Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Part Eleven

Needless to say , with father gone – the rest of us spent a rather unhappy summer (of’68) in that Beijing apartment.

On the evening of the day following the arrest, mother was dragged out to the street, where a platform had been hastily erected. Our belongings were piled up on long tables, and mother was publicly bullied into making a confession. The slapping and shouting and accusation went on for several hours into the night – but mother was stubborn and denied everything – and we had to watch.

My second-oldest brother was very upset, since he and mother were very close, and many times he began to move toward the stage to help her – but the rest of us pulled him back – what could we do ? There were five of us, and crowd numbered several hundred – and sometimes people were beaten to death in these situations.

Finally, my mother stopped disputing the charges – and she just hung her head in silence.

Thank goodness that was the only time we had to endure such a trial.

But our next problem was getting enough to eat – since Monday had been my father’s payday – and the previous paycheck had already run out.

Mother was frugal and had always believed in saving money – so she had opened several bank accounts – but this was, of course, the kind of thing that our interrogators were looking for. They found some of her smaller account books – but she had one very large account (of 30,000 Yuan – a fortune) and she sewed the account book into a pocket in my sister’s underwear.

So we had a lot of money in a bank – but the problem was how to get it.

As a known criminal, my mother was afraid to go to the bank herself – so she sent me and my older sister on this important errand – to withdraw some small amount, like 150 yuan – that would feed us for several months, but not enough to attract attention.

We had never been to a bank before – and had no idea what to do.
My sister was more timid than I, and she pushed me forward to talk with the teller, but I was not coached enough by mom, and I didn’t know what to say. So there we were, standing by the entrance, pushing each other forward to get the money.

The Banks teller noticed what was going on, and as soon as we handed her the precious account book, she took it to one of the rooms in back --- where she stayed for a very, very long time.

When she returned – she handed the book back to us – but it had been stamped “Closed due to suspicious activity” – and we would not see a single yuan of that money for many years.

This made the family’s situation rather desperate – and at first we went to visit my mother’s brother, a military officer stationed in Beijing. He wanted to help us – but even he was threatened by having any connection with the family of a spy. He did not want to come to our apartment, so we made arrangements to meet him near the Beijing Zoo secretly. Each time he give us 50 – 60 yuan – enough to last us a month. (as a military officer, he made about 230 a month.)

Eventually, our lives were saved by the new military administration of the hotel at which my father had worked. The military had taken control of all institutions whose leadership had been arrested – and the officer in charge of the hotel assigned us the 6-yuan/month stipend given to the destitute --- and since there were 6 in our family, we got 36 yean/month to stay alive.

Which left us with two concerns for the rest of the Summer – first – what happened to father ? and second , what would we do for clothing come next winter (everything had been locked into one of the bedrooms and then sealed so we could not get in)

The challenge was how to remove the seal without breaking it –and with great care, my older brothers accomplished this trick by steaming off the paper seal – and then re-dusting the tracks they had made over the dusty floor.

Unfortunately, finding my father was not so easily accomplished.

Every day, one of us went somewhere – visited someone – trying to get any information at all – but ended up with nothing. Nobody could help us – even if they wanted to.

Meanwhile, the whole country was chaos --nobody was working – and we were stigmatized with enormous lettering on the wall beneath our windows (the calligrapher must have used a mop) marking us as the enemies that we were – and making it dangerous for us to go outside. (my younger sister was once chased and stoned by neighboring children)

Our apartment door was constantly hit with stones thrown by all the people (the “rebellious”) who hated us (or by children who thought it was fun) And then there was all that loud door knocking – whenever someone wanted to search the apartment. Eventually, we all had a fear of door knocking, -- even years later, when it was only friends who came to visit.

Next door – newly wed couple moved in the apartment that had been taken from us – and ever after we had to share the kitchen and bathroom with them. They never cleaned up their mess – and mom hated it -- but she dared not say a word.

We analyzed that situation: why did they want to move in with us?

Yes, they needed a place to live, but meanwhile they could also spy on us. Fear that the couple would report whatever we said, we soon spoke in a low voice and used some secret codes among us. So even if they heard us, they could not tell what we meant.

Then, one day the couple moved out – and in their place came one of the many new political action groups that used the apartment as an office – where they would meet to decide who should be denounced – and broadcast the results from a loudspeaker aimed out the window. This was happening all over Beijing – and it was like a madhouse.
As the family of an “American Spy” we were, of course, one target of their displeasure – and as the comrades visited the office, they often grabbed a handful of stones to throw up against our door.

But it wasn’t only comrades who visited the office – we also began to notice that a parade of neighborhood girls (aged 12 to 16) were spending time there with one of the fellows. As a group leader, he had access to things girls might want – like treats or tickets to shows– and eventually, one of them became pregnant.

As I may have mentioned before, we lived in a somewhat puritanical society – and sex outside of marriage was a serious offence. The parents of the pregnant girl complained to the police, and the young revolutionary was brought up on charges. No laws, no lawyers, no litigation was involved – but the young man spent the next 2 or 3 years in prison.

During this summer, I had my own scrapes with law –but nothing that serious – because I had begun to hang out with a group of what might be called “young hooligans” What else was there to do ? I became best friends with a very short, but very feisty girl my age from the neighborhood (I still know her ! she lives in New York now)

One of our projects was to break into movie theatres to see the movies for free –maybe to save a little money – but mostly for the thrill of it.

We would rush the ticket counter all at once – say something a little threatening – and then find seats in the theatre. Sometimes it worked – and sometimes it didn’t – and one time we heard the theatre doors being bolted shut behind us as the police entered the room and rounded up all the miscreants.

So there I was –hauled off to the police station late one night. I must have cried so pathetically, they let us off with a stern warning – but by now it was midnight and neither my friend or I felt we could go home --- so I had the idea of visiting my uncle again – the one who had helped us before.

I’m sure we were not a welcome sight at 2 am when we finally got to his compound. The soldiers at the gate wouldn’t let us in – but they phoned up to his apartment. He wouldn’t let us stay – but he gave me ten Yuan – which was enough for bus fare and breakfast. (note: I forget where you ended up sleeping that night)

Often our adventures were not that risky – we would just manage to sneak through the fence of a neighboring apartment complex on movie night.

As winter approached, arrangements were made for high school students, like my older brothers and sisters, to be sent to the countryside – and this was happening across the country in every high school. The higher rank the school -- the more primitive the area to which their students were sent.

My siblings were going to remote places with no electricity, no plumbing, dirt floors, and very little food. Where my oldest brother went, there weren’t even houses – but the people lived in caves dug into the hillsides. Where my sister went, the food was corn porridge --- that varied throughout the day from watery to more watery. The local people have been living like that from generation to generation. They seldom went to bed with a full stomach.

My old sister and her classmates had to build their own house to live. (When she was sent to the roof to work, she was so scared, she hardly dared to stand up.)

And I remember so well the day they left for the train station – because we had to borrow a cart and it took all day dragging it back and forth for each of them.

What a dark, bleak, cold December day that was !

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