Thursday, November 22, 2007

Part Thirty One

All of the kids in my family were hard hit
by the events of 1966-1976,
but my second brother seems to have been hit the hardest,
because he, among all five of us,
had shown the most promise as a child.

He was mom and grandma’s favorite child. He was not only smart but handsome, too.

Mom was very proud of him, and when I was growing up, I was kind of jealous , because I felt like the least favorite child in the family, even though mom always told us that her five fingers were the same length, she did not favor any child over another.

My second brother had that extra spark of intelligence that drew everyone’s attention – and I admit – that as I began to think about boys – he was the kind of boy who attracted me the most –not because he was athletic or his face was wide or narrow – but because he was so bright.

He and our oldest brother shared a room – and they collaborated on everything – especially their gadgetry and mechanical projects. (they even tried to make a television set, but I’m not sure that they were successful) The surface of their desk was completely covered with junk, tools, springs, wires, screws, tubes etc. My mother was forbidden to enter their room and disturb it

Once in a while I slipped into their room, and asked them questions, and sometimes they gave me answers, but most of the time they either ignored me or drove me out. My oldest brother was the one who would neatly cut all the wires and make all the connections – but my second brother was the one who designed it.

He was accepted into the top high school in Beijing (Number 4 boys school – which is still one of the best, but no longer just for boys) – and even among those top students, he was at the top of his class. When the cultural revolution began, he wore the red armband like everyone else, but rather than attacking landlords or other class enemies, he and his comrades attacked the library – and took a bunch of foreign books home to read.

He was a good story teller. After he read an exciting book, say, like “The Adventures of Sherlock Homes” , he would begin to tell us the stories, and he would make it so dramatic, soon we were screaming and begging him to stop. In 1966, all the schools were closed, but we had plenty of interesting novels to read at home, thanks to my brother. Later mom ordered him to return all the “stolen” books, but he claimed that it had been his friends who had taken them, so eventually he handed the books over to them.

Of course, after our father was denounced as a state criminal, my brother’s career as a red guard was over – and as the son of a “black family”, he would have been shunned by other students when they were all sent to the countryside. Revolutionary theory required that students from the best schools be sent to the most
backward areas of the country – so that’s where he went – to a very poor village in a coal mining district, where the villagers lived on the edge of starvation.

This was where he nearly died from liver disease. The following year, when he visited Mom in Henan province, she noticed that he was very think and weak – and he could barely walk or speak. The barefoot doctor in the village helped her to nurse him back to health. But he would continue to have health issues throughout his life.

As the Cultural Revolution ended, he had a chance in 1974 for
higher education at a university in Shan Xi. But when the school started, he was never given notice, and was later told that his position had been taken by the child of a local official. In exchange, he was given the opportunity to attend a school of traditional medicine, but he turned that down, and was never given another opportunity for higher education again.

When he finally got to relocate to a more urban area, he got a job at a power plant in a county near his village, about 600 miles from Beijing. That was where he met his wife, a lab technician who had also come from a high official family.

Both of them worked there until 1992. Their daughter was born in 1982, and when she was 2 and half years old, I convinced my mother to bring her to Beijing. Mom did not like the idea at first, but eventually she agreed, so I set off to Shan Xi to bring her back. She was a beautiful, and well behaved little girl, but even though I was her aunt, she did not know me very well. But after I had stayed with the family a few days, she agreed to go with me. After we left her parents, she never cried even once, but she held very close to me , all the way during that 12-hour trip to Beijing.

She slept most of the night on the train. As soon as she woke up the next morning, she started singing, and she sang surprisingly well. I asked who had taught her the song, and she told me that her mom did. She was holding back tears as she continued to sing, but she never asked to go back to Mom, and I was very relieved.

My intention was to help my brother a bit, because the education for his daughter was much better in Beijing, and she could grow up among her three other cousins. I’m not sure whether I helped him or not, but I do know that this was something of a burden to my parents, especially my Mom. My father ended up taking a lot of care for his granddaughter, and the child slept with grandpa for the first few years. Later, grandpa took her to school, and grandpa took her to saxophone classes after school.

In 1992, my brother finally got to move to Beijing, and the following year he made his first attempt as an entrepreneur, borrowing money from our father to open an electronic repair shop – since he knew how to make radios and every mechanical thing.

But he wasn’t so good at customer service, so the shop closed within a year.

Then he worked for a relative for five years – but he never got a raise in salary and simply could not keep up with inflation to pay for necessities.

This was also the time when he lost his documents of party membership and then neglected to have them renewed

In 1998, our younger sister’s husband got him the opportunity to purchase a small factory. He didn’t have the cash – but he found two partners to put up the money, so the three of them went into business making windows for the skyrocketing building market. My brother did all the product design work – and the business made a good profit the first year. The partners shared their profits three ways – and my brother took home 40,000 Yuan – a tidy sum which he immediately used to purchase an apartment. But then his excessive life-style caught up with him – smoking, drinking, and eating at the good restaurants – he ended up with an attack of gout. He was out of commission for almost six months – and by the time he went back to the factory, his partners had made the unfortunate discovery: they could be quite profitable without him. So the partnership was dissolved (it had never existed on paper) and he was out of a job again.

His next, and possibly his last, entrepreneurial project came four years later.

My older sister, with whom he had been very close, invested her life savings, nearly 200,000 Yuan, with him to begin a restaurant in new residential district that had just been built in Beijing. It was a three-story building, and they hired about 10 people from the countryside to work the kitchen and the tables. This was in March of 2004, and since I had been laid off in April, I took 6 weeeks off to return to Beijing and help them get the business started. Every morning, I would go to the fresh food markets to buy the provisions for the day – then I would train the staff to work the floor and keep the place clean.

I am proud to say that while I was there, we at least managed to break even.

But over the long haul – he just couldn’t overcome his lack of training and experience in the restaurant/hospitality business. My brother would have been a brilliant engineer, product designer, or scientist in a research facility – that was the kind of mind that he had. But managing the petty day-to-day details of a restaurant – putting on a big smile and greeting all the customers – hiring, firing, and training all the staff – that just wasn’t him. The business failed after 6 months – and my sister lost her entire investment.

After that, I’m afraid that my brother’s entrepreneurial dreams were over – and now his main problem was just making ends meet – for unlike his other aging siblings, he didn’t qualify for a retirement pension or hospital coverage from the government, and he still had medical issues. But his wife, and our family, have continued to stand by him. Family loyalty is one feature of old-school Chinese life that still hasn’t disappeared.

But I do worry about him.

Without a pension or other source of income – and with the health issues that accompany his heavy smoking and drinking.... his future looks difficult.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tianamen Protests

Coming in 1989, the Tianamen square protest
was something of a postscript to this story,
but since my family is from Beijing,
I thought I’d include my connection to it anyway.

I was living in Chicago at that time, my family had told me about how university students had been organizing and protesting.

On June 4th, an American friend called and told me to turn on the television. That’s where I saw the fire balls, heard the gun shots, and saw people running around and yelling. I could not believe that this was really happening on the streets of Beijing – and when I realized that Chinese soldiers were shooting people with real guns, I was screaming and crying.

I felt so helpless and hopeless about the whole situation, and I called my parents immediately – because they lived so close to all the action, but the phone line was busy, and I could not get through for the rest of that sleepless night.

The next day, I got through and found out my parents and every one else in my family were fine. Mom told me that they had stayed at home, and tried not going out at all. The streets were all empty, and once in while you could hear people shouting or running. Their building was hit by a couple of bullets, since they were very close to the Changan (long peace) street where the soldiers and fighting were. Halfway through our conversation, mom told me that she did not want to say too much about what was happening. I asked why, and she said the line was bugged.

The sister of her son-in-law’s husband had been on the phone with her sister who lived in Australia, and when she started talking about how many people had been shot, an anonymous voice broke into their telephone connection and asked:

“How do you know that ? Did you actually see anyone killed?”

So it wasn’t really a good idea to say anything over the telephone.

And actually, my family was not involved – since this was mostly a demonstration by students – and my generation was already out of school and working (mostly for the government) – while my sibling’s children were still in grade school.

But we did have our opinions – and my two sisters were very outspoken in support of the demonstrators. When my older sister was talking with my uncle, a general, he told her that the students should stop their demonstrations and he supported the military to move in and restore order – to prevent the kind of chaos ensued from the student demonstrations at the beginning of the cultural revolution.

My older sister started defending the students and got very upset with our uncle, which was very unusual for her, since usually she is reserved and respectful of the older generation. Even mom was surprised by my sister’s reaction, and she stepped in to calm things down.

One of my girlfriend’s sisters was on the street that day when the soldiers were shooting people. She was a nurse, and she tried to pull an injured person to safety. But she saw that his head had already been blown open – and she realized that there was nothing she could do to save him.

Being 20,000 miles away, there was even less that I could do, but I did join a group of Chinese expatriates who marched around the Chinese consulate in Chicago chanting “Down with Deng Xiaoping” (which was the only time I’d marched in a public demonstration anywhere, China or America )

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Part Thirty

The oldest brother is a very important person in a Chinese family
– my oldest brother being no exception.

He was born before the liberation of 1949, back when mom and dad still served in the army. The military sent mom back to her village with an allowance, and she had to stay in my uncle’s house. (she could have given a birth in my dad’s village, but she felt more comfortable with her mom nearby.) She was 28.

After the birth, mom took the baby to visit her mother-in-law. It was during the land reform, and since her mother-in-law was from poor family., she got an extra parcel of land for herself and for her grandson.

But like most Chinese wives, Mom never cared for her mother-in-law. She always complained that grandma was not clean. Mom was a very clean person, and she always said that a bathroom and kitchen reflect whether you are a clean person or not

My brother was an unusually large and happy infant, and he provided much entertainment for the extended family in Beijing, including my father’s brother who was then attending a Catholic high school , which had not yet been forced to flee to Hong Kong.

As the first child born, he was also the first to attend school – a school that had not yet been transformed by revolutionary ideology – so like all the other students, he was subject to beatings and physical abuse if he did not behave. One time, his teacher used a needle to prick his arms, and another time he had caused so much trouble, his teacher locked him in a closet and everyone forgot that he was there.

Eventually, the teacher remembered to let him out, but one child was not so lucky, and he died of starvation in the basement. That caused a lot of concern among the parents, and a new policy was formed that forbid the teachers to beat or physically abuse the children.

The rest of my brother’s educational career was not that dramatic. He was not an especially good student – only qualifying for the second-tier of high schools.

His real enthusiasm was for making things – radios, cameras, dark-room equipment, anything mechanical – and he liked to draw things – especially cars. I think the family still has some of his automobile fantasies – cars that have never existed anywhere but in my brother’s mind.

He was very creative and sometimes he could be funny too.

It must have been in 1963 when the daily newspaper published a picture of President Kennedy riding in a convertible and waving to the American people. My brother cut out a picture of himself, and pasted it over Kennedy’s. He showed the picture to us, and told us that he could be the US president someday !

During his school years, he shared a bedroom with his younger brother, and the two were very close – always conspiring on their various projects – until something caused his younger brother to hit him (was he about 12 years old at the time ) This created a great rift between them – and they wouldn’t speak to each other for a full year (a difficult achievement since they shared the same bedroom) But finally my older brother relented and broke the ice, so their collaborations could continue.

Neither of my brothers were bullies – but my oldest brother was always especially nice to his younger sisters. . I remember he used to carry my younger sister on his back when she was just a toddler – and she really enjoyed it. ( they were about 8 years different in age) . Sometimes, I hit my brother to let my anger out, and he always let me. He never hit back, but sometimes, he would say, “do it again, that didn’t hurt at all.” (I always wondered if that were true, because I did use all my strength) He always had such a mild temperament.

He also helped mom with house chores, such as making noodles. In those days, we did not buy ready made noodles, not only because they were a bit more expensive, but also because they were hard to find in the market. My oldest brother made them from scratch. First he used water and wheat flour to make a dough, then, after letting it sit a while, he rolled the dough into a big thick sheet and carefully cutting it into very thick noodles. We had freshly made noodle soup almost every dinner – and even now, I still love noodle soup!

The one thing my brother hated was shopping. During the 3 years we lived at the Friendship Hotel, he never went to the local grocery. Indeed, he did not even know where it was located., and Mom or I did most of the shopping, sometimes having to carry a bag of heavy rice or wheat flower.

After he transferred to a boarding high school, he only came home on the weekend. He did not make a single friend in our huge living complex. During the beginning of the Culture Revolution, after dad was condemned, my younger sister and I were often chased by other mean children who lived in the same complex. But that never happened to my older brother, because nobody recognized him as his father’s son. He had been shy in his early teen, but he was totally withdrawn from social crowds from then on.

The big disaster in my oldest brother’s life was the Cultural Revolution -- which hit just as he had graduated from high school. So instead of going to college, he spent the next ten years in a very damp and dark cave Yes, it was quite literally a cave – dug out by him and his classmates from a hillside near a remote village in the countryside.( and while they were building their “home”, they even dug out a coffin.)

Dirt walls, dirt floor, no heat, not much food, poor nutrition, no health care, and since he came from a “black family” near isolation. (i.e. everyone knew his father was in prison)

One of my best friends’ brothers was sent to the countryside as well, but during the first a few months when he was building his home, a huge log fell off the truck and killed him instantly.
I also once met a man whose son was injured when excavating a cave. A corner of the room had fallen down, hitting him on the head, and blinding him immediately

So I guess you could say that, by comparison, my brother was very lucky.

When he finally could return to the city, he was too old to go to university and prepare for one of the technical professions in which he would have excelled. He had spent those years in the cave reading ancient Chinese literature (something which I could never do) . But when he got out, what kind of a job could he hold ?

First, my father got him a job driving a tractor in an agricultural research facility – and when my father became acting director of the new spy school, he was permitted to get his son a job there too – as an electrical technician, He never had formal training in electronics, but he was considered one of their best technicians, able to fix everything from TV sets to tape recorders. But since he was so introverted, his co-workers or boss took advantage of his skills and would claim credit for his work. He was not happy about it, but he did not do anything to prevent it.

Later on, he started not going to work at all since , as he told us, that there was not enough work for him to do. When he reached the age of 50 the school asked him to retire, and by then, our father was no longer the vice president of the university.

This does not sound like much of a career – but as the son of a high official, my brother was still a very desirable candidate for marriage – and nearly 70 families sent pictures of their daughters to him. Sometimes he didn’t like her picture – sometimes she didn’t like his – and most of the time the blind date didn’t work out.

He was very picky and this was a big headache for mom, who was worried about her oldest son’s marriage. For a long time, every evening, the entire family got together after dinner, trying to help my brother analyze the available girls. But he always told us that he did not need any help – and he would rather be left alone.

One very tall and attractive woman was quite persistent. My very-picky mother actually liked her – and she was recruiting all of us to help her with her courtship. But my brother was even pickier. They dated about six months – and nothing came of it.

Eventually he met a woman – and it was love at first sight -- he was so enthusiastic from the very beginning. Her family was of appropriate status (her father was a general) so the match was made, the wedding was held, and a year later my new niece was born.

Now they are both retired, and they spend their time reading or exercising in the park. That’s the thing about working for the government – you get health care – and a pension after 30 years – and that included the 10 that he spent in a cave. Since government workers can retire before the age of 50, many of them choose to begin second careers – but not my brother. He has what he wants, and he is quite content to be a gentleman of leisure.

I never really got to know my sister-in-law very well, since she is also very shy and quiet person. But I got to know her sister who happened to be in Chicago in early 1990s with her husband who was working for the Chinese Consulate. We became really good friends, and whenever I visit Beijing, I always stop by to see her.