My Chinese name, 章安吉, has three characters. The first is my surname: 章, pronounced “Zhang.” The second, 安, is pronounced “an,” and it means safety, peace, and protection. It also is the same 安 as the first character of my father’s home province’s name, 安徽 (Anhui). The final character, 吉, means good luck and is pronounced “ji.” This is the first character in the name of my mother’s hometown, 吉林 (Jilin). Thus, my name is a synthesis — geographic jigsaw meets a play on words — a persistent reminder of where I’m from, even now in Canada, where I spell my name with letters, not characters.
There actually exists a county in China, 安吉 (Anji), that shares my given name. Somehow, although neither I nor my parents have set foot there, it holds just as much of a claim on my name as my parents’ home provinces do combined. And although I was born in China, I can scarcely remember more than the walls of our home in Shanghai. China, to me, could be anything, look like anything.
I searched the county up once, when I was young and thrilled at the prospect of sharing a name with some distant land I’d never seen. I remember bounding up the stairs, turning on our clunky computer, clumsily feeling for the on-button, and impatiently tapping my fingers on the keyboard, my tiny hands dwarfed even by the little white letters. I remember thinking, “I hope Google Images won’t disappoint!”
It didn’t. Mountains rose from the ground to the sky, reflecting a beautiful emerald green that illuminated the landscape for miles. Bamboo trees that were so close together you couldn’t see more than a few metres ahead before getting lost in endless growth peppered the forest floors.
On my plane ride to Jilin earlier this year, I thought about how my impression of China has changed throughout my life. This was my first time visiting my extended family since 2012, when I had spent over two months with relatives on my mom’s side of the family. Yet despite the years that had elapsed, my memories of my grandmother’s home were unfragmented; they presented themselves with the type of clarity that is exclusive to childhood memories, the ones that stay with you for the rest of your life while everything afterward tends to fade away more rapidly.
I could still clearly conjure images of my grandmother’s apartment in my mind: a lacey, white, embroidered tablecloth; a rickety coffee table with one leg that is a little shorter than the other; a dusty satellite television that sat in the middle of a living room, which always glowed red as the sun went down. And I remembered her, my grandmother, who had helped raise me for the first few years of my life, with great detail.
The little city in which my mother grew up has steadily declined in the last 20 years. “It’s not going anywhere,” my mother would say. “Only fools would stay behind.” I couldn’t help but agree. In sharp contrast with those images of Anji, my mother’s hometown appeared to be slowly decomposing, disappearing under a veil of soot and pollution. The streets, cracked from apathy, lay the platform to an unkept stage, curtained by ugly grey skies. Thick smog coated the neighbourhoods like layers of dust. But somehow, none of this mattered when I was faced with the true reason I was afraid to return: I was scared to finally see my grandmother, who had become a fearful entity, a nightmare, a storm cloud always hovering over my mother’s life.
“She won’t be how you remember her,” my mother warned. “She might not even recognize you.”
She went on. “Sometimes, she’ll forget what you said right after you say it, and you might have to repeat certain things many times.”
“Okay,” I said, not knowing how else to respond.
But when we saw her, she did recognize me — she even called out my name, “安吉!” She said that I had grown, and that it had been a long time since she last saw me. But by the time we sat down in the living room of the apartment, she was staring at me blankly, and called me by my cousin’s name, and even my mom’s, like she was grabbing at wisps of smoke. I wondered to myself if maybe she called out my name frequently, even during the years I hadn’t been back, and that perhaps it had simply been a fluke when she got it right the first time.
It was still a good day. Both my aunt and uncle were there, and I had missed them dearly. “My niece has become prettier than Fan Bingbing,” my uncle had said, referencing the famous Chinese actress. I remember my aunt shaking her head at my mom and exclaiming, “I can’t believe you always say she’s getting fat!”
On the cab ride over to my aunt’s house, the casual conversation between our driver and my aunt took an unlikely turn when they realized they had grown up in the same neighbourhood as children, and had even gone to the same elementary school. They spoke about memories I couldn’t understand: an old plank the students had transformed into a ping-pong table, a playground with only one swing, a rickety fence that had been entirely unhinged one day by a storm.
I stayed in my aunt’s apartment that night. She had moved in just a few months earlier, and to my surprise, I liked her new place. It was in a vibrant part of town: shops lined the streets, neon signs illuminated the night sky, and the sidewalks were populated with locals.
My mother always told me that my aunt’s greatest mistake was not leaving Jilin while she had the chance. Shortly after graduating, my aunt was offered a job with better pay and better conditions in a better city, Shanghai, but she turned it down. She taught high school students now, one of the most stressful jobs in China, especially considering how little it pays. I had secretly pitied my aunt for being stuck in Jilin, but then, thinking about the cab driver and the pretty streets outside, I felt a rush of embarrassment for being so ignorant, for assuming I knew more than I did.
The next day, we went to the cemetery to see my grandfather. We didn’t take my grandmother; we were worried she wouldn’t be able to handle it. Some days, she would show up at his tombstone and cry, telling everyone who would listen that she would rather stay and die there with him than leave. Other days, her sorrow drove her to an insanity that allowed her to forget her sadness. More and more, my family hoped for the days like the latter.
It had rained the night before, and the sticky, swollen feeling that had thickened the air had now dissipated. Another part of the city I hadn’t known existed, the graveyard, smelled ironically of life. It was one of the few places in the city full of grass, trees, and gardens. As we walked, my aunt brought up how expensive graves were becoming. “They’re running out of land,” my aunt mused. “Soon, there won’t be any left for us.”
My uncle laughed. “Good thing I won’t need one of these,” he said, nudging his head toward the many rows and rows of stone among the grass.
Not daring to say anything, I stared at him, shocked.
“Well, who’s going to come see us?” he asked indignantly. “Yuer is in Shanghai, Yixuan is in Singapore, Anji is in Canada.”
One after another, he named off his relatives: his daughter, my aunt’s daughter, and me.
“And that’s that,” he finished, dryly. He gave a little shrug.
“That’s that,” I thought, shaken by the idea. The next generation, my generation, had already begun the process of uprooting, of discarding the past and moving on, branching as far away as possible. I wanted to say something, but what? Tell him that I would visit him? Tell him that I’m sure his daughter would, as well? First, my grandfather, and now my grandmother would be memories.
I realized, with a heavy heart, that I would live to see the end of this place. When I’m old, everything I know here will be gone.
“I’m so scared of becoming like her,” my mother confessed to me maybe two years ago, when my grandmother’s deterioration was just beginning. “I see her, I try to help her, and all I can think is, ‘This will be me when I’m older.’”
“No, you won’t,” I said, feeling helpless.
“Sometimes, I wish I never left,” she continued, “so that I could be a better daughter. So that I’m not watching her fall apart from such a distance, feeling like I’ve abandoned her for all these years.” She shook her head. “But leaving was the best thing I ever did.”
My mother’s fears became my own after that trip, when I realized the immense responsibility I had to keep my roots alive. Somehow, my family’s cultural legacy had already begun to slip through the cracks of the sons and daughters who would try to abandon it.
And why stop the past’s demise? Maybe my grandmother’s pain, my uncle’s disappointment, and my aunt’s lack of ambition were better left forgotten. Maybe Jilin was better off left as just a place on a map, a little, rotten city that was best ignored. Maybe I was better off with my picturesque, childish fantasy of China, where beauty was the common tongue and history only held the past, not the responsibility of the future.
But here it is, I realized: that connection that I yearned for as a child as I traced the roots of my name. Here, I was finding it, in the same way I did all those years ago — feeling the thrill, terrifying as it is, of recognizing the discrete parts I am composed of, realizing the significance of home. These individual memories, stories, people, and places define me in a way that is too powerful to be forgotten or escaped by the generations to come. So I made a vow to myself: I will remember.
“Why isn’t Henry named after a place?” I once asked, always jealous that my brother had a name that people could spell right the first time.
“Because you are,” my mother replied, smiling. “What other place would you name him after?”
Puzzled, I thought about this for a while. “What about Toronto?”
“You want me to name your brother Toronto?”
My mother and I laughed, and she drew me in close, tucking my hair behind my ear.
“Your grandmother chose your name,” she confessed. “She told me, ‘This girl is going to go very far,’” she said, grinning at me. “She said if you were going to be anything like me, I’d have trouble keeping you close.”
I didn’t know what this meant, so I just smiled back at her, waiting for my answer.
“So,” she said, “if you name her something that will make her think of home, when you call, and she doesn’t answer, at least the other people she answers to will remind her of where she’s from, and to call you back.”
I laughed. “And what if I do answer?”
“If you do answer,” my mother responded, “I’ll be very happy.”
Photos provided by Anji Zhang