You buy a one-way ticket to Beijing, and tell your mother you are traveling alone to figure out if China might be the answer.

Places | Where Are You From

First, you have a nervous breakdown. Your chest tightens and you stop breathing over the keyboard in your office to let the voices chiming “Who are you” and “What are you” occupy the air in your brain. You think about the time it takes to explain at parties that you are mixed—from China and Jamaica, yes really—though you’ll always be just exotic enough to men who want to date you. You think about the man in the white van who yelled at you this morning on the street: “Better go back to China, bitch.” Initially, you thought, fuck you. And now, hyperventilating at your desk, you think, why not? You buy a one-way ticket to Beijing, tell your mother you are traveling for two months alone across the country to figure out if China might be the answer: a place where you can find a part of yourself, or maybe half, down at the bottom of a deep red hole.

“At least look up your cousin, Kris,” your mother tells you after she is done arguing, done telling you this is just another one of your foolish notions.

Kris, your only surviving blood relative in China, lives and works in Shenzhen, the Overnight City of progress on the edge of the South China Sea. You pass out on the plane and wake up in the future, work your way down the country, down to him, from hostel to homestay, Great Wall to industrial city, monument to noodle house to factory town. You accept your role as listener, observer, amateur photographer, taking hundreds of photographs of the imperial seal stamped into green-gray marble, the knotted limbs of bonsai trees, the Mah-jong games in the public squares, the man drawing Chinese characters on a stone slab in the park. You move through a sea of Chinese faces day after day until you blend enough to startle a Dutch family at a teahouse, who stare at you, slack-jawed, when real American English falls out of your mouth.

You are exhausted by the time you get to Shenzhen. Waiting at the train station, your backpack is too much weight to manage but you got yourself into this quest so you bend over like the Chinese women in the market, twisted down like boughs.

Your cousin appears, the same with flecks of gray in his hair, and you embrace awkwardly, almost like family. He puts you up in a chain hotel at the back of a foot massage parlor, close to his apartment building down the street.

“My place is too small for the both of us,” he says.

The chain hotel is filthy and depressing. The woman at the front desk doesn’t speak English and doesn’t smile. She must think you are your cousin’s mistress or a mute who only owns one pair of shoes.

Before China, you hadn’t seen your cousin in over a decade. Throughout your childhood, he would appear periodically at your aunt’s house in Miami, home from university on summer break. In dress-up clothes and Auntie’s heels, you would stumble into him upstairs in his old room, reading Mandarin language books and practicing his Chinese calligraphy on pads of white paper. Once, he asked you if you wanted to learn how to write your family name. He placed you on the chair by his desk and put the brown bamboo brush between your fingers, dripping with charcoal ink. Wrapping his fingers over yours, you drew a long vertical line together, followed by three descending horizontal lines, lifting the brush lightly with each stroke.

“Our name means ‘King,’” he told you as the ink dried. He ripped the paper off the pad and gave it to you, the first and only Chinese character you would learn to draw.

You shed your backpack on the stained hotel bedspread and meet your cousin on the noisy street corner for dinner. He takes you to a Hong Kong-style dinner with pink plastic cups and you ask about his trip ten years ago to his ancestral village with his father, your uncle by marriage, Uncle T. In a rickety rental car, they drove for four hours, changing one flat tire on a road meant for bicycles and cattle. After walking through sleepy farmland and communal gardens, father and son discovered the graveyard, lit firecrackers over the headstones marked Chin. The fizzle and smoke dance is a call to the dead, a forget-me-not for you and yours in the next life. A warding off for the family name, just in case.

But you do not belong to the plots of Chin. Your Chinese comes from your mother’s side, the Lyns, who lived poor in stone homes somewhere in the belly of the South. Grandmother Dorothy was of the Hakka people, a nomadic tribe that lived in round stone structures, fortified from the outside world. When she married Grandfather, she became Fook Tai, and left China on a boat to join him in Jamaica, to start a life better than poor. Because records are missing and your mother is not forthcoming, you don’t know the exact coordinates of your grandmother’s village, the home Fook Tai left behind.

Still, you tell your cousin, over steamed duck and rice, you are ready to visit the ancestors, any ancestors. You almost say you would like to go back to the village, as if you’ve been there, breathed the air, licked the soil, once before. You’re not sure where this habit comes from, this tendency to talk through ghosts. He tells you he’ll take you to the Chin one, if he can still remember the way. Then, after a pause, he says, “I guess it doesn’t matter, really, which one you go to.”


On the train to the village, you feel an itch crawling up your back, under your shirt, sweat soaking into your bra and though you really want to, you do not release the rubber strap attached to the slick ceiling of the train.

“Back then, there were no trains, no towers, none of this,” Kris says as you struggle to stay upright.

“How did you feel when you got there?” you ask him over the metallic hum of the tracks. Your cousin puts out one bony finger, leans over to answer a call. He speaks away from you in Mandarin, not that you could understand him anyway. He has been doing this a lot during your visit: secretive phone calls, vague answers about where he lives or what he does for work, brushing off your inquires into his friends or his job in the infamous Overnight City.

You turn to the window and face the impossible skyscrapers, buoyed by smog, like someone running their hand through a palette of chemical grays. Arms and legs hang down from the concrete balconies. Children gape at the passing train car, tangled up in clothesline. The grandmas chat in the narrow seats beside you, laughing over their padded shoes and stuffed metal carts. A man curls his head toward his chest, cell phone pressed over his heart while he dozes standing up. When the wheels grind to a stop and the doors fly open, the car fills with soggy air, the stink of coal. When you thought of China, you never imagined the dust or the smells. You pictured the red hole that might help you make sense of your body, your blood, your face.

As the train pulls into the stop for the village, you try on your Fook Tai look, the grandmother your mother says you resemble when you are stunned or asleep. If your cousin notices, he doesn’t react.

“Wo men zou ba,” he says over his shoulder as he moves through the crowd, his voice clipped at the end of one of the ten phrases you can recognize in Mandarin. You stick your head out into a sea of people bumping against one another like ghosts in the haze. This is what you came for, isn’t it? You push past the grandmas, the stiff body of the man sleeping, and follow.

You find out the name of your grandmother’s village in an email from your mother, Tai Shui Ten village, but by the time you read it, you have left Shenzhen, your cousin, and that part of China, your fifty-pound backpack a little lighter on your back. Still, like good luck charms, you keep the smog masks, the hand sanitizer, the four-pack of tissues given to you by your mother in a pouch.

“Don’t eat the street food,” she warned before you left. “Don’t touch the door handles.”

Your mother has never been to China, has only heard stories of her mother’s sad, nineteenth-century life, but she maintains a picture of the country created by television, newspapers, and Pearl S. Buck. The night before your departure, she gave you a small Canadian flag to attach to the front of your backpack.

“Don’t forget where you come from,” she said as she pressed the metal into your hands. A double statement maybe, or her way of telling you this trip is a mistake.

In the bright green cab, your cousin eyes the driver’s laminated photo ID, says “What’s up” in a tell-me-more tone. The driver responds in grunts and haws, his fingers light on the steering wheel as the cab careens around the winding road. The road has the jet black seal of new asphalt. You tune out the conversation as it shifts into language beyond the basics and count ten construction cranes in the valley, their white latched arms all jutting out in the same direction. Forward, you think as the cab passes half-completed housing developments, roadside restaurants with empty tables and chairs. The cab driver is talking faster, one hand slicing the air, gesturing out the window. You race through the flat, gray landscape at incredible speed.

“He says this is all new,” your cousin translates. “He says, now it’s all part of modern China.”

Your cousin and the driver keep talking. Your mind wanders to a recent email from your mother. How’s Kris? your mother wrote, Are you getting along? Emailing your mother began as an excuse to use the free hostel computers, a way to stave off the loneliness of eating solo on the side of a city road. You tell yourself you are creating a digital travel journal for future you, to confirm later that you did in fact see the Forbidden City and ten hundred statues of Mao. But really, you are writing the emails to remind your mother that your trip has an essential purpose, beyond a backpacker’s holiday. Every time you report the details of your meal with Chinese locals at a noodle house, you are discovering some hidden part of your identity, the parts she is too busy or ashamed to examine. Every monument you stare at, built by Chinese hands, brings you closer to a fuller sense of self.

Out the window of the cab, you glimpse a slice of lush green, thatched houses by a row of fields, like a grimy version of a Chinese silkscreen. There, you think as the cab rolls on, toward the stone archway, the town square. When you get out, you thank the driver quickly with your foreign accent. Your cousin is on his phone again, back to you in the crowded street. You lean over and hand the driver the red tattered bills, fifty yuan for the fare.

At the center of the archway a stone plaque says NIHU in Chinese characters, and behind it, a printed sign says HUANG’S PLASTIC AND METALS. Your cousin marvels at the hair salons, pool halls, herbal medicine shops.

“The driver wasn’t joking about progress,” he says and you remember he is seeing this all for the first time too. All that farmland, all the communal gardens of ten years ago buried under factories and towers for the workers, the nonlocals. You see the beginnings of a skyline in the town, a megacity in the making. This is what your ancestral village probably looks like, too.


The town square is empty save for garbage and stray dogs licking their paws by a flowering tree. Women read under hair dryers, and an electronics store shows a movie on a stack of televisions that features Chow Yun-Fat, a famous Chinese movie star and Hakka, like half of you. On screen, he is the villain with the crew cut, holding a knife to a man’s throat. While your cousin looks for someone on the street who can identify as local or talk about the past, you end up in front of a narrow stone home, Tulou style, overrun by choking vines and flat leaf weeds. You run your hand over a hunk of glass, one in a row sticking out of the low fence, held in place by cement. Meant to keep out birds, but you can’t help thinking the glass is meant to cut you or anyone else who tries to set foot in this abandoned place. Your cousin is talking loudly with a slim man in a navy uniform standing by the road and then he calls you over, says “Hey, he knows about Jamaica.” The security guard has a creased, brown face and sun-spotted hands. His family emigrated to Jamaica in the 1890s and never returned.

“No one visits,” the man says, stretching his tanned fingers toward the empty street.

“Well, except for us.” Your cousin translates your words and the man smirks into the dust.

“Yes,” the old guard says, “only you have returned.”

Whenever you waxed poetic about visiting the ancestral village, your mother would casually mention your friend Paul.

“Remember his enlightening experience?” she would demand, leaning on the story like a tale of folly and woe. The arduous journey of Paul, your half-white, half-Chinese friend, mixed up and a little fucked up like you, who tried to go. Took the train ride, the car ride, and walked thirty minutes by foot until he found the sacred place his aunt-who-knows-all mentioned once before her death. Knocked on the door and readied his camera for photos with the son of the father of his father, still living in the village and maintaining the same livelihood on the land. The man finally undid the latch, opened the door. Paul, flexing his best Mandarin, said, “Hello. I have your name. We’re family.” The man looked him over, this light-skinned, mixed-up kid at his doorstep, and let out a laugh right in the kid’s face.

Thought I was just another laowai, Paul tells you and your mother later. A foreigner, pulling one of those harmless jokes foreigners can’t help but play.

The security guard has a firm grip when you shake his hand goodbye. You hold it briefly like a hot stone before falling behind your cousin’s salt-and-pepper hair. The sun slides past the lip of the archway and then you are both somehow in the middle of the town night market, tables and tables of cheap children’s toys and clothing, fresh fruit, and bugs barbequed on sticks. Your cousin tries talking to one of the older women selling taro root under a blue tarp and you catch the eye of the snake oil man, a bulbous figure standing behind vials of brown liquid and a glistening, preserved snake. He cups the withered snake head and tries to sell in four tones, chatter you can lull to now like background music. Relieved, you rely on your standard nod and faint smile, your if-I-shut-my-mouth-I am-one-of-you move. That’s right, Fook Tai, you think as the putrid brown oil is thrust into your face, I never knew you. The woman talking to your cousin by the blue tarp suddenly turns aggressive, his questions getting in the way of her sales, and you untangle yourself from the dead snake head as she flicks her bird-like hands toward your cousin’s chest, the international sign for “get out of my space.”

Face flushed, your cousin sets his mouth tight against his collar, pulls out his phone. You feel an ache growing in the pit of your stomach and remember you both haven’t eaten in hours. You pay the vendor ten yuan for two paper bags of peanuts, hold one out to your cousin.

“Now what,” you say to him. He bites down, cracks open a shell.

“Not sure,” he says. “The woman mentioned something down the road, something we might want to see.”

At the end of a long trail of peanut shells, you and your cousin stand in front of the stunning structure. MISSION HILL, the blazing ten-foot sign reads beside columns of trees, and then in smaller script, China’s Largest Luxury Golf Course. Back in the night market, under a blue tarp, the taro root seller is laughing her head off. One of those harmless jokes foreigners can’t help but play.

“Damn,” your cousin manages as he chucks the empty paper bag into a bush. Picturing all those Chin plots, all those firecrackers, bulldozed for a killer par 3. You stand close to your cousin, watch him watch the luxury sign flash bright in the night air. You know there is no section in the unofficial guide to the ancestral village that explains this kind of degradation. On the walk back to town, your cousin strides with his head bent, eager to get out of this place, back to the familiar rules of the Overnight City. Treading behind him under the trees, you recall the cab ride, that brief, sweet slice of pure green out the window. There, you think, finally remembering.

You find it in the pitch dark, by its marshy smell. The fields appear thick and ripe even in the dim glare of the only light on the road, the fire from an iron stove. Behind the stove, shanties made of tin and wood line the dirt path, maybe five, maybe ten. As a sign of welcome, a man rips by you on a motorbike, trailing exhaust over the pathway. Your cousin moves toward an open doorway, a man watching television and eating from a bowl. You take out your camera and set the zoom on the fields, the shanties, the path, but the photographs will come out blurry and dark, not worth showing your mother later. The kids have started to gather around your and your cousin, in your travel clothes, your running shoes, the camera dangling in your hand. You bend down to show one child the photographs you have taken: the land, the shanties, the kids in track pants and plastic slippers. A woman appears by a doorway and shoos the children inside. She slides off a pair of rubber boots and deposits them by the threshold, gently shuts the door behind her. Your mother’s words vibrate in your ears. Fook Tai left by boat. She never wanted to go back. Why should you?

You find your cousin in front of a shanty, in conversation with a man with no shirt and no shoes.

“They’re not local either,” your cousin says, “they rent the land from the Hakka.”

“And where are the Hakka?” you ask the man, though you already know his answer. The man’s face is impassive and unforgettable.

“They live in big houses,” the man says, his words flowing through your cousin to you. “Somewhere far away from here.” {read}

Steph Wong Ken

Steph Wong Ken won the 2016 Cosmonaut’s Avenue Fiction Prize. She was born in Alberta and grew up in Florida. She has an MFA from Portland State University.