By Isabella Li
My father hadn’t been to his birthplace in 50 years.
He made his grand homecoming when we visited this past summer. My uncle, his only immediate family member still living in China, accompanied us. His black Buick Lacrosse pushed through grassy fields and gravelly roads into a complex of short, seemingly empty cement buildings. A large, unmoving dog, the only apparent form of life, stood chained to a column. His eyes followed our car.
My uncle parked, and we exited, the loud slamming of the car doors feeling disrespectful against the loneliness. We walked along a tree-lined pathway towards a lake that my father said he remembered going to when he was young. I twisted my steps to avoid a dead frog in the road.
My father is from Xinjiang, one of the largest and least dense regions of China. When my grandparents moved there six decades ago, it was the country’s unexplored northwestern territory, sparse and dry and enigmatic. He was born in the countryside, 30 minutes outside a mid-sized city called Shihezi. His family lived there for three years before moving to Kuitun, a city farther west, where my father and his siblings were raised. He left for the U.S. in the eighties, back turned to the past.
When I went to China this June, it was more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. I hadn’t been in more than ten years. It was the summer after I graduated high school and before I entered college—this trip, I felt, held a sense of poetry, of beginnings and endings and returns.
My uncle met us at the Xinjiang airport. He looked a lot like my father—same square jaw and wide, drooping eyes. But his hair was whiter than my father’s, even though my father was two years older, and his lips were thin and constantly pressed together in a grimace. Supposedly, I hadn’t seen him since I was seven, though I had no recollection of ever interacting with him at all.
He greeted me with a nod, then turned to my father. “She can’t speak Chinese?” he asked in Mandarin, the only language he knows.
My father answered, “She can understand mostly, but her speaking is pretty bad.”
He didn’t mention: that I have refused to speak Chinese for many years.
For all its prophesied greatness, I hated the trip. Not out of homesickness, but out of a sense that I was home, and yet, that ten years, 8,000 miles, and a lifetime of mental blockades had morphed home into something unrecognizable. It had everything to do with the way I looked upon my uncle as if he were a stranger.
We traversed the Xinjiang countryside in my uncle’s Buick. He played Titanic on repeat on the car’s headrest video player, perhaps because he thought I would enjoy watching something American. But he only owned the second half; seeking solace from Leonardo DiCaprio’s death, looped to infinity, I looked outside.
Xinjiang is the sort of place that feels sacred. Desert, dusty and unforgiving, interspersed with mountains, breathless and bursting with light. The true Mandate of Heaven must have had nothing to do with emperors, and everything to do with the idea that the vastness of Xinjiang’s valleys was not to be disturbed. But money can trump God, it seems, and China’s rapid economic development has not left Xinjiang unscathed. Desert, once indomitable, has been forcefully turned to farmland, and cities are modern and bursting with noise. Ads for luxury Western brands are ubiquitous. Perhaps I should have taken solace in them as remnants from home, but they left me unsettled, passive aggressive reminders that the country my parents left behind all those years ago was no longer something I could avoid by crossing an ocean.
Nowadays, Xinjiang is perhaps the most turbulent region of China due to conflict, often violent, between the Uyghur Muslim minority group and the Han Chinese government. Vestiges of tension permeate its every corner. Pro-government propaganda in museums. Cities invisibly divided into Uyghur and Han districts. Security checkpoints abound—gas stations, highways, cities. The discrimination was blatant and unabashed; those who looked Han and presented government-issued IDs were waved through, no questions asked, while those who looked Uyghur were ushered to the side, forced to register with an official. As Americans, we, too, were stopped, questioned by countless policemen with varying degrees of apathy.
I asked my father if he felt weird, being treated as a foreigner in the country he was born in.
“Not really,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years.”
Much of China’s modernization has taken the form of construction. Bullet trains, shopping malls, skyscrapers, identical in height and color and window shape, that seem to be growing out of the concrete sidewalks. We visited my grandparents’ apartment in Kuitun, where they used to live for part of the year before they left permanently to stay with my cousins in California. It was another new construction; the original complex, where my father was raised, had been torn down.
I haven’t seen my grandparents in four years. It hurts to talk to them, because I can barely speak Mandarin, and they can barely speak English. When I was younger, they used to spend six months of each year with us in Colorado. They walked me home from school. I spoke to them in Mandarin; I told them everything. This was back when I was young, before I knew what it meant to be ashamed—before I abandoned the culture, language, and identity of one country because I sought to find my home in another.
Their apartment was dusty but enveloped in sunlight. Though they had not been back to China in multiple years, it oozed with their presence. My grandmother’s slippers, small and worn. My grandfather’s books, dusty and cracked. Photo albums, with old pictures of my parents from when they had just immigrated to America—their apartment in the city, their grad school graduations, their honeymoon. Each photo was painstakingly glued to a spot, covered with plastic. And on the bookshelf, a picture of me, aged three or four, smiling in the arms of my grandfather. The bottom of the picture frame was engraved, in English: “I love my grandpa.”
The tenderness swallowed me.
We reached the lake near my father’s birthplace. A man lived next to it, in a small shack that wilted in the summer heat. He was a fisherman, he said. The air was still, like a glass of water left untouched on a kitchen counter.
My uncle took a picture of my parents and me next to the lake—“I’ll send this to dad on WeChat,” he said, typing assuredly into his phone. The fisherman stood twenty meters away from us, staring silently into the distance. There was a nuclear power plant across the water, hazy in the distant smog.
On the walk back, my uncle said that most of the people who had once lived here had left years ago for the cities.
“That fisherman’s house, it reminds me of my grandparents’ house in the countryside,” my mother, who was born in the southern Chinese city of Changsha, said in Mandarin. “They had this—I forget how to say the word…” she paused. “Courtyard,” she said in English. And back in Mandarin: “I forgot how to say it.”
Isabella Li is a first year in Jonathan Edwards College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.