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A trip through time
As the car sputtered to a stop against the gravel road, a final bump jolted us out of our seats.
“Are we there yet?” my brother asked.
“This is it,” my mother replied, “this is my childhood home, the village of Shanxia.”
I peered out the dust coated car window before tentatively stepping outside.
The air was muggy and warm with the constant buzzing of mosquitoes adding a ringing sound to my ears. The red dirt clung to every visible surface: my skin, clothes, everything. Far and wide, billows of dirt.
Looking to my right, a nondescript shack on the verge of collapse seemed to sink dejectedly into the edge of a field. Beside it lay fields upon fields of rice. Endless mounds of soft spring green that stretched out as far as the eye could see- this was the town’s life support, this was how they made their money.
The small village of Shanxia was, to be honest, an eyesore. After blankets of dizzying green, the jumbled buildings were dull. At first glance I saw a quiet, unremarkable town filled with ill-constructed leaning houses. Stacks of lumber were heaped beside the doorway as dogs and chickens scrambled around the front yard, confined by a rackety old gate of wire and wood. Graffiti adorned the tightly packed houses and dog droppings littered the well-traveled path. Under the shade of an oak tree, a gathering of four scraggly bearded old men enjoyed a quiet afternoon playing mahjong (a Chinese game of tiles).
I joked, “Have we entered the Middle Ages?” but inwardly I felt it was true. This was nothing like my air-conditioned two story house in the United States and I couldn’t find a single remnant of the modern world that linked me back to what I was used to. It was almost as if I’d entered another planet, one that was in a different time period and civilization. This town had been left behind as the rest of the world had sprinted towards iPhones and computers and shiny new glass buildings. It was almost upsetting to think about the people who still lived in these surroundings.
I slowed down to gawk at a hunched back woman carefully peeling beans and my mother impatiently passed me. Their dirt covered faces and wrinkled peeling fingers mesmerized me in an almost grotesque way. I tried to understand them, see them as individuals… but I couldn’t comprehend why they would stay behind in these decrepit houses instead of moving to the gleaming city only a train ride away.
The city. That is what I was used to and knew; the bright city lights, the grand boulevards of shops, the skyline– all these sites and sounds were the ones I were familiar with. This bizarre quiet town may have seemed quite normal to some, but the concept of people living in an era behind mine where some houses may not even have toilets - that was completely foreign to me.
My brother, entranced by his D.S., barely noticing where he was going (or where he even was for that matter), knocked into an unsuspecting child. The dark haired boy, barely older than 7, turned his large innocent black eyes on him in a fearful manner.
“Oh sorry,” my brother said.
“Shén me?” the boy asked.
His mother quickly looked over at the sound and shooed him back into the safety of the house, but not before shooting us a frightened look. Were we monsters or a different species? Had they never seen anyone from the “outside world” before?
My brother and I hastily followed after my mother, scared to lose the last link to home. Where she was taking us, I had no idea.
“Mom, where are we going?” I finally asked, tired of getting a stray stone stuck in my flip-flops. I was ill prepared for a location such as this, this preservative of a town, frozen in a jam jar for others to gawk and poke at. Only, I felt like I was the weird out-of-place one, I was the one in machine made clothes and American branded labels.
“We’re visiting your grandparents’ friends, they’re just up the corner,” my mom replied over her shoulder, “You know, we have a house up here too if you want to take a look.”
I shuddered at the thought. The dark insides of the houses seemed like a nesting place for mosquitoes and a crypt for ancient Chinese warlords. They appeared gloomy, dank, and sweaty. As for the fact that we owned a house here, or that my grandparents had lived here almost in a prior life- that was virtually inconceivable. My mother had spent four years of her childhood in this very village where she had been prosecuted for her family’s wealth and education in the Cultural Revolution. She had gone to college, vowing never to come back.
“Hello, hello!” a warm greeting called out, “Oh, it’s so nice to finally see you again!”
An old portly woman with graying curly hair and deep-set wrinkles smiled down at us. She was a frantic commotion of activity, bustling around the house preparing and shouting orders while peeling pea pods. I reluctantly opened the fence and walked through the threshold.
A semi-lit interior greeted me as sunlight streamed in through the skylights, diverging into a million rays against the dirt floor. Simple wooden furniture adorned the room and a group of chattering men and women sat at a round wooden table, gossiping and cracking pumpkin seeds. A man suddenly exclaimed, spitting on the floor in protest. I jumped back in surprise, and when he turned around, he laughed with a full grin missing almost six teeth.
“Don’t mind Old Tiger’s manners Little Miss,” the old women said behind me, “come take a seat. My name is Beautiful Orchid but you can call me Auntie. Oh my, look how much you’ve grown! You’re so tall, and so pale too.”
I smiled hesitantly back at her as she quickly pushed me into a seat. My mother encouragingly smiled at me before joining in on their animated discussion, asking about the latest news.
“What? Little Dragon married Precious Jade? I can’t believe it, they were both so small when I left,” my mother exclaimed.
I sighed and settled back into the chair, carefully observing the people around me.
After a few hours, I began to realize how ignorant my ill-conceived judgments and first impressions had been. These people were not filthy; they still cared about what they looked like. They did not possess cavemen-like manners; they just had different customs than I did. And most of all, they were not simple-minded or unsophisticated; rather, they had huge hearts, and they were sophisticated in the areas that mattered to them.
I learned to pry apart pumpkin seeds with my teeth, l learned to play mahjong and bluff, and I learned to tease chickens and make them splutter. But most of all, I learned that despite their appearances, everyone was a human being, everyone had hopes and dreams and lives (though all very different from one another).
I was repulsed by them simply because they were different from me. What made my standard of cleanliness correct or better? Their state of living wasn’t lethal, nor was it detrimental to their health, who was I to judge them on how they carried out their customs?
These villagers led very minimal lives, and their main excitement may be who can spit watermelon seeds the farthest. But they still “lived” just as fully as someone who won the 2012 Olympics or traveled around the world. This village was where my roots were truly, and I could almost picture myself as part of this world, running barefoot through the grass and enjoying late night dinners on the porch. This was not the life I would choose, but I knew - and could now fully accept - that this was a part of my history.
I loved my “family” in the village, and I knew they loved me in their own way. Before I left, Beautiful Orchid pressed in my hand a worn black and white photograph. When I looked closely at it, I saw a young Beautiful Orchid smiling in front of a rice field next to a youthful woman I could not recognize. Both had vibrant smiles that lit up their faces as they linked arms with one another.
“Who is that other woman Auntie?” I asked.
“Silly girl, that is your grandmother,” she tousled my hair affectionately and gave my face a long look as if trying to memorize every detail, “I will be thinking of you.”