“The things you experience … are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you.”
-Madeleine Thien, in her cultural revolution epic, Do Not Say We Have Nothing
I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately. Since nothing is divorced from the context it’s in, I can’t think about who I am (or who we are as Americans) without thinking about where I came from.
More than 15 years before I was born, my dad left the only home he’d ever known — China — on a leaky raft in the South China Sea. His dad, my grandfather, had been the United States as a student since my dad was a baby (after scoring high enough in some national exam that earned him a scholarship), and when war with the Japanese broke out he couldn’t go back. That situation was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it was a familial tie to the Western world. A curse, because Grandpa’s scholar status is exactly what Mao Zedong and his forces targeted for “re-education in the countryside” during the years of China’s oppressive Cultural Revolution.
I don’t know the details, as my dad has gone the 34 years of my life without talking about it. But in snippets I’ve heard from him, my late aunt (his sister), and my mom, and my grandmother, I have learned my father was one of the tens of thousands of young Chinese sent to labor in rural areas of China to familiarize themselves with the plight of Mao’s vaunted peasants. Dad went to a pig farm where he saw beatings, starvation and suicides. To this day he doesn’t speak of this time in his life, probably because a lot of it is unspeakable.
The pig farm was in Guangdong province, in Southeastern China, close enough to the coast to make an escape. The situation in China was getting While laboring, he secretly trained to swim long distances in a freezing river near the farm by slinking into the water every day before dawn. He told me this summer he didn’t know whom to trust, so he could tell no one in the family about his plans to defect. It was a time of secrets, since countrymen were turning on each other, and encouraged to.
On the other side of the earth, Grandpa was lobbying his senator in Missouri, Stuart Symington, to help get my father asylum should he make it to the U.S. Symington’s office reached out to the senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, for help, since if my dad survived the long odds to make it out of China, his first stop would be in a major city like New York. Kennedy’s office worked with Symington’s office, and wrote my grandpa assuring Dad would get safe passage. He made it, at 6’2″ and weighing only 135 pounds, with no papers to his name.
But for American values and its policies of that time, I wouldn’t be here.