In Australia, my father is getting old. His back is aching and legs weak. “I ought to take my grandchildren to China,” he said, “to visit the villages where our ancestors lived, and see our countless relatives”.
We arrived at TaiShan on a beautiful sunny day. TaiShan is a county in the province of GuangDong, in Southern China. My late mother’s family came from a small farming village. My mother’s sister in law, my aunt and my cousins, still live there. There is not much farming nowadays, villagers live a simple life and rely mostly on family members working in the big cities.
We were lost at first, went to a wrong village. A loud and friendly woman spoke to one of my cousins on the phone, then pointed to a pathway along the rice fields. The woman and my cousin knew each other – they all do, living in small villages.
The villages were strikingly beautiful – lush rice paddock surrounded by small streams; aged buildings with white-washed walls fading away.
Our aunt and cousins were waiting for us outside the village. There were huge fig trees, with tables and chairs under the trees. Aunt cooked us a delicious lunch. Villages gathered around and watched us eat, talking and laughing.
After lunch, we walked to aunt’s house, along lane ways lined with houses built with blue and grey bricks. I was fascinated by the doors, colorful and vibrant.
My little boy entertained himself trying to figure out how to break up a large block of ice with a ‘head chopper’ knife, and to pump water from a well.
The huge block of ice was for a 2-year old girl’s ‘shaving party’ that evening. It is a tradition to have a banquet for a one-month old birthday; if any of the little ones didn’t have an one-month birthday party, he or she could have a ‘shaving party’ as a replacement. The whole village was invited, quite a big event.
Under the beautiful fig trees, men were busy cooking up a feast, using the simplest cooking equipment and utensils that were well-used and rustic.
We visited many houses, enjoying homemade traditional snacks – pork and rice wrapped in banana leafs, sweet red bean & tapioca wrapped in banana leafs, steamed water chestnut cakes, glutinous rice dumplings, and steamed sweet rice balls.
I have not seen my aunt and cousins for over 35 years, but I still remembered vividly how poor they (and we) were. During my teen age years, I once stayed with them over a summer holiday. We fished for frogs, clams and snails to eat, and barely had enough rice to fill our tummies. I remember my late uncle, skinny and hunching, carrying a heavy load of organic (e.g. human) fertilizer to the field, using a bamboo stick and two wooden buckets.
Today, my eldest cousin, Zhong, is a trained mechanic. His son and his beautiful wife have a 2-year old daughter. Zhong travels with his son across China, maintain and repair equipment. They live in a newly built house that is modern and spacious. My second cousin, Yuan, married a dim sim chef. They have a lovely teenage daughter. They are wonderfully warm people who opened their homes and their hearts to us.
We said goodbye to my aunt, cousins and their families. We hope to return one day very soon.