Thursday, December 6, 2007

Part Thirty Two

My older sister suffered a near-disaster as very small child,
but after that, she has lived as “normal” a life
as anyone from our generation could expect.

She was just beginning to walk when she knocked over a large pot of hot water and nearly got boiled alive ! Well – of course – that’s an exaggeration – but when her hysterical mother immediately yanked her up off the floor, mother’s hands left a permanent mark on the skin beneath baby’s arms – which she still shows to this day.

My sister was good in school and had a real talent for both writing and drawing. Her essays were often recognized as exemplary, and her pencil drawings of elegant ladies were recognized by the official art critic of our family, our father, who promised to send them somewhere for publication (though I fear that never happened)

She was also a top athlete in field sports like running and jumping. Recruiters from Beijing’s special university for athletics asked our parents if they would consent to her enrollment , but my mother was firmly opposed.. She wanted her children to be well educated, not just professional athletes.

Since I was three years younger, and sent away to boarding school, I didn’t really get to spend much time with my sister – but when she was going out with her friends, she sometimes took her little sister along – especially because I was always the bold one – the one who would speak up and stick her neck out.

I can remember that when I was 7 or 8 years old, swimming got very popular after Mao swam the Yangtze. There was a small swimming pool in our complex, so we all started learning how to swim that summe. It took me 2 or 3 afternoons to figure it out, but it took my poor sister forever, because she was too timid to bury her head under water, and if a little water splashed on her face, she would immediately stand up in the shallow pool. (Eventually she did learn how to swim, but she never put her head under water until today.)

I also remember the time when mother sent the two of us out to gather elm leaves during the famine years of the late fifties

(We were among the lucky few who never went hungry – but there were some changes in our diet. At my boarding school, we got
dried yams for lunch or dinner instead of steamed bread – and actually, we liked the dried yams better because they were chewy and sweet. I once overheard our teachers say that we children knew nothing about hunger or good food.)

Mom believed that we needed green pigment in our diet, and since there was a shortage of green vegetables during the famine, she asked us to pick up some elm tree leaves to augment the 2-3 ounces of vegetables which each of us were rationed every day.

The elm bushes were growing on the roof of a bomb shelter that had been built in the foreign embassy district back in the thirties. My sister was a little shy or embarrassed about gathering leaves in a strange neighborhood, so I took the initiative.

That evening mom made steamed elm leaves with corn meal in garlic sauce, and I loved it. It was so delicious, I even offered to pick more elm leaves, but we never went back.

Things were getting better towards the end of 1962 more and more food and vegetables were showing up in the market without a need for coupons – and it was our job, by sister and I, to wait in the line for hours to get what we wanted. My sister usually pushed me forward in the line to do the ordering – but I was only 9 years old back then, and I often made mistakes in certain vegetables, like confusing green onions with leeks.

When we went to the meat market, sister always asked me to tell the shop assistant that what kind of meat we wanted. But most of the time there was no choice, the butcher just cut whatever he had, and we always ended up with a very unsatisfactory piece of fat. So sometimes we would just go back to the end of the line , hoping that next time we might get something leaner. This happened to us all the time, and sometimes we spent all day in the market, since there was nothing else to do anyway.

The two of us were especially busy in the days before Chinese New Year, since it’s bad luck to prepare food on the holiday itself.
(If you do work on the holiday -- that means you will have to work hard for the rest of the year.)

During the weekends, when my sister was old enough and my father had been sent to prison, she would help mom wash the clothes by hand on a wooden washing board, and sometimes I helped her to rinse or hang them outside our apartment. There were 6 of us at that time, so there was always a huge pile, and she spent the entire morning washing them. (Many years later, Mom noticed that she had large arms because, she said, of her years spent washing. Whether or not that was true, she still did not like her usually large arms.)

My old sister did a lot of cooking at that time, too. (this was the year when all the schools had been closed) She had learned some new recipes from her classmates or friends, and she would try them out. Roasting peppers over the fire was one of them, and I thought it was very strange, but now I have been using that method all the time. Another dish was home made mayonnaise, using raw egg yolk whipped with oil until it became thick and creamy. That was very strange in our Chinese cuisine, but she often tried unfamiliar dishes that mom had never cooked for us.

Years later, she also began to learn sewing. Mom called her a very daring “tailor”, since it would not take her a long time to cut the fabrics, but a lot of time to fit together the pieces whose measurements had been wrong. She really learned how to sew by making mistakes, and she used up a lot of old fabrics saved by my grandmother and mom. She even learned how to make shoes, but the shoes she made looked kind of strange look, and I felt embarrassed to wear them.

And did I mention that my sister had a very sensitive nose and aversion to anything unclean. If she came across a spit or anything unpleasant on the ground, she always jumped away and would cover her nose and eyes to avoid it. Imagine her horror when she had to live in the countryside, where animal droppings were everywhere. It took her a long time to get used to it, and maybe she never did.

I’ve already told you about her brief career as a red guard – how she threw a pebble at her teacher – how she soon regretted it – how she traveled around the country with the other red guards –and how she joined her school in being sent to small, impoverished village in western China, out by the silk road.

As the Cultural Revolution was winding down she was sent to the nearby city of Da Tong , a famous stop on the Silk Road, and adjacent to the “Caves of Thousand Buddhas”. But she wasn’t there to study art history – she got a job with the local police department, thanks to our father’s connections. Since she was now eligible to get married, she began dating – and her second boyfriend was the man she married – a fellow student from Beijing who was also the child of a high ranking official. She managed to swap jobs with a police official in Beijing, so soon both she and her fiancĂ©, who also worked in the police department, were able to return to Beijing.

Her husband was a tall ( 6’4”), wonderful guy. He has a very big heart, helps everyone he knows, and our family has benefited a lot from him over the years. I think my sister is very lucky to marry him.

When she was 30, she gave a birth to my lovely niece. My sister had a problem handling diapers (and Mom always laughed at her about it) but she was very proud of her beautiful and adorable girl.
Later, I learned that she kept a diary about her daughter for many years, and after my niece had learned how to write, she kept it going for a while too. I do not know when they stopped it.

One day, my niece did not come home after school, and my sister went crazy. She finally found her later that evening in her classmate’s home, and she yelled at her daughter for the first time. My neice was not used to such scary treatment, and after she went to sleep that night, she cried for grandma’s help while she was dreaming, waking my sister in the other room. My sister felt so guilty that she began crying too, and even I cried at the other end of the phone line when my mom told me the story.

As party members, both she and her husband rose up through the ranks to become mid-level officials and retire at the mandatory age of 55. Or, actually, she retired four years later, since her writing skills had made her indispensable to the boss, and he had begged her to stay.

Now she spends her time reading visiting with her friends, one of whom I remember from all the way back when they were school children. She remains close to all our family – visiting our mother once and week and chatting with me for hours on the telephone.

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.

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 fiancĂ©s 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.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Part Twenty Eight

The irony about coming to Chicago…
is that I spent more time with Americans back
when I was a tour guide in Beijing.

In Chicago. I felt confined to the small community of expatriate Chinese, mostly my age (or younger) who had come to the land of opportunity.

They were not , of course, ordinary Chinese. They all had the smarts, the persistence, the personality, the whatever it took to get a visa – and they were mostly among the tiny percent who had gotten a college education. They were all go-getters, and maybe a little self centered.

When my sponsor (the priest who was my uncle’s friend) returned to the city, he got me a place to stay in a much nicer neighborhood – upscale Lincoln Park – in the Chinese Friendship House, a building owned by yet another Chinese Catholic priest, Father Fu. It was a large building on a major thoroughfare, and served as a kind of boardinghouse for Chinese students who were attending adjacent DePaul University.

Young men slept on the second floor, young women on the third , and we shared the kitchen and living areas downstairs. There must have been about 20 of us altogether – and it felt like I had never left China.

Many of us were from the mainland, and one girl I met was accompanied by her mother and brother (he lived on the second floor). I thought how lucky they were to be here as a family, and it made me homesick. As soon as I said goodbye to my sponsor,
I felt so lost. I was sobbing in my own room for a while, and finally, despite the late hour, I knocked on their door. We talked for a while, but she had to get up the next morning to clean someone’s house. I returned to my own room, and did not sleep for several hours. . A few days later, she asked me how many siblings I had. I told her I was one of 5, but she said, the way I was crying the other night, she was sure that I was an only child.

The old priest , Father Fu, who was our landlord had a rather tragic past. He had been a priest back in China, and during the Japanese invasion, he was arrested, tortured, and castrated. America had been good to him. He had managed to buy a spacious town house in a declining neighborhood back in the fifties. Now the neighborhood had gone yuppie, he was the owner of some prime real estate, and he was helping the next generation of Chinese enter into American life. But he was, well, a little strange. He helped himself to the food we kept in the refrigerators – but he didn’t tell anyone about it – so we all suspected each other of taking each other’s food, and that did not make for a communal life of peace and harmony. We already had our share of gossip and bickering –so soon I was again looking for a way to live somewhere else.

But before I left, I met a woman who would end up changing my life – an artist from my parents’ generation who was temporarily serving as a kind of house mother for the women’s floor of residents. She was a professional, traditional brush painter from a distinguished family (her father had been a provincial governor) which fled to Taiwan after the revolution. She had been sent to Rome for an art education, where she had fallen ill and been nursed back to health by an order of nuns which she considered joining after she got better.(she became a lay member) That was when she got involved with the religious Chinese Catholic community in Rome – which included my father’s younger brother (remember him ?) who had become a priest and been sent to Rome for further study.

In a way, I think she had fallen in love with my uncle -- not like romantic lovers, but like young people who admired and cherished each other. Whenever she talked about him, it was with the most glowing words , and when she learned that I was his niece, her face lit up and her attitude towards me changed completely. She had come to Chicago several years before to teach brush painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, but after eight years, her contract was not renewed. She kept her town house in Chicago, but she leased it out and spent the winters back in Taiwan where she found a better market for her paintings. She was staying at the old priest’s house during this visit to Chicago because her home was still under lease to others.

She taught a brush painting class in Chicago, and when I expressed an interest, she was happily to offer to me private class in her room. She did not charge me for the class and I was very grateful.. Slowly I felt a bit closer to her, then I started to share own life story with her. She offered to introduce me to her marriageable students – and a few years later I would meet one of the who would eventually become my next husband.

But for now, I still needed a place to live, and my first opportunity came from a nearby family in Lincoln Park. At first, I just worked for them as a baby sitter to pick up some extra cash – but after their daughter injured her leg during a ski trip, they needed someone to live with them, and I became a live-in nanny and housecleaner. They were very nice people, and I was paid very well – but --- but their daughter needed more attention than I could give, and I didn’t leave China to become a domestic worker. Working/living with them was too time consuming for me to get my homework done.

When I told them that I had to leave to spend more time on my study, they were very sorry to see me go. I told them I would introduce them to another Chinese girl, and I kept in touch with them for a few years. They always told me that I was the best babysitter they ever had. I loved their kids.

So once again – is this the fourth time already ? -- I had to look for somewhere else to live – and this time the Asia Student Association helped me find a roommate in Chinatown – a young woman from Shanghai – the first of my many Chinese roommates in Chicago.

I’m sure this is a terrible thing to say – but did I tell you that I don’t like Chinese ? We’re just not honest – nobody could be honest and survive in the over-politicized world of the People’s Republic. And I especially don’t like people from Shanghai – they’re just so materialistic. So even though it probably wasn’t her fault, I just didn’t like my roommate – and I didn’t like the way she treated her devoted boyfriend, holding back sex to get whatever she wanted . I didn’t like her – so once again I moved out..

Just about this time , my brush painting teacher’s nephew showed up. I had met him at the Chinese Friendship House. He seemed like a nice guy and he told me that he was looking for a place to live, he was so fed up with father Fu’s place. So together we found a two bedroom apartment not to far from Chinatown.

He was about 8 years younger than myself, and he had gotten an engineering degree back in China – but this was before the Chinese economy had opened up, and he came to America for better job opportunities. He was also from Shanghai, but I thought he sounded honest.

At beginning everything was fine with us. He worked at a Chinese restaurant in the evenings, so we had a very limited time to chat, and when we did, I began to notice that our limited conversation was always how many tips he had gotten -- who were the good tippers and who were the bad ones. I was just hoping that when school was open, we would eventually talk more about our studies.

I liked and respected him – but there were no romantic feelings there -- and it’s not especially easy to share a kitchen and bathroom with a man to whom you’re not attracted. I can never be just “one of the boys”.

He seemed to have some good ideas about how we could get ahead – and he convinced me to drop my Business major at Roosevelt University and join him in a computer science program at DePaul. Yikes ! – I suppose that I was beginning to change careers almost as often as I had been changing roommates – but it made sense. I had only signed up for the Business major because I needed something, anything to get a student visa, and I really didn’t need just another bachelor’s degree. But I was attracted to the idea of learning a new technology, as a marketable skill where I could really use my mind, not just my smile and talk English.

So we both joined the program together, and the plan was to study together – or, actually, for him to help me study since he was already quite advanced – but something else I should have mentioned about Chinese students is that most of us don’t have enough money to stay in school. I was quite lucky – I had a sponsor, the friend of my uncle – who ended up paying $50,000 for my three years in school – but usually a Chinese student is desperate for funds, and this roommate was no exception. He was constantly applying for scholarships wherever he could – and suddenly he got one – a full scholarship to a university in Indiana – so suddenly I was left alone – without a helpmate for my new line of study – and without anyone else to pay half the rent on the apartment.

I hope, dear reader, that I’m not making this all confusing – or maybe too boring – since isn’t all this confusion just ordinary student life ?

The roommate that followed was also male – also Chinese – and also too broke to stay in school without some kind of scholarship – which did not seem to be forthcoming. He had studied photography at the Art Institute, but could not afford the tuition to graduate, so he was doing odd jobs like waiting on tables.
He was older than me – about the age of my older brothers – and I thought he was very knowledgeable, just like my older brother. whom I admired so much. I enjoyed his company, but again, there was no romantic feeling there. Maybe I am something of an extremist when it comes to affection – either I feel a lot – or I feel nothing at all.

I wasn’t in love –but one night, when both of us were feeling lonely and had drunk a few glasses of wine, we made sex – and that made for big problem the next morning when he wanted to do it all over again, but I was not interested.

Things started getting bad between us. Then he moved out without telling me and he owed me for the phone bills and rent, He became very nasty when I asked him for the money. What could I do? I just had to blame myself.

So my life was in upheaval yet again -- but the one thing that was constant during these times was the support I got from my sponsor, the old Chinese priest who was my uncle’s friend.

Every week he brought me a grocery bag full of chicken legs or whatever else was on sale and could be used for Chinese cooking, and I made him a big, old-fashioned Chinese dinner with noodles. (he loved Chinese food – but was too frugal to eat at restaurants)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Part Twenty Seven

When I first arrived in America,
even though I had nothing in my wallet,
I lived like a queen,

... or at least like a queen’s best friend.

Indeed, during those first few months, I have never lived so well, before or since.

There was wealth – there was romance – it was just like life in the airport novels that the American tourists used to leave behind on their bus seats.

But first, let’s get me on the plane.

I spent my last night in China in my husband’s apartment (it was still OUR apartment) but the entire night, he never came home. I had hoped that at least he might show a little bit support or something, but no, he was spending yet another night with another woman. My older sister showed up early the next morning, and the first thing she said was “what had happened to you ? you look terrible !” I told her that I could not sleep at all --but I did not tell her why.

Then I went to the airport -- in the two-piece polka dot dress I had bought in Hong Kong, with my hair cut short and permed (so I could save time and money on hair care when I got to America. Money would tight there – because every dollar I spent would have to be borrowed)

My entire family joined me at the airport, and since we were a little bit early, we started talking. They were all telling me to be careful -- you will be all alone a strange country -- please take good care of yourself.

I was holding my tears back so hard, I was speechless.

All my young nieces were bouncing around, so happy to be somewhere strange and different. Then my oldest niece, Bing Bing, came up to my side, and asked me, “ Auntie, why were you crying?” As soon as she said that, I could hold my tears back no longer. I told everyone I had to leave, and I was the first passenger to get on the plane.

Everything ahead of me was unknown. I was 33 years old, and I had to start my life all over again.

When I was preparing to leave China, I had written letters to some of the American tourists whom I had met as a tour guide. I had shown them around my country, and maybe they would be kind enough to give a cheerful, sincere person a place to stay until my American school started in the Fall ? I sent three letters – and got two invitations.

Both came from San Francisco, and when my plane finally landed, I was met at the airport by a wonderful lady in her mid-forties.

Her name was Meg, and when she and her husband had visited China on a private tour, I had been assigned to be their private guide. They must have just come from a beach in Hawaii, because they were both very tan. (our driver thought they had come from the countryside) . They enjoyed their Beijing tour very much, and we enjoyed each others’ company, so we had promised to keep in touch. Back then, I had not been 100% sure that I would go to the U.S., but since I was already in the process of applying, they had been expecting me to come.

Meg and her husband lived on a hilltop just outside the city – well, actually, they owned the entire hill. They had a tennis court, swimming pool, guest buildings, and magnificent gardens that provided fresh flowers that were cut daily and placed throughout every room of the house.

Did I say that were wealthy ? Was this a lifestyle that every American could enjoy ? I was so glad I had come here ! (I knew this was not a normal Americans life style. But I did not know how much separated the poor from the rich.)

(and I have to mention their neighbor’s dog – a black, fluffy poodle that was the size of a small pony. At first, I thought it was some kind of statue – but when it began to move I shrieked. I had never seen a dog that large)

My hostess had been a school teacher, but after marriage to her wealthy husband, she retired to a life of shopping, traveling, and regular visits to the psychologist. She was a very thoughtful and generous woman, and it was a wonderful vacation for me to spend almost a month with her – tooling around the surrounding hills in her white, 1930 Mercedes convertible (which drew attention wherever it was parked)

Her husband was a wonderful and very gentle man – and very successful in business. When his oldest son , from a previous marriage, had gotten married, his wedding gift to him had been a $300,000 house.

Among his investments were 10 restaurants in Napa Valley – so they were into food. Every evening he came home and fixed us dinner.

Much of the food was unfamiliar to me – soft shell crab ? I had never heard of that before. How did I handle all this gourmet dining ? Somehow, I survived – including visits to what must have been some of the best restaurants in the world. I’m sure they were expensive – but for some puzzling reason, the waiter didn’t always bring her the bill , but sometimes she would just stand up and then we would walk out.

I think my hostess may have been a little lonely – she was pretty much on her own throughout the day. She told me that she had a college girlfriend with whom she kept in close touch. She hinted to me that they had been lovers, but I told her this was a concept I could not understand. This was a very different world for a girl who had grown up in the puritanical Peoples Republic !

Eventually, my hosts had to travel – so I had to find another place to live – and I accepted the second invitation that I had gotten from one of my tourists – a single man in his forties who also lived in the San Francisco area.

He was not as wealthy – but he had enough money to live without working. He had a large, hillside residence with 2 or three bedrooms and a newly built library - and he graciously offered one of those bedrooms to me.

He was also in his forties, and though not Chinese (he was Jewish) – he was a true Mandarin scholar who had never worked a day in his life. He lived on a trust fund – indeed he managed the accounts for the charitable foundation established by his parents – and he devoted his life to scholarship. He had degrees in literature and history from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. His library was enormous, and every day, without exception, he closeted himself with his books for further study, filling the margins of selected pages with his thoughtful notes. He was truly a gentleman, and we had the kind of dreamy romance that fantasy books are made of.

He often arranged short trips for us – like to the redwood forest, or a winery. One day he drove me along the ocean to a very large, nice beach area. We did not swim, but we strolled along the beach, hand in hand , and we walked up to a famous lighthouse, with a small, historical museum on the top floor.

It displayed some old weapons and exotic things that had come from other countries, and I spotted some old-style Chinese characters on the top of a lacquered box. They looked to me like the Chinese characters for ‘hair’ ( but later, I realized they meant ‘silk’. I’m afraid that traditional Chinese learning had not been part of my education)

Even if we didn’t go out for a trip every day , we were at least hiking nearby. He showed me some raspberry bushes, and we picked and ate them right there on the spot. ( this was all very strange to me – since we had always washed everything before we ate it).

After a few days of settling into his house, I offered to cook for us. He really liked my cooking -- and so did I, since I missed Chinese food so much. We went to the supermarket, but I had difficulty finding Chinese ingredients (I did not know that they could easily be found in San Francisco) . I missed having my typical Chinese breakfast: i.e. porridge with salted vegetables. Toby did not cook, but whatever I made with the limited ingredients I could find, he always liked.

We had become lovers, but I never really fell in love with him. He was just too --- too self absorbed.

One time he asked me if I would like to bear his child –but I declined.

Before I left China, I had promised my family to call them as soon as I arrived, but I felt awkward asking my new friends to help me place a phone call to Beijing. After a couple of weeks, I finally I had the courage to ask for help, and my first call was received by my oldest brother. Everyone was worried about me and I wanted to talk to my parents, but they had gone to Tianjin to visit my uncle. I told oldest brother that everything was OK and that I would be all right. But after I hung up, I cried uncontrollably. I missed them all so much.

As you can tell, I was having a wonderful time in San Francisco -- but now the summer was ending, and I was supposed to be going to school in Chicago. Was I still sure that I wanted to go there ?

San Francisco was so beautiful – I was living the life of a fairy tale princess –and Americans were so nice to me. (this was something that really amazed me when I first arrived – people on the street are friendly in America ! Even on the bus, they smile and say “hi – how are you?” If someone did that in China – they’d be known as crazy.

Where would I live in Chicago ? The only person I knew there was the old priest who had gotten me enrolled in the university. He was my uncle’s good friend, but I didn’t really know him very well. So I made some inquiries – but it was too late for me to enroll in a California university.

So I was off to Chicago – and my kind friend from the hilltop mansion made all the arrangements – buying me a plane ticket and finding me a room in Evanston.

I was very grateful for that room – but it soon became apparent that it would not work out.

My landlady was a psychologist who had her office in the same building. Whenever she had clients, I was required to stay in my room and not leave until the client had left. But Chicago can get very hot in the summer, and my top floor room didn’t have any air conditioning. I felt trapped and very uncomfortable. The landlady was nice, but she was much older than me. I did not feel that we could become friends.

So I was desperate to find another place to live.

The Chinese student association set me up with a Korean girl who had a studio “garden” (i.e. basement) apartment in the Uptown neighborhood. Her current roommate was leaving, so she would have a vacancy – but the roommate still had a few weeks before she left. I was desperate to escape from my room in Evanston, so finally they let me join them – though I had to sleep on the floor.

For those of you unfamiliar with Chicago – the multi-ethnic Uptown neighborhood is a rather rough place to live. The rent can be cheap – but the neighbors can be very tough. I will never forget the first night that I spent there.

My two roommates were fast asleep on the bunk bed , and I was sleeping on the floor – when I felt something crawling over my covers.

It was a big rat and I swear it was a foot long !

I may have lived with millions of mosquitos and mice back at the big farm, but certain animals, like rats and snakes, continue to terrify me.

I bolted upright – the rat scurried off – and I stayed watchful and awake the rest of night.

The next day my roommate complained to the landlord. He gave us a trap, and we caught the frightful rodent.

I felt much better after that – but still -- everybody here had his or her own life.

For the first time in my life, I felt completely alone and did not know what to do. I was waiting for classes to start – and I was waiting in that dark basement room , with one, single window,
about two feet from another apartment. I felt scared and depressed.

This was quite a change from the romance and palatial splendor I had been enjoying just a few days earlier !

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Part Twenty Six

This is not last chapter of my life –
but it is the last chapter of my life in the People’s Republic.

*I wanted a different kind of job
*My marriage was dead
*I didn’t want to live with my parents (I could afford to live on my own, but apartments were simply not available in Beijing)

I wanted to divorce, but meanwhile I did not know how to tell my family. My family was very close , but we did not share all our feelings, and I especially did not want to share my sadness and tragedy with them. I was ashamed that my marriage failed and embarrassed that I would be the only one who was divorced. I was spending more and more time with my parents and nieces, and finding all the excuses not to stay at my own home. All my neighbors in that small guarded complex knew about my failed marriage. I felt so trapped and helpless. I shared these feelings with my closest friends, but nobody could give any better advise than the Chinese proverb: Out of 36 methods, leaving is the first choice. I did.

I had two choices at that time. One was to marry the man I loved and then wait 7 years to move to Hong Kong. The other was to go to America and start over again. I was 33 years old. I was not too old to start from zero, but it would not be easy.

I took the second choice because I knew it would be better for me in the long run. I never wanted to become a housewife like my mother, who was very bitter after she lost her government job. I did not want to be in her situation.

I was ready to move to America – if only an opportunity ever presented itself.

And then it did – thanks to an old friend of my father’s brother (the Catholic priest who had fled to Hong Kong in 1948, and who ended up leaving the church, getting married, and living in Taiwan.)

Since he lived in Taiwan, my uncle could never visit his family back in China. But he had a good friend – a fellow priest – who ended up in Chicago, and beginning about 1982, this friend began to visit China on an annual basis – looking up his own family – and visiting our family, on my uncle’s behalf, as well.

The first time I heard about my uncle’s friend was 1983, when my cousin from Tianjin came to Beijing to visit him. Usually there was a reason for our cousin to visit us, and at first, he did not tell us why he was in Beijing, But then, when he asked me to help him to find the hotel where overseas Chinese would stay, he had to tell me whom he was going to meet. I went to the hotel with him, but we were a day late, and my uncle’s friend had already checked out.

We did not get in touch with my uncle’s friend that year, but in 1985, the priest from Chicago returned, and I got a chance to see him. He was very happy to meet me and my family., and it turned out that his visit was perfect timing.

For many years, he had tried to bring his relatives to America . He was a lonely man in Chicago. How many other Chinese Catholic priests could there be in Illinois ? And who else could understand his life – from the desperate poverty of a peasant family during the revolution – to the hope for some kind --- any kind --- of redemption offered by the church – and then the exile from family and homeland after the revolution. His only family was in China – and he was desperately trying to bring a relative home to live with him in Chicago.

But none of them spoke English -- and the American embassy would not approve their visas.

So I asked whether he might sponsor me instead – and fortunately for me – he agreed.

He got me enrolled as a business major at Roosevelt University in Chicago – and he footed the bill for all three years of that education – nearly $50,000. (After I got a job, I wanted to pay him back, but he told me that was not necessary. I was very grateful for that.)

Before I went to the embassy to apply for a visa, I asked around to make sure that I had all the required documents. My biggest problem was that I already had a bachelor degree in China, and I was told that most likely I would be denied a visa just to get another bachelor’s degree. But I wanted to give it a try anyway since my second degree would be totally in a different field.

The day for the interview finally came. I dressed nicely and sat in the waiting room for hours, waiting until my name was called.

I remember my interview very well !

I greeted the official with a good morning, and then handed all of my documents to him. He was a young fellow and not very chatty. He begin reading the documentation, and then I asked him if I could tell him something about myself. He told me to go ahead, so I started telling him how I was an English speaking tour guide – how most of my tourists were Americans -- how nice Americans were, and how lucky I had been for the opportunity to work for American people. Meanwhile I was closely watching what he was doing, and it took him less than 2 minutes to get a blue form out and started writing on it. I knew at that moment I was granted a visa. (I had learned that from the guy sitting next to me that morning. He told me if the officer got a yellow form, that means you are denied – but a blue form that means you are going to the America.)

At the end of those very, very important 5 minutes, my interviewer handed me back the documents and said “Have a nice trip”

Coincidentally, the embassy was nearly next door to the office building where my soon-to-be ex-husband was working. (He had left China Daily, and moved up in the world to become assistant to a very important publisher who was the son of the one of the top 10 military commanders in China) I had never visited his office before, and though we were separated, I wanted to share my good news with him. So I called up to his office – he came down to escort me up – and later I learned that by coincidence, his new mistress happened to be in the elevator with us.( at the time, I did not know about the new mistress – only about the previous one who had been a photographer at China Daily.)

A few years later, when I was living in America, I got a letter from an unknown woman – reminding me of our meeting in the elevator – and telling me that she never knew my husband was married back when they first started dating. She was in her mid-twenties , ten years younger than my husband, and she asked me for advice concerning their relationship. She felt that she was working very hard to make their relationship successful.

She must have heard good things about me from my husband's friends to ask me for advice, but what could I tell her ? I just told her to use her own judgment – and then I sent a copy of her letter to my ex-husband’s parents. I had been very close to them when we were married – and I felt badly about ending our relationship – especially since my ex-husband had never admitted to his adultery. This letter was proof that his affair had begun many years before our divorce.

In response, I got a 4-page letter from my former father-in-law. He wrote that he still thought I was the best daughter-in-law they had ever had, and that if his son continued to have extra-marital affairs, he would disown him as a son. He also wrote that my demand for a divorce was one of the saddest days in my ex-husband’s life ( the other saddest day being when he learned that his father was diagnosed with cancer) His letter made me so sad --- I cried on and off for the next few days.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Part Twenty Five

Before long, I had found an extra-marital romance for myself –

on a boat cruising up the Yangtze river through some of the most scenic landscapes in the world. I was the national guide accompanying a group of American tourists – and he was a photographer on assignment from a Hong Kong travel magazine.

The 4 or 5 day trip upstream from Shanghai to Chongqing was one of my favorite trips during my six years as a tour guide. This time, we had a new ship and the crew were all from Chongqing, a place well known for its small, beautiful women. How attractive they were in their new uniforms !

During evening dinner on the second day, I noticed a new passenger who had just boarded that afternoon. He looked very shy and quiet, sitting at the dinner table all by himself. He was Chinese, but didn’t look like someone who had grown up in mainland China. When I passed his table, I said hello and he politely greeted me, but the conversation ended there. After dinner, my co-worker and I decided to visit the sitting lounge up at the bow of the ship, and as we were chatting, the newcomer walked in and took a chair opposite ours. I had been wondering about this person was ever since we first met, so I walked over to introduce both myself and my co-worker to him. You could tell from his face that he was delighted (and he told me later, that he was wondering about us too – but was too shy to start a conversation)

After that evening’s introduction, we were all looking forward to the next opportunity to chat or share a meal together. He did not speak Mandarin very well, so our conversations were a mixture of English, Cantonese and broken Mandarin. But we all enjoyed the company very much. We had some good conversations and ended up exchanging addresses at the end of the trip.

A few weeks later, as he was passing through Beijing on his way to an assignment up north, he stopped at Beijing for a few days since I had volunteered to show him the city. I invited him up to my room, and after a cup of tea and we headed to a park. It was raining, but neither of us minded. We strolled around the lake, and he got very serious about taking a lot of photographs.

We spent a whole morning and afternoon together, talking about that Yangtze river trip and a little bit about ourselves. You could tell he was a very shy, reserved person. He loved China, but during his trips to the mainland, he told me that he came across so many unthinkable incidents, and he did not know how mainlanders could survive in this kind of system. Unbearable and unreasonable restrictions and rules; he hated them so much, sometimes he wanted to never set foot in China again , but the beautiful country was so irresistible – and, of course, visiting and photographing it was his job.

When he was in my apartment, he told me that he was amazed at how well we lived. That was the first time that he had ever been invited into someone’s home on the mainland. That day went by too quickly, and as he was leaving in the evening, I stood on the platform at the station, waving until his train disappeared out of sight. I admit that I felt a bit lost.

A few days later, I received a long letter from him – and fell in love. We arranged for me to visit him in Hong Kong – and soon we were talking about marriage.

How to describe him ?

He was not too short, about 5 feet 9 inches, with a small structure, thin but not skinny. He was very near sighted, and always wore a pair of glasses. He looked well educated, but not like a professor. He was a very serious person, but he could also be very funny. He enjoyed food, but was never wasteful – and it was only after we met, that I, too, discovered that food could be enjoyable --- not just something to fill an empty stomach. He did his job with a great deal of passion, and saved every penny he could throughout out his life. He was a gentle, sincere, and rather old-fashioned person; definitely a gentleman, and also very romantic.

He did not talk about his family that much with me before I went to Hong Kong.

I knew that both his parents had died, and he had a brother and sister. His parents had joined millions of others from Guangdong province who came to Hong Kong after the revolution – arriving in the early 1950’s – soon after it was announced that the Hong Kong border was going to be closed. His parents were poor and lived in the Kowloon district, one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

In late 1984, I was able to get the special visa to visit Hong Kong. No passport was required, but getting permission to cross the bridge to other side was no small matter. Again, I used my backdoor connections – this time, my brother-in-law could help me since he was in the police department. Once approved, my gentleman friend bought me a 10 day tour Hong Kong package. The first 6 or 7 days I stayed at hotel with my tour group but the last three days we were on our own, so I moved into his apartment.

The living condition of his family shocked me.

Their tiny apartment opened off a second floor balcony that hung over Tung Choi street (or “Ladies’ Market”) . – a street that was filled with shoppers and vendors until 3 am. It was always hot – it was always noisy – and I have no idea how anyone ever got to sleep.

And this limited space was shared by his brother and sister who was married with two small children. His sister and brother-in-law were very friendly and their hospitality made me feel at home very soon, but I never got a chance to meet his older brother, because he worked at night and only came home during the day.

My friend offered me his bed while he slept in the living room. None of his sister’s family spoke mandarin, so we had a very hard time communicating with each other. The next day, while he was away at work, he asked his sister to take me to a restaurant for dim sum – and that was my first time to have real dim sum. I loved the food, but did not like the noise in the restaurant, since Cantonese people speak very loudly, and I have no idea what they’re saying.

The bedroom was basically a closet – with just enough space for a single bunk-bed (above a desk) – on which he and his brother slept in shifts – and they both shared a kitchen with their sister’s family.

He was the only member his family to get a college education - thanks to a community college (he had qualified for Hong Kong’s more prestigious schools, but could not afford to attend them) – and after graduation he began working as a photographer for a travel bureau, which, like many Hong Kong businesses, was eventually bought by the People’s Republic.

So in sense, we both worked for the Chinese government – except that he wasn’t a Chinese citizen – indeed, he wasn’t a citizen of anywhere – since Hong Kong did not automatically grant citizenship to the people it took in during the fifties. He was a resident alien – with a green card.

He was very hardworking – and more frugal than even my family had been. He wouldn’t even pay for small storage locker to stash his heavy luggage when we went off on a date – but he was not cheap when it came to buying us dinner. That’s one thing about the Cantonese – they spare nothing for good food.

During my 10 day visit to Hong Kong, my observation was that Hong Kong was a good place to visit, but not to live , except for the very rich. . I was not longing to be rich, but I was also not ready to join the poor. I was much better off back home.

We saw each other over an 18-month period – but since were both working and traveling, we’d only get together every three months or so – so just as with my first romance – much of our communication was by letter – and I wrote some very long ones – seven or eight pages of heart-felt feelings.

But again – the letters I sent could never match the letters I got– because regarding the Chinese language, I only had an elementary school education.

We were getting pretty serious about each other – and I remember how when we were together one evening in Shenzhen– just at sunset -- I began to cry. There was no special reason – it was uncontrollable – maybe it was just the anxiety that I’ve always felt when the sun is going down – but he was certainly puzzled – and taking my hand he addressed me as his wife.

But how could I become his wife ? Where would we live ? Being so over-crowded, Hong Kong had strict regulations about the immigration of Chinese – and we would have to wait seven years after marriage before I could live there. And even after I did – what kind of job could I have ? I never wanted to be a housewife.

Meanwhile – how could he live in Beijing – he could barely speak Mandarin . And poor and crowded as people may be in Hong Kong – nobody there wants to join the teeming, impoverished billion on the mainland – with its periodic waves of political turbulence.

And I’m not sure that he could ever adjust to life in the People’s Republic – as exemplified by the following incident the occurred during our trip to a small town near Canton.

He was supposed to travel there and write an article about the area. It was one of those untouched areas undiscovered by tourists. It was a beautiful small town that didn’t yet have any modern, updated hotels, so we stayed in a local, old fashioned hotel, and we were the only visitors..

We rented two rooms, and they put us far apart, so he stayed all the way at one end of the hotel and I stayed at the other. . The shower did not work in his room, so he came to my room to shower, and then we spent the evening together in my room talking. At 10:00 pm, he told me that he should go back to his room, because the floor boys had seen him coming to mine and they had been looking at him strangely. But we were having such a good time , I did not want it to end , so I begged him to stay a bit longer, and he agreed. Then half an hour later, somebody began pounding loudly at my door. Mr. Hong Kong got up and immediately opened it , then a group of people came in, and began to question us. They accused us of adultery – but they could not prove it since we had opened the door immediately. Nevertheless, they kept us both in the room and continued with the interrogation. . I was so mad, and angry! They threatened to report me to my travel agency, and then threatened him to send him back to Hong Kong and forbid him to return. They tried very hard to have our confession, but we had nothing to hide. Finally, I began to threaten them. I told them, that my father worked for the Security Ministry, and I would ask minister X (I mentioned his name) who was the number 2 boss in security to investigate this hotel. I told them they would be in big trouble. After that, their attitude towards us changed and eventually they let us go. I never heard anything from them again – and my boss never got a letter from them either. ( I think they had nothing to do and waited to catch us in bed. , but they did not get what they wanted.)

My Hong Kong friend was so in love with me, that for a while , he even talked about moving to the mainland. But after that incident, he never mentioned it again.

During the last three months of our relationship – all we talked about was how could we make a life together. We were no longer young enough to throw caution to the wind and sacrifice everything for love. But we could never figure out how to work things out.