For as long as I could remember, my parents have always told me stories about growing up in China. They have a unique experience because they were old enough to experience (and remember) communist China both before and after the country opened up contact to the world. Though they have since relocated to Canada for more than thirty years, they still fondly recount stories of a simpler existence. I thought the stories were interesting as a kid but now they have become fascinating as I continue to travel to China.
I didn’t like China the first time I visited. I was eight then and couldn’t wrap my head around the public squat toilets (that smelled truly terrible) with a wall in-between that was less than a metre high. How disgusting and uncivilized and dirty, I thought. And when I grew up, I disliked the reputation the country had for food scandals, corruption and environmental oversight. How immoral and short-sighted and ignorant, I thought. The list could go on forever – the seemingly unbridled nationalism amongst its citizens based on brute military strength, the unacceptable behaviour of recent immigrants in new countries (that kind of ruins the reputation of everyone with Chinese descent), the habit of making fake products, the propaganda, the whole Tibet situation, the protests in Hong Kong etc. etc.
But for some reason China has grown on me. I have since revisited the country four times. I no longer dislike China and, dare I say, kind of enjoy travelling there. Still, I’d never, ever choose to live there but I’ve come to the realization that China is a vast and beautiful country and also has an amazing history. It kind of deserves a second look. This comes as a total surprise for me as someone who has grown up in Canada and identify myself more as Canadian-Chinese than Chinese-Canadian. You know what I mean? I think this change of heart comes from how my parents’ childhood stories really come to life as I visit where they grew up.
My Dad grew up in a poor, close-knit neighbourhood with five other siblings. Including my grandparents, all eight people in the family in the same second-story apartment. It had one living/dining room, a kitchen and a loft where everyone slept. The entire living area probably combined to about 20 square metres. Money was tight. Grandma told me once of a time when everyone in the family shared a fried egg as a side dish to their bowls of rice. She was pregnant then, and had the yolk. People used food stamps and would line up in front of the butcher’s at the break of dawn for pork in case it ran out. My Dad and some of his brothers dabbled in martial arts and would get into street fights (they always won) and would be too afraid to tell my Grandfather for fear of a good beating. The stories are really entertaining.
Some highlights include:
- The incredible hospitality of neighbours who were equally poor. People would lend each other rice, fix each other’s houses, help with childbirth, even. Everyone had nicknames, good or bad. My Dad was called Fatty. To this very day, some thirty years later, the neighbours still gather and pick up where they left off, nicknames and all.
- My Dad’s notorious appetite. His dumpling-eating record (verified by old neighbours) was 120. One Hundred And Twenty. That’s a lot of dumplings. Or, when he was a school boy, a girl told my Dad to watch over her bowl of sesame paste while she went down the street to get something. It was gone when she came back. She chased him down the street with a stick in hand.
- Trying to escape to Hong Kong by hiding under a train. It failed, and he lost hearing in his left ear.
- One of my uncles being taken to a work farm to labour for three years.
- My Grandfather’s hatred for gambling. This a tragic tale. My Grandfather left his village to work in Guangzhou when he was just seven and through the years he sent money home via his brother. One particular year there was a terrible famine. He received news that his mother was close to death due to starvation. He had been sending money home so it was shocking news to him. He made it back to his village just in time to watch his mother pass away. It turns out, his brother had taken his money and gambled it all away. He never spoke to his brother again.
In total contrast, my Mom was adopted and grew up in an affluent family. Her father was a banker. She lived in a gated two-story house beside a river, which was extremely rare at the time. Though she lived in relative abundance she also has many stories to tell.
- Catching shrimp and fish when the tide came in on the river.
- Raising ducks on the balcony. She would feed the ducks cockroaches (ew!) by catching the insects in an oiled bottle that she set out overnight. The critters would crawl in and it would be too slippery to escape. The ducks ate other stuff like rice and vegetables, of course (and thank goodness).
- Mom’s many culinary disasters. But not like what you think. Once, she was supposed to kill a duck for dinner. Wielding a large cleaver, she aimed and missed. That resulted in her running down the street, chasing after a duck with a dangling, partly severed head. Speechless isn’t it? The next time, it was a fish. She tried to knock it out and it flopped into the river, prompting my Grandfather to run inside the house for the net.
- Putting a huge grain of salt into her sleeping Grandmother’s mouth – just to see what would happen. She got in big trouble.
With such a rich tapestry of stories, I find that I just couldn’t resist seeing it all for myself. Guangzhou has historically been well-off due to its proximity to the sea and southern location. It could always rely on the ocean for food and sea trade for its economy. With a population that didn’t always had to focus on providing the next meal on the table, its culture developed extensively to what we now know as Cantonese culture. Most notably, the Cantonese are proud of their food (dim sum, anyone?), their unique opera and language (extremely expressive and colloquial and nine sounds to fumble around compared to Mandarin’s four).
The Cantonese will eat anything. Full stop. Somehow, we’ve found ways to make pretty much everything delicious, provided you can wrap your mind around what you’re eating. As a foodie, I love visiting local markets. It has everything.
The scene above usually freaks out the typical Western diner but nowadays, with Cantonese immigrants all over the world, this has become a more familiar sight. Provided you’re in your local Chinatown. But for anyone who’s eaten char siu, it’s just the tip of the iceberg for roasted meat, which includes duck, goose, pork and even squid.
But the Cantonese culture is starting to erode in Guangzhou. Mandarin-speaking itinerant workers are flooding the city to work in its factories and are starting to settle in. It is possible now to go into a store and not be able to get help in Cantonese. Mandarin, as a national language, is becoming more and more predominant. For me, I hope the culture will stay intact despite globalization and human development. It would be such a waste to see this vibrant culture be dimmed or worse, disappear.
And also because I’m not finished with my parents’ stories just yet.