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.

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