In 2017, I left the States to serve in the Peace Corps in the (now defunct) China program, and to be honest, I served for somewhat selfish reasons. My mom’s side of the family is ethnically Chinese, with her parents being second generation immigrants to Indonesia. However, due to extenuating circumstances, my mom’s family lost touch with her family in the mainland. My mom didn’t know much about her Chinese heritage save for what her parents taught her, so I was determined to find out more about our family by going to China.
Before I get into the incredible discovery I made, I need to give a bit of background about the political situation that caused the breakdown in our family’s relationships. My grandpa’s family on my mom’s side were quite wealthy and owned a manufacturing business that produced shoes and textiles. The business was so successful that they expanded into livestock and agriculture and were even able to establish a subsidiary in Indonesia. My great-grandfather made frequent trips between his hometown in Hunan and Indonesia until just before the Chinese Civil War in 1927.
By then, it was nearly impossible to go back to the mainland (largely due to World War II) because Indonesian law restricted travel to China after the Cultural Revolution. It was here that the history gets a bit hazy. My mom told me that nationalist sentiment in Indonesia fueled anti-Chinese hatred among the native Indonesians. It got to the point where it was quite literally dangerous to exist as a Chinese person in Indonesia. It wasn’t until almost 30 years after the Chinese Communist Party was established that Indonesia finally lifted the travel ban.
As anyone can imagine, my family was fractured by this. My great-aunt (my great-grandpa’s little sister) was still living in China with her husband and children. So, imagine my surprise when I met my long-lost cousin one night near the end of 2018.
It was the night before New Year’s Eve in the middle of Chongqing City, and I was waiting for my friend to go to a bar. She introduced me to a guy she befriended at the gym while we waited for the car to arrive. He introduced himself to me, and we began to chat. He asked me about my Chinese name, since my friend told him that our Chinese teacher gave us “names” to call us in class. I told him my Chinese name is my actual name given to me by my grandpa. (My name is 郭天陈, or Guo Tian Chen).
He looked at me in shock. We had the same family name! I thought it was a funny coincidence, so I laughed and jokingly called him my “cousin.” It wasn’t until we talked a bit more that we both realized our family stories eerily matched. After a long conversation, I found out he was the great-grandson of my great-aunt! My second cousin, to be exact.
I finally have the other half of the story of what happened to my family, thanks to my cousin. My great-grandpa tried to take his sister and her family with him to Indonesia, since he feared for her safety due to the increasingly volatile environment in China at the time. However, she did not want to leave because her husband’s family and her children were there, and it would be difficult to leave them. Despite her brother’s urging, she decided to stay behind, unfortunately never to see him again. As I reflect back on this story, it’s crazy to think that she and her brother would be reunited decades later, through their descendants. However, my decision to embrace an international experience ultimately led to this revelation, showing how you truly can discover a new side of yourself when you travel abroad.