In the lobby of Milan International Hotel, we fill up on a buffet style breakfast of congee, salted duck eggs, thousand-year-old eggs, picked vegetables, and youtiao, fried dough, before we begin our day. I do not know it yet, but on this day, I will see, for the first time, a photo of my father.
It’s August in Wenzhou, China, and the intense sun is already fierce at 8 am. My half-aunt, our tour guide for the day, rushes us out the door as soon as we are done eating. She’s in her seventies, shrunken and slightly hunched over, but healthy and full of energy. She walks briskly, carrying a black umbrella to protect against the relentless rays. Zino and I tread along heavily, as if wading through the humidity, the heat and the jetlag all at once. We were roommates in college and fellow travelers for the first time. I feel a rush of gratitude for her familiarity and presence.
We walk largely in silence, taking in the dusty streets, the sound of unfamiliar car honks, and old public buses emit suspect CO2 levels. It’s a working city—there’s only people and work—and it shows. Rubble of cement and unfinished demolition piled up outside empty lots, thin towels and worn underwear hang on wires outside windows and cement backyards. It’s a city with no historical sites, natural wonders, unspoiled beaches and little to no tourism. Every street I walk down, every face I see, I yearn for a familiar moment, a sense of remembering.
After my father’s death, just a year after I was born, my mother left me with my grandparents while she immigrated to New York. Eventually, after she had settled in and achieved her American Dream, she came back for me. She tried, unsuccessfully, to mold me into a shape that would fit into the new narrative that she needed to tell: a picturesque middle-class family. For the first few years, every time she beat me—for fighting with my half-siblings, for the inconvenience of an extra mouth to feed, for taking up too much space, or for talking back—I thought about the freedom I had had here. Twenty-six years later, this place feels more like a dream I’d concocted to soothe myself than a homeland.
“This way,” my aunt says after four long blocks. “Can you read those signs?” We’re at the opening of an unpaved parking lot filled with rusted buses, a hub station. Dozens of people hoarded the entrance of buses, elbowing to get in the doors. I read two words on one of the flashing signs on a nearby bus. “You can read!” she shouts as she swats my arm enviously. She’s physical like my grandmother, always tugging, yanking, smacking, scrubbing, and cleaning.
I never claim to be able to read or write Chinese fluently, but as I open my mouth to say so, I pause. To her, I can read. To her, any education is better than nothing; what I call mediocrity is a privilege she never had.
We had met for the very first time on this trip, and belong to a tribe of unwanted girls, with mothers that did not want us and no other support. She was a burden like me. Her mother brought her from a first marriage, and her new family—I guess my family—treated her badly. She tells me I have to be kinder to my mother, let her treat my half-siblings better and be grateful for what I had. That’s our life, she told me, accept it. We have no choice but to scrape by on the sympathies of their family.
She grabs my forearm and shoves me onto the nearest bus. There’s no air conditioning and all the window seats are taken. Tips of noses are turned toward the slit in the windows. Dust comes and we feel our faces matted with soot. At the last stop, we get on a corroded, baby-blue tugboat across the Ou River. The water is ocher-colored and opaque, and even the breeze feels filthy when we begin to move. We hide in the shade, panting against the heat. The closer we get to land, the more I am unsure about what to expect when we arrive to our destination. I’ve traveled 26 years and 7,000 miles to visit my first home, my father’s house.
The house is a cool weather-stained cement gray, flanked by overgrown greenery on both sides. A dry, unused fountain with a fat ring of rust takes up most of the courtyard. The gate is padlocked. Our voices call out like doorbells.
“A meeeee!” My half-aunt, shouts. “A mi ya, A mi ya! Qu Na has come to see you!”
Suddenly, I am afraid that I have come all this way only to be denied entry. Why had we decided to show up unannounced? Who knew if my aunt Ami would still be living here after so many years? My friend Zino and I share a concerned look.
As I squint up at the exterior of the house, there’s no familiarity, nothing that sets it apart from the other houses on the block. None of the homes are identical, but the differences are slight. Forcing myself to remember is like compelling memories of what it felt like to have a father. The whole incident—his fatherhood, so short that it could only be called an incident—was just beyond my reach, and yet whether I acknowledge him or not, he follows me wherever I go, defining me. A fatherless child was a fatherless child was a fatherless child.
My half-aunt tugs impatiently at the padlock with one hand, holding up the umbrella in the other. Even in the short time we have had together, there is nothing I could have said about my relationship with my mother that she had not experienced first. We suffer from one of the greatest losses there is: the loss of our protector, followed by abandonment of our mothers. We were raised on the crumbs of legitimate children, on pity, and on what little consideration existed in the community around us. Millions died in every province during the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution, and for most of the population, decency was one of the first attributes to go.
I smile at her reassuringly and shout, “You zen zai jama?” Is there anyone home? Tugging on the rusted chain, I realized that my father’s house represented more than just history; it was also a broken family, a lost future. I was here to grieve the life I never had with my father, to pay homage. Under the relentless sun, with mounting doubt in my belly, I admitted I wanted to see if this place held the hope my parents once shared. To find an answer to a question that had no explanations: Why me? What if I was just looking for a way to return to something that never was?
Finally, a woman in her early fifties with short-cropped hair comes to the gate in plastic blue slippers. Her surprise is so deep that she can hardly unlock the gate as she repeats my name. “Qu Na, Qu Na…” she mumbles, as if evoking my name will bring back the buried years that laid dormant and the chains could unlock more than just the gate. We have the same watchful, almond-shaped eyes, coarse hair, and heart-shaped face. I’ve always been told I resemble my father’s family, but I didn’t really believe it until now, faced with her likeness.
She lets us in, her slippers snapping lazily against the sole of her feet: clat clat clat. Fragmented memories of the house emerge as I step over the threshold, murky and opaque, like remembering a recurring dream. I know it’s a single property broken up into a duplex; one side was a gift for my uncle, and the other side, my father.
“This way,” she says, and we head into the dimly lit hall, the clat keeping us in pace. Dust covers countertops, discarded dressers, and other dated furniture. We stop in a den with a daybed. Ami’s husband, my uncle-in-law, sits shirtless in a recliner covered in a bamboo mat. He jumps up to greet us.
“Zou zou!” he says in Wenzhounese, gesturing toward the chairs in the room. He has a handsome head of platinum white hair, and when he speaks, a warm, raspy voice gives him a youthful liveliness.
The den is crowded, dark and untidy. The analog TV provides more lighting than the windows covered with dingy, yellowing curtains. All of the anxieties and expectations that I had for the trip slip away as I sit and listen to my half-aunt explain how we tried calling for days but were unable to get through. We came to test our luck.
“How’s your mother?” Ami asks, “Is she good?”
“Yes, yes, she’s very good. They are all great,” I add loudly, referring to my stepfather, half-brother, and half-sister. I was taught that there are things you just don’t tell strangers, even those related by blood. While there were many women in my mother’s situation—women whose husbands died—few were like my mother. I was one of the lucky ones.
“That’s good to hear,” my uncle-in-law says. “It’s been a while since we heard from her. Everyone says she found a good man. An honest man.”
They stare at me. I clear my throat, “Yes, yes, he treats her well.”
My childhood had not been a happy one with my stepfamily, but looking around me, I see the choices my mother made more clearly. Compared to the life I would have had here, my first-world problems are petty complaints, mere inconveniences. How could I complain now about how I wasn’t treated like her other children? That I wasn’t given the same privileges?
Afraid they’d ask for more details, I change the subject. I ask the question that’s been brewing for as long as I can remember: “I wanted to ask, do you have any photos of my father?”
My aunt and her husband both stand up and look at one another before dispersing. I listen to their movements in the house, wondering if I’m finally going to see what my father looked like.
A few minutes later, my uncle-in-law gingerly hands me a stack of photographs. I hold my breath as I reach out for the first photo of my father to pass through my fingers. A thick set of jet-black hair, a wide, toothy smile, and soft child-like eyes. He’s standing next to my mother, her arm tenderly looped through the crook of my aunt’s elbow. It’s the youngest photo I’ve seen of her. She looks uncharacteristically happy and innocent. I touch her face with my thumb; I’ve never met this person.
In the next photo, my mother is holding me and my half-siblings on her lap. We look like oversized children perched on her thin frame. I remember posing for the picture only a year or two after I arrived in New York. Dina and James look to be two and three years old. We never spoke about the people we left behind, but here, in my hand, was proof that she honored the past in her own way.
My uncle-in-law, the talker of our group, muses over my questions, repeating them before answering, “What was he like? Well, he was like the rest of us—boys! He liked to eat, smoke, and have a good time.” He shows me a black and white photo of two rows of young men in suits. “He was a good kid. You know, he was younger than me and your uncle, so he followed us around a bit. He happened to be around that day, so we took him with us. He was always following your uncle around.”
I follow the tip of his finger to the corner of the photo where he appears maybe 17 years old—half my age now. My father, the annoying kid brother.
The house is in bad shape; the paint is peeling and there are cracks across the ceiling in long, spider-like webs. There hasn’t been any renovation since my mother and I left all those years ago, when she was barely 20 and I was one year old. My grandmother once told me that after my father’s death, the house felt haunted and it gave her nightmares. I imagine a young version of my mother cradling a baby, walking through the deteriorating house. Home is a place you belong, but as an immigrant, home is no longer a given—it is a past. If you’re lucky, your new country becomes an in-between place where you settle down; a place where you learn the rules so you can create a small life, stake your claim. Maybe that was another reason I wanted to come back, to stake a claim in my history. This house is the only place where I know I’ve lived with both my parents; if we rewound enough time, I would be standing in a place occupied by a newly-married couple and a newborn.
On the second floor, a wide cement balcony wraps around the back. The view is colorless and bland. The heat and dust keep people inside, and when they have to travel, the ones with enough money drive BMWs, Cadillacs, and Mercedes, a harsh contrast to the dirt roads, peddlers, and markets around them. Leaning on the banister, I fill my lungs with air. Wenzhou does not smell like New York; the hot and arid conditions leave dry soot in my mouth. I can’t pick out the smells the way I can back home.
“It’s incredible,” Zino says, joining me on the ceramic tile balcony.
Maybe this is what it means to come back home and leave again—to feel dissatisfied in all the ways that feel right, to be torn between past and future.
I nod, unable to articulate the strange fleeting feeling of my new reality. After so many years of imagining who my father was, what he looked like, what his family was like, and how his relationship with my mother ended, I had answers. Seeing his face, learning about his childhood, and getting to see where he lived was like a door finally opening.
“That’s a fruit vendor shouting prices,” I say. We try to place his location, enjoying the silence between each call.
“There, I think that’s where we came from,” Zino says, pointing to a few rows of houses and a sliver of the river we crossed to get here. We’re silent as I wipe tears and commit the view to memory.
I never blamed my mother for my father’s death. I blamed her for everything else; our separation, every time she favored my half-siblings over me, her insatiable anger and violent temper. But I had never understood the dire situation she was in. Visiting Wenzhou, hearing my half-aunt’s story, and seeing the way my aunt and my uncle-in-law lived, I can’t help but appreciate the difficult choice she made.
It’s sunset when we call a cab to take us back to the hotel. The landscape is flat for miles under the blue night and an evening breeze sweeps across us as we watch for headlights.
My aunt and I exchange WeChat information like new acquaintances hoping to be friends. It’s easy to stay in contact with people now, but I wonder, without shared memories, if we’ll be able to sustain a relationship. “I’m so happy we came today,” I say, searching for the right words. I can’t find the word for gratitude, and instead I take her arm the way my mother held on to her sister’s arm in the photo.
“Will you come back with your husband and kids?” My aunt asks as we wait. “Let us meet them?”
I don’t have a husband or kids, but I nod because that’s what one does at a time like this. As a pair of headlights grows brighter, I give her a quick hug. I don’t know when we’ll see each other again, and that seems to weigh on their bodies. She stands side by side with my uncle-in-law as we pull away. Maybe this is what it means to come back home and leave again—to feel dissatisfied in all the ways that feel right, to be torn between past and future, China and America, homeland and home. Too soon, they are two inconspicuous dots on the horizon.
Anna Qu’s new book, Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor, is available now from Catapult.