Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Part Seven

Expanding a bit on my mother’s family:

Her oldest brother, the farmer, took the train to Beijing once a year, around New Years, where he visited us and the rest of the family, loaded with things he had grown.

There were beans, peanuts, and my favorite: long, sweet yams, which we in Beijing could only buy in late Fall.

( Then, yams were cheap: only 2 fen for a half kilo. Mom boiled them in a big pot, and the best (very sweet) kind had an orange-red color and were not too dry inside. But my sisters liked the ones that were white and dry inside.)

My uncle would watch us eat his potatoes and outspoken person that I am, I once asked him why he didn’t eat with us. He told me he didn’t like potatoes at all, since he had to eat them every day during harvest season. He did not own the farm where he lived, but was given a very small piece of “self kept land” where he could grow anything he wanted and keep it all.

In return, my mother and his other siblings gifted him with cash whenever he visited, maybe 15-30 Yuan (an ordinary month’s wage) which was a significant source of income for his family. He stayed with us about four or five days, and I remember how he chain smoked, rolling his own cigarettes with newspaper that my mother had collected for him.

I don’t know if anyone ever took a bath in the countryside. They only had an out house, (and underneath it, the pigsty) . When he visited, Mom always had him bathe or shower and she washed all his clothes, sometimes needing very hot water to kill all the fleas. He was a big eater, managing two or three large bowls of noodles, enough to feed our entire family. (Mom always said that he could even eaten even more, but he was too shy to admit it.) He was very tall – just like all my uncles - about 6 feet high.

Mom’s second brother, the general, also lived in Beijing, and had been an artillery officer in the Korean war – where a nearby explosion had left him deaf in one ear. When he returned from the war, he enjoyed something of hero-status , and that’s when he met his young wife who was a very pretty, high-school aged patriotic volunteer from Wuxi (a location near Shanghai, known for it’s small, delicate, and very beautiful women)

They soon had four children, three boys and finally one girl, and had their own courtyard in Beijing, to which they also invited his mother (my grandmother) to live (my grandfather had been dead almost 20 years by then)

The oldest son was two years younger than me – a very tall, handsome fellow, who is now a judge in the Beijing Supreme Court. The number two son was even taller ( 6’5”) and was recruited for the military basketball team. His military career did not go anywhere, and he ended up working in a Beijing factory, married to a tall woman basketball player. ( they have a daughter, and you can imagine how tall she must be, but so far I’ve never met her) The youngest son lived with us for a few years, since mom did not work any more, and she could baby sit. He was a normal boy, but at the age of two, a high fever left him with a disorder on one side of his face. It took him a long time to find a wife, but finally, at the age of 40, he married a country girl who lived in Beijing. They have a beautiful daughter.

My uncle had a good life, but his career often took him away on duty -- and a beautiful young wife does not stay lonely forever. Eventually she began to entertain a young soldier, about seven years her junior. My grandmother, living at home, saw the young couple meet behind the closed bedroom door – but as a guest of her daughter-in-law, she felt she should say nothing.

A Chinese proverb tells us that “paper cannot wrap fire” – and true enough, eventually my uncle discovered the affair. Adultery is a very bad thing in China – but so was divorce – so it put my uncle in a tough position. I remember overhearing the hushed conversation he had with my mother about these troubles – how he felt like such a failure – and how my mother told him to divorce her.

The divorce was processed and my uncle, who was 38 at the time, was given custody of their three sons, while the two lovers were severely punished by losing their rank, their jobs, and their residency in Beijing.

Residency in the big cities was no small privilege – and it was nearly impossible to come by for those who didn’t have it. In the countryside, people eat what they grow – but in the big cities one needed food coupons – and nobody got them unless they were official residents.
I think the coupons system started in late 1950’s or early 1960’s., and some of the coupons, like those for grain and oil, lasted until early 1980’s.

Different cities had different types of coupons, and they were not interchangeable, which was one reason why very few people traveled during those years.

One year, dad traveled to Shanghai to investigate a major anti-party crime. Unfortunately his team was not able to solve the crime, and he had to stay a few weeks longer. There was one special coupon that converted coupons from one city to another for those who had the documentation of an official business trip, but dad had run out of Beijing coupons, and he wrote a letter to tell mom asking her send some. She sent him enough coupons to last for a month, but he never got them. It turned out that she had used a regular letter, and, of course, a hungry mail man kept them. It took my family many months to recover, and Mom had to cook with elm leaves or vegetable leaves from our front yard. I remember how my older sister and I climbed to the top of an old bunker in our complex to reach the elm bushes, and we picked the new tender leaves as mom had instructed. Mom then cooked them with corn meal, and I loved it. Mom laughed at me and said that I always enjoyed poor peasant food.

So the two adulterers were sent back to their home villages – with no prospects for employment.

My uncle’s ex-wife got piece-work assembling match boxes at home – on a starvation wage – with the assistance of her young daughter of whom she got custody. The daughter was a beautiful young girl – just like her mother had been – and it truly pained my uncle to lose her – but there was nothing he could do.

Eventually, her lover, the young soldier (now a hometown factory worker) was able to send for – and marry her, but my uncle’s daughter had to stay behind where she was cared for by extended family until she was old enough to marry another orphaned boy in the village – just in time to upset the plans of her desperate father, who had finally gotten the paperwork to get her residency in Beijing. But it was impossible to get residency for her new husband as well -- and so it goes….

The daughter’s young husband turned out to be abusive and the marriage didn’t last very long – but eventually she settled down with a factory job and second husband and things were looking much brighter for them.

Meanwhile my uncle’s ex-wife and her new husband were unable to have children – so they adopted a son – which occasioned the somewhat bitter remark from my mother that “having abandoned four children – why adopt another?”

My uncle soon found another wife – this one a college professor who had never been married – and she became the mother in his family, eventually bearing him another son.

My mother’s third brother was a great favorite with us children because he was very generous and always brought gifts whenever he came over, including some enormous pears we always kept on top of the armoire. He was very close to my mother - since she had played a maternal role in his life. My father helped get him get a good job with the army – and later he entered an industrial bank, where as level-17 cadre he served as a bank manager.

Among my mother’s uncles, I’ve already mentioned the ones who were traditional doctors – but there was also one who rose up to cadre-7 in the finance ministry.

That’s very high – he got his own courtyard in Beijing – the government provided his family with a cook and maid, a private driver and a car. In the late fifties, he owned among the very first television sets in China. These were Russian made devices that picked up the two hours of programming available every day – and there were, needless to say, quite expensive – about 800 yuan –which would have been about two years of ordinary factory wages. ( My family did not own a television for another twenty years) Making an annual visit to their home reminded me of the comical Granny Liu visiting Prospect Garden (in “Dream of Red Chamber”) – i.e. we felt like country bumpkins. (even we were much better off than most Chinese people.)

And then there was an uncle’s daughter whose husband moved to Texas to work in a plastic bag factory. The owners were Chinese, and they got him a green card to come to Texas to fix their machines. He was a professional engineer , but he was paid about $15/hour. He was quite frugal, and saving his meager wages, he brought his wife over in 4-5 years – and finally even had enough cash and credit to purchase new machines from China, bring them to Texas, and open his own factory, employing Mexican workers. Sort of an American immigrant success story, I suppose – as each wave of immigrants rises to the top on the backs of those who come next.

Still another uncle moved to Canada (he is a couple of years younger than me, and I never called him “uncle”) – and he is the family expert in traditional behavior – knowing all the proper forms of social interaction between generations. His family had lived in Beijing for many generations, and they speak a Beijing accent that even I don’t use.

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