Roots and Branches13 min read

Courtney Han visits her ancestral home in China

My Dad grew up in a small fishing village about two hours northwest of Shanghai. His stories about his hometown sound more like Mount Olympus than a poor Chinese village with a flooding problem. According to him, nowhere else in the universe was the air as sweet, the trees as lush and the jade-toned water as beautiful as in the laojia.

I was born in Beijing, where my mother’s family lived, and moved to the US when I was five. My father’s experiences growing up in rural China were as different from my American childhood as a fish from a bird’s. His colorful stories about playing midnight hide-and-seek in fields, yanking river eels out of mud holes, climbing trees to peek at bird nests – they never happened on my visits to China. Instead I was coddled, stuffed with exotic foods, and kept under strict observation.

By day, I often felt treated like a circus monkey:

Does she talk Chinese? Does she talk English? Speak! Say something!
You think you know an English word, Old Zhang?
Puh. You don’t know nothing.
Okay, then go and say it.
Ha! She didn’t understand it!

At night, I was plunked into ornate banquet rooms to dine with droves of beaming relatives I’d never met. The bacchanals were full of gags and laughs. If no liquor was spilled, no chair toppled, no red-faced man glassy-eyed and stumbling, then it wasn’t a good party. “You probably aren’t used to this over there in America,” a distant uncle would holler over the din of smashing cups. “Here, the louder we are, the better!” Then a tiny dog would yip madly from the lap of one of the older women who always excused herself early to play mahjong.

At the women and children’s table, we drank yogurt and plum juice instead of liquor, and nibbled at delicacies crafted from duck liver, pig trotter, and permutations of tofu. It was my duty to accept everything and eat, or else face a chorus of hospitable reprimands: Chi! Eat! Is this food for decoration?

Rumor got around that I adored crayfish, the local joy and pride. It was a deceit I probably created myself through some clumsy gesture of politeness. Crayfish thrived in the region’s many streams and ponds, and to me, resembled mutant insects, with their long antennae, studded pinchers and spindly legs. Impressively well-armored, the only edible part of the whole creature was the tail. To eat one, you must decapitate it, suck out the yellow-green juices from its head, peel off its shell casing and gingerly locate the thin intestine that runs down its fleshy back. This you must not eat, my relatives warned, holding up a translucent white strand for me to see. This will make you lose your stomach. After many nights sitting in a wrecked banquet hall extracting intestines from a basin of crayfish, I came to the conclusion that force-feeding myself a delicacy my relatives couldn’t afford and I didn’t like to be a fitting definition of my family.

My time in the laojia felt like a test of whether or not I could fit into China. I failed every time. I began to think I had a choice: Either try and gain admission into a clan with whom I shared a name and a face, or turn the other way. I turned the other way.

After college, I found a job at a research nonprofit that sent me to a rural island in the Philippines. The job promised challenge, adventure and a sense of purpose to indulge my millennial idealism. I spent the ensuing four years billowing from place to place, mostly in developing countries. I chatted up farmers and fishermen in Cote d’Ivoire; rubbed elbows with trust fund children in Manila; and lingered in opulent hotel lobbies in India to dance in clubs I would never go to back home.

Wherever I went, I made an effort to embrace the traditions, befriend the locals and learn some phrases of the language. But on weekends, many of my expat friends and I relapsed into the brunch-and-cocktails safety net of our tribe. We built communities with dinner parties and weekend trips, but for most of us, it was temporary.

There’s a Chinese saying, luoyeguigen: “A falling leaf returns to its roots.”

You can only run so far from yourself. China was as part of me as my hair and single-lidded eyes. I had inadvertently allowed myself to exist in neither East nor West by traveling everywhere in between, but by doing so I was postponing the task of deciding how to divide my identity between those two poles.

It took bouncing through more than thirty countries for me to realize that tending to my roots was just as important as extending my branches. A tree with a weak foundation faces stunted growth, just as a person without a strong sense of self struggles to develop into a fully formed adult. Understanding the journeys my parents and extended family took would give me greater context for my own journey, and help illuminate my path ahead.

I moved back to Beijing in November 2014, and lived in my late maternal grandfather’s flat. The rooms felt smaller and dustier than my memories of the place from when I was five, but I could still breath in the rich aromas of hongshaorou from a nearby flat in the late afternoons; still walk in the same neighborhood park I grew up playing in; and still imagine my grandmother in the living room, watching her soaps. Winter went by, and then spring. The following summer, I finally felt ready to return to my dad’s laojia.

First Cousin pulled the car into a lot of rusted ingots and parked over a patch of drying wheat. We got out, blinking hard from the bright hot sun, and headed towards the laojia on foot. We bought reams of yellow, tissue-like paper at a convenience store and carried them through empty fields and over bridges. The cemetery was just across the river from the village. Most of my cousins were here in April during the Qingming festival, or “tomb sweeping day”, when about eighty members of the family reunited for several days of feasting and paying respects to ancestors. Following tradition, they swept the family graves but now, just three months later, the cemetery was overgrown again with weeds.

“Where are the goats when you need them,” First Cousin muttered.

“My dress is caught,” Twelfth Cousin complained, wobbling in her platform sandals and trying to unhook her flowery dress from a thorny bush.

“I hate all these insects,” Fifth Cousin said, swatting at gnats and mosquitoes.

Each grave consisted of a concrete mound that resembled a large, hardened anthill, and was marked by a tombstone. There were hundreds scattered across the riverbank. Many were topped with two inverted flowerpots, their bottoms touching. We found our grandparents’ plot, made a clearing in front of the tombstone bearing their names, and began burning stacks of paper to send “money” to them in the afterlife.

The thick smoke made my eyes burn and soon all of us were sweating from the heat of the blaze. To move things along, First Cousin took charge. “Grandpa and Grandma, your grandchildren have come to see you,” he announced. “And one has come all the way from America.”

I had met my grandparents a few times. We couldn’t understand one another, because I didn’t speak the local dialect. Grandpa fell when trying to air out winter blankets, and died a week later in 2005. Grandma outlived him by nearly a decade, but was blind and deaf through most of it. She spent many afternoons sitting in the village with her few surviving friends, cackling away at something only they understood.

“How are you doing on the other side?” First Cousin continued. “We miss you very much.”

“I don’t know how many times our parents told me about those days,” Fifth Cousin said, smiling. “To think, she lived to see ninety. They were real survivors.”

“Your grandmother spent her whole life raising not only her own kids but some of your extended family’s too,” Third Cousin said. “Your grandfather supported six children on ten RMB a month.” That’s less than two dollars today.

I imagined them receiving our paper emissaries. I saw my grandfather spending it on good cigarettes and liquor, my grandma on fatty pork belly. They had no reason not to indulge their worldly vices, now that they had crossed over.

“Everyone, kowtow three times,” First Cousin directed us.

My cousins and I turned to the grave and got on our knees in front of the blackened mass of burnt paper. If any of them felt as self-conscious as I did, I couldn’t tell. I bent over and dipped my head three times, then a few more for good measure.

“Your great-grandfather was a giant of a man,” First Cousin said, as we made our way towards his grave, some fifty paces over. “He could pull a plow as well as an ox, and he ate a whole pot of rice for dinner. The Guomindang was afraid to pillage the village because of him. It’s a pity our Grandpa took after his tiny mother. Right there, a whole genetic line – ruined!

“See that grave over there?” First Cousin pointed. “That’s Grandpa’s younger sister. He had a soft spot for her. I remember—” he stopped and chuckled. “I remember your grandparents fighting many times about her. Why are you so good to her when we don’t have enough to go around, Grandma used to say.”

“I didn’t know that,” Twelfth Cousin said.

“You don’t go to enough family meetings,” First Cousin said. “Look over there. That’s your great-great-grandfather’s brother’s grave. Three of the five brothers are buried here.”

I pictured strong brothers spending their entire lives together, now lying ten meters apart in death. They embodied the Chinese character jia, which doesn’t distinguish between “home” and “family,” because for them and millions of other Chinese peasants, family was home and home was family. I thought of the contrast to Chinese migrants today, my own itinerant life, and of my parents, uprooting themselves to relocate thousands of miles away in an alien land for the sake of a “better” life. I thought of my cousins, and my aunts and uncles, who had dispersed to cities and dreamed of sending their children far away to attend the best schools. It seemed that for all of us, family was growing further away from home.

The six of us walked through the village to visit to my grandparents’ house. No one has lived there since Grandma passed away two years ago. The narrow streets, bleached bone white by the summer sun, were exactly as I remembered it. The courtyard, full of tiles and potted plants, with an outdoor sink and wood-burning stove, looked the same. The same watercolor painting of mountains and charging horses hung on the wall, with calligraphy poems running down both sides. I ran my fingers over the white bust of Mao next to old liquor boxes and green tea tins on the table, and tried to picture my grandmother in her favorite reclining chair, which was now collecting dust.

We studied the family photos on the living room walls. I saw familiar faces at spring festivals, weddings and funerals in the images. There was First Uncle as a young man in his soldier’s uniform, his smooth, unlined face handsome and doll-like. Second Aunt in a red dress on her wedding day. And I even found me, standing with three of my cousins on another visit to the laojia, years ago.

There was weight to the space within that old house that I didn’t feel in the apartments of my relatives in the city, with their cheap plywood floors and flimsy furniture. Perhaps it was because things back then were built to last, while today, they are made to adapt to change. Or perhaps it was the accumulation of so many moments over the years—of joy, pain, sorrow, laughter. Perhaps it was these moments that now lived in the sturdy wood beams and fortified the house with special strength.

I took photos. I sat in the chairs. I lingered with my eyes shut for so long that when First Cousin said “Shall we go?” I thought I had imagined it.

There’s a Chinese saying, luoyeguigen: “A falling leaf returns to its roots.” It means all things go back to their source, as people return to the homes and countries of their birth. I’m one of the lucky ones – I can always return to my laojia. But it doesn’t make leaving it any easier. For my cousins, this house is part of their childhood, little more than an abandoned house with our family pictures on the wall. But for me, it is one of the few remaining threads I have to the world I came from. This is family; this is home. I can sense its presence as well as its fragility. When I leave these doors, itwill recede in my memory like a powerful dream that fades the next morning, or a haunting song on the radio that I won’t find again. The only thing left of this visit will be an imprint that touches me but eludes my grasp.

As we headed back to the city, the mood in the car was one of relief. My cousins were sleepy, and eager to get on with their weekends now that family duties had been fulfilled. I wondered where they will be next time I return. First Cousin has started his own business, growing wheat and rice and raising free-range chickens and pigs. Perhaps he will succeed in growing grapes, or purchase the pond across from his farm for the fishery he has always dreamed of. Fifth Cousin’s tumultuous marriage has stabilized, and her son won second prize in the school art contest. Twelfth Cousin hasn’t met her Prince Charming yet.

My visits over the past fifteen years have been sporadic, but each time I gain a little more self-awareness. I am reminded that I’m not merely a daughter and sister in America, but a niece, cousin, aunt and now great-aunt in China. When I go back, I will encounter new additions and subtractions to the family ledger. We will celebrate the new arrivals and mourn the passed, and I will be reminded that no matter how dislocated I feel when shuffling from one place to another in this ever-shrinking world, there is a strain of continuity that runs within me. It is this family who links my past to my future, who nurture my roots and help me extend my branches.

First Cousin interrupts my reverie. “Guess what we’re getting for you tonight. Your favorite – crayfish!”

“Great,” I say brightly. Some traditions are worth preserving. ∎

A version of this post was first published at the Anthill.