Sunday, May 23, 2010

My Home Village

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.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Speaking of integrity

A good friend of mine, who's a high-level executive at a local Internet company, had an emergency toothache. His assistant arranged an emergency operation for him at one of the best dental hospitals in Beijing, via her father's old friend who knows one of the dental experts there.

They did not have to make any appointment and just walked into the office. The old friend of the assistant's father stuffed several hundred RMB bills into the hand of the dental expert. The expert grabbed a scalpel and immediately operated on my friend.

My friend wanted to pay his assistant back for the... guan xi... money after the operation. The assistant was incensed,

"No worries about that. He's an old friend of my father's and is of the highest integrity. He'd be incensed if we pay him back."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Acceptable Stereotype

The later years of my stay in the US, I was an indoctrinated listener of National Public Radio. Every liberal intellectual type seemed to have the local NPR station preset on their radios, so I followed suit.

But lately, every time I visited the US, NPR increasingly annoyed me. China is becoming an ever popular topic, and every other day, some China expert would be talking about what this “China” is, or what those “Chinese” are. It always shocks me that the commentators could so comfortably and so confidently lecture on China on radio after just a few years living in Beijing or Shanghai. So I gradually weaned myself off NPR.

Yet there is just so much dance music one can listen to on commercial radio while driving on the expansive American highway system. A few days ago I found myself searching for local public radio station again in my rented car in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, I heard a long interview of a Chinese American writer who had lived in Beijing and in Dharamsala for many years and had just published a book on a topic related to China and Tibet.

The writer bantered jokes and anecdotes with the interviewer on radio. Because I am ethnically Chinese, she said, I can speak candidly about the Chinese. Chinese are “rude,” “cynical,” and “jaded.” It’s an “autocratic” state over there, and people can be thrown in jail at whim. Oh yes, she brushed with jail intimately once. She was riding a bike in the street and police stopped her and wanted to arrest her. She said she could get by with her Chinese but couldn’t understand what her arrester-wanna-be was yelling about – it made a big scene and crowd formed around them. She might have been biking in the wrong direction on a one-way street.

Tibetans on the other hand, she described enthusiastically, are warm, kind and welcoming – the antithesis of the Chinese.

The interview annoyed me as much as when I read the first couple of chapters of a Chinese best-seller written by Chinese who had never lived overseas and criticizing American culture based on Hollywood films. Not that “Chinese” are not “rude,” “cynical” or “jaded,” but the Chinese American writer’s intellectual sloppiness in making those sweeping generalization made me head spin – how many Chinese in China did she intimately know with her barely-getting-by Chinese? Beijing alone has 17 million people and it is very easy to spot rude behavior committed by a few in jammed buses and shopping malls; but then to call 1.3 billion Chinese rude? Cynicism and jadedness may mark the majority of older generations, but the young I know are much less affected. Her almost arrest incident was also likely just a cheng guan, traffic guard hired by the municipal government and not the official police, stopping her on a one-way street and wanting to fine her for going the wrong direction.

There seems to exist a persistent stereotype about China and the Chinese that strangely finds comfortable acceptance in mainstream American media in today’s otherwise politically correct world. Liberals and conservatives alike enjoy seeing things black and white – good vs evil, China vs Tibet, China vs the free world… China is materialistic, totalitarian and repressed, while Tibet is all peace loving Shangri-la (watch my friend Jocelyn’s video on a Tibetan woman’s struggle between tradition and modernity, a more complex picture of “Shangri-la”). Sometimes it is the language issue – how many expats living in Beijing, Shanghai and Tibet can truly converse with either local Chinese or Tibetans and understand the intimate details of their lives? Other times old stereotype may be too convenient for us to abandon, for realities are sometimes too complex to summarize.

Sidney Rittenberg, an American who had suffered much along with the birth of communist China, including two solitary imprisonments totaling 16 years, recently came back to China for a visit. At one of his speeches in Beijing, he spoke about what he likes and dislikes about China, the challenges China faces and his confidence that China will ride through these challenges.

Do we all have to experience jail term to learn to discard old stereotypes and see the whole picture?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Search of Chinese-Chinese

One day last week I went to a private clinic in Beijing. As usual the clinic was quiet and only a few clients—half of them foreign expats—sat around waiting. A tall Scandinavian-looking guy came and sat in the couch next to me. We stroke up a conversation about the newspaper story I was reading. Then he asked,

“Are you Chinese Chinese?”

Reflexively I explained that I had lived and worked in the US for many years. The Scandinavian guy then nodded, seemingly satisfied. “You don’t look very Chinese to me,” he said.

It was not the first time that I was asked that question, which made me wonder – what makes me looking not very Chinese Chinese? Surely there are other Chinese who gel their hair, wear Zara and work out in the gym.

My Chinese staff at work said it is not my appearance, but some je-ne-sais-quoi “-ness” that gives me away. I laugh and speak my mind at will at work. I tell them not to call me “boss” but address me by my first name. In return, they make fun of my poor memory of Chinese idioms. And every so often, they would patiently counsel me the “right” way to do business in China.

Then what is this “Chinese Chinese”-ness that I am so obviously poor at grasping?

The question did not used to bug me. In fact, it fanned my ego that my high-school friends called me “half-American,” for raising my hands and asking questions in class, for directing plays and organizing dance parties, and for not shying away from any opportunity to be different. I used to be flattered by other Americans’ questions if I had grown up in the US, back in the days when I desired very much to be something other than the stale, conservative and order-following Chinese stereotype in my mind.

Then after spending 12 years in the US, I knew I would never be a full-blown American. So I moved back, partly to understand whether there is such a thing as Chinese Chinese?

The longer I have lived in Beijing, however, the less certain I am of what a true Chinese Chinese would be. For every (3?) money-chasing Chinese, I could find a Chinese content with his routine life. For every (5?) Chinese who give up their dreams for desk jobs, I could find an entrepreneur risking it all to strike it rich. And for every (10?) Chinese who go ga-ga over Gucci and Prada, I could find a young kid dead serious about art or environment causes.

Of course, statistically, most Han Chinese in prosperous regions of China are very focused on making their lives better off, their kids better educated, and their families and friends proud of their achievements. But any statistical definition of the “Chinese Chinese”-ness sounds a bit too vulgar. Isn’t there any big word(s) that could be claimed shared by all true Chinese, like Confucianism, materialism, individualism, conformism, or entrepreneurialism?

I remembered my trip along the ancient Silk Road, from Xi’an to Kashgar, a few years ago. I saw the ruins of Tang Dynasty grandeur and Han Dynasty border expansion. I met many ethnicities of languages and customs different from us Han. I found, at the many Buddhist grottoes along the Silk Road, how Buddhism had migrated to and been modified by China. I remember realizing then that what we considered to be “Chineseness” now must have been different from that in Tang Dynasty, in Han Dynasty, and in the tribal periods of our legendary forefathers.

So any romantic concept of deep-rooted “Chinese Chinese”-ness appears to be a myth – we as a people now are very different from those living in the 1960s, the Republic era, the end of Qing Dynasty, or any period prior. Of course there exists a continuation from generation to generation, but this continuation itself has always been changing, via interaction with the outside, fighting among the internal factions and competition of different schools of thoughts for domination.

Or so I hope – that the true “Chinese Chinese”-ness is our ability to absorb, to learn and to grow, which would make me feel more “Chinese Chinese” despite what others might say.