Up ahead, two women walk on an uneven pavement wearing sandals and coolie hats. Baskets filled with fresh produce hang by their sides, suspended from single wooden rods that stretch across their shoulders, without causing pain. On the same road there are few cats in cages and a couple of scrawny dogs that look too tired to bark. I hope that they are being sold as pets, rather than food, but I can’t be sure.
We head on a bus ride an hour-and-a-half away to a village with colourful pagoda rooftops where the alleyways and gutters are littered with rubbish, the kind that you’ll never see on New Zealand streets. There are food wrappers of all descriptions; plastic shopping bags, toilet paper, sanitary pads, mounds of non-perishable goods—the surplus of colour on an otherwise stark, grey, dusty landscape.
Making our way by foot to the end of an alleyway that twists and turns inside a maze of solid concrete block homes—some are the size of sheds with smooth, equally cold concrete floors—is a worn-out rectangular table where an elderly man, and two old women sit beneath a verandah.
The trio work steadily with weathered but nimble fingers, as the light reflects off mounds of tiny silver metal pieces no bigger than the size of my smallest fingernail. At a moderate pace, they click the pieces together for a nearby watch factory.
This is what it means to be part of a collective helping to grow the greater China, I think to myself.
Silence pervades, until one of the old women lets out a fart so loud it might stop the flow of foot traffic in a busy daytime shopping mall. But no-one blinks an eye, or cracks a smile. It’s just a fart, a letting go of the body’s excess wind. They are concentrating so hard that they don’t notice the four foreigners making their way past them towards the village’s periphery, and its muddy stagnant lake.
It is in this village in the south of China that the penny drops. A photo of me as a child is pinned to a wall in a house where strangers know my face: I am the daughter of a son…of a woman, who married a man from the very village, where I stand.
It was more than ten years ago, over the space of two days on a sojourn to China where I met far more family members than I could comprehend beyond the ponga version of the family tree that I had previously known.
Arriving at the muddy lake our guide, a distant cousin, talks animatedly of lineage and I remain still, listening without understanding. I watch the smile lines move at the corner of his eyes, and I try to search out familiar features in his face that correspond with mine.
Half a dozen grey herons fly ahead and disappear into the horizon. And as I ponder my past, the man proceeds to throw a beautiful, handmade weighty wicker basket into the lake. He’s been carrying it for half a block and I have no idea where it has come from—well I do, but I just can’t tell you. The action is bizarre and unexpected, so I laugh as I watch it sink. Bubbles float to the top of the water as it disappears, and I imagine what other other treasures and mislaid items might be sitting at the bottom of the lake, holding secrets that are now buried and hidden from view.
This is what it’s like to step back in time to a place reminiscent of black and white images from outmoded social studies text books. Except, the photographs have come to life in colour, and I am part of the picture.
In this moment, I feel myself slip comfortably into my foreign skin, only it doesn’t seem so alien anymore. I can see myself in the past, yet I am firmly rooted in the present at a time when I have never felt so grounded.
Images, Sly On the Wall