Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Part Six

Some more regarding my parent’s life at that time–

My father was a quiet, studious man - and he was always reading those old books with old Chinese characters that I couldn’t understand. He liked calligraphy and practiced an hour almost every day. And he liked to walk – an hour every morning until his eighties.

He didn’t socialize much with peers at the ministry. His friends were old comrades from the army – and several times a year they would come over for visits. We entertained their drivers in one room, while I served tea and candies or fruit to the officer and his wife. (it wasn’t the custom for visitors to stay for dinner – since all food was rationed – but sometimes my father would insist “stay, please stay” Unlike today, children stayed far in the background when adults were getting together – but I was more outgoing than my siblings, so I got to serve the guests – and it was my special skill to peel an apple so carefully that apple and peel could be reunited for presentation. Liquor was never served – except when dinner was offered.

As for my mom, I remember when she quit her factory job -- or actually my dad called the factory and told them we had moved to the complex next to the Tienanmen Square, so it was too far for her to come to work. This wasn’t exactly true, since it was only a 20 minute walk - but dad wanted mom stay at home to take care of us. – and he didn’t tell her about it. So when mom showed up at the factory the next day, she was told that her husband had already announced that she had quit.. This was second time my dad made a major decision for Mom without consulting her – and again, she was not happy about it. She had a lot of free time, so she started reading “The dream of red chamber” -- and she read it 4 times!

( she told us that a lot of it reflected her own family when she was growing up) I don’t think either of my parents were exposed to the Western literature at all..

After mother left her government job, her party membership got her elected supervisor of the neighborhood clothing factory – a kind of participatory entrepreneurial project – where local women got together with their sewing machines and made clothing whose sale would provide them all with a little extra income. For some single mothers, the 10-yuan a month they could earn was all they had – and they lived on the edge of starvation. To give you some idea of relative incomes, my mother, as supervisor, made 30 yuan, while my father as a level-12 cadre made 180 – so we were very well off – and mother contributed cloth as well a big pots of noodles to the workers in her shop. At 5’6” tall, , she towered over the rest of them – but like everyone we saw, she was thin --- all Chinese were thin (and when she visited America 30 years later, she was very surprised by American girth. There was only one fat Chinese I had ever seen – a three hundred pound cook at the hotel – and we children danced around him shouting “monster, monster!!” – to which he would obliging respond by chasing and trying to grab us)

We hardly ever socialized with our extended family – and maybe it’s time to talk about what they were doing.

My father had two younger brothers – and the older one lived in Tien Jing. But 100 miles was a long trip back then, and I didn’t take the train to visit that uncle until I was a teenager. He worked as a store clerk, and had a very low income. His entire family lived in one room – with curtains separating the beds – and when I went to visit, I slept with my aunt. This was the brother who had gone home to help my grandfather work the farm, while my father went into the army. It wasn’t until many years later that he moved into a larger apartment – purchased with cash sent by the third brother who ended up in Taiwan.

That third brother’s story is very different – because he was sent to a Catholic school in Beijing (which was more affordable). Just before Bejing fell to the Communists in 1948, the school took its students and moved to Hong Kong.

It was a very sudden and secret decision by the school. My uncle was 18 at the time, and he mailed a letter to my father – the first line running something like:

“Dear big brother: by the time you get this letter, I will no longer be in Beijing

My father was shocked and felt betrayed. He handed the letter over to the Party and disowned his brother – but even though he tried to be loyal to the Party, this relationship would haunt him throughout his career – and especially during the Cultural Revolution.

(note: he later told me that he even offered to shoot the traitorous brother himself -- but despite his many years in the army then the security ministry -- I don't think he ever fired a gun at anyone)

Eventually this brother was selected for the priesthood, and a higher education in Rome. Catholic schools at that time taught their students English, and my uncle eventually became fluent in several languages. He was sent to Australia as a priest , but felt that Asians were treated poorly there, and he ended up in Taiwan after a stint at Loyola University in Chicago to take a masters degree in education. In Taiwan, he became involved in the life of a young Chinese woman who was the daughter of the housemaid at the rectory. Years later, when she was old enough to marry, he resigned from the priesthood, and took her as wife while working as a professor at university. After retirement, he continued to work as a government educational administrator --- assembling the annual tests for English proficiency. He’s still there – and his wife is about my age -- but I have never met them.

(In 1989, after more 40 years, he was finally allowed to come back to Beijing and meet his brothers.)

Meanwhile, my mother had three younger brothers. One became a general in the PLA, marrying a very beautiful young woman who had clerked in his office. Unfortunately, though, she soon ran off with another officer, and my uncle had to find another wife. Another brother became the financial officer of an investment bank – becoming a level 17 cadre --- and the third returned to farming after dropping out off the army during the revolution. He had gone home for a visit – and his wife convinced him to stay. So he spent his life in rural poverty.

But my mother also had several uncles – and some had distinguished careers – one of them as a prominent physician of traditional medicine who specialized in setting broken bones. His income in the 50’s was over 300 Yuan/month from the Navy hospital – and before the Communists took over, his services had required 3 silver coins just to make a house call. His son and grandson also became physicians at Beijing University –but none were as renowned as him – and he invested a fortune in that most traditional object of eternal status in China: an expensive coffin of rare woods.

Unfortunately, however, his great reputation served him poorly with the Red Guard. They broke into his courtyard – gave the old man a beating – and smashed his 2000 Yuan coffin into pieces. The next day he died.

( the family courtyard was taken and many other families moved into their courtyard, After the Cultural Revolution, many years later, the government returned the entire courtyard back to the family.)

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