The Past is a Foreign Country8 min read

Finding a vanished Chinese home in Vietnam – Connie Mei Pickart

With children at least, balloons are still popular here. A little girl has a big red one tethered to her wrist. When I was seven I had one like it on Chinese New Year. I recall the bang when my father burst it with his lit cigarette. A boy nibbles on a dripping popsicle that looks and tastes like watermelon. I know the taste because it was one of my summertime favorites. Nearby, a woman stirs a bucket of gooey maltose with a pair of wooden sticks. The old man outside my primary school sold these for ten cents a stick. “Maiyatang!” The woman hawks at me in Chinese, as if she knows.

It all seems familiar. For a moment, I feel like I am transmitted back in time, to the heartland of China where I grew up.

My past has become a foreign country. I need a passport and a visa to get access to it”

The air is dusty. The streets are smelly – and dusty, too. Colorfully dressed families swarm to the temples on this day of celebration. They light aromatic incense that wafts to the gods in exchange for blessings. Giant pomelos stack up on shiny golden plates in front of the gods, with occasional red money bills tossed in for extra good luck. Beyond the temple, cars straggle along the main road, unable to inch forward amidst crossing pedestrians. Scooters zoom past from both directions, honking and leaving a nauseating smell of diesel. Around the city square, revolutionary statues abound. They pose resolutely in groups of two or three, each carrying a distinctive weapon, perhaps representing a distinct social group under the communist leadership.

But this is not China. It is Hanoi on the day of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. It’s as if my past has become a foreign country. I need a passport and a visa to get access to it.

I recently returned to China after a long sojourn in the US. I returned with a foreign husband, a foreign passport, and a foreign name. In Shanghai, where I now live, I juggle my identities on a daily basis to fit in both worlds – the local streets where I blend in as a native, and the expat circles where I speak English. I struggle to feel at home these days, as the China I grew up in has changed, as have I. Even Chinese New Year no longer means the same rituals for me. Every other year I visit my family in central Henan Province, where I grew up, and where memories have become blurry.

My husband and I flew from Shanghai to Hanoi a week before Lunar New Year 2019. There was no family visit this year, so we decided to travel. We landed in Hanoi and after a few days, we drove to Ninh Binh Province. Situated in the Red River Delta, Ninh Binh is known for its high density of natural and cultural attractions. Unlike Hanoi, the cultural sights in Ninh Binh invoke a different kind of familiarity, a step into a more distant past. At Bich Dong, a complex of three pagodas winds stealthily up Ngu Nhac Mountain. The complex was built in 1428 at the beginning of the Later Lê Dynasty, after Emperor Lê Lợi drove out the Chinese Ming army. Though independent, the Lê state still used Chinese characters in all its official documents, and Chinese texts with Buddhist motifs adorned temple gates and stone pillars. On our walks, we also came upon several stone tablets inscribed with travel essays by Chinese scholar officials. It was a favorite practice of the scholar gentry from the Middle Kingdom. The essays must have been written when Vietnam was under Chinese rule.

In Hanoi, my old haunts seemed to reappear right before my eyes”

At the foot of Hang Mua Mountain, I saw familiar figurines – a monk with his three disciples and a white horse – floating above waters. They are the characters from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, which made iconic the Monkey King, who protects his master Xuanzang on his pilgrimage to India. The figurines are direct replicas of the 1986 TV adaptation of the novel. I remember watching the reruns every summer till I went off to college. It was not clear how the figurines got to this mountain in Vietnam, but whoever brought them here, I thanked them for the burst of nostalgia.

In the village of Tam Coc, where we stayed, the Tam Coc River meandered quietly by our hotel. The streets were dusty but quiet, surrounded by mountains. On our last day it rained, so I stayed at the hotel, reading under the patio umbrella in the courtyard. I could feel the air change as clouds hovered on the darkening skyline over the mountains. Large raindrops bumped the umbrella before descending onto the dusty ground, concocting a refreshing and familiar scent. I remembered the time before cars overwhelmed my hometown, when summer thunderstorms smelled like the elm trees that lined the dusty roads. The women at the hotel retreated into the reception room. They tried to get me in there too, but I was revelling in my memories of lost time.

Back in Hanoi, my old haunts seemed to reappear right before my eyes – in the form of street vendors. We visited one lady who mixed her rice noodles with local seafood in a tomato broth, a big bowl for just a little over a dollar. I was a bit hesitant to go into her shop. All the ingredients were laid out in the dusty open air. A small tray of chili peppers sat on a narrow built-in bar, along with a basket of green vegetables that looked stale and unwashed. All too familiar from a childhood I did not want to go back to. I calmed myself. The worst thing that could happen was just a stomachache, and maybe diarrhea. You can’t beat the price, and the noodles tasted good.

I revel in the kinship between the two countries, especially being away from home during the holidays”

Like my hometown in China back in my day, Hanoi is a traditional city in its early stage of modern transformation. Tourism brings in money and opportunities for locals to make a profit, and some try to take advantage of it. On the way back from Hoan Kiem Lake, where we were surrounded by worshippers and incense, we hailed a taxi. As soon as we jumped in, the driver pulled out two 50,000 VND bills, the equivalent of $4.50 – the price he asked for our ride, which was more than double the regular price. “No, meter please,” I said, pointing to the off meter sitting in the corner. The driver shook us off. Immediately we got out. I knew these “black taxis” all too well – I could still picture them sitting outside the train station when I arrived back home from Beijing for my college summer break. The  driver soon picked up another customer, but after a minute, the new passenger got out like we had.

At our hotel, the front desk clerk told me he was learning Chinese. He was delighted to find out I was from China and wanted to practice Mandarin with me. “We learned from you,” he said, “for a thousand years.” I was a little embarrassed by his comment, especially knowing how the Vietnamese resent China’s influence. But despite that resentment, China’s presence is easily spotted throughout the capital. Stores and supermarkets are filled with Chinese products. Chinese tourists are ubiquitous in the streets. I suspect there’s a feeling of ambivalence among the Vietnamese. On the one hand, they see the benefit of working with China, and align their economic interests with their communist big brother. On the other hand, they are wary of Chinese intentions, and have been trying to forge their own identity outside of China’s influence throughout history.

But as a Chinese tourist, I revel in the kinship between the two countries, especially when I’m away from home during the holidays. On the night leading up to Tet, a large screen was put up at the Hanoi City Plaza by crews from local TV stations. Fireworks would be telecast live at midnight. Around the street corner, young people were putting together a makeshift stage and testing the microphones by singing rap beats, possibly of their own rendition. In a hotel near where we stayed, partying commenced early on, with music blaring from the rooftop and lasers lighting up the sky. From the hotel balcony, I watched roads slowly overrun by scooters, people gathering from all directions as the countdown approached. Though away from home, I did not miss much of the festivities.

I wondered what my parents were doing at this hour. They are not outdoor people, so right then they would have been home huddling around the TV. The New Year’s Gala on state-sponsored television would have been on since eight o’clock. Right now all the hosts would have gathered on stage for the countdown. As the New Year bell tolled, firecrackers would be banging the windows, despite official bans on all firecrackers for safety reasons. My parents would soon go to bed, like they always do after hearing the New Year’s bell, and would rise early in the morning to make glutinous rice balls for breakfast. They would put out trays of candy and sunflower seeds for guests to enjoy. If they still remembered, they would put lots of White Rabbit milk candy in the trays, for that was my favorite. ∎

This is the latest in a monthly column edited by Rebecca Choong Wilkins, made possible by the generous support of Stephen O. Lesser on Patreon. Header: Characters from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West at Hang Mua Mountain, Vietnam. All images are the author’s.