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Becoming: Recollections of Home

Part I/II





Written by Starr Wang
Photos by Starr Wang
January 6th, 2021







IN THE CURRENT AGE OF ACCESSIBLE MASS MEDIA, THE CURATION AND AESTHETICIZATION OF EVERYDAY LIFE HAS DOMINATED POPULAR CULTURE. COUPLED WITH THE UNANNOUNCED ARRIVAL OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC, THE EMERGENCE OF AN IMMATERIAL CULTURE LENDS ITSELF TO THE REDISCOVERY AND REVIVAL OF SELF-REFLECTIVE INTIMATIONS. AT A TIME WHEN OUR LIVES EXIST EXTENSIVELY IN THE VIRTUAL REALM AND PHYSICAL MOBILITY IS AT A STANDSTILL, OUR SENSE OF PLACE— PARTICULARLY THOSE WHICH WE OCCUPY DAILY: OUR HOMES— HAS BECOME SEEMINGLY MORE FRAGILE. 

The summer of 2019 was one I took as my own. I was freshly out of a seven-year relationship— one where my partner cheated on me with a paid sex worker and subsequently contracted and passed chlamydia to me. Yes, it was the summer of a home-coming, or a coming of home, into my own mind and body.

I had spent the month of May in Zhuhai, the new “Silicon Valley” of China, for an all-expenses-paid-for course as part of my Master of Architecture degree. Taking advantage of the proximity to my homeland, I flew to Beijing for six weeks after the course to conduct fieldwork on my thesis project. Mainly, I wanted to revisit our family’s ancestral home and spend time with someone who I considered my second mother, the matriarch of our family: A Pó.

Shortly after her 92nd birthday, A Pó relocated from her home in Beijing— a small 600-square-foot, ground floor apartment situated in a banal communist building on a university campus— to a banal suburban seniors’ residence on the outskirts of the city. This reality was impending and all too familiar: the day had come when A Pó was no longer independent. This apartment had been her home for over fifty years, and suddenly, she was uprooted and displaced.

Perhaps that was why I decided to go. I had lost my own sense of home, and was desperately searching for answers in the people closest to me. 

I was raised largely by my maternal grandparents, A Pó and A Diǎ, with the help of my working single mother. As with many immigrant families, shortly after my birth in Canada, I was sent to China, to my grandparents, who could give me the care and attention that my convenience-store-owning parents could not. And so, the first four years of my life were spent with A Pó and A Diǎ, living in their Beijing flat. I attended daycare on the campus grounds, learned to walk and bike, to use chopsticks, to speak my first words in Mandarin.



A young A Pó and A Diǎ (1954)
My 2nd birthday with A Pó and A Diǎ in our Beijing home (1995)



Since then, I’ve been back a few times. I spent the summer I turned legal drinking age there with my grandparents, audacious and disoriented. I kept a journal about how much I hated the culture, the people, the food. It was then that I positioned myself strictly against the city: I do not belong here. I am not Beijing. This is not my home. 

When I returned to the city eight years later, things were different. The house was empty. I did not wake up to A Pó’s persistent nagging, or to A Diǎ’s bowl of carefully cut-up fruit on the kitchen table. The only visitor was my uncle, Jiù Jiù, my mother’s brother, who would drop by the house and spend the occasional night in Beijing for business. We were close, but with the rest of his family in Nanjing, there were often strings of days where we did not see each other. I developed a rigid schedule, conducive to work: mornings were reserved for writing, afternoons for physical activity or visits to A Pó, and evenings for work. I spent the weeks extensively observing, writing and documenting notions of home, heritage and cultural identity in what felt like to me a time of prevalent placelessness, but can otherwise be categorized, simply as adulthood.

Only in coming back did I realize how much it meant to me. Home is not something immediately recognizable, home is something that oscillates, appearing and reappearing in different forms. When you come back to it, its shape and meaning has changed but its significance still holds strong. Distance, as they say, makes the heart grow fonder. I longed for some sense of recognition.

The house had changed in some ways. It was cleaner, from what I remembered, and quieter. I sat at the wooden table, which had been pushed against the window, facing the outside. Watching people come and go through the courtyard, with their dogs, on their bikes, carrying shopping bags, dragging carts. This was not the image that I thought I yearned for— but the simple act of watching, sitting in solitude, behind the grated bars of the window provided me with great comfort.

Seven years ago, I sat in the same spot. A Pó and A Diǎ were both still healthy and alive.



Front entrance, A Pó and A Diǎ’s house is directly to the left
The main living room has a view out to the yard



In listening to the stories my mother tells me about Beijing and our family, over the years I sensed her inaccuracies. For years now, she told me that my maternal grandparents are from Shanghai. But when I asked Jiù Jiù, he told me A Pó’s family is from Suzhou, and A Diǎ’s family is from Ningbo. My uncle has a wealth of information. I barely have to ask questions and he will talk about family, history, and memory. We are quite similar in that way— disgustingly nostalgic. He told me one night, coming back from the Sichuan restaurant after dinner, that A Pó’s extended family had been quarreling about their ancestral courtyard house. Jiù Jiù said he considered buying it, keeping it within the family as an heirloom, but the house had been in ruins and would need extensive renovation. He described it as having been built out of wood, with exposed timber columns and a generous shared outdoor space. Despite being the eldest of four, A Pó, who was female, had no property rights, and her two younger brothers’ relatives eventually sold it to some private buyers without informing the family. I hinted some longing in Jiù Jiù’s voice, but that could have been lost in translation.

###


    “...Where is Nancy now?” I asked Jiù the other day.
    “I think she’s working for another family”
    “Around here?”
    “Yes, close by.”


Nancy was my grandmother’s middle-aged live-in caretaker, employed shortly after my grandfather’s passing. After his death, which came swiftly and unexpectedly, my mother and uncle scrambled to figure out what to do with A Pó. Suddenly, she was a lone entity, floating in space, lost without her partner. By that time, she was in her late eighties and finally beginning to show signs of age. Nancy was small but loud and brazen, with a thick, undetectable rural Chinese accent. She was heavy-handed but had honest intentions. My grandmother’s health was in her hands, so we all treated her with kindness. She was a permanent fixture during my last few visits to Beijing and it struck me how silent the house was— the house where she once cleaned, cooked, and doted over my grandmother.

Strange that one character can enter and exit our lives so easily.

This time, when I saw my grandmother, it was at the seniors’ residence. Despite being 93 years old, she still confidently held the matriarchal position in the family. She was even tinier, but her face glowed when she realized it was me, Jiāo Jiāo, her youngest granddaughter, who was visiting. A Pó’s mind was all there— so much so that she immediately bombarded me with an onslaught of questions, mostly anxiety-induced: How did you get here? Why did you come? What are you going to do here? When are you leaving?, which eventually gave way to calmness and pride: I’m so glad you’re okay, There’s so much to see here, You got here from Shanghai by yourself? I can’t believe that.

I kept my emotions at bay when I first saw her. I felt tears welling up, because she seemed so healthy and at peace. Perhaps these last three years have helped her heal too, from A Diǎ’s death.


    “Is your uncle moving back to Canada?” she whispered.
    I paused momentarily.
    “I don’t know, I’m not sure.”


I did know, of course.

At Jiù Jiù’s office later that afternoon, he pulled out an old photo album that A Pó tried to throw out during her cleaning phase, a dramatic reaction to A Diǎ’s death. I’m not certain what occurred but I imagined her fervently tearing photos, letters, old mementos apart because her practicality deemed these things to be extraneous. A Diǎ would have been appalled. The photo album is now housed in the bottom drawer of Jiù Jiù’s desk because he was afraid it would be tossed if it was left at home. There were pictures of a young A Pó and A Diǎ, and my mom and uncle as sweet, round-faced toddlers.



Jiù Jiù always shared my love for Chinese cuisine (1995)



Jiù Jiù is nearing sixty years old. He has aged. I stared at the wrinkles behind his ears. I didn’t remember those lines being there. Jiù is my mother’s younger brother. He has been a constant in my life, despite moving back to China after immigrating to Canada more than a decade ago. When my dad left our family with no car, Jiù would pick us up and drive to get us groceries. The first summer I spent in Beijing, after my first year of university, my uncle dedicated his time to driving me around, trying out restaurants, visiting local shops, and touring buildings. We even share similar interests: in the summer heat almost a decade ago, we would scour antique markets in rundown lots, searching for buried treasure. He values familial history and narrative, as much as I do, and more than my mother, who in fact, has written off most of her Chinese heritage.

As we left the senior’s residence that day, yǎng lǎo yuàn [养老院], I heard:“Jiāo Jiāo! Jiāo Jiāo!” I turned around, but I couldn’t see anyone flagging me down. I kept walking.


    “Jiāo Jiāo! Jiāo Jiāo!”


I looked up. There, pressed up against the third storey window, I saw A Pó and her brother’s tiny faces. They were so small, compared to the monstrosity of the building block which housed them. The window was open and they were yelling and waving excitedly at me.


    “Did I forget something? What happened?” I turned to Jiù.
    “Nothing, they’re just greeting you.”


I smiled sweetly and returned the wave, comforted.



The small window on the right is where students would order jian bing



Each morning before noon, students crowded around the dirtied window opening in the courtyard, ordering jiān bing [煎餅], a Beijing delicacy. In the weathered face of every aged Chinese man, I saw my grandfather. He would walk past the group of students, passing under the covered walkway, moving past the pile of bicycles at the entrance, up our front steps and into our building. The apartment is the first door, to the left, on the ground floor. The door would open and he would announce: “I’m home!/Wǒ huí jiā le!” [我回家了!]

In my fervent rummaging, I was reminded of A Diǎ’s desire to capture each memory through a photograph. He had cabinets and bookshelves filled with albums— some organized, some not. Loose pictures in a variety of sizes, stuffed in aging manilla envelopes filled each cranny. In most of these, my grandfather is centre stage— pictured with all kinds of groups of people, socializing and laughing with his friends. He was handsome and had a contagious smile. But the A Diǎ I knew fulfilled another important role, the caretaker. I knew him only in the latter two decades of his life, at which point his social life had slowed down. Instead, his days were filled with naps, books and writing. He always did the laundry, never the cooking, except for his notoriously famous fried rice. He lived a rich life before my own, as evidenced by these photos, full of memories that would never come to light again.

There was a photo of him on a camel. There was a photo of him with a bucket hat! (I had only known him to wear caps.) There was a photo of him at Mutianyu, standing against the deteriorating wall of the Great Wall, casually poised with grace, his smile a mischievous grin. How strange, I thought. I was just there, days ago. I scrolled through my phone and realized that we had managed to take the same photo, only 40 or 50 years apart.

###

His arm snaked around my waist. The night air was cool, the soft breeze rustled the trees. We were on Sam’s rooftop, far removed from the chaotic hutongs with fluffy white dogs or the anxiety inducing twenty wide lane highways of the Ring Roads.


    “Now would be a good time to ask you to make out with me right?”


I knew this was coming, but the delivery needed some work. I internally grimaced but outwardly played it off as laughter, as I usually did. A few hours later, we returned to the warmth of his room. Sam showed me his photos (Classic, I thought, of course he’s an amateur film photographer) and I admired them, commenting thoughtfully on the ones that I was particularly drawn to.

Even then, I thought of him, many times. You should come to Hong Kong, he said. Hong Kong, that place is not for me. I never thought I would return again. I dreamed of it, but my conscience and self-pride would never let me go there for a boy.

While on the phone with my best friend Ryan earlier that day, he simply asked me, “Do you think something that is short-lived can’t be meaningful?”



A Diǎ standing at the Great Wall of China



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Starr is a designer currently working at a small architecture office in Montreal. Her masters' thesis piqued her interest in autoethnography, which now fuels her writing and other creative work. Starr is interested in collective memory, lived experience and personal narrative, in relation to the Chinese-Canadian immigrant community and architecture at large.






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