Mother and I split most of our time in Sanya between lazing by the beach and relaxing at the resort. When we wanted to eat, we would simply took a stroll down the boulevard stretching across from the seaside to eat at one of the many restaurants offering everything from local fares to the more popular foreign cuisines. When we wanted a drink, there were plenty of pubs and cafes in the area as well. I usually left mother to herself after lunch, where she liked to have a pina colada or two while I went off to write at any café usually packed with throngs of students and couples on holiday. When we reconvened for dinner mother would always ask how on earth I managed to focus with the constant flux of noisy tourists around me, but the truth was the endless noise didn’t bother me all that much because I wrote my best when I was alone.
After spending three nights at the Great Palm of Sanya we were ready to leave for our next destination. I had long since given up asking mother where we were going, her coyness was getting annoying and frankly I didn’t care all that much where we went as long as I got back to Shanghai by next Monday. At checkout, she hired through the hotel concierge a local tour van to come pick us up, and from there we would drive for about an hour to a famous indigenous tourist attraction on Hainan island.
Just before we departed, I noticed that mother had a box strapped atop her wheeled suitcase.
“What’s this, Ma?A little souvenir for home?”
“Well sort of. It’s our yuanyang hotpot from the first night, I didn’t want to leave it here and let it go to waste.”
I had completely forgotten about the pot, but couldn’t say that mother wanting to keep it was totally unexpected.
“Mom,” I began. “Why don’t you just leave the pot here? I’ll call the hotpot restaurant to come pick it up.”
“But they give us the pot for keeps right?”
“They do. But then we’ll be driving round the whole island with a yuanyang pot we don’t really need.”
“That’s fine, dear. The pot will go right in the boot, and the driver will be doing all the driving anyway. Look! Here comes our ride right now!”
I couldn’t tell if my annoyance showed, but I didn’t say a word as the driver pulled up at the drop-off area and began to load our belongings into the boot of the van. The driver did most of the talking during the drive. We didn’t catch his full name, only that his surname was Wang, the most common surname in China and on earth. We called him Wang Shifu as a show of respect, and for that he decided to reward us with a short history lesson.
Wang Shifu explained that Hainan island was administered by the Guangdong province up until 1988, and thereafter the island officially became the country’s southernmost province and the largest special economic zone under Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform. Centuries before all of that, the history books record the first Han Chinese to have come to Hainan island during the Han dynasty around 110 BC, with the establishment of a military garrison. But as for the Wang clan, the first pioneer on Hainan island was Wang Lingong, who according to our driver Wang Shifu, had most certainly come from the Wang clan in Nanjing, and he following the birth of his three sons, marked the inception of the Wang clan in Hainan island.
I was only half-listening to Wang Shifu’s tour guide trivia, and neither mother knew how to respond to him. In fact, I wasn’t that keen on revealing that we were from Malaysia, as being a foreign tourist made one an easy target for guides to milk you dry, usually by making unneeded stops at local produce shops or by bringing you to dine at restaurants that were all part of the tourism syndicate.
But mother told Wang Shifu that it was so interesting that he had said that, because discovering our roots was precisely why we were here, as mother and son from Malaysia who were travelling Hainan on a long overdue xungen trip.
I guess that was that.
“So you’re Malaysian? Wow, how come you speak putonghua so well?” the young driver asked.
“My son and I are both Mandarin-educated. I made it a point for him to go to a Chinese school.”
“So you guys have other kinds of schools in Malaysia?”
“We do. It’s a little confusing, but mainly you have an assortment of vernacular schools in Malay Chinese or Tamil, and also international schools that follow an overseas system.”
I had no idea why she felt the need to tell him this.
“That’s interesting. So you folks are Zhongguoren, am I right? I thought being from Malaysia meant you were Malay people!”
Here we go. Why was it always so hard for people in China to realise that with over a billion Chinese people on this planet, some of them were bound to have emigrated and lived outside the country?
“Well no. You see, there’s a substantial population of huaren in Malaysia!” mother exclaimed, and stressed the importance of using the term for Chinese rather than citizen of China.
“Ah well you know, for us countryfolk in China, it’s pretty hard to remember all that.
We don’t remember the huaren as an ethnic group that crossed over to the Nanyang over the last 200 years. To us, all of you are Malays! Not Malaysian because of your new citizenship, but ethnically Malay!”
God I really needed a smoke. But mother wasn’t done just yet.
“Yes I see your point. But bear in mind, our ancestors from the southern provinces did not cross the South China sea as mere Han Chinese huaren, they made the journey as Hua migrants, Huaqiao belonging to a greater diversity of Chinese ethnicities. Our passports might not be the same maroon colour as yours, but who are you to say that we Malaysian Chinese are not part of the Zhonghua minzu?”
She said all of this calmly, I would have probably yelled.
“Oh no aunty… I wasn’t saying that, please don’t misunderstand. It’s just that I’ve had overseas Chinese passengers who expressed the very opposite opinion! They wanted to be identified as huaren, as mere human beings of Chinese ethnicity and nothing more.
They want nothing to do with China or any of our values, it seems,” Wang Shifu said, eyes unwavering from the road ahead throughout all of this.
“Where were they from, those passengers?” I asked.
“Singaporeans mostly!” said the shifu.
Now I needed a drink too.