FILM DIARIES// 台山 Taishan 2016

2/01/2017 08:02:00 AM

I know, I know. This is the third time in the not so new year that I am once again reminiscing about another experience that I had in 2016, but trust me, this is a good one. The last month of 2016 took me to three vastly different places and this one hits closest to home. In fact, it kind of is home. During the last week of December in 2016 I had the pleasure of visiting my mother's hometown in China, specifically the city Taishan where she spent her childhood. Now I've been to various places all throughout China within my lifetime, but seeing this town that I was completely unfamiliar with, through my mother's eyes was so lovely that I couldn't help but share with you all.

Taishan is one of the many places in China that is being invaded by high rise buildings. The roads that we drove on to get to my mother's tiny town were newly paved, not more than two or three years old, and the farmlands that lie next to the roads are slowly but surely being taken over. It's an interesting sight to behold for someone who has only seen strictly city and strictly country. Both seem out of place and too close to the other to be practical, and yet a wrong turn off the main road and all of a sudden you're transported to entirely different era. My mother's hometown is now located right next to a series of toll booths. She tells me that even when she visited a few years ago, the roads were still dirt. Now, everything is paved in a grey concrete.

Immediately we are greeted by her neighbours. They are warm and welcoming and loud. They keep asking my mother if she remembers them from her childhood and slowly but surely, names begin to surface as the buzz of excitement billows over. More and more people arrive and soon we are being whisked away, handed presents and shown around like old friends, because we are.

My mom, while being pulled toward her house by a few elder ladies, turns to tell us of this one particular spot in an alleyway where she and her siblings used to sit and play. As we walk further into this world we get a glimpse into people's houses. Their messes, their furniture, their food. Everything seems stuck in a different time minus a few bits and bobs. But the language feels like home. Taishanese is a Chinese dialect, and in this small town, there is an accent that I've grown up with. Listening to my parents and my grandparents speak it has made my ears open to the sounds. I can decipher most but everyone is speaking all at once and it is chaos of the happiest kind.

We step into my mother's childhood home, a home that I've only ever heard about in passing and in stories rarely told and its entirely different from what I imagined. It is made of the same grey brick that all of the other houses in the neighbourhood are. It is empty save a shrine on the second floor of the living room and a few pieces of furniture in one of the rooms. They date back to a time I will never know, a time only memories can touch. But they are there and they are real and my mother remembers.

The rest of the house is hollow. No one lives here anymore but the neighbours will come every once in a while to make sure nothing is out of place. The only visitors it receives are other members of my family who have visited. They are few and far between. But today is different. Today it seems as if everyone in the village has come to see what all the hullabaloo is about. Someone has returned. There are questions to be asked about the other the other side of the world. People want to know how my grandparents are doing. "Is the family well?" "Will they come visit soon?" "Do you remember me?" "You look just like your mother."

I feel like the daughter of a celebrity. I wonder if my mother feels the same.

We take a breather from the crowd and go exploring. We meet an uncle of a friend who shows us his house and the small farm attached to it. He has a chicken coop in the back and my mother is ecstatic. My father chuckles at her enthusiasm. Stray puppies follow us for a while as we continue on our way. We stop at the side of the main road leading into the village and my brother asks to help cut lemongrass for two women that knew our family back in the day. The lemongrass is sharp and coarse and hurts his hands but he bends over and cuts the lot for her. He's quickly learning that the rural lifestyle isn't as fun as it looks. I take a glance at the women's hands and they are as rough and thick as my father's. He doesn't find the same amusement as we do. He understands all too well the hardships of this lifestyle.

We chat with the women for a little longer and explore a tiny bit more before returning once again to the house. The party is finally winding down and after more small talk and friendly banter people begin to excuse themselves. As the number of visitors dwindles to a handful we get the sense that it's time to leave. We all pile back into the car and arrive back to the city in a matter of minutes; back to reality, back to the present. The tall unfinished buildings surround the road and once again leave the small farms and the grey brick houses in hiding, waiting to be uncovered. 

I'm struck suddenly by the thought of what life would be like if my mother and her family never immigrated to the United States. How different everything would be for her and how dangerously close it was to being a reality. I'm struck too by how grateful I am that I was given this life. That I am so lucky that it all worked out in my favour. That the cards I was dealt in this life were so good, are so good, and that I am endlessly privileged to do and see the things I've seen. 

My parents have come so far in the endless pursuit of a better life for their children, as their parents, and their parents before them. With age and experience I feel the gap of understanding closing between us. I know where they come from now, I know where I come from, and I am grounded.

The only convenience store for the entire town

My mother's neighbour's houses and the alleyway that my mother hung out in during her childhood

Neighbours in our home

A shy village girl sitting in the doorway that connects the living room to the backyard

The most adventurous two year old 

An old vanity with a slightly warped mirror in the only room that housed what was left of the furniture

Gathering the courage to look at me without hiding behind her mother

Potentially the oldest woman in the village, taking a casual stroll

Chopping firewood for the stove

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