Thursday, June 28, 2007

Part Eighteen

Getting back to my own life, mother and I moved back to Beijing,

following my younger sister who had graduated from her rural high school and was allowed to return and take a job as gardener. Half a year later, toward the end of 1972, mother was allowed to join her, and she was given a two bedroom apartment in a building attached to the same complex from which we had come – i.e. the one built to accommodate the employees of the Friendship Hotel where my father had been a security director before his arrest.

Most of the hotel staff had been sent to the 5.7 cadre school for two years, and all their old apartments – including ours - had been reassigned. But since almost all the foreigners had fled China during the Cultural Revolution, the hotel itself was almost empty, and two of those Hotel buildings were converted into residential buildings for the returning former residents –
and a wall was built to separate our two buildings from the rest of the complex.

Our new apartment was not as spacious as the double-apartment that we used to have –but at least we had a kitchen, toilet, and bath – which was a dramatic improvement over the dirt-floor sheep barn where the three of us had been living for the past two years.

As she returned to Bejing, mother’s life was restored in many ways. She could finally visit our father in prison – she was living near her old friends and neighbors, and she was even given access to her bank account – although visiting the bank was, again, an event that caused much anxiety. She was afraid to go herself, so this time my aunt and I made the trip – handed the account book over to the teller – and waited nervously while the matter was discussed in a back room out of our hearing.

Finally, the account book was handed back, along with the several hundred Yuan we had requested, and we were no longer living hand to mouth. Actually, during his imprisonment, my father’s salary had continued to be credited to our account – after deducting the 24 Yuan/month that were given to sustain us in the interim.

My sister had been at the top of the class in her rural school ( it was a part-time school, with students working the fields in the morning and attending school in the afternoon) – but the best job she could get was as gardener in a recreational park west of Beijing. I think she enjoyed her job – she cultivated the flower beds – and it was certainly an enjoyable environment – but even a factory worker in the city had a higher status, and mother wished a better job had been offered to her.

The park was located near an army facility, and many soldiers visited it for relaxation or exercise – including one young lieutenant who noticed this pretty girl carrying a heavy pot of flowers up the hill everyday and soon fell in love with her. He was a tall, handsome, and very pleasant young man – and even though he came from only a workers’ family, my mother adored him --- we all liked him. But after they had been dating for about four years, and expecting to be married, my sister came home from the park one day and announced that their relationship was over.

No reason was given then – or ever – and everyone was disappointed – especially the young officer who came to us many times asking us for help to get her back. He was even given permission by the army to postpone his next assignment, so he could stay in our area to pursue his flagging courtship. I don’t know whether iron-willed stubbornness is unique to our family – but that’s often how we are – and my sister would simply not be moved – nor would she ever explain her decision --- and soon she declared her love to another man.

But now it was the rest of us who objected to the relationship – since the new boyfriend was nowhere near as handsome as the last one – and worst of all – his father had been convicted of political crimes back in the fifties.

Since our own father had spent many years in prison, maybe we should have been more open minded – and certainly this young man had had suffered a quit a bit in his life. He was very young when his father went to prison, and his mom had a very hard time making ends meet. Every day had been a struggle for them ever since he could remember.

My younger sister had pity on him. She knew that our family would never approve their relationship, so she never brought him to see us. It was her secret. Soon she was losing a lot of weight and started looking very fragile and pale.

But this time we dug in our heels – we had family meetings – and after many evening of tears and talks, she finally she gave up her second boyfriend. Soon thereafter, my old sister’s new husband introduced her to his co-worker, and soon after they met, they got married.

Perhaps the non-Chinese reader of my stories is wondering how China ever came to have a billion people – since sex outside of marriage is so discouraged – and marriages themselves seem almost impossible to accomplish – and yet, somehow new generations manage to be born.

So my mother and sister were beginning to lead something like normal lives – but I was still a displaced person – without a job – without an education – and not really supposed to be in Beijing. But I wasn’t completely indolent – for I had discovered the English language lessons given two hours daily on the government radio --- English was the ONLY foreign language being taught in this way – and I was a very eager student. The fact is – I love English ! I listened every day – and I did all the exercises.

But still – I was over 20 years old – I needed to have my own life – I needed a job – so my mother sent me to one of her old army comrades, now a general, to help get me into the People’s Army.

Unfortunately, the army was not accepting recruits at that time – so next my mother reached out to another contact – a second cousin who held a high position in that same far northern province where I had been sent four years before – and he found me a job as a nurse in a hospital.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Chinese medical industry –– there were no nursing schools during the Culture Revolution– so nurses received only on-the-job training. During those years, China produced a lot of “bare foot doctors” who worked side-by-side with farmers, but who were also functioning as “doctors”

I took that 1,000 mile train ride back up north – even further north (and west) of where I had been – and moved into a room above the hospital.

What an improvement over life at the farm !

Instead of 60 roommates – I had one – a very nice young woman from Shanghai who had been a nurse for many years. We became good friends, and she helped me learn the ropes of my new job.

First, I worked as a receptionist – getting the patients to sign in as they lined up outside our outpatient clinic. But after proving that I was a quick study, I was taught how to give shots (practicing on a pillow), to sew up wounds, and to sign the doctor’s name on prescriptions. Isn’t that all that nurses ever do ?

Actually, the physicians at our clinic were well trained –some of them had been sent to this location back in the late 1950’s. They had been accused of being rightist, but never denounced as criminals, and since our location was so remote – there hadn’t been pressure to turn our doctors into farmhands during the Cultural Revolution. But I’m sure they all wished that they could be living closer to civilization.

Perhaps this is a good place to talk about the Chinese medical system.

The only people who don’t have to pay for health care are government workers – and even back in the first decades of communism – 92% of the population were peasants and they were not included. In the 1980’s, as the government began to cut back, fewer and fewer people qualified for health benefits, and even those who could afford coverage still had to pay 20% out of pocket.

My father, for example, as a government employee, had complete health coverage – but this did not extend to his wife – so after she quit her ministry position, mother had to pay for her own healthcare. She has been very lucky and very healthy, but now that she is 88 years old, health insurance is big a problem for her. Government insurance will not cover her, and private health insurance is too expensive due to her advanced age. They may take her in, but it would cost her a fortune.

This is why so much of the Chinese economy goes into savings instead of consumer spending. Everyone needs to protect both themselves and their family.

When one of my uncles came down with a liver disease in the 1990’s – he had to come up with 18,000 Yuan for an operation. That’s a fortune ! His son told him that they did not have the money, and he would have to go home without an operation.

Only by pooling their resources could his siblings afford his health care. (he got the operation – but, unfortunately, died a year later).

(The last time I saw him was in 1992, during that year after his operation. When we visited his village, he was very thin and his back was bent low, but he was very happy to see us, and he made a great effort to put a smile on his face while bustling about trying to help his wife cook a meal for us. He showed us the flowers that mom had given him a few years earlier, and he told us that some of them had been stolen by villagers. He had such love for beautiful things. Before we left the village, he asked us to take at least five long strings of garlic with us. They almost filled the entire trunk of our car. He knew mom and dad would appreciate his garlic – and he also asked us to take a pair of Ming Dynasty tea pots with us to give to mom. They were very precious to him, and many years earlier, antique dealers had offered him 400 Yuan for them, but he had refused to sell. Then, while he was busy carefully wrapping them, I had a feeling I cannot describe. I knew it would be the last time I would ever see him. Now, whenever I make dumplings I remember him. He made most beautiful and fast dumplings I have ever seen. )

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Part Seventeen

It was in 1967, while I was on the big farm, that my mother’s mother died.

Like the rest of us, she had recently been sent to a remote, country village. Mom sent my oldest brother to attend the funeral, but it turned out to be a very difficult trip.

Like everyone else, the bus drivers were embroiled in revolution. There was no longer any bus service to the village, and due to gunfire in that region, it was also difficult to hire a pedicab.

The driver had demanded a fee commensurate with the risk, but as they were approaching the village – the sound of gunfire was heard and the driver refused to go any further.

After walking the final miles by himself, my brother saw a large group of people at the cemetery. The funeral was already over, and all he could do was throw a handful of dirt on the coffin – a sad ending for a life that was so different from the lives of her children and grandchildren.

My Grandmother had married into a landowning peasant family – substantial enough to hire three peasant workers – but her own birth family was very poor.

When she was a child of three, she went blind in one eye. The story goes that she had been helping her mother in the kitchen, when she dropped a plate, began to cry, and by rubbing her eyes, one of them became infected. Health care was minimal for poor people, and eventually that eye went blind.

When she grew up, that handicap did not prevent her from getting married – but it did mean her bride price was very low – so she was something of a bargain for the husband’s family who purchased her for their oldest son.

Was her new, young husband thrilled about taking this bargain as his wife ? She gave him four children – but apparently love was never involved. He went into a business that kept him constantly traveling all over China – and she became more like a servant to her mother-in-law than a wife to her husband.– a situation that is rather common throughout Chinese society, from top to bottom.

Their relationship got worse when illness forced her husband to return home in his early thirties. Though undiagnosed, he probably had liver cancer – and he was always in great pain and unable to work.

It became one of my grandmother’s jobs to care for him – which meant preparing the opium to relieve his pain – but still, he took out his misery by beating and yelling at his wife.

The money for that opium came from what she and her young daughter (my mother) earned by weaving cloth and selling it at the market. In order to make enough cloth, they often worked throughout the night, but her mother-in-law begrudged her even the oil for her lamp – and she either had to buy the oil herself or cover the windows to conceal her lamp.

During the day, she had to cook three meals a day for the entire extended family. She had to grind the grain, fetch the water, feed the pigs and chickens, and do all the other household chores, while constant verbal and physical abuse were part of her daily life. She must have been a very strong woman to live through all that, and several times, mom woke up to find her mother crying --- with a rope in her hand ---- but she could not do it -- she had a sick husband and 4 small children to care for.

When her husband finally died at the age of 35 – my grandmother stayed on – for the next 15 years -- as a servant in her mother-in-law’s house.

That was a woman’s life in pre-revolution China – even at the top of the social pyramid (as described in the popular 18th Century novel, “Dream of Red Chamber”, which, like many Chinese women, my mother read over and over again)

I remember once asking her “What is your name, grandma?” – and she explained that she didn’t have one – since after marriage, a woman’s name became the combination of the names for her birth family and her husband’s family.

But after the revolution – it was a different story – especially since several of her children, both boys and girls, became cadres who rose to higher positions within the new society.

So in the early fifties, grandmother came to live with us in Beijing – where she helped mother with babysitting and other chores (since both my father and mother spent every day at their jobs)

Being away all week at boarding schools, I was only home on the weekend, and I didn’t get very close to her. And she preferred boys anyway – getting very close to my older brothers – and always made a point of giving them special treats when she served us food. (but I loved her anyway!)

She also served as babysitter for my mother’s brother’s children – and eventually this got her into trouble with mother – who came home from work one day to find my young sister asleep on the curb outside our compound. My sister was only 2 or 3 three years old at the time, and anyone could have snatched her while grandmother was attending to my infant cousin.

A domestic storm ensued that left my grandmother in tears – and soon she went to live with my uncle’s family instead of ours.

In 1963, after our family moved into the complex next to Tiananmen Square, grandmother moved back with us and shared a room with my younger sister.

But when the Cultural Revolution began, and father was getting into trouble, mother thought it best for everyone if grandma went to live the countryside.

She had been a poor peasant woman her entire life. She was illiterate, blind in one eye, and since her feet had been bound as a child, she was barely able to walk..

But since she had been married into a landowning family, she was considered a landowner, and this was problematic for her sons who were cadres in the city. None of her successful sons could accommodate her. The only son who could take her was the impoverished one who had stayed on the farm (I’ve already introduced you to him: he was the uncle who came to the city a few times every year to bring us vegetables and pick up some cash)

Grandma really didn’t want to go – and many times she told mom that she would not mind dying in the city and being cremated. Mom promised to bring her back as soon as the troubles were over -- but that day never came for her.

So that’s where grandmother went to live – and as those familiar with Chinese family politics might understand – this created a huge problem with her son’s wife who would never stop resenting the presence of her mother-in-law – even though her other sons contributed money to the family.

One time – when I was 13 – I was sent to take her some cash as well as provisions from the city, including a string of sweets, some cakes, and specially selected pieces of her favorite salty belt fish that my mother had spent all evening to prepare. It was my first trip outside Beijing, so I was very excited, I went with my granduncle who was a retired school teacher. Mom paid for the trip but she dared not to go herself, because dad was still in very bad situation.

When we arrived, Granduncle handed the heavy bag of goodies to my uncle. Grandma, living in the opposite room, came out to greet us and see what we brought for her. That’s when Aunt got very upset, started shouting, and threw the bag down, scattering everything, including the cooked fish, all over the dirt floor.

The swearing continued, as Grandma went back to her room, closing the door behind her.

The next a few days, we spent a lot of time together. She followed me everywhere and was so happy to see me ( even if I was not her favorite grand child.) She asked me to tell mom that when things got better in Beijing, she would like to return.

She did not tell me how she was treated by her son and daughter-in-law, but she did refer to them as "animals".

One day she sent me to the farmers’ market (it was only open a few days a month) , and asked me to buy her some fruits and various cooked meats like sausage. The moment she received it, she began wolfing it down – and as soon as she finished, she began searching for something in her room.

Finally she found it – it was a piece of cotton -- and she lit it on fire to smoke the room and remove the aroma of the spicy meats. I did not understand, so I asked her what she was doing. Her brief answer was: “animals have sharp noses”

Her life there was not happy.

The neighbors later told us stories about the loud arguments – and when she fell ill, no one would care for her and she was left to lie in her own filth. At mealtime, they would bring her a bowl of food, but if she asked for more, it never came.

She recovered from that illness, but one day as she was reaching for a chicken out in the yard, she fell off a ladder and went unconscious. She never woke up and 10 days later she was dead.

She had lived for 73 years, but only a few of them were happy.

I missed her dearly.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Part Sixteen

We’re nearing the time when we finally re-established contact with my father, after four years of captivity.

He had been imprisoned in the special prison, about 60 miles from Beijing, especially built to hold the top political prisoners. Its first inmates had been officials from the Guomintang – but now it held my father and all the other ministers denounced by the Cultural Revolution. It featured a maze of high walls that kept any prisoner from meeting another, and ironically enough – inspecting it had been one of my father’s duties when he worked for the Security Ministry. (As you might recall from an earlier episode, he took some of us kids for a holiday there to visit the scenic surrounding hills while he was working at the prison. On the way home, our driver baked delicious, sweet yams on the engine block of the automobile)

But now, of course, he was prisoner, not administrator, and that very same driver who had baked us the yams later accused him of taking advantage of his job to give his children leisure.

Every prisoner had his own cell – 6 feet on a side – just enough space for a bed, a toilet hole , and a sink – and each prisoner lived in total isolation beneath an electric light that burned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Once a day, prisoners were carefully led to the prison yard– one at a time – in such a way that they would never meet each other. In the yard they stood for one hour in a cell just like the one they had left – except that it was empty and had no ceiling. It was their daily chance to see the sky.

Those early Guomintang prisoners had been given pen and paper, so that, in ancient Chinese imperial tradition, they could write the history of their previous regime. ( Dad had been one of the few party officials who could subscribe to their publication. Unfortunately, over the years, many have been lost. We still have 30 – 40 of what were once 80 – 100 volumes.)

But these new prisoners were given nothing: no pen, no paper, and only one book: Chairman Mao’s little Red Book – which my father memorized word-by-word, cover to cover.

The prisoners were sufficiently fed. Once a day, a tray of food was shoved beneath their door – and the higher ranking inmates were even given a cup of milk.

But this complete isolation had to be a real challenge to mental health.

My father practiced a regimen of mental and physical exercise that included some Chi-gung and martial punching exercises that he had learned in his youth – and walked several kilometers every day through the 2 meters of his cell Lacking any sound to break the quiet, he made his own, by drumming on his sink with his chop sticks ---(a daily practice that he continued -much to our dismay - for several years after his release ) And lacking pen and paper, he memorized his own poetry as he wrote it. Over the course of those six years – he wrote 250 poems about his childhood – which he would eventually calligraph with brush on paper after he had been released. (a detail of which is shown at the top of this post)

The prisoners were not tortured or beaten (unless their shouts angered the guards) – but over the course of many years – complete isolation is torture enough.

After four years, our family was finally notified of his imprisonment – and just as I was returning to Beijing with my mother, we got to pay him his first visit.

All six of us gathered in Beijing and were loaded into a van that drove us out to the prison.

What a tearful reunion that was !

My father looked terrible – and we even had a hard time recognizing each other . His head was shaved, and he wore the prison uniform of black pants with a black cotton padded jacket. He had gained some weight, and his eyes were sunken in a face so pale and swollen.

I began sobbing – and could not stop until later that evening – after which came a very bad headache that lasted throughout the night. We had gotten very close during those six months we’d spent together after I transferred to the school near his work – and it hurt me so much to see him suffering like this.

And he had difficulty recognizing some of us – my younger sister and I – as the previous four years had changed our adolescent appearance as well.

We spent three hours together with him in a special visiting room – telling him our stories – and I suppose that I especially remember his reaction to mine: he wept to hear that I had been sent north to the Russian border – because he knew that this had been the destination of all kinds of criminals, and he feared for my safety.

The family would make many more such visits over the next two years – about one every 8 weeks -- but since I would soon be sent to another part of the country, I only saw him a few more times before he was eventually released.

And when would he be released ?

There had never been a trial – there had never been a sentence – there had only been an order for incarceration –and since Chou Enlai had signed that order, nobody wanted to countermand it. As it turned out – neither Chou nor anyone else would ever sign for his release – but two years later – after nearly 6 full years in solitary confinement – my father, and all the other prisoners of the Cultural Revolution – were set free.

There were quite a few stories like ours – like my father’s former boss who was arrested soon after he had remarried following the death of his first wife.
His new son never met his father until he was six years old.

Later, of course, the prison received a new generation of prisoners, including the Gang of Four in 1976, shortly after Mao’s death. One died of cancer - Madame Mao supposedly managed to kill herself while in hospital – and one of them, the young radical who had been chosen as Mao’s successor, went mad and was kept in prison until his death in 2005.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Part Fifteen

My life at the farm ended as soon as I got a chance to leave.

Every student was eventually given the chance to go home for a visit – but we had to take turns – and my turn didn’t arrive until two full years after I had arrived.

Of course, we students were also expected to return after that visit was over ( usually about 2- 4 weeks) – but I had suffered there enough – and I became something of an illegal immigrant to the rural village where my mother and younger sister had been sent a year earlier– about 600 miles south of Beijing in Henan province. (Many cadres from Beijing were sent there to be educated by the farmers. It was called the “May 7 Cadre School”)

As I traveled south to her village, I passed through Beijing, and that’s where I joined my older sister who had traveled from her village to purchase supplies for mother (since so little, like toiletries for example, was available in her remote area). Both of us stayed with our aunt (mother’s cousin) for several days as we made our purchases from a list mother had sent -- and I should mention that I had lots of money then (200 – 300 Yuan) – which I had scrupulously saved. (wages at the farm had been good, 32 Yuan/month -- and meals only cost 10 Yuan/month)

Mother’s shopping list ended with a warning not to show it to her cousin – since it contained certain items – like fancy baked goods – that our aunt might consider rather luxurious – but much to our embarrassment, auntie managed to read that letter over our shoulder. Very embarrassing !

Mother still had a taste for urban luxuries – but she certainly lived a Spartan lifestyle out in the countryside.

Her home was a sheep barn, 12’ on each side, and you can imagine the dirt and the smell – especially until she dug out the sheep-dirt floor and replaced it with fresh soil from the fields. She covered the walls with newspaper, doing her best to make it comfortable. The room was very dark - with only one small window - and the smell was so bad, that eventually she dug a window out from the opposite wall so that air could circulate.

And mice were a big problem for mom. They not only chewed everything they could get, they also carried disease, and when I first got there, I noticed that there were all kinds baskets or buckets hanging in the middle of the room. Later that evening I discovered that they contained food - trying, with little success, to keep it away from the rats and mice (who managed to scamper across the ropes anyway)

This was the space that mother, myself, and my younger sister had to share for two years – and during the Summer holiday, it was also home to my two brothers and older sister. That’s six people in a 12’ X 12’ room !

We had a double bed for mom and the three sisters, and my two brothers shared a single small bed (they added a piece of wood so they could both fit) The sewing machine also served as a dinning table and desk – and there was no room for anything else. It was crowded, but we were happy to be together and happy to be alive.

And for a while, our tiny, crowded room also had a cat.

My younger sister was an animal lover, and back in Beijing, nobody was allowed to keep cats or dogs.(that was government regulation) . But here, she finally she had her chance, and she adopted a black and white kitten. The little kitten helped somewhat with the mice problem, but when all my brothers and sisters were visiting, the little kitten was always being stepped on. Eventually we convinced my younger sister to give the kitten up, and she did so in tears.

When my second-oldest brother visited, we were shocked by his appearance – so thin, so yellow – he had come down with hepatitis A – and healthcare in this remote area was minimal – especially for us, the family of a known criminal. But as luck would have it – there was a “barefoot doctor” in the village who had once worked as a door guard at our compound in Beijing. He recognized mom – he liked us --- and primitive though his medicine was – my brother’s condition began to improve.

He may also have been helped by our healthy diet of carrots – which were more easily obtained than the grain that required food coupons for purchase (and Mom was only receiving enough coupons to feed two people)

Mother purchased a bushel of carrots – and carrots were in every meal eaten that winter.

I had become a permanent resident there, but my older siblings only visited temporarily – whenever they had a few weeks off – and then they had to return to their own remote villages in other parts of China.

My oldest brother had it worst – since the people in his village didn’t even have houses – they lived in caves – so when my brother arrived, he had to dig his own cave out from a hillside. His life was cold, damp, lonely, and depressing. Many days he refused to work –so he was also hungry – and thirsty – since water had to be hauled up in buckets from the valley below. He wasn’t taking good care of himself – and failing to brush his teeth – his gums became infected and he lost several front teeth. He was 22 years old.

I remember the first time he visited us – because he missed his train (and, of course, there was no telephone to advise us of that fact.) He missed it because he had tried to carry too much grain to the station – 30 miles from where he lived – and he could not bear to abandon any of it along the way – so he had to walk all the way back to his cave with the excess that he could not carry.

When the train arrived without him, my sister and I had then had to walk the 5 miles back to our village without him – and since it was late at night – we were very scared to be walking alone through the field rows – having heard stories of girls our size being recently attacked by a mountain lion. I know it sounds crazy –but these two, small teenage girls were very frightened --- and our worried mother was out looking for us. After we finally got home, I came down with a bad fever that lasted for several days.

Most of the two years I spent in my mother’s village – I spent doing practically nothing

My mother and sister worked the fields in the morning – and my sister also attended half-day classes at the rural school – but I wasn’t supposed to be there –and I just did nothing – except for some knitting. Mother had brought several of father’s books with her from Beijing – but they were the old-style Chinese literature, and I couldn’t read them.

Maybe you could call these my lost years – all I really did was stay alive.

My second oldest brother wasn’t quite so isolated – but as the months passed – most of the city students assigned to his village were retrieved by their parents who found new ways to work the system and get them back. But my brother’s father was still in prison (if he were even alive) – and he was left in his village with only one other student, a girl from the top high school in Beijing.

He got to know that student very well – maybe too well. They had bought some food and liquor to celebrate Chinese New Year together, and both of them drank a little too much. Eventually she became pregnant – which became – of course – a serious problem.

The girl had grown up with her grandparents, and the grandfather (an army general) was opposed to her marriage into a family like ours. He had already chosen a husband for her: one of his bodyguards ( but she never loved him.)

She told my mother that she loved my brother, and a few months later, when mother had gotten permission to move back to Beijing, this girl stayed in her apartment while they arranged for an abortion at a local hospital. The fetus – aborted at 5 months – would have been my mother’s first grandchild..