Monday, March 31, 2008

Part Thirty Seven

It’s been 39 years since I first met him
back when we both worked on that enormous state farm
up in northern Manchuria.
He was a bright, dreamy student back then
– and we fell in love.

In the early 1970’s, government policy allowed one child of each family to either remain or return to Beijing, So my boyfriend, as an only child, was allowed to move back to Beijing after 4 years in the countryside – but I had to go somewhere else to work (in a county hospital – in another part of Manchuria)

I remember that last trip I made to Mom’s village to pick up my belonging to move them to my new assignment. He was there to help me – and we put everything on the top of a tractor, and he accompanied me to the train station. Since we were all sitting on top of the luggage, we had to hold each other tightly in order not to fall off, and I was so happy to have his arms around me the entire trip! When we got to the station, we finally said goodbye.

Then he went to work at a shoe factory in Beijing and I started my new career as a nurse in Manchuria. For the next year or so , we kept writing to each other, but as time went by, fewer and fewer letters arrived. I thought maybe things would get better after I moved to Beijing, but it took me 2 years to get there, and by then it was too late. He had already met a girl at his factory, she got pregnant – and we broke up our relationship.

. The last time I met him was a few days before I left China for the USA. That was 21 years ago – after he had become a lawyer by taking the entrance examinations in 1978 – the first year that universities had returned to normal. After graduation, he stayed at that university for seven years as an instructor himself – but then what happened to him ?

I just had to know – so while I was in Beijing last November, waiting for my mother’s funeral, I decided to do a little investigating.

I knew he was a lawyer, so I asked my cousin, a judge in Beijing, if he could help me. At first the answer was no – but when I tried an alternative spelling of his name – the answer was yes – so soon I had my old boyfriend on the telephone – and we were making a date to meet each other at a very popular restaurant in my sister’s neighborhood. (as it turned out , his firm handles the legal affairs of this restaurant, all the waitresses knew him, and he never has to pay for his meals)

And when we both got to the restaurant -- we couldn’t recognize each other !

It’s true.

He had called, telling me that he’d be late – so I got there first – took a table facing the front door – and waited for him to appear. But he never did – until he phoned me again – and turned out to be the man who was walking right past my table.

Had I really changed that much ? I just think he never saw me among all the other people. But I had seen him – and he truly had changed completely.

Where was that tall skinny boy with a shock of black hair and a narrow, dreamy face ?

Completely gone.

Now – he was just as tall – but somewhat wider as well – his hair was mostly gone – and his face had puffed out like a big, pale balloon.

He wore a polo shirt and a pair of jeans which had been washed so many times its grey color looked like an unwashed rag. That was a surprise too, because when we were dating, he paid a lot of attention to his appearance. Now, he didn’t seem to care at all. His attitude towards to me was as if we had just seen each other last month. There was no surprise in either his face or his tone of voice.

But Oh my goodness ! I was completely surprised. He even asked me “are you sure that I’m the person you’re looking for ?” – but then he smiled – and when I saw that smile – I knew it was him.

Well --- it had been a long time – and we had a lot to catch up on.

But curiously – he wasn’t all that interested in what had happened to me. No questions about my life in America – no questions even about my mother who had just died the previous week. The only question he really had was “what is your salary?” -- and after I told him (I hide nothing) – he then told me all about himself – his career, his father, and especially his daughter – his first and only daughter – whose conception had sent us in different directions all those years ago. And the more he talked – the more I doubted – that even if we had married 30 years ago – we would still be together.

I asked him about his mother (also an attorney) , and he told me that she is 86 years old now, still very independent, and living with a maid.

He was now on wife #3 – and the pride of life was his tall, athletic daughter – who had been a professional volleyball player and was now living in America. His proudest moment had been standing on the Golden Gate Bridge with her in San Francisco –and realizing that both of them had finally “made it”.

After graduating from law school, he was a professor for several years. before finally opening his own practice. He assured me that he was very good at courtroom advocacy – and he had won many cases – but he had lost many too – because, as he put it, he refused to pay off any judges. Was he really exceptionally honest – or was he only making excuses – I really couldn’t tell.

He also told me that he had great plans to write a novel. He had always been a good writer – that’s how I fell in love with him – indeed, since we hardly ever got to see each other back when we worked in the countryside – all that I really saw were his wonderful, imaginative letters. He hadn’t actually begun to write this great, new novel yet – but he assured me that it would win a Nobel prize and be turned into a popular movie. But honestly – I have my doubts about all this, too.

And he told me – that had developed some special skill -- that no matter what he does, he can do it well.

He also told me more about his father – who had been on track to becoming a very high official – when he was black-listed and sent to live in a remote, western province. That’s why his mother had to divorce his father – and ended up raising her son by herself. In the seventies -- his father was finally reprieved - and now is retired, enjoying what life he has left.

During the 2-3 hour meeting, his cell phone rang off the hook. One time he got up walked away to talk with the caller, who turned out to be his mother. Finally, as we were about to leave, his phone rang again, we walked to his car. I told him that my sister’s apartment was about 5 minutes away and I did not need a ride. I said goodbye – as he was still holding his cell phone, and waving back at me.

So … I’m not sure how much I want to see him again – he seems like such a different person.

But he’s been organizing a reunion among all the kids who went up to that northern farm 40 years ago – and maybe I’ll join them all when it finally happens. So much has happened to all of us – and our country – since those sad and difficult years.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Part Thirty Six

With mom’s recent death,
I’ve been thinking more about her early life in Hebei province,
in the village of 安国市 (pinyin: Ānguó Shì ),
not far from the city of Baoding,
about 140 km southwest of Beijing.
(and coincidentally, the city
where my father went to school)

The color of dirt in that area is light yellow. When I first visited the family home, I remember it had mud brick walls, a dirt floor, and the windows were mounted with rice paper instead of glass. It was a summer, some of the paper was torn, and there were millions of flies buzzing around the windows. My great grandma was 95 at that time, and it was the same place where many generations of the family had lived. Water was fetched from a nearby well and then stored in a huge pottery jar by the kitchen. There was a wind box next to the stove, and you had to pull it back and forth whenever you put twigs or tree branches into the stove. ( I thought it was a lot of fun to do -- but after a little while my arm got very tired.) In my uncle’s bed room, there was a loom. Uncle told me that my grandma and mom used it everyday when they lived here. It was still being used by my aunt and cousins (this was 1967). I tried my hand –but it was not so easy -- you had to coordinate both hands and feet.

I also joined my cousins working in the cotton fields -- picking up the fluffy, white cotton from the cotton plants. It was a lot of fun, but at the end of the day, I realized how a little cotton I had picked compared with the other girls. The village credited you according to the weight of cotton. My bucket looked full but it weighed almost nothing. Later, my cousins showed me how they packed their buckets very tightly. They made fun of me as a city girl who would never be as fast as they were.

My country relatives were all fascinated by my Beijing accent, which they associated with singers from the the Beijing Opera. Most of them had never been to the great city, and I felt like a foreigner among them. I was 14 years old, and this was my first visit to the countryside. Growing up in the city, I could not imagine what a hard life my uncle, aunt, and cousins must have had. My uncle spent all day along working in the fields, while aunt stayed at home cooking all the family meals. Cooking was no easy matter, since you constantly had to feed the stove while pushing the wind box to keep the fire going. She also had to grind the grain and carry the water from the nearby well, as well as gathering and preparing food for the family pigs. It was a hard life indeed.

Mom had left this village back in the ‘40’s, but she still had some of her village accent until she died. Since that time, she only went back to the village twice – first, when she gave birth to my older brother, and then a second trip with my younger sister in the early 1960’s (this was when my sister caught the skin disease that kept her out of school for a while)

It’s not an especially wealthy area –but it’s not as remote and desperately poor as the villages to which city folk were sent during the cultural revolution, and my grandfather’s family was prosperous, at least by local standards. They did not have enough to be called landlords – but just enough to keep a few hired hands.

My grandmother had married the oldest of 5 sons – so this was a large family – and a lot was expected of her. She cooked for the entire family, and, of course, was expected to give birth to boys.

The family back then consisted of Mom’s great-grandmother; both her grandparents – and their family of 5 sons and 2 daughters (the youngest daughter died young)

The first son was Mom’s father. The second son became teacher and moved to Beijing . His first wife died, and later he married a Manchu woman who caused much strife with his step daughters. The third son remained in the village as a farmer. The fourth son went to college in Beijing, and became a high official. He divorced his country wife, and remarried a high official in Beijing. The fifth son died in the war.

Mom was the first child (born in 1919) of her generation – and there would have been serious trouble if grandmother had kept on having girls – like the women who had married her husband’s brothers.

The first two children of the second-brother’s wife were both girls – and one night, as they were sleeping on the kang, the baby girl was shoved up against the wall and smothered. In the morning, they found her dead. The baby’s grandmother gave the appropriate expressions of anger and sorrow --- but everyone knew it was not an accident – and the same thing happened again when another one of the wives had given birth to two daughters instead of sons.

But fortunately – Grandmother’s next child was a boy – and all her remaining children were boys – giving her three boys and one girl (almost the ideal Chinese family of 5 boys and 2 girls).

As told earlier – Mom’s father – too ill to work – had died when Mom was 15 ---so Grandmother and all her children were considered something of a burden to the rest of the family. They got fed last when food was put on the table, and if noodles were ever added to the vegetables, they never saw them.

With her father gone, and her mother working hard in the kitchen all day, Mom had to care for her infant brothers as soon as each was born – and had to provide her share of the family income. She was trained to spin yarn and weave cloth as soon as she could learn– and became quite skillful at an age when American children would be entering elementary school. She didn’t spend a lot of time in school – but everyone in the family was at least given the basics of literacy. She was a hardworking and serious little girl.

And then the Japanese came – followed by the civil wars that would embroil the country for the next 15 years, the years of her adolescence and young adulthood.

It seems as if every Chinese family has its stories of Japanese atrocities – and ours was no different.

As Japanese soldiers were approaching mom’s village, everyone fled to more remote areas – but Mom’s grandmother was too old and feeble to join them. She was 73 years old by then, and as family matriarch, had not been working the fields for a long time. What possible interest could young Japanese soldiers have with such a feeble old woman ? And yet – attack her they did -- shoving a wooden stick up her crotch and twisting it to torture her. Three days later, she died.

A group of soldiers also caught my mom and some other girls hiding in a barn – but this time the outcome was quite different.

One of the soldiers unpacked a small device that Mom recognized as a camera – and then told the girls to line up against the wall and smile as he took their pictures. Mom recognized the camera, and secretly told her cousins to close their eyes. Nobody got hurt – but I don’t think very good photographs got taken either.

After the Japanese had left, the civil wars began, and all the young males got recruited by one army or another. One of the Mom’s younger uncles (the 4th son of her grandparents) joined the staff of a top general in the PLA – and eventually he would rise to a high position in the financial ministry of the People’s Republic. (level 7 – where the first 13 levels were all considered to be “high officials”)

When land reform came to the village in 1947, this uncle tried, but failed to use his influence to protect the family – which although not rich – at least had some small property that could be taken away from them. Grandma’s mother-in-law was beaten and tortured to reveal where she had buried her wealth – even though there wasn’t any. Grandma was spared this abuse, however, because everyone knew she had a hard life living in that family without a husband.

After the revolution, a movie director, who had grown up in the village, made a propaganda film about bad officials who try to help their families instead of the revolution– and , though not identified by name, everyone in the village knew that it was the story of my mother’s fourth uncle.