honoring our ancestors

The Qingming Festival (清明節), aka Tomb-Sweeping Day in English, was observed on April 5th. It means literally, “Pure Brightness Festival.” This holiday dates back nearly 2500 years and is a traditional Chinese festival observed in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and by ethnic Chinese in mainland China. During Qingming, certain foods and traditions are celebrated. Families in Taiwan visit the tombs of their ancestors to clean the gravesites and make ritual offerings to their ancestors. When I reunited with my birth family in 2012, we planned a visit to our parents’ tombs (it wasn’t Qingming); however, I became very ill on the way there and ended up in the hospital. I was disappointed that I wasn’t well enough to visit their tombs. Although Qingming is not celebrated here in the U.S., I spent the morning honoring my birth parents, Shiow-Jean Lu and Chan-Huai Huang. I messaged my oldest sister in Taiwan, Christina, who told me that they would go “tomb sweeping” at the end of the month to honor and show gratitude for our ancestors. She said they will take fruits to the Buddhist hall where the ancestral tablet is located to give thanks and pray for blessings. During the height of the pandemic, the Buddhist halls on the mountain were closed, so “tomb sweeping” was not allowed over the past year or so.

My birth mother, Shiow-Jean Lu

Christina also shared that our ancestors originally came from Guangxi Province in southern China, which I first learned of when I had my adoption papers translated in 2010. Guilin is the capital of Guangxi Province. Christina said that the landscapes of Guilin (桂林) are very beautiful, and the landscapes of Yangshuo, a riverside town in Guangxi Province, are even more beautiful. She told me of a famous river, Lijiang River (漓江 Líjiāng), in Guilin. The Li River spans roughly 80 kilometers (50 miles) and runs through the heart of Guangxi, connecting beautiful downtown Guilin with Yangshuo. Christina shared that she visited Guilin for the first time in 1989 when the “iron curtain” opened. She visited the village of our parents a couple of times. As the years passed, their hometown underwent many changes. Christina said she has never returned, but the beauty of the land left a lasting impression that is unforgettable.

My sister shared more about Pa and Ma. She said China had been at war for decades and during those years and even earlier, natural and man-made disasters forced common people to migrate to the south in search of refuge. Christina heard that the ancestors of our parents are actually from Hunan Province, the largest province in South-Central China. Our father was born in Pingle City (平樂), and our mother, in Liuzhou (柳州),  the second largest city in Guangxi. When they grew up, our parents relocated to Guilin. Christina said she doesn’t think it was many years before the war took them away from their home to join the resistance due to the Japanese invasion, or Chinese Civil War (1937-1945). China endured decades of Japanese occupation and years of brutal warfare. After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, a race between the Nationalists and Communists ensued to take control. The Chinese Nationalist Party, or KMT, fought against the Communist Party from 1927-1949. In 1949, the KMT leaders were forced to retreat to Taiwan when the Communists gained control of mainland China, so our parents also fled to Taiwan. Christina said it was a very turbulent time, and I can only imagine so. Our father was in the KMT army, and our mother was a housewife.

Christina also told me about my Chinese name, Hsaio-Ling (Huang). The basic meaning of Hsaio (筱) is small bamboo. Generally, brothers and sisters are named with different middle or third characters as the difference between family members and seniors. We have the same Ling (玲). And Hsaio (筱) in Chinese has the same voice as Hsaio(小) (small) and means more gracious. She said because I’m the youngest sister, I take the (小). In traditional Chinese culture, orchid, bamboo, and plum symbolize tenacious nobility of character. The evergreen bamboo in all seasons symbolizes life and eternal youth; its branches are bent but not broken, which is the principle of being soft but firm. The hollow of bamboo represents the character of humility and virtue; the bamboo joint represents high morale, and the tall and straight bamboo represents Integrity. It’s lovely to know what my Chinese name means.

My birth father, Chan-Huai Huang

When I arrived in Taipei, Taiwan, in 2012, my sisters, Christina and Amy, gave me photographs of our parents, multiple photos of our father at different ages, but only one of our mother, as all the others had been destroyed. It was quite something to see my biological sisters in person for the first time and to see the photographs they so carefully prepared. Though we are separated by continents, my birth family is always near to my heart. My first trip there was such a special and meaningful time. I can hardly believe it’s been 11 years since that sojourn. One day, I will return to Taiwan. Sometimes I wish I were 30 years younger and could live there and teach English or something like that.

Things have changed much since 2012. The years have flown by, COVID happened, we’ve all grown older, and life has been full of twists and turns. Now tensions between Taiwan and China loom. It is not the same China where our parents once lived and breathed during their youth. Nevertheless, I always remember my time in Taiwan as if it were a fantasy come true. I literally felt like I was walking on clouds – it was a joyous and celebratory time. May our next reunion be just as sweet. And may Taiwan remain the strong and independent country she is now.

Beautiful Lijiang River in Guilin, my birth family’s original homeland. My sister shared this video with me.

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