Finding My Roots Deep in Rural China
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2017-03-31 03:47:39

I’d heard countless stories about Anhui. Stories of hardworking, plain-living village folks, of rolling farmland crisscrossed by gleaming streams, of a place inadvertently granted mercy from modernization’s heavy hand. I felt I knew this eastern Chinese province better than most, maybe even better than some of those who lived entire lifetimes there. Yet I had never been to Anhui, and it was strange that I, who was always so physically removed from it, simultaneously felt so connected.

I was born in Shanghai during the summer of 1994. It was in this cosmopolitan city that I spent the first seven years of my life. Home was a small apartment near Fudan University that housed my parents, one set of grandparents, and me, an overly energetic toddler who was fond of clopping about in her mother’s oversized high heels around the house. The neighbors downstairs weren’t fans of my nightly dance routines.

I was too young to remember when my father immigrated to America. He left my mother and me behind, but paved the path for us to follow him, delivering Chinese food around Manhattan on his bicycle just to put food in his stomach and a roof over his head. Life in the “beautiful country,” as Mandarin speakers call the United States, was hardly beautiful for newcomers. Opportunities were there, but it took a certain type of person to find them — someone hungry for success and unafraid of hardship. Finally, in 2001, my mother and I left our lives in Shanghai to start afresh in a place called Fort Lee, a bucolic, suburban New Jersey town 30 minutes outside of New York City.

Although I was born in China, I have been molded by the United States. The country gave me the chance to think and feel like an American. Here, I was taught to be curious; I learned that asking questions is often more fulfilling than knowing all the answers. Here, I fell in and out of love for the first time. And here, I became a person with two identities. Yes, I was “Americanized,” but I was also very attached to my Chinese roots.

When I turned 21, I decided the time was right to dig deeper into my family history. My dad’s side of the family is from Anhui, and as a child, my mother would always call me a “little Anhui girl.” And so, last summer, I packed the lightest bag that I’ve ever packed and got on the high-speed train from Shanghai to Suzhou — not the historic canal town, but the somewhat less illustrious city in northern Anhui. It was time to go back to my ancestral home.

I created a mirage of Anhui in my head, fueled my family’s vibrant storytelling. But none of it felt substantial, because the memories didn’t belong to me.

Northern Anhui was the place that my grandfather decided to leave behind. Life in the countryside was difficult and sometimes fraught with danger. When Granddad was just a toddler, before the Communists reunified China in 1949, he was kidnapped by a gang of bandits near his home, who wrongly thought that they had abducted their leader’s grandson. Realizing their mistake, they untied him and dropped him off in a random location. He eventually found his way home.

In 1962, Granddad left Anhui. As a young man in metropolitan Shanghai, he knew he could become whoever he wanted to be. Ultimately, he decided to be a journalist, intoxicated by the creative energy of his new home.

Throughout my childhood years, imagination was my only portal back to Anhui. I created a mirage of the place in my head, fueled my family’s vibrant storytelling. But none of it felt substantial, because the memories didn’t belong to me. Every time I desperately tried to grab hold of these intangible bits and pieces, they seemed to elude me at the crucial moment, like snowflakes falling toward my outstretched tongue, only to be whipped away by the breeze at the last minute.

I knew that if I went to Anhui, it would have to be with my grandfather. His connection to his hometown is a contradictory one, imbued with senses of both longing and rejection. His memories of the countryside were often hard to bear, but they reflected his youth, a fleeting period of naivety. Back in those days, he was just a country boy not yet exposed to the harsh realities of city life. Though reluctant in the beginning, he agreed after some coaxing to accompany me on this journey.

We were greeted by my grandmother’s brother. He radiated eagerness and insisted on being our tour guide. The first stop was my grandparents’ middle school and the library inside it. The library has a special place in Granddad’s heart. A few years ago, he donated his entire collection of books to the school; the library that now houses them bears his name in honor of this gift. My family has always valued education. After all, it was my grandfather’s ticket out of the countryside, and so it came as no surprise that a school was the first place I would end up in Anhui.

The school, too, challenged the romanticized ideal of Anhui I had in my head. I had always imagined it to be a small, quaint building containing the bare minimum to function as a school: a few classrooms, old writing desks, a dirty chalkboard. But on the contrary, the school was more extravagant than any public institution I’d ever attended in the U.S. Behind its modern exterior were gallery spaces, rooms dedicated to Chinese art and calligraphy, and even bells that played classical music in between classes.

The most fascinating aspect of the school was not Granddad’s beloved library, but the displays showcasing the school’s history. I suddenly found myself face to face with a decades-old photograph of my grandparents. Dressed in white button-down shirts, they stood side by side, staring off into the distance. In Granddad, I saw my father. The resemblance — summed up in their unmistakable smile — was uncanny.

As a young woman, Grandma had been the kind of person I aspired to be: cool, elegant, refined.

In Grandma, I saw a version of someone I had never seen before. A black braid fell over her left shoulder, and a loose, windswept strand blew across her forehead. While my grandfather squinted under the glare of the sun, Grandma’s face was set as regally as ever. Her expression was relaxed, her lips pursed. I realized then that as a young woman, she had been the kind of person I aspired to be: cool, elegant, refined — a woman of few words, but for whom the room fell silent when she spoke.

The schoolmaster spared no effort on the tour. He even had a student come in on a day off to meet my grandfather, the scholar. “To you, he might just be your grandfather, but to others, he is a big deal,” the schoolmaster said. I smiled and nodded politely. It was a skill I would become very good at by the end of the trip.

In the countryside, success was often judged superficially. The school had all the modern amenities: It was new, boasted advanced technology, and was indeed an impressive establishment. But these details only skimmed the surface of a concept as deep as education. At one point, the principal turned to me and said with a pompous air, “I bet you that no education in America is as good as the one we provide here in Anhui.” Maybe not, I thought in my head. But why should we focus so much on surpassing each other, and not on learning from each other?

After an hour’s drive out of Suzhou, I was finally presented with the realities of the countryside. Fields of gold stretched on endlessly as paved highways gave way to narrow, rocky roads. We passed tractors, mopeds whose riders were weighed down by farming tools, wagons of young kids in the backs of trucks. It felt foreign and surreal, as if despite all the new technology that has come to Anhui since my father’s childhood days, the countryside still hadn’t shaken off its agricultural mentality.

My grandmother’s old home was like a museum; a crowd of unknown faces recognized me. “Isn’t this Haige’s daughter?” “She looks just like him!” Growing up, I was raised by my mother and grandparents. Only after I had immigrated to the United States to be with him did I finally know what it was to have a father in my life. But the years lost didn’t faze us; we were practically inseparable during my early years in America. Now, my father’s old stomping ground gave me an insight into his former life, before I was ever in the picture. It was an insight that changed my perception of him entirely.

There was the room where Grandma had slept — the same one that my grandfather visited as a young man — and the room where my dad grew up, which he had called home when he was just a little boy. None of it seemed real. Where did my father play? What conversations took place in those tight quarters? My imagination wandered off as I pictured Grandma as a young mother, raising a boisterous child whose abundant energy belied his young age.

Anhui remains a place both foreign and unfamiliar, propped up by my own imagination but molded by reality.

The countryside of Anhui is filled with mountains, fields, and humble houses. It is a place utterly devoid of the air of pretentiousness that suffuses more urban parts of the province. The people there prided themselves on the earthiness of rural life: mosquito nets, straw hats, untamed dogs, red-cheeked babies. It was refreshing. I lost my inclination to judge and criticize, characteristics I had cultivated from living in a country that thought of itself as the most civilized nation in the world. In the Anhui countryside, days are idly passed. The hours sweat away as one mundane chore slides into the next. As my relatives would say, “It’s the way life always has been and the way it always will be.” As an outsider, I was charmed by the simplicity of existence out there, and by the hardworking, intelligent folks to whom my heritage connected me. 

Of all the people I met, my estranged aunt left the deepest impression on me. Despite having a scholar as a father and a schoolteacher as a husband, she herself was illiterate. In a society where religion had no weight, she devoted herself wholeheartedly to Christianity. It was her and her husband’s field that I plowed, their tractor that I rode, and their hat that I brought home with me. Her happiness was awe-inspiring: She was a woman content with her lot in life, who radiated a genuine kindness and sincerity that I sometimes find myself lacking.

My trip to Anhui was not a soul-searching trip. In many ways, it remains a place both foreign and unfamiliar, propped up by my own imagination but molded by reality. The villagers reflected a group of people who were as genuine as they were generous. More so than anything, this trip grounded me. Having witnessed where half of my roots were planted, I will always refer to Anhui as a point of reference in identifying myself.

As I write this, I am sitting on the 57th floor of a luxury condominium overlooking Central Park to my right and the skyscrapers of Manhattan to my left. My friends, who hail from places as varied as Los Angeles, Colombia, France, and Hong Kong, are downstairs enjoying expensive takeout and wine — takeout that my dad might have delivered 15 years ago; wine that would be a hefty investment for most rural Chinese.

I’m eternally grateful to be living in New York. But whenever that sense of appreciation starts to fade and complacency starts to settle in, I bring myself back to Anhui. I think back to meeting my father’s childhood best friend and remind myself that my father could also have ended up dark, calloused, weathered by a life of farming. I think back to my grandfather, whose youthful struggles ran far deeper than the problems I had assimilating into a new culture, learning a new language, and making new friends. And I think back to the graves of my great-grandparents, never letting myself forget that I come from a family who bury our ancestors in the very fields we plow.

Editors: Hu Sumin and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A woman walks down a street in Hong Village, Huangshan, Anhui province, April 28, 2013. Wang Haoran/VCG)