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Returning to Where I've Never Been

Blast San Francisco Bureau

Enping, China - For a few minutes my grand aunt is speechless. "Shue King, Shue King (my mother's name)" are the only words she can utter after seeing my mom.

Grand aunt Yan Jauk Wai, choking with emotion and clutching my mother's arm tightly, eventually finds the words to express her feelings. "I've been waiting, hoping, so long for you to visit," she says. "It's been so long."

My mom is flashing the widest smile I think I've ever seen on her face. "This is my youngest," she says to Yan Jauk, pointing to me.

I stare at this new face, straining to see any resemblance to my grandmother. I can see it - in her smile, in the way her hair is pulled back. I'm elated to finally meet her, but feel some sadness as well. I'm flooded with memories of po po (grandma), who died seven years ago. Po po had moved to Gold Mountain (United States) in the 1950s for a better life. She had helped raise me as a child, and at age 83 she passed away. Yet Yan Jauk - po po's younger sister - is still quite spry at 93, walking with the help of a cane and still doing some household chores. It doesn't seem fair. I miss po po.

But I'm not going to let a dark cloud hang over my first trip to heong ha (ancestral village), a place I've heard about all of my life.

Heong ha for us is about 80 miles west of Guangzhou, a two-hour drive on the new highway. More specifically, my family is from Lu Chuon, a small-farming enclave outside of what is now the bustling city Enping.

For me, heong ha had been just stories. My mother told me about carrying water back to the house in buckets that were hooked to the end of a pole slung across the shoulders, planting rice seedlings in knee-deep mud, surviving the Japanese invasion, the famines and eating rats to survive.

If you've moved away and left village life behind, it usually means you've prospered - especially if you've made it to Gold Mountain as my family has. When you return, you give something back.

Some of the streets have been paved with gum saan money. My dad's Fung Cheong Kwan, an Enping native who now lives in Hong Kong, gave the biggest donation toward the construction of a new school and it was named in his honor. A returning villager passes out lai see (red good luck envelopes with money in them) to all the neighbors.

It's been about 10 years since my mother last visited, but she immediately recognizes the old house where she'd lived some 40 years ago. This house started my family on its sojourn to the United States, so there's a specialness to it. It's a small, stone-block dwelling with one room that serves as living room and dining room. There's a small kitchen in one of two entrance ways. In the big room, there's a faucet with a handle that you pump to bring a gush of water into a rectangular sink cut into the stone floor. It's the only running water in the house. Behind the kitchen, a doorway leads to a small bedroom. A rickety staircase leads up to another bedroom with a terrace.

It is a festive occasion when returnees from Gold Mountain visit. Following Buddhist custom, we bring along an offering of roast pork and a roast duck to be used to bless the home and honor ancestors. We light incense and place the food on a table which has been moved to the center of the room.

Three tiny cups are filled with rice wine. Three bowls of rice and some pastries complete the spiritual feast. Standing behind the table, we place our hands together and bow to pay our respects to ancestors and pray for continued prosperity. Then we light firecrackers at both doorways of the house to scare away evil spirits.

My mother leads me on a tour and upstairs she excitedly points out the bed she slept in and the dresser she received as a wedding gift from her mother in-law. After all these years, the bed and dresser have remained. The wood canopy that covers the bed is chipped and fading. The dresser shows the wear and tear of the decades. Nonetheless, they are still there.

My family now lives an entirely different life in an entirely different world, but in a way, we are still there as well.

Now that I've seen it with my own eyes, I truly understand why heong ha is so important to people from Guangdong Province. Heong ha is the beginning. A common question among Cantonese (people from Guangdong) is what village you're from. Whether your family has moved to Guangzhou, Hong Kong or Gold Mountain, heong ha is where you are from even if you've never set foot there. It's a sense of community that I've rarely experienced in the United States.