The moment I remember most clearly was when my family and I trekked up Li Shan, a mountain that in Chinese mythology was said to be where the creator of mankind repaired the wall of heaven, to eat at a place that served perfectly cooked meats like rabbit and duck.
A popular saying about Li Shan is that it “shines like a beacon in the evening sunlight.” And from witnessing a magnificent sunset up there, I can testify that it does. It was the first one I’d seen in over a month where the skies weren’t grimy from the man-made haze of smog. I hoped for more sunsets like that as my family, my whole family, laughed in the background, and the delicious aroma from all the food penetrated my sense of smell.
I’d been in China for twenty days and couldn’t help but feel that this was perfect. This was where I belonged.
I’m a second-generation Chinese-American, commonly classified as an “ABC” (American born Chinese. But unlike many other ABC’s, whose relatives (especially their grandparents) take a critical part in their growth, I was raised solely by my parents. All of my relatives were in China. The distance made me feel like I was somewhat estranged from them.
I not only felt isolated from my relatives, but from China overall. The history and culture all seemed very far from me and thus, I never had any enthusiasm to explore it. I purposely remained ignorant of opportunities to learn and engage with my roots. I never really experienced Chinese cuisine, opting to typically dine on fast food or just make a sandwich. I always skipped Chinese church in favor of attending my friend’s church. I never even wanted any Chinese decorations in my room, like paintings or calligraphy scrolls; I hung up video game posters instead.
In a sense, I had exiled the Chinese part of my identity. It was obvious; there was a disconnect between me and my Chinese origins, and I never bothered to repair it.
Then, at the end of my senior year of high school, I found out I was getting the chance to experience China in person. My parents announced that we would take a trip to visit my father’s family for the summer. They had decided it was time I revisited my roots. I was initially hesitant and apprehensive. I had visited once before, but I’d been very young and only have a vague recollection of my time there. China was a place I really didn’t know anything about and probably didn’t want to know anything about. But, my journey that summer was filled with eye-opening experiences that allowed me to reevaluate a huge part of myself.
…there was a disconnect between me and my Chinese origins, and I never bothered to repair it.
China was different. Well, at least the part I stepped into and experienced. For most of our trip, we stayed at my grandfather’s apartment in Lintong of the Shaanxi Province, a relatively underdeveloped part of China that was still in the process of urbanization,. Coming from an American suburban lifestyle, I was unprepared for how different things would be. I slept on my grandfather’s sofa with hardly any air conditioning. I couldn’t take showers on the days it rained, because the shower was solar-powered. To get something or go somewhere, I usually had to walk.
But it was more than worth it. My grandfather may have been monetarily poor, but he was rich in stories and anecdotes. He’d often pull me aside to tell me about his experiences during the Cultural Revolution or share childhood stories about growing up on a farm. My other relatives were just as open and kind. It took me some time, but I was soon able to recognize them as my blood. The memories and bonds I made with them will surely to last a lifetime.
Besides connecting with my relatives, I also explored and embarked on adventures unique to China. I visited the Terra Cotta Army, a historical wonderland, full of intricately designed and well-preserved terracotta sculptures dating back to the 3rd-century BCE. I went to the burial site of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China who was considered the catalyst of a unified China. I’m a history freak but only when I was in China could I admire its historical remarkability and the monuments and relics that survived to tell its story. It was amazing and surreal to realize that my ancestry was a part of this story.
And of course, there was the food. Chinese cuisine is second to none, or rather I should say genuine Chinese cuisine. We see the influx of Chinese restaurants in the States, but most of these restaurants stick to a number of limited dishes that do not offer an authentic taste of Chinese food. There is much more to this and that chicken or beef. The herbs, spices, and the setting in which food was served was absolutely amazing. I went from street vendor to street vendor, pigging out on all the different unique dishes they had to offer, like the famous Xian meat buns and liangpi (rice flour noodles). By the time I’d left, I’d gained a hefty 15 pounds!
I got a lot from my trip to China. I connected with my family, witnessed the testaments to Chinese history, indulged in incredible food, and, most importantly, I proudly realized that China is indeed part of my identity. Today, I openly embrace my heritage, and I am beyond excited for another trip to this amazing place I now call a second home.