Driving 90 kilometers an hour on the wrong side of the road, the world was passing by me in a rapid blur of green. I felt like an outsider, viewing the world from the air-conditioned comforts of the black car. We were visiting my father’s hometown, Ning Xiang.
The car bumped along the gravel-paved roads until we stopped at a run down area. The sun blazed down unmercifully as we stepped out of the car and walked towards a small square. Long untamed grasses rubbed against our legs as we walked passed derelict pasty houses. Chili peppers were strewn out on the front porch of each house, gold and red shriveling, a sprinkling of white seeds. Laundry hung out on a line, a procession of white and red undergarments for the world to see.
It’s a simple life. The driver told me, as I saw two boys searching through the grass for frogs. Families gathered outside to play cards on rickety old tables and makeshift stools, fanning themselves with fans made from woven grass. When they saw my father they rushed to receive him. They were so happy, bright glassy eyes peering from tan faces, darkened by many hard days work in the sun. I looked at their simple attire of dull colors and felt like an alien in our somewhat formal clothes.
My father asked about the families that used to live in the area and an old couple invited us into their home, a dark modest house with handmade bamboo chairs and beds. I had not known austere until I saw their bare walls and dusty floors. They talked of the old days, of my father’s family when they used to live there. Hometown hospitality, I thought, as the old lady brought out glasses of water with roots floating at the bottom. But we couldn’t stay; it was a busy day, my father said, so we took one last picture. I can still see the photograph clearly in my mind, an old man and his wife standing in the dark house, my entire family crowded around, the emerald fields peering from the open doorway. Such simplicity, such contentment. We said we’d be back, but I think we all knew that we’d never return.
Sitting in the car I wondered what it was like for my father to come back to the place where he grew up, wondered if he felt as out of place as I did. I closed my eyes and thought about what we looked like to the old couple as our car made its way through the dusty town, past the miles of green grasses that reached towards the sun.
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