ROSE E. LEE, former curator of Asian art at the Denver Art Museum, now lives in Seoul, Korea, with her scholar-husband, Steven Butler. A native of China, she recently revisited her childhood village.
I HAD NO DESIRE to return to Taishan, the poor, dusty, superstitious place in China's Guangdong province that I once called home. What if I met the yellow ghost that haunts the road leading to my village? Or encountered the mountain tiger that dines on kids who don't get home before nightfall? What if I slipped again into the irrigation ditch and came out covered with leeches?
The ghosts and demons of my Chinese childhood aside, I also knew that I'd have to pay for my visit. Although the Lees and Wus have been steadily emigrating for years, the relatives still living in the family villages would expect me to come laden with gifts.
When my husband and I went to the China Travel Bureau in Hong Kong for visas, we were directed to the >huachiao, or overseas-Chinese department. By contrast with the regular international section for non-Chinese one floor below, the section was furnished for business.
Near the door was a large glass counter filled with a glittering assortment of watches, cigarette lighters, calculators and pen sets. A wall case showed off state-of- the-art radio-cassette players, electric fans, rice cookers and the like, with photographs of refrigerators, TV sets, washing machines and other appliances on top of the case.
The clerk asked: "Do you want to order some things and pick them up at customs in Canton? Buying gifts for relatives is now very convenient through China Travel. In the past, huachiaode and drag them into China themselves."
I admired the hard-sell to get foreign currency for China, but my husband and I had agreed not to buy consumer gadgets for my relatives. How could they ever get them serviced on the farm? We would take sweets as token gifts of greeting and make the rest of our tribute in cold cash.
Four days later, we were seated among other huachiao train bound for Canton, the transfer point in China for other destinations. We attached China Travel Bureau stickers to our jackets and were greeted in Canton by the bureau's agents and a Toyota van.
As the van negotiated the chaotic streets delivering its load of huachiao returnee seated behind me kept up a running commentary on the cityscape unfolding before us.
"Aiyah, they're building some nice-looking apartments! Wow, look at the meats and vegetables those peddlers are selling on that curb! As fresh as any sold in Hong Kong, what? A chrysanthemum show at the park? Aiyah, look at those men up on the scaffolding polishing the brass shop signs! They're really sprucing up the place."
I eyed the shabby buildings and decided that Canton needed a lot more than just sprucing up. The more interesting and architecturally worthy structures dated to pre-Revolution days. They were made of brick and stone and had badly deteriorated.
Squeezed among these two- sexless concrete structures erected since the Revolution. They, too, had a worn and seedy look. Towering over them were a few Soviet-inspired official buildings from the 1950s, and some recently built tourist hotels. More high-rises were going up, financed with overseas-Chinese money. The city had the boom-town confusion of a decayed metropolis from a simpler era, suddenly invited to join the modern age.
The first relatives to reach us at our Canton hotel were my
paternal aunt, who is a
"cadre" (Communist Party
functionary), and her 29-
year-old son, who is a
computer scientist. "We got
your telegram this morning,
and rushed over from work.
Ah, you look just like your
mother!" We asked them to
The hotel restaurant was packed. Normally we could have had one of the tables reserved for people paying in wai-hui-zhun certificates), but tonight that whole section of the restaurant was monopolized by a raucous wedding party. At last my cousin pulled rank and secured a table near the kitchen.
After helping us order a substantial dinner, my aunt announced that she and my cousin had already eaten. It was the old "show-excessive-politeness-at-table" routine that regularly afflicts middle-class Chinese. I spent the rest of the meal heaping food onto their plates.
My aunt was a plain, plumpish woman of 55 or so. For most of her life she has worked for a state-owned publishing house where her late husband held a top position. Several years ago, she surprised everyone by turning up -- without English or knowledge of Western marketing techniques -- in New York as a sales representative for her company in America. Her stay was cut short by a telegram from Canton that her husband had suffered a stroke.
Despite her rush home, she managed to stop off in Hong Kong long enough to buy a Sony color TV set, a refrigerator, a quartz wall clock and toys for their grandchildren.
"Come tomorrow for dinner and meet my grandchildren," said my aunt. "Or would you rather spend tomorrow with your grandmother? She's just an er-po grandmother, or concubine), but she did raise you here in Canton for four years until they took you back to your father's village for school. You haven't forgotten her, have you?" How could I forget? My father had returned to Guangdong in the late 1940s as a dashing bachelor with an American passport and had married my mother. I was born, and when the Communist armies moved south, my parents hastily left for America. En route, they stopped off at my maternal grandfather's flat in Canton and left me with Er-po.
"I want to see Er-po, but I also want to meet your grandchildren. How about taking us to Er-po's in the morning, and then going to your house for lunch?" Before she could protest, I slipped about $50 worth of foreign exchange certificates into her pocket and told her to use them for tomorrow's groceries. (It was actually our tribute to her, and she would probably use it to cover a couple of months' groceries for her family of eight.)
With my aunt navigating through the morning traffic, the taxi driver managed to find Er-po's flat in an alley off a busy market street in an old section of Canton. As we approached the dilapidated two-story brick building on foot, neighbors scurried out of sight and children circled, shouting, "Grandma! Grandma! Your daughter's here! She's come back, she's come back to see you!"
A plump old lady of about 70, clad in baggy black Chinese
pajamas, emerged and
directed us up an unlighted
flight of loose wooden stairs.
I would say that the old
flat was just as I remembered
it -- except that I had no
memory of it at all, except for
the balcony. I spent hours
playing with marbles there,
and I was glad to see it still intact, though the floor tiles had crumbled and the ornate railing had turned rusty.
Today, Er-po had a winter's supply of fish hanging out to dry in the sun. Seeing me stare at the balcony, Er- po said, "You once swallowed a big marble on a dare from a playmate out there. Do you remember? I was sure your growth would be stunted for life, but I see you've grown tall and pretty like your mother. It must be the American milk."
I chuckled to myself. I am an avid milk drinker, but I stand only one inch taller than five feet, short by American standards. Suddenly, it felt good to be back in China.
Er-po brought out some chipped porcelain cups and offered us tea, but what she poured out of the old teapot was plain hot water. I sipped my "tea" slowly and caught up with Er-po's life. "After you were taken from me, I continued to work at my old job as a silk embroiderer. My eyesight failed and I retired on my pension. When it became obvious that your grandfather would not return from Hong Kong, I decided to rent parts of the flat to other people. That's why you see padlocks on the door of each room."
My grandfather had doted on her and had kept her in his Canton flat. However, it was not she but my Tai-po (first grandmother, and grandfather's legal wife) who bore his children and ruled over the family house in Taishan, where it really counted.
Er-po had enjoyed a few years of family honor when my father left me in her care. Except for that, she has lived most of her life as the Other Woman -- neglected, alone, and most pitiable of all in China -- without the security of children to take care of her in old age.
If Er-po harbored ill feelings, she did not show them. Throughout the visit, she impressed me as an inent woman who had taken resonsibility for her life and was living it with dignity.
When I handed her our tribute (I doubled the amount I'd had in mind), she took it without protest. My aunt watched the transaction with hawk eyes and, satisfied that I had paid my proper respects to Er-po, rushed us off to her flat for lunch.
At 7 the next morning, my husband and I waited outside the hotel for my maternal uncle to arrive and escort us all the way back to my family villages. He had taken three days off from work at a machine factory where he was a section chief.
He suggested we hire a car for the rough trip ahead. We agreed, even though the cost was more than my uncle would usually make in a month. Even by taxi, the 60- mile trip took five tiring hours over roughly paved roads, clogged bridges and rickety car ferries.
It was noon when we arrived at the hotel for huachiao in Taishan. No one knew we were coming and my uncle thought it would be to disruptive to just show up unannounced, so we agreed he would bicycle out to consult with both sides of the family, and return that evening with a schedule.
IT TOOK more than an hour for our hired van to make the 12 miles from town to my father's village. Finally, we pulled into the Lee family hamlet of 20 or so old houses, nestled under some high mountains. All sorts of kin came out to greet us.
A small, weathered woman of 55 or so emerged from the house where I was born. "Welcome! Welcome!" she said, "Remember me? I'm your father's brother's wife. Aiyah, you look just like your mother! Here comes your uncle now!"
Followed by a noisy entourage of relatives (some of the aunties had already started an argument over who knew me best as a child), I was ushered into the brick house that my great-grandfather had built for his newly married sons some 60 years before. It was a one-story structure built around a large, central, multipurpose room.
This room served as a living, dining and storage area. The family shrine was at the back; above was a loft for storage of foodstuffs and tools. At the front end of the room, under an open skylight, was a drain, fashioned from stones quarried from the mountains behind the house. The household millstone and chicken coops were there as well. To the left and right of this big common room were the sleeping and cooking quarters.
In my grandfather's time, he and his family of five used the bedroom and kitchen on one side of the central room, while his brother and family occupied the same two rooms on the other side. Today, the entire complex is lived in by my great-uncle's family.
Oddly, all of these people consider my grandfather, and not my great-uncle, as the patriarch of the house. On the living room wall, at the top of a pyramid of family photographs, hangs a faded, hand-colored picture of my late grandfather in 1940s Western clothes, seated next to my equally dandyish father.
Had anything changed in the house? "Yes!" came a chorus of voices. "We now have electricity. It's not always reliable, but we are glad to get the extra hours of light in the evening to do chores. Remember how you used to collect jars of fireflies, thinking that if you had enough you could read your comics at night? Children these days don't have to do that anymore."
As my aunt's daughters-in- law fed bundles of dry mountain grass into the brick stove, making a big, hot fire for an early lunch of stir-fry dishes, I walked around the village.
Like my house, the village had not changed much either. It was the same sleepy old place, with cluttered dirt lanes separating one household from another. The houses are made of gray brick, roofed with ceramic tiles of the same color.
Some outer walls were decorated with panels painted with landscapes. The tallest structure in the village is a five-story watch tower where the villagers slept before the Revolution to protect themselves from bands of roving bandits.
At lunch, all the men and senior women sat at my table, while the younger women and their babies sat at a second table. (The older children had been sent to school, after first stuffing their pockets with "sweets from America.") The meal was coarse, but deliciously prepared from home-grown foods. It centered around a freshly killed chicken.
I was told to eat lots of the chicken, because "it has led a happy, rustic life free from needles (hormone injections), ice (refrigeration), and jail (being cooped up)."
The Lees are aggressive talkers, so the table conversation was lively. The women reminisced about my two years in the village (was I
really that mischievous, and had they really indulged me that much?) and the men speculated about life in the outside world.
Listening to their talk, punctuated with flamboyant gestures of the hands or face, I felt it was just like being around a group of my father's relatives in the States.
While the last cups of luncheon tea were being poured from a teapot decorated with red medallions of Chairman Mao, I took some family photos. Drawing the women into one of the side bedrooms, I handed over some foreign exchange certificates. My husband and I then went to the waiting van.
The relatives gathered round, waving goodbye and plotting my next visit. "Goodbye! Goodbye! Come back with a baby! And bring your sister! Bring your husband, too. He doesn't speak our kind of Chinese, but he's a good fellow."
Twenty minutes later we pulled into Wu village after a roller-coaster ride over narrow mud paths.
Wu village easily had three or four times the population of Lee village. Its gray brick houses, similar in style to those in Lee village, shared common walls and were packed together. The alley leading to my mother's house was no wider than five feet.
I had no memory of my mother's house, so I was surprised to walk in and find a copy of my father's place, only twice as large. A second story had been added, with extra bedrooms and a loft that housed an elaborate shrine to my great-grandfather. From there, a short stairway led to the roof, which was used for summer sleeping and year-round drying of laundry and foodstuffs.
My grandfather had four children and was himself the oldest of nine siblings, so the house had been built to accommodate a large family.
The house seemed almost abandoned on the afternoon of our visit. The feeling of space was magnified by the tidy housekeeping. In contrast to my father's house, accumulated dirt and clutter, my mother's house was neat and the red terra cotta floors were scrubbed clean.
If I hadn't known that my uncle and his family were classified by the government as pin nong ("poor peasants"), I might have thought this was the house of a bourgeois. There were a few pieces of hardwood furniture in the house and the walls were tastefully decorated with framed silk embroideries as well as the usual colorful calendar-art posters.
My wizened Tai-po was waiting for us in the central room downstairs. With her was a tiny, soft-spoken woman of about 40. My uncle introduced her as his ai-ren ("lover"), a term used since the Revolution for one's spouse.
Tai-po was 84 years old, frail, and a little hard of hearing. She thanked my husband for bringing me across "rivers and rivers of water" to see her, asked about each of her daughters and grandchildren in America, and then sat as others wandered in and took over the conversation.
I didn't hear another peep out of her until I casually mentioned to the group that I had been to see Er-po in Canton. Tai-po shot up and exclaimed. "You went to see that . . . that hussy?!"
I almost choked on the tangerine I was eating. After all these years, Tai-po had not accepted her city rival. Didn't she know that it was she and not Er-po who has enjoyed a life of honor, respect and security?
It was she who entered Wu village in the 1920s with pomp and ceremony as my grandfather's first wife. It was she who bore three clever daughters who have been sending remittances back to see her through most of her later life. It was she who had a son to tend to her affairs and a docile daughter-in-law to see to her creature comforts in old age. And when the time comes, it will be she who will be buried in Wu village beside my grandfather. I never knew Tai-po very well. Even when I lived in Lee village, I was taken to see her only once or twice a year. That was as it should be. I was born in Lee village, and was that village's child, or property. With a father in America, I also became that village's investment.
Among the more painful memories of my childhood were the occasional spats between the Lees and the Wus over my custody. In the end, the Lees won out, and it is now said that I have more of my father's than my mother's personality.
The sun was beginning to wane over Wu village, and the driver started to fuss about driving back in the dark. I said my goodbyes and handed Tai-po the same amount of money I had given to Er-po -- $155 worth of wai- hui-zhun, enough to live comfortably on for a year.
Tai-po protested that it was too much, so I told her to share it with my uncle. Uncle will need the money to repair my great-grandfather's house next door before moving the family permanently out of the village.
The roof of the house has collapsed, but once it is fixed, great-grandfather's ghost should be appeased and there would be no problem getting cousins to live there, and in my uncle's house as well. I had thought that this all sounded like a lot of bother over nothing, but my uncle corrected me. "One must leave the ancestral home with everything in order if one wishes to have an auspicious beginning elsewhere, and a trouble-free return in the future."
Back home in Seoul, I called my father to relay all the messages I had for him from China. After hearing me out, he asked, incredulously, "You mean you have no message from my sister who married into Ma village? You went all the way to Taishan and didn't see her? Why, when you were a babe in arms, she used to go out of her way to . . . "
I wondered: What ancestral home had I left in disarray to deserve this?