into a place for storing rice, lay chickens, and dogs. Meifang still lived nearby, in a house two doors down. She says that when she gets older, she might have the old place renovated and go live there with her husband, so that her son can have her current house if he decides to come back. In spite of its decrepit appearance – the old building materials and furniture strewn haphazardly outside – above the door in meter-high script was the character fu, meaning lucky or auspicious, like a perpetual blessing on the house.
I couldn’t help wondering how I fit in to this narrative. I wanted to put myself in the shoes of my grandfather – studying at the former one-room schoolhouse, scrimping to sell rice at the market, obtaining fake immigration papers that probably cost him everything he had. Here I was in a village where everyone shared my name, and yet no matter what degree of imagination I could summon, I knew it was, at its core, an experience I would never truly understand.
There were few words for the gratitude I felt, of getting to experience history with my own eyes. But the reality was just that: it was only a matter of time before it would be entirely history, the unwritten swan song of my long-deceased grandparents quietly retreating from even the humblest of history books. It was pretty extraordinary that it had survived fifty years since my grandparents left, but as I pulled back onto the motor scooter to drive away, I wasn’t sure how many more years it had left.
I finally asked her on my last day in Taishan. It was tepid out, with a wisp of chill in the air that sailed over my light jacket. We were walking again after dinner, this time doing a wide loop from the west side of the river down to a small park and back up the east side. The park was segmented into small groups: middle-aged women doing synchronized dances, old men crooning karaoke with an old speaker box, students playing basketball by streetlight.
“When so much of your family left," I asked, "why did you decide to stay?” Sally looked around, seemingly put off by my question.
“I didn’t want to leave,” she said, with a flip of her long hair. “I’m happy here, this is my home.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw a couple of old men fixing bicycles, a pile of mahjong tiles scattered across a table, persimmons for sale at a street side vendor. I don’t know why I hadn’t considered personal choice before as a legitimate motive. Whatever the justification, aren’t all our reasons for moving, in the end, essentially our own?
We passed by my hotel on the way back north and I got ready to say goodbye to her at the bridge. The bridge that spanned the river was adorned with bright garlands that hung along either side. At night, the lights lit up, reflecting rainbow-colored jets that seemed to burst under the surface of the water. There were men in wide brim hats and wooden stools spaced intermittently around the edge, with wire fishing lines and buckets of fish at their feet.
Just then, Sally waved me back. “Pack your things,” she said, “you can stay with us tonight and I’ll take you to the bus station tomorrow morning.” There was a spare bedroom in the house, for when her son eventually got too big to share a room, and I was grateful that she took me in, like long-lost family returning home.
“These last few days remind me a lot of my old life,” she said, as we headed back to her apartment. “Going to the village, dancing in the park…” There was a nostalgic lilt to her voice. “I used to go out more,” she cooed. “Now every day is the same: kindergarten, work, dinner, walk, shower, sleep.” I nodded my head, aware that my routine, though different, was still very much a routine.
“Do you think you could ever get used to it?” she asked. I thought about it for a moment: helping out at Sally’s store, the walks after dinner, exercise in the park. There was a pleasant regularity to it. Besides, had history been written only slightly differently, this very well could have been my life – growing up in the village, finding work in Taishan, settling down to have a family. My grandparents had had to endure far worse, on not one but two separate exoduses, all in places that they had nary seen a photo of before arriving.
Just then I thought of my relatives in the states. Most had spent more time in New York than they had in Taishan, and yet, the customs they observed, the food they ate, the language they still spoke, were all quintessentially of another place. But, at the same time, that other place was no longer theirs, a land they long left behind. How strange it would be, I thought, if they were ever to move back; how all these years later, they would be returning as strangers to a home that, in some ways, they never truly left.
Maybe I could get used to it, I thought, of this home that wasn’t. I had, after all, if only for the time being.
Originally published in Lost Magazine.