I awoke in my grandfather’s house at sunrise each morning to the sound of migrant workers building houses, three to nine stories tall, 1000 miles away from their families.
It had been seven years since I last returned to the two Fujianese villages my family comes from. Villages in this region are organized by last name; the Wus live a twenty minute walk away from the Shis.
Life here felt familiar. Everyone referred to me as my father’s daughter or my mother’s daughter and recalled how they held me when I was yea tall. The indigo toilet that scared me as a child still sat sturdy in the bathroom where the showerhead hangs two feet away from the sink. Less familiar were the newly erected mansions.
On morning strolls, my gaze fell on the mountains where my father once searched for kindling and on the monstrous houses that punctuate the cabbage patches. I mistook the mansions for apartment buildings. That each belonged to a single family surprised me; that many remained empty, even more.
Grandfather pointed to the six stories of pale pink tile towering over us, the emerald accents a reminder of the nearby sea. “Paraguay,” he said, referring to where the owners live. The importance of laojia—one’s old home—means that people send back money to build these mansions, even if they never plan to live in them. Many of the houses lining my great-aunt’s street are empty or inhabited by grandparents and grandchildren as the parents work 14-hour days at Chinese restaurants abroad.
My great-aunt’s son left some years ago, after their family paid a handsome sum to snakeheads for his passage. That those smuggled sometimes drown or suffocate did not dissuade him from leaving.
He never made it to Spain. “He’s missing,” my mother told me. I didn’t dare ask my great-aunt if she still thought her son was out there, somewhere.
During the late 20th century, a mass exodus of Fujianese men resulted in monthly remittances worth years of wages back home. In order to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and to support their families who stayed behind, these men lived in private squalor. If all went as planned, they reunited with their children and wives after several years apart. The lucky ones built mansions.
Their grand manors became symbols of the American Dream, of a luxury foreign to those born in an era when boiled eggs were saved for birthday meals. Though Chinese immigrants have footed most of the construction bills in our villages, some of the newer mansions have been built by local entrepreneurs who benefited from the nation’s economic growth. Now that there is money to be made in China, fewer people embark on these journeys.
On my last day in my father’s village, as I followed the winding road past neighbors tending to their fields, a lightness lifted my spirits. I saw the mountains ahead and the mansions below, reduced to empty concrete structures only animated during lunar new year when people surrender to the inescapable pull of their roots. I also saw my grandfather at the other end, waiting for me to come home for dinner.
A few months before my trip to Fujian, I found myself in Brooklyn at the doorsteps of a distant uncle I had never met before. I wanted to retrace the factory lines that render family time scarce, the slow hours at a restaurant where boredom is relief, the tender gestures that shelter children from the hardships parents endure. This uncle, who had immigrated to the United States two decades ago, granted me entry into a world to which I no longer belonged.
We walked through the rain that Saturday evening to visit a friend in an unassuming brown building. Inside, ten mid-aged women sewed pre-cut cloth into mounting piles of black shirts with baubles.
The furrowed brows of the one man in the room, who ironed sheet after sheet with his calloused hands, reminded me of my father during our early years in Canada. Yet this man, despite years of toil, had not left the working conditions of harsh fluorescent lights. My parents had. Standing in that sweatshop, my inherited immigrant narrative no longer felt universal.
As the first in his village to attend university, my father brought us on an adventure that was legal but not leisurely; Canada at the time welcomed skilled workers. Upon arrival, my parents, horrified that I might be underfed, splurged on a handful of shrimp. They cooked two for my bowl each meal and rationed themselves to the cheapest vegetables. Years later, the same job offer that freed us from decrepit rentals also forced a farewell to our beloved neighbors.
When we left Toronto’s Chinatown for a white city in Southwestern Ontario, I implored my parents to not pack rice and leftover stir-fry in my lunchbag, so that I could disappear in this world where I would come to love my friends’ parents but often feel too ashamed to bring friends into our home of broken English. How quickly a childhood of deracinating passes, and how comforting yet confusing it is to now embrace all that I had shunned.
In New York City’s Chinatown, I sought the loudness of Fuzhou dialect, determined to share peanut noodles and taro cakes with my Jewish boyfriend. There is an easy intimacy to be found in these restaurants—many of which contain lives that know only the paths between their wok stations and their shared bedrooms. Upon identifying me as one of their own, the restaurant staff extend their camaraderie. I eagerly accept to the extent that I can.
–Associate News Editor Sarah Wu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_wu_.