Posted by: thelocaldialect | February 14, 2009

Remembering the Beach

We’ve been back from the beach for close to a week now and have two 35 hour train rides behind us, along with, of course, loads of happy memories.

I won’t give a blow by blow account of our trip to Hainan, except to say that we spent a lot of time on the beach and in the water. We were sunburnt and exhausted by the end of each day, and were usually in bed by midnight and up by eight or so, which is quite a feat for us night-owls. We took walks on the beach at night, and by day played in the sand and surf, and visited various Hainan attractions when we had time. We paid way too much for a seafood dinner, and went out and saw a Philippino band play cheesy Western music one evening. We took a trip to a coral reef island with white sand beaches and crystal clear waters. In short, we had loads of fun.
For me, this was my first trip to the ocean in six years, which is an awfully long time for someone who grew up with the sea as her backyard. The ocean has always been a part of me, a part of what shaped me into the person I became. Growing up where I did made things better somehow, turned what would have been a fairly miserable childhood had I lived in someplace like Dallas or Detroit, into something magical. It goes without saying that it was not my choice to stay away from the ocean for so long, but that’s the way it turned out, and finally getting back to the ocean made me realize why, way back when, I was so reluctant to leave in the first place. When my parents announced, during my senior year of high school, that we were moving to Texas, I pitched a hell of a fit and flat out refused to go. Of course, I had no choice, and I eventually did end up in Texas, but the pull of my hometown was strong. Remains strong.

Bringing my son to the beach, I wonder if this affinity for the ocean is hereditary. Dylan took immediately to the sand and the waves. We had to pull him back from the surf, otherwise he’d be happy to rush right in, with no regards, no concept even, of potential danger. When we finally decided he’d had enough, that it was time to go in and shower off, he’d cry, perhaps worried that this was the last time he’d get the chance to play in the waves. And when that last chance finally did come, when it was our final day in Hainan and we were taking one last swim, saying goodbye to the ocean, knowing that within a few short hours we’d be on a train bound for Beijing, I felt guilty. Guilty for taking him away from a place that made him so very happy and bringing him back to a city of below zero temperatures, where he’d once again spend the majority of his days, at least for now, within the confines of our rather small apartment. It seemed so cruel, when the ocean had been his playground, seeing his smiles and his wonder at this place where everything was new and bright, to bring him back to the city, where a with a few trees and some playground equipment will be a poor substitute.

Our trip to Hainan simply confirmed for me that I can’t raise my son in a city like Beijing. Big cities have their place, no doubt. There’s a lot of culture here, a lot of history. The thing is, one year olds don’t particularly care about culture and history, they need to be outside, running around, in a place with sunshine and fresh air. And I have to admit, a part of me wants Dylan to have the same childhood experiences that I did — swimming in the ocean, learning what to do if caught in a riptide, deep sea fishing, being buried up to my neck in the sand, crabbing in the creek behind our house, going to the marina just to look at all the great boats, walking out to the lighthouse, collecting shells, digging for sharks teeth, reading in the sand, and going to sleep to the sound of the waves. While I’m sure that my son, no matter where he grows up, will have his own childhood experiences that are special to him in their own way, there is still something in me that doesn’t want those memories to die with me, that wants to pass them on through the generations. It saddens me a bit to think that that life is gone forever, that I won’t be able to relive my own childhood through my son’s eyes.

I imagine many parents feel this way, especially in a society that encourages drifting from place to place, rather than setting down roots that last for generations. My own parents moved from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to Georgia, from Georgia to South Carolina, where I grew up, and finally to Texas. Of their two children, one is still in Texas, and another is in China. My friends’ families have similar tales, from California to Texas, New York to South Carolina, Georgia to New Orleans, North Carolina to Washington, Americans are generally on the move, we do not often get to raise our children in the places where we, ourselves were children. This is unlike Chinese society, perhaps unlike most societies, where people are firmly planted to one place. In Chinese, the concept of “jiaxiang” or “laojia” has been celebrated in songs, in poetry, in movies, TV. You might move, but your home will always be your home, and even your children will identify with that old place, the place of origin. We might stay in Beijing for 20 years, but my husband will never be able to say that he’s from Beijing, not in the way that my parents now claim Texas, after 12 years, as their home. In China, “home” is a concept that is more permanent, connects people to places in a way that is visceral, emotional, steadfast. I identify strongly with this concept of home. To this day, when asked “where are you from” I will reply, “Charleston, South Carolina,” despite the fact that I left there in 1997 and haven’t been back there since. The ocean, the sand, the waves, they’re my “jiaxiang,” my beautiful jiaxiang.


  1. Wow. Eloquently put. There is a similar phrase in Japanese 故郷 furusato. I feel the same way about the island where I grew up. I may live in a landlocked prefecture thousands of miles from my furusato but I’ll always be an island girl. Enjoying the beach with my kids on brief holidays is poor substitute but it is wonderful to share it with them at all…

    How do you find the sense of jiaxiand in Kunming? I find it can be a little exclusionary- No matter how long we live here Dh and I will always be outsiders. But our kids are locals. Go figure!

  2. Oh wow, Chinese actually has that word as well, 故乡 is the simplified Chinese version, but traditional characters write it as 故郷, just as in Japanese. In Chinese it is read “guxiang,” the xiang being the same xiang as in “jiaxiang,” the 郷 character. The difference between the two is pretty much semantics. I’d say the word “故郷” in Chinese is a bit more literary, a bit more poetic, than jiaxiang (家乡or 家鄉). I chose the more colloquial term, but they mean pretty much the same thing.

    The concept is fairly exclusionary if you get down to it. Like I mentioned, my husband, even if he lives in Beijing for the next 20 years, will never qualify as Beijing-ren, as being a Beijinger. And of course I could live in China for ever and ever, and I’ll still be a foreigner (the words for foreigner in Japanese are pretty much the same, “外国人” meaning I come from an outside country). Chinese people in America actually refer to Americans as “foreigners,” which says something strong about the “us” vs. “them” mentality that is fairly pervasive here. On top of that, every jiaxiang has its own dialect, which is further used to separate outsiders from insiders. My husband, for example, is immediately identified as being not from Beijing by his accent. Locals, even if they can’t identify a Yunnan accent, know that he’s not one of them. They use this to exclude people as well as to favor their own. When my husband hears someone speaking Kunmingese on the street, there’s an immediate sense of connection, oh, we’re “老乡,” (laoxiang, that same xiang again) we come from the same native place.

    That all said, like I mentioned, there are some things I like about how innately connected Chinese people are to place, how they make it a part of their person, aknowledge the profound effect place has on who you are. If I’m honest with myself, I know that the Chinese are right about me … I’ll never be Chinese, even if I live here for my entire life. The conecpt, in and of itself, is fine, but when it is used to discriminate or exclude, that’s when there are problems. I might never be or feel truly Chinese, but I’m married to someone who is and raising a kid here who might be, so I deserve the same rights and protections under the law as anyone else. My husband may not be from Beijing, but he’s living here, along with millions of others, and its wrong to try and rip him off or to look down on him because he happened to be born in the “wrong” place. I’d rather leave the concepts of “jiaxiang” and “guxiang” for the philosophers, for poets and writers and musicians, for waxing nostalgic about a place that is dear to your soul, but not so much for their practical, often discrimanatory, applications to every day life.

  3. What a beautiful post!

    I feel the same way about Japan (even though I’m American)! My family moved here when I was 4 wks old and stayed for 10 years. It’s always been the home of my heart.

    You can probably imagine my euphoria when I found out we’d be moving to Japan for 3 years! I was over the moon! Never, in a million years, could I have imagined my children having the chance to live in Japan! My youngest daugther attended *my* elementary school last year! My oldest daughter is now attending my sisters’ alma mater. It’s precious gift that I’ll cherish forever, even if it only lasts three, far too short years!

    (DH is from S.C. too! We hope to end up in Charleston in about 4.5 yrs. It’s such a beautiful city!)

  4. Wow, you have written this so beautifully.

    You can see the happiness in Dylan`s face but you must remember that he will be just as happy when he returns to the beach next time!! He certainly looked as if he loved it. Great photos!!!

    I live near the water in Australia but far far away from it in Japan- when we return, living out near Shun`s family, we will be closer to the beach- about an hour`s drive which I guess is not so bad.

    35hr train rides- WOAH! I went on an overnight train in China from Xian to Shanghai but it was only about 14 hours I think?!

  5. Lovely pictures! While I spent my early childhood very near the Pacific, the West Coast’s relationship with the ocean is different than what I think you see here on the East Coast. The beach to me is cold water, stiff winds, sea lions, migrating gray whales, tide pools and searching for agates. At one point we lived so close to the beach that I could hear the sea lions barking at sundown every night.

    I think there are very few places in the world today where a child’s memories will closely mirror his parents’ childhood memories. In America it’s been this way for a few generations, I think, but even in villages in rural China or India the effect of the inroads of “modern society” is apparent.

  6. This post on the peculiarities of the Beijing dialect made me think of this discussion. Plus I thought it interesting as I’ve never heard Mandarin rap before. 🙂

  7. Dylan looks soo happy in those pics. And what a beautiful beach – hopefully worth the train ride.

    I really miss the beach back in Sydney. Of course here in italy there are beaches not so far away but you have to pay to sit on the sand, and all the ‘nature’ has been taken out of them.

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