Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Part Twenty Nine

In Chicago – I faced two problems that just would not go away.

One was finding a roommate to share the expense of an apartment
-- and the other was getting help with my university studies.

Switching over to the Masters program in Computer Science at DePaul University was a rather daring thing to do, since I had zero background in computers – indeed, due to the cultural revolution, I had zero high school education, and Beijing Foreign Language Institute #2 taught me nothing but English.. I used to be really good at math – but that was way back in grade school. I knew about binary numbers – but had no idea they were applied in computers.

So I was in big trouble in my classes – and I couldn’t really afford to pay for private tutors in addition to the $7,000 / year tuition I was borrowing for tuition – where, by the way, I was the almost only student from mainland China in my class (yes, there were plenty of Chinese students in computer science - but they were Chinese from Taiwan, or Hong Kong, or the United States. The students from the mainland weren’t there because they couldn’t afford it – even if they came from good families, the Chinese economy was just too poor back in the early eighties)

Once again, I looked within the local Chinese community for help, and soon I found a small, young Chinese girl to be my roommate. She had come to the US in her teens, completed high school here, and was about to graduate from college. When I first interviewed her, she said that she could help me with my math – but it soon became apparent that she knew less than I did ! Still – we got along pretty well – so she moved into my apartment (just west of Chicago’s Chinatown)

But what was I going to do about tutoring ? I desperately needed help – and eventually I found it – but it got me into trouble as well.

The young man who helped me was a real computer whiz. He was a typical Cantonese –i.e. he was very thin but he loved food, eating all the time, but never gaining an ounce. He was in his last year of the program. He knew everything – and he was more than happy to share that knowledge with a desperate young woman like myself. He really helped me get started in my studies.

His grandfather had come to Chicago from Canton at least 50 years earlier – and had a cleaner shop in Chinatown. His wife was finally allowed to join him in the 1960’s , and both of them got by without ever learning English.

But his parents had stayed in China, and had been separated when the border with Hong Kong was closed. His father ended up taking a second wife while the first one stayed in Hong Kong. Polygamy is traditional in Chinese culture, and was still legal in Hong Kong at that time –but it was strictly forbidden in the People’s Republic, so when local officials got wind of this arrangement, his father was stripped of his position (at a university) and given a strong incentive to leave the country. Fortunately, his father had already moved to the United States, so he had a sponsor, and he ended up working as a cook in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago.

Had his father really been a university professor ? I don’t know – the whole family certainly seemed to be very blue collar to me – but that was his story, and at least it served to make me more comfortable with marrying him, which is where this relationship was going. I met his family –but kept our relationship to myself for a while. I did not know how to tell my family that I met someone at school. His family background made me very uneasy and I did not have a strong feeling for this guy, even though he was helping me with my studies.

But I eventually I sent pictures of him to my family in Beijing. My family did not say anything about him to me, I knew that my mother was very critical of each of my dates. If she liked one, she would let me know, but she did not say a word about this one in my dad’s letters. (My mom very seldom to wrote to me - usually it was my dad who wrote all the letters)

My sponsor, the priest, was very bullish about our union – and made me not a little uncomfortable with his blunt frankness about the exchange that was taking place. I would get the tutoring that I wanted – and citizenship by marrying an American citizen, and the tall, skinny computer whiz would get a woman that he wanted – and I surmised that the priest would get what he wanted too: to have me establish a family in Chicago, where he could be included..

I didn’t really love this man – but we had begun dating –and soon we were making plans to live together. Once again, just as with my first husband, I was a bit fatalistic about it: perhaps this was my destiny.

Meanwhile, he graduated from DePaul and got a job with AT&T Bell Labs with a fine starting salary of $40,000 a year. In fact, I think both his sister and younger brother were already working there as well. Where would American technology be without all the smart, hard working Chinese ?

Since his job was out in the suburbs, that’s where he wanted to live, so we bought a house in Aurora for $70,000. Where did we get the down payment ? My sponsor, the old priest, offered me $20,000 to encourage us to buy a townhouse together.

But now, the real problems began – because Aurora is about 45 miles from my school in Chicago, and I didn’t have a car. So every day I needed to be driven back and forth to the train station –and then, of course, take the train, or actually, two trains to finally get me, 2 hours later, to school.

And now that we were living together, my prospective husband had no more interest in tutoring me. He had enough to worry about with his new job –and what he really wanted was a traditional Cantonese wife who would make a home, have children, and cook a lot of good Cantonese food for him.

So it soon became apparent – that I had made a big mistake – and we began to have some furious arguments – culminating one night with him putting his hands around my throat. That was the moment that I decided to leave him.

This had never happened to me before – and it was never going to happen again – so even though it was late at night, I called up the old priest, and we drove into the city, that very night, to sort things out.

The three of us talked things over – it must have been midnight – and we agreed that we’d both go back to Aurora and try to move forward. But there really was nothing to work out – and after a few weeks had passed, we agreed that I would move back to the city. I called up my last roommate – the little Chinese girl – and soon we were back together, a few blocks from Chinatown.

(it would take me 18 months to get back the money from the down payment for the house --- and eventually, all I got was $15,000. The priest didn’t want it back, so I used it to begin my first savings account. It was painful and humiliating, but I guess it wasn’t a disaster after all. Nobody’s heart was broken, and my never-to-be-husband soon took a trip to China where he found and married a peasant girl who would be the kind of wife he really wanted)

But meanwhile --- how was I going to get my diploma in computer science ? Who was going to help me ?

I finally connected with a group of fellow Chinese students who had been diligently collecting tests from each of the DePaul instructors for several years, and I begin to follow that age-old process of studying old tests to cram for each examination. . I never really learned the principles of programming – I just learned how to pass the multiple-choice tests – i.e. I had become an ordinary American college student. I didn’t learn much – but I would get my degree – the university would get its tuition – and everyone would be happy.

Not that it was easy, though.

I really had to work at it – and I had to take the final test twice before I could pass. (which was a very close call – since students were only allowed to take it twice – and if they failed both times, they would never get that master’s degree from DePaul.).

Back at the apartment, my roommate had graduated and gotten her first job. She was so happy ! She was mainland Chinese, just like me, and she had an uncle in America who had sponsored and paid for her education.

She was in her twenties, for some reason, she always dated older guys. One time her fat, older boy friend called me, and asked me for a date. I don’t know why, but I felt really insulted, got very angry, and began screaming at him over the phone, calling him a pig, and telling him that if he dared to call me again, I would report it to the police.

Meanwhile my Cantonese boy friend was trying to get us back together. I firmly rejected him. Then he secretly started calling my roommate. One time, when I was playing back the messages on our answering machine, I heard a message that he had left for her. I didn’t like her sneaking around with him, and I asked her to move out. Eventually she did – so once again, I was looking for a new roommate.

Actually, I found a pair of roommates, two girls from DePaul University who had come from Taiwan – and we were all jammed together into my small apartment. Both had fianc├ęs who were PHD students at the University of Wisconsin, so during the weekend, I had the apartment to myself, and that worked out very well. And since we were all in the computer science department, we could study a lot together.

We got along alright – but I never really respected their behavior with men, since they had no problem with being engaged to one while sleeping with another. Indeed, they gave me the impression that every office girl in Taipei was sleeping with her boss. I know that I am no angel – but somehow, having grown up in the rather puritanical Peoples’ Republic, I just found this behavior unacceptable.

Remembering My Father

I love my father so much that as my own story
is drawing to an end,
I’ve just got to tell you a little more about him.

He was born Nov. 5th 1915 into a poor peasant family in Hebei province about 500 kilometers west of Beijing. He was the oldest son, and had 2 younger brothers. He was a smart boy, did very well in schools. Since his family was Christian, he probably went to a Catholic grade school – which would have been free, and would have prepared him to be accepted into high school. He scored 14th of over 100 students who were enrolled in Baoding high school, but his family was too poor to keep him there.

Public schools were not free in those days – and his parents would also have to pay for his room and board.

He had to drop out and go back to his village, but he did not like farm work, so he left the village and went to Tienjing where he had learned enough at school to find a job working in a lawyer’s office.

He was a gentle, modest, hardworking man – who was probably completely hopeless at office politics –but who could be relied upon to get a job done –in his case, an administrative job within the Ministry of Public Security .

He rose up pretty high in the ranks, but that’s probably because the communist bureaucracy had such respect for seniority, and he joined the party way back in 1938, when even a pencil pusher’s job could be a dangerous one.

He once told us the story about how he and two comrades were trying to escape from an enemy patrol in the middle of winter. Snow had covered the barren ground, making the three of them easy targets. Several shots rang out – the man to his left fell face down in the snow. More shots were fired, and the man to his right hit the ground as well. My father was the only survivor.

On another occasion, he was on a mission by himself, when he came upon an “enemy attack” and was arrested. He thought for sure he would be killed, but after they started talking, they realized they were all working for the same side. Nobody wore uniforms during many of these special operations. .

And speaking of military uniforms, he was never really happy wearing one, according to my mom. He wanted to wear civilian clothes, although he had to wait until the late 1980’s to dress in the western style suits that he really liked. In the early 1950’s, the government provided Russian style clothing for government employees, and even when he attended banquets with high officials and foreigners as the vice director of Foreign Bureau, he always wore Mao style jacket suits.

He didn’t know it at the time, but his career had really peaked back in the fifties when he was working directly in the security ministry, joining the teams that investigated officials left behind when the defeated Nationalist regime fled to Taiwan. Joining him on those teams, were some of the highest ranking party officials – and among other work, they compiled a history of the Nationalist Regime that was published serially, in a very limited edition to subscribers from the higher ranks of the party.

In 1965 he was promoted to be the security minister for Friendship Hotel – where visiting foreign experts stayed -- but as he later learned, this was really not a promotion at all. With a brother living in Taiwan, he had always been under suspicion, and eventually it was decided to move him away from the security ministry – and of course, a year later the Cultural Revolution broke out and he was sent to a high-security prison for almost 6 years.

Upon his release, he returned to the Foreign Bureau , but was soon swapped out, trading jobs with a vice-president at the Beijing Foreign language institute (where – luckily for me, he was able to help me overcome the bad recommendation that accompanied my application to language school)

But he was hardly a specialist in foreign language education - he had never taken a class himself -- though he had studied English with an older American woman for 12 months before his arrest .

The following year, he was transferred again – this time to become the acting president of a newly organized university for foreign agents – i.e. spies. He purchased the property, supervised the construction – and was the overall manager of that institution (the second spy-school in China) He was vice president of that university until 1982, the year of his retirement at the age of 67. But he was never formally recognized as president – so neither his salary nor his rank were improved – and this was a cause for some disappointment and bitterness in his life.

During those 5 - 6 years, he worked very hard to established his university. It was located on the south side of Beijing, and he had a small apartment there, only coming home on the weekends. Towards the end of his career, he had a stroke that paralyzed one side of his body, but he eventually recovered. I think he was very happy with that job. Even though he was not president, he was the man who made all the decisions. In his whole career, this was the only time he had the power of decision making.

I visited him a few times when he was working at the school and I could tell his attitude was completely different than before. He sometimes could be impatient. But everyone who worked for him thought he was a good hearted man. He was definitely not a person to flaunt authority, and he cared about their working conditions. (I’ve already told how he ordered winter coats for all the car drivers in his agency – though, incredibly, that was held against him during the cultural revolution). My mother had bought him a fine, wool suit –but he only wore it on official occasions – otherwise, he dressed no different from the rest of his staff.

When he died a few years later, over 200 people turned out, on very short notice – for his funeral.

He really believed in communism and his contributions to the country and the Party. (But at the end of his life, I am not 100% sure that he was still so convinced)

I do not know how much my mom loved him. They were married over 50 years, but Mom was never happy about being a housewife, and she always complained that dad did not know how to educate us, or pay enough attention to us. One time, they had an argument, and mom locked him out of their bedroom so that evening he had to sleep with my brother. But my brother’s single bed was too narrow for the both of them, so next morning, I found my dad sleeping half on the bed and half on two chairs covered with a overcoat. I hated that my mom did that to him, but on other hand, she did care about him. During the early days of the Cultural Revolution, dad had to go to work, not in his office, but cleaning the hotel bathrooms or emptying the trash bins. Every morning, mom cooked three eggs with milk and sugar into a custard -- only for dad. Mom told us he needed the food to keep him healthy for the long days ahead of him. We all understood. She kept doing that until dad was arrested on May 6th of 1968.

My mother also bought everything that he wore - she had complete control over family finances. On the 10th of every month, dad would get paid, and he would hand the cash envelope over to my mother (it was always cash – the government did not pay with checks). If he wanted something – even bus fare to get to work – he would have to ask for it from mother.

He was always busy at work but once in a while, on the weekend, he would take us to the nearby parks or museums. I don’t remember he ever took us for shopping except once.

It was when I was in second grade, and some of my classmates started using the fountain pen. I told my friends that my mom had promised to buy me one, but several weeks had passed, and each time I asked mom about it, she always found some excuse to put it off until the next weekend. Finally I burst into tears, and told her that she would never buy me the pen. It was a few hours before our school bus would take us back to the boarding school on Sunday night, and Dad immediately took me to Wangfujin shopping street, and asked me to choose whatever fountain pen I would like to have. I got the one with the see-through part in the middle, and went to school a very happy girl.

And each year before school started, he would find some nice large, colorful used magazine pages or brown paper to make book jackets for each our text books, and then he would carefully write his beautiful calligraphy on it.

He was a very simple person, and did not have any expensive hobbies. He was a smoker until early 1960’s when the doctor told him to quit due to his liver problem. He loved books, but only assembled a small collection. He loved calligraphy, but he never had a set of expensive brushes. He loved drinking tea, but as I as remember, he always bought the cheaper (but not the cheapest) ones. Once in a while, he would buy one or two ounces of good tea, and from his facially expression, you could tell he was really enjoying it . He also enjoyed drinking Chinese liquor (very strong) a small cup every day. But in 1981 he had a stroke, and he stopped right away on the doctor’s advice. Sometimes I wish mom had given him more money, so he did not always have to live at the edge.

He liked to walk the ten blocks or so to work every day (regardless of the weather) – and he even walked when he was in that tiny prison cell for 6 years – walking in hundreds and hundreds of small circles until he had gone a certain distance.

He continued his walking until his 80’s. He fell on to the ground a few times, and it cut his face or his hand, but he never gave it up.

He also had a daily regimen of mental and physical exercise that that included his practice of calligraphy and chi-gung. Towards the end of his life, he worked every day on the hand written book of poems about his life that he had begun back in prison, trying to edit a bit here and there. He really wanted us to help him to publish it, but sad to say, his wish did not come true.

In Chinese cities, the public parks are a kind of open university of recreational activitees, and that’s where my father picked up some of his exercises.

After his mandatory retirement, he had much more time for poetry, brush painting, calligraphy, and physical exercise.

I didn’t see him so often after that, since I had already moved to America, but I know that during this time, he often found it difficult to live with mother. She had complete control of the home and finances, and she was always a little bitter about her life , especially after she was sent to the countryside. Many women, like her, who had joined the party back in the mid-forties had careers and risen to positions of importance – but my mother had to resign her commission in the army to join her husband in Beijing.

When my father asked for spending money, he didn’t always get it – and sometimes that really hurt – like when she kept him from buying the very last volumes of that history of the Nationalist regime that he had helped to compile.

I think that in his final years, his main joy was in his children and grandchildren – including that wild child who had moved to Chicago ! (myself)

In 1990 – after I had finally finished my education and was beginning my first job, he came to Chicago with mother and lived at my apartment for three full months.

Since I was working every day, they had to spend all that time by themselves in my apartment – and he spent it making calligraphy and paintings (his specialty was the rooster)

And that’s when we all got a visit from the FBI.

I suppose the FBI had good reason to be suspicious – after all, my father had retired as the acting director of a school for foreign agents – but now he was just a small, frightened, old man (he was pale as a ghost after his interview with them) They also interviewed me – and my former husband who was living in New York at this time. It was just a little chilling that these people from the other side of the planet knew so much about our personal lives.

I don’t think I was my father’s favorite daughter, but he certainly had made me feel loved – even in the limited time that we saw each other (I spent most of my childhood in boarding schools)

I remember once how once, as a small child, I had gotten a terrible stomach ache, and my father had me lie on my back, with my knees up, so he could massage my stomach. He moved his hand in circles – 36 times clockwise – then 36 twenty times opposite – and when he was finished, my pain was all gone. He was very patient with us, he was even more patient with his granddaughters. He always wished that he had a grandson, unfortunately, it did not happen.

Three months before he died, I had a great urgency to go home, so I did. During those 10 days, I did not go anywhere, but stayed home and spent that time with my parents. Dad acted very different this time. He could not remember what he had for breakfast by lunch time. He could not remember who had visited him in the morning of the same day. When he walked, he dragged his feet on the floor He could not see well, but he never gave up reading – reading the daily newspaper with his head turned on one side so he could read it with his one eye. Mom told me that sometimes he washed his hands in the toilet, he was very confused, and he looked very tired.

He died in Feb. 5th. 2001, and even now, more than 5 years later, whenever I think about him, tears begin rolling down my face.

Dad I love you! (But I never told him that, we Chinese just do not express LOVE in words to our loved ones.)

He was a caring and humble man.

That’s how I like to remember him.