My Terrifying Childhood

I WAS BORN IN THE MOUNTAINS of China and grew up by the ocean. My parents were mine workers. When I was five, they were transferred to work at a harbor in the town of Sha Pa, which was a fishing village. Both of my parents worked for the government, as many did. My father was made the manager of a salt making company. Salt was important in China and the company my father worked for was one of the largest salt companies in Guangdong Province.

My father had a very good job and was paid very well for that time. But, we lived in government housing that was very simple. It was similar to what you would call row housing in America. The houses were all built right next to each other and the street that separated the houses on one side from the houses on the other side was not much wider than a sidewalk is in America.

It was a simple two story house. The downstairs had a dirt floor and was mostly a kitchen that we shared with the other family who lived in the house. Upstairs was a sitting room we shared with the other family. We did have separate bedrooms. They were very small, about the size of a walk-in closet in this country.

When I was in second grade, the Cultural Revolution started. This was a terrifying and disastrous time in China. Mao, the Communist Party leader of the country, wanted to get rid of all the people who had different political opinions. He started this so-called Cultural Revolution.

Good people went to jail. Teachers and professors were forced to work in the countryside farming (actually they used the farms as jails to keep watch on and control these learned people). Hundreds and thousands of honest and learned people were killed. Rich people, such as landlords, were regarded as the most evil people in the world. The whole country had to rise up to "Throw them on the ground, and then put a foot on them and never let them get up again." That's what the government leaders told us.

The Cultural Revolution created great animosity and division in China as people divided into different groups. Each group or faction claimed that they were the only ones truly loyal to Mao. But they had different beliefs and they fought against each other. No matter whether they lived in big cities or small villages people did the same thing. People did not trust each other any more. Even in a family, sons, daughters and parents became enemies over night. The whole country was in a terrible mess.

We lived in a small harbor city and the same things happened to our village. The schools were closed. All the teachers were taken from the schools and put together to receive "cultural re-education", which was simply brainwashing. Those good teachers were now considered evil people. Different organizations took turns to target them, criticize them and insult them.

I could never get over the fact that one of my favorite teachers, who was the principal of the school, was dragged out from my class, while he was teaching, by a group of young people and beaten black and blue that day. His name was also Lin. Mr. Lin was such a gentle and caring man. I was horrified by what they did to him. They said they would come back again the next day to give him even bigger punishment. Their reason for attacking him was that he grew up in a wealthy family and was the principal of the school. That was all.

The next day, while we were still waiting for our teacher to come, someone came to announce the news that Mr. Lin committed suicide by hanging himself in his room. I don't know whether he really killed himself or was killed by others. He left behind two little children and his wife, who was also our teacher.

At that time, my father was the head of a sea salt company. He lived at his work about five miles away from us and only came home once a week on the weekend. The Communist Party asked people to devote all their time and life to work. Working for the Party was the most important thing. People should even give up their family when it was needed by the Party.

So, my father came home only once a week, on Saturday evening, to have dinner together with the family. On Sunday mornings, he walked back to work. My two brothers, sister and I, together with our sixty-year-old nanny, lived with our mother. Our nanny was a single widow who my parents wanted to help. We accepted her into our home like she was our grandma and she helped to take care of us children when our parents were not home.

My Father's Arrest

One Saturday evening, in the late fall, when we were having dinner, a group of people from my father's work, armed with sticks and guns, came into our home and took my father. They said my father was a landlord's son, a bad person, and should be put in jail. They tied my father's hands behind him and pushed him out of the house. We were so scared, but my father was very calm. It seemed that he had known this would happen for a long time.

My mother was crying, she wanted to talk to my father, but they did not let her. We could not finish the rest of the dinner. A few months later, they found out my father was not a landlord's son. Once, a landlord wanted to adopt my father as his son, but my father did not agree. They let my father out of jail and he was sent back to his work but he was not allowed to leave the company compound and could not come home and see us.

My father was watched all the time and I became the messenger between my mother and my father. My mother would write a note then fold it and put it into the bottom of my worn-out shoes. She told me that if I felt I was in danger, I should go find a place quickly and take the note out and swallow it without being noticed. I should not trust any people. If I did not see my father, I just simply returned home. I never gave the notes to any people, not even friends.

I was only nine years old. I did not really understand what was going on, but I saw so much no child that age should ever see.

I had promised my mother to do these things. So, every weekend on Saturday after school at three p.m., I walked five miles across the long dam of the bay to see my father. I talked to nobody. A couple times I felt someone coming to search me out, I quickly got into a bathroom and took out the note and swallowed it.

I did not always get to see my father. Those times I just turned around and walked back home. When I did deliver a note, my father would read it, and then burn it. He would write back and put that note in my worn-out shoes. He would warn me again with the same language my mother used. Each time, from the reactions of my parents' faces, I could sense what was going on. It made me feel very afraid.

My father told me after the Cultural Revolution, when I was at college, that he wanted to commit suicide several times. There were several times he was taken by armed men and held at gunpoint. They would order him to say that some person he knew or worked with had said something not in favor of the Communists. My father knew what would happen to those people and he refused to make up a story that would get them arrested.

That made the armed men furious and they threatened to kill my father. They would fire their guns at him and demand he do as he was ordered. They never shot my father but it was terrifying for him. One time, he told me, he cried the whole night quietly in his bed with the blanket covering his sobs. If someone had heard him crying, it would have just brought him more trouble.

Many times my father reached the point where he thought he couldn't take anymore. At those times he really wanted to end his life. But each time, he said, he heard my voice calling him. So, he hung on another day.

Abandoned and Hunted

My mother was working then at the local government's office in charge of women's programs. She worked very hard and she got home very late almost every day. Half a year passed, and my father was still not allowed to come home to see us.

Then, one rainy, winter evening our mother didn't come home from work. Seven o'clock came and we still hadn't seen our mother. Then nine o'clock came, and still no word of when she might be home. I went to the office where she worked, but the office was closed. No one was there.

We went to bed. Our nanny did not sleep. She was sitting in front of our bed the whole night. At that time, we did not have too much space to live. Four kids slept in one bed. Morning came. We still had no news about our mother. One day passed without a word. Our nanny asked all the people we knew. Nobody told us anything. Three days passed. Still no news. We did not know what had happened.

Our nanny kept making up stories to comfort us. Until one afternoon, when we were home playing, all of a sudden a group of people punched the door open. The leader was my parents' good friend. Once, when she was very ill, my mother gave her all the money she had to see the doctor and helped save her life.

Now, this same woman with her brothers and sisters stood in front of us like a monster with an iron pick in her hand, shouting, " Your goddamn mother escaped. We can't find her. If we find her, we will kill her. If you know where she is, you must report to us. Or, we will kill you too. Understand?!" Then they left.

They acted this way because they hoped it would show their loyalty to Mao and the communists. By labeling others as enemies of the state and going after them they thought they would be honored as heroes by their faction. It was madness.

Within five minutes, they came back. They said we were bad people's children. We should not have a house to live in. We should live in the street. They ordered us out of the house. My nanny was not an educated woman but she was smart. Before they forced us out, she was quick enough to grasp a blanket and an umbrella.

We watched as they sealed up our small house. The wind was blowing with cold, evening rain. Four little children and a sixty-year-old woman huddled together, walking in the rain down our narrow street, trying to find a shelter. We found a friend's home. He was kind and brave enough to let us stay that evening. But six o'clock the next morning, the same group found us. They took us out of the house and warned our friend that whoever dared to take us in would be homeless just like us.

Once again we were on the street. Three days we were in the street with no food. Nobody dared to take us in or give us anything to eat. When we were thirsty, we went to a well to get some water or caught some rain from the roof. We kept asking our nanny where our mother and father were and when they would come to get us and get bread for us. She always could make up some very promising story to keep our roaring stomachs quiet. Sometimes she asked us to imagine chewing a big piece of chicken wing. Sometimes she told us a funny story and made us laugh. Now, when I think back on that time, I really don't know what would have happen to us without our nanny. She was our angel.

I was just nine. My sister was eight. My two brothers were six and four. One time, my four-year-old brother was so hungry that when he saw a piece of sugar cane garbage on the ground he quickly grabbed it and put it to his mouth. I said to him loudly, "It is dirty! Throw it away!" He looked at me with his little dirty fingers in his mouth, begging me, "I am so...hungry. Please..." I turned my head away as he ate it.

The third night came. That night, as we huddled in the street, a gun battle broke out between two different factions. We could hear bullets flying above our heads. Bullets were flying everywhere. All around us. Bombs were going off. There were explosions everywhere. We were so afraid.

We were running from one door to the other, desperately trying to find a safe place to hide. We found our best friend's home. They opened the door a little. As soon as they saw us, they said, "We don't know you. Go, go, go!" Then, they shut the door tight.

My brothers and sister kept asking our nanny why they lied and wouldn't let us in. She did not say a word. She just asked us to be quiet and led us away as fast as we could go.

During the fighting that night a mortar exploded in the house where we had lived just days before. It blew-up right in our bedroom. So, in a sense, we were lucky. If we hadn't been thrown out of our house, we would have all been killed. So, I think God helped us.

Later that night, we were all huddled together in the doorway of a house shivering from fear. We were so scared. The door opened and a very elderly lady came out. Immediately, we recognized her. She was a landlord lady and we became even more afraid.

At that time in China, a landlord, someone who owned property, was considered to be evil. In fact, a landlord was considered the most evil of all people. During the Cultural Revolution, the country was told that everything belonged to the state, to the government. We were taught that all good things came from the government and that it was everyone's duty to support the government. All property was eventually seized by the government. No one was allowed to own anything. No one was allowed to be an individual or think for himself.

A landlord was considered an enemy of the state and was to be hated. If a landlord walked the streets, people would throw rocks and garbage at them. It's hard for anyone who didn't live through it to understand. But, at that time a landlord was considered a devil. So, when we recognized this woman to be a landlord we were afraid she would do terrible things to us. I jumped behind our nanny to hide.

Of course, this elderly woman wasn't a devil. In fact, she turned out to be our savior. She looked at us and said, "Oh, you poor little children. I know people say I'm evil but I won't hurt you. With all this fighting it's too dangerous for you to be outside. Please, come inside. You'll be safe."

So, we went inside her house. We told her we had no water and no food and hadn't eaten in days. She said, "You poor children." She went and boiled some water and made rice for us to eat. She made five pounds of rice with a drop of peanut oil. It was an incredibly generous thing for her to do. At that time, five pounds of rice was very expensive. Five pounds was one person's supply of rice for an entire month.

We devoured the rice. It was so good. To this day when my brothers and sister and I get together we remember that as the best meal we've ever had. After eating, we were so exhausted we just wanted to sleep. The landlord lady invited us to stay with her and we were just going to sleep when someone began banging on her door. Suddenly, we were afraid again.

Our nanny and my two little brothers hid in a pile of hay. Hay was used for cooking fires. My sister and I ran into the back part of the house into a storage room. There was a large pile of wooden beams on the floor, long beams, used to support the roof of a house. The beams were there to be used to make repairs. They weren't stacked up. They were in a pile and there was a little open space in the middle. We crawled in and hid there, waiting.

The beams were piled up behind what turned out to be a coffin. At that time in China, it wasn't unusual for elderly people to keep the coffin they would be buried in inside their home. We were hiding behind the landlady's coffin.

The elderly woman went to the door and was met by a group of people armed with guns and clubs. One man had a pickaxe. They forced their way inside and shouted, "Where are the little kids?" They used my father's name and demanded to know where his children were. They said his kids had been seen huddled at her doorway and then just disappeared.

She said, "Well, you know, I'm the landlord lady. I am known to be an evil person. Who would come to my house? You can search for them if you want. I'm old. I have my coffin already and soon I will die."

So, they looked around and when they didn't find us they left. But, they warned the landlady that if they found out she was lying they would be back to get her.

This terrible, evil person, this enemy of the state, this landlady, saved our lives and risked her own life to save us. I was only nine and my view of the world was totally turned upside down by these events.

All our good friends, people who I thought loved us and cared about us had betrayed us. They turned their backs on us and virtually threw us to the wolves. Yet, this horrible, evil monster, this landlady, risked everything to protect us. Because of this, the concept of good things and bad things, right and wrong were completely destroyed in my mind.

The landlady protected many people. Her property hadn't been taken from her yet and she had a large house. During the time we stayed with her, she hid more than thirty people in her house. Many of them hid in the back of the house, which was really like a storage shed or barn where animals would be kept.

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