China, Canada. My Homeland, My Home

December 29, 2007
1. Even today, I still can�t find the connection between China, my homeland, and Canada, my home. I spent a quarter of my life in one country, and three fourth of my life in the other.
My grandpa, who was your typical wise, old Chinese grandfather, used to ask me, �Would you fight for your homeland, or your home, Wen?�

It was a serious question, but I didn�t know how to answer it, so I never answered.

To me, they are separate, they are two completely different worlds, they have nothing to do with one another.

2. �What�s China like?�

�What�s it like?� My Canadian friends would ask me non-stop.
And I would explain to them that China was a very beautiful country, with tall, ancient, rugged mountains, accompanied by simple forests of lush bamboo and the flowing of a stream. That China was a large country with a passionate spirit and a non-relenting strength. That China was always filled with busy streets flowing with cars and jammed with people and tall sky scrapers and blaring music and shop windows filled with pretty clothes.

I would close my eyes and pour all my memories of my homeland out to them, like I was describing a world of my own, a fantasy world created by my imagination. By the end, I would leave these people fascinated, perhaps dubious, but very much curious, and I would ask myself, Do I really know China? Are my memories really accurate, or are they magnified and altered by the lapsing of time? China, is it only part of my childhood memories, my dreams?

3. In truth, the most vivid memory I have of China is the taste of chocolate ice cream on a sweltering summer day, blended in with the smell of pool water. I remember that as I child, I used to love sitting on a float ring and watching the bluest sky I�d ever seen unfold itself before my eyes. I used to love looking at the white, grey, yellow, snowy clouds sailing across the �ocean�. I used to love listening to the laughter and chattering, echoing around me.

To me, China is a large, large pool in a summer day filled with sunlight, covered on all sides by shady green trees, and surrounded by happiness.

4. �Wen,� My mother said to me on the tenth summer I�d spent in Canada, �This summer vacation, let�s go back.�
�Go back?�
�Yes, don�t you want to?�
�To where?�
�To China, of course!�
�Yes, don�t you want to visit everyone?�
�Of course!! I want to see how tall Xi is now!� I said.
My mother laughed, and said, �Xi will not be how you remember her to be, you know.�
�I know.� I said. And neither will China, I thought.

5. Packing. I didn�t really want to bring anything but my Doraemon notebook, the one where I wrote and sketched everything I had on my thoughts in. I wanted to put China in that notebook and bring it all the way back, so I could keep it with me always, and look back and say to my friends, �Yes, China, my homeland, it�s like that.� All the way, as we flew across the Pacific Ocean, I waited, and waited, and waited. It felt like eternity, it felt like transcending into an alternate universe, it felt like three quarters of an entire life.

6. ShangHai airport.

I thought that I had never seen a place more �22nd century�, more crowded, and more organized than here in my life. Everywhere, everything was Chinese, Chinese! For the first time in my life, I realized that maybe I should study Chinese harder, because it took me more than a minute to finish reading a fifteen-word advertisement on Wolong tea. Haha.
Elevators, indoor cars, elegant music playing out of high-class speakers.

I�m in a sci-fi world, I thought.

This isn�t the China I left. There isn�t a trace of China left, not a scent, not even a little warmth of familiarity.

We took the late night flight back to my home city, the ancient, ancient, ancient southern capital in a time long past, surrounded by mountains, and bamboo forests and gentle streams: Chengdu.

7. Cousin Xi changed, China changed, the huge, modern apartment building where I grew up changed. Where there was a barbecue shop, there now stands another tall skyscraper. Where there was a ramen guan, there now stands yet another tall skyscraper. The school where I spent my childhood days changed, all I see now is yet another pile of tall skyscrapers.

China, China, where was China?

One day, as I was riding my bike along a very busy street with my childhood friend, I asked him, �What has happened to the swimming pool we used to go every summer?�

He looked at me for a long while, like he was trying to remember something from a long, long time ago, and asked, �The swimming pool in that ancient park?�

�Yes, that�s the one!� Maybe we could go sometime!

�Oh, it had been filled in a long while ago. Now that spot is an apartment building for the people of district forty-something�s Danwei...My aunt lives there.� He replied, matter-of-factly. His blunt answer struck me in the face like a fist.

Filled in, filled in, filled in?!

�Then, I suppose the park is gone too?� I didn�t want to hear it, I loved that park, it was my childhood, it was my China, but I needed to know!

�It�s gone.� He shrugged.
It�s gone�?

There was a screeching of tires, and I felt someone hold me back.

I fell off my bike.

�Careful!� He screamed into my face, �It�s the red light!�

But I didn�t hear it. All I heard in my head was, It�s gone, it�s gone, it�s gone�
China, my China, the China I grew up in, the China I loved, the China I remembered, the China I honed so deeply in my memories. My China was never coming back.

8. I started to miss Canada, the place that I knew so well, my home.

I felt so lost in this foreign country that I called my homeland. I couldn�t find any traces of it in my memories.

In my memories, I keep on seeing the blue, blue sky, I keep on eating the sweet, sweet chocolate ice cream, and I keep on floating in that shady, shady swimming pool. I couldn�t find my homeland, and I felt lost.

Lost. Lost.

�How are you liking China?� My friends from across the sea asked over the phone.

�It�s�not as I�d expected.� I answered. I didn�t want to admit that the China that I�d told them about was all part of my fantasies, �It�s like a sci-fi novel.�

9. �What�s Canada like?�

�What�s it like?�

My childhood friends keep on asking me, non-stopping. I would smile mysteriously and tell them that Canada was a beautiful country with tall mountains peaked all year with snow, decorated by lush pine forests, and cut in half by fresh, energetic rivers. I would describe the wide, endless plains, and the gently rolling hills.

�In Canada,� I would say, �Everyone lived in little houses. We didn�t have to climb all these stairs to go home. We all have our own gardens, where we could plant flowers and fruits, and even watermelons! In the summer, it�s not as hot as here, and the water, it�s always fresh. School�s really easy there, at least until high school, and we didn�t have as much homework. All day long, we were free, to do as we liked, to practice piano, or read, or write, or play with friends.�

And my friends would all listen in awe. Canada is a wonderful place! They would all exclaim. It is, I would reply.

To my friends I wasn�t Chinese anymore, at least, not entirely. They would look at me differently, speak to me differently, and treat me differently. I felt like a foreigner in my own homeland. Am I Canadian, or Chinese? I asked myself again, then brushed it off because it was such a stupid question.

10. One day, Ri, my best buddy since birth, dragged me out on my bike and said he wanted take me somewhere.

�Where is it?� I kept on asking, but he wouldn�t tell.

It�s a surprise.

A surprise.

Nothing could be a surprise for me here anymore. This entire country was a surprise.

We rode along the busy street, passed through a quiet park where a vendor was calling �APPLES! APPLES! RED, JUICY, APPLES� in the peaceful afternoon sunlight, and then across a small bridge where a murky river passed through quietly.

�I�ll give you a hint though,� he smirked as he pedaled hard on his bike, �It�s really nostalgic�Take a guess.�

I rode alongside him, thinking, thinking. Finally, I gave up, �No, China�s changed, you�ve changed, everything�s changed. When I look at Chengdu, I don�t China anymore, I see Tokyo, I see Japan.�
He laughed, �Don�t say that. You�ve changed a lot too, you know, but you�ll always be you, and I�ll always be me. So, China will always be China, right?�

I wanted to say right, but I couldn�t, so we rode along in silence for a long time.

Then, in the distance, a thin stream of smoke sauntered leisurely up into the sky in swirls.
Suddenly, something inside my head clicked.

He pointed at the little dot below the smoke and smiled, �There it is, remember?�

11. I was seven years old again, a little girl with dirt streaked cheeks and wild, wild hair. We were riding on our �green dragon�, Ri�s new bicycle for his eighth birthday. He pedaled at lightning speed while I kept on yelling, �faster, faster, faster� from behind. People passing by yelled at us to slow down, but we didn�t listen, of course.

Suddenly, I yelled, �Stop! Emergency!� Ri stepped on the pedal and the tires screeched.

�What?� He asked, a little worried.

�Look!� I pointed at barbecue vendor. Delicious scent wafted through the air through a thin line of sauntering smoke, �Aren�t you hungry?�

Ri looked extremely annoyed, �So that�s the emergency��

We locked up the bike on a bike rack, and ran over to the mouth-watering smell blindly, like Hansel and Gretel. There was a middle-aged woman beyond the stand, busying herself with taking orders and making flawless Chengdu barbecue.

�Oi, Obasan!� Ri called. He got that from the anime we were into at that time, Shin-chan, �Obasan, we want some barbecue!�

The woman strained her neck to see us behind the barbecue vend, and smiled, �Alright, what would you like?� Obviously, she didn�t watch Shin-chan, I thought, relieved, or else she would have come chasing after us with that spatula for calling her that. She kept on working, the smoke painting a white stream into the evening sunset, like a watercolor.

�Hm�what do we want, Wen? Two meat balls, uh, three octopus balls, and, two egg plants.� He declared. I nudged him and yelled, �And potatoes, two potatoes!�

To this day, I still remember Ri�s hair, sticking up in all directions, with a golden, orangy colour from the lights of the sunset.

�Can you two really eat that much?� The Obasan asked.

�Of course we can!� We chanted.

In a while, Obasan gave us a huge paper bag, warm and bulgy, �There it is. That�s five yuan please.�

Ri took the bag, ripped it open, and started eating. I looked at him, he looked at me. Uh�five yuan?

�Do you have money, Ri?� I whispered. He shook his head. That moment, I knew we were�what was the word for it?...doomed.

12. Ri and I decided to repay this kind Obasan by working for her. We stayed there until dinner time, helping her flip her meatballs and adding more coal into the barbecue vend. Then, when we ran out of coal, Obasan said to us, �You kids wait here, I�ll have to run and buy another batch of coal. Three minutes, ok? Just use this to keep the fire up.�

She showed us how to use the propane bottle. So we both stood by the propane bottle, carefully regulating the flow of �chii� from one object to the next. Suddenly, I asked Ri, �What do you think would happen if I turned this all on?� He shook his head, �You shouldn�t do that, you know��

�Let�s just try, this once!�

Hong. There was a flash of blue, then the barbecue vend caught on fire. At first, there was only the burnt smell of meat and potatoes. Then, we could smell burning curtains and paper, and wood.

Luckily, Obasan came just in time to prevent her entire vend from burning down. �Water! More water!� I can still hear her voice yelling, yelling.

That was how Ri and I made friends with the barbecue Obasan. We went there every day that summer from then day on.

13. Ri started pedaling at lightning speed, and I laughed. �Faster, faster, faster!� I yelled from behind. In my heart, I suddenly felt a warmness, like I found something precious to me that I�d lost long ago. We locked up the bike and ran over to the barbecue vend. Obasan was there, she was older, her face paler, and her hands less dainty than before. But she was still Obasan�how would we ever be able to forget her?

�Obasan!� Ri called, �We want some barbecue!�

Obasan looked up at the two kids standing before her, no longer straining her neck.

I pointed to my face and giggled, �Remember me?�

She thought for a long time and shook her head.

�It�s me, Wen!� I wanted to add something to help her, but the only thing I could think of was �the girl who almost burned down you barbecue vend ten years ago��and that didn�t work�

�Yeah, it�s her, remember? Wen? Wen almost burned down your vend once.� Ri added.

Suddenly, Obasan�s face lit up, �Wen? Is it really you? Wen?�

�Yes!� I exclaimed, �Me! I�m back!�

�You�ve changed!�

�So have you, and everything else!�

That afternoon, I think I found it. The China that I�d lost a long, long, long time ago.

14. Ri and I sat by the river to eat barbecue, chatting about the past.

�Remember the time we tried to jump down into the river from here, but got caught?� He would ask me, and I would laugh and say, �Yeah, I remember.�

�You know, Ri,� I said, �Before, I kept on getting China and my childhood mixed up. But they�re two different things, huh? And I like them both.�

He laughed, �You still talk like you did ten years ago. And I thought you said Chengdu was Tokyo?�

�How would I know! I�ve never been to Tokyo.�

�Some comparison...� He muttered. I kept on laughing.

15. BeiJing wasn�t as I remembered it. Except for the forbidden city, that hadn�t changed for two thousand years, so I didn�t have to worry.

I looked at the throne that my ancestors had sat on for a hundred, five hundred, five thousand years, and thought, I�m Chinese, their descendent.

I looked at this land that my ancestors had worked on, lived on, and relied on since the beginning of time, my land, my home, and felt an overwhelming sense of belonging.

Forbidden City never changed, it never will, it was where China, my childhood, and China, my homeland, mingled together into one.

16. We went to visit all our relatives. Grandmothers, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends� I came to love here, just as I had loved here ten years ago. China isn�t only part of my fantasies, my memories washed faint by the flow of time. China is real. It�s more real than anything I�d ever seen.

End. Canada was exactly the same I�d left it when we came back two months later. The wind was still a bit chilly, the streets a bit empty, the fields a little forlorn. I flipped through all the pages in my Doraemon notebook, sketches of skyscrapers, sounds of the city, things that had happened, memories, and still couldn�t find the connection between China and Canada. I looked up at the empty, pure sky here with a wisp of wind, and thought, �Would my friends here be able to see the bright, busy skies of China if I described it hard enough? Would they believe me?�

I doubted it.

China, Canada. They are two completely different worlds to me. But, one thing I am sure of, is that I loved the both of them just fine.

And I could finally answer that question my grandpa asked me long ago. I wouldn�t fight for either if required. I�d stand in the middle wearing a �peace� T-shirt.

I�m not Chinese, or Canadian. I�m Chinese-Canadian.

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