Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Part Five

As we approach the end of my primary education– big changes were taking place for me, my family , and the entire country.

For me, the change was quite simple: I walked away from the June First school and never went back.

Here’s how it happened:

As already mentioned, I did well in sports: running , ping pong – but also in that acrobatic exercise that Chinese girls do with a long rubber band – so well that my teachers selected me to represent the 12-year old girls in the competition with other schools. I was soooo proud – because I was only 11 – and I was not only the best girl in my class (40 children) but also in my age group (60 children) and even the next age group as well (total of 120 children) and here I would compete against the best girls from all over Beijing. So I began to practice very very hard (and my grades began to slip from straight-A’s – but just a little)

One day, as I was out in the yard practicing – I noticed, through the window, that my teachers were looking at me and talking – and next day I got the bad news: I was not going to compete for our school after all ! (no reason was given -- but I’ve always felt that it was because I was practicing too much by myself and not playing with the other children)

I was heartbroken ! I felt so, so bad – and I just decided to leave that school and never come back – which I did during recess – by walking right beneath the window at the gate (I was short enough not be noticed)

But now I had a problem – getting home ! --- because June First school was outside the city gates – it was 10 miles from home – and I’d never walked home before (the school bus took us back-and-forth once a week). So I followed the route of the school bus – and after walking all afternoon, I finally made it to Tiananmen square – which on this day was filled with people at some kind of public event. I was such a small child – they just ignored me – but I was very frightened – especially because the sun had begun to set – and this time of day always makes me gloomy. I also had to get past the guards at the gate to our compound – and since I was only home on weekends – the weekday guards were different and might not recognize me.

But I made it home – sneaked into home, actually – and hid in my brother’s bedroom – while I could hear my mother in the kitchen preparing dinner.

Then the phone rang ! “We can’t find Yen Ming – have you seen her ?” Mother had no idea where I was – but I rushed in, grabbed her leg from behind, and began to wail.

Looking back at it – maybe I was just a little spoiled – because my parents agreed not to send me back to June First School – but where could I go ? It was the middle of the semester, and the neighborhood school was already filled. But fortunately for me, my father had just gotten a very big promotion – where now he would work for the Foreigners bureau – and the family would eventually have to move into a different compound. He would be in charge of security – and his promotion was signed by Zhou EnLai, and announced in the People’s Daily

The Foreigners bureau managed the lives of foreign nationals in Beijing’s Friendship hotel – so we eventually had to live next to the hotel – and for the first few months, father and I actually lived in the hotel – in an 8-Yuan room – very expensive ! very elegant ! !

( The hotel was built in 1950’s with help of Russian experts, but from the outside, it appeared to be Chinese – with glazed tiles over the roof, and decorated pillars. For many years only foreign and distinguished guests could stay there. )

I felt very lucky to have father all to myself for every evening dinner at the hotel restaurant.

I had already eaten at my new boarding school, so I just sat and watched dad eat in the cafeteria. He never bought expensive dishes, the choices ranged from 5 to 25 fens, and he usually picked either the 10 fens or the 5 fens dish. He was known for living like a common worker, and he was proud of it. (but incredibly enough, later on that was counted as a crime: he was accused of pretending to be a worker !)

Once in while, dad would buy me a 4 fens piece of corn bread. (It was not common to find baked food in China since all the breads were steamed.) I loved it: it was sweet and crusty on the outside, but soft and moist within. Most Chinese hate corn bread because it was part of the daily food ration and they had no other choice. (But I still like it – even today)

After dinner, my father and I would go for a walk.

I remember how people were so friendly to us on the street, always greeting my father with his title instead of calling him by name. (that’s how Chinese people do when they run into higher ranking officials) . And many times I was flattered with nice words as well, such as “ how beautiful your daughter is ---- and how smart she is too”

Eventually, the family was moved into a Russian designed, newly built administrators’ residence – where we were given two adjoining apartments – giving us five bedrooms, two kitchens, and two bathrooms with showers.

(before we moved in, my father had also asked to have a bath tab installed in one of them. Most Beijing residents had to use public restrooms – or if they had a private restroom, it had no hot water)

The rooms had nearly 10 foot ceilings and hardwood floors. Here, finally, after an entire childhood spent at boarding school, I could live at home and attend the local ministry school – where I quickly fit in quite well – made friends – continued my study – preparing for the big examination. In this educational system – grades meant nothing – it all depended on the examination – and the stupidest little questions could sink your ship. For example, for some reason, when my sister had to answer “how many seasons are there in the year?” – she answered ‘three’ – which was the only answer she got wrong – but was enough to knock her out of the top school.

But it was now 1966 – and big changes were coming to the country.

At home, we noticed that something was wrong with father’s job – he was coming home later and later – some nights, not at all – and when he came home, he was worried – and my parents had conversations that we were not supposed to hear.

Then the big posters started to go up on the walls and over the windows in our district – posters that named enemies of the revolution – posters that named all four directors of our ministry – posters that named my own father ! And it didn’t even use his name as I knew it – it used his Christian name – and this was the first time that I know that, as a child, my father had been baptized a Christian.

All these posters were made by the people who worked in our ministry – the support staff – including the lower ranked cadres, the drivers, hotel room cleaners, cooks etc. – and the same thing was beginning to happen all over Beijing and eventually, all over China.

The Cultural Revolution had begun !

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Part Four

Just to fill in more details of life before the Cultural Revolution:

There were 24 levels of government service for Cadre (members of the Communist Party) – Mao was level one – Zhou Enlai level 2 – top generals level 3 etc. The upper 13 levels were considered “high officials” – and throughout these years my father was level 12 (eventually he made it up to level 11) , while my mother was level 22.

Each level had it own privileges – for example the highest levels got a red ration book that allowed them to purchase a certain amount of meat, eggs, shoes etc every month. Our family got the blue book – which was one rung lower – so we, for example, were allotted two pounds of eggs, 2 pounds of sugar, etc. every month – quantities that became very important during the three years of hardship (1958-1961) when drought and floods created such severe shortages and even starvation in the countryside. (this was also the period when Mao asked us to “tighten our belts” so China could pay its debt to USSR)

In the regular stores, you could not buy any food without the coupons distributed to residents each month by the local government, so it was impossible for people to travel to Beijing and live there.

For many years our mom wanted to buy a leg of famous ham - but that required two full years of meat coupons. Her plan was to save a few every month, but by the time she nearly had enough, the coupons rations were no longer being used.

One of our special events was to go shopping with mother. She would load all the different ration books into a large purse, and with kids in tow, we’d all go to the shopping district. It was great fun ! On one of the those trips, mother assigned us the job of carrying the purse – which was too heavy for just one of us – so we teamed up – and switched off – and shared the burden – and avoided the burden – and well, when we finally got to the market, the purse could not to be found. Nobody had it ! Ohhhhh was my mother angry ! That was an entire year’s worth of clothing ration books – there would be no new shirts or shoes until next year. She raised her voice and cuffed me on the head – and I felt very bad.

The only time my father ever hit me was the day I kept him from sleeping. I was playing out on the long front porch – while he was trying to take a nap inside. Several times he’d asked me to quiet down – but I just had to keep playing loud – so after at least an hour of sleeplessness, he came out and hit me – which provoked a terrible argument with my mother – and I, of course, again felt very bad.

Our parents hardly ever hit us – but they really pushed us to study-study-study at school .

Since mom never got a chance to go to university, she always hoped that all five children would – and she often told us “ if you are accepted into university, I will sell everything I own to support you.” But her dream was crashed by the Cultural Revolution.

I was the only one who eventually got a university education, but all of us did very well in school – especially my oldest sister and my second oldest brother who were admitted to the top middle schools in Beijing.

You have to realize what an incredible achievement that was for a 12-year old ---- because the 100 students in their classes had scored in the top 1% of all 12-year olds in the entire city. There must have been at least 20 levels of school with admission determined by test scores – with the bottom school taking everyone who couldn’t qualify for the others. That’s why we had to study so hard – and my mother was always urging my father to make my older brothers study harder.

In my first grade, I got sick and stayed in the hospital for a month, then I was released from hospital and sent straight home, I had to rest at home for a month. And in my second grade I got the same hepatitis-A again, this time even worse. I was in the same hospital for two months and stayed home another month, So basically, I did not attend school for the first and second year. My teacher was so concerned, she suggested that I repeat the second grade, but my mom told her to wait until final exams. Amazingly I passed them with a double 100 points. After that, my concerned teacher did not argue at all, - and I went on to the third grade and was always among the a few top students in my class.

My brothers studied hard – but they also liked to tinker with their radio. One day my father got very angry at them for wasting so much time – and he went into their room, took their beloved radio – that they had built from scratch – with from parts purchased by every penny they could save – and slammed it on the floor – crushing it with his foot. Needless to say, this made my brothers very, very unhappy.

Discipline at the boarding school was perhaps a bit lighter – but I do remember what happened to a big, strong girl who was a terrible bully. She would threaten –pinch – and take things from other girls – and they were all too afraid to tell the teacher. (she was not in my class) . She would torture girls by forcing making them to sit on the hot radiator – and make girls do her chores (like carrying the urine bucket out of the dormitory) – and even made some girls drink her urine. Oh – she was terrible ! But one day – finally! – the teachers got wind of this abuse– and all the children were assembled and asked to write down every bad thing this girl had ever done. The accusations were then posted up on all four classroom walls, and the long table was covered with everything she had taken from others. Her career as bully was over.

I also remember a similar event with an abusive boy – but here the teacher held the boys arms while all the students – including myself – were invited to step up – one at a time – to hit him. (I hit him, too, but not very hard, because he was already crying by the time it was my turn)

We had four classes in the morning – 45 minutes each with a 15 minute break between each class., and then a long break for lunch and nap – then three more classes in the afternoon and a study hall after dinner. Somewhere in there, we had about 2 hours to play – running, jumping, stretching – and of course, ping-pong --- at which I was very good – at least among my fellow 10-year olds. Two people would play – and the winner would than face the next person in line – so it was a question of how long one could keep on playing.

Every Thursday night we had a big dinner (with that special treat: meat-filled dumplings !) and a movie. We had plenty to eat that night – and one poor boy ate so many he couldn’t stand up ! (the teachers were very worried) Once or twice a year we were taken by bus for an outing to the “Fragrant Hills”, about 15 miles west of Beijing – where there were rocks to climb and gardens to see – and somewhere, hidden from curious eyes –the vacation home of Chairman Mao.

We went to Fragrant Hills in late October to see the red leaves. . This was a big event for us ! We were allowed to bring some pocket money, so when we were in the park, and hungry, we stopped for snacks. My mom usually gave me 20 to 50 cents. At that time, a popsical cost 3 cents, the better ones which were made of milk cost 5 cents. A sweat bread with nuts cost 15 cents. Orange juice cost 15 cents and so on. We seldom had any pocket money. However since I was the only one who went to boarding school, every time I got on the school bus, my mom put some candies or other goodies in my pocket, or else she’d give me 20 cents to buy something to take to school. I never went to school empty handed !

Sometimes, when there had been trouble with teachers (after I had been naughty or disobedient) -- I tried to find all kinds of excuses for not going back to school – and the school bus would leave without me. Then mom had to take me to school by public transportation. Since my school was in the suburbs, the city bus didn’t quite go that far – and we had to walk a certain distance through a grave yard. And every time that happened – my mother was scared to death !.

I just talked to mother about this period of my life --- and she corrected my story about the transition from pre-school to grade-school: my entire pre-school class was transferred to the newly built grade school --- and my sister would have gone too, except that she had gotten a terrible rash during a visit to the countryside with my mother – and she missed several months of school – so she ended up never going. That’s why she didn’t join me –not because of the expense, which my mother says was not that bad.

She also reminded me of when I got very sick – back when I was 12 months old – and they took me to hospital where the doctor said that I was beyond treatment. My mother said something like “please take her in and treat the dead horse like a live one” and they gave me a bed. But my mother was very worried – and she made a special ornamental frame for my 100-day-old photograph (taken for every Chinese child whose parents could afford it). Every day she went to hospital and left a huge bag of fruit for me at the gate (she wasn’t allowed in except during visiting hour) –but I’m sure that no one ate that fruit except for the door man.

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 fa├žade, 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)

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Part Two

School Days

And more about my birth – it really was a dramatic event !

It was around sunset when mother felt I was ready to arrive, but father was working late at the office (as usual) , so she had to get to hospital on her own, and being frugal, she took a pedicab. You can imagine the poor driver pedaling furiously for an hour through the dark streets of Beijing while mother was begging him to hurry. On arrival, I didn’t waste any time entering the world – but the hospital staff were so eager to go home for the night, they forgot about mother, and she was left to spend the night in a delivery room. It was winter – and neglecting to leave her with a blanket, my mother needed several months of acupuncture to restore her health.

Mother spent the next six months recovering at home – and I spent the next 18 months living with a wet nurse.

That’s how it was done for government cadres – the government provided a subsidy – but the parents had to recruit their own nannies – so my mother’s brother sent her a young woman from his village – who moved to Beijing and lived with the me in the nurse’s dormitory. I was, of course, too young to complain about all this – but apparently my country nurse was not completely candid about the other children she was feeding --- so I was not growing as quickly as babies usually do – and she also managed to give my mother many other things to complain about: she flirted with the cooks, she didn’t change my diapers, she let me ruin my clothes, she slapped me around. Eventually, some neighbors told mother how badly I was being treated, the nanny was sent back to the country, and I was put into daycare.

At the age of two – I was sent to my first boarding school – which was another mansion, nearby, that had been converted into a facility that fed, housed, and pre-schooled children 6 days a week (we were sent home every Saturday night, and came back Monday morning ) The school was closed for two months during the summer but you can see that I hardly spent any time with my parents at all !

Our pre-school even had a zoo ! -- a little petting zoo – to which, one day, the principal added a few monkeys that he brought back with him from the south. We loved those monkees ! And you can imagine our excitement when a baby monkey was born --- and all our eager little faces pressed up against the window to see him. You can also imagine our terror when one of the monkees escaped and ran wild in the courtyard. We started running too – and it was right in front of me that wham! -- one of the kids and the monkee knocked each other over..

In my entire life, I only lived with my parents for four years – but I was the only child who spent so much time in boarding schools. So, living at home, my siblings had stronger bonds between each other My two older brothers made a team, and my older sister protected my younger sister. For some years I felt like I was an adopted daughter, an outsider. (happily, that is no longer the case.)

Then at the age of seven – I went to grammar school – and since it had just been built, I was the first of my siblings to attend. It was right outside the old Beijing city walls – in a cemetery, in fact, so the school grounds encompassed the monumental tomb of the Dowager Empress’s favorite eunuch. ( I remember this monument quite well because whenever father dropped me off at school, he always stopped to read the text carved into the two plinths on either side, detailing the achievements of that notorious figure in 19th C. Chinese history. In front of the tomb was an enormous stone altar – which served us quite well as a ping-pong table !

This is now 1960 – and the country has just passed through the “Great Leap Forward” – where government workers, like my parents were now on salary – but had to pay for services --- and many of them, including my mother – were laid off – to cut expenses and save money to pay back debts to the Russians. (being a good cadre, however, my mother was soon offered another job – this time as the manager of a local clothing factory)

My grammar school, called “June First” ( “International Children’s Day”) was one of about seven special schools in Bejing built to educate the children of government officials.(each one was named after a some special day, like “May First” (labor day) for example.) The “June First” school took the children of (and was supported by) the Internal Ministry and the PLA, and though our lives were very regimented (by American standards) the teachers were strictly forbidden to hit us.

(That was Mao’s new policy for all of China: no physical punishment – but there could be verbal punishment or humiliations, like standing in the corner or the revoking of privileges.)

We did group exercise ( including eye exercises between classes) and some wore badges of rank on our shoulder. The well behaved children got to join the Young Pioneers and wear a special red scarf – like the young pioneers did in the Soviet Union ( which provided so a model for so much of Chinese education ) – but I didn’t get to wear one for several years.

I was a good student but I was too independent or strong headed , so I was not allowed to join until my third year. ( and even then, I had to pretend to be good for two weeks)

One time, I remember we had a young teacher whom today might be called “manic-depressive”. One morning she began class singing and smiling ---in a very happy mood -- but suddenly that mood turned dark – she began to yell and made us all write something a thousand times in our little notebooks. I wouldn’t stand for it! – and I shouted back “I’m not going to do it!” – at which point the teacher removed the penalty from everyone else – and gave it only to me ! But soon she relented, and the punishment was stopped..

Another time, when I was a new student (about age 7), the teacher said something I didn’t like. She then continued teaching , but I wanted her to stop – so I began to cry and scream so loudly that the principal could hear me from the other side of the school.

He took me away to his office -- but he was a very kind man – and I remember, after I settled down, climbing up on the chairs in his office to nose around the panoramic picture of the school hanging up on the office wall.

We all had to go to bed in the dormitory at 9 O’clock – but some of us liked to talk – and I think that this was what got me in the most trouble.

I was never severely punished, but several years earlier, my oldest brother had not been so lucky – and one day a teacher got so angry with him that she stuck him in the arm with a needle and locked him in the cellar. My mother was very upset – a meeting of the parents was called – and the teachers agreed that they would never do this sort of thing again. The worst punishment that I ever saw was making children stand in a corner.

But it’s not like I was a bad student – indeed, I was such a good student I was often spared the punishment or humiliation that my head strong behavior well deserved. (perhaps you could call me a “teacher’s pet” ?) I was also a popular student since I was the fastest runner, a good dancer, and was active at acting – and even directing – our little plays.

We studied math, and Chinese, and music. Most of our classes were memorization and recitation – with the teacher calling on each student to stand and recite, by memory, various pages of text. We students got to elect a class monitor – usually a very well behaved student – whose job was to announce the teacher’s entrance to the classroom and command us to stand or sit. I just saw a film, “Au Revoir Mes Enfants” about a French boarding school in the 40’s, and it all seemed so familiar.

So I think I had very good time in school – although we did have bullies now and then. One time my father took a special trip to Sin Jiang (on the silk road) – and when he returned he brought us all raisins – which were a special treat. My little sister was stingy with hers and wouldn’t share them with other children – but soon she came crying to me after bullies had dumped her bag of raisins on the floor so all the other children could pick them up. I shared some candies I had with her (which she remembers to this day!)

We had two places to keep our personal things: inside our desk – and shelf space in a dormitory armoire. We could really keep anything in that desk – and the little boy who shared the other half of our two person desk was really, really dirty ! He kept worms, frogs, pine resin balls, and who-knows-what else inside that desk, and it really irritated me. I drew a line in the space between us – and whenever he crossed that line – ouch ! -- he got a swift, sharp elbow in the side !

That’s how we sat in class: boy-girl-boy-girl – but there were separate bath houses for each – where once a week we all went to soak in a large warm pool, get scrubbed, and then walk through a shower. One time, I remember, some boys -- who were approaching that age when girls began to interest them – broke into the girls bath house to satisfy their curiosity. I think they were all punished – but I don’t remember how – probably letters were sent to their parents.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Part One

The first home I can remember (I was about 3 or 4) was one of those old Beijing mansions — with a moon gate and courtyard surrounded by small, connecting rooms ( for the previous owner’s many wives, no doubt!) — and I can still see its beautiful red tile floor -- spreading out just like a Persian carpet. There were large windows with colored glass and big red pillars along the front corridor. Large bricks paved the courtyard, and as soon as we moved in, mother removed some of them to make a vegetable and flower garden – right in the middle.
( Forty years later – that garden was still there – but fifty years later, the entire neighborhood was demolished to make room for larger streets and modern buildings.
And let’s not forget the that huge date tree ! – just east of the courtyard. Every fall my two brothers joined other neighborhood children in climbing up the tree to shake those big, sweet dates down from the branches. It was the Beijing house of a rich man—but, of course, the rich man was gone — all the rich men were gone — and now it was home for several families — all of whom, like my parents, worked for the government.

It was 1953 — and my parents had worked for the Communist government ever since it was the Army of Liberation against the Japanese. They had gotten married in 1945 and the Communist party was the matchmaker! My mother’s first assignment, upon graduating from military school — was to marry an officer— (that was every female graduate’s first assignment) and that lucky PLA officer was the man who would become my father – but I’m not sure that she felt so lucky herself at the time. She was a tall, attractive woman from a prosperous peasant family (just like Mao’s) — while my father was a short man whose education had gotten him assigned to making paperwork behind the lines, instead of heroically leading soldiers into combat. But an order was an order ! And since they went on to have five children and live together the rest of their lives— I guess it wasn’t such a bad match after all.

Both of my parents came from villages in Hebei Province — only about 10 miles from each other.
My father’s family was Christian and poor—his grandfather had been adopted —and if you read the book of poetry he later wrote from prison, his childhood was very sad. On the first page, he remembers himself as a little boy collecting dung for fuel — but his parents knew he was smart — so they sent him to as much school as they could afford — and learning how to read — he taught himself the rest. He couldn’t afford to finish high school —but while he was still a teenager, he went to Tian Jin and got a job clerking for a very famous lawyer. (who must have also been a very smart lawyer — because he survived all the twists and turns of war and revolution — living into his nineties , happy and prosperous).

But by 1937, his father (my grandfather) was desperate for help in the fields—all of his sons had moved away or been recruited by the army — so my father had to move back to the village to help out — which was a real problem, since my father had never been a farmer. But he managed to trade places with a younger brother who was in the army — so my uncle returned to the farm, and my father entered the liberation army led by Chiang Kai-shek.

Yes ! My father first served the Guomindang —- but soon after, when his unit converted to Communist control ,nobody held it against them — and he was a loyal Community ever since. He worked for a top general who had quite a career all the way to the Cultural Revolution.
My mother’s family was better off — and one of her uncles was the only person in their county to have a university degree. There was even foot-binding —- my poor grandmother had it done — but my grandfather was firmly opposed to binding the feet of his proud daughters — and threatened to cut off my grandmother’s hair if she ever tried to do it !
My mother and her female cousins stayed in their village all the way until 1944, when for their protection, one of the uncles enrolled them all in military school. Her father had studied at China’s top officer school (where Chiang Kai Shek and Zhou En Lai had once been principals) - but he suffered from stomach cancer and would not live much longer.

After marriage, both my parents served in the PLA — though my father had a much higher position. One year later, my oldest brother was born, and at the end of the war, a man who knew my father in the army offered him a civilian position in Beijing , which, much to my mother’s dismay, he accepted without consultation. You see, she had a job too, and now both of them had to resign their army commissions and move into the city. (and you know what -- she never forgave him)
But let’s face it — when my parents moved to the city — my father’s position afforded them a pretty good life.

He worked in the ministry of public security — in America it would be called the FBI or CIA — and the party gave them everything: the house, the food, the maids, wet nurse, even a cook. There was no salary for government workers back in those days (before the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958) — just a very complete package of benefits. As my mother remembered —many years and many tears later — they never had it so good — a big fish for dinner — every night — whack ! — off came the head — whack ! — off came the tail — and then the family, which eventually had 5 children — would sit down for dinner. Often my father ate at the special dining room for high officials (while my mother recalls, in contrast, the small, hard cornbread with salted vegetables that ordinary workers brought with them for lunch.

And there was a premium for having children.

The more children — the more benefits (at least for this special class of government workers).
My pregnancy (her fourth) was very hard on mother. She was sick every day — and finally I was delivered premature — spending my first 12 days in an incubator.
But when my mother became pregnant again and applied to authorities for an abortion — she was turned down. “You’ve only have four children” they told her — come back to us when you’ve had six or seven ”

(A professor at Beijing university in the early 1950’s had recommended family planning - showing that Mao’s idea of making more children to have more laborers was short sighted, since more people needed more food. But Mao still wanted to follow the example of the Soviet Union, whose population, at that time, was in decline. )


This blog is the confluence of two concerns: my curiosity and the speaker's wish to leave a record of her life for the nieces and nephews.

Every week we get together for pastry and soda and talk about the past, as her husband occasionally throws in a comment or two.

Then, the next morning, I wake up and try to remember what she said.

Obviously, I'm not a professional historian -while her family, although privileged, will probably never appear in history books -- but I have become a fan of popular Asian literature -- and somehow her family's story -- of success and impending catastrophe -- feels like an update to "Dream of Red Chamber".

As we begin, I'm not sure how long this story will run -- it's so much fun, I hope, just like the above novel, that it will never end.

(note: the characters that illustrate each chapter have been lifted from The National Palace Museum in Taipei. They are all from the great Sung calligraphers of the 11th Century -- included in a exhibit in early 2007.
Hopefully, this website will still be active whenever you read this -- but if not -- I've done a little cut-and-paste job here )