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The Past Is a Foreign Country

An Excerpt from Xiaolu Guo’s ‘Nine Continents’

On Wednesday, November 8, the Chinese-British writer Guo Xiaolu joined the Asia Society’s Isaac Stone Fish in a conversation about the difficulty of existing in both the Western and Chinese worlds.

In this excerpt from Guo’s recently published memoir Nine Continents, Guo discusses the trouble she has telling her mother, a former Red Guard, about the birth of her child.

A wanderer, uprooted and displaced. A nomad in both body and mind. This was what I had become since leaving China for the West. It had been 15 years of transit, change, forgetting, and adapting. Then all of a sudden, at the age of 40, my belly was expanding. The earth had begun to exert a pull on me, a pull towards motherhood. On the second day of 2013, I found myself lying on an operating table in a hospital in London, my body hooked up by wires and tubes to a bank of humming machines. I was about to burst, literally. The moment the baby girl was pulled from my womb by Caesarean section I heard a cry—a sound that was at once familiar, but utterly surprising. There she was. Wrapped in a new towel with her wet, bruised little face against my breast. I embraced her with wonder and fear. This is good, I thought. This child will be rooted here. She will be a grounded person, unlike me, a peripatetic peasant, a cultural orphan.

Twenty minutes after delivery, we were wheeled into the maternity ward, filled with newborns and new mothers. Still in a haze of morphine, I heard all sorts of languages being spoken around me: Hindi, Arabic, German, Spanish, Polish. I remained in the hospital for the next three days, dressed in only a thin gown, trying to breastfeed and struggling to use the bathroom, shocked to see so much blood flowing out of me.

On the fourth day, when we arrived back home, I was surprised by a sudden urge to call my mother. I hadn’t mentioned to her that I was pregnant once in those long nine months. As was typical of our relationship, we hadn’t spoken in a while.

I dialed the dreaded number, embedded so deeply in my mind I could recite it in my dreams.

“Mother, it’s me.”

“Oh, Xiaolu. I wasn’t expecting your call.” Then immediately, “Where are you?”

“London.”

“What’s wrong? Why are you calling?” She was direct, almost rude. She had served as a Red Guard at the age of 16, a coarse and uneducated girl straight out of the rice fields. I always assumed that was one of the reasons we never got along. “I’m fine,” I said. “I wanted to let you know . . .” I found myself tongue-tied and unable to bring myself to say it. “I just gave birth to a healthy baby girl.”

“What?” my poor mother cried. “You just gave birth?”

“Yes. She is half-Chinese and half-Western.”

“My heavens! You were pregnant?”

After a few seconds of silence from her end, I thought she might at least ask the name of the baby, but instead she said, “Are you coming back for Qingming Festival?”

Qingming is a day in April when we pay our respects to the dead. We sweep their tombs, burn incense, and pray. I said nothing, only listened to her angry sobs through the telephone.

“You should come back! You don’t even know where your father is buried! I want to move your grandmother’s ashes from the village and put them next to your father. You should come back for this.”

This time, I thought, I have no excuse not to go. None. I might as well go and pay a debt of filial duty, once and for all. It’s only a 12-hour flight. I can do it. My whole adult life I had avoided going back to my childhood home as much as possible. Shitang, the fishing village where I witnessed my grandparents’ depression and poverty, was a place I came to loathe. Wenling, where I spent my adolescent years, the cradle for my troubled relationship with authority, repelled me. When I left to study in Beijing in 1993, I promised myself: that’s it, I will never return to this stifling backwater again. Ten years later, when I left China for Britain, I said to myself: from now on, no more ideological brainwashing. I’m not going to let myself be tripped up by my rotten peasant roots. But the time had come to face the past. To try to explain to my family how I had lived all these years. After all, I would have to explain it to my little daughter one day too. Just like James Baldwin said: tell it, go tell it to the mountain, tell it to your native kin, to the dead souls and the living souls. I would have to face them, one by one. No escape.

So, five days before Qingming Festival, I wrapped my newborn as warmly as I could and took a flight back to where my life began.