“We are linked by blood, and blood is memory without language.” – Joyce Carol Oates
Living amongst Vancouver’s seemingly large Chinese population, China was the last place on my travel radar. Why travel so far to see my own kind when there’s already so many here? So I thought. For me, travel was escapism – to forget about my life in Vancouver and get waywardly lost.
I’ve had a sense of being misplaced from early childhood. Indifference to my Caucasian peers developed from the occasional “Chink” reference. Growing up in the Chinese Hong Kong immigration wave of the 1970’s and 80’s, my country boy Chinese dialect left me the butt of many a Cantonese jokes. As a result, I abhorred speaking Chinese under any circumstances. I could speak Chinese, but not the “right kind”. I was in cultural limbo.
About 6 years ago, I was perusing through an old photo album with my parents looking at some black and white photos of them taken from the early 1950’s. They had just started their new lives in Canada and looked so young. My brothers and I weren’t even a glint in their eye. As I peeked up from the photo, my parents seemed to age overnight. Not only did I not recognize them from the photos, I didn’t seem to recognize them at all.
I was shaken by this and suddenly wanted to “know” my parents better.
Soon after, I planned my first visit to China and my ancestral villages, the birth place of my parents.
My First Visit To Hoiping (Kaiping), China
The Bus Ride
In the fall of 2010, I would visit the ancestral villages of my parents with two of my brothers. It would be the first visit for all of us.
We were to be staying in Hoiping City (Kaiping in Mandarin) with the ultimate destination of my parent’s village of Chikan. Hoiping is located in southern China in Guangdong province about 2 hours outside of Guangzhou city. Reaching Hoiping was a bit of a challenge as the city is only accessible by bus with multiple options as entry points into China. We opted to enter China by way of ferry via Hong Kong to Zhuhai and then a 3 hour bus ride into Hoiping.
China was nothing like my antiquated preconceptions. No pails of water on anyone’s shoulders and no Chairman Mao suits to be seen. Construction seemed endless: roads, highways and apartment towers. The country was more modern than I’d imagined. I wouldn’t realize how modern until I later visited metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Language was to be a problem. My rudimentary knowledge of Cantonese would suffice in Hong Kong, but in a flicker, Mandarin was all I heard upon entering China. Neither I nor my brothers spoke Mandarin. Inexplicably, we found our way onto the correct bus via an impromptu game of charades and finger pointing.
As the bus entered the city’s outer limits, cell phones sounded off. As people began to talk, I awoke as if I inhaled smelling salts. I understood all the conversations. Everyone spoke my Hoiping dialect. They spoke the “right kind” of Chinese.
Like the Prodigal Son, a sense of homecoming washed over me.
These were my people.
With over 50 recognized minorities and an estimated 1500 dialects in China, the government wanted a standardized language for the country. In 1932, a dictionary based on the pronunciation and speech of Beijing was developed which we know today as Mandarin. The hope was that in 100 years, all of China would be speaking Mandarin.
In Hoiping, the younger generations through the school system learned Mandarin while the older generations seemingly haven’t bothered learning it at all. Most will also understand Cantonese. However, the vernacular of Hoiping and the surrounding regions is still its native dialects. This is what gives the region their down to earth charm and identity … its language.
My ability to speak the dialect, which at one time I considered a birth defect, connected me to the city and its people. Despite being born in Canada, the locals immediately accepted me as one of their own, bonding through language. With Mandarin built upon learning four basic tones, the Hoiping dialect has nine, making Hoiping arguably harder to learn.
A caveat to my Hoiping speaking proficiency is that chunks of my vocabulary are outdated. I don’t read or write Chinese and only learned to speak it through conversation with my parents while growing up. Locals often jest that I sound like a 100 year old man.
One of my favorite things to do in Hoiping is to eavesdrop on conversations while about town. The one Hoiping phrase that I hadn’t heard since childhood, loosely translated, is “Go fuck you’re mother!”. Behind “hello” and “goodbye”, this expletive is arguably the most common phrase heard around town. As a child, I’d remember hearing this phrase regularly during my parent’s dinner parties, especially during my Dad’s mah-jong benders. It’s amazing how such a profanity brought me so much comfort.
Hoiping (Kaiping) City
A small city by China standards with a population of about a million people, Hoiping certainly has a small town feel to it. Technology and the internet culture has quickly descended upon this sleepy town, with dense areas of mobile phone shops and free wifi in most restaurants. A sense of playing catch up is evident. With a desire to wear big boys pants, the city is home to a Macdonald’s, 2 KFC’s and most recently a Pizza Hut.
My delicate sensibilities had to get use to daily life here which included public displays of horking, spitting and babies peeing on the sidewalk. Welcome to China.
Animal lovers and PETA sympathizers may have a difficult time here, as live caged poultry is openly displayed at markets and street side restaurants. Chicken, duck and geese are killed, plucked and prepared on the spot to cook in a flash. This redefined what “fresh” meant for me. In the villages, you’d see the same with dogs sometimes. A bit rattled when I first witnessed this. Then again, in India where cows are sacred, people there probably think I’m insane for eating a hamburger.
If you want to experience a real and authentic China, then Hoiping delivers.
Formerly known for manufacturing sink faucets and denim, the city has become a popular tourist destination for Chinese and Hong Kong tourists since the Diaolou Watch Towers of nearby villages were recognized as UNESCO heritage sites in 2007. Many of the towers still remaining were built during the late 19th and early 20th century to help fight bandits and enemies. Unique in appearance, the towers have a strong Western influence in their architecture since the money used to build them were from overseas Chinese that had left to make their fortunes abroad. Much of the world’s Chinese emigration primarily started from this region.
My parent’s village of Chikan has also become a frequented tourist attraction, as the town has provided site locations for many popular Chinese movies. Despite being a bit off the beaten path, Chikan seems to be gaining a wider tourist base as I met a group of European tourists in the town during my last visit.
Chikan Village and My Parent’s Homes
As I entered the village town of Chikan, I could feel the weight of its 350 year history on my shoulders. The buildings’ oversized doors and large pillars were reminiscent of an imperial China. Many of the buildings stained in black from coal use. The village would’ve looked like a snapshot in time if not for the modern trappings of cars, televisions and cell phones.
As I wandered the streets of Chikan, my past and my culture suddenly came to life. The stories that my Dad used to tell of himself growing up, now had depth and weight. Better than a children’s pop-up story book, I quickly tried to recall all of my Dad’s tales.
Many of the people that I spoke to had never ventured outside of Chikan to visit Hoiping, despite only being a 30 minute bus ride away. Parts of the town seemed oblivious that another world existed beyond their humble doorsteps.
After locating a distant cousin, my brothers and I were brought to my Dad’s childhood home. Walking through a narrow pathway between a series of stone buildings, we entered through gates to a small courtyard with a pump to a well. The 4 storey house resembled a Diaolou Tower: Majestic in stature, but tarnished by weather and time. This house was the fruits of my grandfather’s labour who immigrated to Canada in 1916 paying the $500 Head Tax (about $10,000 inflation adjusted) for the privilege to be Canadian. The house and the neighbourhood, despite being deserted, breathed new life into me. As I headed up to the rooftop, for the first time in my life, I had a genuine sense of pride for my culture.
The rooftop view was grand and expansive. The tight clusters of neighbouring homes were a stone’s throw away. About 500 yards off in the distance, a small group of buildings could be seen. These buildings would be my next stop: my Mom’s village.
With no contact person for my Mom’s village, we simply walked into the village and mentioned my Mom’s name to people. We found a neighbour who had been looking after my Mom’s empty home for the past few decades.
Unlike my Dad’s house, my Mom’s childhood home was smaller and more modest. Upon entering, I faced a wall with 2 large collages of old photos. As I inspected further, the photos were sent from Canada by my Mom and her siblings over the years depicting their new lives in Canada. Most of the people in the photos were garbed in western attire: the men in dapper suits and women in fashionable dresses. But most of all, they were dressed in optimism.
In the same room high up on the wall was a shrine with large photos of my Grandparents and Great Grandmother. This was the first time I’d ever seen a photo of my Great Grandmother and it had been many years since I‘d seen my Grandparents.
I would leave China, forever changed, with the hope that someday my parents could visit their childhood homes again.
Visiting Chikan Village With My Parents
The following year, in the fall of 2011, I and two of my brothers would accompany my parents back to their childhood homes in Chikan village.
Until 2011, my parents had only visited China once in 60 years since immigrating to Canada. Their last visit to China was 20 years prior when they only visited Hoiping to handle some issues regarding the deed of my Dad’s house in Chikan. Hence, my parents never got to visit Chikan.
As we entered my Dad’s childhood home, he had a look of anticipation that I hadn’t seen since I took him to an NHL hockey game many years prior. The old was new again. The new was familiar. And the familiar made him smile.
My Dad pointed to a staircase where as a child, he sat and watched his mother labour in her illness before her death. It was a sadness that I would help him find some peace with, 3 years later.
When we reached my Mom’s village, curious onlookers came out to greet us. My Mom told them her name and asked if anyone knew who she was. An elderly woman came forward and said she knew her… only by name, as their last meeting was over 60 years ago as teenagers.
It was as if my Mom had found a long lost sister. Like teenagers, my Mom and this elderly woman quickly caught up on 60 years of gossip. My Mom devoted much of her life to making a family of my Dad, me and my four brothers and never really seemed to have any close girlfriends to speak of. My heart beamed, to know that for a fleeting moment, she found that female bond which had been absent for so long.
We later headed into the town centre of Chikan village renowned for their clay pot rice dishes. My Mom said that as a child she dreamt of eating Chikan’s clay pot rice dishes but was too poor to afford it. Sixty years later, her dream came true.
Just three months ago, I returned to Chikan with my parents for a second time. This time, we located the grave of my Dad’s mother. My Grandmother’s grave was located across 30 yards of rugged farming land. Initially, it was decided that due to my Dad’s lack of mobility that only me and my brothers would approach the grave to pay our respects.
My Dad whispered in my ear that he had to go see his Mother. I resolved to carry my Dad if need be, but we traversed the farming patch together lockstep while hand-in-hand. As we approached the grave site, I held my Dad’s hand as we watched my brother pay his respects.
Tears ran down my face. A sense of completion swept through me. The circle had come full.
I now embraced what I had previously rejected and accepted what I once denied. My resolve was simple: to be who I really am in this world.
I’ve taken the life I get to live in Canada today for granted. I was born in a small Canadian prairie town and I’ve lived my life as if that was the starting point of my existence.
Multiple and timely circumstances had to transpire, for me to live the life that I have today.
As the story has been told to me, given the close proximity of my parent’s villages, my Mom as a young girl would often see my Dad walk by her home. She always knew of this boy, but little did she know that she would marry him years later.
If that little boy never grew up to marry that little girl, neither I nor my brothers would exist today.
If my Dad never married my Mom, none of my aunts, uncles and cousins would be living in Canada today.
And if my Grandfather didn’t pay the $500 Head Tax in 1916 to immigrate into Canada, none of us previously mentioned would be living in Canada today.
I originally came to China wanting to “know” my parents better but ultimately discovered a piece of myself that I never knew existed. I’ve always felt that I wasn’t “Chinese” enough.
The spirit of China was never something I lost or was something to be found. It was always inside of me. I just needed a road map to look for it inside myself.
“I was born by myself but carry the spirit and blood of my father, mother and my ancestors. So I am really never alone. My identity is through that line.” – Ziggy Marley
To start my year abroad, I would return to Hoiping for Chinese New Year in 2015. Stay tuned for my post on that experience.
Have you ever had the opportunity to travel and visit your family’s origins? If so, what was your experience?
Any comments on this post is welcomed and appreciated.