The first weekend I arrived in Lanzhou back in September, I found myself seated at a lavish dinner downtown with 10 other people. The guests consisted of the following:
- A particularly chatty 4 year old, Luna
- A babbling, teething 8 month old, Ali
- A couple around 30 years of age
- Two couples in their late 50s
- Another couple in their early 80s
I had never met any of them before in my life, but I knew one of the woman was my half aunt, and I was somehow related to everyone else; they were my long lost relatives living in mainland China! I had heard whispers about their existence for many years, but never imagined we would meet in person.
Here is our story:
My great-grandfather was an educated man from Qingyang, Gansu. I still don’t know much about him, other than the fact that he was a school principal in the mid 20th century. He famously shooed the red guards away from his school and insisted his students stay in class when the guards came to poach his flock for their activities.
He had the misfortune of being well-off and well-educated at a time when both traits were highly undesirable. Indeed, he would eventually suffer the same fate that many respectable and well educated men and women would face in that era of modern Chinese history
His son studied at Lanzhou University (where two PCVs are posted today!), married, and had two daughters. My grandfather was an officer with the KMT party, so when the civil war swept through China, he left his wife and kids behind and served in various locations through China. When the KMT was defeated in 1949, he sought refuge in Taiwan and never returned to China.
He eventually remarried and had three more children- my mother and her siblings. In the early 1980s, after America had re-established formal diplomatic ties with China, my grandfather sent a letter from Taiwan to Gansu, China (through a relative in America) blindly hoping to reconnect with his old family.
there was a one in a million chance that his letter- written to an address he lived at long before the Chinese Civil War began- would be mailed, opened, and read by the right people at the right time… but fate can be full of surprises… he was ultimately able to reconnect with his daughters in Gansu! after 30+ years without contact, they communicated through mail from this point on- travel between China and Taiwan was still completely banned for another decade at least.
My parents moved to America in the mid 1980s, so they were far removed from the eventual reunions that would take place between the Lanzhou and Taipei sides of the family in the 1990s and 2000s.
Fast forward to 2016. While war will tear apart a family for generations, times of peace allow us to reconnect and rebuilt. Yet another improbable situation occurred: I joined Peace Corps China… got posted in Gansu province, specifically in Lanzhou City, at a school that is biking distance to three of my relatives’ apartments!!!
When it became imminent that i would be placed in Lanzhou for two years of service, my uncle in Taiwan gave me the phone number of a cousin in Lanzhou, and we arranged a big family dinner for my arrival. My weekends are busy these days, with lots of home cooked meals and sharing old stories and photographs over tea.
Due to the 20+ year gap between my grandfather’s first and second marriages, my aunt is about the same age as my grandmother. (my cousin is 60, the same age as my parents, and his daughter is the same age as me, etc)
My uncle is retired now, but used to work as the Director of the Gansu Board of Education. He had opportunities to meet all sorts of fancy people and travel the world as China normalized relations with the West, including the famously classy Mr. Bill Clinton.
My uncle is also an incredible artist and calligrapher, and his work has been sought after by many dignitaries around China. The first time I went to his apartment, he gifted me a painting of a horse! He is also a master poet, and can conjure up heartfelt short poems in mere minutes (he’s written some lines for me, this will be shared in another post!)
Two generations down the family tree, there is Fay and her husband Ma Qiang. Fay is my half-aunt’s granddaughter, and technically my first-cousin-once-removed, though she is the same age as me.
Ma Qiang is Hui (Chinese Muslim, which is common in Gansu) and Fay converted to Islam prior to their marriage. In my extended family we now have Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims (I’m like a living embodiment of the soon-to-be defunded United Nations! #blessed)
I love hanging out with Fay, Ma Qiang, and his brother on the weekends; the four of us will go out for dinner, then get a massage or hit up KTV to sing. Ma Qiang is thrilled to have an American with him, and requested me to sing three songs: Rihanna’s “Stay”, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”, and Shakira’s “Waka Waka” (um, yes, yes, and YES!!!) We have the same taste in music!
We don’t get to stay out as late as we would like because… Fay and Ma Qian also have a one year old baby boy, Ali! He is cute as a button and as his great-uncle (I’m two generations above him) I cannot get enough of his smile and laughter.He also sleeps and cries a lot, but all the crying stops when he sits with his great-grandfather, because they will watch TV together.
There’s also the impossibly energetic four year old Luna, who is Ali’s older cousin. She talks A LOT. Sometimes with us adults, sometimes with imaginary friends, sometimes with Dou Dou, her toy penguin.
Both of her parents are college professors (sometimes teaching in different provinces, and even countries, no less!) so she lives one of those awesome but weirdly complicated childhoods where she splits each year between Lanzhou, coastal Xiamen, Dalian, and (currently) America. I can’t wait for the summer when she comes back to Lanzhou.
A typical weekend afternoon at my aunt’s home
So this is my extended family in a nutshell! A fateful letter sent nearly 40 years ago gave us a chance to reconnect. Throughout the decades a handful of photos have been mailed between Lanzhou and Taipei (of weddings, births, reunions, graduations, etc) and a few trips were made between the two cities, but I am the first Cheng to meet this side of the family. we have a lot of catching up to do!