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Goodbye feels different this time

A Times reporter who returned to her native Beijing found a city, and a nation, transformed

August 03, 2008|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — I was born in a Beijing that has vanished.

The way my mother tells it, I forced my way into the world a month early so my birthday would forever be associated with the biggest political festival of the year.

It was the early autumn of 1968, and as revelers shouted "Long live Chairman Mao," my parents raced to a hospital during a massive parade commemorating the birth of communist China. As my mother screamed in pain, fireworks lighted the sky over Tiananmen Square.

Forty years later, in the transformed capital of a transformed country, the only thing that seems constant is Tiananmen Square itself, with its giant portrait of Mao looming over the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Like a ghost, I had returned to the land of my birth after 20 years in America, not as a comrade but as a correspondent for an American newspaper. Officially, I was a foreigner dispatched here to tell the story of a changing China. In my heart, it was also a homecoming, a time to recapture memories of my childhood in a lost world -- and a time to start a family of my own.

It could have been easy to forget that I grew up in Beijing. So much has gone the way of the wrecking ball. No trace left of the Soviet-style apartment where I lived, the classroom where I unknowingly snitched on my mother, the sports school where I trained as a diver but failed miserably to serve my country.

As I come to the end of my eight-year tour here and watch the country gear up for the first Olympic Games on Chinese soil, my mind swims with the tales of people I have met and what they tell me about China as a nation. But rarely have I paused to consider my own story as part of the tapestry of change.

My memories of Beijing feel ancient. But I am writing this story now so I won't forget, so my children won't forget, that I had a past here and it is part of who we are.


The first time I left Beijing I thought I'd never go back.

Not that I didn't want to, but because it seemed impossible.

Chinese people rarely traveled in the 1970s. Going abroad was like flying to the moon. Even if it could happen, you had to be prepared to be gone forever, leaving behind the people you loved.

My father couldn't join us on the journey to America. My mother had been granted a student visa to study music in California. I was later told that someone in the U.S. Embassy took pity on her and allowed me and my sister, 11 and 6, to go along as family.

For me, it felt like we were fleeing a sinking ship and my father had given us the only life raft, with room enough for just three.

My parents had married out of political convenience. It made no sense to my grandparents that their daughter, a concert pianist trained at the finest conservatory in China, should be interested in a soldier from the People's Liberation Army marching band, the son of an illiterate widowed peasant so poor she sent him off to be a child soldier. But my mother considered herself marrying up because his proletariat background could help elevate her from the counterrevolutionary upbringing of her U.S.-educated parents.

On their wedding day there were no rings, no white gown, no walking down the aisle. My mother and father bowed three times in front of a portrait of Chairman Mao and passed out hard candies to their guests.

Their marriage seemed doomed from the start. Soon after the wedding, my mother was sent to a labor camp along with her entire school of elite musicians. Luck would have it that she became pregnant with me during the first annual conjugal visit. She was forced to go back to the countryside three months after giving birth, and my father and I visited her only once or twice in four years.

The rest of their marriage was defined by long physical separations as well as emotional distance that grew with time. So it probably was no surprise that my mother jumped at the chance to start her life over in America knowing it could not include her husband.

As a child, I blamed the family breakup on President Nixon. His historic 1972 trip to the Middle Kingdom set the stage for the normalization of relations in 1978 between Washington and Beijing. With that came the opening of China to the outside world, and we were among the very first to bolt.

It was the winter of 1979, and few Americans had ever met someone from communist China. My mother made sure we didn't look like we were fresh off the boat from Beijing. She dressed us in homemade bell-bottoms and down jackets that she bought at a state-owned "friendship store," which welcomed foreigners but not Chinese, unless they had passports to travel (which most ordinary people did not). In a sea of drab Mao suits and shapeless padded coats, we stood out as walking symbols of fortune and freedom.

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