Edited by Ramon Loyola
Wenzhou, China — January 2017
Ye Ye, my paternal grandfather, sits silently in the living room, seemingly weighed down by multiple layers of thick jackets, wool and scarves. With small, half-closed eyes, he could be looking at anything or nothing in particular in the sparsely decorated flat. It could be at the coffee table before him, or the tiny black figurines playing traditional Chinese instruments on the shelf, or at the small kitchen where his carer is preparing dinner. It could be at any of the family members surrounding him — my parents, my brother, my grandmother, me — and he is probably wondering why there are so many people here tonight.
This is the fourth time we’ve come to see my father’s side of the family. There are some things which stay the same every time. It’s winter, though Wenzhou is warmer than cities like Hangzhou, where we boarded the high-speed rail a few hours ago amidst the cacophony of shifting crowds. It’s still a rushed stay here before we return to my mother’s side of the family: two nights are never long enough. I think about our lives, about the things which bring silence to our conversations, and those which weigh upon me.
Some things are different this year. It’s the first time in almost ten years that my parents, my brother and I have all come at the same time to the same Chinese city to see the family. Ye Ye had already suffered memory loss as a result of numerous accidents and subsequent brain injuries, but it has worsened in the year since I last saw him. He can now no longer recognise anyone except Nai Nai, and is barely able to speak or to string a full sentence together. If words emerge at all, they are incomprehensible, a jumble of different dialects.
My father shares a few snippets of Ye Ye’s personal history, the conflicts he’d survived and how he grew up — stories I have never heard before. ‘You could write a book about this!’ my father says. ‘Ask your grandmother for the details and write it down.’
Nai Nai shakes her head. ‘I don’t know about everything,’ she says.
‘We should have done so earlier. What a pity,’ my father says. ‘He can’t tell it now. It could’ve been a great story.’
We fall silent under the weight of what’s unspoken. The pain of seeing Ye Ye the way he is now. The regret at not asking him earlier about his life. In spite of this, a tiny part of me feels uplifted by hearing my father speak so openly about the past in this way. Seeing him with his side of the family for the first time in over a decade, the enormity of the effect of displacement is impressed upon me. Ye Ye’s history has been left untold. Now, it is too late. Yet today I’ve uncovered a new story about him through my parents.
As a writer, I’ve often been told to search within myself for the truths that might serve as inspiration. Yet when there are broken lines inside you, shaped by the barriers between you and those who came immediately before, the answers aren’t so obvious.
My grandfather’s blank page of history is merely the beginning of the silences I’ve always encountered. Even with my own parents, it’s an ongoing progress to glimpse even pieces of their pasts. I didn’t notice this when I was growing up. It became apparent only through my independent increase in cultural understanding.
When I studied Chinese writers like Lu Xun from the May Fourth movement that sought to modernise China, I discovered his writings were assigned in schools during my parents’ time. There were other books that increased my understanding of the Cultural Revolution; I became familiar with writers like Wang Anyi, who came from the same generation as my parents did. After the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, a wave of Chinese students were granted permanent residency in Australia, including those who weren’t directly connected to the protests. This was true of the Chinese-Australian author Leo Xi Rang Liu and the characters in his book Oztale: Sweet and Sour — and also of my parents.
As I’ve gained this knowledge from a wider perspective, it’s prompted me to consider how it sits alongside the details my parents have omitted from their history. There’s a certain strangeness in reading these third-person accounts first, and seeking a more immediate connection after making my own discoveries, rather than having my parents’ stories provoke my curiosity. Despite my father’s humanities background, for example, he shared little of his own opinions when I brought up certain writers. My mother referred to the challenges they faced in their earlier years in Australia — such as their qualifications not being recognised, the fact they were working in manufacturing, the exhaustion of studying by day and working by night — but with limited detail, so that I’d always found these snippets difficult to envision. It was in Leo Xi Rang Liu’s book that I saw this fully explored in narrative form, and the realities of my parents’ experiences clarified in my mind — yet from someone else’s perspective, rather than theirs.
Tentatively, I’ve pieced together my parents’ backstory, filled with open-ended detail and large gaps, like a half-finished basket of bamboo weaving. There are still so many questions I wish I had the answers to. How was their life different when they were growing up in China? What originally made them choose to study in Australia? What made them decide to stay and actually build a life here? How was the experience of migration for them?
I can only guess the reasons for my parents’ reluctance to relate their story. Perhaps the past seems unimportant to them. Our lives are here now, as Australians. Perhaps it’s too difficult for them to relive their separation from their families. When they first arrived in the 1980s, their ability to communicate with loved ones back in China would have been severely limited. The loneliness of that period was no doubt painful. Perhaps looking back at the life they used to have would make it too easy for them to think about what could have been, and consume them with thoughts of what if? I’m often left feeling drained by the hostility shown towards minorities in Australia, yet this sense is multiplied when I think of what my parents must have experienced. My mother once mentioned she and my father might have come to a different decision regarding their migration if they’d known then what they know now. The last time we were in China together, she remarked on how different everything feels for her in the two countries. As I see my parents visit China increasingly often, it seems that they’re seeking to maintain closer connections with their families because of this alienation.
I can’t say what I would have done in their position, yet I do wonder how things could have been different. If their experiences growing up hadn’t been so far removed from mine, perhaps there wouldn’t be so many silences reflecting the disconnections between us. And if I’d grown up around Ye Ye and Nai Nai, rather than meeting them only a few times in my life, perhaps my grandfather’s stories wouldn’t be so unknown to me, either.
Later that night, Nai Nai takes out an old photo album that I have never seen before, and we spend the night perusing pictures together. She finds a framed photo of me from when I was barely a year old, and insists that my parents take it home. I’m captivated by other photographs, the much older ones in the album — fragile and fluttery snapshots in greyscale. It’s the first time I’ve seen pictures of my father, my aunts and my grandparents in their younger years.
Although I already knew my father had left home and moved to Hangzhou by himself as a teenager, the photos emphasise just how young he was at the time. This new piece of information gives rise to further questions. What had it been like for my grandparents to see one of their children leave home at a very young age? What had it been like to watch a child move permanently across the world in the years that followed?
A year and a half later, my mother and I spend time with a family friend in Beijing while I attend a study program there. I soon forget the sultry feeling of the air — a sharp change from Sydney mere days ago — as I listen, witnessing a side of my mother that rarely appears when we’re in Australia. She and her friend speak in Mandarin of the commonalities in their stories, and recall events from the past. My mother mentions that my father had already been in Australia in 1989, whereas she had still been in China, and remembers him cautioning her in light of increasing political tension. I realise I’d made an error in thinking they’d arrived together. I wonder how they’d planned and decided all this at the time; whether there are other assumptions I’ve made which hide a deeper story.
These questions are still with me, part of the ongoing process of filling in the gaps in what I know of our history.
As I’ve improved in my Chinese language abilities, I’ve sought to read more writing from perspectives that are closer to that of my parents than to my own; to understand their experiences better. I think about ways I can stay in touch with Nai Nai, and — in spite of the distance — she never fails to comment on how happy she is to see my WeChat photos, reminding me to take care of my health and not get too tired, and warning me not to read for too long at night for the sake of my eyesight. There are times when I need a dictionary or a friend’s help when I send Nai Nai a message. But I trust my voice every time, despite how stilted and tentative it is, and I make sure she understands me perfectly.
Perhaps the next time I see her, whenever it may be, I’ll have the courage to ask her about her childhood and to share more of her memories with me.
It’s been a slow process, not one of sudden clarity or insight, as I try to make up for all the years we’ve spent — and continue to spend — apart. I know many stories remain untold, even as each one I’ve uncovered has given me some answers. It’s easy to feel defeated sometimes, because this journey is a constant reminder of my inbetween-ness; of how much has been lost.
In these moments of uncertainty, I often wonder whether it would be easier to look ahead and stop dwelling on unanswered questions. To accept things as they are. This sense of defeat is only temporary, however. Eventually, the longing for one more detail, for one more moment to add to our renewing connections, keeps me pushing forward. Each new fragment of memory I uncover from my family makes me feels like I claiming back a part of who I am. It’s through my family, and their personal connections to wider events, that I can better understand my place and identity, and how I came to be here. This constant searching for answers, of probing through barriers and silences in the dark, is perhaps precisely what gives displacement its meaning — and yet also what makes it so hard.
Wendy Chen is a Sydney-based writer whose past appearances include the Emerging Writers’ Festival, National Young Writers’ Festival, Noted Festival and Subbed In. Her short fiction recently appeared in the anthology Meet Me at the Intersection (Fremantle Press, 2018), edited by Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina. Find her on Twitter @writteninwonder.