The oldest brother is a very important person in a Chinese family
– my oldest brother being no exception.
He was born before the liberation of 1949, back when mom and dad still served in the army. The military sent mom back to her village with an allowance, and she had to stay in my uncle’s house. (she could have given a birth in my dad’s village, but she felt more comfortable with her mom nearby.) She was 28.
After the birth, mom took the baby to visit her mother-in-law. It was during the land reform, and since her mother-in-law was from poor family., she got an extra parcel of land for herself and for her grandson.
But like most Chinese wives, Mom never cared for her mother-in-law. She always complained that grandma was not clean. Mom was a very clean person, and she always said that a bathroom and kitchen reflect whether you are a clean person or not
My brother was an unusually large and happy infant, and he provided much entertainment for the extended family in Beijing, including my father’s brother who was then attending a Catholic high school , which had not yet been forced to flee to Hong Kong.
As the first child born, he was also the first to attend school – a school that had not yet been transformed by revolutionary ideology – so like all the other students, he was subject to beatings and physical abuse if he did not behave. One time, his teacher used a needle to prick his arms, and another time he had caused so much trouble, his teacher locked him in a closet and everyone forgot that he was there.
Eventually, the teacher remembered to let him out, but one child was not so lucky, and he died of starvation in the basement. That caused a lot of concern among the parents, and a new policy was formed that forbid the teachers to beat or physically abuse the children.
The rest of my brother’s educational career was not that dramatic. He was not an especially good student – only qualifying for the second-tier of high schools.
His real enthusiasm was for making things – radios, cameras, dark-room equipment, anything mechanical – and he liked to draw things – especially cars. I think the family still has some of his automobile fantasies – cars that have never existed anywhere but in my brother’s mind.
He was very creative and sometimes he could be funny too.
It must have been in 1963 when the daily newspaper published a picture of President Kennedy riding in a convertible and waving to the American people. My brother cut out a picture of himself, and pasted it over Kennedy’s. He showed the picture to us, and told us that he could be the US president someday !
During his school years, he shared a bedroom with his younger brother, and the two were very close – always conspiring on their various projects – until something caused his younger brother to hit him (was he about 12 years old at the time ) This created a great rift between them – and they wouldn’t speak to each other for a full year (a difficult achievement since they shared the same bedroom) But finally my older brother relented and broke the ice, so their collaborations could continue.
Neither of my brothers were bullies – but my oldest brother was always especially nice to his younger sisters. . I remember he used to carry my younger sister on his back when she was just a toddler – and she really enjoyed it. ( they were about 8 years different in age) . Sometimes, I hit my brother to let my anger out, and he always let me. He never hit back, but sometimes, he would say, “do it again, that didn’t hurt at all.” (I always wondered if that were true, because I did use all my strength) He always had such a mild temperament.
He also helped mom with house chores, such as making noodles. In those days, we did not buy ready made noodles, not only because they were a bit more expensive, but also because they were hard to find in the market. My oldest brother made them from scratch. First he used water and wheat flour to make a dough, then, after letting it sit a while, he rolled the dough into a big thick sheet and carefully cutting it into very thick noodles. We had freshly made noodle soup almost every dinner – and even now, I still love noodle soup!
The one thing my brother hated was shopping. During the 3 years we lived at the Friendship Hotel, he never went to the local grocery. Indeed, he did not even know where it was located., and Mom or I did most of the shopping, sometimes having to carry a bag of heavy rice or wheat flower.
After he transferred to a boarding high school, he only came home on the weekend. He did not make a single friend in our huge living complex. During the beginning of the Culture Revolution, after dad was condemned, my younger sister and I were often chased by other mean children who lived in the same complex. But that never happened to my older brother, because nobody recognized him as his father’s son. He had been shy in his early teen, but he was totally withdrawn from social crowds from then on.
The big disaster in my oldest brother’s life was the Cultural Revolution -- which hit just as he had graduated from high school. So instead of going to college, he spent the next ten years in a very damp and dark cave Yes, it was quite literally a cave – dug out by him and his classmates from a hillside near a remote village in the countryside.( and while they were building their “home”, they even dug out a coffin.)
Dirt walls, dirt floor, no heat, not much food, poor nutrition, no health care, and since he came from a “black family” near isolation. (i.e. everyone knew his father was in prison)
One of my best friends’ brothers was sent to the countryside as well, but during the first a few months when he was building his home, a huge log fell off the truck and killed him instantly.
I also once met a man whose son was injured when excavating a cave. A corner of the room had fallen down, hitting him on the head, and blinding him immediately
So I guess you could say that, by comparison, my brother was very lucky.
When he finally could return to the city, he was too old to go to university and prepare for one of the technical professions in which he would have excelled. He had spent those years in the cave reading ancient Chinese literature (something which I could never do) . But when he got out, what kind of a job could he hold ?
First, my father got him a job driving a tractor in an agricultural research facility – and when my father became acting director of the new spy school, he was permitted to get his son a job there too – as an electrical technician, He never had formal training in electronics, but he was considered one of their best technicians, able to fix everything from TV sets to tape recorders. But since he was so introverted, his co-workers or boss took advantage of his skills and would claim credit for his work. He was not happy about it, but he did not do anything to prevent it.
Later on, he started not going to work at all since , as he told us, that there was not enough work for him to do. When he reached the age of 50 the school asked him to retire, and by then, our father was no longer the vice president of the university.
This does not sound like much of a career – but as the son of a high official, my brother was still a very desirable candidate for marriage – and nearly 70 families sent pictures of their daughters to him. Sometimes he didn’t like her picture – sometimes she didn’t like his – and most of the time the blind date didn’t work out.
He was very picky and this was a big headache for mom, who was worried about her oldest son’s marriage. For a long time, every evening, the entire family got together after dinner, trying to help my brother analyze the available girls. But he always told us that he did not need any help – and he would rather be left alone.
One very tall and attractive woman was quite persistent. My very-picky mother actually liked her – and she was recruiting all of us to help her with her courtship. But my brother was even pickier. They dated about six months – and nothing came of it.
Eventually he met a woman – and it was love at first sight -- he was so enthusiastic from the very beginning. Her family was of appropriate status (her father was a general) so the match was made, the wedding was held, and a year later my new niece was born.
Now they are both retired, and they spend their time reading or exercising in the park. That’s the thing about working for the government – you get health care – and a pension after 30 years – and that included the 10 that he spent in a cave. Since government workers can retire before the age of 50, many of them choose to begin second careers – but not my brother. He has what he wants, and he is quite content to be a gentleman of leisure.
I never really got to know my sister-in-law very well, since she is also very shy and quiet person. But I got to know her sister who happened to be in Chicago in early 1990s with her husband who was working for the Chinese Consulate. We became really good friends, and whenever I visit Beijing, I always stop by to see her.