Sometimes, when we try to unravel a family mystery, we uncover more than the buried treasure that was the initial purpose of our journey. We learn about our family’s history, the country our family came from, and … ourselves. I asked Huan Hsu, author of The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China, to share his thoughts about his enlightening trip through time as he went to China to look for his great-great-grandfather’s buried porcelain.
Written by Huan Hsu, Special Contributing Author
When I first moved to Shanghai to search for my great-great grandfather’s buried porcelain, I was annoyed at everything. Though I had known that, compared to America, China would be dirty and crowded and chaotic, I remained unprepared for how much of the country would repulse me.
It wasn’t the pollution, inefficiency, and filth–I had braced myself for those things, which weren’t uncommon in many developing countries. It was the specifically Chinese things like the long fingernails, the purpose for which I could never really ascertain. The pushing and shoving on subway platforms. The inability to stand in line. Public urination and defecation. Spitting. Laughably bad translations of Chinese into English, or Chinglish. Underwear drying on street signs or tree branches. Pajamas worn as streetwear. And this was Shanghai–imagine how I would have handled a second or third-tier city.
I took great effort to avoid such sights, restricting myself to a network of expat havens where I would find decent coffee and western food and good service. When encountering Chinese habits, I stood in harsh judgment of them. Non-Chinese expats had the privilege of being able to regard these things as exotic eccentricities, one more weird ha-ha-can-you-believe-this? story to tell their friends back home. But to me, they were deeply embarrassing, as retrograde as foot binding. They served as reminders of China’s long history of ignorance and savagery and deprivation, and it pained me to see how far the country still had to go to catch up to the civilized world. Not only was I embarrassed for Chinese people, but I was also concerned how they would reflect on me, since it was unlikely that anyone who wasn’t Chinese would draw the difference between local Chinese and a Chinese-looking guy from Salt Lake City.
Despite the stereotype, there actually were Chinese people in Utah, especially in and around the university where my father was a physics professor. The sprinkling of Chinese students at my high school were typically brainy. Many of them went to Chinese school on the weekends, something I managed to squirm out of. My family attended a Chinese Christian church, an evangelical congregation influenced by missionaries in Taiwan in the mid-1900s. After services, we often went to dim sum, where ancient Chinese men with long white nose hairs sucked on chicken feet between drags of cigarettes. So there were opportunities to interact with Chinese people and culture, and I chose not to because they were so starkly other, and associating with them or wallowing in my family’s Chinese heritage would have stunted my assimilation into the dominant culture. And so I arrived in Shanghai with bulwarks firmly in place, thanks to a lifetime of practice in defending against Chinese influences.
At the same time, I needed the backwardness. Those weird habits were what maintained those bulwarks, preventing me from acquiescing to China and Chinese people. I needed to remain an outsider, which led me to uncharacteristically seek out confrontations, in some stubborn quest to assert my Americanness to everyone I met, perhaps the only urge that was more quixotic than the one that had taken me to China in the first place.
Then I started searching for the porcelain, and I saw just how much of my family’s history had been lost or forcibly removed, and that few vestiges of old China remained. When it came to porcelain, the country was so inundated with fakes and reproductions that I wondered if it would be possible to know the authenticity of anything I managed to find. Kicking around rural China, I noticed that many towns had preserved even less historical architecture than Shanghai. When I asked relatives or locals for areas that might have given me a glimpse into my ancestors’ lives, they usually shrugged and said that those things were long gone. I found myself yearning for the “real” China, while also pondering just what constituted “real.” Those same luxury shopping malls–always the same roster of designer brands and coffee franchises as everywhere else–where I used to take refuge from all things Chinese now seemed to be encroachments of decidely non-Chinese culture.
China ages exponentially faster than the West, and I would sometimes return to Shanghai from short research trips to find that streets and facades had vanished, replaced by whatever kind of development suited the municipality–apartment complexes, shopping centers, or office towers. Even the historical buildings, though no longer demolished, seemed to disappear, their bones clad in internationalist five-star hotel clothing and retaining as much of their original spirit as the SoHo Apple Store does with its past. The shift could be jarring, and I found myself searching for something, anything, on which to moor myself.
It became comforting to still find an alley where butchers hung their cuts from street signs. Or a row of wan vegetables growing on a thin strip of dirt between buildings. Or an elderly man in his underwear sitting in front of a flagship Louis Vuitton store and reading his newspaper as if the plaza was an extension of his living room, a boulder in the stream of shopping bag-laden, nouveau riche Chinese flowing past him. I didn’t find this charming or quaint–that would have been patronizing. I simply reveled in its authenticity. Whatever their origins, these behaviors at least appeared unalloyed by the forces that seemed to drive modern China.
Eventually I had to admit that I was holding China to an impossible standard–to be western and modern and accommodating while also remaining ancient and authentic and my own secret. But China didn’t care what I wanted, and the sooner I understood that, the sooner I could appreciate it for what it was.
Besides, you don’t get anywhere in China as an outsider. You don’t get to experience the “real” China as an outsider. And you definitely don’t get to dig for your family’s buried heirlooms as an outsider. Learning the language was an important first step, showing me that it was possible to gain a Chinese identity without sacrificing my American one. Being a Chinese American in China didn’t have to be a binary thing. I was free to choose which peculiarities I accepted and which I still couldn’t tolerate. In the same way that you don’t get to choose your family, you don’t get to choose where your family comes from, either. All those idiosyncracies, love them or hate them, are what makes your family your family, you you, and China Chinese.
Bio: Born in the Bay Area and raised in Salt Lake City, Huan Hsu is the author of The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China. As a staff writer for the Washington City Paper in Washington, DC, and the Seattle Weekly, he won two Society of Professional Journalists awards and received recognition from the Casey Foundation for Meritorious Journalism. His essays and fiction have appeared in Slate, The Guardian, The Literary Review, and Lucky Peach. He currently lives in Amsterdam where he teaches journalism and creative writing at Amsterdam University College.
To contact Huan Hsu: email@example.com