For the past 13 years, I have known Feng as an only child. Feng’s family consisted of my in-laws, his parents, who lived in a small town a two-hour drive from us, before eventually retiring and moving to a suburb of Ottawa.
And now, I’m discovering that apparently, Feng is somehow related to half of China’s population.
After a few days in Wuhan, we took the train to Changsha, deeper into middle China. Feng’s father, aunt and cousin tagged along—Changsha is the family’s 老家, their hometown.
Changsha is another Chinese metropolis under construction. There are cranes everywhere, tall buildings, construction sites, dust, no sidewalk and crazy traffic. This is not a place where tourists stop. This is where migrant workers go because it’s the wealthiest place around, which doesn’t mean much. The main sights are Tangerine Island, in the middle of the Yangzi, with a huge statue of the 32-year-old Mao Zedong who is from Hunan and spent time in Changsha, as well as a few eateries (with stinky tofu) downtown. We were mostly going to the city to see Feng’s grand-parents’ graves.
In Changsha, we were welcomed by more family members who had booked a hotel for all of us. It was hot—more than 40°C, and Feng and I burst into laughter after I said, somewhat hopefully “oh, it’s not that bad!” We were sweaty and it was very confusing because anything involving several family members gets complicated—some want to go eat, others want to rest, and no one can agree on what to do. And God forbid we do things separately—Chinese travel as a group. So we shouted and ran from one room to another, trying to figure out what the aunt wanted to do, where the cousin was, etc.
I wasn’t a big fan of the hotel. It was fancy, by Chinese standards. But it was also the kind of place Chinese businessmen favoured to get drunk, and I kept on seeing 50-year-old Guangdong guys with girls young enough to be their daughters. Worst, I couldn’t breathe inside because Chinese lit up everywhere, rooms, hallways, elevators, etc. I know this is ironic because I smoke too, but I indulge outside and I don’t chain smoke.
But of course, I couldn’t complain out loud because, well, I wasn’t the one in charge. Local family members were.
I guess I have a control issue. I don’t like when other people make decisions for me.
And Chinese do, constantly.
Let’s face it, life would have been easy if I had married a nice guy from Nantes. Okay, it may have been boring and predictable, but we would share the same cultural background.
I understand Chinese culture better than the average foreigner. This is my sixth trip to China, I do speak Mandarin and I have a degree in Chinese studies. I can use chopsticks as well as any other Chinese and I can politely ask 你吃饭了吗.
But the fact I understand Chinese culture doesn’t make me Chinese, and it certainly doesn’t mean I agree with everything that is “proper” in the culture. Much like Feng can name several French cheeses, but doesn’t like the taste of them.
As it often is, Mark was at the centre of the problem. I understand that Feng’s extended family was looking forward to meeting him but as the mother of the dragon, I couldn’t help but resent them for “using” Mark. I felt they treated him as a pet: smile for the camera, eat the food, hug everyone, smile, etc. “This is our baby!” I wanted to scream. “We raised him, taught him stuff, comfort him and made him happy! Who are you?”
Mark was mostly well-behaved, but they shouldn’t expect a toddler to sit at the table for hours and try unfamiliar food all the time. They shouldn’t think Mark enjoys being held by a bunch of people he has never met. He isn’t even two years old!
It’s a bit selfish and silly, I guess. Part of me understands that we’ve come a long way to meet them and they probably won’t see Mark again anytime soon.
That doesn’t give them the right to criticize my decisions as a mother—I think Feng and I, as parents, should have the final say. If I think Mark shouldn’t have peanuts (he could choke!), then they should respect my decision. But they don’t.
“This is how people do it in China,” Feng argued. “They travel together, eat together, they think they know best.”
Yeah, well… guess what, I’m not Chinese.
It’s not easy being a guest in China. I can’t properly thank people because I do it the Western way, with true feelings. According to Chinese customs, I should just accept whatever is given to me—food, gift, accommodation.
I was curious to meet Feng’ family. Deep down, I think I wanted them to like me.
I don’t think I succeeded.
I feel I can’t win. I understand China but I’m not Chinese.
Gosh, this is complicated.