Unlike many places in the world, China had never really pricked my interest. The easy answer was that Chinese were infamous for their lack of civility. But digging deeper, I began to wonder if that was the only reason. I guess as I was growing up, China had seemed like a bland country with tough communist regime. And with the Cultural Revolution that wiped out thousand of years of tradition and legacies, there was just nothing left to prick my interest.
I have put off traveling to China as much as I can, thinking that it would just be one of those countries that I didn’t mind not going; even though the Great Wall is kind of a big deal. But sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you just have to roll with it. I had planned to go to India when a friend proposed he would pay for my flights and accommodation if I went with him to Beijing, China (he doesn’t speak Chinese and I do) and planned his trip for him. So I shelved my India trip and prepared for China.
A bit of history
While doing research on places to go after Beijing, I found out that I have some relative living in Hangzhou, relations from my grandfather’s family. My grandfather came from Fujian province, in southern China, to British Sarawak in the early 1930s. When he passed away I was merely 3 year-old. My father and uncles hardly spoke about our relatives in China. I knew that there was contact, on and off, but I didn’t know how often and I didn’t really bother. It’s like one of those relatives that you know you have but too distant to make a ding in your conscious mind.
But knowing that I was going there somehow made it more than just a ding, it became a bell in my mind; why not make a visit to these unknown relatives. So I dug some information and contact details from my father and uncles before I left for China.
On the train from Beijing to Hangzhou I kept looking at the piece of paper where it was written the name, address and phone number of my “cousin” – his grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. Thoughts were whirling through my mind: would our meeting be awkward? would he be a one of those Chinese who spit every 5 seconds? and most importantly how would we connect? Just drawing on the link to our common ancestor might be too thin a thread to rely on.
When the train arrived in Hangzhou I called my cousin – Qiang, he sounded very excited to meet me. The kind of excitement you get when you are reunited with a childhood friend with whom you had lost contact for a longtime. And this excitement was contagious; it made me excited to meet him too.
I arrived at our agreed meeting place on time. And within seconds, I saw a man of about 40 on a bicycle approaching me with a big smile on his face. He came to me, clasped my extended hand with such warmth as if greeting a long-lost family (Chinese don’t do hugs), which to a certain extend, I was.
Qiang took me to his studio – he’s an artist who does carving on precious stones – and over countless cups of Longjing tea (green tea produced in the area), he told me his story, his family’s stories and asked about mine and my family’s. We are connected by blood but separated by our histories. Qiang was a year older than me, married with a daughter. He and his family knew of us – the relatives in Malaysia – but never really made an effort to make contact beyond the occasional letters because it was difficult for them to travel outside of China. My family did the same for similar reason – Chinese visa bureaucracy in the past was horrendous; the Chinese government treated those who left like traitors to the nation.
Over a dinner that’s fit for a king, Qiang and I continued our chat, drawing lines along the family trees, connecting dots, filling up the void in the family tree with stories. It was exhilarating, as if the more we talk, the more stories we heard from the other, we gain in each other a friend that was already a relative.
The next evening I was invited to his parents’ house for dinner. I was welcomed and greeted with such warmth that I felt like a homecoming prodigal son. But nothing prepared me for the amount of food on the dining table. There were over 15 dishes in all! The meal was excellent, simple home-cooked dishes, the conversations were free-flowing and cordial. But like all Chinese parents, they nicely scolded me when they found out that I’ve been living a life of a nomad rather than having a proper job. For Chinese, and a lot of Asians for that matter, responsibility towards one’s family and society is baggage that is heaved on us since we are young. So to live a nomadic life, without a proper job or raising a family, is frowned upon. I was happy to play the role of the black sheep of the family, even in this extended family. It is a role I know too well.
The evening ended amicably. It is important for the Chinese to keep the peace even if they don’t agree with my lifestyle. I left with many hearty handshakes, telling me that their home was my home as long as I was in Hangzhou. I left with a full stomach and a heart full of familial warmth.
Being with them and in China where my grandfather came from, I was suddenly curious about my grandfather’s life.
Ravaged by civil wars and drought, many people from the southern provinces of Fujian and Guanzhou fled to Southeast Asia looking for new opportunities and better lives. My grandfather, the eldest of 2 siblings, in search of a better life decided to leave China in the early 1930s. He came from quite a well-to-do family, so it took a lot of courage for him to renounce all that he had, braved the deadly crossing of the South China Sea, and started from zero in a foreign land. It wasn’t uncommon for the boats to capsized in their voyages through the rough sea. By the time my grandfather left, he was well in the midst of the 3rd wave of Chinese immigrants to the Malaya archipelago. There were people who had left earlier who made a living from this “trafficking” business. I had no idea how much my grandfather had to pay for the passage to Nanyang – British Malaya, Singapore and Borneo.
At that time Nanyang were kind of booming with their respective industries of tin mining, rubber, petroleum and timber, so there were a lot of work and opportunity. My grandfather, like most Chinese, was very business minded and did very well. He married my grandmother and had 8 children. With his new family he lived the rest of his life in Malaysia. But never had the chance to return to China. He didn’t and couldn’t go back even for his parents’ funerals.
From Qiang’s parents, I found out that my grandfather had sent money, photos and letters to his family in China at regular interval until his death. One evening after dinner, they took out photos my grandfather had sent them from Malaysia. There were 3 photos: one of my grandfather, another of my grandmother and the last one was a family portrait of my grandfather in Malaysia. From the mint condition of those black and white photos I realised how much they treasure them, how much these photos meant to them. Even though they had never met my family they knew and treated us like “family”. That night I gained a deeper understand of family tie.
Upon Qiang’s persistent insistence, I moved into his small cramped apartment. His argument was that I was family and I should stay with family, not in a hotel or guesthouse. After spending a decade on the road, away from family, the bond that binds family members together was something that I needed to get used to. I had known Qiang for only a few days but he was willing to go out of his way to help me, house me, feed me, and give me advice like an elder sibling, etc. took me quite by surprise. He had taken me in like a member of his family. He worried as much about my well-being and my safety in China as my own family would.
It made me wonder: I was a stranger only a few days prior to our meeting. But because of a concept called family tie or blood relation, suddenly I was part of the family. Regardless of what kind of person I was, they welcomed me to their home. There was no interrogation, no background check to make sure that I wasn’t a serial killer or fugitive, etc. No questions asked because I was family. In the course of staying with Qiang, he took me out a few times for drinks, to meet his friends, etc. I’ve come to view those times as a bonding period.
I had always valued friendship above family, because I spent so many years of my life away from mine. But since returning to Asia 2 years ago, I’ve re-learned the value and importance of family tie. A tie that I used to think as a stumbling block – because of the family baggage that most Asians carry – but have come to understand it better and learning to appreciate it.
A different perspective
When the time finally came for me to leave Hangzhou Qiang and his family drove me, through clogged traffic and incessant rain, to the train station 20km outside of Hangzhou city. Uncle and Auntie gave me so much food and snacks I could feed a small village. Qiang told me I should come back soon and I’d always have a home with them.
We choose our friends based on shared interests, shared history, etc. But we don’t get to choose our family, so we accept them as they come, in all shapes and sizes; in their perfections as well as imperfections. Even though we might not have any common interests or topic of conversation, we stuck with them just because they are family.
On the train leaving Hangzhou, my thoughts were as messy as on the way there but the difference was that now I viewed Hangzhou as a ‘home’. I knew that whatever happened to me in China, I could always go back and find safe haven there.
I’ve also found a new curiosity about my grandfather’s hometown in Fujian province. The next time I go back to China, I’ll make a trip there. In an attempt to touch the past, to understand the beginning of a history that culminate in me being born in Borneo and making this trip ‘back’ to China.