Thursday, April 11

Ancestral Homeland

I am drinking cold TsingTao from a can, eating the crumbly almond cookies (think pecan sandies, but with almonds and even sandier) that are, according to the bucket-shaped red tin they came in, a local specialty.  I bought the cookies at the convenience store just next to our hotel, where I was also able to buy a razor, shaving cream, two notebooks, a roll of toffees, more TsingTao, some Coke Zero, and a soft-ball-sized roll of the red plastic ribbon used to tie stuff in China (where we have that hairy brown twine, they have this ribbon, giving even packets of printer paper a festive air).

These needs have all come up (and been satisfied on our doorstep) in the three days we’ve been in Zhongshan, one of the 100 or so cities in China with a population over a million that you’ve never heard of.  Zhongshan is in the south of the country, in the Pearl River delta, with Macau just to the south and Honking just to the east.  It is, as the local official who ate lunch with us today (roast chicken with the head on, roast squab, sweet buns, sautéed greens, steamed fish with ginger and scallions) told me, famous for the export of  Chinese people.  “There is nowhere you can see the sun where there are not Zhongshan people,” he told us, which of course got my arguing hackles up (outer space? Antarctica? Wyoming?) but I got his point.  He also said that 80% of Hawaii’s overseas Chinese are originally from Zhongshan. 

So, from his vantage point, the fact that the Chang/Leung/Choy family, whose common primogenitor was born in Zhongshan, is here seeking their roots may be typical to the point of cliché.  To me, though, the record-keeping on both sides that makes this quest possible is staggering.  On the American side, the temptation to let the past—which, sketchy as the details are, we know produced a strong desire to emigrate and a woman with mutilated feet (the girls’ great-great grandmother)—die must have been strong.  Since the families’ ancestors arrived in Hawaii, the distractions—two world wars, motion pictures, Facebook—have abounded.  It doesn’t make the history any easier that there are only a hundred or so common surnames in Chinese (one way to say “everyman” or “a regular Joe” translates as “the old 100 names,”) or that the same name’s spelling outside China varies wildly (the single character denoted by “Leung” above has also been spelled Liang, Luong, Yang, Nio, Niu, and Neo when converted into systems using the Roman alphabet). 

Yet MTH’s father and his cousin have not only kept the family tree their parents provided them, they’ve converted it into PDF’s, had it translated, and, in the cousin’s case, traveled the world in search of relatives (a quest hampered by the fact that the clan assimilates quickly, so that by the time he made it to Peru, for instance, he and his relatives had no common language with which to comment on their common characteristics).

On the Chinese side, of course, since the C/L/C ancestors left, there’s been a couple of revolutions in addition to the world wars; then the mass murder that was the Great Leap Forward (the people ordered to neglect their fields and instead build backyard smelters in which to melt their own woks serving as a nightmare illustration of the quibble I have with the Chinese idea that success is possible through hard work alone); then the Cultural Revolution, with its insistence on destruction of the Four Olds (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas) making it a federal offense to do anything so bourgeois as care who your grandfather was, and encouraging the public burning of the family and village records that were, until then, religiously tended.  And now, of course, the distraction is the cut-throat, every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog capitalism that China is still, with tragi-comic results (on our street it’s not uncommon to see a woman navigating her pink Porsche—dashboard loaded with pink teddy bears—past a guy in earth-colored fatigues grimly pedaling the bicycle cart he piles with cardboard to recycle for a living), attempting to disguise as communism. 

And yet still, at village after village that we visited, each one arrived at after a drive long enough to require some advanced-level kid-entertainment techniques (thus the red ribbon, for cat’s cradle lessons, although it eventually had to be confiscated as the boredom quotient increased, and with it, the chance of self-garroting), we were met first with the non-committal stare that I’ve come to realize represents intense curiosity here, then by a policeman or low-level official, then an elder or higher-level official.  And then, after initial wariness and  confusion, eventually we would be led to a sort of community hall, and “the books” would be laid out before us.  In one case they were bound in brown paper, in another red, with characters inked in black on them.  In one case we were never allowed to see them, but the relevant bits were xeroxed for us.  In each case, though, there was page after page of family relationships, mapped back hundreds of years.  Photos were brought out, more elders summoned, notes compared, and, eventually, the connection made (with, in at least in one case, extra wives discovered).

When the twenty of us were at the Village of the Red Books, one of us asked our guide to ask the locals where they’d hidden the books during the Cultural Revolution.  “I won’t ask that,” he said, “it’s like asking ‘where do you keep your mistress?’.” 

And that, I suppose, has been the hardest thing about the trip for me.  Separated by language, culture, politics, and time constraints (with three separate families seeking information about their respective maternal and paternal lines, we approached each village like an attacking battalion, with roles—videographer, cartographer, close-up photographer, background photographer, stuff-toter, red-envelope stuffer--meted out on the bus beforehand), we had to try to make some kind of connection with the people we met, without even the capacity to satisfy our natural mutual curiosity about each other.  And so we sat, and traced lines in books, and took pictures and videos, and gave gifts. 

But I, for one, am left wishing that we could have forgotten the books and just sat down and asked them, these folks leaning on their motorcycles and toting babies on their backs; the ones sitting in drafty gray rooms at work, the bright thread atop their sewing machines the only spots of color in sight; the old ladies missing teeth and the calcium to keep their spines straight; the guy burning shipping pallets in an otherwise pitch-black garage; asked them, the great-great-grandchildren of those who stayed, what their days are like, and their nights. 

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