The Way to Come Home - Tracing China's Past (Part 5)

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(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Thursday, April 22, 2010)

March 28, 2008
Overseas Chinese Hotel
Bok Sa Town, Toishan County, Guangdong Province, China

In the town of Bok Sa, I'm not merely one of the few foreigners: I'm the only non-Chinese foreigner. As such, I've become an instant celebrity. Last night, our plump, smiling, short-haired, crooked-toothed waitress explained that many Overseas Chinese come here from America, but they all speak Chinese and they all look Chinese. That's why the people in this town keep staring at me, not quite as often as people stared the last time I came to China, but just as boldly and just as unsmilingly. I keep trying the advice I saw in a blog post; another traveler in China said a big smile would draw one in return. So, instead of looking away, or staring back with the same stony eyes, I smile. Nothing. They just keep staring.

Many Overseas Chinese come from America to stay at the Overseas Chinese Hotel, but they all speak Chinese and they all look Chinese.

On the other hand, when I arrived, the proprietors of the Overseas Chinese Hotel, Mr. Wong and Mrs. Ma, smiled and chattered, forward and friendly, as they tried to figure out how I might find the family of my great-grandfather, Ma Bing Sum. I tried to explain that I didn't expect to find his relatives, that I merely hoped to find his village, Gong Hao. Fiona translated their reply, "They are only used to people who come here to find their family." In my case, this seems impossible.

My great-grandfather once cried in front of his daughter Leila, when he read a newspaper from Toishan County and saw an obituary for his last surviving relative. He told her that's when he knew: there wasn't a soul left in China who knew him or was related to him. His only remaining ties to this planet are American. But I couldn't dissuade the relentlessly helpful Mr. Wong and Mrs. Ma, who continued staring at my old photo of Ma Bing Sum, as they talked about the many Ma people of Gong Hao. Ma is the primary family name in this area, although there are also plenty of Wongs and Liangs.

As we walked upstairs, a middle-aged Chinese man on the stairway overheard me speaking English, turned, and widened his eyes at my un-Chinese face. He remarked with surprise on my visiting this remote place.

"I'm here to find my family," he said.

"Me, too!" I said, pressing a hand to my chest.

"This is my first time ever coming back here," he said.

"Me, too!" I said again.

"My family name is Ma," he said.

I practically squealed, "Me, too!"

Two of his male relatives joined us on the landing, and we all began puzzling over the name Ma Bing Sum, a.k.a. Ben Mar. A tall, stoop-shouldered, balding man of 50 or so said that his grandfather was born in 1882. My great-grandfather was born in 1887. "Maybe they knew each other," I said, grinning. But the coincidences ended there.

The first man had just arrived the day before, but he was already leaving. "This is a very backwards town," he said. His tone and tipped brows told me to heed this warning and get out as soon as I failed to find whatever I was looking for. I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach that hasn't left since.

The sight of our dismal rooms didn't make me feel much better. The stiff twin beds had mattresses so thin that I would feel every spring etching circular patterns into my back throughout the night. Mrs. Ma put on the pathetic bedding while we watched: a white hanky of a sheet and a flat little pillow. Not trusting the cleanliness or history of the sheets, I would sleep in my sleeping bag.

The stiff twin beds had mattresses so thin that I would feel every spring etching circular patterns into my back throughout the night.

Looking out my window at the impoverished streets of town, with the warning of the American Mr. Ma fresh in my ear, I conferred with Fiona about our planned six-night stay. We decided to pay for three nights, and decide later whether to stay or move on to Guangzhou. Still, I'm resigned to linger as long as I'm discovering anything new or interesting - if only about myself.

We went down to the dining room for lunch. The large room was hazy from the cigarettes of three men sitting at one table. Four women played mahjong at another. We sat near a window, as far as possible from the smoking men. The gold tablecloth was soiled, wrinkled, and riddled with holes. We waved away flies.

Our waitress brought tea, washing the cups at the table: rinsing them with the weak, pale, hot tea, before pouring some of the watery mixture into the cups for us to drink. Then she brought plates and chopstickes in a large metal bowl full of steaming water. She used tongs to turn the dishes in the water, and then set them on the table. Both washing procedures sloshed huge quantities of water onto the tablecloth.

When she brought our chicken, I was slightly taken aback by the decapitated, shriveled, boiled head, laid proudly at the proper end of the other body parts - announcing the freshness of our food. I tried to cover the head with parsley when Fiona wasn't looking, but she ate the parsley. There were little more than scrawny hints of meat clinging to mostly bone and skin, but the taste was fair. We also ate a delicious soup made with yellow flowers, though I politely avoided the chicken feet paddling around the bowl.

Bok Sa is the very definition of a backwater town.

After our meal, we wandered around town for an hour. Bok Sa is the very definition of a backwater town: with a barely-moving river, and small canals brackish, dead-looking, and scattered with garbage. I was charmed, though, by the incongruous sight of many buildings which, as Fiona put it, "are not Chinese." Not quite, anyway.

I was charmed by the incongruous sight of many buildings which, as Fiona put it, "are not Chinese."

Many of the buildings have elements of European architecture: Victorian shells atop piedmonts, Grecian columns, stained-glass windows, curling cornices. The Western styles were likely borrowed from America, who had borrowed them from Europe. These homes were built by Overseas Chinese to show off their wealth some 60 to 100 years ago. Today, they're broken, cracked, blackened, crumbled, and neglected.

These homes were built by Overseas Chinese to show off their wealth some 60 to 100 years ago.

Many of the broken-down showplaces now serve as shells for family shops, where poor merchants sell dusty goods of doubtful use. A few video arcades amuse young boys. Some places sell fruit: apples, grapes, oranges, mangoes, and tiny sweet bananas.

Some places sell fruit: apples, grapes, oranges, mangoes, and tiny sweet bananas.

On a dusty road next to the river, three vendors hovered over steaming cook-pots. Fiona asked what they were selling. The answer: "Dog stew." Fiona wasn't any keener on the idea than I. We saw many stray dogs sleeping or wandering the streets, and she speculated that maybe their brothers or sisters were now someone's dinner.

 About the willow leaves, she said, "This is so their ancestors know the way to come home."

As we passed one home, a woman placed a sprig of willow into a tiny sconce next to her doorway. Fiona explained that this is a time of year known as Qing Ming, when people pay respect to their ancestors. About the willow leaves, she said, "This is so their ancestors know the way to come home."

I couldn't help but wonder if a ghost had beckoned me here.

Cara Lopez Lee

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of "They Only Eat Their Husbands: A Memoir of Alaskan Love, World Travel, and the Power of Running Away," and the creator of Girls Trek Too, a blog & workshop dedicated to inspiring women to approach life as an adventure.    

Website: girlstrektoo.com/blog

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