Although one of the main reasons to come to China was the chance to cover the historic Olympics in Beijing, another reason, just as important, was to meet relatives for the first time. In Guangzhou, I met my father’s eldest sister and her family. They were generous with their time and hospitality, showing me around the city and treating me to meals (at restaurants and in their home).
Here in Shanghai, where my grandmother and mother are from, relatives have shown the same kind of generosity and kindness. For three days I was given a tour of the city, lavished with more food than I could possibly consume (see photo above) and treated like a guest of honor.
It’s been an illuminating — and humbling — experience. The only regret is that it took me this long — 28 years — to visit China and meet my family here. It’s good to know that many of them have enjoyed the fruits of the market economy in the last decade or so and have not been passed by. Like millions and millions of other Chinese they endured the hardships and destitution of the past 50 years. Life was ku — very bitter. Now, my great uncle and aunts see their grandchildren holding down office jobs or studying abroad.
Although it is cliche to say so, it’s been important to see where my family came from. To see where everything started and compare it with where everyone is now. I was taken to my grandmother’s house in Pudong, about 45 minutes from the city center. The house, more than 100 years old, is now sandwiched by new buildings and apartments.
It looks pretty derelict now, but my uncle told me (confirmed by my grandmother) that the house used to be the best in the neighborhood. It also had another building in the middle (where my mother and her sister slept), now replaced by one of those uniform gray buildings. The house — still home to two families — will likely be demolished in the next couple years.
And just like that, history fades away in the wake of progress.
But one thing I will take away from this trip and will always remember are the lasting family bonds, the way I’ve been treated even though I’m virtually a stranger, the only connection being a distant relative: the grandson — one of of 14 — of their eldest sister. That’s more important than relics and crumbling houses. The way I’ve been treated is more of a testament of the strong, enduring relationship between my grandmother and her siblings. And the relationship between my father and his sister.
My grandmother’s siblings — her younger brother is 90, a sister is in her 80s and another is in her 70s — desperately want to see their sister (who’s 92) in person. One last time.
I hope they get that chance.