Reality posing as Fiction
|I keep thinking about a Chinese grandmother these days. She is unknown to me, personally. But I know she’s out there. The only reason I’m writing out a tiny fraction of what her story is, is because she’s not writing it. But her granddaughter might. I sure hope so. Because it’s a good story. It’s an important story. It’s a story that may offer us a bit of incredibly valuable perspective, in these ‘troubled’ times.
But I can well imagine a few fragments of her background, just to give her a bit of shape. She was born sometime between 1955 and 1960. Which would put her anywhere from 65 to 70 years of age, now. Her life would have started out hard, and gradually gotten easier as it went. Probably in very slow and gradual increments. Her background would have included some interesting facts that we can understand somewhat.
Her ancestors ( some 3 generations back) might have helped build our railroads. Even though she was born in China, they made it here some time just past the middle of the 19th century. They worked hard, suffered a lot, and were never accepted as Americans. They received pretty raw treatment back then. Meanwhile the ones who stayed in China would have seen the Opium wars (tail end) the Boxer rebellion, and finally the Japanese invasion. No end of misery and uproar.
And then when that was finally all over and done with – along came Mao. The Chairman deluxe. This particular grandmother would have been a little girl somewhere in there, within the first two of Mao's 5-year plans. They were tough times, too. And then the Thousand Flowers Bloomed. Which led to more tough times. And perhaps somewhere between her fifth and tenth birthdays, along came the Cultural Revolution. In which the capitalist roaders, the rightists, and the wrong thinkers were kicked around and abused, adding to the ever-growing pile of disappeared, starved, or completely dead people. Rubbed out or re-educated, if that was possible, or if it even mattered. Often, it didn’t.
These are the things that still exist within her living memory. As a child, and eventually as a teenager. The times when a whole society, an entire nation, just shut itself down, and attempted to completely break with its past, if that past had anything remotely to do with western culture, politics, economics, literature, knowledge, and experience. The country was turned over to an enormous army of children and teenaged Red Guards, each of them packing that Little Red Book. But this has far less to do with straight communism, and far more to do with the exercise of absolute power and societal breakdown.
It was a crazy time. The youth of the nation set out to punish their ‘incorrect’ elders. And they did a remarkably thorough job of it, in some ways. They became adept at public shaming, ‘struggle’ sessions, sifting through the population for wrongspeak, wrongthink, and just anything and anyone suspected of having a single charitable thought about the West. They had a real axe to grind, and they ground it.
Untold amounts of cultural artifacts, books, treasures, works of art, much of it not really connected to the west in any real way, but all of it connected to a time before the Revolution – had to go. Trashed, burned, broken, wiped out. (Except for what was secretly stolen and squirreled away somewhere.) This is all the history within the living memory of this grandmother. We’re not sure about who knows it anymore. We’re even less sure about who actually cares. But of course – she does.
Somewhere in the early 1980’s when she would have been somewhere in her early to mid-twenties – she got out. The Cultural Revolution was over (had been over since Mao died, pretty much) and China was poised for a ten-year gap in which to catch its breath, and then adopt that strange form of capitalism that is now so familiar. But Grannie didn’t stick around for that. She got out, as a restless young woman, and came to America. And she’s still here.
She arrived, and very quickly clued in to just what it was we had to offer her. The deal was this. She could work. She could work hard. She could work hard enough to build a life, to have a chance, to make a marriage, to bear children, to eventually even acquire property, to raise her children as she saw fit, to establish strong family bonds, and to have a pretty decent life, in her considered estimation. And no-one (as long as she didn’t break the law) no-one (as long as she followed the basic rules) no-one (as long as she accepted the nature of the opportunity presented to her) no-one, would ever take it away from her. No-one would come in the night and take her, or her children, away. No-one would attack her for being incorrect. For saying the wrong thing. For thinking the wrong thing. No-one.
So of course once she was presented with this, her response in Mandarin, because that’s all she knew at the time, was “Where do I sign?” She made that covenant then, and has kept it ever since. And she’s done pretty well for herself. I know. Because every spring (except this particular Covid- adjusted one) every month of June, I can see her, and all her sisters, and cousins, and extended circles of friends and acquaintances – out there on the campus green, outside my science and medicine library, across from the Convocation Hall, just up from the Engineering library, and facing the oldest College building we have.
And what are they all doing? They’re celebrating. And what are they celebrating and why? The end of a long hard road, that their children walked before, and their grandchildren walk now. It’s a good road. And the end of that road is sweet success. Because these kids have acquired degrees in the rough and tough stuff. Math, physics, medicine, engineering, science. With the help and the guidance and the not so gentle pushes sometimes, from their elders.
And this all happened because their elders remember things. Like mass starvation, deprivation, unbelievable poverty, heartbreak and hardship. They don’t believe in messing around with the ‘soft’ solutions.
And this is all just a fancy and longwinded (and slightly entertaining) way of getting to the punch line here.
I would give anything to be able to sit in Grannie’s kitchen and hear her conversations with her friends, peers, confidantes and trusted people. Because I can only hear it now in my imagination, and I have no idea really, what part of it I’m getting right, or getting wrong. But I don’t worry about that so much, because buried away in the middle of it is some truth.
And what is it that they’re discussing? What are they talking about? I think they’re talking about something they’ve seen before. It’s a thing that is too painfully familiar to them. And they’re wondering out loud if what they’re seeing is a thing that is being perpetrated by people who have never walked this kind of road before, and have no idea where it could lead. People who behave just like those cadres and Mao’s minions they remember from way back when. That special brand of correctness.
They notice some of these things, in passing, a bit. The rest of it they’re hearing from their grandchildren. What they hear leaves them wondering about the safety and sanctity of the family, of tradition, and of the freedom to place these things high up on the list of what is most valuable in life. They talk among themselves and wonder, are they getting it all wrong? Or is the fact that they have been well-trained in life to spot trouble a long way off, serving them well.
And they ask each other interesting questions. Such as, “If we came here to get away from there, if we came to this to get away from that, then how could it have followed us here, and especially because we didn’t bring it? We left it behind. We left it behind because we know from the inside out, the nature of its evil. We cannot help but know that, and we can never forget.”
And those are good questions. They have even better answers that maybe only they can provide, with any real certainty of adequate and accurate knowledge. And they wonder to themselves, if they ask and answer these questions, would anyone else in the greater and mainstream society actually listen? Because of course, most of them have spent their entire adult lives with excellent reasons to stay out of trouble. And this certainly, most definitely feels like trouble.
So it’s a bit of a rock and a hard place. But of course their minds are set upon protecting their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. That is a given. There is one other question they ask themselves. I will leave the reader with it.
“If it follows us here, where do we go next, to escape it?”
Ed. Note: The answer to that last question is most decidedly, not ‘back home.’
They are home.