Four months ago, I returned to the country that I swore I would never again enter. Four months it has taken me to be ok with processing that particular journey. The advantage of having an autistic mind is that I can package memories away into mental compartments. These will stay pushed aside and locked away, until I feel ready to process them in a safe place. The disadvantage is that if any of these memories are traumatic at the time, then the trauma will resurface at a much later date. So it was with my childhood.
I left those soils for good in the July of 1996. With the promise of a new life in Australia, I did not know what to expect, apart from both fear and trepidation. It did not take long, before I found out what happiness meant. I gained an appetite and finally put some decent weight onto my skeletal frame. My hair thickened out. School was no longer a dark place of abuse. I could sleep soundly at night, knowing that I would always greet a new dawn.
In September of 1999, I did return to the country I had left, not of my choice though. Mum took me and my young sister for a month, as no one in the extended family had yet met her. I felt safe enough, but I became so homesick. All that played in my mind was Dorothea Mackellar’s “I love a sunburnt country” poem, like some sort of nostalgic radio loop. I longed to set foot on Australian soil again, back to the life I now know and love.
It was early 2005, and I was thick in the mist of Year 12, yet I again returned. This time, with my high school band on a two week music tour. I felt sheltered and protected, because there was a particular purpose to this trip, and I travelled for that purpose. I had friends around me too. I did a lot of thinking on that tour, and not just of music. It was the first time I experienced a really deep gnawing feeling of belonging, and I hated it. The fact was, and remained, that I was trapped between two countries, two cultures, two peoples.
December 2007, and my late grandmother was palliative. She had stage IV metastatic lung cancer. My father literally dragged my sister and I on an eleventh hour visit back to the land I was born in. I stayed just two days this time. I went to say goodbye to my late grandmother, and I could no longer stay. I abhorred the place. I was an adult on this trip and I flew myself back as soon as I could, transiting in a 3rdcountry I had never visited before.
Since 2007, life had gone on. I got married and had children of my own. When our eldest was three years of age, my husband took him to visit relatives for the first time in China. I refused to go, using my university studies and our youngest being just one year old as excuses. Hubby took another trip when his grandfather was unwell, and our eldest again went along. I refused to go. I was in a very depressive state at the time, with childhood memories of abuse fast surfacing, drowning me, without giving me space for respite.
So it happened that it had been well over a decade since I last stood on Chinese soil; twelve years to be exact. This time, mum accompanied us, my husband, myself and our two children. We visited historic and modern places: Xian, Beijing and Shanghai. A tour guide once told me that Xian is the 500 year old China, Beijing the 50 year old China and Shanghai the 5 year old China. Never a truer word. I had wanted to go sweep the grave of my late grandpa, but I did not have the heart to. My childhood was partially bearable because of his kindness, and memories of him are both sweet and painful. I saw my grandma though, now advanced in her dementia, unable to care for herself. That too was very painful.
What did this particular trip teach me? It taught me to be appreciative, and to be tolerant. Being autistic, I absolutely wish to stay away from crowds and crowded places, but that is hard to do in China. I tried hard to teach our children the history of their cultural heritage, and we explored many culinary options. I actually enjoyed being on top of the Great Wall, looking afar into the distance, imagining what it would have been like for the builders at the time, to construct such an architectural grandeur. Standing in Tiananmen Square though, I felt sad, knowing that most of the visitors there were oblivious to what occurred in June of 1989. I reflected to myself: this could have been me, a grown adult seeing a famous landmark, without fully understanding the historic significance of it.
It wasn’t easy to return, to proudly enter China as an Australian, but to have customs probe into why my married English name no longer matched my Chinese name as a child. It was scary to have all my fingerprints scanned and to have my photo taken at every checkpoint. It was heartbreaking trying to converse with locals when I had lost much of my mother tongue, because I had wanted to forget during all my years away. The language had triggered my trauma, more often than not, so I protected myself against it by forgetting it. English is literally my only language now. I don’t think I could have coped at all with this trip had my husband and my mum not come.
So, I am quite decided this time that I would not be returning again for a very long time. I know my grandma will die sometime soon. I know my husband has many relatives waiting for him to visit regularly. I know my children are still curious about their cultural heritage. But I am done. I did what I could, to be ok with visiting the place where my childhood was abuse after abuse. I am who I am today because I had left that place behind. My belonging is now in a sunburnt country.