Unraveling the Gold Mountain Thread - Tracing China's Past (Part 1)

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(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Friday, April 16th, 2010)

March 23, 2008
United Flight 869
Somewhere over the Gulf of Alaska

I’m flying in a jet bound from San Francisco to Hong Kong, 30,000 feet above the Pacific, taking the same journey my great-grandfather took 100 years ago on that same ocean’s surface - in reverse. When he left Victoria Harbour for San Francisco in 1908, he couldn’t have guessed that one of his many descendants, a woman who never met him, would be able in the space of just 13 hours to retrace the trip that was about to take him more than a month. But he might not have been surprised, for everyone in Toisan had heard astonishing tales of unimaginable riches and unthinkable new ideas in the country they called Gold Mountain.

Ma Bing Sum journeyed for the reasons other men of 20 leave the lives they know and seek out foreign lands, and for the reasons other young men of Toisan did so at the turn of the last century despite American laws forbidding their entrance: to seek his fortune, or at least, to escape the poverty that was the lot of most people from the hilly, unforgiving lands of Toisan...if they failed to send a father or son to Gold Mountain. Perhaps he also went for the same reason people of 20 strap on backpacks today and head to exotic destinations: adventure.

Why I, of all people, should pursue the story of Ma Bing Sum...why I should be the one makes no sense at all.

Why I, of all people, should pursue his story – back to its source in the county of Toisan, in the district of Bok Sa, in the village of Gong Hao where the Ma family lived either nestled or trapped between hills and a manmade pond, between a grove of trees and rice paddies, between tradition and a need for the wealth that a new world can bring – why I should be the one makes no sense at all. To the children of his first wife, he seemed something of a slave-driver. To the children of his second wife, he was a kindly old man. To my grandmother, he was the father she never knew until it was too late for anything but anger. To me, he is a ghost who haunts the past of his long-secret daughter - my grandmother, the only mother I ever truly had - and who therefore haunts me. For we all inherit the wounds of our parents, one way or another.

To me, he is a ghost who haunts the past of my grandmother, and who therefore haunts me.

Yet much as I’ve hoped to find a sizeable ogre to give my historical novel a dark force, evil dragon, or demon king, I’ve only found what one always finds when one tries too hard to dig up a bad guy: instead a human being, evil and good, powerful and weak, handsome and ugly, brutal and compassionate. Like many descendants of immigrants, I carry within me the blood of despotic men and the women they conquered, the blood of scheming women and the men they ruined. Rapists and victims, deceivers and deceived, conquering races and conquered, the dark and the light.

I was not brought up in Chinese culture, and only those who wish to see can discern the one-eighth of Bing Sum that lives on in me, a century after he arrived in San Francisco and told the first of many lies that would play a role in shaping my life.

I was not brought up in Chinese culture, and only those who wish to see can discern the one-eighth of Bing Sum that lives on in me.

Some people say we cannot know where we’re going until we know where we come from. I claim no such lofty goal. I’m simply curious: about that long ago young Chinese man looking across the vast Pacific toward an invisible land, about a young Mexican girl who was not yet born, and about the one part of the world where people from two such oddly matched cultures could have hoped or dreaded to find each other: the Old American West, in its rapid push to become the New.

I don’t speak Chinese, so I’ve hired an interpreter, though I can ill afford it. I’ve been taking Mandarin classes and practicing with a computer program, but Mandarin is difficult and I only speak about as much as a toddler, perhaps less. Cantonese is the prevalent language of family life in southern China, but most young people know at least a little Mandarin, and I couldn’t find a Cantonese teacher. So my head is filled with the sing-song sounds of Mandarin words and phrases: some important, such as dui bu qi, (I’m sorry), others that I simply enjoy the sound of, such as piao liang, (beautiful). According to my Chinese friend Vicki, my pronunciation is about a 4 on a scale of 1 to 5, but she says, “Your tones need work,” which renders my pronunciation useless, as the tone of a word changes its meaning.

The tone of a word changes its meaning: I guess the same holds true in English, in its own way. If my grandmother or my father had been better able to reconcile with their pasts, perhaps the tones of their words to each other, or to me, would have been different…and mine to them. Perhaps we would have all led different lives.

If my grandmother or my father had been better able to reconcile with their pasts, perhaps the tones of their words would have been different.

But I’m not going on this trip to undo the past. I’m traveling to Toisan, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong to glimpse what I can of the remains of a time I never knew, trying to experience some flash of a shape or color, sound or smell that might once have captured the attention of Bing Sum, my great grandfather. If the soul lives on in our DNA, then perhaps it is he who wants to go back, and I’m only along for the ride. He did always sound like just the sort of wicked old ghost that would take possession of a woman’s body, if not her soul.

I’ll arrive in Hong Kong at about 5:45 tonight…that is, tomorrow. Flying into the future in search of the past: I suppose it would be wise to expect my curiosity to be rewarded by turning my whole point of view upside down, backwards, and reversed.

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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