This past summer, I traveled to my homeland Macau in China with T and my husband from the United States. We often try our best to visit my relatives in China every year. This is especially true after T was born—to visit my maternal grandparents who are in their late 80s. This time, unlike others, we stayed at my father’s house with my father, my stepmother, and my half brother, since my mother had recently rented out her old apartment in the city after she moved to the United States to live close to me. In fact, I had never observed my father in such close proximity—his family dynamics, his world view, his worries and his reactions to them—because I was raised by my mother. I felt like I got to really know my father for the first time.
The most memorable conversation I had during the trip happened in a Portuguese-styled cafe when my dad met up with his cousin with whom he familiarized after adulthood. Aunt Annabelle has some really interesting facial features—deep-set eyes, thin arched eyebrows, a large down-turned nose, high cheekbones, and an extraordinarily narrow face. When she talked, she raised her eyebrows high and stared straight at the other person. She spoke tirelessly about the desolate material circumstances in China after World War II during which she came of age and how my grandfather was idolized as a hero from this unknown village in southern China. “Your grandpa bought two grain cleaners, one for our village, and one for the village next to ours,” said Aunt Annabelle. “You have no idea how it’d dramatically improved everyone’s lives!” My husband, who grew up in a remote village in another part of China during the 70s chimed in enthusiastically: “Oh! I remember those grain cleaner machines! I’ve seen them when I was a small child.” I sat there like a complete fool because, having grown up in a city like Macau, I have never seen a grain cleaner or learned how it works. “He also bought two pickup trucks and donated them to the Communist Party,” she continued. “You should take a look at the so-called trucks that they were using to transport materials before your grandpa bought those trucks—they were made out of wood logs and rocks!” My grandpa became a Communist hero. His donation was deemed so crucial to the emergent nation at that time, that Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, invited my grandfather and grandmother, along with other comrades, to Beijing for a Peking duck banquet. Aunt Annabelle looked at my dad and said to him, “Had your family kept the written invitation and all the memorabilia, they could be worth a fortune now!” My dad sighed and replied, “Too bad my dad was too dumb. All the family fortune was given to the Party.”
While my father and Aunt Annabelle were reminiscing about old time, I couldn’t help but notice how similar her appearance was with the Macanese who frequent this Portuguese cafe that serves french toast, ramen noodles with spam and fried eggs, and baked pork chop with fried rice. (Macanese are mixed Chinese and Portuguese in Macau). The Chinese waitress seemed to be extra friendly to Aunt Annabelle. I wondered if it was because she is a regular who often leaves too much tips or if it was because she looks like a Westerner who can speak fluent Cantonese.
Aunt Annabelle is the daughter of my grandfather’s sister. Since I was a child, I had always thought that my grandmother is the only person in the family who isn’t 100% Chinese. But Aunt Annabelle’s facial features reminded me of my grandmother, even though they are not biologically related. After she explained how she and I are related, I pointed out, “You don’t look Chinese…” She responded, “no, I don’t! When I first moved to Macau from mainland China, people often mistook me as Macanese and assumed I could speak Portuguese. So, conveniently, I learned Portuguese. I named myself Annabelle because ‘belle’ means beauty, and I got a well-paid job in the city.” Then, Aunt Annabelle showed me a picture of her father she had on her smartphone—a picture of my great grandfather. “Does he look Chinese to you?” she asked. I shook my head. Aunt Annabelle told me that her grandfather, my great great grandfather, had worked in Nicaragua. Rumors had it that he was brought to the United States as an indentured laborer to build the first transcontinental railroad line during the late 19th century; somehow he escaped to Latin America and married an indigenous woman in Nicaragua. Eventually, he found his way back to southern China. Inspired by his grandfather’s story and disturbed by the internal strife in China after the fall of Qing dynasty and decades of European invasion, my grandfather had always wanted to “return” to Nicaragua since he was young. To him, Nicaragua was a country that symbolized freedom from and resistance to Western power—a country where revolutionaries recently gave rise to a successful rebellion against the U.S. military. At the age of sixteen, soon after he married his first wife, he left China for Nicaragua, alone. Everyone who talked to me about my grandfather said that he was an ingenius businessman—he somehow taught himself English and Spanish and opened the most successful restaurant in the biggest gold mine near Blue Fields, Nicaragua. Years after he married his second wife in Nicaragua, he laid eyes on my grandmother—the teenage daughter of an indigenous woman who was working in his restaurant.
I remember that as a child, I was always besotted by my grandmother’s haunting beauty every time when we went through old family pictures. My aunts have spoken very proudly of her beauty: “She was the most beautiful woman in the village.” My father, the only boy among his three siblings, on the other hand, rarely talks about my grandmother’s beauty overtly. Instead, he has made a habit of cropping pictures of things and people that he finds beautiful—my grandmother is often the subject. One of the black-and-white pictures he cropped shows my grandmother holding a baby girl in her arms, standing next to another woman in front of a statue of Virgin Mary inside a cathedral. My grandmother wore a striped dress with a white lace veil on her head; her dark natural wavy hair was revealed through the light and transparent garment. Her dark lips contrasted with her porcelain skin. Her smile was almost impossible—content and uncomfortable at the same time. She looked incredibly young in the picture—she could not have been more than eighteen years old.
My grandmother was in her 30s when diabetes took my grandfather’s life in his 60s and never remarried. During the mid-1960s, the rising opposition to the Somoza dictatorship led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front made Nicaragua an increasingly dangerous country for a Chinese businessman like my grandfather to raise two families. At the same time, the end of the Chinese Civil War between Kuomintang and the Communist Party followed by the Great Leap Forward pushed by Chairman Mao Zedong to modernize China ignited his patriotic emotions for his homeland. Determined to leave his other wife behind, he asked my grandmother to leave Nicaragua with him together with their children.
Searching for a safe city for his family, my grandfather chose to settle in Macau—a small coastal city in China that had been colonized by the Portuguese since the 16th century. It was the year of 1966. Fueled by the public sentiment of the Cultural Revolution in mainland China, the Chinese people in Macau pulled down the statue of Colonel Vicente Nicolau de Mesquita at Largo do Senado at the city center after the colonial government blocked the construction of a local school sponsored by local leftist organizations. Naturally, my grandfather became very active in one of the most powerful leftist organizations in Macau, donating his fortune he had acquired in Nicaragua in support of the Cultural Revolution. That was his way to assert his agency in a world of turmoil. In the public eye, he was a true Communist hero—a revolutionary.
To be continued…
#parenthood #family #familystory #pandamom #war #Nicaragua #China #Macau #colonialism #resistance #revolution #women #grandmother #auralhistory #history #cultural revolution #greatleapforward #communistparty #colonialism #intergenerationaltrauma #domesticviolence #feminism #feministwriting #pandamotherly
CORRECTION: Earlier version of the blog entry mentioned that my grandfather operated a restaurant in a coal mine. After verifying with my family, it was actually a gold mine.