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Northwestern University

"When I Turned Five"


I’ve been told that when my parents decided to move from my mother’s home city in China, Nanning, to Liuzhou to live with my father’s family, I wouldn’t go. I refused. I cried. I clung to my diabetic grandmother, and when even she shook her head and, betraying me, said goodbye, I went to my aunts, each one, and then my uncle—until my father, with his eyes (and with his hands), pulled me away. After arriving in Liuzhou, my older cousin took me into his fort (hidden underneath his bed) where I soon became entrenched in a war-turning battle against, at first, Taiwanese capitalists, and then Japanese expansionists. This lasted until dinner time—and all that crying was forgotten. I was three. A year later, my father left China to study English and educational philosophy in America. My mother and I were to move back to Nanning, where she’d gotten a job as a head editor of a newspaper. I’d reversed stances. For the life of me, I would not leave Liuzhou. There was nothing in old Nanning for me, now that I’d been in Liuzhou. I was not going back. I held my older cousin’s hand and cried until even he, nearly ten—a grown adult—wavered and broke down as well.

“Jiu Niang,” he said to my mother, “Aunt, what’s one more day? He won’t cry tomorrow. You can leave tomorrow, can’t you?”

I’ve heard that I spent the five hour train ride from Liuzhou to Nanning bawling. Yet, a day later, all was forgotten, and Liuzhou was old news.

huangWhat is it about children, I wonder, that allows this? Their immunity to longing for the past and its places? The unruly, wild, and sometimes animal-like refusal to leave one place for another is almost always followed by a quick, seamless acceptance of the new environment; the old one forgotten, dropped from memory, as if melted away. It seems so easy. How many times have children been violently unwilling to go (even for one night) to a new, strange place, only to quickly become entranced by its mundane wonders and treasures soon afterwards? How many times have parents, red-faced, had to drag children away? Force them in the car, and back to that place which has now become boring, useless, and dead—that home they came from earlier that night?

When my mother left for America on April 11th, 1989, for what was to be a “short summer visit” with my father, two things happened. The first: On April 15th, nearly 100,000 students and workers marched on Tiananmen Square, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” in Beijing, protesting the Chinese Communist Party’s political and economic repression. Two weeks later, on June 4th, an unknown number (estimated by foreign news sources to be nearly 3,000 students, soldiers, and citizens) was killed outside the Square in one of the bloodiest events in modern Chinese history. Because of my father’s position as a scholar of western culture and English, and my mother’s job at the province’s “progressive” newspaper, there was fear of a pending government backlash.

The second thing that happened: My mother never came back to China.

Neither did my father.

huangNostalgia seems to me a product of age. No five-year-old can even spell the word, let alone understand it, or taste it. It seems there is some dark, weighty residue of life that amasses within each of us with each passing year. And when enough time passes, a man becomes heavier than he once was. He plods and drags his steps when he moves, and each long migration he endures, with its thousands and thousands of steps, means so much more, for so much longer.

My uncle, my father’s youngest brother, arrived in Nanning in the winter of that year. He was there to take me to America. A week before my fifth birthday, in familiar form, I was dragged away in tears from my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. “I don’t want to go to America,” I’d shouted, stamping my feet, as if it were a choice. This time, unbeknownst to me, unlike the train rides back and forth between Liuzhou and Nanning, both my uncle and I would not be coming back.

My uncle was a mean, hard man. That was my sole opinion of him at the time. He was a man of many rules. He did not let me sit on benches, or squat on the ground. It was dirty to do so. A man stands. When I didn’t act a man, he corrected me with a quick swat to the head. He did not buy me anything. A man never whines for things. He spanked me very hard when I threw a tantrum in the Hong Kong airport over some jelly candies. He outlawed crying. It upset him. A man never cries. When traveling on the trains toward Hong Kong, where we would fly out of Asia, I had to learn to cry at night—silently, secretly—for fear of waking him.

What I did not know then was that he was doing this at the request of my father. Someone had to escort me. I do not know if he chose this task, or if it was thrust upon him. I’ve never asked. I do know, however, that in doing so, he left behind his wife, and his two twin infant sons. He would not see them again until six years later. He would settle in Kalamazoo, Michigan, work in a paper factory, saving money every day to bring them over, or to go back. He would miss the first six years of his sons’ lives.

When we landed in the San Francisco airport, our first stop in America, my uncle became very odd, still, and quiet. I decided to test him. I squatted down on the clean, polished marble floors. I sat, stood, climbed and jumped off the benches. I cried. I whined. My uncle would not react, only managing a tired, “Please, Kuang. Please stop.”

I turned five sleeping on a plastic bench while we waited out our fourteen-hour layover. That night, I told my uncle I was hungry. He sighed, stood up, and led me around the airport waiting grounds. After a brief search, we both stared in awe at what we found: a salad bar. I found myself rapt, spellbound by the colors and sizes of the fruits and vegetables I recognized, and the many others I didn’t. Streams of cold mist sprayed from the jets above it all. My uncle and I looked on solemnly. He squeezed my hand and held it against his leg. We stayed that way.

Suddenly, he broke his trance.

He walked up, picked two handfuls of strawberries, put them in the front of his shirt, and clutching them to his stomach with both hands, hurried back to me. He knelt down and I held out my hands, my eyes wide open. The berries left faint pink blots on his shirt. He let the fat, juicy ones fall into my cupped hands.

“Here,” he whispered. “Eat these. I’ve had them before. They are a little sour, but they’re sweet. Eat all of them, ok?”

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