At fifteen, my father ran away from his widowed mother to fight the Japanese.
“I’ll come back with a Ph.D. and serve my country with better English and knowledge,”
I pledged at the farewell party in Beijing.
Home–家—Jia: a roof under which animals live.
When asked where I’m from,
I say “Weihai,” even though
nobody knows where it is,
even though I’ve never been to the place.
He lost his left ear in a bayonet fight with a Japanese soldier. Two years later, American
cannons split his eardrums.
The night I arrived at JFK, the Mets won the World Series and the noise on the street
went on till three. I got up at six and went to work in my sponsor’s antique shop in Manhattan.
The bag lady stopped her cart on the busy street and peed onto a subway grate.
“Did you jump or fly?” asked my landlady from her mah-jongg table. Then she laughed
and told me that her husband had jumped ship ten years ago. When he opened his fifth
Chinese take-out, he bought her a passport and flew her to Queens.
The only thing he liked to talk about was his old home, Weihai, its plump sea cucumbers
and sweet apples, men with broad shoulders, stubborn thighs, and girls with long braids
making steamed bread.
“I don’t know why,” she said, shivering behind her fruit stand. “Back home, I could go
for days without a penny in my pocket, and I didn’t feel poor. Now, if my money goes
down below four figures, I panic.” She scanned the snow-covered streets of Chinatown.
“I guess I really don’t want to be homeless here.”
I hired the babysitter when she mentioned her hometown was Weihai.
The president visited the rice paddies in Vietnam where a pilot had been downed thirty-
three years ago.
My father tried to return to Weihai after his discharge from the Navy. With his rank,
he could find work only in a coalmine town nearby. My mother refused to go. He went
alone, and soon contracted TB. Mother ordered me to date the county administrator’s son
so my father could come home.
“No, I’m not sad.” The street kid shook her head.
“How can I miss something I’ve never had?”
On her sixtieth birthday, my grandma went home to die. She would take two ships, one
from the island to Shanghai, then from Shanghai to Yantai. From there, she would take
two buses to reach Weihai. I carried her onto the big ship at the Shanghai Port, down to
the bottom, where she’d spend three days on a mattress, on the floor, with hundreds of
fellow passengers. “How are you going to make it, Grandma?” I asked. She pulled out a
pair of embroidered shoes from her parcel and placed them between my feet. “My
sweetheart and liver, come to see your old home soon, before it’s too late.”
House–房—fang: a door over a square, a place, a direction.
He never lost his accent, never learned Mandarin or the island dialect.
Weihai, a small city
in Shandong Province,
on the coast of the North China Sea,
a home, where my grandfather
and his father were born,
where my grandma married,
raised her children, and
now lies in the yam fields,
nameless, next to her husband,
an old frontier to fend off Japanese pirates,
a place I come from, have never seen.
Back from America, my mother furnished her home on the island, bought an apartment in
a suburb of Shanghai, and is considering a third one in Beijing. “A cunning rabbit needs
three holes,” she wrote to her daughters, demanding their contributions.
They swore, before boarding the ship, that they’d send money home to bring more
relatives over; in return, they were promised that if they died, their bodies would be sent
back home for burial.
I drink American milk–a few drops in tea.
I eat American rice—Japanese brand.
Chinese comes to me only in dreams–in black-and-white pictures.
My mother buried her husband on the island, where he lived for forty years.
Room–屋–wu: a body unnamed and homeless until it finds a destination.
We greet a stranger with
“Where are you from?”
When we meet a friend on the street, we say,
“Where have you been? Where are you going?”
家–a roof under which animals live
房–a door over a square, a place, a direction
屋–a body unnamed and homeless until it finds a destination
–my tangled roots for home.