October 05 2016
The first section, childhood, covers my initial ten years in the embrace of a large extended family in China. My grandparents grew up in the chaotic birth of a nation to provide physical and moral shelter for their children. My parents grew up in the post-revolutionary countryside, studying their way out and up to become university scholars and pursuing higher education all the way across the Pacific. I was born into this academic family and would be a campus brat from birth in China to adulthood in Canada. Father My paternal grandfather is from Dai Village, about 80 kilometres east of the city of Weifang in the northern province of Shandong. Dai Village is a rural community of about four hundred farming families who lived in mud houses with no electricity, stoves under the beds, and livestock roaming the yards. Grandfather could not read or write, but he was an intelligent, industrious, and virtuous polymath with his hands who developed sophisticated systems for beekeeping, egg-hatching, and carpentry. He was the only beekeeper in the entire Village and shared the fruits of his labour with others. The family was poor but well respected, as a result, his studious children were nominated by the Village to be the first ever to attend university with the chance to lift themselves out of rural poverty, and they all eventually did. Before my father embarked on a lifelong career in medical research, his high-school was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution for two years, a period during which he worked as a barefoot doctor in the Village clinic, while nearby, grandfather taught the visiting Red Guards the minutia of farm work. Late in life, long after their children had left the Village, my grandparents joined them in the cities, where they would live with the families of my uncles on a rotating basis in Weifang and Beijing. Today, Dai Village is still there, along with the mud house my grandfather built with his own hands and members of the extended Dai family tree who may recognise my father, but certainly not myself. My father is the youngest of five children, who, along with three male cousins, make a generation of seven males. Because of the closeness of my grandfather and his brother's households, the male children of the two families were identified numerically by their combined seniority. My father's older brothers are my uncles three, five and six. My father is the youngest at number seven. Coincidentally, my father and his male siblings also went on to have seven male children, and they retained this system of enumeration. I am again the youngest and number seven in my cohort. Today, in an act of unconscious anachronism, my nephews here in Vancouver call me uncle seven and my father grandpa seven. Mother My maternal grandparents are from Laoting county of the city of Tangshan in the northern province of Hebei. They joined the Communist Party in their teens and witnessed the birth of the nation in 1949 with grandfather as a member of the People's Liberation Army. After the founding of the Republic my grandfather was assigned to join the Party's workforce in Beijing. Shortly thereafter, he volunteered for the most patriotic assignment he could get his hands on: to leave the burgeoning capital for the remote county of Yuxian in the mountainous outskirts of the province. After a day-long journey of 300 kilometres by bus and by foot, my grandparents arrived in Yuxian, where they would get married, have three children, and dedicate the prime of their lives to the rebuilding of the nation from this rustic abode for the next twenty-seven years. In the twilight of their careers, they would finally ask to be reassigned back home, where they would retire in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao near Tangshan. Today, here in Vancouver, grandmother still enjoys her Party pension deriving from a lifetime of uninterrupted service since she joined the workforce in pre-revolutionary 1947 at age fifteen. My mother was born in Yuxian County five years after the founding of the Republic. A brilliant student and passionate leader, she served in the youth league of the Communist Party with an abandon that honoured the revolutionary sacrifices of her parents. Mother's high-school was also interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. At the time, my grandfather served as the Communist Party Secretary for a high-school in a neighbouring county, a position of relative authority that was targeted by the the anti-establishment fervour which gripped the entire country. Teenage Red Guards bound and frogmarched grandfather to be locked up at the school, where he would not get to see grandmother for an entire year. The family was ostracised and no one dared to help grandmother take care of my mother's younger brother, who was not allowed to begin attending high-school. So while grandmother continued to work, my eleven-year old uncle had to spend the entire year home alone, feeding himself by dipping unleavened bread in baking powder. My mother was fourteen and furious. Grandfather's status meant she was rejected from joining the Red Guards. Eventually, she forced her way in and marched with her compatriot teenagers 300 kilometres by foot to Tiananmen Square just in time for Chairman Mao's eighth and last greeting of the Red Guards. Infancy When normalcy resumed, my mother attended university in Tangshan. On a term away, she barely missed the historic earthquake that destroyed Tangshan and killed one quarter of its inhabitants. After graduating with honours, my mother was allowed to stay and work at the university for three years. She was then selected to pursued a two-year graduate program in Zunyi Prefecture of Guizhou province in southern China in a class of nine students. One of her classmates, the only other northerner in the program, her lab partner, and competitor for top marks in all exams, was my father, who had joined the program after finishing his undergraduate studies. All of my mother's classmates back home were eager to see who their sharp and fiery friend had finally settled for. Marriage soon followed. An unexpected pregnancy meant my mother would not return to Tangshan, but would instead join my father at his alma mater, Weifang Medical School, as members of the faculty. I was born in Qinhuangdao and would spend my childhood shuttling between my maternal grandparents there and my parents in Weifang. Life as a baby began with my parents in Weifang. During the holidays, we would make an arduous ten-hour, 650 kilometres journey by local trains to visit Qinhuangdao. On one such winter journey, they put me under the seats of the standing-room only train, wrapped in multiple layers for fear of the cold. Upon arrival, they unwrapped me to find the diaper completely dry, apparently they had wrapped me too tightly and I had sweated it all out. Hence, it was decided that my parents were to focus on their academic work and I was left to spend my infancy with my grandparents, who now worked at the Qinhuangdao Water Utility School, a leafy campus on the water's edge a short walk from the loading cranes of the nearby coal port. We lived within the school grounds, in one of a row of mud houses with an enclosed square yard and a separate communal outhouse. With us were my mother's two younger brothers who would soon start their own families and produce cousins for me to play with, along with the cats and chickens that roamed our yard. Elementary School School age and the hukou system reunited me with my parents in Weifang for elementary school. We lived on the campus of Weifang Medical School, in a grey concrete four-floor walk-up apartment building just inside the school grounds. Our top-floor unit, one of four on the floor, was a one-bedroom with its own bathroom and a balcony facing towards the interior of the campus, looking down the main path in between a dozen other similar buildings. Our kitchen was across the hallway in a separate room that overlooked the busy road outside the walls of the campus below. The bare concrete staircase descended alongside the garbage chute to a dark cavernous lobby on the first floor filled with the bicycles of the inhabitants and a rickety front door that did not lock. Outside the building was a long flat storage building of red bricks and green metal doors. The rest of the large campus was filled with a monolithic administrative building, academic departments, dorms, and a dusty soccer field by the river that snaked along the edge of the campus where kites were flown and outdoor movies were shown. My parents taught courses, conducted research and hosted colleagues and students. I walked to attend the nearby elementary school: a box of concrete surrounded by a dirt field and farmland where the students took turns lighting the heating stoves in the winter. On weekends, my father would carry mother and I on his bicycle and to visit the families of uncle five and uncle six. They were army veterans who established comfortable working class families in Weifang. Altogether, their families had four older cousins who took care of me just as my uncles took care of my parents. My paternal grandparents took turns staying with uncles five and six, but mostly they stayed with uncle three in Beijing as he was the oldest and had adult children. We only ever got one turn to have them stay with us. My parents put them up in the single bedroom and we moved into the living room. It must have been a rather short stay as all my uncles were fierce competitors for fulfilling their filial duties. Shamefully, my sharpest recollection of the stay was grandfather coughing in the morning and father wiping away the yellow sputum on the floor. Luckily, my parents did not shirk their duties. Being the youngest and the most educated, they helped family and friends with diagnoses, medicine, and hospital appointments. Most of their friends were medical school classmates, colleagues, or visiting scholars. The most popular visitors on campus were two young researchers from Canada who made up for their lack of ability to speak Chinese with enthusiasm for Chinese culture. The young women stayed in a first-floor unit of our apartment building and were warmly welcomed at a time when foreigners were a rare sight. Despite barely being able to communicate with each other, they became friends with my parents and would welcome us to Canada years later. From very early on, I carried on my parent's academic track record and maintained near perfect scores on the two core subjects of Chinese and Math. It was a given that homework was done before anything else each and every school day. Elementary school and the university had coinciding semi-annual summer and winter holidays. These periods brought extensive homework assignments, but they were also a time of adventure. Almost every holiday, my parents and I would continue to make the pilgrimage to visit Qinhuangdao. Now I was old enough to get my own seat and would be invariably drawn to the large open windows of the green carriages, watching the rural landscape rush by and pointing out villages, farm animals, burial mounds, and onlookers stopped at the train crossings. By this time, my grandparents had been assigned their permanent residence inside the city in a first-floor two-bedroom apartment with its own bathroom and kitchen overlooking the large courtyard the row of apartment buildings shared with the Water Utility administrative building. Waking up late the day after the long train ride on a spring futon in the living room to the curious faces of my cousins would be the beginning of a long and very enjoyable vacation of playing, visiting family, and making trips to the nearby resort at the mouth of the Great Wall. The holiday homework would have been finished before the festivities, of course. I am the youngest among cousins on my father's side of the family, uncle three is more than twenty years my father's senior and he had three adult sons who each already had a son, making me an uncle before I was ten years old. My set of four cousins from uncle five and six in Weifang were also half a dozen years older than me. So I was the baby in the extended family and was appropriately pampered by all. Things were even better in Qinhuangdao. My two closest cousins there, the son and daughter of my mother's younger brothers, were two and four years younger than me, a perfect difference in age for me to play ringleader all vacation long. My maternal grandmother also had an older sister with a large family in the city, including three aunts who all had children: more cousins to help keep my holidays fulfilled. Emigration Life continued apace, my parents as professors and medical researchers and I as a coddled child with no siblings but a bounty of cousins across two cities. My parents conducted research side by side in the same laboratory, just as they had done since graduate school in the south. My father's stellar scholarship brought him a chance to attend more post-graduate studies at the Capital Medical School in Beijing, a prestigious experience that gave him the chance to visit uncle three and his growing family in the capital. Their steady work ethic and continued achievement eventually made my parents the target of a jealous colleague who conspired to split them into different research labs to keep their careers in check. Grated by the petty politics of the small town campus and wanting to stretch his wings further, my father applied for research positions overseas. Despite never having officially studied English, he was surprised by two responses and an invitation by a Professor in Canada. On the eve of my father's departure for Canada, we gathered at uncle six's apartment near the Weifang train station. As usual, uncle six had pulled strings with his old army pals at the local station so we could bypass the check-in and walk straight onto the platform later that night. I tried to stay awake staring at Robocop playing on TV late into the night as we waited for the red-eye sleeper to Beijing, where uncle three, my three adult cousins and my infant nephews waited to host us. In Beijing, we spent the day prior to the flight sight-seeing and traversing a Tianamen Square that was filled tents and demonstrating students. My father left on an Air Canada flight the next day and mother and I returned to Weifang by train. The day after, all subsequent flights were cancelled and the airport was shut down as the army moved in to clear the students. It was June fourth, 1989. Later, when my mother took the film of our Beijing trip to be developed, some of the photos were confiscated. We would never see our smiling faces among the tents of Tiananmen Square. My mother joined my father in Vancouver two years later, again to work in the same research lab as the kind Professor extended an invitation for her to reunite with my father. It would be a year before they felt settled enough to bring me to Canada. So I spent the interim attending school in Qinhuangdao, in a temporary, hukou-busting setup arranged by my youngest aunt who taught at the elementary school. My academic track record kept pace under the disciplined watch of my grandparents, and I was made academic student representative in the class of seventy with the opportunity to help the teachers grade exams. For this I got to wear a badge of two horizontal red bars on my sleeve to go with the red handkerchief all students wore around their necks. I would never have the chance to get the three red bars for class president, as my own trip to the airport neared. It was a day I had long daydreamed about in school, that my parents would swoop into class to take me away on a grand adventure, going further than all the wonderful train rides of my life so far. My grandparents, for all their Communist Party history, were happy to see my parents try to build a life in Canada, which my grandfather jokingly translated phonetically as "a country too big too be picked up by hand or by chopsticks". The day finally came in the spring of 1992 and I embarked on the twelve-hour flight in style after a flight attendant inconspicuously moved me into first class. At the Vancouver airport, customs confiscated the apples uncle three had packed and released me to my waiting parents. A colleague from my parent's research lab drove us home to the University of British Columbia, on the western shore of Canada, directly across the Pacific Ocean from Qinhuangdao, a place my parents would call home for the next twenty-five years, where they would dedicate the prime of their lives to building a new life for our reunited family. The turmoil of Tiananmen Square led Canada to open her arms to Chinese refugees and skilled immigrant workers alike, and our family of three would become Canadian citizens. But that would take place a few years later. For now, the ten year old who didn't speak a word of English had more pressing things to deal with in his new life in Canada, such as the serious dearth of uncles, aunts, and cousins.