Zhu Zhu chuckled. “No. So nice, everybody wants to help find your family!”
Ultimately, someone directed us to a 99-year-old man in the village of Git Non, who we nicknamed Old Mr. Ma. He spoke Toisanese. My translator did not. The interview went something like this:
“My great-grandfather was born in Gong Hao 120 years ago,” I said, “so I’d like to learn what life was like here long ago.” My translator relayed this to his granddaughter in Cantonese, who relayed this to her grandfather in Toisanese, whose answer made the same trip in reverse.
Two days later we did a full interview. One thing Mr. Ma shared was that long ago in Git Non, teens approaching marriageable age moved out of their parents’ homes and into two communal homes: one for boys, one for girls. Those homes now appear in my novel.
That does it, I thought. I’m learning Cantonese and I’m coming back. Mr. Ma won’t understand me, but his family will. I can also return to Guangzhou and Hong Kong where my uncle grew up, and speak the language he spoke. What’s more, I want my novel to feel realistic, and language is culture. I renewed my search for a Cantonese tutor: “I don’t care if Mandarin is more sensible!” I found Jing Jing, a twenty-something tutor from Guangzhou.
I hope I get to tell him, “Ho Noi Mo Gin!”—“Long Time No See.” If he’s no longer around, I’ll ask where his grave is so I can leave an offering. Hopefully by then I’ll know how to ask for directions.