I had never been this sick before, wondering whether I might die. In the haze of the coronavirus fever, the memory of a shining skirt became clear, resurrecting my spirit and soul.
My childhood memories from Wuhan, China, have resurfaced gingerly throughout the past three decades in America. Many followed my search for closure on the hard life I had in China; I hoped to become a better psychiatrist and more insightful, perhaps to inject more meaning into my lost family history. My enduring quest still had not revealed the answers when Mom suddenly died in 2000. She was only sixty-nine. In my head, a physician’s litany spun in a whirlwind and still lingers: no diabetes, no hypertension, no vascular disease—how could she die of a stroke?
My recognition that death had ended her lifelong unhappiness provided a slight solace.
Later in life, she would say, “There is nothing left for me to do anymore. Death seems to be good for me.” It took another twenty years for me to take in what was behind her words. Eventually, the confusing and wrenching grieving process led me to this: I needed to write about my mother’s oppressed life.
My mother’s sorrow had felt like burdens so heavy that even mentioning the word mother felt like falling into the abyss of her struggles. To avoid her cries and my own, I suppressed many childhood stories. As I went far down into my therapy, I feared my repulsion killed her. I had intended only to kill her hysteria, not her.
Only a few years ago, I learned that my mother, You Ying, was the daughter of Zhang Jun Wang, a beloved general of Kuoming Tang, the longtime sheriff of Wuhan and Yi Chang. At the time, the sheriff was also a mayor. His life took a dramatic downfall when the communist party took over Yi Chang, the second-largest city in Hubei where Wuhan is the capital city and the largest one. He was lured into a political training camp, eventually into lifetime imprisonment, simply because he represented the wrong party, Kuoming Tang, the defeated party led by Chiang Kai-Shek, whose government had escaped to Taiwan.
Oct. 1, 1949, was called the liberation day, symbolizing that the great communist utopian ideal had liberated the oppression of the failing party Kuoming Tang’s rule. My grandfather dutifully welcomed and celebrated the takeover with the entire city. He and his staff orchestrated the elaborate ceremonial parade with dancing, singing, and other staged performances that year. My youngest uncle Wei Zu, then 9, danced in them. My grandpa accepted the Communist mandate of serving the poor and fighting the corrupted rich with a passion because he saw it as aligned with the original principle on which the Kuoming Tang was founded. He strolled down the streets at the festivities, buying Hubei’s famous sweets. My uncle and grandpa came to a large street sign announcing a Communist re-education camp for three months. It listed the mandatory attendees, many local dignitaries at the time. Their eyes landed on one name: Cai San Wang. My Grandpa Wang’s less formal name. The child was more alarmed than the father. Grandpa comforted Wei Zu, saying, “Three months, that’s all it is.”
Three months turned into three years, during which my young grandmother, Lady Tchao, fell ill and died before Grandpa’s release. “I guess it was some kind of cancer,” Mom said. “She had to cover her face with the pillow so that her cry wouldn’t disturb anybody, my poor mom. Excruciating pain in her lower stomach and lots of bleeding down there. But cancer was not understood well then. The doctor just sent us home and would not tell me what she had because I was only 16.”
After I settled in the United States in the ’90s, Mom opened many of her secrets to me when we would talk on the phone. “Your second grandmother, a son-bearing wife, Lady Yao, had to raise us eight children. I was the second,” Mom said with much embarrassment as she referred to the culture that allowed men to have concubines, which she called “the old corrupt tradition.” She said, “Your grandpa wanted a son after his first two were girls.” This justified a second wife, immediately after Mom’s birth.
In 1952, Lady Yao received two parcels. One was the urn with Grandpa’s ashes; the other contained the bullet that finished his life and a bill for the cost of that deadly piece of metal. The entire family was dissolved on that quiet sunny morning. The second wife took her four birth children—three sons and one daughter—to a remote rural area far south in Guang Xi, leaving Mom and her older sister at ages 19 and 20 to become the guardians of my uncle and aunt, who were 11 and 6 respectively.
“I did not marry well to your father, either,” Mom often told me. “As if I did not have enough dishonor to bear.”
She referred to my father as another bad fate that had courted her. Though he was educated as a marine engineer, his parents belonged to the opposite class of the farmers and factory workers prized by the Communist Party. His family Tian was “dirty money,” owning vast land and businesses that the Communist Party fought against.
When I came into Mom’s life, she was a woman who cried often at home. At four and half years old, I played the role of a jolly little pretty girl to cheer my lamenting mother and entertain my younger sister. My memory was stuck forever at the time of the moment my father was taken away. Later, I would be told he had been forced into the labor camp, which I had once equated with a vacation camp. The day Dad left, he was wearing a white shirt and dark summer pants, his short straight dark hair sticking out, his face movie-star handsome. The house with no father had no trace of him. We weren’t even allowed to keep his pictures. The officials demanded the relatives of counterrevolutionaries cut all family ties to prove their innocence. Adults used to praise me for inheriting his good looks, the only thing he was permitted to leave behind.
Someone explained to me that my father was supposed to be re-educated into conforming to Communist utopian principles, changing his career from building submarines into building his own pantry to feed himself. The idea was to allow the spoiled rich boy who had lived in his father’s wealthy house before 1949 to be freed from his bourgeoisie mentality, tasting the hard life of the farmers and laborers whom his father, my paternal grandpa, had employed. Grandpa Tian had many hired hands in his high days. His establishment, a wide piece of land, a farm, and the only department store in an endless stretch of prairie, would become the reason for the downfall and death of his youngest son, Han Zhong Tian, my father. Tian was my surname until my mother remarried. In the childish estimation of a four-year-old, I attributed Mom’s sad face to my father’s misfortune.
I had no clue that Mom’s brokenness had many histories that had remained unrevealed. As I set out to write, drawn to her sorrows when the words could not yet be formed, I started with the language I knew. I was pursuing a career in psychiatry, and I was learning to listen to people’s tears. Twenty years later, it was as if each droplet of her tears enveloped a tragic segment of her life, but suddenly my tired-out spirit changed direction. As the pandemic sent me into seemingly endless quarantine, I found something new in her to cheer me up rather than putting me down. The memory of a shining skirt warmed me like sunshine, casting the dark figure of my tragic mother in bright light. For the first time, I could see her through the lens of the beauty she once was. This new version of her came to chase away my despair. Unexpectedly, my mother had provided me with a flashing memory and reminded me of the once-vain girlish girl she had been, a quality I never knew.
One chilly spring morning in May 1970, my mother woke me, with her usual singsong, tender voice. “Wei, you need a skirt for the summer. Please get up.” I was three months short of five. Mom poured hot water out of a large thermal jug into a washbasin half-filled with tap water she gathered outside. She mixed up the water with her right hand and soaked a washing towel into the basin. Mom always started with two heavy rubs on my face, using her right index finger and thumb to wipe my nose and my eyes. The memory of the pain still lingers in me. In my mom’s mind, a good cleaning had to be painful, in order to loosen the hold of nose booger and eye craps. Though Mom was in a huge haste her whole life, she always cleaned my face well. I often wished my mother would skip washing and the pain she inflicted. (Years later, when I became a mother, I found it difficult to wash my own children over their protests and hired a nanny to clean their faces.)
Mom locked the padlock to the door. She often told us stories that wolves would come to get us if she did not get the door locked. Sometimes she told us those horrible kidnappers, even a blind man, could come and single-handedly make a young pretty girl disappear. “There are bad people out there. You kids can’t tell the difference between good and bad,” she said with an unusually stern voice, quoting true stories heard from reliable sources, such as a policeman. A dangerous world needed to be locked outside our tiny dorm, which was about the size of my current living room. To me, the small dorm on the campus where my mother taught was fine and dandy, a safe haven to play, a world stage for my sister, me, and, maybe, my mother.
* * *
With Yu safe in her deep dream, we were free to go. Outside, Mom and I moved quickly along the straight and long concrete veranda that faced a dense forest of green trees sloping down from the mountains, leading to the auditoriums and warehouses of the campus. The May morning’s cool air breathed freedom, peace and even a new beginning to both of us. I shrugged my shoulders and folded my hands around my upper arms to produce some warmth. “Wow, cold, Mom,” I said. She quivered slightly, too. “Come on, let’s walk fast or run a bit, maybe?” she said. I dashed out ahead of her. My plastic sandals clapped the limestone, sounding a rhythm of children’s bliss. “Slow down!” she yelled in a whisper. “Everyone is still sleeping.” Skipping along the corridor, I recited all the names of those who lived in the teachers’ residential quarters with my left-hand pointing: Auntie Ceng, Dr. Tang, Teacher A and Teacher Z, speaking their names as I passed all the red doors.
Descending the wide slate stairs, we passed the boiler room, our only source for drinkable water, which I fetched early every morning except Sundays. The stale smell of steam radiated, drawing me out of the cold air. The rhythmic clinking of metal was a familiar sound in early mornings. When I heard the predictable release of steam from the high-pressured tank, warmth arrived before I could hop down the steps. I felt soothed.
We walked briskly down the long dry-mud trail, passing a dugout-like bomb shelter with a brick dome entrance that looked like a mausoleum. Sometimes I thought that it was the dumbest structure adults could build. It was so obvious that any enemy could discover it— not like those true dugouts that led underground from people’s houses as I saw in war movies. The doors were so prominent that enemies could find hidden civilians in no time. Over and over again, I would forget that the real war had been over since 1949. Nobody could invade China by land anymore. Only later would I understand that the air-raid shelters were to protect us from a feared Soviet airstrike. I realized I loved that bomb shelter, especially during the drill of an air-raid. I never dared to enter into that dark space on my own, as brave as I considered myself, but when an air raid drill was called, people would gather as if coming to a big family reunion, except that no talking was permitted. The scene in the bomb shelter was quiet love all around. The anticipation of fear made children and adults equal, especially in the good weather; greetings came from eye contact when we grew tired of staring up into the air.
At last, my mom and I arrived at the boulevard inside the school’s gate. Huge French plane trees shaded and protected us. Other rich greens of willows, elms, poplars and oaks on the campus infused us with liveliness. Mom and I were rarely this pair of kindred spirits. On my left, I had a sparkling view of the brand-new track fields. The two gates of the soccer field had been freshly painted. White, grey and reddish pebbles marked off the lanes of the track, forecasting an all-school sporting event coming in the next few weeks. School No. 14 was a combined junior and senior high school where Mom taught Russian for years and had switched to English before I was born. Historically, the school was affiliated with the famous Wuhan University, the most prestigious local higher education institute.
Out on the boulevard, white steam brought the scent of food. I took my mom’s hand as my mouth started watering. Breakfast in Wuhan was a matter of local pride and a deep part of our culinary identity that symbolized home more than a real homemade meal from a capable mom, even a doting grandma. Breakfast vendors from the countryside set up outside the school’s gate. Their bamboo steamers emitted a mystic fog blended with the smell of garlic, scallions, vinegar, soy sauce, hot spices of all kinds, and the frying doughs in the large woks.
Mom bought me a rice cake, the least delicious but most appropriate choice on a shopping day. Compared to all Wuhan breakfast delicacies, it’s the most efficient breakfast—sweet, crisp, chewy, no oil, no juice to clean up. Mom never ate outside; she preferred her own hygienically handled food. Soon, I was rubbing the sticky moist white crumbs off my fingertips, and Mom wiped my mouth with a small square of toilet tissue while my eyes sought out more savory treats.
* * *
The street that passes No. 14 is Tan Hua Ling, the Epiphyllum forest, named after an exquisite flower known for its extraordinary beauty and fleeting life. Today, Tan Hua Ling has become a tourist street, and the district that surrounds it feels like a Disney version of this ancient Wuhan address. When I visited the area in 2013, I searched for the classroom where I sat as a first-grader, and I found that the room had been transformed into a quaint boutique. The room was quite a few blocks from the official elementary school, as we were the class of the baby boomers. The pupils in the extended one-floor building were only invited to the real school property during rare major school assemblies. In that store, I bought a souvenir, thinking how much smaller it was than the classroom I remembered with twenty kids and one adult standing at a blackboard. The new floor had become a smooth concrete, not the curvy, earthen floor of the old schoolroom. Then, children had sat on plain footstools and wrote on the taboret brought from home. I could hear the children’s voices reciting in a muted chorus as if they were still singing from a distant past.
When I walked out of the store, I saw a cottage across the street. Now it was a cafe. The aroma of French coffee lured me to its second floor, an attic converted to a sitting area filled with romantic pairs of students from Wuhan University absorbed by their homework. Mesmerized, I climbed the narrow circular steps and came upon a mural, an abstract of a light green forest with the words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. Welcome to Tan Hua Ling Wuhan.”
I immersed myself in this French Quarter-style area with its western aromas of coffee, milk, sugar, vanilla, chocolates, and butter. It was as if a New Orleans coffee shop had been imported straight to Wuhan. The oak tables were wide and spacious as if inviting me to sit down and open my psychiatry textbook. I’d just completed my board recertification three months ago. My narrow view of life was through textbooks—the demand my parents put on me and my constant pursuit to establish my livelihood in America as a physician. At that moment, home was reconciled between West and East. This place, rife with intellectual growth, felt peaceful and cozy, with a sweet latte, the best place to be after half of a lifetime away from China.
* * *
Decades earlier on that chilly May morning, my mother and I encountered another steaming cloud, leading us to the fresh soft silken bean custard with dark brown syrup. A deeply tanned farmer with a hardwood flatbed cart rested on the side of the street Tan Hua Ling. As he welcomed me and my mother, I faintly felt my missing father’s figure and his smile, “I want it, Mom,” I said with total confidence that Mom would get it for me. The cedar bucket was so large it could easily contain three of me. Unlike all the people in No.14, this farmer radiated one simple desire, to share his food. His brown face reminded me of the father’s side of my family. His accent was provincial, not native to Wuhan. My father’s accent was provincial, too—it was part of my mother’s embarrassment. As he reached over to hand the hot, sweet silken vanilla treats to me, Mom paused with a huge disappointment, a long and sad no. “I forgot to bring our own bowl.”
Because it was Sunday, the hospitals, clinics and schools that filled this busy district were closed. Only shops and vendors were open, and the residents on both sides of the streets came in and out of their dorms to fetch breakfast. Every two or three long tree-lined blocks, there would be fresh farm goods including vegetables, fruits, poultry, and butchered items in a colorful and festive display. Everything carried a piece of earth on it, muddy roots that made Mom and me uneasy. We were city people who desired clean, washed vegetables and polished fruits.
I skipped up and down the street ahead. “Slow down!” Mom repeated, her voice soaked with apologies, fearing the disturbance would annoy people’s morning quiet. Hurry and hurry. I did not care for a thing in the world, fully confident that people would love me.
We arrived at the dress shop, the first two customers of the day. The skirt that would become mine lay beneath the glass showcase. Glass shelves and mirrors surrounding it made everything gleam. Colorful household items hung on the walls stretching all the way to the ceiling. I fancied what I could use them for, shining pretty things. Heady fragrances filled the air—moisturizers and perfumes, heavily scented incense to keep the mosquitos away.
The skirt in the glass case beckoned in a pattern of cream and khaki. The middle-aged cashier half-turned to us as she continued to chat with her colleague at the end of the counter. She reached into the showcase, swiftly picked the proper size, and spread the skirt on the glass counter, never halting her conversation. She spoke in the Wuhan dialect, a language that is an ancient official southern language of China. The language of Wuhan has always been expressive, generous and fun, filled with drama, satire and idioms. You can never be sad when you speak it fast, especially on the street, outside my home.
The store was a one-woman show, the cashier’s words flying like busy bees. I stole a look at Mom, smile all gone for sure, her eyebrows locked tightly. She never approved of small talk in any circumstances. To add insult to injury, the cashier seemed to be friends with everybody—the grandmas, the children, the husbands, girlfriends. She was full of bizarre news. I could read my mom’s mind: A precious morning wasted. I knew she would have cautioned the talkative woman to put energy into learning something, such as using a deck of flashcards, memorizing some new words. “It doesn’t matter if it’s English or Chinese. The best time to memorize words forever is in the morning.” Mom tried to drill her mantra into me. “Always learn.”
The cashier was loud and deliberate, in contrast to the silent man, most likely the manager, seated in a corner. He wasn’t registering the woman’s words. His mouth pursed as he blew the floating tea leaves away before any quick sip of the boiling hot tea. Then he slurped his noodles, enjoying the messiest breakfast delicacy, Re Gan Mian. A sesame noodle salad that is forever spicy, salty, and addictive, it is Wuhan’s signature breakfast.
Determined not to be derailed by that fast-talking woman, my mother opened the waist of the skirt and signaled for me to step in. With assurance, she tightened up my waistline, and we stepped forward together in front of the mirror, side by side. The skirt was larger than what I could fit into, yet Mom loved the ray of natural warm shine: The light brown ovate leaves, pointed tips in different angles, the borders shaped into a large pattern of creamy-white flower-petals, not the popular Shanghai style with small flowers in subdued shades, definitely no green, red or peach.
The purchase completed, Mom led me out of the shop so fast it took my breath away. Somewhere far enough from the store, she bent down savagely to meet my eyes. “Gossips!” she spat, clearly trying to erase contaminants out of my innocent young mind. I could hear my heartbeat racing. “Gossips contain lots of forbidden information, fake kindness, exchanged secrets, fabrication. They all meant to bring other people down. Ghetto people created cheap jokes, don’t even laugh at it.” Surely, the strangers around the street must have assumed that I had done something wrong. It was a familiar feeling—something was always wrong with me anyway, a fatherless child and my grandparents could not be found in such a big China, dead long before I was born. My educated mother could not stand the gossip that entertained the common people.
We lived in Wuchang, a university town in the tri-township of Wuhan, the capital city of the state of Hubei for centuries. In 2020, its population is 11 million, and the city we know now is stunningly modern. But in 1969, the fashion sense in Wuchang was rooted in military greens, blues, grays, blacks and whites, more so than the other two parts of the town, Hankou, which is the center of commerce, and the rural yet heavily industrialized Han Yang. The three towns were divided by the Yangtze River. Any sense of bourgeois style had been banned one step at a time since 1949 after Kuoming Tang was exiled to Tai Wan. Wuhan was a major port city throughout history; in recent years, it is frequently compared to Chicago by travelers around the world.
The faculty of School No. 14, including my mother, was populated by graduates from the most prestigious universities in China. Wuchang was a very serious city. I don’t remember that anyone told me a joke until I moved to Hankou, which had much more metropolitan sophistication. Hankou was Manhattan to the tri-township area; people from surrounding areas came to shop and watch shows. For the longest time, my childish estimation was that all my neighbors and teachers had just sprung into adulthood, serious and sincere at their birth. They were born straight into their proper, kind and respectful maturity. Modest in all aspects of their lives, they remind me now of the concept that’s mentioned a lot in America: model Asian citizens. Their groundedness provided me with the most nourishing environment. In my half-century of migrations, I had not yet found anything similar.
My father named me Wei, which means “bright.” I would go from one dorm to another, bringing my girlish voice and childish friendship everywhere, brushing through their furniture and doors. No phone, no beeper and no internet in those days, never a formal invitation, but I was welcomed. Except for a few times I had fights with my friend Jiang, seven months older than me. But soon we made amends, or our mothers did. Everybody was forgiven. Nobody closed their doors on Sundays or after work at night. I rushed in and out, and it was a warm family circle. The neighbors’ homes were always cozier than ours. Barely anyone would invade my mom’s quietness at our home. She visited her friends on the campus purely for her lesson plans or to polish a couple of difficult English words. Occasionally, Auntie Liu, in the next dorm, would offer exotic sweets, homemade or imported from Guangzhou. Her delicious treats would linger on my tongue and in my mind. I would always talk about them long after tasting them. Those treats from Guangzhou were exotic, like the fashions from Guangzhou that had preserved some of the excitement of the style and tastes before 1949—a secret shared, but nobody dared to say it out loud.
Now I realize what the Communists wanted at the time was for people to be economically equal, not in richness, but in poverty. Yet in the huge communes, an even more complex class system still existed. Like all of China, Wuhan was wrapped in the thrall of Shanghai-style. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, defiant Guangzhou was the exception. Guangzhou was a close relative of Hong Kong, linked by the Pearl River, and everyone secretly looked to Hong Kong for fashion. Hong Kong in the ’60s was considered entirely counter-revolutionary and in need of liberation from its capitalist corruption and terrible colonialism. We viewed it as too flamboyant, a distraction from the ideal of serving the masses—the proletariat classes, farmers and factory workers alike. Intellectuals at the time were ranked as the ninth foul-smelling class festering below the entire class system in China. Hong Kong was the ultimate symbol of the worst moral failure, even though there were thousands swimming furtively across the Pearl River from Guangzhou to make a better life. Those were the facts necessary to be deleted from our awareness. Those tasty sweets from Guangzhou gave me relief. It was possible that not everything that was good came from Shanghai.
In that real world, Shanghai-style ruled. Shanghai-style had more subtlety: a trim waistline, puffy newsboy cap, a pair of socks with matching cotton shoes. The apparel was all uniformly earthy green, sometimes navy blue. Those were the few colors permitted in our fashion world. Only colors that blend well with earth or military shades ruled the country. Fashion was decided for all of us. Yet I don’t remember my mom ever wearing military green or blue. She never touched red or peach.
Mom wore clothes that allowed her to blend in. Truth be told, I did not remember much of what she wore. She was pretty in my mind, sad at home yet extremely jovial outside the house or in her classroom, actually at times extremely inspiring to her students, filled with enthusiasm. I thought Mom never had a fashion sense. “Who needs it?” I often said to myself. My priority at the time was to play and hide myself in the mountains, becoming sweaty and muddy. I wondered if I was trying to run away from her tears and did not want to spend a minute to understand a complex and meaningless world.
Every chance I got to run free, I would play on Phoenix Mountain. I would lead my little sister into the wide-open space for our frequent childhood adventures. By the end of a day, our shoes were full of dust, sometimes dark grey and sometimes reddish-grey, depending upon which side of the mountain or the street we came from. A couple of times the uniformed soldier who lived on the backside of the Phoenix Mountain brought my sister and me home. I truly did not want to say we were lost. I trusted myself to find the way around there very well. But the soldiers were concerned that we had no adults around and could be snatched away by criminals. My sister usually got the high ride, sitting atop their shoulders.
The kindergarten I attended was part of the school system, only for the children of staff members. Sunday was the only day off. Lunch breaks were set in stone, 1.5 hours daily for winter and 2.5 hours in the summer. There were occasional night studies before final exams. With one and a half hours for a dinner break, kids would head home from their studies at 10 p.m.
The lunch break crowds were exciting for my sister and me. Students who lived behind the mountains would pass our dorm, and we would suck up their adoring energy, especially the students from Mom’s class. As we waited for Mom, we would set up to watch passers-by, straddling the window sills and wearing simple summer pajamas. “Look, teacher Wang’s daughter, don’t you love her eyes?” They pointed at me and said, “I call her an African Western doll,” because of my oversized eyes and my tannish skin, compared to my mom’s proper Chinese skin color, snow-white.
At that age, I always owned my prettiness. Mom said I looked like my father. I suspected, though, that my resemblance startled her, even made her angry. My childhood energy was focused on romping through the sports field or swinging on the long rope I tied to the thick trunks of trees. Among all the familiar solid oaks, French plane trees, elms, and poplar, there are the phoenix trees known as Wu Tong. I loved to climb and hug the archaic Wu Tong, revered as a fairyland tree that only existed in China. Legend has it that the Wu Tong is the preferred resting place for the phoenix, and its enchanting existence has been well-documented in Chinese literature for generations. I delighted in its fingertip flower petals, white and creamy with a touch of pineapple yellow, sweet as a bean sprout. The seeds were delicious too, like sunflower seeds, air-fried, fluffy, crunchy.
Fashion did not enter my vocabulary until much later in my life. I drew all sensory gratification from play—the next was food. Now I understood the way a girl dressed spoke much about her obedience to the culture. Any clothing that was viewed as inappropriate carried the danger of being seen as propagating corrupt Western culture.
* * *
On Sundays, the factory workers nearby would often gather on the vast sports field on the campus of School No. 14 for the denunciation parade meetings (DPM). It was a huge contrast to those breakfast-fetching mornings on school days. I loved to watch the sunrise across the sports field as I ran with the empty aluminum containers, clacking all the way. I woke at the crack of dawn with the anticipation of reaching the opposite side of the field, where the canteen for the school staff was. Inevitably I ran into elegant student dancers and agile runners who were practicing their basic moves. Sundays were peaceful except on DPM days.
In a display orchestrated for the intellectuals associated with the schools, many criminals, especially counter-revolutionaries and petty thieves, were publicly sentenced and denounced on the same track field that was my morning haven. I heard that many of those persecuted went to exile, and some may never return. A few daring adults told us kids about death, because some of them might have to die. Those ones would be lined up in a kneeling position, and a bullet fired through the back of each skull.
One DPM remains forever written in my mind. On that Sunday, some of the residents of the campus gathered at the main entrance for yet another DPM while loud commotion was on the field and at the school gate. A truck, filled with adults in navy-blue jackets, arrived with speed and force. The prisoners stood crowded together, handcuffed to the truck bed horizontally and vertically. The truck came to an abrupt halt. Prisoners were ejected in groups of two or three. Those still handcuffed to the truck lost their balance but did not fall. I noticed a plump young woman, most likely a fresh high school graduate, with strikingly fair, smooth skin and a perfect bob. She did not wear military-style sneakers, rather a pair of pretty black flats. Her pure white feet exposed a deadly mistake. She struck me as a docile lamb about to be sent to the wilderness, accepting her fate as the sacrifice to a butcher’s knife.
From the crowd came an angry adult male voice. “Look at her, seductress bitch. No socks on with a pair of flats, so pointy in the front. Where are her good square and proper military sneakers?” That was the janitor of the school, who was a martial arts expert and retired military man. The back of her ivory neck was exposed as a strong man’s hand forced her head down. Admiring her clean and neatly ironed clothes, I imagined that she was not afraid to die. But her shiny ebony hair shook violently as she was dragged out of the truck until she disappeared into the stage on the other end of the field. She was an adult-sized porcelain doll who evinced no apparent apology or regret. I was sad more than frightened. Then the janitor chimed in. “These are the people you youngsters should not learn anything from.”
Even today, I remember that her silky wide-legged pants waving in the breeze seemed defiant. But asserting her own beauty led to her demise. Military green sneakers were considered respectful shoes, not pointy black flats that daringly revealed her fair skin. In my kindergartener’s mind, that could have triggered the process of capital punishment. An enraged animal wanted to howl out of my stomach but vanished in my throat. My lips were numb and my body was heavy as I watched her disappear into the dull green, blue and grey sea of standing people. “Seductress bitch” definitely sank in, in that piercing Wuhan dialect, testosterone-filled, death-predicting. Even though it took me a while to comprehend death, the custodian’s militancy toward that fair lady was clearly conveyed. The culture was famous in ancient times for sacrificing concubines. Women could be discarded quickly. Wuhan dialect became an emperor’s execution order. At that moment, Wuhan dialect was not funny at all.
Summer in Wuhan, known as one of the three ovens of China, was sweltering. The plains of Wuhan sat below sea level. The Yangtze River flowed through the city, boiling through the residential areas. The surrounding areas were mountains, sealing in the heat. When thunderstorms raged through Wuhan, heavy raindrops would suddenly turn into cold fall weather and the flooding season turned the entire city into a knee-high swimming pool. Rapidly changing weather happens often in a day.
Many times a year, my mom would take her students to the countryside so her students could experience the farming culture, ostensibly to bring them closer to the ideology of the commune in the mud-sheds and simple shelters. During her absence, my sister and I had to stay at the kindergarten where I enjoyed being free without chores, rich playtime with my friends. But the unpredictable weather made Mom’s iffy memory problematic. She dropped us off at the kindergarten with summer clothes that were suitable for the weather on the day she left, not recognizing that at any time, Wuhan could turn cold. During the ’60s, we had no air conditioner or heater. Somehow, other kids’ moms always had prepared enough to keep them warm or even cool, and they all had grandparents, too.
Had my grandparents and my father still been alive, someone might have remembered to provide an adequate blanket for me. With my father in the labor camp, maybe dead, and with grandparents who had died young, there was no one to share the responsibilities of childcare. Now I understand why my mother was so forgetful—a tough life compromises human memory.
Napping time in kindergarten was fun most of the time—I loved sleeping. I could sleep anywhere if I had a place to lie down, even if it was on the floor. All I needed was one second to enter my dreamland. But dozing off in the cold was miserable when Mom forgot my comfy blankets. The ballet dramatization of “The Red Detachment of Women” became my saving grace. I slept in a ballerina posture, with straight legs, ankles crossed, pointed toes, two hands held softly together above my head, in an elongated oval. I pretended to be Wu Qing Hua, the main character from the show in the revolutionary-modern repertoire. I would imagine wearing a fuchsia shirt and pants, classy and elegant color but ripped and barely covering my hands and feet. Only later would I realize the stage costume for Wu Qing Hua wasn’t showing she was poor but serving the purpose of portraying a ballerina’s glory. Poor people could not afford bright fuchsia clothes on that dreadful farm.
Inside my head, I whispered, cold. I desperately wished someone would put a blanket on me. In the ballet, the proletariat was being tortured by a cruel landlord. Her costume was impressively royal, in my mind. If only I could draw a cozy and warm blanket over my ice-cold body. All I had was a large piece of thin, rusty mosquito-mesh-net folded across my tummy. My resentment brewed. I said in my head, “Mommy, I tell you, it’s cold. You forget everything. I wished you could remember my blankets. When could you not be in a hurry?” I could see the guilt and remorse on her face when I told her she made her baby so cold, her crying apology, and her harsh self-blaming, just like the time several weeks ago when she begged for entrance at the movie theater because she had forgotten the tickets. All three of us had to hide under the eaves. People stared, and two men with dark blue jackets had to stop and scoff at her. They laughed at her folly, “Coming to the movie and forgetting your movie tickets, and with two young kids? How stupid, how dumb!” We eventually took seats in the dark when the movie had already started. They made us wait for everybody to go in until the theater turned dark. Soon, I drifted off into my cold dream.
* * *
Mom chose a Sunday morning to debut the skirt. The skirt reflected light so welcoming and delicious on that sunny morning as if the miniature golden dress was about to be displayed in a bakery’s showcase. The skirt would be icing on a tannish Chinese doll, the final touch. Mom gently rubbed vanilla-scented moisturizer on my face, taking her time. The waistline suddenly felt just right. As I started down the long veranda, cooled by the fresh breeze of summer under the shady trees, I had no urge to go into the mountains today. A moment of rapture! I experienced an unfamiliar flush of girlish grace, proper and popular. I smiled at the skirt as the skirt warmly regarded me in response. Its leaves and petals made me feel so happy and even a tiny bit proud. They made me forget I was a fatherless child. One mother was more than enough. Her tears were far behind me. On this day she had remembered to make me pretty.
Mom stood amid our few simple furnishings, leaning slightly to her left to appraise me. She seldom adored me like that; this was the only time I clearly remember. Fairy-white and slim, she frowned her left eyebrow in the inner corner, then said with poise and care, “You can go out now.” I turned around quickly and faced the sunshine. I swung subtly as if music preluded me to an open stage. Being pretty was my sole purpose on that Sunday.
I moved down the veranda, searching for an adult. I found Auntie Liu, who lived next door. As I turned right, my soft steps were barely audible. She saw me the moment I stepped out of my family dorm. With a whole day of work ahead of her, Auntie Liu leaned in to ignite the portable coal stove. Honeycomb briquettes of new coal gradually sunk deeper into the stove as she used a metal hook to empty the ashes. Sitting on a footstool, she fanned methodically to get the fire going.
“Is that a new skirt you are wearing?” Her voice was a controlled pure soprano.
“Yes,” I replied.
The skirt whispered its style to me for many years until I allowed our tears to blur it all. Its leaves and petals faded one piece at a time.
Born in Wuhan, China, Wei Wang has been a practicing physician in the USA for 27 years. Currently, her full-time private practice supports her passion for writing. Her two adolescents keep her busy, too. She practices meditation in the form of gardening, singing, dancing, working out, yoga or a quiet read at Jersey Shore. She writes poetry and prose in English and Chinese. She is writing Foreign Language, a collection of essays and stories about the lost voices of mothers and daughters.