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.


“Who is this aunt that is younger than me?”

“I probably won’t live to age 50”. This was what my grandma told my grandpa when they started their courtship. I am glad her dire prediction turned out to be false – she actually lived two decades longer and passed away in 1997 when she was 73.

My grandma had gallbladder problems since she was a young girl. She had a big surgery at age 17 but problems remained all her life. This was why she had always been very thin. Despite her health issues, she dedicated all her time and energy to the family – taking good care of my grandpa and their five children. She had all the virtues of a Chinese woman – hard working, frugal, caring, and preservering. She was dearly loved by all family members.

Both my grandparents attended a skill/career-developing school in Shanghai back then. My grandma’s father was the school master. My grandpa was very handsome and intelligent, so my great-grandpa was quite impressed with this young man and considered making him his son-in-law. So he invited him to dinner at his house. He probably didn’t expect that both of his daughters – my grandma and her younger sister, fell in love after meeting my outstanding grandpa.

The two sisters’ personalities were quite the opposite. Even though the younger sister was taller, healthier, more beautiful, and stronger-willed, my grandpa chose my grandma to be his wife, despite her poor health. Their loving marriage lasted for over 50 years, and I am sure he didn’t regret for a moment all his life.

Feeling rejected, my grandaunt held grudges against her sister and brother-in-law, and refused to date or get married for a very long time. When she reached 40, one of her brothers introduced his colleague to her and finally she reluctantly married him. After their daughter was born, my grandma helped taking care of the little girl, partly to alleviate the guilt she had always felt towards her younger sister.

The interesting part was that my grandma also took care of her own granddaughter (my sister) at the same time. Even though this little girl was younger than my sister, my sister was supposed to call her ‘aunt’, which she couldn’t understand and adamantly refused to do. I remember hearing interesting stories about my sister and this very young aunt when I was a kid, now I finally learned the history behind it.


A Book Project

David and I enjoy having walks together. If the weather is nice enough, we would walk to Panera Bread or Starbucks to have breakfast, or stroll around a nearby pond after dinner. As we walk, we talk about this and that, whatever comes to our minds at the moment. Some of our discussions were so weird and meaningless that we imagine the NSA people would roll their eyes if they had been listening in.

That said, these ‘walk talks’ generated lots of great ideas as well, such as the topic for a new book to write. David already has a long list of books waiting to be written, this one is for me. We even decided on a tentative title “China Interrupted”.

Our discussion started with my telling him about my mother’s family – my grandparents and their five children. My mother is the eldest and she got into college in the mid 60s. Then the cultural revolution began and lasted for ten years, during which the universities/schools were all shut down. As a result, the next three children – my three uncles – had no chance of getting college education. And when the cultural revolution ended in 1976, it was just in time for my aunt – the youngest of the five – to go to college. This sounds like the opposite of the Chinese tradition, where boys/men are expected to prosper in a household. My family story was not unique – it was only one of the millions of stories where a whole generation’s destiny was altered by history.

David thinks the book would be fascinating to the American audience, and resonate with the Chinese readers. I like the idea of writing down family stories. I mentioned this to my mom during a phone conversation, and she immediately started telling me stories. I should talk to each of my uncles and aunt, to get their perspectives. It would also be interesting to compare their lives with my generation – how we grew up, the opportunities we had, the one child policy, etc.

The plan is to start writing short stories on this blog, and organize them into a book later. I just started a new category, and plan to write one post every week. I am getting excited!

By the way, the photo below is a building in Shanghai’s Yu Garden, not my family home. 🙂