Thursday, March 15, 2007

Part Three


We had a 2 month vacation every Summer, but all my classmates spent the first (or last) two weeks furiously writing all the homework we’d been assigned. We were supposed to study two hours every Summer day -- but like bitter medicine, we wanted to get over it right away – and then – at last ! – we’d get the remaining 6 weeks to ourselves.

Maybe my sisters remember it different – but I don’t recall our family ever traveling on a vacation – my parents were too busy. Nobody had a car – but my father had access to one from the government garage to use on official business.

Once in a while, – when he was on a long distance trip or outside Beijing, he would allow us to ride with him and we played outside while he was engaging in some serious meeting

I remembered one particular business trip when dad brought my younger sister and me along for the ride. It was a couple of hours outside Beijing, in an area called Qin Cheng where political prisoners or POWs were kept. It was close to the mountains. It was late fall, all the crops had been harvested, and there was only bare land with a few brown leaves left on the ground. My sister and I began to climb a nearby hill, and found some delicious wild sour dates.

We ate lots of them right on the spot, and took the rest back home for mom and the family. In the afternoon, the driver found some sweet potato fields. They had already been harvested, but we were lucky enough to dig out the few still left.. The driver put them on top of the car’s engine and told us we’d have baked potato by the time we got home. Only a few potatoes survived the long bumpy road home – but still we had a hot sweet treat.

There was no summer camp – but every year the school organized a few day outings to the parks or hills near Beijing.

Most of the Summer, kids just played with each other – and best of all – we had a swimming pool next to our apartment ! Maybe I should make clear that in 1960 the family moved out of the old-style-mansion (about a block from Tiannamen Square) and into a special compound (adjacent to Tianmenen Square) for the Security Ministry. ( Chinese civilian government had 8 major ministries )

The compound contained several city blocks – enclosed by a wall with four gates – each of them with armed guards. ( we had to show ID cards to get in)

It was a section of the city that used to be the foreign diplomatic quarter – so many of the buildings, like ours, were of European design – and we lived on the second floor of a very elegant embassy, with high ceilings, hardwood floors, and a long outdoor corridor (or porch) that ran the length of the façade, with many tall glass doors opening onto it.

We had a small bedroom for my oldest brother, and two large bedrooms with a big, beautiful fireplace in the center and a tall mantel with silk flowers in a blue glass vase. The windows facing north were huge, and in winter, my mom always sealed them with newspaper strips. One winter my brother made a small hole at the buttom , and pushed through it any coin he could find or borrow. The coins got trapped between the window and screen, and when my mother removed the paper at the end of winter, there was a big pile of coins. My lucky brother claimed them all – as his own personal piggy bank.

I should mention here that in China, children lived with their parents until they got married (and even then, sometimes, they had to wait a very long time to get an apartment) Due to the shortage of housing, my bother lived at home until he was 34! (but now things have changed)

And yes, the compound did have a swimming pool (on property that had recently served as a pig pen - back when meat was in shorter supply)

But there really wasn’t any other kind of public recreational area – other than a playground with some parallel bars for kids – so on cold or rainy days, the only place to be was home – where we might play cards, or chess, or mahjong ( my parents had an old family mahjong set. It was forbidden – since gambling was forbidden – but we played anyway – without money). But the game of go ? No – that was more for intellectuals.

My two brothers were some of the first among their peers to have the hobby of making crystal radios. They saved their allowance to buy the tools and parts, including an an iron which cost 8 Yuan. (which was a lot of money back then – when apprentice workers only made 18 Yuan per month). They saved many months and eventually convinced mom to chip in half the cost. They were so happy ! They spent many late nights making radios. The best and smallest one fit into a match box, and left it next to my parent’s pillow to impress them with their achievement.

My father once told my oldest brother to study more when my mother complained that my oldest brother was spending too much time making radios and not enough time studying. He ignored the advice and then my father got angry and stepped on one of the radios, crushing it. My father seldom punished us and that was the only time I saw my brother cry. (My mother never forgave my father for that and for years to come used that incident to criticize his parenting skills.)


Once a week, the compound showed movies – most of which were propaganda melodramas – but I clearly remember the animated version of “Journey to the West” (a folktale fantasy about how Buddhism was introduced to China –full of incredible monsters and strange heroes.) Occasionally we’d get a big song and dance show – like the big shows at the People’s Congress Hall – not very far from the compound. But tickets there could not be purchased – they had to be gifts from the government – and if my father got any – he only got one or two.

I remember one time we had two tickets and my mother took my younger sister. But I wanted to go too ! So I followed them to the auditorium and wheedled my way past the smiling guard.

I don’t remember neighborhood children playing sports – but if a girl showed exceptional athletic ability at school – she might be offered a place in a special sports academy – like my sister was , for example. (my mother, however, turned down this proposal – thinking that she would get a better education in a more traditional school. (Sports and entertainment had low status in China when I was growing up, especially opera singers, dancers and actors who were considered servants of the rich)

And the same thing with music --- I don’t remember my childhood friends having a special interest in music – with private lesions in musical instruments. We had Music class at school – mostly singing – and once I was given a set of gongs to use at a special performance on New Year’s Eve.

The “New Year’s old man” (Santa Claus) came out from back of the stage, and we were supposed to welcome him with our New Year’s music, but we forgot all our instructions – and the end result was total cacophony !

I don’t remember any big trouble when we lived in the compound. One time, the signal from my brother’s crystal radio was detected by security – but it’s not like he was arrested or anything. Another time, my brother came home one day and threw himself face down on the bed without talking.

Thirty minutes later we got a phone call from authorities telling us that his bicycle had crashed into a soldier’s motorcycle, breaking the very expensive windshield. But my father talked with the man in charge who said “we are all comrades” and we did not have to pay.

I should mention here, that not everyone in Beijing had a telephone. The phone book at that time was a few centimeters thick (with Mao’s number listed first) – and the telephone poles on our street stopped in front of our house. We were among the first families to have a phone – and a gas oven – and I completely agreed with the little school songs about the happiness of Chinese children (as opposed to those poor, hungry black children who lived in Chicago ! Yes ! – I actually learned a song about poor black children in Chicago – and how sorry we felt for them.)

All of which was true –we WERE better off than poor kids in Chicago – but we were also better off than 99% of poor children in China as well.

There were roughly three kinds of children that we would meet: the children of high-officials (that’s us) – the children of intellectuals (people who taught at university)- and the children of blue-collar workers ---- and as soon as a young person opened her mouth – I could tell which was which.

I don’t remember having close friends from that time – and the kids I met at boarding school were not the same as the kids who lived in my parents’ neighborhood – so mostly I played – or fought – with my brothers and sisters –and my life was kind of different from theirs --- since I was the only one who went to boarding school. The school hadn’t been built when my older siblings started grammar school – while illness had kept my younger sister out of kindergarten for six months, so she ended up in a more local school. (She had gotten insect bites during a trip to the countryside – giving her rash that became more serious)

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