THE WAY TO COME HOME – Following A Ghost To China

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.

9 thoughts on “THE WAY TO COME HOME – Following A Ghost To China

  1. Kevin

    If you have your great-grandfather’s name in Chinese writing, the people at Gong Hao may be able to locate him in the clan’s genealogy records. At the turn of the 20th century many clans updated and printed their genealogy records. So chance is good that you would’ve find him and your cousins.

    Reply
  2. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Excellent advice, Kevin. You more or less took the words out of my mouth, as you’ll see in my next installment, when I pay a visit to Gong Hao…

    Reply
  3. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Thanks so much for the feedback, Victoria. All my favorite writers take me to another world, so that I feel like I’m there. Hearing that my writing does anything like that is very gratifying.

    Reply
  4. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    It’s not as common as you might think, Tammy. And if you check the link under the words “dog stew,” above, you’ll see an article that suggests China may soon outlaw the practice. Interesting, how we divide animals into their categories: pet or food? Sometimes it seems unfair, but while I can eat a cow or pig, I don’t think I could bring myself to eat a dog or cat. With 9 dogs, I’m guessing you couldn’t either!

    Reply
  5. Adam Lee

    I’m researching my genealogy Cara, and I’m planning a trip to Taishan sometime in the near future. I’m glad you’re there giving me a sense of what to expect. I’m Chinese, but I don’t speak or read any Chinese. I’m curious as to how difficult it will be for me to enjoy and get around the rural area around Taishan. I’m aiming for a small town called Chonglou, ten miles south of Taishan. I look forward to seeing more of your posts.

    Reply
  6. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    I was very excited to read that you’re planning to do a family history trip to Taishan, too, Adam! As I’ve said, it’s not a common trip for most Americans, so I feel lucky that we’ve run into each other online.

    I’ve traveled to China on three different occasions, and have learned a little bit of survival Mandarin, but I found having a translator invaluable. Such a trip is certainly doable on your own, but you won’t understand nearly as much about the culture and history, and will find communication frustrating.

    As you may know, most people speak variations of Cantonese in the area where you are going. If you want to learn some Cantonese before you go, it could go a long way to increase the receptiveness of the locals. They’ll likely be surprised that you look Chinese but can’t speak the language. Finding a Cantonese class or tutor in the U.S. can be very difficult, though they are around. It was so difficult for me to find a Cantonese class, that I settled on a Mandarin tutor. Mandarin is useful throughout China, and since it’s the official language, even most Cantonese speakers speak a little Mandarin. But really, they carry on most of their daily conversations in Cantonese.

    I found my translator through http://www.freeiva.com/. The second time I just went directly to the woman I found through them the first time, eliminating the middle-man. She does a good job, though it’s not a word-for-word translation of everything people say. Her English is slightly limited. But I do understand a tremendous amount more when she is with me. If you’d like, I can contact her to see if she’s open to helping you out.

    Let’s stay in touch. I’ll be happy to answer any questions I can. And I would love to hear about your trip when you come back.

    Reply
  7. Leon

    Hi Cara,

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I noticed you mentioned your interpreter. I’m also an interpreter and you may contact me for travel or business in China when she is not free.

    Thank you
    Leon

    Reply

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