She was seventeen, according to the Chinese calendar, almost two years older than they’d call her back at home. Not yet an adult here, but definitely not beneath the role of labour and responsibility that was now expected of her.
Her father and mother hadn’t said anything to each other for days ever since arriving in Shandong, despite the three of them having to sleep in the one bed. ‘Your father’s as unreasonable as can be,’ her mother once told her cryptically, an icy tone to match the winter weather outside. She longed to understand what her father meant, every time he said, ‘You must never forget your roots, Louisa.’ Or, ‘Home is the most important thing. You cannot ever forsake your home.’ His face a grave map of lines and topography.
She dared not answer her father back when he was in one of his serious moods. Mental flash, like the sun reflecting off a rippled pool. The only time she’d ever seen her father cry. He was embracing and kissing an old man, his uncle, his own father’s brother, their tears mixing on each others’ faces. The tanned, weathered face of a peasant against soft city skin. Only five at the time, this was Louisa’s first visit to China, to see her father’s relatives. Her father and the man were saying some sort of a goodbye; her great-uncle smiled to Louisa through his glazed face, cherishing her like he did all grandchildren. Her father cried uncontrollably, great wracking sobs shaking his large frame. And she watched, dry-eyed, her father’s violent heartbreak as he waved away his uncle’s car.
‘Why were you crying, Daddy?’
Her father gave her a watery smile. Everything seemed to confuse her, the mad warping of pain and pleasure in her father’s face. ‘Great uncle is going away forever. I’ll never see him again.’ She somehow understood later that this was a decades-long-awaited reunion, as well as a final farewell.
Ten years later, she sat in the back of a well-heated BMW, her twenty-something cousin at the wheel, a Taiwanese mix CD playing. She was in the middle of the backseat, separating her silent mother and father, a little squashed by the latter. They were driving along white fields, blankets of snow, and dense crumbly roads, yellowed by village clay. Before getting out, Louisa fitted herself up in her woollen beanie, gloves, and drew the zipper of her white parka up to her mouth, lips chapped and dry. From there, they fought against the coastal wind, whistling and hurtling itself against them, as they trudged down and around to the village cemetery.
The Australian cemeteries she’d seen were well-groomed official places, bordered off by a high fence and an entrance gate. Here, she absent-mindedly stepped on the grave of an unknown ancestor, old twigs of incense snapping beneath her boots. The place had no visible border, but was a dormant forest, the trees stunted little things, frozen by the snow. A grave was marked here and there by a prominent mound of yellow dirt and, if modern enough, a plank of engraved wood or heavy stone. Through the hundreds of Zhangs and Lis, her father and cousin lead Louisa and her mother to her own grandfather and great-grandfather. Her grandfather’s mound was marked in stone, while her great-grandfather was signified by wood. She could barely make out the inscriptions, carved out, she was told, by another relative.
They dumped books of yellow tissue paper, a special funeral paper, onto the graves and lit them. Instead of burning like she expected them to, they smoked quickly and easily. The forest was too cluttered and the wind too biting for them to kowtow properly, so they each made do with a little bow, hands pressed together like in a western prayer.
They left after a few moments, something unspoken moving between her father and her cousin. The trek back to the car was conducted in silence except from her father, who spoke quietly, a radiance in his eyes unlike any that she’d ever seen back at home. He told her about his father, his father’s father, his several uncles, who were like second fathers to him. Told her how the average family, back in those days, had around six or more children and how one’s family was one’s life, always something to do, someone to help, someone to care for, and someone to care about you. Funny, Louisa thought, Dad’s almost never spiritual at home.
Perhaps visiting ancestors’ graves wasn’t so much a matter of spirituality, but one of love and longing. As an only child, Louisa was born accustomed to the everyday social silence and lonesomeness that came with her idea of family. She bit her lip against the cold and a miniscule sense of emptiness that sunk into her as they all piled back into the BMW.
This wasn’t home for her, she told herself. No, home was warmth and scorching weather, was sandwiches and hot showers, electricity and internet. Home was far away, but still there, she affirmed with herself. But what about her father? Would he harbour the desire to be buried in Shandong, China, with the rest of his ancestors in their overgrown forest graveyard? Or would he be content with decaying underground amidst a colony of strangers, all equally as dead and alone?
Her father had not entered the car. He was standing outside, facing the crashing sea, eyes scanning the horizon. For a moment, Louisa saw a teenage boy, gangly and tanned and naïve about the world. He wore grey scars on the backs of his knuckles, from salty fish hooks and squinted as though reading fine print from a smudged newspaper. And then he was her father again, an ageing, soul-broken man, unwilling to go forwards, but unable to go back.