family history

This is an effort at recording some family history. It might turn into a series…

  • 1 - on being educated

Being educated meant that you were the class enemy, because you had bourgeois parents and a bourgeois upbringing, the very antithesis of all that Mao valued. Only a member of the working class, the prized revolutionaries under Mao’s leadership, could have escaped the wrath of the cultural revolution.

My dad’s family was in a sticky situation. His mother was a teacher, a profession that was not well-liked, another ‘class enemy’ of sorts under Mao’s touted hierarchy. She too was very lucky - in a more typical situation, there would have been (teenaged) Red Guards harassing her and forcing her to ‘reflect’ on her behavior, but she was able to escape some of this because her three sons went to the same school she taught at. Her sons kept themselves in good graces with the other Red Guards and erased any condemnatory notes written in her classroom in an effort to protect her.

I remember visiting her before she passed away - she was trying to give me advice, advice that I could only half make out because I don’t speak her dialect very well: “I know you’re angry about so many things in the world - you’ve been like that ever since you were a child. But please, don’t let that anger destroy you.”

I didn’t want to listen to her then, and in many ways I still don’t want to listen to her now. I know it was her way of dealing with the reality of the Cultural Revolution - if you don’t let the humiliation and harassment get to you, if you can put a mental box around your rage, you can continue to live a ‘normal’ life.

You can survive, and she wanted me to be a survivor.

  • 2 - the addict

My grandmother’s father grew up wealthy, the son of a landlord, a true member of the ‘enemy class’. He represented everything that the Communist Party had railed against and probably deserved their acts of vengeance the most.

But, as was common in the era, he developed an addiction to opium. He sold everything in sight to fuel his drug habit; he even sold his daughter (her labor, to be exact) to a neighbor so that he would not have to part with his opiates. It did not take long for him to work through his inherited family fortune, and for the neighbors and townies to rush the other way when they saw him.

By the time the Cultural Revolution came around, he was long gone, having succumbed to his addiction many years prior. His legacy had left the family destitute, but it also granted my grandmother an ‘acceptable’ family background as the daughter of a penniless man. She was never persecuted for being the daughter of a landlord.

I suppose there are silver linings to growing up with an addict father.

  • 3 - house parties

I remember leafing through some of my dad’s old yearbooks with my mom. She would point to faces and narrate their life stories to me - Do you remember him? He lives just a city over. And that woman moved with her son to New Zealand, but now they’re in Australia. And this guy moved to the UK. Do you remember we were talking about his son?

I started keeping a tally of the ones who had resettled abroad - over half the class had left, for reasons unknown, to a myriad of countries in the Anglosphere. I was almost certain my dad could find more former classmates in the Bay Area than in Nanjing.

What had made them leave?

Was it just because the borders were open? Was it because they needed a change of pace? Or was it because they could not bear to think about their future in China after spending a decade of their youth in the countryside, laboring on a farm?

There was one man in the yearbook who was a regular face at house parties in the Bay Area. He was ten years older than my dad, but they had graduated in the same class. No one directly brought up why he was so much older than everyone else, but the general gist of the story seeped out in between drinks and karaoke.

His father was a professor, which meant that he had been labelled an ‘intellectual youth’, a beneficiary of the system that Mao was trying to dismantle. To right past wrongs, beneficiaries must be punished, so he was barred from pursuing further education and sent down to the countryside to work.

He gave ten years of his life to the countryside, and finally found a way to return home in ‘77, the year college examinations were reinstated by the Ministry of Education.

I wonder if he talks to his American children about the past. I wonder if they would understand, or even care.

  • 4 - occupy yourself

A few years ago, I went to an Occupy Wall Street rally.

My mother called me the day before, and I told her that I was going to OWS because as an illustrator for the school newspaper, I needed to see some events first-hand for inspiration. But she saw through me - “You’re going because you support the protest against Wall Street - I know this, it’s obvious, but you should be careful.”

“I’ll be fine,” I told her.

I loved the rally. I was captured by the anger and the hope of everyone around me, struck by the wisdom of Robert Reich’s speech. But when I went home that night, I kept thinking about how many of my activist friends would support a modern-day, American parallel to the Down to the Countryside movement. Wouldn’t they be in favor of a system where, as punishment for their avarice, bankers were stripped of all their wealth and sentenced to a low-wage job in the service sector? The 1% would see first-hand how the 99% live, and their wealth could be redistributed to people more deserving than their spoiled offspring.

I could see myself saying ‘yes’ to this movement, I could see myself cheering their fall from grace. But I could also see rural China cheering the destruction of feudalism, I could see modern China cheering the murder of two wealthy Chinese students in Los Angeles. Online readers had latched onto the fact that the pair were sitting in a BMW when they were killed, saying, ‘They deserved to die!’ and ‘America, please kill more of these undeserving pieces of shit!’

The cycle was starting again - inequality, rage, and then the search for someone to punish.

So was my mother’s warning to ‘be careful’ merely concern about my physical safety, or was it commentary on my mentality? Was she afraid that I would get irrationally caught up in ‘revolutionary’ fervor and forget the consequences of exacting vengeance?