Stories from Singapore

“Actually, history just repeats itself. The workers coming into Singapore today are the same as the coolies before.”

We were sitting in a mall food court off the Dhoby Ghaut train station. I had asked Yew Chong if he would be willing to meet with me to talk about his mural work in Chinatown and across the city.

“This moment right here, us eating in this food court with this environment around us, I guarantee you in 10 years will not be here. That’s how fast this city is developing.”

I looked around at the food stands selling Hakka and Fujianese dishes, at the Japanese bento box signs, and listened to the sounds of a hundred voices become chatter. We were sitting in a regular commercial mall, yet hearing that this very moment would not be the same again from someone who grew up here, made me want to hold onto it.

In my entire time in Singapore so far, I have been feeling really unsettled.

Searching for Home in Mediocre Roast Duck

I walked into the Chinese restaurant, hungry, after wandering around District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City. I scan the menu and order roast duck with rice. The waiter brings it out of the front kitchen with steaming rice. I fork a first bite. Memory floods over me. Home. But with the second and third, I chew slower, realizing the duck was incredibly mediocre. My grandpa makes it better. And I miss Chinatown. Here are the memories that ensued.

*

My grandparents raised me with such gentleness. At a time in their lives when the hardships of the past had long withered away – at least in front of my sister and I, children. My grandpa爺爺 [“yeh yeh”] would come home sometimes with roasted chicken wings, the savory honey secret-sauce braised chicken wings that hang from the window fronts of Chinese restaurants. To this day, those chicken wings are magic and I crave them across oceans.

爺爺 made the best siew lop. That’s the word I know in Cantonese for all of the soy sauce chickens, duck, and roast pork that hang from Chinese restaurants in New York City. He carried the recipes with him from Guangzhou and Hong Kong, where he worked as a teenager. For him, working in the restaurant was a way of escape and his chance at making it, coming from a family where they had to give away their sons to because they didn’t have enough money to raise them.

We arrive at 大旺 Dai Wong, a restaurant on Mott Street. 嫲嫲 [“mah mah”] says to me, you know your grandpa used to work here. Today is one of the rare Sundays I am in Chinatown with both of them. Grandpa’s steps quicken with the beat of his cane on the sidewalk. He wants to see if his friends are still there. He walks in. A waiter, dressed in a black vest and crisp short sleeve white button down, sees him and his face lights up. Ah sook! he calls. Ay, you’re still working here? Grandpa says to him in Toisanese. Soon, the uncle working the siew lop behind the counter also comes out. They head outside – on a smoke break – to catch up. It’s been years.

My grandpa was known for making the best siew lop. I say “was” because this knowledge now only exists in the memory of his former coworkers. Over the 30 years, he worked with and trained other restaurant workers. The exact number in his network, all in their 50’s or older now, I don’t think I’ll ever know. But today, when he walks into the Chinese restaurants we go in Brooklyn, he still sees an old friend.

My gong gong 公公 told me angrily once that the restaurant had convinced 爺爺 to tell them his recipe before laying him off. I know 爺爺 has a heart so soft he wouldn’t hold that against them. Long retired, I imagine, now, that working there must not have been all happy for him. There must have been days where he stood for some hours too long, looking forward to going home. I wonder if those hours standing all day is why his legs are weakening with the years now. He spent his days interacting with humans in transit.

I write about and think about my grandparents more than I talk to them. In trying to write in a new language, I realize that a lot of the words I would use to express myself in English are superfluous. In Vietnamese, it’s said a lot more simply. And they cannot always translate. Yet, I still find comfort in being able to spill English on the page. That in my years of learning, I’ve accumulated all these different words for my treasure trove that is expression. I thank my writing teachers, who never knew or would know the person I was & am to become, but who helped me reach this point all the same.

What I wanted to write about from the beginning is my grandfather. How rooted my family and I are in New York’s Chinatown. How Chinatowns are often a completely different species of a community in the countries in which they are formed. It is actually Asian American history and becoming politicized that I delved more into my own family’s history. It was in college that I learned – in my work with tenants in Chinatown, my father had lived in a rent-controlled apartment building on Mott Street with 爺爺, 嫲嫲and his brother when they first moved to this country. It’s incredible how perspective changes – how I can walk past the same building for years and not realize the personal history it holds. And then when I do, the way I see the world has forever changed. No matter how much I’ve traveled this past year, I realize I am constantly searching for and trying to recreate home. Because I know what this looks like for me.

I can so clearly see my grandfather – quiet – standing behind the cutting board, hands softly ladling sauce over the pork. The lunch rush comes in at 11:30, of people in the community all in transit, but who stop for the moment to be here, to consciously or not, make decisions to nourish their bodies with food from a home. 爺爺 does not know all their names. Nor do they know his. But they do know that here, they make great cha siew and chicken. A lot of it gets lost in the shuffle. From order to cashier shouting order to grandpa’s hands making order, the magic of these moments perhaps gets lost in the shuffle. But if you mute the scene and look at it from afar, the same way I do in memory and imagination, you see the peace of those moments. From me sitting alone at the table in a restaurant with mediocre roast duck in Vietnam to 爺爺 in the solitude of his living room in Bay Parkway, sitting in his armchair, TV playing. He remembers and I imagine what we do not speak of.

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Learning Chinese History from Motorbike Drivers in Vietnam

Ever since I arrived in Vietnam two months ago, as part of my year-long project studying Chinatowns around the world, I have been using the means of transportation that majority of the people in this country rely on: motorcycles. As a solo traveler, sometimes the motorcycle drivers are the people I have the longest conversations with on our 20 minute drive. In the north in Hanoi, they would be the ones who I practiced my very beginner Vietnamese skills with. In Ho Chi Minh City, they too greet me in Vietnamese, often asking where I’m from. After they hear I’m Chinese, the Chinese drivers immediately switch to speaking to me in Cantonese. These drivers, who often work multiple jobs, are the ones who have taught me about the history of the Chinese in Vietnam.

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“Chị là người nước gì?” he asked me as soon as we started driving, What country are you from? The first time I had a conversation on the back of a motorbike, I found it amusing that we would try to talk over the rush of the wind speeding with us at 30km/hr. I wasn’t yet used to driving in a vehicle with absolutely no barrier between me and the world. By now, speeding down the streets of district 11, it was completely normal.
“Huh? Oh, Mỹ gốc Trung Quốc,” I’m Chinese American.
      “啊!中国?” he said now in Cantonese, “where in China are you from?”
“My parents are from Guangdong, Toisan,” I said. With that, his story too began to unfold. He told me that his parents came to Vietnam in the 1930’s from Guangdong, at a time when China was so poor there was barely food to eat. “Do you know how much a kilogram of rice would cost?” I realized that his parents are the same age as my grandfather; he the same age as my parents. My grandpa had told me before about how harsh his childhood was, growing up under the period of Japanese invasions and war in China.
“So what are you doing here? Working?” I’m realizing that it’s uncommon for people to come travel to Vietnam and be living in the Chinese neighborhoods. Usually tourists stay in the hotels and hostels in District 1, where the high-scale restaurants, shopping centers, and attractions line the city.
“I’m here studying the history of the Chinese in Vietnam and the community today.” By now, I had rehearsed that phrase in Cantonese so many times that it finally came out smoothly.
“There a lot of Chinese here in district 11 and district 6,” he said. And then casually, “that’s the apartment I live in.” He pointed to a white building with  clothes drying on every balcony, “on the third floor.”
“There’s especially a lot of Teochew people in these districts.”
Over the hum of engines, entering the traffic circle with dozens of motorbikes moving together like a school of fish in this everyday traffic, he told me he tried to “tuw doe,” a phrase in Cantonese meaning to immigrate “illegally” seven times by boat.
“Since I was 13 years old. But every single time they caught me and I was turned back.”
“Back then, there was barely any food to eat. People ate saa 沙, mai 米, guk 谷. Do you understand what that means? It’s sand with rice and the rice shell.” He laughed at the absurdity. “It was really difficult back then.”
“Do I turn right here?”
“Oh. Yeah,” I said. As quickly as our conversation deepened, I got off the bike. We greeted each other goodbye, thank you, and both continued on.

2.
He spoke to me in English. “I worked in Australia for two years. In Melbourne at a center for the elderly. Every morning I served tea to the elderly people, you know, asking if they can have sugar, milk, and taking it down.” We were driving to a café I was headed to in District 3. When he said that, I could pinpoint his English to an Australian accent. “I asked my boss to renew my contract to let me stay for longer, but in the end he didn’t.”
     “My great grandmother was from Guangdong. My grandmother could speak all the languages but my mother never really spoke Chinese to us so I don’t either.”
     “Do you think it’s okay that people of Chinese descent don’t speak Chinese or do things associated with Chinese culture? Like here, it seems that you could essentially become Vietnamese. In a way that people in America can’t.”

3.
“Is business good driving a motorbike?” I asked him. I could tell he was in his 60’s, hair graying, at an age when people should not have to work anymore.
“No, it’s not. Sometimes it’s enough to get by, other times it’s not enough.”

For those embarking on traveling solo*

In these 9 months traveling across the world to different countries by myself, I’ve spent a lot of time alone. Walking through crowded city streets, headphones in my ears, sitting in restaurants and eating alone, hiking to the tops of mountains, on trains and buses to different cities, a lot of this year has been spent alone. I was sitting on the bus from Hanoi to Sapa two weeks ago and a flood of realizations came rushing to me in the form of words. And I wrote them down. A lot of these, I’ve learned from other people be it friends, mentors, family, now condensed in the context of my experience. For those embarking on traveling, whether continuously or in trips throughout your lifetime, know that:

1. No matter how much you travel, how much “experience” you gain, you are never more knowledgeable than someone who has stayed in one place all their lives.

2. Vulnerability comes in a lot of different forms. In addition to spoken stories, of pasts and dreams, vulnerability can come in shared moments, shared silences with music playing, homecooked meals, in body language, conversations on the backs of motorbikes speeding down the empty night street. Vulnerability can heal this world.

3. You can communicate without a shared language. Just try, love. And if someone says something to you, don’t pretend you understood when you really didn’t. Give them more decency than an empty chuckle. People don’t speak for the sake of being shrugged off. I feel very strongly that if you are spending ample time traveling in a country not your own, if you can learn somehow (through Duolingo, youtube videos) the basics of that language, it makes a difference. I have found in my current time in Vietnam, people are more receptive about what you are doing here if you show some effort to speak with them in their language. Languages really do open up connections to new worlds.

4. Having the funds to travel, even if it’s on a budget, puts you in the global 1%. Majority of the people on this planet will not have that privilege. So when you travel, you have a social responsibility to do as least harm as possible. And to contribute in some way. Or make it so that the experience is not all take take take for you. For example, you can be intentional about where you spend your money – buying fruits from the woman selling fruits from the baskets on the back of her bike versus the supermarket chain. Even if it sometimes is of less convenience. Same with where you eat (auntie-run places versus Asian restaurant chains). Where we choose to spend our money matters.

 

5. This world is filled with kind people who will catch you when you don’t expect to be. There will be many people you have never met – the English language calls them “strangers” as if they are strange, or a whole other category of people. The only encounter you have with them will be asking for directions as you search for your hostel, backpack too heavy, haven’t eaten yet late at night. They will point you in the right direction. There will be strangers on the hike up the mountain with you who will offer you some of their snacks seeing you forgot to bring some. There will be people who teach you more about how to be there for each other, about the spirituality inherent in our cultures that the Western empire has tried to bury.

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Trees that naturally bend towards the water. Hà Nội, Việt Nam.

6. Every single person you meet, every single person you spend time with, holds a multitude of stories and experiences you will only get a glimpse of upon your first encounter. The motorbike driver, the woman who sells noodle soups from her sidewalk stand, the person you meet at the bus stop asking for directions, has connections to so many more people whose lives you will not know of and have never seen. Realizing and remembering that amazes me when I look around on an “ordinary” day.

7. You have nothing to lose. The stranger you want to start a conversation with does not think you’re weird. They are probably thinking of talking to you too and can’t find the right words. Or they are in their own world until you come along and your presences are now in each other’s lives. Choose to eat in the crowded restaurant with the good food steaming from the tables. You are not eating alone because you have no friends. You are eating alone because you are brave enough to travel by yourself.

8. You’ll soon be able to nap and use the bathroom anywhere.

9. You will meet people who the universe aligns you with.

10. You have more years to live: stay and live in the present of this moment as much as you can. Although recently I’ve realized that I am constantly thinking about the past, present and future, and I somehow want to bring them all together.

11. You will have to fight for yourself. And you need to love yourself enough to do it. In the yts you meet extrapolating adventure from a people they don’t care about, to men who will try to harass you or put their hands on you. If you are traveling solo gendered as woman, you will have to fight. But you are not the first and you are not the last and you are not alone in doing so.

12. Have fun with it. I’d say it’s better to be alone than in company you’re not comfortable with, or to do things that the group wants to do when you would rather much do otherwise. I’m trying to remember that social norms are all fake and you can get up from the table and really leave unannounced at any time.

You will find home. Beyond the physical place where you “were born” or “grew up in.” You will find home in people’s words, the way their eyes communicate so much in one gaze, in their soft laughter. You will take the first bite of food you’ve never had before in a restaurant of a country you’ve only dreamed of being in, and familiarity will wash over you.

Let yourself find home.

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A street musician plays the most beautiful music, the morning after tai chi. Hà Nội, Việt Nam.

*Written exclusively for people of color.

 

First Days in Việt Nam

April 27, Hà Nội

After trying to go through customs and realizing that I had to go and wait in line for visa-on-arrival from the counters in the back, I turned and saw I was headed towards a herd of white people from all walks of life. There were the white college students, recent grads on their gap year abroad, dressed in the loose elephant-print pants from the last country they “did” in Southeast Asia, 6-months-in-Asia backpack brimming, and middle-aged white couples ready to take on Vietnam. In all honesty though, what “better” was my own position here?

*

The taxi took off from the airport.

I looked out to the villages and farm lands we were driving past and I was in awe. The green fields and the cement village homes, papaya trees, was a mirror of the villages in Toisan that I had just left.

*

I decided not to buy bread from the supermarket, knowing that on my walk back to my new home, there was a bakery that my host pointed to earlier. The word “Bakery” was well-lit in English.

I reached the front counter and a woman in front of me had just pulled up on her motorbike. She and the baker smiled and joked. She was a regular. She handed him a 20,000 đồng note and he packed her loaf of bread in a white plastic bag. I took note, now knowing how much it was. She turned to head back to her bike. The man looked at me. I smiled and pointed to the bread enthusiastically, I wanted the same one. He looked at me and the smile began to fade from his lips. He realized I’m not Vietnamese. “Where are you from?” He asked me in English. “I’m from China,” I responded, slower, choosing to say China this time instead of America, for once. I waited for him to hand me the loaf of bread. In Mandarin he then said to me, “對不起,我不買給你,” Sorry, but I’m not selling it to you. I stood there, still mid-smile. He stood there and looked at me, firm in his conviction. He turned around to sit down, giving one last glare. And I knew then to walk away. Shit I thought, that’s the only bakery around. And then, I have a lot to learn here.

April 29

As I hear my host speak Vietnamese, not understanding any of it, I hear her say Trung Quốc. And realized she just said China and it sounded so much like how we would say it in Cantonese.

*

I type to my host in Google translate, our usual method of communication. And when I press the “voice” button, the Google translate voice says dại học for college.

I am amazed at the words in Vietnamese that sound just like how I would say them in Cantonese. I begin to make a list.

*

We bike along the West Lake, Hồ Tây, becoming another stream in the Hanoi school of motorbikes. And as we bike, every few kilometers, before us are temples and large gates with Chinese characters written on them.

I go home and begin to read the history of how the Chinese colonized northern Vietnam to seize Hanoi as its capital in ancient times.

May 5

I realize I am in completely new situations. All of a sudden, I am the one who can be exoticizing and remaining ignorant of another person’s culture. I am suddenly in territory where I am learning a new language, something I haven’t had to do in a long time. I am outside of my network of friends and of people who share identities with me. And I am learning how to survive.

May 6

By now, I have very much unexpectedly grown accustomed to living in Hanoi.

*

My motorbike driver asks if I am Chinese. I say to him yes, Chinese American. I’ve learned how to say in Vietnamese that I am American of Chinese descent – tôi là người Mỹ gốc Trung Quốc. They understand me. He asks if he can talk to me about the conflicts between Taiwan and China. I say yes, surprised. And for the rest of our fifteen minute drive into the city, we talk about China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. He asks me what I think about Donald Trump. He tells me he thinks Trump is afraid of China and that China will not support North Korea. That World War III could begin at any time now, especially with America’s latest strike in Syria. He is young, in his 30’s, wearing a face mask to shield himself from the pollution.

I ask him about Grab, the Uber-equivalent of Southeast Asia. He tells me it’s good to earn some more money. He tells me Grab charges 15% commission from every ride. I think about the sharing economy critiques, how Grab is making millions without having to lift a finger. And how I find it difficult to live in line with my values in terms of how and where I spend my money and where I spend my money as I find myself in new countries.

I truly thank him for his conversation with me. He asks me to rate him five stars.

*

I meet with Lien, a new friend who works at the bánh mì place I have gone to twice now after my Vietnamese classes. We go on our search for bún đâu mắn tôm, a typical dish here. I am so thankful Lien had the courage to come up to me as I was eating bánh mì last Wednesday to ask if she can talk to me and stay in contact. It’s hard for me to sometimes initiate conversations with complete strangers. And she turns out to be a student studying politics and journalism in Hanoi. We managed to finally find the place on google maps, with her help asking for directions and eventually coming to an alleyway where we entered and found the restaurant. It was wonderful. And so thankful.

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*

My Vietnamese is progressing. I know how to properly greet people now, with the 9 pronouns I’ve been taught about how to address people based on their age and gender (which was definitely different before colonization. I can very easily see how a pronoun was added to incorporate the other gender in a gender binary, or how a third was removed, perhaps one that was gender neutral). It’s so relieving to be able to communicate with people even if it’s just greeting them properly. People mistaken me for Vietnamese and so when I address them properly, unlike how white foreigners would usually say “hello,” which is seen as rude (it is custom to say “hi uncle, hi grandmother, etc. to address anyone), they start speaking to me in Vietnamese. And from there, I understand little. I take it lightly for the most part. I ask people to amuse me for a second and please engage in conversation with the little Vietnamese I do know and have been learning in class. I then ask them – What is your name? Are you Vietnamese? What is your job? Where do you work? – from my most recent textbook lessons 1-4. I realize too that instead of speaking English as the default when people don’t understand me, I could speak anything – including Cantonese and Spanish because it’s really all the same if I don’t speak Vietnamese.

*

I feel in a really good place here.

May 8

I met with an organization I heard about online called “Hà Nội Queer,” started by two young people, Cai and Chili, trying to bring the queer people in Hanoi together to cultivate community. We met at a coffee shop, sitting on the floor crossed leg, them drinking teas and me, a mango smoothie. As I sat across from them, listening to the most recent events they had of a meet-up for LGBTQ folks in Hanoi, I realized how lucky I was to be able to meet with them in my second week here. I had previously been trying to contact people through couchsurfing – not quite sure how to make friends as a first time visiting a country, but also reveling in the fact that I do not have social obligations to go to, and thus, more time to do what I want to, such as writing.

“Do you want to hear about the queer community in America?” I ask.
They look at each other.
“We assume that in America, it’s… a lot easier, isn’t it?”
I paused. “Not exactly…”

*

“What is it like living in Vietnam?”
They look at each other.
“It’s not about what is it like living in Vietnam. It’s more about… what’s it like living on this Earth,” Cai said. I looked at him.
“Do you ever wake up in the morning and just think, why am I here?” Chili added.

*

I looked up at the houses of the narrow street we had turned onto.

“These are the old houses in Hanoi,” Chili said. The houses were apartment flats of buildings. Some of them had tarps hanging off of it, and a wooden deck with some slanted pieces of wood. “The government is trying to buy them back from the people.” I waited for the next part, to do what? “To build new apartment buildings.” It was a familiar story. The same in Amerika’s increasing city populations, the same in Havana’s booming tourism industry, the same the same the same. “They’re giving money to the people to sell their flats, or maybe a new apartment once its finished. I’m not sure. But it’s not going to be finished in a long time.” I thought to my grandmother’s apartment in Cheyk Hom, Hoiping, to be turned into an ancient town tourist attraction, promising its current residents new units in a new town that they’re going to build. Same story same story same story.

The elevator doors opened and we stopped at a set of glass doors on the fourth floor. A rainbow sticker on the door said “queer zone.” I was glad to see some acknowledgement of queerness no matter the rainbow flag. It was a room lined with white bookshelves on both sides. A black corner sofa with a smiley face throw pillow sat alongside the window that overlooked the lake in the neighborhood. Phuong showed me pamphlets along the shelves, printed in the dozens, ones with the LGBTQ flag, transgender flag, bisexual flag lining its Q&A fold-up pages. She told me that the ISEE organization has three main projects, one being focused on the ethnic communities of Vietnam and another, the LGBTQ community.

“Here are books that they did focusing on photo voice,” she said. I marveled at the books with pictures of ethnic minority community members, one specifically of the children taking photos of their own communities, and another on the queer community. She opened a book to show me. “The kids had an exhibition at the Museum of Ethnology here.” She flipped through the pages and stopped at one of a transgender Vietnamese person, with a face half-made in make-up. “The Department of Culture, Information and Society actually had to review all of our photos before the exhibition. There were some that they told us to remove. This is one of them.”

*

“Foreigners aren’t allowed to own property here,” Chili said. We were speeding along the interstate, but according to Chili, she was driving slowly, only at 20 km/h, on regular road. I thought back to Cuba, “Probably not only unless they’re married to a Vietnamese person right?” It was what I had heard in Cuba. “Yes, but even then the property is not under their name.” She added, “Foreigners can’t own property here, but they can buy the ‘right to use property.'” “Oh,” I said. “You know who owns the land on paper?” She asked me. “The government?” She laughed, “No, the papers say the people of Vietnam. All the people of Vietnam.” “Oh wow,” I said, that’s kinda cool. “So do you have access to the property then?” “No. It’s the foreigners who have the right to use the property.” Bureaucratic capitalistic bull, the right to own property versus the right to use property. “What about if they make some money from it, do you guys get a percentage?” I asked in my optimism. “No.” “Oh.”

May 12

After Vietnamese class, I had a sudden restlessness. I wanted to explore the city. These past couple days I have been having headaches and feeling really home-body and also bleeding. And today my period ended and I think something awoke in me. I looked up in my tourist guidebook where to go and what would still be open if I were to arrive half past four. I flipped through the pages and saw the Temple of Literature closes at 5:30. Perfect, I can just make it with enough time to see it.

IMG_6636I was walking around, marveling at the Temple of Literature. I read about its history but could barely wrap my mind around the royal exams and what it meant to be an elite Confucian scholar, answering finals questions to the king. A whole other world. A guy I had walked past before, photographing his group of friends, comes up to me and asks if I can help them take a photo. He asks me in Vietnamese and later tells me he mistook me for Vietnamese, something I’ve been getting a number of times here. Strangely, growing up in America, I was sometimes mistaken for Vietnamese too, by other Vietnamese Americans. I wonder if it’s because want to find their own people. Of course I help them take the photo. And soon, the friends come over and ask where I’m from. It turns out they’re from Ho Chi Minh City, traveling to Hanoi for vacation together.

I walk with them into the temple and one of them asks me to come to dinner with them. I smile, another random occurrence about to occur, yet one where I don’t quite know yet if I can trust these people. When I’m traveling, I always have this gut instinct, where a part of me tells me of the dangers I might run into and the possibility of death. It’s probably the inner part of me that is always looking out for my survival, fight or flight kinda inner thing. As we left the Temple of Literature, we sat down for some sugar cane juice across the street. With these people, there was that inner voice and fear that perhaps there was danger. It’s an irrational thought, one that always warns me to be careful in new situations, one that’s learned from growing up and being told “all strangers are bad and will try to kidnap you,” warranted warnings, yet warnings that prohibit me from truly accepting kind gestures from strangers without being very wary. We were soon eating pho together and I realized maybe I could trust these people after all.

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May 13

We filed one after another into the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. And right before my eyes, was his open casket. Uncle Ho laying there, 4 soldiers standing guard at each corner. And suddenly every thing I had ever heard of Hồ Chí Minh became more real.

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“You wanna tell me about Revolution?”

Written in response to posters in Shanghai’s Propaganda Museum from the Cultural Revolution. & For the times I thought I could tell my own family about ‘Revolution.’

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Posters plastered on buildings during the Cultural Revolution.

My grandfather 公公 was born in 1935 in Guangdong 广东, China. He was a child during the Anti-Japanese wars, 1937-1945, when the Japanese invaded China. After that was the war between the communists and the nationalists, 1947-1949. For the first 14 years of his life, he grew up in a society that only knew war. Even in America decades letter, he held a strong animosity towards the Japanese because of this history. The atrocities he witnessed, he never quite told me. It was never spoken through words at least.

Yet at 82, he sang so softly. He gave us, his grandchildren, the sweet songs that were not supposed to have been ingrained with him. Years later, when I return to the village my grandfather grew up in, the elderly folks are surprised to hear that what I remember most about him is his singing. When he was a young man leaving the village to work, he did not sing.

公公’s memories from young were ravaged by poverty and war. And they carried with him as he moved across the globe. He was raised by his mother. And his father made it over seas to look for work and perhaps something better. As a child, my grandfather 公公 sold crackers on the streets to earn money for his mother and siblings. He had a hard childhood, that’s as much as he could tell me. He shook his head when I asked him to tell me more.

My father was born in 1965; my mother in 1967. The Cultural Revolution began in 1966 until 1971, marking the first years of their lives. It was a time when the country shifted to words of Revolution. To giving up the excess you had for the advancement of the masses, for communism, for freedom. Fifty years later, in America, when i mention Cuba to my mother, she hears ‘communism’ and says, “They’re just like me. when I was young, I didn’t know what freedom was.”

I never put together all of this history – between the societal and the personal until this moment.

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Standing in the Propaganda Museum.

In school, with my friends, I soon learned the language of Revolution. Yet in all the studies in and out of class, somewhere I learned that our families are not Revolutionary. When, in reality, they are the survivors of what dictators have paraded as Revolution. When cis-men lead in a government of other men and through power-hunger, millions die. That is what I have learned about Revolution.

Mao symbolizes communism for all of China in the same eerie way Fidel Castro is not as much a person as he is an image. At his memorial in December, that’s all he was spoken of as. With hundreds of thousands in the Plaza of the Revolution, I listened to president after president speak of Fidel as an image, as a country, as Cuba itself. These men all preached Revolution and perhaps there was hope for all during that time, but their ideals became short lived as realities. Why else did you have millions fleeing the country. In a time period where posters of smiling villagers and determined laborers with weapons and red books, of children in military gear holding guns, of a smiling Mao, of red as peace in a starving country. How could any of these prime ministers dare to speak of Revolution when they are heads of countries where people suffer by the hundreds of thousands under their rule.

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Posters include ones of the People holding Mao’s Little Red Book.
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“Set Fire to the Land Leases,” 1952.

I am searching for answers in a way I cannot verbalize to each person who asks. It is a growing like the seeds of a plant buried deep underneath dirt. All of the transformation is internal and “invisible.” And I heavily rely on sun and water. Every piece of propaganda in this museum – if you analyze its message, the opposite eventually became truth. No country where people are by the masses suffering should ever claim Revolution on their tongues or for their history. 

March 2, 2017

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Posters of solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and with Fidel’s Revolution.

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Images of life in the countryside for Revolution.
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“冬瓜上髙楼”

Space-Time Traveling Around the World: An Introduction

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Returning to my 公公 and 婆婆’s village in China for what feels like the first time. At a huge celebration with the village for the opening of their new parks. Taishan, China. April 2017.

It has been eight months since I left home to travel around the world.

There are 22 years of writing and thinking before I wrote that line and after. I have lived in Peru, Cuba, South Africa, China, and am now in Vietnam. I’ve been in this four billion year-old world for 22 years, but as my friend Mari puts it, we’ve been atoms, since forever.

I’ve wanted to write a blog for the past 8 months now and have been posting tiny letters as updates to those who wanted to follow this journey. And after all this time, the words are coming to me for this page. What is happening is that I am suddenly entering all these different realities. In every single city I move to for what could be seen as a “short” time (of two months or so), in reality, feels so much deeper.

In Vietnam, suddenly, everyone except me knows about Hồ Chí Minh and the centuries of resistance to Chinese occupation in Vietnam. I am suddenly in a reality where motorbikes by the hundreds speed down the streets of Hà Nội each day, where everyone around me is speaking Vietnamese, where it is suddenly normal to walk down streets of sidewalk businesses lined with their little red and blue plastic chairs for people to sit on and enjoy a homemade drink with sunflower seeds.

I enter realities where it is suddenly the norm to live under communism-socialism, where anti-imperialism is part of the country’s history, where ‘propaganda’ is just a Spanish word for ‘advertisements on billboards,’ where farming for hours on end without ever the term ‘equal pay for equal work’ is a grandmother’s lifetime, where different forms of resistance be it against apartheid and the U.S. Empire, is common knowledge.

What is custom, culture, and norm, then, is constantly in flux. And in these realities, what I knew sometimes gets incorporated or if it doesn’t make it, it stays in another realm. And a new reality is formed.

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The trees that reach towards the water in Hangzhou, China. March 2017.

And so, what I can try to do is be a bridge in the way I know how, through writing. What I can do is take you to a different reality. Not different reality as in escape, but as in perspective. I can take you to different countries around the world from the ways in which I lived with the world around me. It’s not going to be perfect, nor will it always be profound. But a lot of the times it is meaningful. And I need to tell you, that in the bleakness that is Amerikkka, there is so much beauty out here. There is so much beauty in this world every single second of every single day whether we are there to witness it or not. I am writing this because my story matters. Because in searching for answers on how to travel, there are so many white people who have the systemic privilege to do so and then write about it as if they are new experts on Chinese people, traveling in Africa, and Vietnamese food. So at the very least, I want to write against that. And promote traveling in a way that can be better.

This is for the QTPOC travelers, be it in the physical realm, space-time realm or imagination. This is me continuing to write me and us into global existence and into collective history.

With love,

慧瑩, a space-time traveling dandelion

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Climbing 黃山, Huangshan, the Yellow Mountains that have inspired Chinese poets and the People for centuries.

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