When I visited the Soh ancestral village in Dabu, Guangdong province, China, for the very first time some years ago, I was struck by the extremely warm reception I received. I was traveling with two older Soh cousins, who had been back to “the old country” on many previous occasions, and had, with their generous gifts of cash and good deeds, notched up much credit with our relatives there. So maybe, I was just unknowingly riding on the coat-tails of my traveling companions.
The homecoming felt genuine and sincere. Everywhere I went in Dabu, people I came into contact with greeted me with “Welcome home!” or “Good to have you home!” These were people whom I had not met before, whom I had just been told I was related to, closely or distantly, or somewhere in between. Many of them claimed to have memories, albeit some faint or faded, of my father, who had left this, his birthplace, as a young man, many decades ago, never to have returned.
I had been forewarned, by some well-meaning and concerned Singaporean friends, who had visited their ancestral villages previously only to find their Chinese relatives more motivated by the expectations of gifts borned by the returning overseas relatives rather than by the renewal of familial ties. Our cousins traveling with us had earlier dissuaded us of this notion, explaining that while those sentiments might have been prevalent in the past, when China was still in the throes of economic woes, this was no longer the case, with the new economic prosperity that the people were enjoying. We were being received as sons and daughters of the soil, rather than bearers of the spoils.
Frankly, I was a bit sceptical initially. I was guarded in my responses to the outpourings of warmth and love from these, up till recently, complete strangers. They were welcoming me home, as though I had just returned from a long overseas trip.
But it did strike a chord – or two. I felt something tugging at my heart.
Did that have something to do with blood ties? Was there an innate bond between us, simply by virtue of the blood that ran through our veins? That mine had come from a young man who had hailed from this part of the world a long time ago? The blood which wound its way through his body, and now mine, could be traced to the same forebears as theirs? Was this what was binding us? Or perhaps it had nothing to do with blood, and all to do with the mind?
Maybe the chord struck was only a vocal one. All around me, people were speaking, to me, and to one another, in Hakka. Not just any Hakka, but Dabu Hakka. It was the dialect, indeed the language, of my childhood years, before I started school. It was essentially my mother- tongue. A dialect which in my early growing-up years I had been hearing and speaking, in communications with my parents, my grandmother, uncles and aunties., and my siblings. A dialect, nay a language, which over the years I had lost the fluency of, through lack of regular practice in multilingual Singapore, and close to a lifetime of conversing and writing in English. Hearing all around me the buzz of a dialect which marked my early formative years, I couldn’t help but think that I had come full circle – home, to my fatherland and the land of my mother-tongue.
Or perhaps the chord was struck through the taste buds. For a long long time, I had not savoured those delectable Hakka dishes in their original authentic renderings – salted chicken, braised pork belly with preserved vegetables, yam abacus seeds, beef balls soup, and the rest of the heavenly Hakka spread. Eating in Dabu was a veritable ritual in reawakening and rebonding of the taste buds.
A week later, I was back in Singapore. As the plane touched down at Changi Airport, I felt a thump in my chest, and a lump in my throat. There was no reception of any kind. But I felt I was home – truly.