Friday, July 22, 2011

Ancestral Roots

Nine years ago, I had come to Ningbo with my brother and parents to find the Chang ancestral village that we had heard and read about. At that time, I had felt totally out of place as a Chinese that wasn't really Chinese, but really excited to be so close to where we all began. We were full of hope and anticipation, but didn't really know if the village still existed, or even where it was. Suspecting only that someone at the Ningbo museum might have a clue, I had led the family in that direction. How fortuitous that an elderly gentleman at the museum happened to overhear us talking in the office and said that his home town was next to a village he believed was Changhuashan. He only knew how to get there by bus. We managed to find a cabdriver willing to help us locate the place. Today, my heart sank when I called this same driver, and he said he had sold his business and was no longer driving. My only hope was that I would be able to safely retrace our steps and that this trip would not be in vain. This visit, aside from visiting Jen, was the sole purpose of Robert and my trip to China. I was however, one step ahead of last time, I had the phone number of elderly Mr. Chang who owned the small general store there. I had no definite plan, only two companions that were curious about the mystery of their background and eager and willing to take whatever mode of transportation necessary to get there.

We flew from Beijing to arrived in Ningbo, finding it to be lush and green with waterways running like canals through the city. The growth here was evident as well, however Ningbo did not share the same landscape of tall high rise buildings and crowded streets we had seen in Beijing, and had a feeling of openness. Late in the evening as we walked the city's boardwalk, a miniature replica of the Shanghai Bund, we saw promenades and the huge outdoor mall with fountains that were dancing in synchrony to Lion King and other pop songs.

My kids have taught me to go with the flow when traveling - my original plans for getting a driver had fallen flat - I should have known that cars at a 5 star hotel would not be cheap, but 1,400 rmb? It was more than our plane fares from Beijing! I told him I didn't need a big black Audi; after all, I really didn't want to arrive in to Changhuashan looking like a wealthy American. Plan B was to try to take the bus, which Mr. Chang seemed to say, stops in front of his store. But I really didn't understand his Shanghainese Mandarin on the phone and couldn't verify that this was true. In the end, we decided to hail a taxi and negotiate a rate on the spot, perhaps for him to wait for us, or to find a return taxi in the nearby village.

Truly times have changed, and today, we have Google maps to help us with our adventures. Thanks to my brother, Calvin's research and thoughtfulness, an email arrived with Changhuashan clearly marked on a city map.

In the morning, we stuffed ourselves on the elaborate breakfast buffet the hotel offered. Very mother-like, I had advised them to eat heartily in case we didn't have a source for food until we returned in the late afternoon. A waiting taxi driver was eager to make the trip for 80rmb, quite a discount over an Audi car! He did not suggest paying him to wait and said there were plenty of cabs to make the return trip. The driver immediately identified us as being foreign and when questioned said he doesn't just drive cars, he pays attention to people and how they speak. It was our umm, umms that gave us way, he said. Locals are loud and vocal in responding. I vowed to be more vocal and tried hard to avoid grunting in agreement. To our surprise, Ningbo had expanded such that Changhuashan was very close to its outer edges, a short distance from the main road on a small highway - we arrived 20 min. later following several phone calls to Mr. Chang via cell phone.

The familiar Chang gate stood imposingly in the middle of a very busy street filled with stalls, carts and goods laid on the ground. Mr. Chang, grinning from ear to ear was waiting. We had arrived. Further up the road was his old general store and Mrs. Chang greeted us heartily with fresh watermelon and cool green pea soup. In his 70's, Mr. Chang remembered hearing stories of my great grandfather and how he had built the school and taught the villagers how to avoid cholera by building latrines and keeping the creek clean. We were VIP's and the day's tour had been planned to the utmost detail. A visit to the old school building to see my grandfather's plaque, a tour of the new temple and then a sumptuous lunch at the village's only restaurant - and a fancy black car waiting to drive us around!

We were given incense at the school house and I did my best to model for Robert and Jen what I thought we were supposed to do with it, bowing 3 times and putting it in the holder. We had attracted a crowd of people watching us. What were they thinking? Who did they think we were? Us silly Americans? Rich Americans taking pictures and not saying much? I wanted to remove the laundry hanging in front of the stage, thinking it was a far cry from how a village's ancestor should be treated but realized that although this village was named Chang, to these residents, it was just a village name. Most of the original families had moved on, and the village now rented both "garage manufacturing" space, farm plots, and living space to outlying rural people who needed a better life. They most likely had no idea who my grandfather was and why this building was here. It was probably what my great grandfather and grandfather would have wanted, that the village continue to provide livelihood and a safe place for families to thrive.

In the fancy black car squeezing through the very narrow alleys, and attracting a lot of attention, we were taken to the restaurant, where little dish after little dish appeared of local delicacies - salted raw crab, salted dried fish, shanghainese shrimp etc. We were still full from breakfast and tried to give the appearance of eating heartily while nibbling lightly. My limited Chinese vocabulary didn't allow me to carry on a complex conversation in Shanghainese Mandarin and so we answered many questions related to how much cars, airplane tickets, iphones etc. cost in the US.

After lunch we walked through the village, admiring the new school building and new apartments. There was an old run down house where we had previously been told my great grandfather had lived with his mother and siblings for safety during the Japanese occupation. We were never really sure if he had actually lived there, or if it was a good story to tell us, but this time, we were told to take pictures because it most likely would not be there the next time we visited. Jen wanted to spend more time talking with the villagers unescorted by village officials, but in hindsight, it would have been like Obama knocking on neighborhood doors asking them how their lives are. An American girl wandering the alleys, knocking on doors asking them how the village was treating them - I don't think so!

At the end of the day, Mr. Chang's son in law, driving the big black car returned us to the hotel. The Chang family, from parents to daughter to inlaws had spent a lot of time today, hosting us and making us proud of our little village. Mr. Chang said we were the only family that has returned to Changhuashan and I believe seeing the 4th generation return was an honor for the village officials and Mr. Chang's family. For me, it was a day to treasure and I was very proud, not only of my heritage, but of the next generation that has it in their hearts, to care about their family's history. I have fond memories of my grandfather, how he would smile at all of us and tell us how our family members were highly educated and good people, and how proud he was of all of us, and I knew that today, he was smiling down on us.

I was surprised that the village was still similar to what we saw 9 years ago, since at that time, I had a hunch that urban development would have changed it into modern apartments and malls. Isn't it funny how brick and mortar somehow tie us to a place? I wondered if the village would have the same appeal to me if high rises replaced the crumbling homes. The village officials reassured us that the temple will always remain, as it is a symbol to the Chinese of their ancestry, and an important place of worship. For now, my mission had been accomplished and my obligation fulfilled and I left Ningbo with a sense of peace.


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