Annie Bananie en Europe

A blog about travel, life, and everyday tidbits

Two weeks in China, part 3: Guangzhou, my hometown

This turned out to be more of a personal reflection post rather than a travel log, and so doesn’t have a lot of pics. For the photo album, click here.

So then, the second and last stop during my trip to China was undoubtedly that place so dear to my heart – my hometown, Guangzhou, or Canton, as known to some of you perhaps.

As soon as I knew about the conference in Chengdu, I started to think about making a trip to Guangzhou afterwards, just for a week. I mean, if I were already in China, it only makes sense to visit my hometown. And I’ve never been back to China without dropping by Guangzhou. So the request for an extra week off was made, granted, and I was off.

This is the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall situated near my grandpa’s house. I remember being here with my aunt when I was very young, cluelessly pointing at the statue of Sun Yat-Sen, asking, “What is this thing?” What I find funny till this day is that I didn’t even as WHO it was, but WHAT it was. Did I not clearly see that it was a man?

Since my immigration to Canada with my parents in 1996, I’ve been back to Guangzhou 5 times, in the years 2000, 2004, 2008, 2010, and now, 2012. That’s quite often, I gotta admit. The first two times were visits where I went back with my parents, when I was still young, while the three most recent times were planned entirely by myself.

Note interestingly the way I used the phrase “back to”. When I tell my friends that I’m going “back to” China, they jokingly correct me by saying that I am going “to” China, not “back to” China, since I am no longer “Chinese”, in terms of nationality, at least. That in a sense is true, I suppose. If anything, I can say I am going “back to” Canada, but China’s influence on my growth and identity cannot be denied. If we trace our steps from now all the way back to the very beginning, we end up in China, so who’s to tell me I can’t say I am going “back to” China?

This is the statue of the five goats in Yue Xiu Park, a landmark of the city. Guangzhou is also known as “Goat City” due to a legend about the history of the city, which involves magical goats.

That was just a side note. Still, every visit to this place I once called “home” had given me complex feelings and experiences. I used to think that I could always call Guangzhou my “home”, until 2010. Many circumstances and events during that visit made me realize that it’s not that I don’t want to call it my home, but I CAN’T call it my home anymore.

Apart from my immediate family – father, mother, and sister – most of my extended family is in Guangzhou. Even so, the place itself felt so unfamiliar, so foreign. The only places I knew how to get to were my grandpa’s house and my uncle’s house – which is really my original home, my mom’s house, the house where I grew up. Every other place in the city is as new to me as a place in a city I’ve never visited before; I don’t even know where the major landmarks of Guangzhou are found, never mind that the tallest freestanding structure in Asia is now in Guangzhou. Then I thought…this shouldn’t be the way it is. I should know more about this city. I should EXPERIENCE it. How can I say I am from Guangzhou, when I don’t even know it?

Annie and her aunt, Yaya. I was very close with Yaya because she lived with me for a few years and pretty much brought me up throughout those years. Every time I go back to Guangzhou, she is the one I am most excited to see.

I wanted to return to Guangzhou and stay there for awhile, where the only purpose would be to explore and experience the city without familial obligations. So far I’ve found it close to being impossible. First of all, the amount of time I’ve been able to spend in Guangzhou during my visits was way too short every single time. Second, every trip back seemed to revolve around family visits and spending time with relatives. True, this is important to me, but deep down I wanted to have some time alone without being tied up with what I was “expected” to do and where I was “supposed to” go.

Then again, to try to re-adapt to, re-integrate into, re-acquaint with that place that gave you life – it is a funny feeling. As a “visitor” now, I ought to get rid of every “re-“ above, because I am essentially a foreigner there. A girl with an Asian face whose habits have been westernized through years of nurture, but who still harbours a strange longing to get back in touch with her roots and (re-)discover her identity – does Guangzhou still hold a place for her?

This feels exactly like the “tension of opposite”, something Morrie Schwartz proposed in one of my favourite books. Guangzhou has an irresistible attractive force that pulls me in, yet at the same time, a furious repulsive force that pushes me away. I wanted to stay for the comfort and the love that my relatives make me feel, but the invisible stress of having to “balance” time between both parental sides of the family gives me a headache. I wanted to stay for the streets and corners that gave me some of my fondest childhood memories, but the orange arc at the entrance of the zoo, which had always been so significantly bright in my mind, had been replaced with metal balls. That, to me, isn’t our zoo. I wanted to stay to hear my familiar mother tongue spoken in every corner, but the non-stop audio messages on every single bus, advertising a city for what it isn’t (clean, polite, welcoming), makes me want to go deaf.

New sign of the Guangzhou Zoo at the south entrance. There used to be a giant orange arc leading to the zoo, but it exists no more. Now these balls bear the name of the zoo.

There are other things that just didn’t make Guangzhou an appealing city for me anymore. The perpetual gray skies. The scorching summer temperatures. The non-existent rules of traffic. (Though, to be fair, much of this also applies to many other big cities in China, unsurprisingly.)

In a nutshell, it was so difficult for me to find a sense of belonging in Guangzhou. Family is the only thing that keeps me going back, and I will gladly go back at every opportunity. However, asking me whether there is the possibility of me ever going back to settle down? I wouldn’t say impossible, but highly, extremely, insurmountably unlikely.

It is ironic how I am able to criticize my own hometown so much while praising every other city I have visited. Perhaps I took the city for granted. Perhaps I really have been living under the shelter of a luxurious, comfortable life for too long. Perhaps the moment I drifted away 16 years ago, I was destined to watch it from a distance and miss it from afar.

Yet, Guangzhou gave me my heart, and I’ve left a piece behind that will always be there, no matter where else in the world I may be.

6 responses to “Two weeks in China, part 3: Guangzhou, my hometown

  1. London Caller July 2, 2012 at 01:18

    Likewise, my ancestors also came from Guangdong.
    My grandparents were both born in Malaysia.
    I’m the 3rd generation, so when I go “back” to China.
    My feelings are as strong as yours.
    But my family still have relatives living in Guangdong.
    Also in Hong Kong and Macao.
    Ha, we are a big family. 🙂

    But I don’t intend to stay in Britain forever.
    Miss Malaysia so much.
    It’s not as good as Britain but hey there’s where I’m most emotionally attached to, where my family and friends live, where I grew up.


  2. Pingback: Home-made dinner in Guangzhou |

  3. Pingback: Re-discovering Cantonese food in my hometown | Annie Bananie en Europe

  4. Pingback: The Places I Called Home, Part I | Annie Bananie en Europe

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