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Manoa 12.2 (2000) 68-78

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Facing the Village

Lenore Look

To leave home very young and to return very old,
With accent unchanged, but hair grown thin,
They see but know me not,
     the smiling children who inquire:
"And from where do you come, Honored Guest?"
        He Zhi-zhang (T'ang poet, A.D. 659?-744?)

On the morning of Tuesday, February 3, 1998, during the first hours of the Year of the Tiger, my father abruptly stopped our chauffeur-driven minivan just short of his childhood village in China. It was the end of an anxiety-ridden journey for him, one that he felt he had been dragged into by my mother and me: I was on a search for my roots, and Mother was fulfilling a lifelong dream of returning home. In the stubborn, juvenile way that he resorts to whenever the women in his life get their way and he is all but flailing helplessly, my father was making one last desperate attempt to abort our trip, thwart our schemes, and show us that he was in charge. We had come halfway around the world--my husband and I from New Jersey, and they from Seattle--to the threshold of reunion and discovery, and my father was still determined to turn us back.

"See," Father said in his what-did-I-tell-you tone, "nobody's home."

Father was impatient. He had been irritated by a mob of drivers at Guanghai, the Taishan port on the South China Sea, where we arrived after a four-hour hydrofoil ride from Hong Kong. Each desperate for our fare, the dozen or so drivers had singled out my father as the tribal chief of our party, swarmed him in the dusty parking lot after we had gone through Customs, and fallen into an angry shouting match and tug-of-war over the day's catch of overseas Chinese.

"I'll take you for one hundred renmingbii!" one man screamed upon seeing us. His shirt, shiny from wear and moist with perspiration, opened between the buttons as he pushed himself against my father.

"No, ninety here!" another man yelled, spitting white foam from between his brown teeth. A million droplets landed on my father's face. He grabbed the suitcase my father was holding and started to pull. Already, [End Page 68] our journey to the village was worse than Father had predicted. He had feared that our presence as overseas Chinese in this area of deep poverty and lawlessness might tempt even an otherwise honest driver to take us into a remote field and rob us, but his darkest scenarios did not include stepping into an ambush at the start. It was a terrible omen.

"Don't listen to him!" seethed another, pulling my father's other arm in the opposite direction. "Eighty will do."

"Eighty!" Four or five others joined in, waving arms and fists at my father, who looked like a condemned man facing his executioners.

"Seventy!" another spat, anger pulsing through a blue, hose-sized vein in his neck. A round of "Seventy!" rose up, quick and vengeful.

Crushed on all sides, Father looked frantically for help from the two armed guards standing on the edge of the parking lot. Catching my father's eye, the guards, who had been watching with unguarded amusement, turned as though they were being summoned from their favorite TV program and retreated into the Customs building. Left to divide their spoil, the drivers began to tear at the suitcases in our hands and to pull each of us in a different direction.

Then my father spoke. He demanded to see their cars. The man tugging at my bag let go. Suddenly game-show hosts, the men made exaggerated sweeping gestures toward their prizes. To no one's surprise, these were of the booby variety: heaps of rusting scrap metal that might be mistaken for cars in working condition if one were heavily drugged or intoxicated. But there was one exception: a white, late-model Toyota minivan. The driver, with his combed hair and tweed sports jacket, emerged like...