Mid-November, and Christmas music is already blaring from speakers camouflaged in silver holiday tinsel. Frank Sinatra’s croons reverberate throughout the barren expanse that is Somerset Mall at 8 a.m. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…” It’s raining outside. I begin to laugh and try to explain the apparent irony to my grandmother, but my attempt gets lost in translation. My Chinese is poor. Her English, poorer. After 12 years in the United States, Pópo has accumulated a modest vocabulary, most of which she’s forgotten. Today, she manages to get by with a few words: “hi” (hi), “yes” (yes), “bu-lan-di” (brandy), “mai-dang-lao” (McDonald’s), and of course “no in-ga-lish” (no English). So when Christmas — or rather November — rolls around, meaningless Christmas music accompanies Pópo as she traverses the temperature-controlled environment of a suburban mall.
Pópo trails slowly behind my mother and me. At five-foot four-inches, Pópo’s 169 pounds don’t sit well on her small frame. She shifts her weight from left foot to right foot. When her hands aren’t clasped behind her back, she holds her arms beside her and moves them in a rigid swinging motion to maintain balance. Her movements are almost penguin-like.
We’re far ahead of her when we enter the skywalk: a huge, glass umbilical cord that overlooks a highway and functions to connect the north and south ends of the mall. Within minutes, Pópo is flying past us! She grins as she strolls on the moving walkway, a conveyor belt that pushes patrons toward their shopping destination. Eventually, she reaches the end and gingerly hobbles off. We pass her. She grows smaller and smaller. We round a corner and she’s disappeared.
After an hour, I meet Pópo at a wooden bench. I sit with her for a while. Patting her arthritic knees, she says that it will probably rain more today. She looks off into the distance. Then she sighs, “lǎo le méi yǒu yòng.” When you’re old, you’re useless. I don’t say anything. I just sit with her and watch the other senior citizens circle the mall.
On the ride back home, Pópo chatters on as usual. She moves awkwardly, but speaks quickly. I can’t keep up. Now she’s providing a synopsis of what happened this week on her Chinese soap opera. Then she reminisces about Nanjing, her hometown. She turns toward me, and tells me “The Communists were very bad.” Suddenly, she presents the results of a study about eating breakfast. I’m lost. I ask her if she did the study when she was a doctor in Nanjing. She looks at me and says, “No, I saw it on TV.” Instead of elaborating on her past, she chooses to reemphasize the importance of eating a hearty breakfast each morning.
By the time we arrive home, Pópo has moved on to complaining about her sleep. She can never sleep well in our home, but she always sleeps perfectly in her apartment. After a pause, she announces that she must always sleep with her head near the wall, on the left side of the bed. She doesn’t mention that this is the side facing the television. She can’t sleep unless she is bathed in the television’s ghostly light, listening to voices murmuring to her in her native tongue. And I wonder, when she cannot sleep, what does she think about? Sometimes, I hear her softly singing a lullaby that she crooned to me years ago. When she lies awake in the dark, singing, I wonder if she thinks about ghosts. I wonder if she thinks about her past.
Shì shàng zhǐ yǒu māma hǎo.
In the whole world, only mother is best.
Yǒu mā de háizi xiàng gè bǎo.
A child with a mother is always treasured.
Tóu jìn māma de huái bào
When you’re in your mother’s arms,
Xìngfú xiǎng bù liǎo.
You are the happiest.
Shì shàng zhǐ yǒu māma hǎo.
In the whole world, only mother is best.
Méi mā de háizi xiàng gēn cǎo.
A child without a mother is like a blade of grass.
Líkāi māma de huái bào
Separated from mother,
xìngfú nǎli zhǎo?
where will you find happiness now?
My grandmother understands what it’s like to not have a mother. Pópo was born August 2, 1938 in China’s rural Anhui province. August 2 also marked the day that she lost her mother, who bled to death during labor because of inadequate medical care. It was an unnecessary death. In those years, unnecessary deaths were common.
The Chinese Civil War had been proceeding sporadically for 10 years, until the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II interrupted. Were it not for war, she would have been born in Nanjing and her mother would have probably survived. But to stay in Nanjing would have meant certain death. As Japanese troops approached the city, soldiers would compete in killing contests. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were slaughtered, raped or mutilated. Then the troops crossed the Qin Huai river and entered the city. The river ran red.
After the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II ended, the Chinese Civil War resumed. By then, the family returned to their broken Nanjing. Pópo’s father remarried against his mother’s wishes. His second wife became the mother to four of his children and was an opium addict from a well-off, but ill-reputed family. But she was never a mother to Pópo. She refused to acknowledge her existence. In her neglect, she betrayed Pópo. Like many men at that time, Pópo’s father didn’t concern himself with these family matters.
In time, my grandmother’s country also betrayed her. Politically, Pópo was born into the wrong kind of family: a rich, landowning family with a prosperous rice business. During the Chinese Civil War, the Communist Party of China and the Kuomingtang would rob or hold Pópo’s father for ransom. The family’s circumstances further deteriorated once the Communist Party of China won the war. As landowners and business owners, they were stripped of their money and property, marked as “capitalists,” and placed at a political, economic and social disadvantage. After the government outlawed opium, Pópo’s stepmother died of withdrawal. As Pópo tells me, “The only good thing the Communists did was to get rid of drugs and prostitution.”
Betrayed by her parents and by her country, my grandmother discovered that happiness was not an easy thing to find. Nor was unhappiness an easy thing to evade. Pópo escaped her unhappiness in brief spurts through dreams of education, through novels and through music. At 17, she finished the national university entrance exam and qualified for a government-sponsored education in electrical engineering, a lucrative profession. She was quarantined from college for a year after the exam because she contracted tuberculosis. During that year, she also contracted the idea of becoming a doctor. The concept of fighting disease and curing others — and herself — drove her. When Pópo wasn’t escaping unhappiness through thoughts of education, she escaped through novels. Pópo read a lot that year. I imagine her authoring stories of her future alongside those novels in the way that 17-year-old girls do, feverish with a youthful idealism that would come to fail her. As she recovered her voice, she began to sing with her high school choir again.
My grandmother didn’t sing much once the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. She had already graduated from college, married a lanky electrician who wore a permanent five o’clock shadow, had two daughters, and was practicing as a family doctor. The marriage was of convenience rather than love. Her husband provided support as she struggled in the troubling political climate. Although Pópo wanted to be a good mother, she had to be distant in order to protect her daughters. She couldn’t explain the political circumstances that encouraged her daughters’ peers to exclude them. They were too young and might harm the family by saying something they did not understand. She was a young, tired, working mother who couldn’t be the ideal parent she wanted to be. By then, she had lost her fervor for curing people as well. Patients were demanding. She had to listen to them complain all day. Many patients just needed rest and time to heal. Even so, they didn’t listen to her and demanded unnecessary medication. Pópo had no choice but to comply. She tells me, “Never become a doctor.” Pópo found no more comfort in idealism. All she wanted was to be left alone with her novels — not to dream of the future, but to escape reality. She wanted to escape from the root of her powerlessness, from politics. She had lost her voice.
As her idealism wasted away, national idealism swelled. During the Cultural Revolution, traditional songs were forcibly replaced with revolutionary ones that proclaimed: “Our dear leader Chairman Mao guides us forward! Our conditions are improving day by day! Long live Chairman Mao!” But conditions were declining. The economy had grinded to a halt. The educational system was a mess. Scholars were sent to rural labor camps for “re-education.” Ancient artifacts were being destroyed. There wasn’t enough food. In the midst of this sociopolitical upheaval, the Red Guard was born. A group of civilians and students organized by Chairman Mao, the Red Guard was committed to promoting Communist ideals and eradicating the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas. They were also above the law. Looting, harassment, imprisonment, torture and execution became commonplace. Human rights were essentially nonexistent. It was an orderless time, but the disorder was hidden by political jargon. So when my grandmother heard Red Guard members parading with megaphones sing, “Our dear leader Chairman Mao guides us forward! Our conditions are improving day by day! Long live Chairman Mao,” her heart would drop.
My mother has vibrant memories of the parades. In one performance, a man who lived upstairs in her grey cement housing complex was the star. He was the chief administrator of the hospital that Pópo worked in. The Red Guard was in charge of costuming and choreography. They smeared black paint on his face, crowned him with a dunce cap, and adorned him with a sign that read “CAPITALIST.” The Red Guard ushered him in a slow march throughout the city, which ended in a public beating. He couldn’t use his legs for months. After the parade, the administrator’s wife begged Pópo to help them, knowing that she would not betray them. Pópo has a soft heart. She couldn’t say “no” to the poor rural farmers she visited each day without charge. And she certainly couldn’t say “no” to these people who were in need. Each evening, Pópo would wait until no one was out and sneak upstairs to attend to the administrator’s wounds. She did so at great personal risk. If found out, she would have been the star in a parade.
Even though Pópo was never the star in a parade, she was detained at least three times for “political” reasons.
One detainment almost broke her. In an irregularly published Red Guard newsletter, a Red Guard member wrote an article stating that chicken blood can make you stronger. According to the grade school-educated member, you never see sick chickens. They always eat from the dirty ground and never get sick. Thus, their blood must be healthier. This Red Guard-sanctioned “fact” spread until one day, an uneducated man walked into the hospital with a rooster. He demanded that the rooster’s blood be injected into his veins. Pópo tried to reason with him. She said, “I can’t do that. Even if you wanted me to inject you with human blood, I couldn’t. There has to be a match. If I can’t do a blood transfusion between all people, how could I inject you with rooster blood?” Her resistance wasn’t political. She was just a doctor trying to do her job. To him, she was a liar and an enemy of the Communist Party. It was public knowledge that Pópo came from a family of landowners. The Red Guard was telling the truth. Outraged, he went and reported her. She was detained on the grounds that she refused the Red Guard’s ideals. Another doctor, who ranked a fear of punishment over professional responsibility, injected rooster blood into a small vein in the man’s buttock. After four days, the man couldn’t walk. The site of injection was infected and black. He had to come into the hospital to have a small piece of his buttock surgically removed.
Pópo came home after that. She refused to talk to anyone about what happened during those four days. My mother remembers seeing her father and Pópo speak quietly in another room. Pópo’s voice cracked as she admitted, “I don’t think I can go on living.”
But she did. Soon afterwards, the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. The Red Guard was disbanded. The political climate became less hazardous. The economic and educational systems recovered. Life improved. In 1997, several years after the death of her husband, Pópo immigrated to the United States to join the rest of her family.
And today she is here, sitting next to me. Although her body is failing her, I think she is happier here, right now. Her diabetic shoes issued by Medicare, her apartment, her Chinese satellite TV — these simple things are enough. She pops seven pills, a constellation of shapes and colors, and takes a swig of tea. She cradles her face in her sausage-like fingers, her ring finger hovering just above the mole on her left cheek. She is beautiful.
Pópo looks at me for a long time. She tells me, “The Communists were very bad.” She tells me about a kind woman who drove her back to her apartment when she was walking in the rain. “Wǒ shì gāo xìng de bù dé liǎo!” I was so happy! She tells me about an extremely intelligent young man in a village who overcame a disability and tremendous adversity to go to college. I ask her if he lived in her village, desperate to understand her past, desperate to understand this woman sitting in front of me whom I barely know. She looks at me quizzically and responds, “Bú shì. Wǒ kàn zài diàn shì shàng.” No, I saw it on TV.