by Huina Zheng
I felt a tightness in my chest as I listened to my mother’s voice close to my ear, saying how she wished she could leave: “If not for you and your siblings, I would’ve left your father years ago!”
I wanted to scream, “No, you lie! If you leave him, you will be despised and end up poor and alone, but he will soon get a pretty young wife.”
I had to clench my jaw to stifle my response. My mother looked miserable. Tears streamed down her face as she told me about how she had fought with my father again. Although he ran a factory in the countryside and seldom came home, they could still quarrel every day on the phone. My elder sister had already left home, so I was the only one my mother could turn to. I was in middle school then, and my mother poured out her troubles to me every night.
Yet I was too young to understand how hostile the world was against divorced women. In many places in China, a divorced woman is a stealthy killer more deadly than nuclear radiation, and more dangerous than a virus. Whenever you’re near a divorced woman, misfortune befalls you. A divorced daughter will bring shame and misfortune to the family, so she cannot return to her parents’ home. Ignorant of all these prejudices against divorced women, I blamed my mother for not being brave enough to leave my father.
I didn’t understand how my parents ended up together. It was apparently not love. I wondered if they ever, even briefly, were in love.
My father came from a family belonging to the five black categories, a Cultural Revolution term that meant landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, vandals, and rightists. His family was despised in the village. However, my mother was from a family with a good political background—her father was a member of the Communist Party. Although they lived in the same village, their paths were never meant to cross, nor did anyone think they would.
My father’s misery started when my grandfather, being polite, invited a stranger over for tea who came. The stranger had come to visit his my grandfather’s neighbor but the neighbor was not there. At that time, all strangers were potentially dangerous. My grandfather was sent to a hard labor camp after the villagers reported seeing a stranger to the village committee. He was released a year later when my father was a toddler.
In the Great Leap Forward period (1958-1960), the country implemented agricultural collectivization, and all the fields were public property. Private farming was prohibited—you could starve, but if you grew something in the barren fields, you would be persecuted and labeled counter-revolutionaries. There were no people on the road; if you walked to meet someone and the militiamen spotted you, they would take you to labor on the farm and only let you go after dark. An adult had a daily quota of fewer than 50 grams of rice, which could probably make a bowl of porridge. My father’s family chopped banana leaves up and ate them with salt, but it could not alleviate their hunger. Everyone was bloated from chronic hunger. My grandfather dug sweet potatoes in the fields to feed his starving family. A villager saw it and reported him to the militia. He was to be taken to prison. My grandfather herded cattle for the village and explained that he would return after he took back the cattle. That night he fled. His family never heard from him until two years later when he sent back a letter telling them he had smuggled himself into Hong Kong and grown vegetables there.
With the money my grandfather sent back from Hong Kong, my father’s family could buy grain. They survived during the famine. But during the Cultural Revolution, they were persecuted because of my grandfather. There were two major gangs in the village, and each gang formed a Red Guard. The Red Guards could denounce whoever they wanted. Hong Kong was a British colony then. If the Red Guards found a letter from my grandfather, they would claim it was sent from a secret agent and make charges of treason against our family. My father’s eldest brother was sent to a camp at 15 because of it. His family was publicly humiliated in the regular village meetings. The committee denied my father’s right to attend high school. My father said it was the only time he wept—he didn’t shed a tear when his father or son died. My father’s second eldest brother plowed the land with oxen for the village, but when he left behind the plowing tools, he was arrested and prosecuted for destroying collective property.
My father grew up without a father. Although he had two elder brothers and one younger brother, they were all obedient and submissive. In those absurd times, my father grew fangs, claws, and spikes to protect his family.
My father lived near a pond with a lychee garden. Once, he heard a stir outside and found two people in charge of the orchard holding his elder brother’s arms. He asked them what had happened, and they told him that they had seen his brother climb the tree to steal lychees. The two men wanted to arrest him.
“Where are the lychees?” my father asked.
“Your brother threw them into the pond when he saw us coming,.” One of them replied.
“You need evidence to arrest people. There is no rule in the village against climbing trees. Besides, my brother climbed the tree, but it did not mean that he was stealing lychees. Since you claimed that he threw the lychees into the pond, you should scoop out the lychees, and we will pay the fines.” At last, they sulkily walked away.
One day my father’s eldest brother and sister-in-law took their son to a nearby city for polio treatment. The family planning officers took away their bicycle because they violated the one-child policy. Family planning was a national policy at the time, and the government’s mandate was to control population growth by any means—whoever violated the one-child policy would have their homes smashed up and their property taken away. My father had a kitchen knife and would fight them if they dared damage their house. They all knew that my father was a daredevil, so they broke into the house when no one was there and took away the bicycle. When the officers couldn’t find my father’s brother and sister-in-law, they demanded that my father hand them in. My father said, “I will wait for you. Come and get them.” They dared not. He also asked told them to return his bicycle in three days, or he would kill them. The next day, they gave the bicycle back.
When I was a little girl and heard my father recount these anecdotes, my chest expanded with pride—my father was a superhero who defeated the demons to protect his family. However, his weapons also ended up hurting his nuclear family—my mother, siblings, and I—the most.
I could understand why my mother cried all the time—although we all knew he would sacrifice his life to protect his family, relatives and friends, his bitterness deeply scarred us.
When my parents took us to visit their village when I was ten years old, my mother’s childhood friend told us how lucky my mother was to be able to marry my father.
The auntie said, “Almost all the girls in the village and the nearby villages wanted to marry your father. The matchmakers almost broke the threshold of his house. Your father never even looked at those girls. Your mom was the most beautiful girl in the village, and only she caught his attention.”
“That was so long ago,” my mother said, looking flattered.
But the auntie’s words confused me. My father was by no means a handsome, charming man, and he came from a family of the five black categories. How did he suddenly become so popular?
Years later I learned about that period’s history and understood why. During the Cultural Revolution, anyone with relatives abroad was treated as a class enemy. After the reform and opening up, people’s views changed drastically—all overseas Chinese became compatriots. In the early 1980s, Hong Kong’s GDP had reached almost 29 billion dollars, equivalent to 200 billion yuan, but Jiangsu Province, the mainland province with the highest GDP, had less than 32 billion yuan. Because my father’s father was in Hong Kong, he became the most desired bachelor. But my father wanted to elope to Hong Kong.
Even if he made it there as an illegal immigrant, he would be at the bottom of the ladder and work as a laborer, but at least he could feed his family.
So many people wanted to go to Hong Kong, and my mother was one of them. Unlike her childhood friends who never attended school, my mother went to elementary school for several years and considered herself more educated than her peers. She wanted to leave the small village and make money. When she heard that my father planned to sneak into Hong Kong, she approached him.
My father’s younger brother was so lucky that he stole into Hong Kong in his first attempt, but my father failed twice. My father forged the village committee’s written approval to purchase a ticket, and reached Huizhou. He had to hide during the day; he, moved at night without any lamp, and kept away from the main roads to evade capture. If he had been lucky, he could’ve walked to Shenzhen and swum across Shenzhen Bay for over an hour to reach Hong Kong. But he was unlucky—he was caught twice and locked up.
The camp was a terrible place, overcrowded with stowaways. Only those who were put in first had room to sit, and those who came in later had to stand in a crowd, even for a whole night, with no place to sleep. There was not even water for brushing teeth, washing hands, and bathing. When my father was released after 38 days, he was covered with lice, his face was unshaven, his cheeks had sunk in, and his eyes were two pits. Still, he resolved to escape to Hong Kong, and my mother wanted to join him.
It was very conservative then, and single men and women did not talk with each other. My parents belonged to different production teams, working in different fields. They worked all day during day, so they rarely saw each other.
My father was a loner—he sometimes talked with the outcast old men but seldom communicated with peers. My mother, however, was outgoing and social.
They were both in their early twenties. My father moved out and lived in a shed alone. My mother decided to visit him at night. The village had no electricity, and people didn’t have candles. They only had a small quota of kerosene to light lamps, so the villagers went to bed early after dinner.
My parents were practically two strangers, so I didn’t know what they could talk about in a dark room. I once asked my mother why she married my father. She replied that she wanted to go to Hong Kong, but at that time, rumors would spread as long as people saw a man and a woman talk. So, she had to marry him. She was reluctant to discuss the subject.
A few years ago, when I pressed for details about their time together, my mother said she would visit at night; if she didn’t go, my father would go to see her. She lived in a small house with female friends.
A few months after my mother approached my father, they married. Eight months later, my brother was born. Apparently, my mother got pregnant before marriage. I still remember the look on the auntie when she told us this—it was the look of admiration, contempt, and disgust. When she said my mother was pregnant before marriage, she unconsciously held out her index finger and thumb in front of her chest, her index finger pointing down. Was it her way to tell us how “low” my mother was?
When my parents decided to get married, so many people were against it.
As a little girl, I liked to think of my parents as Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, the Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet. Since my my parents resisted all kinds of pressure against their marriage and resistance to get married, it was evidence that they once loved each other so deeply. There was love between them. How else did you explain their determination?
My mother’s big brother served in the army, and my grandfather was afraid to let him know, fearing that he would be furious. My uncle didn’t know until after my mother got married. His army friend, who loved my mother, was so angry and hurt that he went to see my mother and asked why she got married so fast.
“I was young. How did I know he loved me?” my mother sighed. That man later became a civil servant with good pay and benefits. If my mother had married him, she could have had a very good life.
“But he died of lung cancer in middle age. It’s a good thing you didn’t marry him, or you’d have been a widow,” I said to consoled my mother. I was in my early twenties then.
“Maybe if I had married him, he wouldn’t have been depressed and gotten lung cancer.”
I wished she didn’t marry my father, but she was pregnant and had no choice.
“When everyone was against it and tried to persuade me, I insisted on marrying your father,” my mother told me.
“But why?” I asked.
“Because I was rebellious and stubborn.”
“But why were they still against it since you were pregnant?”
“The Family Planning Bureau regulated abortion, so doctors would be happy to perform the procedure,” my mother replied.
But something was still not quite right in the account of that episode. At that time, if a girl had sex with a man, even if she married him later, she would still be despised and called a slut. I thought it was why my mother was evasive—she taught us never to sleep with a man before we got married, but she had done the opposite.
She must’ve been aware of the dire consequences of losing her virginity before marriage, but why did she do so?
True, she was young and hormonal, but in a world so biased against women, girls were taught that chastity was more important than their life. Sex impulse was only for men, and I don’t believe that my mother didn’t understand it.
My mother was young and beautiful, but once my father got to Hong Kong, he could’ve found a younger and prettier wife. How could she make sure that she secured him?
My mother approached my father because she believed he could take her to Hong Kong. Ironically, my father gave up going to Hong Kong for my mother’s sake.
Even at this age, single mothers have a hard time raising children, let alone in the 1980s. My father couldn’t bear to leave behind my mother and brother. Although he could go to Hong Kong first and try to get them there, who knew how much time it would take? He decided to stay.
If I were writing a love story, I’d end up here, like we read fairy tales, where the prince and princess always lived happily ever after. My mother managed to marry my father; her firstborn was a son. What better ending could there be? But there was a reason why fairy tales ended when the prince and princess were together: after marriage, all the ugly and miserable things in life came out like spring bamboo after rain.
My mother has been unhappy for as long as I can remember. Her constant need for attention and love was like a black hole sucking in whatever we could give, yet she was never satisfied. My father never responded to her emotional needs, which he believed were superfluous and reserved only for women. But it was not his fault. I looked around and searched and couldn’t find a man who would respond to his wife’s feelings.
My mother had four brothers. As the only daughter, she did all the chores. Her parents must not have loved her properly, so she would search for love like a drowning person desperately looking for a lifeline. Her husband could not give her love, so she turned to her children.
When I was young, I learned to take care of myself and not disturb her. After I turned ten, even if I had a fever, I would take antipyretic medicine, drink more water, and rest—I would not trouble her. But my mother always had a headache. Every time her head ached, she would lie in bed and complain. My siblings and I had to revolve around her—I always had the illusion of dying of thirst in the sea. She was like the dodder, which wrapped itself around a host plant and fed off nutrients to sustain its growth. Eventually, the host died of inadequate nutrients.
Every time I was on the verge of asking her to divorce my father, I would remind myself that they had once loved each other deeply. But was it love that bound them together? My father didn’t leave her because he had a strong sense of family responsibility. Although he always threatened my siblings and me that he would beat us to death if we didn’t behave, he never laid hands on my mother. And my mother was so influenced by the traditional views that she would never get divorced even if her husband beat her, gambled or took drugs.
My parents still fight every day. Each time I visited them and saw them fighting, I wanted to run away—I felt chest tightness, shortness of breath, palpitationpalpitations, nausea, and headache—my body remembered all the feelings I thought I had forgotten. However, when my mother was ill and needed to see a doctor in Guangzhou city, my father accompanied her. When he fell and broke his wrist, my mother was there to take care of him. Maybe that’s how they got along.
So, every time my parents fought, I reminded myself of the only time my mother told me about an anecdote that happened when she and my father were dating.
One day, she and my father planned to meet under the big banyan tree in the village. My mother went to the tree at the head of the village while my father went to the other one at the end of the village. After waiting for my mother for a long time, my father became worried and thought that perhaps my mother had gotten lost or had an accident, so he looked for her in the whole village.
“I was born and raised in that village. How could I possibly get lost?” My mother said this with a look of coyness on her face. Yes, that was definitely the look of a girl in love.
Huina Zheng holds an M.A. in English Studies degree (Distinction) and works as a college essay coach. She also serves as an Associate Editor (Review Reader) for Bewildering Stories. Her stories were published in Baltimore Review, Variant Literature, Midway Journal, Tint Journal, and other journals. Her fiction “Ghost Children” was nominated for Pushcart Prize. She lives in Guangzhou, China with her husband and a daughter.
"I grew up witnessing my parents fight. Whenever I visited them, they still fought, and I still felt pained. Nothing changed. So I decided to write about it."