Earlier this month, I visited family in Northeast China for the first time since 2002. The following are some personal reflections I’d like to share.
“Between memory and reality there are awkward discrepancies, producing a solemn but subtle agitation, an intense but as yet indefinable struggle.”—Eileen Chang, Liuyan (1968)
The last image I have of my grandmother disappears somewhere down a dusty road leading out of an open-air market. She holds my hand and carries a plastic bag of groceries in the other. It’s 2002 in Shenyang, China and we’re about to say good-bye.
“I don’t know when I’ll see you next,” she says. “It’s only been these few days.”
I’d take a train the next morning with my father to Beijing and then back to Vancouver, BC where I’d lived for the past five years. My parents took me out of school for three months that year to visit extended family in Shenyang, the city of my birth. I had the time of my life.
And so parting ways at the market was like being initiated into real-life melancholy. The market’s coarseness, my grandmother’s hand and voice, the dust. Everything faded into the background.
“There’s no telling about next time,” she says.
13 years later, I’m sitting in a diner in downtown Toronto and Shenyang is a lifetime away. I’d long shelved all the discoloured memories—not deliberately, just with time.
Then my mother calls.
“Hi ma, zenmoyang?”
“I need to tell you something…Your laolao died. In her sleep.”
A long pause.
The words make their way like a gust of wind into my mind’s attic, long unvisited but left ajar. The images and memories are tucked somewhere in a dark corner, barely touched.
Then, a slow resurrection: dust flies, resolving itself into the past and landing on the same parting scene all those years ago. Same unpaved road, same market. It feels photographic, sepia-tinged with ripped edges. I feel a lump in my throat.
Another three years go by and now I’m in front of a tall, grey tombstone with my mother, father, sister, and distant relatives I’ve never met. I kneel on the cold earth as my forehead hits the ground softly three times. I feel nothing but distance.
A plot of land full of graves for my mother’s family. The dead going back 150 years in a Chinese village.
It’s winter and the dust flies.
Shenyang isn’t known for much–a heavily industrialized city of over 8 million people in China’s cold and somewhat desolate Northeast region (or dongbei). The Chinese mostly avoided it until the last imperial dynasty fell in 1912.
The region had long been associated with warring nomadic tribes known as the Manchus (thus, Manchuria). Part of the Great Wall was built to keep them out as the Ming dynasty played one tribe against another.
Then a young chieftain from the Aisin-Gioro clan named Nurhaci united old rivals and declared war on the Ming dynasty early in the 17th century. A series of astounding successes paved the way for his descendants to take the heart of China soon after his death. They ruled the empire for almost 300 years as China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912). Today they’re one of China’s 55 designated minority groups.
Their initial capital Mukden is present-day Shenyang. My father’s father moved into the area in the 1940s from Hebei province with his parents. My mother’s parents moved in from Shandong province. My own parents were born in Shenyang and grew up there in the 1960s and 70s. By the time I came along, dongbei was starting to fill up with car exhaust and lots of coal. Declining industry shaped the area into China’s “rust belt.”
I remember Shenyang mostly for the bitter cold and hickish accent. It’s where I lived for the first year of my life, in a now boarded-up housing unit with my maternal grandparents.
When I was four, my parents moved over 300km south to Dalian, a historically pivotal port city nestled between the Bo and Yellow seas, about halfway between Beijing and Pyongyang, North Korea.
A highly coveted seaport, Dalian was first occupied by the Japanese in 1894, then by the Russians, and then again by the Japanese at the turn of the century. The two powers fought the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) partly for control of the city. Japan won and became the first East Asian country to beat a European power in a major confrontation, destroying most of the Russian naval fleet in the famous Battle of Tsushima (1905).
Today, all history gives way to smog and restlessness in the Northeast. A thin blanket of see-through gray and white wraps every mall, square, and building in an ersatz modernity. The land and air match today’s man-made structures as well as fancy tuxedos match ripped jeans. I fit into Dalian about as well after more than 16 years away. It’s early 2019 and the cold air smells familiar—like burnt coal.
It would’ve transported 14-year-old me into a cauldron of love and reclamation. Today, there’s not much to say. “I’ve smelled this before.”
So much time and so much change. Tall pink apartments with deliberate European designs. Giant shopping malls with next to no parking. Streets lined with hundreds of redundant restaurants. And cars. Lots and lots of cars.
This outer estrangement isn’t supposed to bring forth memories but scenes from my childhood rush forward. I can’t validate these images with what I see in front of me: the fallen places of my past. Expectations for congruence fall flat; an incomplete intimacy.
And yet, the ever-lingering task of a divided person: to live right here.
The distance between Shenyang and Dalian defined my mood as a child. Northward meant reprieve from school and time with grandparents. Southward meant the opposite. One felt like the retreating into the past. The other felt like dread.
The bullet train took just over an hour. I sat on it a few weeks ago with my family and felt nothing like I used to. We went North. The dark green hills and jagged rocks long gave way to rows of greenhouses and chimneys blowing thick white smoke. The dullness helped tie a knot in my gut.
I barely made it past the turnstile in Shenyang North Station before I heard someone call my name: “Zhou Zheng!” I raised my head and saw a woman with frizzy, jet black hair and corroding teeth. My father’s younger sister, now in her 50s.
“I’d never recognize you if I ran into you in the streets!” she said. “You look so different.”
Behind her stood my now 89-year-old grandfather. He’s hard to describe.
We shuffled into a rented van and headed to his apartment. It isn’t far from his old home, the one I often visited over 20 years ago.
The whole family lives in a campus community surrounding the Academy of Agricultural Science where my grandfather stayed for over 50 years. My mother’s family has been around for almost as long.
It always felt like the right place to return as a kid: everything would match what I remembered, the way I left it all. Everything filled with summer colours. The roads paved with warm, yellow dirt. Everything wound up next to each other, pieces of the same puzzle. But that was then.
No memories of red and yellow and green gardens could resurrect things now. No effort at tracing the walk between once-familiar destinations could induce familiarity. The dead seem to take these things into the afterlife.
Go back far enough with any Chinese family and you’ll eventually reach stories filled with chaos: war with the Japanese, civil war, land reforms, famine, the Cultural Revolution, citizen against citizen.
All the more reason to find that my jovial grandfather has become more sardonic with age. He almost lost his life in the 1970s when the Cultural Revolution was in full swing and neighbours decided to settle old scores by calling each other “counter-revolutionary.” Just an excuse to form a “revolutionary posse” to beat the person you didn’t like to a bloody pulp.
Family reunions hold few horrors after that.
Many in those years wrote “big character posters” (dazibao)—bold accusations directed at traitors to socialism, Chairman Mao, or the revolution—against enemies and plastered them in public places as a prelude to assault.
“Ba, didn’t that guy from the factory next to your work used to write things about you?” asked my aunt during dinner.
My grandfather could barely walk but he didn’t miss a beat: “I wrote plenty of that shit about him too!”
That night we walked the route between my grandparents’ houses, about 10 minutes apart. It seemed so much shorter than I remember, and so much quieter.
The kid in me always returned for the perfect overlapping of what I saw and the joy it made me feel. Now the buildings and courtyards are abandoned and empty, like a post-war documentary.
The next day I walked onto a graveyard holding flowers in front of my grandmother’s tombstone—this time for my father’s mother. Then I bow three times before handing tissues to my weeping father. Another intimate moment, another one filled with distance, like watching myself from outer space.
Love from the memories along with death–death of loved ones along with how it used to feel. Intimate images obscured by years of frost. Loving and dying. Love and loss.
Coming back here is like looking into my own body, reaching deep inside and externalizing the things I carry. They feel like memories but I can hardly recognize them if you turn me inside out. The place I used to know I can no longer reach by plane. It can only be by dream.
The divided self lives or dies between memory and reality, between knowing and seeing for the first time after a long time. It’s like two barriers on either side of a deep chasm. Struggle to climb out only to find the walls stretching forever upward.