Asking Ma about life in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution.
My mother and I were decorating the Christmas tree during a quiet afternoon last week when I thought to ask her if the sorrow I have been inclined toward postelection is anything like what she experienced during the Cultural Revolution, when she was a teenager. I had flown home to Georgia for Thanksgiving feeling exhausted and emotionally volatile—still trapped in what felt and continues to feel like grief.
“Some of it seems familiar,” she said, “but no, it’s nothing in comparison.”
I asked her what felt the same, as I scooped up a handful of ornaments. Our collection neatly comprises my family’s entire United States’ life: here are a few mice knitted by my grandmother when my parents first arrived in America; a sand dollar tied with a red ribbon from the first church they joined in Kentucky; a bell cut from orange construction paper with a photograph of my pudgy face pasted on it, from 1991.
“Well, after they closed the schools, the students would still gather in the buildings and have open debates. We’d take turns standing on a table to debate Mao’s latest pronouncements. There were always two distinct camps. A little bit like all of you, now,” she said, meaning Americans. “It was like a dream. For almost the entire ten years, you’d go outside in Shanghai and there would be small bands of guards huddled along the streets and huge propaganda posters hanging. It was worse in Beijing—we’d hear about students beating teachers to death there.”
We kept working our way around the tree and Ma reminded me to space the ornaments apart and fan the branches out a little bit so it would look nice and full when we were done.
“The closest I came to that kind of violence was the night they came for the bicycles,” she said. A band of Red Guards beat on the door of her home in the evening and demanded that her family hand them over. My mother and her sisters had already hidden the bicycles and told them there were none. The guards pushed their way into the house and a few of them dragged my grandfather into the bathroom. Others swarmed the apartment, stealing whatever small things they could find—pens, all of the clocks from the walls. My mother sat on the piano during the raid. “I was afraid they were going to hurt it,” she said.
I weep when I hear stories like this from her. I felt especially helpless and heartbroken as we rifled through boxes of ornaments collected over the years, memories from a time that came after.
I am at once horrified and relieved to know that my life has been so cleanly compartmentalized from their past, that the rest of my family exists in a doubled reality. I am often forgetful that this life, in the humid Georgia winter, is not the only one my mother contains. And when I think to ask questions about what came before me, before democracy, before English, before baked potatoes and canned whipped cream, when I learn about the despair but also the beauty of the past, it feels as though I am uselessly pressing my face up against glass. Ma reached up to hang an ornament from a recent vacation in Myrtle Beach, an iridescent sphere filled with loose sand and tiny seashells.
“The government could really do anything they wanted. That’s why I always say I’d rather have nothing in America than ever go back to China,” she said.
We plugged in the lights and stood back a little, admiring the colorful tangle of fabric, plastic, and green.
“We did a good job,” she said.
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.
Last / Next Article