May you live in interesting times

As a little girl, her father, Zhao Shaoqi, walked her to school every morning, even though the elementary school was only a few kilometers from their apartment in Shanghai.  Born in nineteen-sixty, Zhao Xiao Jun came of age in the tumultuous times of the Cultural Revolution.  What was the inherent purpose of the Cultural Revolution?  No one really seemed to know.  Falling on the heels of the failed Great Leap Forward, where thirty million died, many thought it was Mao’s attempt, not only to stay in power, but to keep the revolution proceeding forward in Red China.  Where her parents were once highly respected civil engineers in the Middle Kingdom, now, because of the revolution, they were the prey to other Chinese of lesser stature, particularly the Red Guard, which was largely composed by the young, high school or college-aged, true believers in Mao and his Communist regime.  Openly taunted as he walked Xiao Jun to class by the Red Guard, they beat her father on at least a score of occasions, depending if their blood was up.  Once her father had been beaten senseless, and other times the Red Guard threw stones at him.  Once, Zhao Shaoqi was struck on the vertex of his skull by a large rock thrown by a young cadre who appeared no older than a junior high school student.  This was the second time he was knocked unconscious.  Her mother, Tao Fei, cleaned and bandaged the ghastly wound without taking him for formal evaluation at a local hospital simply fearing that it would incur further retribution.  Such was the flint of China during these times.

This torrent in Chinese life endured through the sixties, the Red Guard escorting the populace to local theaters, where, under no undue duress, they denounced their neighbors of being capitalist roaders.  Whole families were uprooted and sent to settle down in other quarters of the Middle Kingdom, usually in the most barren regions of the country.  Worst of all, were the relocation camps ostensibly to re-educate the citizenry, most to remote farming communes.  There were those who were holding the communist state in its great revolution.  No one was safe.  This state of affairs left those not directly involved with the Red Guard or other cadres involved with prosecuting the Cultural Revolution in chaos and dismay.  For them, there was no one to appeal to for succor.

One night, during the second year of the revolution, Zhao Xiao Jun was marched out of her home, along with her parents, to a neighborhood theater where acrobats had long put on shows.  They no longer did so.  The theater was usurped for the use of the Red Guards for denouncing the traitors of Communist China.  Her father and mother were called up onstage as neighbors debunked them as capitalist roaders.  While they were reproached, Zhao Shaoqi and Tao Fei were forced to assume the airplane position, bending at the waist while holding their arms out while being derided for their ways.  When Tao Fei’s arms tired, they began to sag.  One of the Red Guards lashed her with a leather whip, until she found the strength in herself to raise them once again trembling in the air.  Both her father and mother shouted out that they were guilty as charged, being recidivists of the Glorious Revolution.  They had no choice.  Taunted by neighbors all the way back home, her father decided they needed to get out of China, if only to keep their sanity.  In their small world, he knew the harassment would prevail.

With the Cultural Revolution smoldering down in the early seventies, Zhang Shaoqi applied for a visa to emigrate to the United States.  He and his family had taken enough of the turmoil and tragedy of the Cultural Revolution.  Much to his surprise, the government of the People’s Republic of China acquiesced to his request.  In May of 1972, he boarded an Aeroflot flight bound for Moscow.  There, they connected with a flight to New York City, the destination in America where he planned to settle, for he had a brother who had emigrated to there.  His brother, Zhang Bao, elected to stay in America after he attained a PhD. in electrical engineering at NYU, and was doing well.  Reaching New York City, they found a cheap, but rundown furnished apartment where Zhang Xiao Jun slept on the couch at night.  Because they spoke no English, Xiao Jun’s parents were consigned to doing menial jobs they found in small shops and dim restaurants, such as sweeping and mopping the floors, toiling as short order cooks, and cleaning the wealthier Chinese homes of those who made the journey long before them.

But their one hope, their sole source of pride, was their daughter, who had mastered the English tongue.  Xiao Jun excelled at her studies becoming a National Merit Scholar.  Setting her sights on becoming a physician there was no money for her tertiary education.  Xiao Jun’s spirits sagged.  In April of her senior year, Xiao Jun garnered a scholarship to Fordham University.  There she excelled in her premed classes and she was inducted into the medical school Class of 1985 at Cornell in New York City.  Remaining there for her residency in internal medicine, she became an associate professor of medicine in the same department.  She married another colleague in the department who had been born in Taiwan.  Both in Mandarin and in English, they conducted their life.  They settled into an apartment not far from the university, which she kept after the two of them divorced two years later, leaving her to promise herself that she’d never marry anyone from Taiwan again.

While Xiao Jun forged ahead in America, her parents seemed mired in exile.  Never attempting to learn the English tongue, they could only converse in Mandarin with other Chinese expatriates in Chinatown.  Nor did they wander out of the confines of Chinatown.  To them, the rest of the city was no less than a DMZ.  And American cuisine they could not tolerate.  Though the Cultural Revolution officially lasted until 1977, a whole new China rose from the ashes of the old.  By the turn of the century, the economy was thriving and the society was blossoming.  With scarcely a thought, Zhao Shaoqi and Tao Fei marched to the People’s Republic of China’s Consulate in New York City and filled out the appropriate forms to return to Shanghai.

When informed of their decision Xiao Jun, she was dumbfounded.  How could anyone ever trust the Chinese government again?  How could they ever trust or befriend their fellow Chinese after being beaten and openly humiliated time and time again?  Most of all, how would they ever live down the humiliation they suffered during the Cultural Revolution, especially in a culture where the undying social principal was never losing face.  Were her parents insane?  She thought so!  When she thought of China, all she could picture were the Red Guards throwing rocks at her father and her and the same lording over them at the neighborhood acrobatic theater.  Despite her protestations, Zhang Shaoqi and Tao Fei returned to Shanghai just before Chinese New Year in the first year of the Second millennium.

In strict Chinese Custom, it was the duty of the daughter to follow their parents, to take care of them in the silver years, much as they had taken care of them when they were in their childhood.  Xiao Jun felt torn.  For her, America was home.  It was where her friends were; it was where she had a coveted and prestigious position on the faculty of Cornell-Weill Medical Center.  Except for a family of her own, she not only felt happy in America, she felt fulfilled.  “Remember your duty as a daughter,” her father declared.  “Remember all the times I walked you to school.”

“I remember quite well.  I remember the Red Guard beating you senseless.  Why do you want to go back?”

“That’s where we belong,” added Tao Fei.

It was a circular argument.  In the end, much to her dismay, Xiao Jun resigned her faculty position and emigrated once more.  Private clinics had sprung up in Beijing and were starting in the other major cities, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou.  There were three clinics that courted Xiao Jun in Beijing, but only the International Medical Clinic enticed her, for they said that they would employ her in Shanghai, where they were building a clinic.  “We will send you to Shanghai when the clinic is finished,” Paul Jiang told her, but we need to have you work in Beijing presently.”  So Xiao Jun went to work for him in Beijing.  Then with the regularity of the stars, she was told from that month forward by Jiang, “You’re too valuable to me in Beijing.”  Her parents remained alone in Shanghai.  Dreams denied.  It was as though someone had breathed life into Mao in his mausoleum to haunt Xiao Jun.



By Joseph Dylan