A Crack in Everything
A Beijing childhood...
By Hua Foley
Stop sipping coffee. Just gulp it down if you want the best flavor from it, experts say. I gulp down my coffee, not for its flavor, but hoping a caffeine attack will jolt me out of the uneasy feeling I got from reading my brother Feng’s email. The digital stove clock glows seven-thirty. In half an hour, eight o’clock—his evening, my morning—Feng and I will have our scheduled video chat. We don’t talk often, only once every few months, partly because I live in the U.S. with my husband and our three cats, and he lives in Beijing, where I grew up.
“It’s been a big day for little Anni,” Feng wrote in his email. Anni is his eight-year-old granddaughter and has been granted membership into the Communist Young Pioneers. Today the family will have a celebration dinner for her.
Feng and I often send photos and video clips to each other about family activities—my husband displaying a trout he has caught, Anni opening birthday gifts, Feng’s dinner gathering with his retired ex-coworkers at the iron foundry. His photos and videos always make me smile. But this video of Anni that Feng has sent me makes me uneasy. Uneasy about the future.
In the video, Anni stands alongside other children her age. They are in an assembly hall, saluting a red flag, Young Pioneers’ red scarves draped around their necks. Their expressions are proud. I pause the clip and stare at the wall behind the saluting Anni. Portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao hang there—the same portraits that hung on my classroom wall half a century ago. The only difference is, next to Mao, there is a sixth portrait, China’s current Chairman Xi. They gaze down at this new generation.
I often think that the Mao era is long in the past, and write in past-perfect tense anecdotes of my childhood during that time, but this video saddens me no end. Has the past really passed? Or has the red ghost never left?
My trepidation about the future comes from my knowledge of the past. Memory comes to me of a day in kindergarten.
Our kindergarten was a three-story gray-brick building with a brick-tiled yard, trees, flowers, chicken coop and pigpen. All thirty-five of us seven-year-olds in the senior classes would attend primary school come September, seven months away. Feng was in the junior class down the hall.
I sat on my small wooden chair with my hands locked behind my back, waiting for drawing class to start. We were told to be quiet, so no one made a sound. The only noise, now and then, was a chair leg scraping the floor.
Sit down. Don’t move. Be quiet. These were three commands we children often heard those days from adults. It was early 1962, three years since the Great Famine had plagued our country, eventually claiming thirty-six million Chinese lives. Food was not the only worry adults had. There was the souring relationship between China and the Soviet Union, the ever-present fear of nuclear war, and the dread recently heightened by the Bay of Pigs debacle of the American-sanctioned invasion of Cuba, a fellow communist nation. It didn’t matter that the invasion failed. Today it’s Cuba, tomorrow it will be us. But I worried only about food. I felt hungry every moment of every day. Most things were rationed and hard to come by—grain, meat, eggs, cooking oil, sugar, even soap. We were told that we should blame our hunger on the Russians. The Soviet Union—previously our Big Brother—had become our enemy. They were worse than the American imperialists. When Chairman Mao publicly denounced the Soviets and their leader, Khrushchev, we children, like our parents, firmly lined up behind our chairman. We knew nothing about Khrushchev except that he was a rude man without manners who had banged his shoe on the podium during a meeting of the United Nations in New York.
I wriggled in my chair. The five old men’s portraits—Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Chairman Mao—stared down at me from the wall. I selected Mao to fix my gaze on because he was the only one who didn’t have a lot of scary hair on his chin and lip. Then I let my mind wander to what we might have for lunch: baozi, steamed meat buns, I hoped.
Teacher Wang, who had a round head atop a round body, called for our attention. She held up high for all of us to see a crayon coloring of a hen and several baby chicks. She told us the rules we were to follow when we made our drawings. No color should get outside the lines, mixed colors were not allowed, and don’t finish your work too fast so as not to disturb others. She gave me a warning look as she announced the last rule. Eager to please her, I told myself I would color slowly today.
Teacher Li, the younger and prettier of our two teachers, handed out the papers and crayons to each of us. She was small and had an air of cheerfulness about her. If a bird could talk, it would sound like Teacher Li, so in my mind, I called her Canary. When she came close, I could smell on her the sweet, creamy fragrance of sandalwood soap. A long time ago, Mother brought home a piece of that same soap wrapped in flowery paper, but instead of using it for washing, she kept it in her clothes trunk. The sandalwood smell coming from Canary always reminded me of nighttimes, snuggling up in Mother’s arms, though I wasn’t allowed to do it anymore. “You’re too old,” Mother had told me.
I took my time making the mother hen brown and two of her five babies yellow as in Teacher Wang’s coloring. Not satisfied with the dullness of my artwork, I decided to be creative, and, remembering to move my crayons slowly, I colored one of the remaining chicks pink, another blue, and the last one green.
When I finished, I looked around. Xining, the boy sitting next to me, was only on his second chick. Other children were also still coloring. I wished the drawing class over and story class to begin. I was sure I would be called on to recite a hero story. No one in my class was a better storyteller than me. I’d read a picture book of stories about all the revolutionaries who had fought for our country. The book described in detail how each hero had died, and in which war they died, and also the heroes’ last words, or the heroic thoughts flashing through their minds as they were dying. I enjoyed the admiration coming from my classmates when I told those stories.
The sandalwood smell came from behind me. “Look at little Hua’s coloring,” Canary said in her chirpy voice.
Teacher Wang was at my side in a flash. “Cuo le, cuo le. No, no, not right. All baby chicks are yellow. No such thing as a pink chick, nor a blue chick, and certainly not a green one. Xiao ji dou shi huang se de. All chicks are yellow, I tell you!”
Panicking, I covered my drawing with my arms and head, feeling the eyes of all the class boring into me. I saw that the crayon had left a mark on the sleeve of my red corduroy jacket. Mother would scold me when she saw the stains. I tried to scrape the crayon off with my palm, then my fingernails. But nothing worked.
“Xining, show your drawing to your classmate,” Teacher Wang said. “Look at it, Hua. Xining did it correctly.” Then, softening, she smiled at me, her smile as gentle as Chairman Mao’s in his portrait hanging high on the wall behind her. “Now, repeat with me, xiao ji dou shi huang se de, all chicks are yellow. Say it.”
I was ashamed of myself. If the teachers said my coloring was wrong, it must be wrong. Adults were always right, especially those wearing uniforms—the white-coated doctors, the policemen standing on round platforms directing traffic, and the candy clerks with their white caps and white sleeve covers. I wanted to say out loud that all chicks are yellow, which would make Teacher Wang happy and get her to like me, but how could she know there was no such thing as pink, blue, or green chicks? I’d never seen any black people like those she showed us in a picture of starving children in Africa, nor had I ever seen a man with a face full of hair like Marx’s or a hairy brush of a mustache like Stalin’s. Nor had I seen a head as bald as Lenin’s. If those men were real, and if those African kids were indeed black, maybe somewhere chicks were, in fact, pink or even blue? Confused, I tried hard not to cry, but in doing so, I couldn’t come out with my apology, either.
When Teacher Wang finally stopped staring at me, Canary gently put a hand to my shoulder, took the drawing from my desk, and went about collecting the others.
Story class began. Teacher Wang called first upon a girl whose name I have forgotten. She told the story of Dong Cunrui, a People’s Liberation Army soldier whose mission was to blow up the enemy’s bridge. When Dong couldn’t properly attach his explosive to the bridge supports, he held it high in his hand and was blasted away along with the bridge. The girl told the story well, Teacher Wang correcting her only once, reminding her that it was an arched bridge over a dry riverbed. A boy was called on next, and I wasn’t the third one called, either. My face went hot. Teacher Wang was punishing me for not saying I had done my coloring wrong.
Xining was called on to tell a story. He told of Huang Jiguang, a soldier who hurled his body at the enemy’s machine-gun to block its bullets so that his comrades could capture Triangle Hill, which led to the Chinese army winning the Korean War. Teacher Wang corrected him several times because Xining forgot to use the word “heroic” in places and was wrong in saying that the hero had used his du zi, stomach, to stop the bullets. The hero had stopped the bullets with his xiong tang, his chest, and everyone knew it.
When my name was called, I was so grateful that I felt dizzy. I told of a heroine named Liu Hulan, who, at fifteen, was arrested and tortured by the Nationalists for refusing to give up the whereabouts of her comrades. I breathed deeply to keep my voice strong, but it worsened my dizziness. Even so, I told the story as best I could. “The enemy took our heroine to the village center, where many people had gathered. A hay guillotine was dragged out, and some of the onlookers cheered, knowing what was to come.”
A whiff of sandalwood. Canary? A gear in my brain slipped. The image in my mind of Liu Hulan, the heroine, had changed into that of Canary, then into Mother. Canary, my mother, Canary, my mother, both of them standing by the guillotine, so I said, “The enemy cut both heads off. Ka-cha! Ka-cha!”
“One head,” Teacher Wang nearly screamed. “She has only one head! You’re wrong again.”
Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my neck. My heart pounded in my ears. Tears welled up in my eyes, but I fought them back. Beside me, Canary told me softly that I could sit.
I don’t remember how the class ended. I remember only the bell ringing, louder than ever, and Xining sticking his tongue out at me. I wanted to shout at him that he’d better watch out or he’d get his butt kicked, but my throat clamped up so tightly that I couldn’t utter a single word.
After lunch, came our two-hour nap time. We lay in our own little beds in the large sleep room on the top floor of the building with winter sun filtering through thin curtains. I knew there would be no sleep for me, the aftershocks of the morning events still bouncing in my head. I tiptoed to the half-open door and looked around.
Whoever’s turn it was to guard the door of our room was not in their chair. I walked down to the second floor to the junior-class sleep room, thinking to get Feng. He would for sure sneak out with me to see the chickens and the pigs. The teacher guarding his room appeared to be napping; her chin had dropped to her chest, a leg blocked the door. I would have to go alone.
Outside, the cold air shocked me fully awake. I thought of going back inside, but dismissed the idea as cowardly and stepped into the yard.
Several chickens had come out of their cages to peck and cluck. All of them were brown. On close inspection, though, the feathers around their necks had many colors: yellow, green, blue, purple, even some red. If ever I color chickens again, I thought, I will color them this way. And if Teacher Wang says I did wrong, I will ask her to come and see real chickens.
I approached the pigpen, its brick wall high as my forehead. The pigs grunted and squealed as if sensing someone and hoping to be fed. On tiptoe, I could see only one pig’s back, its black hair thin and sparse, showing pink skin. I would have to climb one of the trees to see more of the pigs. I chose one with a low branch, blew warm air into my hands, and reached up. The next thing I knew, someone had grabbed me by the shoulders, whirled me around, and pinned me to the tree.
Although startled, I was relieved to see it was Canary and not Teacher Wang. Canary had been our teacher for two years, and never before had she scolded us. She would tell me I should be in my bed and would lead me back to the sleeping room. But this wasn’t the Canary I knew. She put her face close to mine, her lips going this way and that. No more cheerful voice; she spat words at me, words I’d never heard—“competition,” “role-model teacher,” “ruined opportunity.” She rasped: “You cost me a point. And it’s only Monday.” I wanted to tell her I was sorry for costing her a point, whatever that meant, but she poked a finger repeatedly into the hollow of my shoulder and it hurt. Her face was no longer pretty but scrunched up, and I could see her tongue. It flashed red behind her teeth as she continued her scolding.
I’d seen changes before. Dark clouds turning day to night in the blink of an eye, one of the Forbidden City’s watchtowers smashed to pieces and taken away in just one day, a sparrow falling dead from the sky during the Sparrow Elimination Campaign. But none of those could compete with the shock I felt at the sudden transformation in Canary. Was there nothing I could trust to stay the same? The thought scared me. The sandalwood odor coming from her made me nauseous.
Feng hasn’t gotten used to holding his mobile phone correctly, and part of his face is cut off from the screen as he talks. His crew-cut seems newly trimmed, short and neat, making his jawline more prominent. He sits at the dining table on the far side of his son’s living room. Beside him, a refrigerator buzzes loudly, making it hard to hear him. I tell him to speak directly into the phone.
For the past half hour, we’ve been exchanging pleasantries, updating each other on family events, and complaining of our various aging issues—my insomnia, his back pain. I always try to keep this part of our conversation as short as possible. Talking about it isn’t going to help, is it?
The buzz of the refrigerator near him stops sharply, making a clunking sound. I hear music playing. It’s not a Chinese song, I can tell. It has an engaging beat to it and a lilting quality to the singer’s voice. Feng yells toward the sound, “Xiao dian sheng.” Lower the volume. The song now sounds far away.
Feng waves an arm. “Come, Anni, come to say hello to Grandma Hua, then it’s time for you to go to bed.”
Anni comes to the screen, smiling. “Ni hao, Nai Nai.”
“Shuo ying wen,” Feng says. Say it in English.
“Hello, Anni. I heard it’s been a big day for you.”
Feng’s voice again, “Don’t mumble. Say nicely in English.”
Not to make Anni feel burdened, I quickly ask: “I saw your video of this morning’s ceremony. Are you happy, Anni?”
I wonder if I’ve just seen pride flash across her face. I remember my chest swelling with pride when I joined the Young Pioneers so long ago. I mentioned the ceremony to Anni only because I didn’t know what else to say to her. But I know this much: no child likes to be dragged to the phone to talk to some old relative she has never met and answer questions like how is school? So I simply say, “Goodnight, Anni.”
“Goodnight, Grandma Hua.”
Feng’s face returns. He looks tired. Nine o’clock would be nearing his bedtime.
“Do you remember that photo of you taken at Dabei Studio,” I ask him. “You’re on a wooden horse, about three or four years old?”
“Yes. I remember that one.”
“Do you still have it? If you do, I’d like to have a copy.”
“I don’t have it. It was in that plastic bag of photos Ma kept in a drawer. But I don’t know where it went after she passed away. Why do you want it?”
“I’m writing a book, a memoir, maybe include some photos.”
A frown crawls onto his face. “You’re not writing… something bad about, some bad things about… you know?”
He wanted me to say, “No, I’m not going to criticize the Chinese government.” But I can’t make that promise.
“I’ll change people’s names, so everyone is going to be safe.” As I say it, my stomach clenches. Is someone monitoring our chat even now? I’ve read stories written by people who had worked for the Chinese government at one time. They told of how government agents monitored people’s conversations on social media. There exists a list of more than a thousand forbidden words and phrases, such as dictatorship, democracy, and Tiananmen massacre. Using wrong words could get you banned from social media. People have been arrested for complaining about the lockdown of cities during the pandemic we are all going through.
I think back to the video—six leaders’ portraits are displayed in Anni’s school. Will there be a day when people in China are required to put those up at home as had been requested we do with Mao’s portrait during the Cultural Revolution?
I shudder at the thought of what might come, feel suddenly tired, and sad, wondering how to quit our chat without making Feng uncomfortable.
Someone has turned up the music in his background, and there are other sounds—laughter, feet stamping to the beat of the song. Before Feng calls for quiet, I quickly ask him to move his phone around so that I can see the room.
Anni and her mother, Feng’s daughter-in-law, are imitating Taylor Swift who I can see on the large TV screen. It must be a music video on DVD that was bought on a street corner. Swift, white dress, blonde hair, walks gracefully in a beautiful garden of flowers, then she is dancing and jumping around on a stage to the sound of violins and guitars. It is Enchanted, the only song I know of hers.
“I remember a photo of you,” Feng says. “You and several other girls dancing in a circle in the yard of our kindergarten.”
I have the photo in my album. August 1962, Mother had written on its back with a blue fountain pen. It was during my last days of kindergarten, and teachers took our photos for remembrance.
“I remember how I envied you,” Feng says.
“You did? Why?”
“I watched from my classroom window, and you were smiling as you danced, so happy and so… free.” His voice trails off. Nostalgia? Perhaps. Music and dance make you feel that.
Before saying goodbye to each other, Feng and I schedule a time to talk again on Thanksgiving day. I pour myself another cup of coffee and start to read today’s news on iPad, but give it up after only a few minutes.
The honking of geese breaks the stillness as they fly over my apartment building on their return to the adjacent soccer field. I look at the colorful icons on my iPad screen—phone, Gmail, YouTube, Twitter, Podcasts—trying to decide what to do. I tap Spotify, tune onto Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, and put on my earphones. I hold my coffee cup in both my hands and think about Anni and her mother, singing and dancing. They looked happy, and… free.
Cohen’s deep and powerful voice like a warm blanket soothes me.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
“This story is about China, then and now. When young, I believed that time was only linear, the future better. But having outgrown my naivety, I came to realize that the past can relive itself. Progress can spur a backward motion that may whirl us into a deep, dark hole, and as the now is stronger and better equipped, any slide into the nightmare of the past may pull the world down with it.”
Hua Foley lives in Woburn, MA, and is working on her memoir.