Last month, I accompanied my father on a visit to his home village. In China, one would call the hometown on the paternal side of be one’s own. However, in my thirty-(big) plus years of existence, I had never before been to “my” home village.
My father had not been back for 29 years either, due to various unfortunate reasons. We had to stop several times on the country road to ask for directions. One of the old ladies – their backs bent under the bamboo baskets they were carrying – who stopped to answer turned out to be a distant cousin of his. Half of the village shared our family name, my father had told me several times before.
Finally we reached the family compound, a cluster of brick houses expanding away from the dilapidated center courtyard. Relatives did not exclaim in joy or surprise; they just sauntered over, from their own houses or the field, handing out cigarettes with big smiles.
“You are back,” they would say to my father. “You are getting old,” with a chuckle they would add.
Our clan, directed by the widowed matriarch, originally moved from Hubei to Sichuan in the early 18th century. The seven sons (if I understood the family genealogy correctly) settled in the farming-friendly region of rivers, flat plains and rolling hills. Over the next three hundred years, the clan multiplied and the family spread farther and farther away. My father had enjoyed telling me and my sister such stories back “home,” but I was not sure if we had been engaged listeners.
After dropping off our bags, father took me visiting the families of the direct line from my grandfather. My grandfather had three daughters and three sons, each of whom had between three to five children who grew up and moved to urban areas for migrant jobs. They sent money to build brick houses that stood empty, waiting for their eventual return.
It was strange to see the family compound peopled by only the old and the very young. But at least the smaller number helped me telling them apart. Other than the uncle we were staying with, I knew none of my relatives’ names or their relation to me. They, on the other hand, sounded as if knowing me from way back. “You are back too,” they would say. And they would ask, almost apologetically, “can you city folks get used to our shabby dirty places?”
No no no, I would quickly reply, I like my “home village.” The field is green, the air is clean, and the food is healthy. If only they had wifi and coffee machines, I could imagine myself living here for a long period of time.
The home village looked much better than I had imagined. My had told me of the family suffering from the famine brought by the Great Leap Forward, of everyone working back-breakingly hard, etc. etc. But the village I saw was peaceful, the houses clean (relatively) and the old people leisurely. The government’s policy had done them good, my relatives told me, despite the corruptions and stupid projects that often ended up nowhere. The sons and the daughters working in the cities sent back money too. Two families’ adult children had migrated en mass to Aksu, an industrial city in Xinjiang.
They had settled down there, raising kids and moving into the new apartments they had bought.
It was an emotional trip for my father. He visited the graves of my grandparents – neither of whom I had ever met – burned paper money, lit firecrackers and silently cried as the noise and the smoke fanned upwards to the grey sky. Back at the old family courtyard where all the families used to share residence, he pointed out the different quarters that relatives close to him used to live. The main rooms where grandparents had lived had crumbled to empty shafts and mud patches hanging off the shafts. Nobody had bothered with the upkeep.
“In ten years, these room will run into the ground,” my dad commented with an awkward smile. The crumbling of the places storing his childhood memories must have been weighing on him.
Standing there with him, I was not so sure of how I felt. I was fulfilling my filial pious duty by taking my father home. I was intrigued by the country way of life which I had only read about, once romanticized about, and later abandoned the romanticizing of in pursuit of high-techy urban way of life. Nothing around me tugged inside of me to make me feel…attached.
Yet everyone came up to me and told me that was my home. You should come back for Chinese New Year from now on, they said, since now you know your way home. Standing in front of dingy Buddhist temple of the village, I found most of the names on the donor’s list shared my last name, many even with my generation middle name. This place seemed determined to prove its connection to me.
The next day a lunch banquet was held in honor of my uncle’s 75th birthday. All relatives from my grandfather’s line came, except for one family who had long quarrel with my uncle. Three cousins of my generation also came, having taken the long train ride home from Aksu to attend their dying father. Everyone asked if I, coming from the sophisticated city, could tolerate their country home-style cooking.
I said hell yeah. The food tasted much more…authentic. Perhaps it was the strong baiju talking.
After the banquet, relatives played mah-jong. My father sat outside and talked to relatives. He asked about everyone. Many had died. Most of the living had various health problems. Father shed tears again hearing about the deaths of those he was close to. I sat next to him looking at the yard where two new-born puppies fighting behind their mother for a chance to feed.
“We are simple hardworking people,” father whispered to me. “Your uncle was also very bright in school, but he stayed home to support the family so I could go on to college. Your aunt and her husband supported me in a big way too, but I didn’t even have the chance to say good-bye to her.”
My mind drifted to the thought of my possibly passing by my blood relatives – God knows how many of them after 300 years of multiplication – in the streets of Chengdu, Beijing or Urumqi, and not knowing us being related. I might consider them just part of the story of urban migration or Han taking over Uighur jobs that one reads so much in the media, and forget that when examined closely, we shared certain subtle facial features dictated by heredity.
What hath fate wrought? I wondered.
At the request of father, my baiju-elated birthday uncle brought out the family genealogy record. Contrary to my expectation of a long scholarly scroll of beautiful calligraphy, it consisted of six simple pages of literary Chinese phrases copied down with a ball pen. The Wu clan, it says, descended from Taibo, the founding king of the Wu Kingdom at the end of the Shang Dynasty (around 1000 B.C.). As the old people worked through the writing, struggling with incomprehensible phrases, they highlighted certain individuals who made into the government bureaucracy and brought glory to the clan.
On the last page, almost at the end of the record, I found my name. Did I bring glory to the clan?
“Are you going to bring home a wife next year and starting to add the names of your children here?” My uncle asked, his smiling eyes receding into two straight slits.
Oh that. If it were only that simple…
“I’ll make you a copy,” he pointed at the genealogy record. “It’s time you start your own.”
On my way back to the airport, I hired the van owned by a distant relative. Around 30 years old and one of the few adult males still around, he taught at the village middle school and drove the van for additional income.
According to the genealogy, he should call me great uncle.
On the long drive to the airport, he asked why I still have no kids. I said – huh… You city folks are very sophisticated, he said, with all of your options. Here if people don’t get married by mid-twenties, neighbors would find you strange. Living together before marriage was still a taboo, although on TV I saw people can easily do that in the big cities, he said.
“I would like to have as many kids as possible,” he added, even though he clearly can’t have a second, working for a school and all.
“So when I go, I won’t have just one kid sending me off.”
For a moment, the straight-forwardness of that logic floored me. It was spring and the land we sped pass was lush green. For a moment, I found the burden of tradition endearing, for it is simple and easy to follow. As someone who had lived in so many cities that the idea of home grew increasingly elusive, it was nice to know that in a particular place on this planet one would be welcomed by strangers simply because someone way past decided to keep a genealogy record of every descendent.
And for a moment, I was bewitched by the idea of starting my own genealogy tree, sometime in the future when I actually settle. Perhaps the best way to honor my heritage is not to send money home to the relatives I know little of, but to, after the examples of my ancestors, go off into the unknown world, work hard and start my own line of procreation, so someone in the future would look at a piece of paper and notice my name.
I must really be getting old, in a really Chinese way to boot.