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Becoming: Recollections of Home

Part II/II





Written by Starr Wang
Photos by Starr Wang
January 14th, 2021







The dim light washed the tiles a soft grey-blue. Grime and dirt-filled each crack and crevice. The bathroom was typical for China: a showerhead mounted above an old sink with a mildew-ridden plastic shower curtain dividing the lavatory and shower. The bathing area was less than two feet wide; I could barely fit and I wondered how my aging grandparents had managed. I used to look at these walls in such distaste, but now they acted as a perpetual reminder of decades passed, serving generations of our family. This room, out of all of them, bore the markings of time. It was worn, disgustingly so, at least from the perspective of an ignorant North American. Each morning like clockwork, a putrid smell emanated from the toilet: this, of course,  was so distinctly Beijing—the smell of century-old sewage systems.

Home is but a series of clouded memories, strung together with nostalgic material recognition. My grandparents’ house had cradled my infanthood, my sister’s birth, the early days of my parents’ marriage. It had witnessed tears, shrieks of laughter, moans of passion, arguments, silence, and secrets.

“Do you want to come to Nanjing?” My uncle’s wife, Jiù-Ma asked me. I hesitated, not knowing what to say. I wanted to stay here, to close my eyes and bathe in the darkness. I longed for home.





Left: Morning light washes the bathroom

Right: The living room in Beijing, “Good Fortune” is written on the scroll



On one of my visits to see my grandmother, A Pó, at her seniors’ residence, I recalled to her one of my earliest memories with my grandfather, A Diǎ.


“When we were still at 520 Midland, the first house we owned in Canada, there was one time that A Diǎ got so mad at me, he broke the bathroom door lock upstairs! I don’t remember what I did, but I locked myself in the room, crying and yelling. A Diǎ was outside, trying to get in. He was so angry and upset, demanding that I open up. You were standing outside the door, begging us to stop fighting. There were a lot of tears. Eventually, he forced the door open, breaking the little hook which locked the door.”


A Pó paused. “No, I don’t remember that… But I remember when you were little and living with us in Beijing, you refused to go to sleep—I think you had a nanny? Did we hire this young girl? I don’t know, but there was a girl who was taking care of you—she was trying to put you to bed, but you wanted to see me. To tire you out, we played a game of hide-and-seek, I hid behind the curtains in the sunroom for so long.” She chuckled to herself and said, “You eventually gave up because you couldn’t find me and went to bed.”

A little while later, A Pó turned to my uncle, Jiù and said, “The seniors’ home here is full of people who are partially or completely disabled. Do you see them? They have to rely on others. I’m not like them.”

Jiù Jiù was quiet for a moment and then playfully retorted, “Well, all the fully-abled seniors are out with their friends!”

He said this, in part, to make himself feel better. When A Diǎ was alive, both my grandparents had adamantly refused to move into a seniors’ residence, fiercely stating their independence. When our family rushed to Beijing and realized A Diǎ would not wake from his coma, there were hushed conversations about A Pó’s living situation. Finally, the family settled on bringing in a live-in caretaker, Nancy.


“When my mom came last time, she was there mainly to help A Pó move into the seniors home?” I asked Jiù.
“Yes, we decided she had to fly from Canada to make the transition easier. We met up with my cousin and her brother to get them settled. We visited A Pó nearly every day then, to help her feel more at ease. And without A Pó’s brother who moved into the same room, it would have been impossible. We needed the whole family.”



Left: Jiù Jiù making a visit to the seniors’ residence
Right: My grandmother and her younger brother eating a meal in front of the television




There was a level of “uncomfortability” that I liked about China. In my three hour conversation with J*****, I described to her the tension I felt: I was able to blend in quite easily but always remained detached, distanced, from the locals. Conversely, when I visited Hong Kong earlier that summer, I noticed that any outsider immediately felt at home due to the large expat population. Hong Kong was an easy city to read, it was foreign yet completely comforting. The exoticism of Asian culture was still accessible, but there was no sense of displacement. Somehow, the city felt a bit like a cop-out; belonging didn’t feel as challenging. Living in mainland China for a foreigner was more honest. Beijing didn’t shelter or protect: it was harsh and unforgiving, with its complexities and intricacies that even locals could never understand.


###


On one of my afternoon visits to see A Pó, I was particularly exasperated. How was it that, even at 93 years old, she managed to exhaust me with her words? I looked into her eyes, a warm hazel, and wondered if she felt my annoyance. I suppressed my feelings and put on a smile.


“Look A Pó, I brought fruit. I’ll wash some grapes for you. And these baby tomatoes are very sweet.”
“No, no! I don’t want them! Take them back...Listen, Jiāo Jiāo, you must write about architecture for your thesis. What is this nonsense about researching that old house in Beijing? It belonged to the government, you cannot write about that Jiā [house] for your thesis. ”
“Yes, A Pó. I know.” I agreed, merely as a means to appease her.


I sighed audibly and looked over at the clock. It had only been fifteen minutes. I needed to stay at least an hour, if not more. My grandmother’s younger brother was glued to the television. This was how he passed his days. He didn’t really know who I was, but I had been coming so frequently now that he recognized my face. On good days, he would dazedly wave at me.


###


家, or “Jiā”, in Chinese, looks like a little hat, represented as a ‘roof’ that encloses a mess of entangled complex lines sitting beneath it (strangely enough, this mess of lines is “Pig” in Chinese). The term family in Chinese is “Jiā Ting” [家庭], or “Jiā Ren” [家人],  which can be literally translated into Home People. More commonly, “Jiā” can be used to denote home and family interchangeably, dependent on the context, often meaning “the place where our family is”.

“Jiā” can also be used to speak about an identity, (such as farmer, [农家]), or a collective with a specialized area of knowledge, generally of the creative field, such as “Hua Jiā” [画家] as in Painters, or “Wen Xue Jiā” [文学家] as in Writers, or “Yi Shu Jiā” [艺术家] as in Artists.  Smaller groups of objects, like furniture, “Jiā Ju” [家具] also include this concept of home. Even more importantly, larger bodies of people, such as country [国家] and everybody [大家], are also defined by “Jiā”.

This was why my grandmother had difficulty understanding why I was writing about Jiā. Because it is not simply about “home” or a “house.” Rather, Jiā is both at once physical and social, representing identity, family, and community and carrying the weight of those inherent ideals and expectations. If this is the case, then is there a Chinese term that accurately describes the Western notion of home?

 



Stroke order for the Chinese character “Jiā”



“Why did you come? I told Jiāo Jiāo to tell you not to come! You’re so busy with work. Did she tell you not to come?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“Jiāo Jiāo, why didn’t you tell your uncle?”


I shrugged innocently and said, “Look, he wanted to come because he told me he misses you. Is your only son not allowed to see his own mother?”

Jiù Jiù and I exchanged playful grins.

A Pó shook her head dismissively. “What are you talking about! You two are so mischievous.”

As we headed out, I turned to my uncle, telling him earnestly, “A Pó had so much to say today. She was very talkative.” I paused. “I think it’s because she has something to look forward to. You were away last weekend.”

Outside in the parking lot, I turned around this time, in anticipation. From afar, A Pó and her younger brother’s faces peered out from the third-storey window. I waved enthusiastically, vigorously, a huge smile plastered on my face.

In the car, Jiù and I talked about his future plans, including potentially moving his family from Nanjing to Toronto. He had questions for me: about the best neighbourhoods to live in, my high school program, the use of French in Canada, about investment properties and real estate prices in different boroughs. It struck me then that he realized I was no longer a child. Or perhaps, it occurred to me that I was no longer a child. I know things now; some might even say I’m knowledgeable. When I visited Beijing eight years ago, I was still fluid, becoming, growing. One day, Jiù will stop driving me around in Beijing, stop taking me to new restaurants, new attractions and new places. Maybe one day, I will need to take care of Jiù. I’d be more than happy to repay the favour. To get old is to think and care deeply about other people.


###


A few visits back, A Pó noticed my piercings, an observation which only took five years: “What is that! What is that in your ears?” She gestured forcefully towards my head.

I quickly changed the subject, “A Pó, don’t forget to tell Mom that it's her birthday today!”


“What, it’s her birthday? It’s June 23.”
“Yes, with the time difference, it’s her birthday today in Canada.”


I turned the phone camera towards my 93-year-old grandmother, who was wearing strange, clown-shaped balloon pyjama pants with a blue abstract Mickey Mouse pattern. I noted it last time and commented. This time, I kept quiet.

“Happy birthday! [生日快乐!] You’re 63 this year. Don’t forget to thank me, since I gave you life!” I burst out in hysterical laughter. A Po’s comments never ceased to amaze me. I turned to Jiù Jiù as well, who was doubled over too, laughing.

Later that day, she told my uncle and I twice, there was no point anymore, asking us what the purpose of life was. I said nothing, afraid that these thoughts stemmed from my last conversation with her, when I had asked her questions about home for my thesis research. She didn’t answer any of the questions coherently, but despite the linguistic miscommunication, I sensed something resonated within her.




A Pó in her room at the seniors’ residence



A man was leant over in a squat, deep in concentration, reading. His book rested on a wooden dining chair, and he was perched on a small stool, under the fluorescent street lamp. He was not to be interrupted. Plumes of dust gathered. Grit sat and accumulated in piles. Construction permeated the campus, even on a Sunday morning. The dismantlement of my home rode the waves of the ocean, separating my continents of present and future. Distance had nothing to do with it, only time.


###


On my final visit to A Pó, I looked back as I was walking away, stung with an immediate sense of nostalgia. She once reminded me of home: coming into her arms or sitting on her lap, was home. It’s possible that even my visits to her small room reestablished old familial roles. But I had no place here, not in a senior’s residence. I was not a child anymore, she could no longer take care of me. The roles we once embodied had dramatically altered. I did not need her anymore. I could visit, but my current and future life was not with her. I walked away from room 6315 that day, wondering if it would be the last time I would see her.

At the end of the hallway, as Jiù and I were entering the exit stairs—I turned around once more, and saw her and her young brother looking at me, dark shadows peering from the doorway. There was sadness, but also a sense of relief. I told myself that they were looked after here, that they had already lived long lives and were seemingly healthy. Even so, the question A Pó asked earlier echoed in my mind: What is it all for?



A Pó laughing at my antics in the living room of our Beijing apartment



As I entered the communal courtyard of our Beijing flat, I saw an elderly lady taking a walk with her caretaker. I had only seen the couple a few times, usually in the early mornings. The older woman grasped the cane which thrust her forward. She barely moved her feet, instead propelled by some uncontrollable inner force. The younger caretaker pulled her back, clutching the old woman’s arm with all of her might, so she would not fall. They were walking swiftly; one hobbled forward, as the other held back, barely able to hang on. I was engrossed by this dynamic, watching two polar forces move so seamlessly.

That evening, during my daily stroll, I came upon an abandoned modernist building, a short walk from home. I wondered how I missed it all of these years. As I climbed the stairs, I thought about Beijing and Hong Kong, the two loves of my life, one old and one new, and skimmed the dust-covered handrails lightly with my fingers. On the rooftop, I could see a precarious fire escape ladder which went higher up. In my state of nostalgic recollection, I was overcome with false confidence and temporarily considered climbing it. Up there, beyond the pastel-coloured horizon, I sensed it all - the trees, the wind, the birds, the traffic and cars, the construction. It was my favourite time of the day. Dusk, when the city was lit aglow with the pinkish hue of the summer sun, smog and all. In my time here, I found solace at last.



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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