— Written while recuperating from a broken hand and wrist
How everything is already memory. His broken hand cradled, cupped and listened to as its slow bones knit back. The wonder of watching his fingers and palm go through their re-blooming: the fingers learning again to outstretch, then bunch up like an evening blossom that closes at dawn. Over coffee in autumn by a café window, reading Ping Fu’s Bend, Not Break, he thinks, did my suddenly dead mother ever cradle me? What was that like?
And the fallen leaves squabbling outside, toddlers abandoned by mothers.
Ping Fu emerges in Bend, Not Break in the way so many Chinese women do in my memory. This is because I lived and taught in mainland China for seven years. Sometimes, in college classes, students and I discussed romance and love poetry. Some of the giggly or over-solemn woman students, with petal hands cupping mouths, declared to me no man had ever, ever touched their lips. Only mother can kiss my mouth. These are twenty year olds. Theirs was the lightning of unseen sexuality, only seen in the glow in eyes, flamingos arcing through irises, darting in confusion at attractive young men.
And the same glow at dusk on fields and willows, huge hands opening their secrets, singing, we surprised you, come surprise us!
Bend, Not Break has the vulnerability and passion many good Chinese memoirs have. (Memoirs about life in China written by Chinese seem only written by women, at least in translation. At least, I have never come across ones written by Chinese men. This seems to correlate with the fact the women bore the greater burden of suffering, being the child bearers in the post-Mao era that dealt with forced abortions and a culture that slaughtered or abandoned female babies in favour of the prized male heir.) I hesitate to say this, but you cannot truly feel the ache in Ping Fu’s words, that particular Chinese knowledge of suffering, unless you have lived for a good while in China. Without that intimacy, Bend, Not Break can almost be seen as another “rags to riches” (and from China to America) story.
Ping is raised in Shanghai before and during the Cultural Revolution by parents she was to painfully discover, as a child, were her uncle and aunt. This occurred because she was accused of being a child of ancestral wealth, not poverty, by the young Red Guards, and evicted from her home as a little girl to go alone by train to nearby Suzhou, where her biological parents lived in “politically correct” poverty, whom she knew slightly and only as uncle and aunt.
I came to know some Chinese, including students, who had similar backgrounds. They just gave me glimpses of their autobiographies, then clammed up, or deflected the painful subject with humour. For Chinese, laughter is a way of distancing themselves from uncomfortable situations. They have a gift for laughter, for the simplest things. This comes from early in the memoir, poignant because of what was soon to come, Ping’s suffering and abandonment:
“Shanghai Papa [who was soon to turn out to be Ping’s uncle] ran a factory that made thread. When he came home at night, he would enter the front gate and call out, ‘Sweetheart, I’m home!’ Shanghai Mama would come running, her footsteps quick and light. I liked to stick my head out from the second-floor balcony to spy on them in the courtyard below, hugging and kissing. Then, when they came walking up the stairs inside the house hand in hand, I would jump on them. They made a game of fighting to see who could catch me first … theirs was the happiest marriage I have ever known.”
A few pages later I shuddered as I read young Ping’s description of the Red Guards arriving to wrench her away: “Suddenly I heard a crash echoing from the courtyard below … soon I could hear shouting, then my mother’s voice, soft but broken.” Well, any compassionate person would shiver, especially parents, foster or otherwise. But I am being autobiographical here; I came to love teaching Chinese children of Ping’s age (her name means Apple) and came to know some of them quite well as I taught them for two years. Though many I taught in Suzhou were deeply happy, they came from very poor backgrounds. To give you an idea, in a quiz on teaching household names and room names, I drew a picture of a line of laundry, explained the term and asked, “In which room does this belong?” All the kids in that class insisted the laundry line was hung up in the bedroom (which the family shared) or the kitchen. They could not conceive of laundry hanging anywhere else. Apple-like faces staring up at me in innocent and firm conviction; children unnervingly ripe to join another Red Guard with their certitudes about the world.
Ping, by comparison, came from a very wealthy home and the Red Guard found her hiding in the home’s library sanctuary, never mind the laundry. The library was her favourite place, a womb filled with her parents’ cherished books. To many in the Red Guard, their home in Shanghai would have been an obscene extravagance. Education was despised, held in suspicion, and soon many of those books were burned or even used as toilet paper. Our little Apple was despised, called a “black blood” and forced to go to Suzhou, not to actually live with her real parents there, but to live in a “prison” dormitory for Mao-style “re-education”. She slept in an unfurnished room along with her newly found younger sister, Hong, who had been living with their biological parents. The utter poverty and despair in which the two girls lived makes one wonder how they survived. Ping makes it reasonably clear that having a sister even younger than her is what kept her going, someone to care for, a reason outside herself to live …
(To be continued)