Travel Journal

The Pilgrimage, Huang Xian, 5/14-5/15

(Wednesday 8 June 2011) by Joanne Chang
*****Part 3, One Root, Many Branches*****

Just before Lao Ye died of Alzheimer's in 2004, he no longer recognized his family but said the one place he wanted to return was Poo Zi Ho, a neighborhood of Huang Xian (now called Longkou) where his family's home was, the place where he grew up and lived with Lao Lao before Japanese and Communist invaders forced them to leave. My mom had promised to take him there, so that's what we do.

All I know is that E's son John is driving us 4 hours to Huang Xian, that he has an aunt there (E's sister), and that we're spending the night and returning to Qingdao the next day. I sit in front with Mom and E in back and try again to follow the conversation, but without much sleep the night before I drift off for most of the ride. (I'm sure this is rude, but I'm tired and don't see the point in keeping awake for a conversation I don't understand. Also, at this point John doesn't know the limitations of my Chinese so I'm sure he thinks I'm quite rude, and/or very shy.) On the way we buy locally grown melons, little green ones that are super sweet and tasty, which we end up buying and eating the rest of our trip. When we arrive in Huang Xian, we meet up with a van on the side of the road and follow it to a fancy golf resort and hotel where a (ridiculous) suite has been prearranged for us. The young couple driving the van (though I don't know it at the time) is E's younger brother's son and his wife, about my age, and very kind. A simple lunch at the hotel turns into yet another large spread, with food specific to Huang Xian like smoked fish on corn bread and shrimp paste in claypot. Salty, yummy, seafood-y things.

After lunch we pick up E's younger brother, who somehow knows everyone in town, and head out on a couple of missions, van in front and car following behind. His accent is thick and twangy, sounds like the Irish guy in Snatch. First we go to Poo Zi Ho, where commercial offices have replaced the old residential neighborhood, and a group of men invites us inside a dark, damp room. Conversation goes around, the men trying to fill in bits and pieces of who my family was, Mom pleasantly introducing why she has come back while the owner's eyes dart back and forth nervously. He is clearly uncomfortable and Mom concludes that this is the guy who, once a high ranking government official, promised Lao Ye's cousin that he would rebuild their home after it was mercilessly taken and destroyed, but never delivered. He must think she's back to demand reparation. On our way out they ask if we want to see the actual land that the house was on but Mom passes, she wants out before this guy has an anxiety attack. I guess there's nothing there now anyway. I'm sad for my grandfather, who wanted so badly to return to this place, his home which no longer exists. Perhaps it's better that he never came.

Lao Ye's parents died when he was 4 from illness, so he and his younger sisters were raised by his grandma, aunties and uncles. As a boy, the family clearly favored Lao Ye, and at an older age he regretted not having cared for his sisters better. Our second mission is to find his sister's son's home, the son having recently passed, but survived by his wife and children. We arrive at a row of homes on a dirt road and up rides a 60-something woman on a motorbike, the wife, and despite our sudden appearance on her doorstep she gracefully invites us into her large, tidy home. She pulls out a picture frame collage filled with photos of her husband and daughter, and in the middle is my grandfather, Lao Ye. Awesome evidence that they loved and respected him. She and mom catch up, we find out Lao Ye's sister had 6 kids total (4 boys, 2 girls), and it's neat to be a part of this -- Mom seeking out her cousin's widow, a cousin she never met, to fulfill some piece of her father's wish to reconnect with his homeland. When we leave she gives the wife $100 US cash (a decent amount for rural China), the wife gives us a bagful of green cai from her garden, and we realize we didn't get the phone numbers of the other kids in Qingdao. Darn.

Missions completed, we head to the neighborhood where E's brother lives, where down the street is another cousin's family on Lao Lao's other brother's side. (Sound confusing? It is. Plus they have a yard full of goats!) We go to the other cousin's house first and are greeted warmly as always, and once again I'm trying to figure out who everyone is as they feed us sweet strawberries and melon with tea. I later identify the group to be Mom's cousin (also E's cousin) and his wife, their son and daughter-in-law, and their son's son, 3 generations under one roof. A few steps away, E's brother lives with his wife and E's older brother who is mute and severely hunchbacked, never married and once an incredible sketch artist. He looks forlorn and helpless, wanting so badly to speak, as if his loss of speech is a recent incident and not something he's lived with his whole life. Mom slips him money on our way out and goes to find Lao Lao's sister's daughter while I stay back with E, waiting for her return (not totally sure where she went?), still trying to fit the pieces together.

Dinner that night is Mom's treat, party of 15 and my fifth indulgent meal in 3 days. The food is deee-licious and I am sitting around the table with (yet another) brand new family, and it's less uncomfortable than the last, somehow. I am making conversation, I feel more a part of the meal. When we say goodbye I want to hug everyone and tell them how wonderful it is to know they exist, to thank them for welcoming us, for helping my mother trace her heritage, making her parents proud. I will have to come back. Back at the hotel, Mom and I digest what happened that day. She's a strong woman, affected but unemotional. I have a tangle of emotions inside me and I can't sort them out. We talk about E's sister, who we met on the side of the road earlier that day, trimming trees for the city. Between Communists not allowing her to attend school and marrying the wrong guy, she now trims trees 10 hours a day and raises a mentally disabled son on her own. She is too proud to accept help from her family, and too ashamed to come to dinner.

The next day, John drives us back to Qingdao. I find out he went to England for his MBA, works for a British-based food quality control company, and has an English boss. What? He sticks to Chinese in conversation but starts throwing in a few English words here and there, and wonder if I should have tried harder? Or why didn't he? All that time in the front seat of his car, and we could have been talking. That night we have our very last banquet-style meal (my treat, finally) with E, Dr. Li, John, John's wife and his son, and a table full of seafood and beer in the Tsingtao beer district. Falling into bed, I am exhausted but can't sleep. All these thoughts of what I could-have-should-have done these past few days to make them count. The missed opportunities to connect with my family, the Jo I did not (could not?) let them see. This language barrier that I need to bust down and destroy.


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