Return to the homeland: A journey across China

Ying Ying Joyce Choi, right on red bike, is both citizen and foreigner as she rediscovers China.
The route to my ancestral home is etched into my heart. Unfortunately, not knowing the address is a problem in the ever-changing urban geography of Chenghai, an industrial town 30-minutes from Shantou in China’s Guangdong province.

A motorcycle taxi took me bouncing, meandering through the town’s crowded alleyways toward the end of a recent tour of mainland China. After the driver gave up and left me in an ancient-looking alley, near where more than 200 people supposedly carry the surname “Choi,” my heart took me the final steps home. In June, I returned to mainland China with friend Doug Meigs for 30 days on my “home return permit,” issued to Chinese citizens who are residents in Hong Kong and Macau. We visited 24 cities and villages in eight provinces by flight, bus and train. I was born in Hong Kong, as were my parents. According to Chinese tradition, my father’s ancestral home — Chenghai — became my hometown. I had visited there only once before, in December 1994, as a 9-year-old. Even though Chenghai is my hometown, I felt like a foreigner when I first visited. The traditional Chinese home didn’t have a refrigerator, and a pig lived next door. My older relatives spoke to me in Chaozhouhua, a regional dialect that I couldn’t understand. Today, I still speak almost no Chaozhouhua, and my Putonghua (or “common language” as Chinese call Mandarin) carries a heavy Hong Kong accent. To unacquainted observers from my hometown, I am a foreigner. The 30-day tour was my first extended stay in the Mainland, my homeland, where I am a tourist. See a photo tour across China Along with the frenzy leading up to the Olympics, we viewed China’s ongoing rapid development: at least three cities we visited were building the metro system, and skyscraper construction often continued around the clock. Contrary to previous closed-door policies, everything in “communist” China seemed open up for the sake of tourism, or in other words, capitalism.

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While exploring the historic sites of Xi’an of Shaanxi province, I imagined ancient Chinese emperors holding court where tourists now step, climb, and squat. Sites once reserved for royalty, like the Little Goose Pagoda, now exhibit tourist graffiti — evidence that the modern common man now shares this playground. Messages and slogans appear across Chinese city scenes. Television spots and small signs remind citizens to be civilized and show-off the best of China in preparation for the Olympics. Watch how Beijing citizens are preparing for foreigners For me, these reminders of good conduct make the ill behaviors all the more irking: From the baggage check-in at the airport, to just about everywhere else, I found that my countrymen have no sense of queuing. Parents assist their infant children to pee on the ground (whether there’s a drain or not). Tourists returning home from the Olympics will undoubtedly share similar anecdotes, but they will also carry stories of good deeds. For us, as well: At West Lake of Hangzhou, we saw a white-collar man fishing with his entire arm for a plastic bottle from the waste bin. Knees on the ground, he filled the bottle with lake water and put out the cigarette fire burning in the trash. Just weeks before the beginning of the Summer Games, Olympics celebrations were everywhere. In Nanjing, we came across more than 10 Chinese companies parading around the Xuanwu Lake. Hundreds of employees dressed in T-shirts covered with company logos and the Olympic rings. Occasionally, they would chant, “Go China! Go Sichuan!” showing support to the country and to victims affected by the recent earthquake. Although, not all examples of China’s Olympic pride can be found in group-think. The most individualized example of Olympics support we observed was a young man at Nanjing’s Confucius Temple. His hair was shaved and dyed to form the Olympic rings. Once we arrived in Shantou, a crowded bus ride took us to my hometown. From the bus stop, I negotiated the price for a motorcycle driver to take us to the exact village and street where my ancestral home stands. After half an hour of searching unsuccessfully, the driver left and I finally found the front gate where I had posed for a photo in 1994. Through the gate, I recognized my uncle’s face. He is the son of my paternal grandfather’s brother. “Ah pat…” I yelled “uncle” in Chaozhou dialect, “I am the daughter of Choi Shu Sang (my father’s name).” “Ahh…ahh…,” he said, showing that he understood. He called my aunt to join him and open the gate. She spoke fast in Chaozhouhua. From her gestures, I guessed she said that she remembered me when I was little. Nothing really changed inside the ancestral home, to my surprise, except an added sewing workplace and refrigerator (a pig still lived next door). One of my cousins was even married with two kids close to my age. Other ancestral homes still exist in the village, but some no longer accommodate the original families. Instead, they are rented out to factory workers from other provinces. Another cousin of mine was married to a local toy manufacturer. She told me that when she grew up she remembered my Hong Kong relatives used to bring all kinds of clothing and food products when they visited the ancestral home. Now they have everything they need in China.

My family in Chenghai wasn’t expecting me. In fact, before beginning my 30-day tour, I didn’t know how to contact them from in case they had moved. Regardless, they welcomed me as family with happy conversation and an endless stream of Chaozhou-style cuisine. I often felt like a foreign tourist during the weeks preceding my surprise visit to Chenghai. However, in my hometown, my sense of aloofness dissolved in the warm company of family. I returned to my birthplace Hong Kong with a personal understanding of my own ancestral home.