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 fiancé, 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.

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