Jean 静
sima-wensen.jpeg

Under the Shade of Our Tree

Old Stories

The myths of my childhood were the stories of my mother's family.

From a young age I was enraptured by my mother's tales of our faraway homeland in China. It was so easy to get swept up by the stories. They possessed all the qualities of an epic drama — suffering and survival, discrimination and determination, toil and triumph. However unimaginable or intolerable the circumstances seemed, all the characters were real and part of me in some way.

 My mother, aged two, with her father Sima Wensen (司马文森), together in Hong Kong, in 1955.

My mother, aged two, with her father Sima Wensen (司马文森), together in Hong Kong, in 1955.

The hero of the tales was a man named Sima Wensen (司马文森). He was my grandfather.

"Your Grandpa was a famous writer when he was alive," my mother would say to me.

I remember being thrilled by this revelation, but I was too little to understand the things he wrote about or the history of the time period. So instead, I would pester my mother to tell me more about what he was like. She would always answer by opening up the only album we had with photographs of him.

"Look how energetic and happy he was in all his photos," she would say. "He was just like that in real life. He was always so much fun to be with."

Apart from that one photo album, we didn't have anything else belonging to my grandfather. This was puzzling — if he was a famous writer, why didn't we have any of his books? When I asked my mother, she told me it was because something had happened when she was only fifteen years old — something that took her father's life and all his work, too. It happened during the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" — wén huà dà gé mìng. This revolution swept up an entire nation, our homeland. On May 22, 1968, my grandfather died at the age of fifty-two after a brutal beating. All his books were confiscated and destroyed. He was simply gone.

The dense, sickening feeling of loss clouded our stories. Even memories of happier times would sometimes become too hard for my mother to speak further about. She would fall silent, and suddenly she was no longer my mother but a scared teenager again, grieving over her father in a Beijing hospital morgue. As I grew up, I would come to understand that her wounds would always remain raw, even twenty, thirty, forty years on.

I wanted to hold on to my grandfather's memory, but the outside world often felt at odds with our stories. In the early 1990s, Canada was still not a very diverse society. In school, we never learned about Chinese novelists like my grandfather. In fact, nothing about China was taught at all, other than through uncomfortable schoolyard lessons: namely, if you were Chinese, then you were different and foreign. To be Chinese and also a hero was unthinkable. While I never experienced prolonged bullying, discriminatory name-calling and gestures were unavoidable in my earliest years at school.

Just once, things escalated. When I was six years old, I sat in my Grade 1 classroom eating the dumplings that my mother had made for my lunch. A boy in my class began to mock my food. I think I argued back, but still he kept taunting and jeering. Suddenly, he attacked me, slamming my head violently against his. I fell to the ground. Soon I began vomiting and was unable to walk, so my parents were called and I was rushed to the hospital. I had suffered a concussion.

The boy was never punished in any way. Eleven years later, when I was a first-year undergraduate, I saw him again at my university cafeteria. Now a young man, he looked happy and self-assured. He didn't recognize me and we didn't speak to each other. But seeing him made me feel cold and ashamed, because I knew that he was the reason I had never brought Chinese food to school again.

I, like many Canadian-born children of immigrants, chose to relinquish my heritage to fit in better with so-called "mainstream" society. But I never understood what I was giving up. Even after Canada's racial landscape started to change — our country became more multicultural, more accepting of immigrants and their kin than ever before — I had already changed. At some point, I must have convinced myself that my ancestral homeland was no longer real. And that meant that my grandfather wasn't real either.

I drifted away from our family stories, and my relatives, too. My Chinese language skills eroded away. I forgot how to dream in Mandarin.

It wasn't until I left Canada and moved to Britain that I experienced a new challenge to my cultural identity. This time, it was my face as well as my North American accent that made me seem different and foreign. Of course, I didn't act "Chinese enough" and my physical appearance was also unlike what many British people automatically associated with being Canadian. My newfound identity as an immigrant was confusing. The question "where are you from?" just seemed to have no easy answer for me.

So when I decided to search for my grandfather's name on the Internet, I think I must have been homesick. Not for Canada, my birth country, but for that ancestral homeland in my mother's stories, that place where the characters were real and a part of me. I didn't know it then, but the search for my grandfather would bring back a lost piece of my identity, reuniting me with a world that, due to language barriers and physical distance, I had struggled to keep close for my entire life.

It was almost too easy to look for my grandfather's name online. I felt a bit sad that I hadn't done that sooner. Using my half-forgotten Chinese, I typed in the four characters of his name into Google: 司马文森.

Without any expectations, I hit enter.

Jean Liu1 Comment