The biblical story of the tower a Babel was one that always fascinated me, so much so that, if it were the subject of the lesson in Sunday school, I would actually pay attention. Imagine: A tower that was a testament to human ingenuity upended by God. It is a story that perfectly follows the confusing and sometimes contradictory nature of a character—God, in this case—who is benevolent, generous, and punishing. In an effort to control His creation—humankind—God undermines the tower’s construction by giving different people different languages and scattering them all over the world.
I think about this as we float down the Li River in Guilin China, our small, gas-powered cruiser nestled between green verdant hills on each side that seem carved from malachite. It feels essential and real, but also—simultaneously—somehow like the simulacrum of Disney World or Las Vegas. The greenery is too lush and the sky burns too blue. It’s not real, we tell each other. It can’t be.
And it is at that moment that our Chinese guide—a man who asks us to call him Dave—leans over to my husband and me and says, conspiratorially, “All of this.” He sweeps his hand dramatically from one side of the river to the other. “Nature-made. Not man-made.”
Nature-made, not man-made. My husband and I said it to ourselves over and over again, privately, and we laughed every time. We loved the way it sounded, and what it seemed to imply—that we couldn’t distinguish between what had been manufactured and what was a part of the natural, the wondrous. Dave was either a marketing expert in English—his second language—or, as we passed through the sun dappled water at the tributary of the Yangtze river, he had taken my husband and me for nice, but fundamentally simple people. We wondered: were there—somehow—tourists on earlier iterations of Dave’s tour who—somehow—believed that, because the Chinese built the Great Wall, they could also rip apart the earth and heave impossible mountains toward the heavens, too?
But China is like that. It is both staggeringly nature-made and extraordinarily man-made—a testament to the explosions of nature and the genius of humanity. Anything you might ever want to purchase in your life —and twice as much that you never would—bulges out of the massive multi-leveled department stores littering every city; street corners and medians clotted with vendors selling everything from knock-off iPhones to boiled chicken feet; sidewalks almost impossible to navigate in the crush of bodies; miles of seemingly identical tea houses and silk scarf booths stacked on top of each other like tiles. There are cities in China that have millions of souls living in them that you’ve never even heard of. Never. And if you drive through them and ask your guide what they’re called, she will say, “It doesn’t matter. It’s a village.”
And then, too, there is Shanghai, its own testament to the audacity and wonder of humanity, and what we can do. It might be a contemporary incarnation of Babel, the freakishly beautiful result of cross-pollinating cultures. Shanghai, where you can visit the Fairmont Peace Hotel and hear a singer crooning Josephine Baker’s “Non Je Regrette Rien” in Mandarin, where the streets bear British names, where the 128-story Shanghai Tower launches you up into the clouds, where you can feel the ever-so-slight swaying of the building as the top third of it drifts lazily from east to west and back again.
The story of the Tower of Babel is meant to explain why people speak different languages. But at its core, it emphasizes that we were all once a single tribe of humans and that our own hubris reckoned that we be punished with difference. Like all creation stories, it is meant to explain something we don’t understand, to make the immaterial material, and in so doing, give us a way to understand difference instead of chalking it up to human restlessness. As a species we move, we travel, we cross boundaries and borders, we seek out the rest of our scattered tribe—again and again. A friend of mine jokes that as Ancetry.com becomes more and more refined, and as we look back to the beginning of human life, we will—all of us—call ourselves African.
In a sense, perhaps, Babel resonates within every narrative in human history. I can’t recall the writer who once said that all stories—from the Bible to Star Wars—are about one of two things: a stranger comes to town or someone goes on a journey. At its fundamental level, this speaks to a human desire for connection. And what is that connection if not community? That is to say: community at its most basic is simply the people in it and their connection to one another.
That Old Testament God, the one that rails against the human audacity and ingenuity of the Tower, who doesn’t want anything that will outshine His creation, has always appealed to me. I think it is because He—God, that is—has always seemed a little petty, like a Real Housewife—vindictive and spiteful. That Old Testament version of God seems to delight in keeping humans in their place. He comes back again and again, like a jilted lover, in floods, in animal form, and in what Baldwin says will be the fire next time—all to ensure that we understand that nature will always trump technology. The natural world, like the hand of God, embarrasses humans for our silly, petulant attempts at beauty. Because nothing we can make will ever match that grandeur and sublimity of the natural world. As Dave put it so succinctly, “Nature-made always better.”
I imagined that Dave took this tour every day, that he said it all the time—“Nature-made, not man-made”—that he didn’t even hear himself say it any more. He could see the river with his eyes closed, he could project its dips, its bend, the way the sun came in at an angle as the bow of the boat lulled left, turning the murky water deep brown and silty. At some point, Dave told us that he had a degree in law. What a waste, I thought, for a man who was a dreamer, with so much imagination flowing though him, the current, the river grass. His hair was thin on his head and his slacks freshly pressed. And while he would stroke absent-mindedly at the thin strands he’d spun into a nest to obscure his bald spot, he would never make any eye contact. He seemed unable to. I’ve spent hours—days—wondering why he hadn’t become a lawyer. What sadness had stopped him?
The Li River reminded me of Jamaica, where my family is from. It was green and lush in the very same way as the hills of Jamaica that make up the island’s central topography. The climate there is like none other on the face of the planet, making it the only spot on Earth where Blue Mountain coffee beans can grow. The Chinese, like the British, are tea drinkers, and the echoing legacy of colonialism means that most Jamaicans favor a cuppa over a cup of coffee. Everything cultivated in those Blue Mountains is hand-picked, the mysterious climate giving the coffee its signature taste—both bright and bold without the inky bitterness that can sometimes follow the sip of a different coffee. At that altitude, it is all mist, and at the coffee estates that still top the hillsides, green expanses of grass and palm trees overlook the city below. But the coffee grows at an even higher altitude. The industry relies primarily on women to pick the coffee beans. Men take on the hauling and pulling. Up they go into the hillside to pluck the smooth green pods inside of which are nestled smooth, waxy beans—white and almost translucent at their edges until they are roasted.
My husband and I went to China as faculty for a student study abroad trip run through the college where we worked. Finding students to participate had been difficult. Most students were drawn to the allure of Western Europe. I had selfish reasons for wanting to go: my own family connection to China. The Ancestry.com DNA test that I paid $99 for informs me that my DNA arrived in Jamaica—someway, somehow—by the 1800s. On my computer screen my chromosome fly like a set of kites across the globe, marking places like Sri Lanka, the South Pacific, and Scotland on a path to the Island by the 19th century.
I see my maternal great grandparents, the bits of genetic material I carry with me, flying across the globe inside Ancestry’s software platform from China’s Guangdong Province to settle on Jamaica’s southwest coast, near Blue Fields.
Savanna-La-Mar sits on Jamaica’s southwest coast. The place name is Spanish in origin, a time a remnant to the Island’s first set of colonizers. It is a part of the Island that feels free, in some ways—free of the enterprise of tourism. It is the town where my grandmother grew up and is still only reachable by an occasionally paved two lane road. On one side is a sliver of white sand and then an expanse of sea. That sea—cerulean blue and pristine. In family legend my grandmother dipped me in its waters, baptizing me again when I was a year old on my first trip to the island. And why not? In this place—where I imagine my Chinese ancestors settling – it must have looked like a kind of paradise. A place to start over.
The other side of the road is thick with banana and mango trees, overgrown with the herbs that grow there and in China. The kinds of vegetation my grandmother liked to turn into teas or salves or pastes, as she had learned from her mother. A mile or two past the road is the home where my grandmother grew up. My great-grandmother is the first ancestor I can trace who was born in the new world. I have no way of knowing the circumstances of her birth, but on my grandmother’s birth certificate, her mother’s country of birth is Jamaica. I know her parents were Hakka Chinese, one of the fifty-six ethnic minorities that make up China’s monotype population which is dominated by Han Chinese.
But what dreamed them over an ocean? It is possible my ancestors came in 1854 as a part the first wave of indentured labored, or maybe they came as a part of the group that escaped Panama, those Chinese laborers who were contracted to help with construction of the Panamanian railroad, those workers who were paid in opium by the railroad companies, who quickly—and by design—became addicted. And when the opium was suddenly taken away, a community-wide withdrawal led to a pandemonium so severe that many Chinese men used their long braids to create nooses, hanging themselves en mass. The survivors fled to Jamaica and added some of the earlier Chinese who had already come to the Island. Or perhaps my great grandparents came as a part of that wave of British colonialism that brought 800 Chinese from Hong Kong to the Island in 1888. I want to perhaps my way into stories for these family members, to invent and imagine what their lives might have been—because I don’t know their names or what they looked like. I don’t know what spurred in them the restlessness still evident in me today.
But, I’m asking more questions than I have answers for. I’m trying to understand my tribe. Trying to use science and history and what pieces I can collage together to create that conversation between the generations, to understand their story, to make them my community.
My great-grandmother, the first of her family to be born in the new world, was the daughter of a widowed shopkeeper. Her mother, who likely died in childbirth, was absent. Her father was a part of a Chinese monopoly on rural grocery stores on the Island, so ubiquitously owned by Chinese immigrants that they were called “Chinese shops.” I imagine her young and pretty, having to sit behind a counter, to dole out change, and to help her father with his English. She was the like to the Island itself to her father; familiar fruits and herbs and vegetables, and its unfamiliar people. I imagine her, and call to mind another young girl—me—working in my father’s shop a lifetime and a country away. Like me, she could only imagine the day that she wouldn’t have to work there anymore, the day she could escape and find another kind of life. I imagine that, like me, she couldn’t wait to get away from her father’s shop and that life. Maybe I won’t ever know.
What I do know is that she married my great-grandfather at fourteen and set to work having children. She died when she was just 32, so much younger than I am now. Not old enough to pluck strands of silver from her hair. Not old enough to look at her husband with love or contempt. Could she think to be happy with the life she had made for herself? It’s hard to know. But that’s not quite right. I can’t know.
As children, my sister and I were taken by my uncle to stay in my great grandparents’ house. It was like a testament to another time. There was still an outhouse in the yard and the kitchen sink had a water pump affixed to the side. Our home in suburban Toronto had central air conditioning, five bedrooms, and a two-car garage. As soon as it was dark out, my uncle took us into the yard and my younger sister and I peered up into the sky. “I’ve never seen so many stars,” I remember saying in amazement. “Who knew there were so many stars?”
My uncle loved that line. He liked to tell it to over and over again. He used my words to point out what city kids we were, kids who had never seen stars like that before. Kids who had never been out in the country before. That night, as our uncle tucked my sister and me into the large four-poster bed, the same one my great-grandparents had shared, he said, “This was the bed my grandmother died in.” His voice was far away sounding, as if he were falling asleep himself.
Dead at 32. After God knows how many pregnancies, she died of appendicitis, not long after her youngest child, a five-year-old, had died. These two deaths always ran parallel for my grandmother. Her sister had been barely buried when the doctor could not save her mother from the ruptured appendix. He’d come only in time to find another dead woman in the house. My grandmother would always insist that it wasn’t the burst appendix that killed her but a broken heart. The death of that child, who was likely to be her last, had taken the will to live from her, my grandmother believed. It haunted her so that beyond her dying day, she would never utter her dead sister’s name. Two generations of mothers taken too early and so it must’ve seemed indulgent that my grandmother lived into her 80s. That she got the chance not just to know her grandchildren, but to see them graduate from high school or college.
We’d met our guide Dave earlier in that day we’d come into Guilin. The city is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China because of its various nature-made wonders. Like our previous guides “Snow White” and “Alice,” Dave provided us with this western name and never mentioned his actual name. These were the names the Chinese who interacted with Westerners gave themselves, a “man-made” construction perhaps disguising their true selves, keeping them at a distance, impersonal. Everyone in China gives Western names to tourists. Yanxi becomes “Nancy.” Perhaps they know better than to endure Westerners bludgeoning their native tongue, their names. Our ears are not accustomed to the tonality of the language. The tonal qualities in Chinese seem to create a verbal tic in even the best speakers. In that pause that speaking or thinking allows for, there is instead a weird little hum, like a bee buzzing—it’s what I imagine is the English equivalent of the “uhm.” But when I first heard it, I thought it sounded like a song under the breath, a melody whispered, and it struck me as a type of chorus to Dave’s moody ballad, “Nature-Made, Not Man-Made.”
I listened intently to all of this over the next few hours as we climbed into the Reed Flute Cave (nature-made) that someone felt needed to be made more spectacular with the addition of lights, music, and a hologram show (man-made) And back on our bus, I again listened as we made our way up a terrifying mountain road, sliding across our seats as driver whipped through switchbacks on our way to the Longsheng Rice Terraces.
An hour still below the terraces, we stopped in the Huangluo Yao Village, home to the Red Yao people. Women there have hair so long it would drag in the dirt if they let it. I stared at them in awe. We stopped to eat in a restaurant where chickens and dogs roam freely inside and out. When my husband’s chicken soup arrives, a feather from the freshly plucked bird bobs in the cloudy broth, thickened by unpronounceable spices and chicken fat.
He makes a face at me, but then plunges in, slurping up the hot broth while I stare at the women with hair straight out of Rapunzel, except in this fairy tale, the hair is jet black and all of the women have ropes of it. Some wear their thick hair tied up in intricate top knots, and I just can’t stop looking at them.
On the side of the road, women sell the mythical rice water that they say makes their hair—a profound source of pride—grow so quickly. The rice comes from the rice terraces only a few miles away. In front of the restaurant, a woman leans over, seeming to bow her head as she rhythmically combs her miles of hair, and I was struck by a terrible longing for my grandmother, who had died 14 years earlier. I could see her, hear the crinkling sound the comb made as it passed through her hair, shiny with sweet almond oil. I loved watching her; the ways her hands worked deftly to comb her hair dry, to plait it without a mirror. She would bend her body like that on Sunday night, combing through her own long, black hair, inky-black like woman’s, before plaiting it. She had warned me so many times never to cut my hair, saying that a woman’s hair was her crowning glory. And the last time I had seen her—at my college graduation—she had wiped the tears away from her eyes as she looked at my shaved head.
“Your hair,” she’d said. “Why would you do that to your hair?”
She died in her sleep only six months later, a tumor the size of a grapefruit had been in her brain killing her quietly and slowly and none of us even knew. During that last trip to the US—we were in Florida by then—she looked older than I ever imagined she could be, and she spent a lot of time looking out at the lush green of the backyard that my parents had rescued from the kudzu and overgrowth.
“What are you thinking about, Grandma?” I asked her once.
“All the people who are gone. My mother, my husband. I miss them.”
At 21, this had seemed silly to me. All these people who had died before I was even born. Hadn’t that feeling gone away, didn’t you ever stop longing for someone who wasn’t ever coming back? The foolishness of youth. I often tell a story in my classes that I take from Flannery O’Conner’s treatise on writing, called “Mystery and Manners.” She says this about writing stories: “In some specific human situation a story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality. I lent some stories to a country lady who lives down the road from me, and when she returned them, she said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do,” and I thought to myself that that was right; when you write stories, you have to be content to start exactly there—showing how some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.”
I don’t know who this story is about. I am not sure if it is about me, or if it’s about Dave. I am not sure if it about what nature makes, or doesn’t make. I am not sure if it is about choices, about the things I choose to do or believe or understand. In spite of everything. Is it a story about faith or a lack of it? Is it about trying to find my tribe or build community. Or is it just me, mired in the quagmire of myself. Trying to figure out if I am nature-made, or man-made.
We are back on the bus for another 20 minutes before we reach the rice terraces. They look like massive slices of ham stacked on top of the other. We take the gondola up, inching slowly over the men and women squatting in the shallow, silty water as the harvest rice. I wonder if this was the life my great grandparents were escaping.
My grandmother and grandfather were Salvation Army Officers, who were stationed in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Two fundamental missions of the Salvation Army are building healthy communities and working for justice. And this was the work to which my grandparents devoted their lives—and at least the early lives of their children as well. That meant moving to countries where they didn’t speak the language. That meant feeding the poor even when their own children—my mother and my uncle—went without. It meant building schools, sheltering displaced people, sharing a roof with the homeless, and taking in refugees from the Holocaust sent to Latin America. They worked on an individual level to make this world a better place for individuals, believing all along that, as the Jamaican national motto reminded them, “Out of Many, One People.”
In Jamaican pidgin, the familiar expression “walk good” is a colloquial way for a speaker to say “goodbye” and, simultaneously, “take good care” to another person. My parents say it to me each time I leave their house. A relatively common expression used at the leave-taking of friends or of strangers, the saying indicates the speaker’s well-wishes for the other carried into the future. This simple but heavily-loaded expression also conveys the speaker’s hope for good luck or good fortune to a departing traveler. A Jamaican wishing her companion good and successful travels as an expression of parting expresses the way that colonized and postcolonial speakers—specifically in Jamaican culture but in all cultures influenced by colonial powers—are at times left with a cultural identity that feels uncertain and unstable. A desire and hopefulness regarding the future at the parting of two people indicates a general instability concerning what the future may hold. This feeling of instability extends to a cultural uncertainty felt by individuals in the colonized culture.
Our guide Alice teaches us a Chinese expression midway through the trip, about eating. They say you save the love for last. The dessert, that bit of sweetness to end the day. The tart pickled vegetables are served right before the silky smooth desert. The tartness makes the sweet that much more potent. Dessert served nature-made, not man-made.
This work was selected by guest editor Hasanthika Sirisena.
Originally from Toronto, Ontario, Dionne Irving has work in Boulevard Magazine, LitHub, Missouri Review, Story Magazine, and New Delta Review, among others. She has a novel, Quint, forthcoming from 7.13 Books and a short story collection, Islands, forthcoming from Catapult. An associate professor at the University of West Georgia, she lives outside of Atlanta with her husband and son.