Toddler Years in Changchun – Grandparents

I dreamed of my grandparents this morning. It is high time that I pick up where I left off 2.5 years ago, to continue to write about my childhood in Changchun. To refresh our memories, here are the two previous posts: Overview and Neighborhood.

My father’s parents had the same age. They were originally from Laoting, a small town about 150 miles southeast of Beijing, not far from the sea. I don’t know when their families migrated to the Northeast part of China, but I remember them telling me stories of that difficult journey.

Grandpa was a super nice person, easy-going and warmhearted. He worked at China’s first automotive manufacturer that is still around today (First Automotive Works (FAW) Group). He usually left home around 4 am in the morning and came back early afternoon. Then his job became taking me to a particular park for my daily carousel ride and buying me candies and snacks.

Grandma was illiterate but very smart and capable. She was in charge of a workshop at our street corner, making small carton boxes. A dozen people worked there, most of them handicapped. They cherished the opportunity to earn some money and contribute to the society. Sometimes I ‘worked’ there as well, for fun of course. I was most impressed with a heavy duty paper trimmer (big cutting knife) but I was strictly forbidden to get anywhere near. I waddled and talked and tried to help, I’d like to think I brought much excitement and laughter to that workplace.

Grandpa had a green thumb and our home was filled with plants and bonsai, all prospered under his care. There was a time when Clivia (君子兰) was very hot in Changchun, when people were willing to exchange a TV for a ‘pure’ breed specimen. Grandpa had some very nice ones and was always willing to give others precious pollen or seeds, which made him quite popular among neighbors. Grandma cooked meals, washed clothes, did other household chores, and complained often about not getting help from her hobbyist husband.

Time flew by. I was fortunate to be in their lives for two decades. They witnessed my growing up and accomplishments and life events. We alternated a few times between living together and apart due to circumstances, but I was never far. I visited them at least once a week and enjoyed meals together, until the last few months of their lives.

They both passed away in 1997, five months apart, when they were 76. I was in Beijing at that time and wasn’t around for either of them. I always felt sad and guilty about it, but what remains in my memory is always their smiling faces and abundant unconditional love. I wouldn’t have been who I am today without them.


Reconnected after 45 years

My mom just returned from a class reunion in Shanghai, where she met 10 old friends that she had not seen for 45 years. She was very happy and excited.

These were her college classmates at Harbin Institute of Technology. Actually they were only together for a little over a year before the Cultural Revolution disrupted everything. My mom became part of a performance group where she met my dad and spent most of her time there before being sent off to a village to be re-educated. She did not feel particularly close to this class therefore did not stay in touch after ‘graduation’. That’s why she was so shocked when she got a call from one of them a week ago and learned about all their efforts trying to find her.

They checked their old school record and found her address in Beijing, which was my grandparents’ apartment for decades but now it is a big construction site. They found the real estate developer and the contact number there was my parents’ home phone which was no longer in service. They searched for her online, contacted several alumni networks, asked her previous employers, with no luck. Then they solicited ‘help’ from someone who has access to the resident registration records and found her ID and an address in Changchun. After comparing her ID photo with their memories and agreeing that it was indeed the right person, they sent one of them to Changchun to check out the address.

Luckily the place is still there. This is the apartment we lived in while we were in Changchun in early to mid-90s. After we moved away, we half-gave half-sold it to my ex in-laws. Actually they stayed with their son in the US most of the time, so it is really fortunate that they happened to be in Changchun at the moment. My mom’s friend knocked on the door, nobody answered. He knocked on the neighbor’s door, the neighbor only knew we moved away. He was quite disappointed and headed downstairs to leave. Then he ran into my ex in-laws in the stairway a few floors below. Seeing that they were about the same age, he decided to try his luck and ask them. Bingo! Even though the phone number they had was a few years old, it was the right number. My mom was found at the long last!

The class included 20 students – 17 guys and 3 gals. Five of them have passed away, one is yet to be found. Out of the remaining 14, 11 showed up in Shanghai this time. Pretty remarkable considering that 8 of them had to travel from elsewhere, and all of them are 70+ years old. They had a wonderful time together, chatting about old times and friends, their experiences in the Cultural Revolution, their trials and tribulations over the years, their current living arrangements, their children and grandchildren… Time is too short, but they will definitely have other get-togethers and continue their story-telling…

Mom reunion

Toddler Years in Changchun – Neighborhood

In my last post, I mentioned that I lived in Changchun with my grandparents and uncle during my toddler years. The neighborhood, the street, the home are still so vivid in my mind.

It was once a decent sized house. However, when the Communist Party took over in 1949, it was partitioned and assigned to 3 families. One family got the best part of the house, two bedrooms, I imagine; my grandparents got a small bedroom, the storage room, and the underground cellar; another family got the backyard with a shack. Therefore, there was a ‘door’ on our wall, dead bolted on both sides at all times, to separate us from the first family, and one of our windows directly faced the ‘front door’ of the third family.

I wasn’t sure what had happened in the past that caused this great hostility between the first family and us. Even though we used the same main entrance and we were literally living right next to each other, we never paid visits, never exchanged a word, never even nodded or smiled. To this day I still remember that couple and their stony expressions.

The third family consisted of a single mom, her son and his wife, and later a grandson. Since our window was so close to their place, we could hear every word when the young couple quarreled, and every time the kid cried.

Facing another window was a small living quarter. Two very old sisters stayed there, one was blind and the other hunchbacked, and both were devout Buddhists. They were my grandma’s good friends. I remember visiting them often and chatting with the blind lady as she held my hands.

There were many other families around and the kids played together on the street (cars didn’t exist there back then, the most serious accident was to be run down by a bike). I can still recall a few friends from back then, two girls of my age in particular. I wonder where they are now and how their lives turned out.

In the early 1990s, this street and its surrounding area were torn down and rebuilt. Old neighbors were all separated as they seek accommodations with their children or relatives elsewhere. That lovely street and neighborhood was no more, but they always have a special place in my memory.

Toddler Years in Changchun – Overview

After making a trip to Beijing and spending some time in Siping (a traveler from the very beginning), I settled in Changchun for the time being, and celebrated my first birthday. There I spent the next few years with my grandparents and uncle, with my parents visiting once in a while. Life presented many challenges, but I grew from a baby to a toddler to a kid, intellectually stimulated and surrounded by unconditional love.

Even though my not-yet-five-year-old life was quite simple, there was much to write about. In order to keep these posts reasonably short, I decided to do four separate pieces.

  • Neighborhood
  • Grandparents
  • Uncle
  • Work and Study (mine)

This chapter of my life ended when my uncle’s illness got worse. My grandparents were not able to take care of me anymore, and they didn’t want to expose me to suffering at such a tender age. So my parents brought me to Siping for the second time. Thinking back, I can’t imagine how heart-broken my uncle must have been, knowing that he would never see me again, and how much my grandparents had missed me.

A year later, my parents’ quota application was approved, and the three of us were able to move back to Changchun to live with my grandparents. I thought I would never set feet in Siping again, little did I know that 15 years later I went there for my sister’s wedding – Siping is my brother-in-law’s hometown. Therefore, my sister, who happily grew up in Beijing, far away from all the hardships I lived through, now visits Siping once in a few years to see her in-laws. My mom often mused that our family’s tie with Siping was so strong that my sister had to find a husband there to make up for all those time she missed as a child.


Where Is Home?

The first trip of my life came to an end. After spending a few months in Beijing, my mom had to bring me back to the Northeast region where many challenges were waiting.

While my maternal grandparents in Beijing lived in a quite comfortable 3-bedroom apartment due to my grandpa’s earlier accomplishments, my paternal grandparents’ place in Changchun was not as accommodating. It was a small 2-bedroom flat without indoor toilet. And they had to make a fire in the stove everyday for cooking and heating. Additionally, both my grandparents were working, and they had to take care of their son, my older uncle, who was paralyzed from the waist down. Naturally, my mom didn’t want to add me to their burden.

So my parents brought me to Siping, where the living conditions were even worse. Their place was a shed at best with neither kitchen nor toilet, and there was an open ditch in the front taking in the whole neighborhood’s sewage. Parents often warned their kids not to fall into it when playing outside.

My parents didn’t need to worry though, as I was not even 1 year old. Both of them worked at a semi-conductor factory (need to ask my mom what exactly their jobs involved). The factory had a “daycare” for infants, where the moms could take breaks during the day to feed them. I spent my day there and went home with my parents after the work day was over.

After we got home, I would sit on a bed to play and my parents would cook, which involved going in and out of the front door (the little diesel stove was outside, and dirty water needed to go into the ditch). Every time they came back inside, I would tilt my head to check what the noise was about, and smiled when I saw it was them. My mom said this was her fondest memory from that time.

All was good for a few months, until one day my mom’s friend asked her “aren’t you worried about your daughter in the daycare?” My mom immediately went to check why she should be worried. It turned out the woman who was watching over the little kids brought her own son, who was big and jumping around all the time. It was no small chance that he would land on my little head or do other damages. After seeing this, my mom could not bring me back there again.

There were no other options to keep me in Siping. My mom couldn’t be a stay-home mom even if she chose to, as “the country/party assigned this job to you after investing on your education, how dare you give it up when it is time to contribute?”

With great reluctance, my parents brought me back to Changchun and left me to my grandparents’ care, who gladly accepted the task even with all the foreseeable hardships. Fortunately Changchun and Siping were only a couple of hours apart by train, so I still got to see my parents more than my sister did.

Together at Last

My parents were married in May 1970. My sister was born 14 months later. Then I came to this world in 1974. My sister and I didn’t grow up together though. In fact, I only met her twice during the first six years of my life – once with mom and once with dad. Therefore, the four of us were never all together in one place until 1980. Unbelievable, isn’t it? This is just another example of how individual families were affected by national events.

A map would help to show the different places that were significant to my family.

NE map

  • Harbin (at the top) – the location of my parents’ university where they met and fell in love.
  • Beijing (at the lower left) – my mother’s family, about 1,200 km/750 miles from Harbin.
  • Changchun (southwest of Harbin) – my father’s family. We finally settled here starting 1980.
  • Siping (southwest of Changchun, in red) – a small city where my parents worked and lived from 1970 to 1979.

Our fates were totally altered by my grandfather’s great admiration of Harbin Institute of Technology. He decided to send his oldest daughter there for college education even though there were plenty of great universities in Beijing. The policy then was that college graduates would be assigned jobs in the city where they came from. So my grandpa thought that four years away from home wouldn’t be too bad for my mom. How could he ever know that the Cultural Revolution would disrupt his plan, and everything else pretty soon.

Neither of my parents’ family background was ‘red’ – my mother’s father was an ‘anti-revolutionary intellectual’; my father’s father was accused of being a spy for the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang). By the time they ‘graduated’ in 1970, going back to their home cities was out of the question, especially Beijing. So they had to take on jobs in the small city of Siping. The little 1.5-room shed they were assigned to live had no kitchen, no toilet, no sewage, was hot in summer and cold in winter. It was not a place to raise a child. And when everything was controlled by the state, there was no way of renting or buying a place even if they had the money.

This was why my sister was born and grew up in Beijing with maternal grandparents, while I was born and grew up in Changchun with paternal grandparents. During this time, I made two trips to Beijing and two trips to Siping while my sister never left Beijing nor met her paternal grandparents. My parents finally manged to move to Changchun in 1979 after persistently applying for quota, then my sister left Beijing to join us in 1980. The four members of my family could live together under one roof at long last.

There were lots of incredible stories during these early years of my life. I will definitely write about them in future posts.

On a cold winter morning…

This winter seems to be colder than usual here in DC. It was 11F this morning when I woke up, feeling like 3F. Ice and snow glistened on the ground. Given that many places are much colder than this, and that my hometown Changchun, a city in the northeast part of China similar to where Boston is to US, is at its normal winter temperature of -12F, I really shouldn’t be complaining.

When I was a kid, the city didn’t have any snow blowers or shovel trucks. When we got a heavy snow, the streets simply disappeared. People would go out with a shovel in their hands to clear the snow from sidewalks and streets. It might sound dangerous but there were hardly any private cars back then, only buses and bicycles that moved at very low speed. If it was during winter break, students would be called back to school to help shoveling snow from the huge playground – an excitement after spending many boring days at home.

One fun place to go was the South Lake park in Changchun. The 227-acre lake was frozen solid in the winter and safe to walk on. When it was covered with heavy snow, groups of people, adults and children alike, would make snowmen on the lake, and often ended up in snowball fights with friends and strangers. We would laugh and scream and run and fall and sweat in the all-white world. The last time I did this was in 1992 – can’t believe it was 20+ years ago!

Anyway, it is time to wrap up the memories of good old times and think about what I should have for lunch.