A writer who is influenced by her African-American and Asian heritage, Yasmin Tong is also a proud foster parent who writes and still manages to find time for yoga and cooking. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and was anthologized in the New Asian Immigration. She attended Squaw Valley Writer’s Community in 2009, and has had the pleasure of studying with Jim Karuso and Barbara Abercrombie.
Between Ocean and Sky
My father groaned as he settled into his seat in the minivan while Vivian, our guide and interpreter from the China Tourism Service, a petite woman with short hair and shiny cheeks, slid the door shut behind him.
“You don’t have a map?” Vivian asked, looking over her shoulder at my father.
“We don’t have a map,” I responded from the rear seat, annoyed that she was addressing my father when I was the leader of our party, the one who had spent months planning our trip.
“Or the name of the village?” she continued.
“Vivian,” I said in the firm tone of voice I reserved only for conference calls, “we don’t know exactly where to go. Grandfather was a mystery.”
“I’ve never been to Xin Hui before,” she said, fixing her eyes on my father, who was the patriarch, the one who was supposed to have all the answers. “But don’t worry. We’ll make a good tour for you.”
I should have been ecstatic. My odyssey tracing my family’s immigration journey from China to Trinidad to America was about to end. It had begun in 2002, when a brief visit to Trinidad revealed how little I knew about my father’s past. Now years later, my journey had less to do with collecting the details of my father’s youth than healing old wounds.
Locating the vicinity of my Chinese origins had taken me years. After narrowing down the options based on the language my grandfather Pop spoke, and the gambling club where he had spent most of his waking hours in Port of Spain, a Chinese family friend in Trinidad had come up with 新會—an ideogram for Xin Hui, which, roughly translated, meant something like “new association.” A tiny slip of paper in my pocket, hand-printed with Xin Hui’s characters, was the full extent of our road map to this moment on the verge of discovery and my grandfather’s ancestral home. It was the closest I had ever come to answering a question that had endured for two generations. What were our origins? Sitting alone in the back of a rented minivan, idling in the motor court of our Guangzhou hotel, I feared what we’d find in Xin Hui—nothing.
Maybe Pop’s family has been rooted somewhere around the district of Xin Hui, but there was no way to know for sure. That information had not passed on to any of my family members, and all of Pop’s personal papers and records had been lost or destroyed sometime between his departure from Hong Kong around 1930 and his death in Trinidad in 1982. We did not know how our family name was written, and without that, there was no accurate way to trace our ancestry. What had gotten me this far was a desire to answer a question that had gnawed at me for most of my life: How could we, his family, not know?
When I started asking my Trini relatives to describe Pop, they all said the same four words: “He was very quiet.” That may have been true. English was his second language, and he didn’t speak it very well. But he communicated well enough to marry my grandmother, a local Trini whose only language was English, and to own and operate a small snack stand in Trinidad for several years. He could make himself understood, which begged the question why nobody in his immediate family knew about the life he had led in China or his journey to Trinidad. Reluctantly, I concluded that nobody had asked.
Of all my relatives, my mother, an American, knew the most about Pop. When they met for the first time in 1967, I was just one year old and had made my first trip to Trinidad sitting on her hip. She recounted the day of their first encounter. My grandfather had prepared a suckling pig with crispy skin for our arrival, and after that meal, without any prompting from my mother, he sat next to her with a stack of his personal papers held together with a rubber band. I imagined his fingers stained yellow from tobacco, sifting through a passport with a Hong Kong emigration stamp, aerograms written in ancient Chinese characters with ballpoint pen, and an envelope printed with his uncle’s name, Nam Ong Chong, with a return address on Clay Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Pop had also told her that he was the last in his family to leave China. He couldn’t have been much older than nineteen. I had wanted to invite my mother to join our Xin Hui expedition, but my father still wasn’t speaking to her, ten years after their divorce.
* * *
By the time we reached the highway, pouring rain covered the minivan in sheets of water that spread across the windshield faster than the wipers could wick it away. Through fogged windows I saw new factories and parked cars in neat rows spreading out in every direction. China was booming. Pop wouldn’t have recognized his home if he had been alive.
“How do you think Pop got to Hong Kong?” I wondered aloud.
“He swam,” my father replied. My brothers said nothing.
“Jesus Christ!” I said. “It’s sixty miles. He wouldn’t have been able to swim that distance unless he’d been doing endurance training.”
“No, he swam and slept in the bushes, along the banks of the river,” my father insisted.
But I knew better. The Pearl River Delta had been the first part of China to industrialize, and must have had trains and boats to transport people in and out of Hong Kong in Pop’s day. What story was my father concocting to fill in for the ones Pop had never told? They had lived in the same house for twenty-one years, but my father had never learned why, when, or how Pop had left China or why he had landed in Trinidad. How could they be both strangers and close relatives? What was the measure of a family? How well had I known my own father?
When I invited my father to search for Pop’s village, he complained at first. “Man, they have that avian flu over there, and I can’t take off a week from my patients.” I was crestfallen, and asked my brother Ian, who had replaced me as my father’s unspoken favorite once he was admitted to medical school, to convince him to go on the trip. About a week after my father balked at my invitation, he agreed to join me on my pilgrimage, even though he would have been content to stay home in Fresno watching football.
As we traveled, my father did not complain about the expense, traveling for two consecutive days to reach Guangzhou, the inevitable jet lag, or the noisy air-conditioning that had kept us awake in our shared hotel room the night before. He had never had any need to revisit his past or explore his identity; yet he had agreed to join me on what had by then become my three-year quest to find some answers, simply because I had asked him.
Ian, my youngest brother, now a thirty-something doctor who still dressed like a frat boy, sat in front of me. His wife was at home in California four months’ pregnant with their first child, yet he hadn’t hesitated when I invited him to find our grandfather’s village. Sitting next to me was my brother Colin, a Lenny Kravitz look-alike with long dreadlocks and leopard print sunglasses. He was equally committed to our journey, even though he and his fiancée had decided weeks earlier to postpone indefinitely their wedding. But then again, my brothers and I had been navigating the same journey all of our lives, confronting the unavoidable question people asked when they didn’t know what to make of our mocha skin, Chinese family name, and almond-shaped eyes. “What are you?”
Going to China in search of our grandfather’s village was reckoning with that something in us that had been suspect in our eyes and those of others. Although we are black Americans, we are all Tongs with Chinese ancestry. Since we had never received red envelopes with money to celebrate Lunar New Year or attended Chinese school on Saturdays, our connection to our Chinese heritage had been all but severed when Pop immigrated to Trinidad. Yet, not one of us could resist the magnetic pull of Xin Hui, or the passage of time that was gradually pulling us farther apart. This one week in China might be our last chance to be together before spouses and children demanded more of our attention.
* * *
Traffic slowed and Mr. Shin, our driver, inched us closer to our destination, navigating us safely past another minivan stuck in a lane of wet cement and highway workers arguing with the driver. For several long minutes, the only sound in our van was the windshield wipers beating back the rain.
“I was thinking about why your father never talked about where he came from,” said Vivian, focusing on my father again. “Maybe it was because he never thought he would come back. Chinese people never want to leave China unless they plan on returning. But after he left, China was closed for such a long time, he probably didn’t talk about it because he couldn’t come back.”
My father could return to Trinidad whenever he wanted, but he managed only five brief visits during forty years of U.S. residency. He had created enough distance between himself and Trinidad that his American children could not see the long reach of his past on their lives. I never heard him tell a story about growing up until I asked in 2002, when his first sentence was, “I was the runner.”
Growing up, my father had been responsible for collecting grocery money from Pop while he was at the gambling tables playing mah-jongg.
“What happened when he didn’t have any money to give you?” I asked.
“It would be a very long walk home to Mom,” said my father.
My father had become everything his father was not: highly educated, financially stable, and well respected by his peers; but despite all the degrees and certificates that cluttered the wall of his office, my father seemed incapable of analyzing how the past had influenced the present. I was fascinated by his determination and focus. It was as if he had started plotting his departure from Trinidad at age seven, when he received his first library card. Only after he and I had started discussing his life as a husband and father of three in America did his stories begin to reveal less about him than the assumptions I had been making.
I had held a grudge against my father for many years because he had refused, at first, to pay my tuition at an expensive boarding school and Ivy League university. The hostility I had harbored for him in high school had turned into benign neglect by the time I reached college. I called home on Sunday mornings and never asked to speak to him. In my mind, the past did not justify his withholding from me, but it helped me understand and forgive him. No longer was I to blame.
* * *
The rain stopped and we exited the highway. Mr. Shin drove us across a bridge. Underneath, people on barges navigated their way through a river of black sludge with banks lined six feet high with piles of trash. For centuries, Xin Hui had been the reputed home of hundreds of thousands of overseas Chinese. In my mind’s eye, my grandfather’s village had a dirt road, mud walls, and terraced rice paddies: something much closer to the ground and the beginning of time than the place where we had arrived. Today, Xin Hui was a small city with a couple of twelve-story buildings and wide, smooth roads.
We parked at a traffic circle located in what appeared to be the center of town, next to a ring of green grass. Not knowing what else to do, my brothers and I climbed to the top of a two-story-high pink granite staircase in the middle of the circle and took pictures. Too tired to move, my father remained silent in the minivan seated behind Mr. Shin and Vivian. Diagonally across from us was a three-story hotel with a polished brass sign that catered to returning overseas Chinese, people who probably had the only things that my father had never given me: hand-drawn maps to ancestral homes, family names written in ideograms, and relatives who still lived in hillside villages.
A light mist filled the air as the rain stopped and started while we completed the travel agency’s itinerary in a little under two hours. We had a five-minute stop at Bird Paradise, home to a bird sanctuary in a thousand-year-old banyan tree, but we left early because my father could not handle the walking involved for the tour. We took an early lunch at a long white roadhouse where raucous customers sat shoulder to shoulder at round tables cluttered with empty beer bottles and platters of food. Everyone went silent the moment my family stood at the door. This was not our first time being the only black people in a Chinese restaurant.
A young woman whisked us to a table underneath a window where pink curtains ruffled in a damp breeze. Vivian spent several minutes conferring with the waitress before the manager, a portly man with thick, wavy hair and soft, porcine features, stood next to our table to talk with us.
“He wants to know what you’re doing here and where you’re from,” Vivian said to my father. “I told him you are here to find your father’s village.”
The manager nodded and smiled with approval. “What is the family name?” he asked. “Maybe we can help.” Vivian translated.
“Tong,” my father replied. The manager looked perplexed.
“No, I think it was Chong,” I said, remembering my mother’s story about Pop’s uncle in San Francisco: Nam Ong Chong and the countless immigrants whose names were inadvertently changed overseas at their points of entry. Thus Tong in Trinidad may have been pronounced Chong in China.
“There are so many Chongs around here, we couldn’t tell you where to go,” said the manager. “Do you speak any Chinese?” the manager asked, looking at my father.
My father shook his head.
“You speak a little bit,” I prodded. “What do you remember?” Earlier my father had told me that Pop would come home late from work and try to teach his five children Cantonese.
“Toi san ah,” said my father, invoking the ancient tones of a language he had never learned. “That’s good morning,” my father said to my brothers.
Vivian’s face lit up. “That’s not Cantonese!” she cried. “It’s Taishanese. And this is one of only five places in China where Taishanese is spoken.”
My brothers grinned. My heart fluttered. Stunned by this new piece of information, my father leaned away from the manager, looking stricken, almost angry. We were getting closer. Even though each new detail about Pop laid bare the dimensions of what we still didn’t know about him, this latest revelation inched us closer to our Chinese heritage.
Within minutes, a flurry of platters landed at our table. The first to arrive was a giant clay pot chicken soup with a delicate broth. Vivian examined the soup, nodded in approval, and explained it was a local specialty before ladling out servings for each of us. Next came a mound of spinach with garlic, fingernail-sized steamed clams, a platter of tiny, fried, salty fish, beef with broccoli in a velvety brown sauce, and a plate of chicken stir-fried with peanuts and dried chilies. We sipped beers and ate in silence. The manager returned to our table at the end of our meal.
“I hope you find your family,” he said, shaking my father’s hand.
After lunch we all climbed into the minivan and backtracked to the center of the city, where we stopped in front of a large store where “local food” was sold. We found several young women huddled around a big steaming bowl of chicken soup, talking loudly in a blue windowless back room. Vivian said a few words, and the shopgirls sprang into action, ponytails swaying and flip-flops smacking the bottoms of their feet.
One of the girls approached us with toothpicks and a plastic serving tray of leathery-looking bits of desiccated foods, none of which I recognized. We hovered around the tray, poking at the samples, without knowing what to expect from each bite. One sliver was powder white, dry and salty, the next sticky, sour, and sweet, and another was dusted red and had a fibrous texture.
“Ooooh, man, this brings me back,” my father swooned. His face softened as he rolled something around in his mouth. “When I was a kid, Pop used to give me this candied orange peel at the club, and I always asked him to bring some home for me. Boy, I used to really love this stuff. I used to bug him about that all the time because the club was the only place in Trinidad you could get it,” he said.
As I tried a sliver of orange peel and felt its leathery texture on my tongue, I tasted the bitter sweetness of my father’s childhood in Trinidad and my grandfather’s departure from his native land. It expressed what was never spoken between them, a son’s joy in sharing a moment of closeness with his father, an immigrant father’s attempt to connect his child to a distant home.
The shopgirls handed each of us a plastic shopping basket, and while I meandered down the aisle unable to read any of the packages, let alone recognize the dried fruits and peels contained within, my father filled his basket to overflowing. He returned the full basket to the cash register, and one of the shopgirls replaced it with an empty one, which he filled to the brim again as he strolled the aisles a second time. The cashier pulled two more bags of salty, sticky plums from a nearby shelf and gave them to my father as a courtesy. My father seemed to glide out of that store with his snacks, the happiest I had seen him in years.
The rain had stopped.
“Let me take your picture,” I said, facing my father with the store in the background.
In jeans and an aloha shirt, my father stood still, grinning in front of the store with the two bags of dried snacks clutched close to his chest. Squinting through the viewfinder of my digital camera I remembered one of the few childhood photographs my father had brought with him to America. In that photo he was about age seven or eight, standing under a coconut tree wearing black dress shoes, white socks rolled down to his ankles, black short pants, and a white collared shirt. His thick, wavy hair was combed to the side, and he held his skinny arms behind his back. He grinned at the camera. I blinked and my father reappeared, now balding with a bit of a paunch. But the smile was the same.
* * *
We spent the next several days in Hong Kong taking in the sites, and by the fifth and final day, Ian and I had decided to take tour of Aberdeen Harbor, while our father and Colin stayed in the hotel room too exhausted to leave.
To see the harbor, which was cluttered with ramshackle live-aboards, we hired a boat skippered by a woman in her late forties with weathered skin. Near the end of the tour I told the skipper to take us out of the harbor beyond the typhoon shelter and into the ocean.
“There’s nothing there,” she protested.
“Please, just go,” I insisted. This was my last chance, my final effort to connect the past with the present.
The skipper shook her head and reluctantly stirred the boat around the barricade.
“Nothing,” she said.
We began to bob and toss the moment we entered the mouth of the South China Sea where my grandfather’s voyage from Hong Kong to Port of Spain had begun. Out there on the open water, away from the din and crowds of Hong Kong, we were surrounded by an expansive horizon lined defined by an overcast sky and water the color of dusky turquoise. I felt unexpectedly peaceful, my journey could end now with the knowledge that my grandfather had set his sights on the unknown, a future that lay in the distance, somewhere between ocean and sky.