My grandfather grew up in Zhongshan Province during the 1910s before it became a city in Guangdong. Zhongshan means “the middle mountain” in Chinese. Today, the region is home to many famous Chinese cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen. It was also home to Sun Yat-Sen, the “Father of the Nation” of the Republic of China, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Sun Yat-Sen, like my grandfather, had lived in Macau. In 1911, the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance based in Hong Kong organized the first uprising against the declining Qing dynasty in Zhongshan. It was the beginning of the Chinese Revolution. The Revolution ultimately led to the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty in China but drove the country into decades of political division and warlordism. My grandfather came of age in a nation of chaos and wars.
When Sun Yat-Sen was on his dying bed in Beijing in 1925, he repeatedly muttered three phrases: “Peace,” “Struggle,” “Save China.” I wonder—From whom did he want to save China? From colonial powers who turned our people into opium addicts that could no longer defend for ourselves? From Qing royalties who could only focus on their luxurious lifestyles while the world fell apart? From our own ignorance as a people and generations of oppression that Confucius philosophy had promoted? Or from the perpetual white gaze who tells us that we will never be good enough? I’m struggling to understand. I’m struggling to find peace. I think that was why my grandfather left for Nicaragua to find answers. He needed life to be more than survival. He needed to be free.
When he first arrived in Nicaragua, my grandfather worked at the restaurant owned by his uncle, my great great grandfather’s descendent. Life was hard, but I imagine that it would at least offer the freedom from war that his homeland did not provide. Nevertheless, if it was his hope to escape from colonialism or to set his mind free, his migration would be an irony. In fact, grandpa made his fortune serving American investors in a mining camp in Bonanza, a town about 300 miles from Managua, where gold has been mined since 1934. Bonanza is a town carved from the rainforest for American firms to extract mineral deposits underneath the ground. To date, most local inhabitants of the town still live in abject poverty, in ramshackle homes with no sewage system. I wonder how the Americans treated a Chinese man like my grandfather who was working for them at that time. Did they give him nasty looks? Did they call him names? Did they ask him to go back to China? Did they expect him to show gratitude despite the discrimination and the humiliation? What was it like to be caught between brown and white skin? A half-breed? A Chinaman? I can’t imagine.
Of course, he never talked about his hurt feelings to anybody. No one did. Not because we were timid and unworthy. But because there was no language to talk about them. We fear that if we uttered these feelings and gave them words, our experience would turn into something real—something that makes us believe that we are actually inferior, that we are actually in pain. My heart aches as I write. Are they my feelings or his? This is the hurt in us.
Witnessing the destruction and experiencing the heartbreaks that Western imperialism and capitalism had brought to his homeland and now to his chosen land, my grandfather understood that the only seemingly plausible answer for his torn consciousness was, obviously, Marxism. In my family’s recollection, my grandfather was “radicalized” during his regular trips to China in which he would make huge donations to the village association in support for the Communist Party. But how else could a Chinese man who made a fortune off of the bread crumbs left by corporate America justify his own greed and sustain the comfort for his family? In the time of turmoil and conquest, people needed to find justification for the violence they gave to others and to know that they did the right thing. During the 1960s, the victory of communism in other parts of the world only made my grandfather believe ever more strongly that communism would ultimately set himself and his nation free. His desire grew every day. Torn between his comfortable life and his desperate spirit, he could not control himself but to speak about his utopian hopes and dreams publicly. Naturally, his actions angered the Americans. Returning to China was not only a calling; it was a necessity.
My grandfather passed away in the 1970s—a time during which Cold War politics were enmeshed with the civil war in Nicaragua and rendered the internal political divisions in China more complicated; a time during which thousands and millions of people had died for their political struggles. My grandfather was killed by diabetes. Chinese people used to call the disease “the illness for the rich and wealthy”—prior to the advent of fast food and cheap calories. Before he passed away, he spent most of his days in Macau reading English newspaper in the morning and taking my grandmother to the theater to watch Western movies in the evening. My father recalled that sometimes he would see white men coming in and out of the house. At the same time, he was involved in the local leftist organization in which most members were Chinese working-class men. I wonder if my grandfather was a spy. I wonder what his true politics were. I wonder if he knew.
Ever since he moved to Macau from Nicaragua at the age of seven, my father has lived in the same house—the house that I stayed at this past summer. I imagine Macau was a scary and confusing place for a child like my father. There was no one who spoke his mother tongue, no avocado tree planted in the backyard, no children from the neighborhood with whom he picked fight, and no dog named Bobo begging for food. When he was nine, my grandfather sent him to a leftist boarding school to “fix him up” after he had multiple physical altercations with his classmates at school. He was only allowed to go home during the weekend. Sleeping on the bed during his first night at the boarding school, he cried for the first time. My father was a physically strong child. Lean. Athletic build. He looked like he didn’t have a single inch of fat in his body. I always saw the exact same look on his face when I went through old pictures of his. His eyes—sharp, sad, and angry—stared into the camera, never a smile.
In 1999, Macau was “returned” to China, ending over 500 years of Portuguese colonialism. During the late 1980s, my oldest aunt moved to the United States after my uncle—a Chinese American from Hong Kong—fell in love with her upon seeing her photos mailed from Macau. They got married soon after they met. Like many people in Hong Kong and Macau who felt frightened by the impending political handover, Aunt Marcia, along with my grandmother, grasped the last chance to leave Macau before 1999. Two groups of people stayed behind—the forsaken who did not have the opportunity to migrate to the West and the patriots who saw their nationalistic dreams fulfilled after centuries of colonialism. My father is the former.
During this summer trip, my father was keen on sharing his political view with me—perhaps he attempted to convince me of his anti-Chinese government’s stance. A few months before the trip, my dad shared a propagandist video that praised Donald Trump with everyone in our family’s group chat. Aunt Marcia, who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, asked my dad if he knew his daughter’s political stance. “Your daughter brought your granddaughter to protest against him,” said Marcia in a voice message. “Your mom said she would have joined them if she knew about it.” My father never replied. For some very interesting reason, my father believed that Trump was the only person who could stop the Chinese Communist Party from its oppressive actions against its people in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau. I asked him why we cannot condemn various systems of oppression all at once—why do we have to pick our team?
As I write, I wonder what my grandfather would think of my father’s politics. Will he think of him as a sellout and therefore a disgrace to the family? Is that what my dad wants? An act of rebellion against his father?
I have never met my grandfather. He passed away before I was born. But I also wonder what he would think of me. Am I living his dream? A liberated individual in the land of the free and the home of the brave? Would he consider me courageous? But then, why would I care what a dead man would think of me? Isn’t it why I’m writing this story—to set myself free?
To be continued…
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