Journey to the Motherland

A father-and-son quest to find Chinese roots a millennium deep

It was a little joke among my son and his friends. They called him “The Asian,” even though you could hardly tell it by looking at him or even knowing him.

He’s mediocre at math, on the tall side and rarely speaks Chinese in America outside of our Highlands home. He prefers the sweat, speed and spontaneity of lacrosse and playing drums over the quiet, cerebral agility of chess and violin. His eyes reflect a golden hue in sunlight — not dark eyes, like his mom’s.

Ben is a 16-year-old junior at duPont Manual High School, but he first contemplated his heritage — half American, half Chinese — while at Noe Middle School, in an essay describing himself as “Half and Half.” I started thinking about his hybrid genetics years before that, as I witnessed his Asian half fading out, and along with it centuries of soon-to-be-forgotten Chinese heritage.

It was at his Chinese great grandfather’s funeral on a coastal mountainside facing the Taiwan straights that I first realized Ben would never — could never — feel the connection to China that his great grandfather had. Sadly, that link to the Motherland ended abruptly with him, after more than a millennium in the same mountainous and magical province in China.

He was almost 2 years old and likely alert to the spectacle of a Chinese funeral, the firecrackers at the gravesite, the Buddhist monks’ sonorous chanting, the sweet drifting incense, the sweat on my chest from holding him that July day as this ancestor he never really knew was lowered into the soil. Maybe Ben heard the surreal hum of unfamiliar insects or smelled the salty sea breeze.

The Grandpa Wu I had known had spent his days quietly reading Buddhist philosophy, literature and history, chatting with old war buddies or grinning bemused at his tottering foreign great grandson. But my wife tells me he spent decades simmering, brooding sorrowfully that Communists had forced him from the Motherland in 1949. Taiwan, in his mind, was his prison, and he was bitter — never allowed to return to the land of his ancestors because of a conflict between the aging and stubborn leaders of two political systems.

As I held Ben at the funeral, I realized he might never understand the anguished longing of his great grandfather to return home, or how often Grandpa Wu imagined what could have been, had the Nationalists won the war — how he would have stayed in Jiangxi Province close to the Yangtze River, where poets and scholars have recorded the beauty of the nearby Lushan Mountain going back to the Tang Dynasty. He had written poetry about the beautiful mountains near the Wu Village, his hometown.

Ben would be American and would not know the rhythm of the Chinese day, the back-bending rigors of the rice field, the reward of eating that rice knowing your own sweat helped its irrigation, the stories of ghosts, the transcendental throb of ancient Chinese literature.

Red-bound genealogy books I first saw after Grandpa Wu passed away in 1995 reveal that the Wu family had been in Jiangxi Province in southern China since about 900 A.D. (Jiangxi is pronounced Jyang-she.) I imagined all the people who had kept those careful records, using brush and ink on scrolls. It hit me: After his son, there would be no more male heir’s name in Grandpa Wu’s line.

I imagined two other books, one the history of a changing world beyond the Middle Kingdom and the second of Wu family history near northern Jiangxi Province. Both books begin in 900 A.D.

In the first, the pages turn and Crusaders bearing crosses and swords are battling Turks in Jerusalem; the wind of time blows, the pages turn three centuries before Christopher Columbus sets sail, then da Vinci feels piqued by the upstart Michelangelo, and Pocahontas sees white men. A century of pages later William Shakespeare first writes the name Hamlet; two more centuries pass: William Clark waits by the Ohio River at Louisville for his friend Meriwether Lewis to arrive.

The winds of time blow, pages turn: Daniel Boone blazes the Cumberland Pass, then another century: George Mallory disappears trying to summit Everest, a young Neil Armstrong looks up in wonder at the moon from his backyard in Ohio, and Anne Frank’s father gives her a diary as Adolf Hitler greedily studies maps of Europe. Pages turn and time marches forward, always changing.

But in the second book, time stands still page after page, century after century. The Wu family lives by the seasons in the Wu Village, cycle after cycle of births as the pages turn, filled with tradition-honoring weddings, burials, skirmishes, New Year celebrations with fireworks and mythical dragon dances, plantings and harvests, children’s songs and old men’s stories. In book two, the rhythm of man behind bull plods steadily, and life goes on as always, changing only with occasional wars or famines, but maintaining continuity while the world beyond the shadows of Lushan Mountain morphs and re-invents itself.

More than 1,000 years of one Chinese family in one little corner of the blue planet, giving life to the next, passing unchanging traditions as steady as ocean waves — all until now. That Chinese line is suddenly broken with Ben, and my wife Christine’s name is the final Chinese of her grandfather’s line: A daughter of Wu has married outside the culture, and her son is American.

Taiwan had been Grandpa Wu’s island exile. He could not go back, I reasoned, but that didn’t mean his heritage had to vanish. Ben could complete the circle, return to the Motherland in his great grandfather’s stead.

I made a vow to take Ben to that part of China, if for no other reason than at least to know it. As the Chinese say, I would return the fallen leaf to its roots.

“It did make me feel lucky to be born in America,’’ Ben would later say.

I wonder what Grandpa Wu would think of that.


Journey inland

In early June we arrived in dazzling Shanghai, whose pulsing and burgeoning population of more than 21 million equals that of Australia. To make the 400-mile journey inland, we decided to take the overnight sleeper train. Once settled, Ben and I headed into the common car, where people also preparing for the overnight trip were jammed into what were essentially school bus seats facing each other.

As we entered, Ben got his first taste of what it would be like in the coming days, when people would stop conversations to stare. In the train car, as with virtually everywhere we traveled in China, he got the same look you might give a kangaroo who sat down beside you in a theater and started eating popcorn with its paws.

Men who likely had never been to a dentist and women with sun-roasted faces smiled toothy grins in astonishment, gathered their children and pointed unabashedly, then invited us to join them. A little boy with split pants — it makes it easier for them to relieve themselves anywhere — did a double take and backed up into his grandfather’s arms, as if the kangaroo had just said hello.

As our train grumbled out of some rural station, I used my awkwardly accented Chinese to tell our fellow travelers that my wife’s ancestors were, like them, from Jiangxi Province, which drew more grins. By the time I told them we were taking our American-born son back to see the villages of his Chinese ancestors, a small crowd of onlookers was leaning in. I could read their expressions: Wow, the old kangaroo can talk, too! How amusing!

When window light and grinding breaks woke me at dawn, I imagined we were in ancient China, the mystical land stuck in time that Pearl Buck saw in the late 1920s, when she began writing “The Good Earth” after living in nearby rural Anhui Province. I looked out the window, expecting a thin blue-clad man in a conical bamboo hat trudging behind a water buffalo past a mud house, where a squatting person would be pounding a stone on wet clothes by an idyllic, meandering river bank; I envisioned a fisherman would be singing and sending his long-necked birds to dive and return flopping black fish to his bamboo basket.

Instead, I saw a fashionable 20-something Chinese woman in short denim pants and white-strapped, high-heeled shoes. Her accessories included a sparkling silver purse; she was wearing iPod earphones while she stopped to send a text message. I can only describe her hair as giving the appearance and color of a male lion using mousse for dramatic effect.

I gawked out the side of the gauzy window curtain for a second, then laughed at myself and walked to the dining car. I opened my new diary, purchased at Carmichaels Bookstore in the Highlands. “I’m an idiot,’’ I wrote. Then I closed the diary, looked out the window and chuckled at myself some more.

What had I expected to see, Confucius sitting there with his wispy mustache and robe, perched at a table with young acolytes at his sandaled feet while he wrote elegant calligraphy on a scroll?

An hour later, we would arrive at Louisville’s sister city, Jiujiang City, in Jiangxi Province.


A lotus flower rises from the mud

We stood on a hardened dirt hill across from a modest rice field. Behind us was a small wooden structure that I had first thought, as we approached a rutted dirt road, was a tool barn. It was the open-air home of our hosts, a family of four eking out a living on a few acres, eating the eggs of their chickens and the vegetables and rice they cultivated with a community-owned water buffalo with no name.

Ben signaled for me to look down toward the dirt, where he nudged a rooster’s head with his leather Nikes. I understood Ben’s implication: They had killed one of their two chickens for us.

We had journeyed to Wuning Village in western Jiangxi to return the belongings of an inquisitive yet demure 17-year-old village girl who exemplifies the Chinese idiom: “A lotus blossom emerges from the mud.” Her name is Dongmei, and over two days she peppered Ben with questions to improve her English: “What’s the difference between a hill and mountain?’’ she’d asked.

In Wuning, Dongmei — which translates as “eastern plum blossom” — shares her bedroom with two rice bins and farm tools under a corrugated tin ceiling with holes that allow a little sky light and rain.

As we stood in front of her home, she said she would show us a fruit tree on the hill, but urged caution: “There are snakes.” She showed us a building where the pig would live, if they had one, then pointed timidly toward the “toilet,’’ a tub submerged in the ground near the pig barn, covered with two removable planks.

As we stood by one of her family’s fields near the dirt road that led back to the village 30 minutes of walking away, she said her days in summer included helping her father in the fields in the early morning, helping her mom in the house — which included a wood-burning stove under a tin awning up the hill from the pig shed — then helping her little brother with English on the family’s table, a small, round affair surrounded by a few low stools, the only chairs.

China’s up-by-the-bootstraps program is called New Hope. Impoverished yet academically exceptional village children are sponsored by urban families and offered a chance to study in the best high school in the city. After moving to Jiujiang, Dongmei emerged as the top student in the number one high school of a city of 700,000 people, about the size of Louisville.

We last saw her at the airport, where she told us she would soon receive the results of her college entrance exam. Dongmei is a listener, often tilting her head to the side and sitting in silence, full attention on whomever is speaking. It gives her a placid, erudite countenance.

“I want to be a doctor,’’ she told us as we gave our goodbyes.

The second Great Wall

I thought giving Ben the chance tutor English-to-Chinese village children would be just the ticket to helping him connect with his Chinese soul, if such a hidden dragon existed. But I did not anticipate China’s hysteria over swine flu, which had pretty much fallen off the front page in the U.S. by the time we were packing our suitcases. An e-mail arrived from Chinese friends saying the government was edgy about swine flu and we might have trouble getting Ben into a school.

As much as I have read about China, I still couldn’t take that warning seriously. I should have known better.

Ever since China’s first emperor ordered the creation of the Great Wall 2,000 years ago to keep out foreigners from the north, Chinese leaders have relied on government-incited xenophobia to keep citizens’ minds off homegrown miseries. They even claimed foreigners incited the student protests in 1989, which led to the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

No Chinese ruler was more successful at rallying proud Chinese people against westerners than Mao Zedong. Twenty years after Mao’s Communist Party took control of China, it seemed things couldn’t get any worse — mostly because of failed draconian economic policies. In response, he blamed foreigners.

“The Great Helmsman” encouraged gangs of ultra-nationalistic youth — known as Little Red Guards — to destroy all things foreign, a kind of purging that sent “anti-revolutionaries” (like people who happened to own a Beethoven album) to work on pig farms, or worse.

Mao tapped into a vein of pent-up distrust and bitterness that went back at least 10 generations to the mid-1800s, when British traders encouraged opium addiction in China. When Qing Dynasty rulers fought back, the British Navy loaded their cannons. The predictable and humiliating result for China was that Britain and other foreign powers gained full control of many Chinese ports, opening the door for western businesses to have their way.

The Chinese sulked at their second-class status, and could only walk by signs at fancy hotels in Shanghai that read: “No Chinese or dogs allowed.” Even when I was a student in China in 1985, most “western hotels’’ were off limits to Chinese. For a century, until Mao’s Communists took control, the Chinese worked as the suffering labor class for Europeans, using bamboo shoulder poles to haul huge stones up mountains to construct summer villas.

The Chinese have two ways of describing people born outside China: one means barbarian, the other foreign devil.

So when swine flu came in the spring of 2009, China was once again on red alert, much after the rest of the world returned to normal life. Chinese college students returning from America, along with foreign devils like Ben and me, were heading into China by the planeload, and Beijing was quickly erecting a second, figurative Great Wall.

In Shanghai, we were told to stay in our plane seats after touchdown while three people, dressed in white safety suits from head to toe, entered the cabin area carrying what looked like radar guns, which they aimed at people’s foreheads. In the coming days, TV news headlines, images and commentary seemed hysterical about a case of H1N1 confirmed in a city near where we were staying; it was a 16-year-old Chinese girl just returned from America. And when health officials caught wind of our presence, they made persistent calls attempting to reach us with the message: “Tell the foreigners not to go anywhere where there a lot of people.” Where can you go in China without a lot of people?

After that, our friends in China dourly warned: “They will never allow you into a school. Don’t even ask.”

But we had no symptoms and hadn’t been near anyone who did. I still intended to go into a school, so I didn’t tell anyone, not even my wife, of my plan because I knew she would say no; she has always been sensible to the storms I create.


Into the classroom

Northeastern Jiangxi Province is the China I imagined. Passing through, we could see men toiling in knee-deep muck as stoic, mud-splattered bulls powered giant rakes into the black soil below.

We were in one of those rural villages, listening to a speech about a bridge erected in the 12th century — about the time Marco Polo arrived in the capital — when the opening I had been waiting for emerged.

“Hear that? It’s children,” I said to Ben, edging him away from our small group. “It’s a school. Let’s go. Don’t look around, just walk beside me like you’re supposed to be here.”

In seconds we were walking through a large open gate and onto an outdoor basketball court, where the sound of dribbling stopped. In China, classrooms don’t have doors, just openings for doors and bars for windows. I saw a class in session and made straight for it, avoiding eye contact with anyone, despite the stares.

“What are we doing?” Ben asked.

“You’re going to teach. Get ready.”


“Now. Here we are.”

By this time we had a following, like a pied piper, and when I walked into the classroom, the teacher stood up, looking at me quizzically. Fortunately, I had had enough time to plan my little Chinese introduction and got it right.

“My wife is the descendant of people from this province, but I am American and we want our son to get to know Jiangxi better,’’ I said in Chinese.

She smiled and her face said, How strange, a talking kangaroo. Ben was trapped outside, engulfed by a small group of students two-thirds his size.

“Could my son please help teach your students some English? He speaks Chinese.”

She smiled, and with a curt acceptance, stepped aside, chirped a little command I didn’t understand, and then, as if by military discipline, 50 students rushed to their seats and sat down, looking forward with anticipation. Ben was still snookered at the doorway, trying to push his way into the classroom when I found myself standing alone at the chalkboard.

I spoke in Chinese. “Ni Hao!”

Oohs and aahs. But they weren’t impressed with my Chinese; they were looking at Ben.

“Ni Hao,” he said, and they cheered as if he’d just jumped on a broom and flown a few laps over their heads.

Ben leaned in: “What am I supposed to do?”

“Teach,” I said, as the teacher quieted the students.

“OK,’’ he said. “Introduce me. Give me a second to figure this out.”

“We are from America,” I said in Chinese. “This is my son, Ben. You can ask him anything you want.”

By this time, the anticipation was rising. Both doorways and the windows were jammed with observers, with more on the way.

I stepped aside. Ben was holding a piece of chalk and gave me a nod. Looking back at those hurriedly snapped photos, I find myself staring into the eyes of a girl who has her hand over her heart, transfixed, as if she isn’t even breathing. I wonder now did it impact her as much as it appears. Had she ever seen a foreigner before?

When class ended, the children followed us back toward the gate, imitating how Ben had picked up one boy like a bag of rice and stood him on a chair to point out body parts — knee, elbow, chin.

Afterward, Christine said she’d followed the shouting, laughing and clapping to where she saw a dozen or more children staring in through window bars. She used a Chinese phrase: “If you see a fox’s tail, there’s probably a fox.” She smiled. Good. She wasn’t mad, and Ben had taught in a Chinese school.

It was the first of three schools in China and two in Taiwan, and the experiences were nearly always the same. In one school, Ben and I played basketball against eight middle school kids, then the boys asked him to sign their basketball; at another, 16-year-old girls encircled him as he tried to leave. Did he have a girlfriend? they asked.


The good earth

As the days passed, it became more evident that Ben would not feel China anymore than I could sense my English heritage if I visited Devonshire, where my mom’s family originated in the 12th century near Cornwall on Britain’s southern coast, across from Normandy beach.

But I did begin to understand Grandpa Wu’s mystical connection to the land. I’ve heard people say in movies and read in books, typically in defiance of a creeping outside force, that their “blood, sweat and tears” are in their land, and they’re not going to move. Standing atop a terraced rice farm hundreds of feet above a white building village, Ben said he first began to appreciate generations of Chinese ingenuity and perseverance.

“This is a lot of work,’’ he said as we looked out at tier upon tier of glistening rice paddies. “I wonder how long it took.”

My guess: centuries. I’ve seen terrace farms in photographs and paintings, but I never felt overwhelmed by the immensity of the labor until we stood there; it was similar to the feeling I had when I first saw the Great Wall.

Curving, irregularly partitioned rice paddies dropped down from the mountainside in tiers, and in many of them, men and women were bent at the waist, pushing vermillion-colored tendrils of rice shoots through elbow-deep water. Neon dragonflies skipped over the smooth surface of the clear water, and next to the rice shoots, we saw footprints.

Could Ben’s ancestors have been in Jiangxi as long as these terraces, before war forced Grandpa Wu out? When we arrived in Taiwan later, I asked Christine’s father, now 75, more questions about Ben’s ancestors. He took us to his parents’ gravesite on the northern coast of Taiwan. We burned fake currency, including $500 U.S. bills with Ben Franklin’s face, to give Grandpa a little spending money in the “Western Paradise.” We lit incense.

The next morning, he pulled out the red-bound genealogy books, and in a few minutes, he and Christine found the page her grandfather had highlighted with red pen.

“Here it is,” Christine said, studying the vertical Chinese characters. She told me the book said a Chinese official from Sichuan Province moved to Jiangxi, bringing his son, who was born in 874 A.D. The young man decided to stay and had three sons, and a millennium of Wu inhabitants in Jiangxi began.

Assuming the boy arrived as a teenager, in about 900 A.D., and assuming about five generations per century, it means Ben’s great grandfather’s family had lived in the same place between 50 and 60 generations.

During all of those 11 centuries, and even before that, the mighty Yangtze River flooded repeatedly, giving the soil its rich, loamy scent, and making it the rice basket of China. The Chinese say they must savor and respect every grain of rice because each was nourished by a peasant’s sweat.

Spilled blood

We have photos of Grandpa Wu smiling and holding a 10-month-old Ben. That was the kind old grandpa, not the one who rode a horse and wore a sword into battle.

Though Grandpa Wu was a teacher, scholar and warrior, never farming the land, I felt his passion for China in the times I talked with him. China was already in turmoil when he was born in 1908, just three years before Sun Yat-sen declared the first republic and the last emperor escaped to Japan.

As Grandpa reached his teen years, the battle for control of China was on. Warlords moved toward the capital, foreign governments began expanding their territories, Japanese aggressors moved in from the north, and in response, many young men made their way to the Huang Pu Military Academy, emboldened by patriotic passions.

One of those young men racing to support Chiang Kai-shek was Grandpa Wu. At age 22, in 1930, he first tasted battle, joining Chiang Kai-shek’s forces against warlords. At 23, he fought Japanese in Shanghai; at 24, he fought Communists in Jiangxi. But despite the hubris of war, something else would soon be on his mind. His first and only son, my wife’s father, was born in the next year, 1934. Grandma Wu told me before she died in January that when Grandpa Wu was away fighting, the Japanese began bombing their village.

“I put my son on my back and climbed up the mountains,’’ she said in a thick Jiangxi accent that only my wife could translate. “We hid in caves. We ate other villagers’ leftovers.’’ That little boy, my wife’s father Wu Wan-lan, would eventually rise to become a member of the president’s cabinet of the Republic of China.

More than a thousand miles away to the north, my wife’s mother was also on the run. Her father was a school principal. He was also a Nationalist assemblyman, and when the Japanese came, burning and raping, he took her hand and led children to the next village, where he would find a building and continue teaching until they again heard reports of approaching Japanese.

In full retreat in 1949, Christine’s mom, then about 14 years old, was on top of a train headed south with thousands of other fleeing Nationalist families. Christine’s father, about 15, was with his mom on a train headed for the coast and the retreat to Taiwan.

The battle wasn’t over. The Communists attempted to pursue the Nationalists and wipe them out of Taiwan. For three days at Jinmen and Amoy islands, the battle raged. Grandpa Wu, then 40, led charges and fought off charges until the Chinese Communists withdrew.

He spent the rest of his life remembering those battles, regretting and despising the loss of his land, his Jiangxi home in the shadow of Lushan Mountain.

The earth. The Motherland. This hard-earned love was on my mind as I stood with 17-year-old Dongmei by her family’s rice field. I thought about her little shack, what it’s like when the rain comes through the ceiling above her bed at night, and how she must want to get out of there and start her life in a city.

“Teacher Wade,’’ she said, looking across the field toward an almost vertical hillside, which seemed to sway and dance as a gentle breeze swept through the bamboo and cedar. “Don’t you think it’s beautiful?”


Twisting fates

On June 17, as we lifted up through the clouds to fly over the southern Chinese coastline toward Christine’s family in Taipei, Taiwan, I let my mind see those final battles that waged along the Taiwan straights in 1949 — exactly 60 years ago.

I sensed the desperation of the Nationalist troops, hundreds of which were under the command of Christine’s grandfather. By that time, he was hardened by two decades of life and death, village to village battles against warlords, Communists and the Japanese. This was the final stand.

Looking out through the small window just behind the wing of the Dragon Air plane, I imagined the orange mortar blasts illuminating the clouds from below; I heard the throaty shouts, saw the doomed charges, the frantic retreats.

At last, as historic markers on Taiwan’s northern coast tell us, the Communists withdrew, and in my mind I heard the mortars cease, saw the clouds under our airplane return to a bumpy russet glow. I looked back behind the wing to see the sun setting through the clouds over Grandpa Wu’s beloved land.

We descended toward Taipei, and I saw the fishing boats along the coast, bobbing dots on black nothingness. The Chinese half of Ben’s family would greet him, tell him how tall he’d grown, and he would give himself over to this Chinese side for the next 12 days.

It was here in the central mountains of Taiwan, in the 1950s, that fate struck. Grandpa Wu’s son, who grew up in war in the south of China, and a pretty 18-year-old future elementary teacher who grew up in the north, ended up neighbors. A match was made, then a marriage, and in 1959 the woman who would become my wife was born in a mountain hospital.

Flash forward to an autumn day in 1984: I was working on an article in the Indiana University student newspaper’s newsroom when a friend stopped by holding a red flyer. IU was looking for 10 students to go to China for a semester. “I thought you might be interested,” he said. He walked away as I sat there, time frozen. China? I had grown up in a small Indiana town and had never even been close to an airplane.

Little did I know at that same time, the granddaughter of Grandpa Wu was sitting at a boring job at a Taipei radio station, thinking about coming to America to build a new life on her own. She was Grandpa Wu’s only remaining soldier and he loved her dearly as a grandfather can. He had lost his country, but he had her and she could make beautiful music on ancient Chinese instruments. He went to her recitals proudly.

As I contemplated being the first person in my family to leave the country of my own volition, she did the same. Could I leave my little hometown? Could she leave her grandfather? We both did.

A year later, after I had returned from China, our paths crossed on the bucolic Bloomington, Ind. campus, at the time bathed in the ambers and auburns of a thousand leaves under a blue October sky. The romance that bloomed caught both of our parents off guard. Seven years after that, Ben was born in Louisville.

I think Ben is fortunate to have been born in our times, where it’s OK to be Half and Half. I think of Tony and Maria in “Westside Story” and the trouble the Jets and the Sharks would have given their children, or how Tevia, the papa in “Fiddler on the Roof,” could not stand the idea of his oldest daughter marrying outside the faith. I recall army nurse Nellie Forbush’s reaction in “South Pacific” when she learned that Emile, the French plantation owner she loved, had two Half and Half children from a marriage with a dark-skinned Polynesian girl.

In those times, we were “carefully taught,” as the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein tune goes, about the taboo of crossing lines.

But this era of Half and Half is often accepted without a blink: Tiger Woods is proud of his Asian mother, and Barack Obama described in his book “Dreams from My Father” his journey to East Africa to build a bridge with his African heritage. He had just finished at Harvard when he trekked along rutted dirt roads to the home of his black grandmother; he wrote about her elegantly and with reverence, then dedicated his book to his white mother.

Our journey is over, and a cornucopia of images is planted in Ben’s loamy, nubile consciousness, where it may rest dormant for years: memories of jubilant faces of children he taught, and the steady but gritty determination of Dongmei’s parents to provide her a path out of the village. I’m sure he won’t forget the platter of pig tails scrubbed clean at a street market, where they also sold hedgehogs and bunnies, or the evening he had dinner in the dining room of Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s summer house atop Lushan Mountain.

Maybe he was impressed by the immensity of the Great Wall, the space-age architecture and neon of the Shanghai skyline reflected in the Huang Pu River, or the chaos of Chinese driving; I once drove there for about 20 minutes — it felt like going the wrong way into a wildebeest stampede.

But will he ever feel China the way Grandpa Wu did?

Not likely, but that’s OK. He is Half and Half, and now he has witnessed the world of his Chinese half. He has completed the circle his great grandfather could not, and the door is open for his return, alone next time, if that is his choice.


Scott Wade teaches English as a Second Language at Atherton High School. Ben Wade is a junior at duPont Manual High School, where he studies visual arts and plays lacrosse.