The sun is blazing, and the humidity is turned up a thousand notches. However, my Western sensibilities remain undisturbed, as my mind is a preoccupied whirlwind of endless thoughts and emotions. Our cab ventures through narrow, bumpy dirt road after dirt road, passing rice field after rice field, farm after farm, and worn-down house after house. Poverty is everywhere, so rampant and anachronistic in this day and age. There is no hint of modern civilization or technology anywhere. I’m going back in time, back, back, back to the very root of where everything began.
My grandparents made a sacrifice for their future generations by leaving this village in hope of a better life. As I stare at the filthy, impoverished houses, I can’t help but wonder how some poor, Chinese villagers from nowhere had the audacity, grit, and determination to leave the village where years and years of family history are woven into the rich, Southern Chinese soil.
I recall Wang Lung from The Good Earth, who became wealthy, forgetting his humble beginnings and everything he valued as a simple, humble farmer. As quite prominent Chinese-Americans, we remember this story’s teachings, and believe remembering our modest beginnings and giving thanks to those who came before is crucial. After all, all we are we owe to them. Therefore, our presence requires an elaborate Bai San ceremony with food, drink, incense, and money burning to express our unyielding ancestral respect and remembrance.
We venture further and encounter farmers, tanned by the unrelenting sun, wearing straw hats, and laying harvested rice on the road to dry.
Out of nowhere, the heavens begin pouring. The farmers frantically begin sweeping and covering the rice. Rain is friend and foe as it is prayed for during growing season, but unappreciated when packing, as rain is moisture, and moisture is mold.
My mom races out of the cab and begins to help sweep the billions of grains of rice. The farmers stare incredulously. Who is this strange woman who offers unwanted help? I watch, astounded, as one farmer recognizes my mother, and immediately, everyone starts laughing and reminiscing about old times in loud, joyous, Tai Shan dialect. I smile and grab a broom as I dumbly realize–these are my people!
The downpour ceases. Everyone throws down their brooms, looks at me, at my mom, and then back at me. They welcome me with real Southern Chinese warmth and enthusiasm. But, I cannot offer a reply in return; it is an awkward, disconnected moment as they realize, disappointed, that the land of the Gold Mountain failed to teach me the culture and language of our ancestors. I feel out of place with my American clothes, shoes, and mannerisms. For once, I truly regret not learning the language.
A peek into my mom’s village house reveals incredible filth and a collapsing roof. There are unused cooking coals, lucky red posters, and pictures of my parents, brother, and me, ruined by the humidity, gracing the gray brick walls. We Bai San and burn incense.
There is a strange atmosphere here. Years of family history surround and overwhelm me with inexpressible emotions.
It began here. But what future would there be if it ended here?
Cultural differences and language barriers separate me from my own people. I don’t even know them; they hardly know me. But, I have an undeniable, indelible belonging here, with countless stories waiting to be told. As the incense burns, I close my eyes, inhale the smoky trails that venture into the heavens, and remember that although I come a different place, I come from here.
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