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.