Guest Post by Heather Diamond
Excerpt from Ch. 10: Heritage Tour
When Fred and I arrive at Number 10 a week ahead of Amah and Abah’s fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration, I feel better prepared than last time. I think I understand my boundaries, and I’ve made it very clear to Fred that group expeditions are way too much togetherness for an introvert like me. My plan is to balance time alone in the city against the family hubbub of the banquet. As soon as we’ve said our hellos, Amah informs us we will all leave on a trip together in two days. Fred insists we won’t go, but she dismisses his protests with a wave and some rapid Cantonese. He looks at me in defeat. “This tour will take us to Chao’an,” he explains. “They’re all looking forward to seeing where Dad was born.” My Mandarin textbook taught that Chinese everywhere identify with the part of China from which their ancestors hail. Abah’s regional heritage is Teochew (Chiuchow in Cantonese, Chaozhou in Mandarin), and Teochew people everywhere trace their origins, dialect, and cuisine to a region of China’s eastern Guangdong Province known as Chaoshan. Hong Kong newspapers advertise heritage tours, and the Chaoshan itinerary has the added attraction of being billed as a gourmet eating tour. It’s only three days. How can we refuse? They’ve already purchased tickets.
I shoot eye daggers in Fred’s direction and force a resigned smile at Amah. I imagine what my girlfriends in Texas, the ones who vacillate between calling me crazy and heroic, would say. There’s so much that doesn’t translate. My compliance in a Chinese setting would look like submission in their American feminist frame. In that context, saying no is a milestone of self-care and self-esteem. My American friends would have a hard time understanding that acting independently here would make me appear rude and, well, American. Knowing this lesson from trying not to act haole in Asian-and Polynesian-inflected Hawaii doesn’t make agreeing to go any easier.
It’s typhoon season and walking outdoors on the day of our departure is like entering a sauna. As we trudge down the hill to the Cheung Chau ferry, Susanna holds Amah’s elbow, while Josie helps to tug our suitcases over the stairs and walkways. Fred tells me the Cantonese term for this weather is chi lap lap — hot and sticky. My skin feels like a flytrap. We click open umbrellas as the cloying mist becomes a rain shower then shake them out to dry when we arrive at the ferry. When Bernie meets us with the rest of the family on the Hong Kong side, he mentions that there’s a category one storm warning in place.
We board the waiting tour bus, sorting ourselves into generational zones with the old people up front, our generation in the middle, and the grandchildren in the back. With twenty-four people, we have the entire bus to ourselves. Bernie and Amy, Susanna and Gulam, and Mimi sit near us. Fred tells me that the trip is partly to cheer up Mimi, who is still reeling from the loss of her husband. She sits across the aisle from us with the elder of her two daughters. Third Uncle stayed home, so Third Aunt has brought along a woman friend, the only non-Lau in the group, and I wonder what she thinks of this rowdy bunch. They sit near the front with Fred’s parents, Second Aunt and Uncle, the tall uncle who can’t stop talking, the two paternal aunts with matching haircuts, and the soft-spoken uncle who is a high school teacher.
I’m excited to be going to China and annoyed that I’m on a bus with the Lau clan once again. This expedition is not what I had in mind for my second trip to Hong Kong, but, as the only foreigner in the family, I do my best to fit in and not prove the stereotypes. My insights into cultural dynamics don’t make me immune from sulking in private, but they do motivate me to minimize my moments of withdrawal and aversion in public. There is little private space or time for sulking anyway; besides, everyone is in infectious high spirits.
As we roll past the border and into Shenzhen, the rain grows steadily heavier, becoming what Texans call a gully washer. The bus windows fog from the body heat inside and the rain outside, so I have to wipe a porthole to see out. The six younger cousins reach and climb over each other’s seats, talking, laughing, and sharing headphones. Amah passes snacks from the front of the bus to the back — she seems to have packed an endless supply. Everyone in the middle of the bus speaks Cantonese and shrieks with laughter several decibels above what I consider bearable, and the sound ricochets off the closed windows. Having chosen a window seat on purpose, I pretend to sleep so I can cover at least one ear with no one seeing, but the shrill, nasal quality of Fred’s sisters’ excited voices, pitched to carry several rows away, makes me flinch. I elbow Fred. “I thought Asian women were supposed to be demure,” I whisper.
“Haha. Not Chinese women!”
“I get that they’re having a good time, but do they have to yell?” “They’re just having fun. They’re happy everyone gets to be
together.” I make a mental note to bring headphones if I ever do this again. I now know better than to think there won’t be future group excursions.
About Heather Diamond
I’m a late but perpetual student. When local bookstores were sunk by the first wave of discounters, I went back to school. I got an M.A. in English and folklore studies at 40. While teaching multicultural literature, I got excited about Asia, which led me to the East-West Center and the University of Hawai’i. I graduated with a Ph.D. in American Studies at 51. Instead of returning to Texas as I’d planned, I stayed in Hawai’i and taught university courses in Hawaii’s multiculturalism and American folklore. Then I became the curator at ‘Iolani Palace, a Native Hawaiian history museum, where I worked with historians and traditional craftsman representing the story of Hawaii’s last monarchs.
My cultural education is ongoing. Twenty-two years ago, I fell in love while studying in Hawai’i, and my life underwent another sea change. Within five years, I married into a big Hong Kong Chinese family. Navigating my intercultural relationship, learning about Chinese culture, and reconsidering American values are themes in my memoir, Rabbit in the Moon (Camphor Press, 2021). I live in Hong Kong with my husband and two cats.