July 30th, 2011


Owed and given.

I owe a lot updates - on my brother and mom's visit, on visiting my grandfather's ancestral village, and on meeting some of my relatives for the first time. I'm behind on a lot of things, really. I owe peer edits to colleagues, and data analysis to coworkers, and emails to friends. But they've waited this long; they will wait another night.

Rainclouds cover Beijing tonight. No thunderstorms. Just a steady, easy rainfall. I danced all evening - first the single-minded focus of basic exercises, next easing into the movement of warm-ups, and then my muscles emerging raggedly into awareness. Even four hours later I was only just beginning to find myself. I was lucky enough to meet a NY-based dancer who was visiting the Beijing studio, and we worked the choreography a bit after the group lesson. I love that first connection, relish the moment when hands meet and two people settle into frame. There's a gentleness in the motion.  Each person tunes in to the other's movement, and then the music sweeps in. There are a thousand things missing too, but they are the things that come with time (and for me, being a better dancer), and much can't be helped yet. And so for now, it is only this: foxtrot, gentle rain, and possibility. I think: this is happiness.

Zhanghuashan, China: Week 10, Part 1 (We Are What Has Been Built)

Old buildings, in China, fall before the new. Outside of Hunchun, mud walls crumbled before concrete ones. On the outskirts of Ningbo, it is also happening. A horizon that used to stretch straight with farmland now adds circumference with the rise of apartment buildings and office towers.

Like all cities that back against cropland, Ningbo and its surroundings are dusted with perpetual grit. Ningbo, though, is also crowned with neon lights and rampant commercialism. It has its pockets of sanity along the river by the Old Bund, and some might say, in the villages that it threatens to subsume.

One such village, Zhanghuashan, is narrowly ringed on all sides by other small villages. They are expanding like bacteria colonies on a shared petri dish. Soon they will all be one, and who knows what they will call themselves then. But in the late 1200s, my maternal grandfather's ancestors - two brothers from the Zhang family, Zhang Shi Jie and Zhang Shi Ying - married the sisters of a local family (named Yu), settled the rich land and named the town.

The old entrance gate to Zhanghuashan

My great-great-grandfather built the area's first school there, and from 1911-1960, every man and woman in the village had at least a middle school education. He told my great-grandfather, "when you go abroad, save your money and bring it back to do good in the village." My great-grandfather was the first in the village to have a graduate degree, and he also averted a cholera outbreak by showing those in his village how to relocate outhouses away from the creek where they washed their food.

 The creek still "runs" through the town

Because of who my great-grandfather was, and who my great-great-grandfather was, the village head and his entire office staff accompanied my mother, brother and I on our visit. They drove us around the narrow streets in a big black car, and treated us to a lavish lunch.  I wondered what the locals must think of us, but I could not ask. They all speak the deep local dialect, a variant of Shanghainese. The elder members never learned Mandarin Chinese, and when most village residents speak it, it is strongly accented and near impossible for me to understand.

Churchhill said once, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."  Today's schools are mostly undecorated, choosing to emphasize the learning and technology within. But then, the building itself was a point of pride. I awkwardly paid my respects to the village's spirits at the shrine, and then rambled around the courtyard. The people who'd taken up house in the old classrooms crowded outside their doors and their eyes followed me.  I felt deep in my ancestor's mind. He had birds painted under the eaves all along the perimeter, hundreds of species. Two dragons curled like seahorses atop the roof,  from each corner sprang forth a coiled phoenix, a billowing cloud, and under the eaves drifted lotus flower ponds. Symbols all - of prosperity and longevity, of peace, of enlightenment, and of harmony. I imagined the spaces with its students, and books brought by my great-grandfather from Shanghai. One time they were not faded by the smoke of wood fires and cigarettes, the paintings were once warm and lifelike.

What buildings become

My great-grandfather's old house was there too, and the young woman told us, "next time you come back, this will probably be gone." I snapped photos, but I didn't really know why. I felt it was the school building that really mattered. But my family and I are the only ones who feel that way. This is the way of the immigrant. When we return, generations later, we have no power to claim this physical representation of family history for our own. We have only money. In China, this might buy us influence, but it cannot buy a building. I won't be long - in my lifetime, surely - when someone realizes the land is worth more as a grocery store than as a historical building-turned-housing complex. And then, like mud walls tumbling, this little insight into a long-ago man's mind, will join the rest of the dust that settles over Ningbo.

Robert and I under our great-grandfather's name

Shanghai, China: Week 10, Part 2 (The Distance that Roots Grow)

How unlikely relatives are! With this connection, it is entirely appropriate that I walked up to strangers, embraced them, and treated them instantly with my most utter respect. That I was taken immediately into confidence, and that I searched for and found (within minutes of meeting) pieces of myself in the face and character of those strangers.

This is Shanghai, and I am irrevocably strung to this city. There are over 23 million people there, and in the faceless mass of population, my relatives fling themselves forward, claiming their identity.

There are many family stories buried in the relationships between my relatives in Shanghai. Although I have heard some of the details of what today's generation terms coarsely as "drama," I cannot judge what is truthful and what has sprung from decades living in the constant change of China's history. This branch of my family went through the Japanese invasion, The Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, Open Door Policy and now, Shanghai's great prosperity. My grandmother's three siblings (two older sisters and one younger brother) watched my grandmother leave for America. How could they know that within 5 years, China's borders would be shut, and that they would never again live together? Both sisters were women of extraordinary beauty. Like my grandmother, one sister married an academic.  But she never had children, and then they put her husband into a labor camp where he pulled carts with a shoulder harness. Some of his colleagues never recovered use of their necks. How could she have foreseen how the difficulties would change her? The younger brother's family worked their way from poverty to prosperity over the last three decades as successful restauranteurs. In their newest restaurant  - they welcomed us, treated us to a menu of Shanghai's up-and-coming culinary creations that they'd selected for us, and showed us how good life can be in Shanghai today.

My great aunt in her mid-twenties. and, My grandmother and her sisters, 9 years ago.

In two short days, I found myself threaded into their lives. Like my grandmother, her sisters (ages 89 and 92), live on their own. You may think that a 89 year old woman with a bad hip has no business cooking soup on a 90 degree day in an AC-less apartment, but you will never convince my great-aunt of this. Nor will you be permitted to lift a finger to help a 92-year-old carry her things, because she already has a fabulous system of storing her bags in her rolling walker. Their hearing is impeccable, their health is good, they have no eye problems or tooth problems. Am I made of this stuff? I wonder. They are ferociously independent, proud of it, and yes, still beautiful. Their memories are long, as are their emotions.

Mom and her aunts (my great-aunts).

My great-uncle is 75, and has a full head of long, grey hair. My grandmother was an artist, but he loved acting and music. He peers at me later, across the couch we share, as if trying to figure out what I mean. Who are you? Why have you come?

I know that I don't have a real answer. How lame to say: I just wanted to know you.

It is exhausting, all of it. To hear the stories, to meet all these strangers who are inside of me, to constantly be translating in my head and asking the right questions to understand them. I know them, because they are coursing below my skin. And yet, I don't know them at all. I know less about their thoughts than someone I met last week. They have no idea about me. They think I "count tigers" for a living and tell me I look like a foreigner. That is, when they're not telling me I most resemble their niece (this news excites me at first - I look like I'm part of the family at least! Then they reveal that this niece is half-Russian). 

But I would make this trip over a thousand times if given the choice. I wrote in a letter to a friend today, now I understand why the places we came from are called "roots."
When you grow up in America, 3rd generation in a family with a culture of immigration, your "family reunions" are very small. They involve immediate family only - because everyone else is just too far away. So you grow up, and all you know about where you came from is a state, or a city. You know a generation or two. I never understood how my long-standing American friends had so many cousins and uncles and aunts - how could they possibly have a family reunion with 200 people in it? 
My family in America is a true gift. We love,and take care of, and trust, one another. Because of them, I was able to take this trip and find out that I, too, have an enormous extended family. It's geography, not force of emotion, that comes between us.

As I left Shanghai I felt the sensation of being closer to the earth, grounded. My relatives are cool, in the most California-praiseworthy sense of the word. And I am thrilled to think that because I now know them, so will every next generation of my family in the U.S. I hope they will know these deep, strong roots even better than I do.

(back) Mom, my 2nd cousin who helps run the restaurant, Robert and me. (front) my grandmother's oldest sister, her younger brother