ramblingly pondering

October 15th, 2008

This post at the Ji Village News set synapses firing in ways they haven’t for a while. I started leaving a comment, but it was getting too long, so I brought my comment over here where it could find a fuller expression.

My father, my mother and I have three different hometowns. I’m not sure you can even say my mother has a hometown. I have, very briefly passed through the small town in Taranaki where she was born, but so far as I can tell, she was raised all over the North Island, spending a year in one town then moving on. My father hails from Gisborne on the exact opposite side of the island. His father was born somewhere in Australia and his father in Rutherglen, just south of Glasgow. My mother’s father was born in Ashburton, in the centre of New Zealand’s South Island, and his father I have no idea where. I don’t know where my grandmothers were born. And any time anybody asks me which part of Wellington I’m from I have to say rather awkwardly, “All of it”, because we moved around so much that I spent at least a year of my childhood in most of Wellington’s different suburbs, hills and valleys. If there is a Waugh 庄 it’s somewhere back in Scotland, the southwest so far as I can work out, and my branch of the clan long since lost any connection with the place- well, my uncle has visited, but it’s easier for him, he’s lived in England since he was 18.

I often wonder about my wife’s home village in Beijing’s Yanqing County. It was part of Hebei until 1958, and Chahar until 1952. I know about the Shanrong harrasing the capital of Yan back in the Warring States and that both Genghis Khan and Kangxi passed through- along the southern edge of the basin, the opposite side from us- and historically Yanqing had a fair bit of strategic value as the road to Beijing’s northwestern gateway.  But more than textbook facts, I look at the land and the houses and listen to the people and wonder how they’ve changed over the years. Stories are one thing, seeing is another. The closest I’ve gotten to seeing the changes was on one short visit to the last of the maternal in-laws in my mother in law’s home village just across the provincial border in Hebei’s Huailai County. It’s the same basin in the mountains, essentially the same history (so far as I know), and the two villages are closer to each other than their respective county towns, and yet the difference is amazing. Crossing the border was like stepping back 20 years- that’s what I thought, and that’s what my wife said.

I don’t know when I started wondering about the stories held within old walls and stones and forests and streets, but I’m pretty sure it happened in New Zealand. Perhaps it was wandering through central Wellington, noticing where the shoreline was in 1840 and comparing that with where the shoreline is now. See, the reason Lambton Quay is a street and not a quay, and why the Basin Reserve is a cricket stadium and Kent and Cambridge Terraces streets and not canals, or that the land on which the airport and my old high school are built is dry land and not seabed, or that the street we lived on for four years in Petone has a big lump where the beach once was, and then a few hundred metres more of straight, flat road before you reach the beach where it is now, is the 1855 earthquake. Or perhaps it was living in Dunedin, a city built on the 19th century goldrush and since then sustained by the university. I don’t know. I do know that formal study of history drives me nuts, but somehow it still intrigues me.

I’m sure there were other random thots inspired by that post, but they seem to have shuffled back into the obscure depths of my brain. I’m sure they’ll come back to me at some ridiculous hour this morning. Anyway, I seem to have run out of steam.

Yeah, I believe in ghosts, but not in the conventional, superstitious way.

2 Responses to “ramblingly pondering”

  1. Matt Schiavenza Says:

    Interesting post. I’m also prone to historical musings, particularly in regards to my own family. When I was small, my mother told me stories of living in Norway in 1956 after her family had spent the previous seven years in the US. She described Norway as backward, poor, and without any of the creature comforts of booming California. Now, when I visit Stavanger (a town in southwestern Norway where my mother was born), the affluence and comfort levels are staggering.

    My Italian ancestors still claim a plot of land in the vineyards of Piedmont, where the local dialect is a rather neat patois of Italian and French. I get the impression that very little has changed there in the past hundred years, though certainly as Western Europeans they’ve enjoyed a high standard of living from a global perspective.

    My father’s hometown, Sunnyvale, California, was once part of a beautiful valley of apple orchards. Now, transformed by technology (Apple and Google headquarters are less than five miles away), the city has become an ugly conglomeration of strip-malls, fast-food restaurants, and wide boulevards without any character at all. There is something rather frightening about living in a city without a defined center, and of course the best example of this writ large is Los Angeles. A lot of American towns, unfortunately, are like this.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Oh, damn, how did I forget Norway? See, the six weeks I spent there were spent in Nord Trøndelag (I’ve probably screwed up the spelling) in a Kommune called Verdal, which is totally un-famous except as being the place where St Olav was killed. In fact, right on almost exactly the spot where St Olav was killed, at Stiklestad (http://tinyurl.com/6pcaze), just a few short kilometres Sweden-ward from what in China would be the county town, is a rather small and very provincial museum of Norwegian (with an obviously local twist) history, which at the time did a pretty decent job of elucidating ancient Viking life and showing how heroic the locals were in the resistance against the Nazi occupation. And right across the road from there, once a year in summer, was the Heilag Olav Spelet/St Olav’s Play, about the life of Olav and his death on almost exactly that spot.

    It’s the kind of county where the locals tell you what their ancestors in the 11th century did as if it happened a year ago. You’ve been to Stavanger, right? You know how fiercely proud the people are of their local history. And don’t get me started on Nidaros Cathedral (http://tinyurl.com/69xwas) in Trondheim… These kinds of places are awesome places just to sit back and listen to the stories, whether they’re told to you be the locals, their churches, the stones, the roads, the mountains, the rivers…

    Oh, yeah, and no Norwegian I ever met ever ate fish unless it was pulled out of a lake or river by his or her own hand. I was told, several times, the story of how England’s (Queen Vic’s, I believe) gift of fishing rights over most of the North Sea saved Norway from famine in the mid- to late-19th century, and then gifted Norway with a shitload of oil in the 1950s. Yeah, in my experience it’s the kind of place where history is just as alive as the person sitting next to you.