I became what I am today at age ten, when domestic and international events first made me aware of my own peculiar position in this world. I also saw a masked man with engaging eyes sweeping the streets. Our communication was nonverbal, but everything seemed to have begun for me from that encounter.
Kids my age would have been in school already had it not because China’s political circumstances then at home and abroad. The Sino-Soviet border conflict and the death of Chairman Mao’s protégé and designated successor Lin Biao meant that the beginning of our schooling was postponed. I taught myself to read The Liberation Daily and to write as many Chinese characters as possible. The Liberation Daily was the only official paper in Shanghai and every business entity had to subscribe to it even though it was not always read. I got my copies for free at the nearby wet market where I shopped daily for groceries. A stack of them was always there to be used to wrap food in.
Nineteen seventy-two itself was an eventful year.
Three weeks into it, in the Micronesian U.S. Territory of Guam, Japanese soldier Shoichi Yokoi was discovered in the jungle where he had been hiding for twenty-eight years, pledging daily allegiance to Emperor Hirohito in the hope that the Empire of the Sun would win its Holy War and dominate the entire “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”.
I heard this news from the transistor radio in the shop that sold bean paste and other condiments. The owner, whose salt and pepper hair never seemed to have been washed, would always flash a grin at me with his crooked brown teeth. “Pretty girl’s shopping for her pretty mother again – she’s certainly one baijiu drinker, that Russian lady,” he would say with a chuckle. Baijiu was a fiery sorghum liquor.
The owner’s only treasure was his son, also ten, like me. Whenever I shopped there, he would be gaping at me from a dim corner, the expression in his eyes alternating between fascination and resentment.
To conserve the battery, the owner’s transistor was on at noon for ten minutes only. Neighborhood men would gather to hear the news. That day, after the radio was switched off, one man said, “The Japanese can be really obsessive.”
“That’s why they’re known as the ‘Eastern foreigners’ and not ‘Western foreigners’ like some people,” chimed in another, giving me a glance.
“The Western foreigners are good-looking and smart — right, pretty girl?” the owner said.
I blushed and looked away, my eyes meeting those of the boy. He flashed me a grin. I snatched the refilled soy sauce bottle I had already paid for and ran out.
The Japanese are known as the Eastern foreigners as opposed to Western foreigners like … me, a quarter-Russian three-quarters Shanghainese, I noted to myself. People automatically put me in a separate category.
A few weeks later, I was introduced through the front page of the paper to a real Western foreigner. On February 21st, U.S. President and career Communist-prosecutor Richard Nixon landed in China to shake hands with careerist Communist leader Chairman Mao and to be seen photographed atop the Great Wall. This was no Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate on the merits of capitalism versus communism reenacted, I half-comprehendingly read from The Liberation Daily. Holding its breath, the West watched as “Tricky Dick” Nixon posed toothily with a drooling Great Proletariat Leader, Great Teacher, Great Commander-in-Chief, and Great Helmsman. The panda-faced, German-accented mastermind Henry Kissinger and the Europe-trained Chinese Machiavellian Zhou Enlai, whom the West deemed charismatic despite his rusty English, “agreed to disagree” about the sovereignty of the island of Taiwan. A Sino-U.S. Communiqué was executed by the Secretary of State and the Premier. The setting for such an epoch-making event was, by no accident, Shanghai, the former “whore of Asia”, the then boar of socialist Utopia. Make no mistake. Shanghai was credited for being the glorious birthplace of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution just six years earlier. But it was still the most international city within China and retained much of the pre-Liberation European hardware.
In May, in the vast Eurasian landmass collectively known as the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics where part of my heritage could be traced, Secretary-General Leonid Brezhnev was determined not to be out staged by his Chinese archrival and signed with Nixon the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, SALT for short.
“You learned about SALT from the radio or the wrapping paper?” you, my Western journalist interviewer, interjected.
I had not yet come across any English word, nor would a Chinese broadcaster use an English acronym. The only salt I knew then was for cooking, an activity I was destined to be associated with.
While SALT brought about an easing of relations between Washington and Moscow — the paper said, I was aware that the Sino-Soviet relationships remained icy cold.
No salt to thaw.
In the fall of 1972, I finally started school. Wang Hong and the condiments store boy were in my class. They both were Little Red Guards, the name for the Communist Young Pioneer since the Cultural Revolution. Deemed unfit for the fêted ranks of the juvenile defenders of Chairman Mao, there was no school-issued red scarf for me. In my heart I prayed that my fellow pupils would not know the reason for my exclusion: I, the bourgeois adulterated versus them, the proletariat purebred.
I knew from the men at the condiments store that our school was formerly The St. Emanuel Grammar School founded by the Jesuits in the French Concession and admitted children of both middleclass locals and Western expatriates. After Liberation, it was renamed The Shanghai Young Revolutionary School.
China was run like the military, with Mao as our “Great Commander-in-Chief”. Kids gathered in designated spots and marched through a rabbit warren of neighborhood alleys in “Mao Zedong Thought Revolutionary Propaganda Processions” to reach school. From Monday through Saturday, six Little Red Guards took turns carrying a Mao portrait at the front of the line. That kid was the day’s procession-leader, followed by the one immediately behind who led inspirational slogan-shouting:
“Carry the cause started by our revolutionary martyrs to the end!”
“Down with the U.S. imperialists and the Soviet revisionists!”
“Heighten our vigilance and defend our motherland against the two superpower hegemonists!”
“Curb the Soviet revisionists’ ambitions to invade our motherland!”
The last slogan originated in 1969, when China and the Soviet Union fought over the island known to them as Damansky but to us as Zhenbaodou (Treasure Island), the newscasters had emphasized. Naturally, we kids had never heard of Robert Louis Stevenson’s namesake adventure story about some boy mingling with pirates. The young of Shanghai were never told fables such as Peter Pan and Neverland. Instead we were indoctrinated with tales like “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains” in our first days of school. The old man, foolish only in the eyes of the unenlightened, removed three mountains blocking his front door by digging daily with a spade.
As hard as it might be for you to picture Chairman Mao playing Dr. Seuss, our Great Teacher himself authored that story. This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise given that Mao was a librarian at Peking University where he devoured the writings by Hegel and Marx with the same enthusiasm he consumed the spicy cuisine of his native Hunan. Always filled with a fiery revolutionary pungency, Mao’s works were required to be read, recited, and even memorized by all Chinese. Mao taught us that we could overthrow the figurative three mountains of the imperialist, feudalist, and bureaucratic-capitalist oppressors by fighting persistently. I took it to mean that as long as I was persistent enough, I could survive in a hostile environment, overcome the difficulties, and triumph personally in the end.
In any case, the anti-Soviet slogan got passed down to us. And believe me, you wouldn’t want to be associated with the Soviets, or by analogy, the Russians. Our procession passed the site where a bronze bust statue of Alexander Pushkin once stood. In 1937, the White Russian émigrés built the memorial on the centenary of Pushkin’s death. The engraved text read: AU POETE RUSSE ALEXANDRE PUSHKIN (1799 – 1837), fittingly in French, the lingua franca of the then French Concession administration.
The monument was smashed in 1966, an incident Wang Hong told me she had eye-witnessed. The Red Guards regarded anything with a Caucasian face and European lettering as unsuitable for the cityscape of the heroic city of Shanghai, the birthplace of both the Chinese Communist Party and the Cultural Revolution. They prided themselves in daring to “go up mountains of knives and down into oceans of flames” in defense of the proletariat cause.
Guilty by association, the once manicured garden for the statue ceased to be maintained by the city’s sanitation workforce and became an open-air garbage dump reeking of ammoniac odors of human urine, stray cat excrement and other offensive olfactory stimulants. As we passed the “Pushkin graveyard”, my fellow pupils would cover their noses and stare at me in disgust as if I had personally defecated my twenty-five percent Russian feces on this otherwise holy soil. There was no doubt that my mixed-race status was now an open secret.
Not everyone was involved in such folly. Wang Hong remained my friend even though her belonging to the celebrated class could have made her a Little Red Guard leader had she tried. But she told me that she was not interested in carrying a Mao portrait three quarters her size, nor in being tied down to a title with little tangible benefits. Paraphrasing a popular metaphor, she announced with a pouting mouth that “I’d rather be a petit bourgeois weed than a proletariat seed.”
When our Little Red Guard brigade leader offered to promote her to the front of the line, Wang Hong replied, “I am perfectly fine staying where I am. And by the way, when will you give me that aluminum marching whistle of yours to play? Tell them you lost it and they’ll issue you a new one.”
Unlike me, who was uncertain of my personal identity, Wang Hong, at age ten, had already mastered the essence of Shanghai pragmatism.
A bright spot in my life during this difficult time was the blue-capped and gauze-masked street sweeper with his empathetic eyes. The awkward way his hands applied the broom, the still visible creases on his khakis despite not having been ironed recently, and his high quality if unpolished shoes suggested that he must be a “bourgeois element” condemned to this job. Although keenly aware of this tall man’s presence just several feet away, I only occasionally exchanged glances with him for fear of bringing on additional punishment to either of us. His intelligent eyes, however, always stayed with me.
I was grateful to the man and to Wang Hong because let’s face it, anyone possessing even a sliver of Caucasian flesh might just as well have been a leper. Relegated to the very end of the procession, I dragged my feet along without confronting anybody’s stares and sneers, without covering my own nose, yet simultaneously trying not to inhale. Mechanically, one foot after the other, I went through the motions, lost in daydreams.
I wondered about Pushkin’s looks. Did he resemble my grandfather? Would I in any way look like Pushkin? It was simply not in my consciousness that three-dimensional beings with fair skin were capable of walking and talking, in English at that, a language I had never even heard spoken.
White people like you, my Western friend, were conceptual and not perceptual to me then.
Ironically, the only ones whose likeliness I’d seen were perpetually saluted and kowtowed to. Papier-mâché effigies these were not. They were in fact two-dimensional figures mounted on thick cardboards in the center of our school’s assembly hall, a collective four known as our “Great Proletarian Revolutionary Teachers”: Karl Marx, Fredrick Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Josef Stalin.
To facilitate our becoming their disciples, we were to pronounce their names by using the first syllables of their respective Chinese translation, or Ma, En, Lie, and Si. Their huge faces were on display in gilded wooden frames in the most eye-catching places, their virtual presence dominating our consciousness.
The cardboard Ma had a large beard which would have made him the perfect candidate for Santa Claus had he been a Christian and not an atheist. A bright red outfit would have matched his ideology perfectly as well. I, for one, would have chosen him out of all four dead white men to be my Santa Claus had I known the concept of Christmas presents for good children, not having received a single present in my life.
The cardboard En came across as a scholar or a deep thinker of sorts, the type that would be condemned as a “counterrevolutionary academic authority” had he been on the Conservatory faculty – another fanciful private thought of mine I was dying to share with Wang Hong but didn’t dare to.
The cardboard Lie’s bald head appeared to be a shiny light bulb perhaps because of what our Chinese language teacher taught us that the revolutionary leaders were “like beacons lighting up our revolutionary paths”. She also said that “Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong Thought were truths universally acknowledged and applicable,” adding that “a truth universally acknowledged” part was from an authoress of her favorite translated novel but she was forbidden to name which. Not until years later did I realize that she was referring to the opening aphorism of Pride and Prejudice that “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” You see, works from Jane Austin to Émile Zola alike were banned when we started school. Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Mother Goose Rhymes were considered equally degenerate.
The cardboard Si was an army-uniformed man with handlebar moustache and gleaming starred epaulets, a marshal whose 2.5 million soldiers miraculously conquered Berlin in 1945 despite being mostly famished and inebriated. I read about it an old issue of the “Shanghai Film Studio Pictorial” Wang Hong had dug out from under a stack of scores inside a piano bench compartment. Like most other magazines after the Cultural Revolution, this one was discontinued and the Conservatoire’s library had been sealed, but Wang Hong still spent time on campus. The Russians beat up the Germans! The captions of a photograph attached to the article so read. The same photograph of Stalin as the school’s Si cardboard was in that magazine. Never had I seen as many honorary decorations on one individual’s chest as there were on Si’s. Sometimes I thought that his sparkling sets of orders could have tilted a magnetic scale in his favor over a Mao tunic-clad, stick-thin Chinese man on a bicycle.
Marx and Engels were German and Lenin and Stalin were Russian. Fifty-fifty. Strange, I thought that The Russians beat up the Germans! So I lucked out, having in me some Russian rather than German blood. My weirdest sense of ambiguity manifested itself when I realized that despite possessing the blood of the victors of the Second World War, I was treated with contempt when we traversed the site of the now smashed Pushkin statue, the burial ground of my supposed countryman.
That morning, while immersed in such musings, I failed to join in shouting “Curb the Soviet revisionists’ ambitions to invade our motherland!” This did not go unnoticed by the condiments boy who constantly cast fleeting looks at me and Wang Hong from the front of the line.
“How dare you not shout that revolutionary slogan?” he demanded. “Repeat after me: ‘I am a Soviet revisionist mutt with hair like the color of straws!’”
I said nothing.
All the others chanted in unison, “Soviet mutt! Soviet mutt! Down with the Soviet revisionist mutt!”
Quick wits came in an emergency. “I’m sorry I didn’t repeat the revolutionary slogan, but I’m not a Soviet revisionist. My Russian grandfather was a follower of the proletariat cause pioneered by our Great Teachers Lie and Si! And their hair color was not completely black, either.”
Stumped, the condiments boy looked at Wang Hong as if for help. Wang Hong stuck out her tongue at him in return. The group began to laugh.
A rush of pride propelled me to search for the street sweeper. I was greeted with scorching eyes and a subtle but unmistakable nod.
“What are you looking at, you stinky bourgeois bad element?” Having lost face and fuming with rage, the boy suddenly screamed in the man’s direction. “I’ll have your bourgeois eyes poked out!”
The man resumed sweeping in a clumsy fashion, never to look up from the ground again.
The procession went on. It was a few more minutes before the leader started the next slogan. From then on, student leaders would avoid shouting the slogan regarding the Soviets.
Initially surprised by the courage I exhibited in front of my peers and its unexpected consequence, I grew to enjoy the surge of my self-confidence. I now no longer drag my feet, but put one foot in front of another with purpose and pride. I wished that the street sweeper could see me marching like this. I wanted him to know that he was responsible for changing me and I owed him all my gratitude.
But the street sweeper was since replaced by a middle aged woman wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, blue uniform and mask, and black cloth shoes. Each time I saw her agile movements I was reminded of the affirming nod her predecessor had given me. The thought of him also left the sensation of a dagger churning in my underbelly. After all, he was the only adult besides Ah Bu who seemed to truly care about me.
“Do you think Condiments could have turned him in?” I couldn’t help but ask Wang Hong a week later.
“I’m not sure about that. Condiments did this because he wanted your attention.”
“Or perhaps he wanted yours.”
“Perhaps, so stop worrying about a bourgeois element like him anymore. He’s probably well taken care of at home in ways unimaginable to us — to me at least.”
Suddenly I had the strange thought that a bourgeois element like him would empathize with me as a Chinese with imagined European sentiments, that the man with the encouraging eyes could understand the private thoughts I had and appreciate the Russian meals I cooked.
I prayed that he was not suffering somewhere as a result of his encouragement to me, that I would one day meet him, and that he would love me not because of my mixed-race but as a fellow member of the human race.