How my mother’s accordion led to a chance encounter in Mao’s China.
For years my parents have told me about a photograph that shows my mother shaking hands with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of China under Mao Zedong. The photograph was taken in 1962, four years before the Cultural Revolution began, but it was lost until a few weeks ago, when a barrage of Instagram notifications, texts, e-mails, and WeChat messages alerted me that the picture had been found. It had turned up on Facebook, of all places, in a post detailing the history of my mother’s grade school in Shanghai. (A point of recent pride: Yao Ming, the basketball player, was a student at the same school, albeit decades later). An aunt of mine who lives in Hong Kong forwarded the picture to my father, who then distributed it across the Internet.
In the picture, my mother is fourteen. Her hair is in a low ponytail and she has an accordion strapped over her shoulders. She wears a checked knee-length skirt, a white blouse, white ankle socks, and Mary Janes. Several rows of Chinese flags fly in the background; in front of these stand many smiling girls holding bouquets of flowers. All eyes in the picture are on Zhou Enlai as he grips my mother’s hand. He’s tall and handsome, in a Mao suit and strappy sandals. Her smile is easy and uncalculated, bordering on surprise.
When I called my mother last weekend, to ask for the story behind the picture, she told me she had been part of Shanghai’s official welcoming committee. She was one of dozens of students who were dispatched to sing for visiting foreign officials and had been chosen in part because she was only one of the few students who owned and could play an instrument.
That day in 1962, she and the rest of the band had been summoned to greet the Somalian prime minister Abdirashid Ali Shermarke. Normally my mother only saw Chinese and incoming diplomats from afar, but when Shermarke’s plane was delayed, Zhou came around to greet the crowd.
“I wasn’t afraid,” Ma said. “Zhou had this very approachable presence, and he came right up to me. At the time, the Chinese felt like Zhou was the real workhorse of the party. He was visible and often out with citizens in public. Unlike Mao, for example, who we all felt was untouchable, like a god.” My mother said that she wasn’t the first in line, and there wasn’t anything remarkable about where she was standing. Invoking a Chinese expression for having great luck, she said about the meeting, “I guess my forehead is just tall.”
Ma said that Zhou asked her whether many of her peers wore glasses. “When I said that about half of them did, he shook his head and said myopia was a real problem among grade-school students. Then he noticed we were all standing in a puddle—it must have rained before he arrived that day. He told us to move a few paces over, to where it was dry, so we did. We all felt moved that such a high-ranking official would care about such proletarian details.”
The photograph is remarkable for existing at all. During the Cultural Revolution, my grandmother ripped up even her own wedding photographs, fearing retribution from the Communists for holding onto sentimental portraits of the past. As a result, I have almost no record of what anyone in my family looked like in their youth, before they moved to the United States, save for a couple of photo albums that were smuggled out of the country. I’ve committed the few family pictures that survived to memory. Ever since this photograph arrived in my inbox, I’ve spent a few moments every day studying my mother’s stance, her outstretched arm, her smile.
“Maybe Zhou picked me because I looked pretty cute,” Ma said.
We laughed, and then Ba wrestled the phone from my mother’s hands.
“He was a bad man,” my father said of Zhou. “Think of all the people he killed. Your mother may sound proud now, but she isn’t telling you that she wasn’t able to go to college because of Zhou Enlai.” In 1966, four years after the photo was taken, China shut down all of its schools, asserting that young minds should be educated in the real world instead of in the classroom. My mother was part of the first class of students who weren’t able to go to university. Instead, they were sent to factories or to the countryside to work.
I heard my mother protesting in the background. She retrieved the phone.
“I never said he did any good! I just said that, back then, this felt like such a big deal,” she said. “That’s why I said he’s not a great man, he is just a famous one.”
“I just wanted you to get both sides of the story!” I heard my father say.
I asked my mother if, at the time of the photo, she’d ever thought she’d live in America someday.
“No, of course not,” she said, laughing. “You’d be arrested for even thinking about it! I was the last one of my sisters who had any interest in leaving China. And yet.”
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.