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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

In return, I wanted to show my husband, who was born and raised in a small town in eastern Shandong province, something of China that he hadn't seen before -- the China of my childhood. But my old walk-up apartment is gone, replaced by a residential complex that bears no resemblance to the neighborhood I knew.

My children would have to imagine where Mommy was a youngster not much older than they are now, begging with all the other neighborhood kids for a chunk of ice from the industrial fridge kept by the local bus mechanic. Those were days long before the invasions of the Haagen-Dazs cafes and Cold Stone Creameries. It was even before the arrival of refrigerators, air conditioners and running hot water. All summer long you could hear children pleading, "Tong zhi, gei wo men diar bing!" Comrade, give us some ice!

In the early '70s, after we had moved into that sturdy four-story apartment, life was on the upswing for my family. My grandparents had just returned from doing manual labor in the countryside and my mother had gotten a new job playing the piano at the Central Ballet Company. My grandfather, a Caltech-educated hydroelectric engineer who helped build some of the largest dams in China, had begun collecting a fat paycheck after his "rehabilitation" -- the equivalent of $50 a month. Compared with most of our neighbors, we lived like real bourgeoisie.

My grandmother, who had married my grandfather in New York City, still had a soft spot for Western indulgences. She loved butter. And once in a while she would manage to snag some from a store for foreigners. Making do without an icebox, she would put it in a plastic bag and drop it into the water tank of our toilet to keep it from melting too soon.

Thanks to my grandfather's salary, we were the first in our building to get a TV -- a black-and-white set. Even though it was well into the '70s, television was such a new phenomenon that the state broadcast lasted only a few hours a night, and half of it was propaganda. Still, we treated the magic box like a shrine. By day we covered it with an embroidered cloth and by night we opened our small living room to neighbors who brought stools and sat three or four rows deep.

Class struggle permeated every aspect of our supposedly egalitarian society. Even as a child I was branded a capitalist because of my grandparents' education abroad. I envied my classmate who lived a floor above me. She was the daughter of factory workers and had also been chosen to train as a diver. But she was always better than I because she worked harder and never complained or tried to quit. I thought she was a true patriot. Instead, she told me later she stayed so she could make it to the next level and win a new jumpsuit.

That was a great motivator: Children got new clothes only once a year. Sports offered a step up for those who were really poor and didn't find poverty fashionable, even if it was politically correct.

I wish I knew what became of her. Or her brother, a popular neighborhood pingpong player who lost four fingers in a factory accident when he was a teenager.

I wish I could show my husband where my parents slept and where I heard them whisper in the night about how I might have inadvertently sold my mother down the river.

I was in first grade when the teacher asked us one day to tell the class the names of people we knew who had visited Tiananmen Square during a counterrevolutionary gathering. It was a spontaneous people's movement to commemorate the death of Premier Chou En-lai and considered a precursor to the 1989 pro-democracy protests that led to the bloody crackdown. I was only 8 and I had no idea that my teachers were trying to trick me. So I raised my hand and volunteered my mother's name.

When I told my parents, they panicked. My mother went into hiding and I had to live with the guilt of betraying her.

As these stories come back to me, I realize what a great thing it is that China has changed as much as it has.

Now that this born-again Beijinger prepares to take off again, I want to tell my children to take a good look around. At 4 and 1 1/2 , they are too young to understand why I can't promise them that what is here today will still be here tomorrow. The only thing I can tell them for sure is that we are not leaving Daddy behind and we will not be gone forever. We are not going to the moon. They can come back whenever they want, so they can collect their own memories of life in Beijing.


This month, Ni will enter the Nieman fellowship program for journalists at Harvard University.

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