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Dreams of Joyby Lisa See
THE WAIL OF a police siren in the distance tears through my body. Crickets whir in a never- ending chorus of blame. My aunt whimpers in her twin bed at the other end of the screened porch we share— a reminder of the misery and embarrassment from the secrets she and my mother threw at each other during their argument tonight. I try to listen for my mother in her room, but she’s too far away. That silence is painful. My hands grab the bedsheets, and I struggle to focus on an old crack in the ceiling. I’m desperately attempting to hang on, but I’ve been on a precipice since my father’s death, and now I feel as though I’ve been pushed over the edge and am falling.
Everything I thought I knew about my birth, my parents, my grandparents, and who I am has been a lie. A big fat lie. The woman I thought was my mother is my aunt. My aunt is actually my mother. The man I loved as my father was not related to me at all. My real father is an artist in Shanghai whom both my mother and aunt have loved since before I was born. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg— as Auntie May might say. But I was born in the Year of the Tiger, so before the gnawing blackness of guilt about my dad’s death and the anguish I feel about these revelations overpower me, I grip the sheets tighter, set my jaw, and try to force my emotions to cower and shrink before my Tiger ferocity. It doesn’t work.
I wish I could talk to my friend Hazel, but it’s the middle of the night. I wish even more that I could be back at the University of Chicago, because my boyfriend, Joe, would understand what I’m going through. I know he would.
It’s two in the morning by the time my aunt drifts off to sleep and the house seems quiet. I get up and go to the hall, where my clothes are kept in a linen closet. Now I can hear my mother weeping, and it’s heartbreaking. She can’t imagine what I’m about to do, but even if she did, would she stop me? I’m not her daughter.
Why should she stop me? I quickly pack a bag. I’ll need money for where I’m going, and the only place I know to get it will bring me more disgrace and shame. I hurry to the kitchen, look under the sink, and pull out the coffee can that holds my mother’s savings to put me through college. This money represents all her hopes and dreams for me, but I’m not that person anymore. She’s always been cautious, and for once I’m grateful. Her fear of banks and Americans will fund my escape.
I look for paper and a pencil, sit down at the kitchen table, and scrawl a note.
Mom, I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t understand this country anymore.
I hate that it killed Dad. I know you’ll think I’m confused and foolish. Maybe I am, but I have to find answers. Maybe China is my real home . . .
I go on to write that I mean to find my real father and that she shouldn’t worry about me. I fold the paper and take it to the porch. Auntie May doesn’t stir when I put the note on my pillow. At the front door, I hesitate. My invalid uncle is in his bedroom at the back of the house. He’s never done anything to me. I should tell him good- bye, but I know what he’ll say. “Communists are no good. They’ll kill you.”
I don’t need to hear that, and I don’t want him to alert my mother and aunt that I’m leaving.
I pick up my suitcase and step into the night. At the corner, I turn down Alpine Street, and head for Union Station. It’s August 23, 1957, and I want to memorize everything because I doubt I’ll ever see Los Angeles Chinatown again. I used to love to stroll these streets, and I know them better than anyplace else in the world. Here, I know everyone and everyone knows me. The houses— almost all of them clapboard bungalows— have been what I call Chinafied, with bamboo planted in the gardens, pots with miniature kumquat trees sitting on porches, and wooden planks laid on the ground on which to spread leftover rice for birds. I look at it all differently now. Nine months at college— and the events of tonight— will do that. I learned and did so much at the University of Chicago during my freshman year. I met Joe and joined the Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association. I learned all about the People’s Republic of China and what Chairman Mao is doing for the country, all of which contradicts everything my family believes. So when I came home in June, what did I do? I criticized my father for seeming as if he were fresh off the boat, for the greasy food he cooked in his café, and for the dumb TV shows he liked to watch.
These memories trigger a dialogue in my head that I’ve been having since his death. Why didn’t I see what my parents were going through? I didn’t know that my father was a paper son and that he’d come to this country illegally. If I’d known, I never would have begged my dad to confess to the FBI— as if he didn’t have anything to hide. My mother holds Auntie May responsible for what happened, but she’s wrong. Even Auntie May thinks it was her fault. “When the FBI agent came to Chinatown,” she confessed to me on the porch only a few hours ago, “I talked to
him about Sam.” But Agent Sanders never really cared about my dad’s legal status, because the first thing he asked about was me.
And then the loop of guilt and sorrow tightens even more. How could I have known that the FBI considered the group I joined a front for Communist activities?
We picketed stores that wouldn’t allow Negroes to work or sit at the lunch counter.
We talked about how the United States had interned American citizens of Japanese descent during the war. How could those things make me a Communist? But they did in the eyes of the FBI, which is why that awful agent told my dad he’d be cleared if he ratted out anyone he thought was a Communist or a Communist sympathizer.
If I hadn’t joined the Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association,
the FBI couldn’t have used that to push my father to name others— specifically
me. My dad never would have turned me in, leaving him only one choice. As long
as I live I will never forget the sight of my mother holding my father’s legs in a hopeless
attempt to take his weight off the rope around his neck, and I will never ever forgive
myself for my role in his suicide.
i turn down Broadway and then onto Sunset, which allows me to
continue passing places I want to remember. The Mexican tourist attraction
of Olvera Street is closed, but strings of gaily colored carnival lights
cast a golden glow over the closed souvenir stands. To my right is the
Plaza, the birthplace of the city, with its wrought- iron bandstand. Just
beyond that, I see the entrance to Sanchez Alley. When I was little, my
family lived on the second floor of the Garnier Building on Sanchez
Alley, and now my heart fills with memories of my grandmother playing
with me in the Plaza, my aunt treating me to Mexican lollipops on
Olvera Street, and my mother taking me through here every day to and
from school in Chinatown. Those were happy years, and yet they were
also filled with so many secrets that I wonder what in my life was real at
Before me, palm trees throw perfect shadows on Union Station’s
stucco walls. The clock tower reads 2:47 a.m. I was barely a year old
when the train station opened, so this place too has been a constant in my
life. There are no cars or streetcars at this hour, so I don’t bother waiting
for the light to change and dash across Alameda. A lone taxi sits at the
curb outside the terminal. Inside, the cavernous waiting room is deserted,
and my footsteps echo on the marble and tile floors. I slip into a
telephone booth and shut the door. An overhead light comes on, and I
see myself in the glass’s reflection.
My mother always discouraged me from acting like a peacock. “You
don’t want to be like your auntie,” she always chastised me if she caught
. . . 10 . . .
me looking in a mirror. Now I realize she never wanted me to look too
closely. Because now that I look, now that I really look, I see just how
much I resemble Auntie May. My eyebrows are shaped like willow
leaves, my skin is pale, my lips are full, and my hair is onyx black. My
family always insisted that I keep it long and I used to be able to sit on it,
but earlier this year I went to a salon in Chicago and asked to have it cut
short like Audrey Hepburn’s. The beautician called it a pixie cut. Now
my hair is boy- short and shines even here in the dim light of the phone
I dump the contents of my coin purse on the ledge, then dial Joe’s
number and wait for the operator to tell me how much the first three
minutes will cost. I put the coins in the slot, and Joe’s line rings. It’s close
to five a.m. in Chicago, so I’m waking him up.
“Hello?” comes his groggy voice.
“It’s me,” I say, trying to sound enthusiastic. “I’ve run away. I’m ready
to do what we talked about.”
“What time is it?”
“You need to get up. Pack. Get on a plane to San Francisco. We’re
going to China. You said we should be a part of what’s happening there.
Well, let’s do it.”
Across the telephone line, I hear him roll over and sit up.
“Yes, yes, it’s me. We’re going to China!”
“China? You mean the People’s Republic of China? Jesus, Joy, it’s the
middle of the night. Are you okay? Did something happen?”
“You took me to get my passport so we could go together.”
“Are you crazy?”
“You said that if we went to China we’d work in the fields and sing
songs,” I continue. “We’d do exercises in the park. We’d help clean the
neighborhood and share meals. We wouldn’t be poor and we wouldn’t
be rich. We’d all be equal.”
“Being Chinese and carrying that on our shoulders and in our hearts
can be a burden, but it’s also a source of pride and joy. You said that too.”
“It’s one thing to talk about all that’s happening in China, but I have
a future here— dental school, joining my dad’s practice. . . . I never
planned on actually going there.”
When I hear the ridicule in his voice, I wonder what all those meet-
ings and all his chatter were about. Was talking about equal rights, sharing
the wealth, and the value of socialism over capitalism just a way to get
in my pants? (Not that I let him.)
“I’d be killed and so would you,” he concludes, echoing the same propaganda
that Uncle Vern has recited to me all summer.
“But it was your idea!”
“Look, it’s the middle of the night. Call me tomorrow. No, don’t do
that. It costs too much. You’ll be back here in a couple of weeks. We can
talk about it then.”
The line goes dead.
I refuse to allow my fury with and disappointment in Joe to shake me
from my plan. My mom has always tried to nurture my best characteristics.
Those born in the Year of the Tiger are romantic and artistic, but she
has always cautioned me that it’s also in a Tiger’s nature to be rash and
impulsive, to leap away when circumstances are rough. These things my
mom has tried to cage in me, but my desire to leap is overwhelming and
I won’t let this setback stop me. I’m determined to find my father, even
if he lives in a country of over 600 million people.
I go back outside. The taxi is still here. The driver sleeps in the front
seat. I tap on the window, and he wakes with a jerk.
“Take me to the airport,” I say.
Once there, I head straight for the Western Airlines counter, because
I’ve always liked their television commercials. To go to Shanghai, I’ll
have to fly to Hong Kong first. To go to Hong Kong, I’ll have to depart
from San Francisco. I buy a ticket for the first leg of my journey and
board the day’s first flight to San Francisco. It’s still early morning when
I land. I go to the Pan Am counter to ask about Flight 001, which goes all
the way around the world with stops in Honolulu, Tokyo, and Hong
Kong. The woman in her perky uniform looks at me strangely when I
pay cash for a one- way ticket to Hong Kong, but when I hand her my
passport, she gives me the ticket anyway.
I have a couple of hours to wait for my plane. I find a phone booth
and call Hazel’s house. I don’t plan on telling her where I’m going. Joe
already let me down, and I suspect Hazel’s reaction would be even
worse. She’d warn me that Red China is a bad place and stuff like that—
all the usual negativity we’re both accustomed to hearing from our
The youngest Yee sister answers the phone, and she hands me over to
“I want to say good- bye,” I say. “I’m leaving the country.”
“What are you talking about?” Hazel asks.
“I have to get away.”
“You’re leaving the country?”
I can tell Hazel doesn’t believe me— because neither of us has been
anywhere other than Big Bear and San Diego for weekend excursions
with the Methodist church, and college— but she will later. By then, I’ll
be somewhere over the Pacific. There’ll be no turning back.
“You’ve always been a good friend,” I tell her. Tears cloud my eyes.
“You’ve been my best friend. Don’t forget me.”
“I won’t forget you.” Then after a pause, she asks, “So do you want to
go to Bullock’s this afternoon? I wouldn’t mind buying some things to
take back to Berkeley.”
“You’re the best, Haz. Bye.”
The click of the receiver going back into the cradle sounds final.
When my flight is called, I board and take my seat. My fingers seek
out the pouch I wear around my neck. Auntie May gave it to me last
summer before I left for Chicago. It contains three sesame seeds, three
beans, and three coppers from China. “Our mother gave these pouches
to Pearl and me to protect us when we fled Shanghai,” she told me last
night. “I gave mine to you on the day you were born. Your mother didn’t
want you to wear it when you were a baby, but she let me give it to you
when you went away to college. I’m glad you’ve worn it this past year.”
My aunt . . . My mom . . . My eyes begin to well, but I fight back the
tears, knowing that, if I start to cry, I may never stop.
But how could May have given me up? How could my real father
have let me go? And what about my father Sam? Did he know I wasn’t
his? May said no one else knew. If he had known, he wouldn’t have killed
himself. He would still be alive to throw me out on the street as the disrespectful,
shameful, deceitful, troublemaking bastard that I am. Well,
I’m out now. My mom and aunt are probably up, and still not speaking
to each other but beginning to wonder where I am. I’m glad I’m not
there to choose which mother to love and be loyal to, even with all their
poisonous secrets, because that’s an impossible choice. Worst, there’s
going to be a moment when things calm down and my mom and aunt
make peace— and they go over everything again with a fine- tooth comb,
as they always do— that they put two and two together and realize that
I’m the real source of what happened to my father Sam, not Auntie May.
How will they react when it finally sinks in that I’m the one the FBI was
interested in, that I’m the one who led Agent Sanders right to our home,
causing such devastation? When that happens, they’ll be glad I’m gone.
I let go of my pouch and wipe my sweaty hands on my skirt. I’m
anxious— who wouldn’t be?—but I can’t let myself worry about how
what I’m doing might affect my mom and aunt. I love them both, but
I’m mad at them and afraid of what they’ll think of me too— and just like
that, I know I’ll always call May my auntie and Pearl my mom. Otherwise
I’ll be more confused than I already am. If Hazel were sitting next
to me, she’d say, “Oh, Joy, you’re a mess.” Fortunately, she’s not here.
about a billion hours later, we land in Hong Kong. Some men roll a
set of stairs to the plane, and I get off with the rest of the passengers.
Waves of heat shimmy off the tarmac, and the air is stiflingly hot, with
humidity that’s even worse than when I left Chicago in June. I follow the
other passengers into the terminal, down a dingy hall, to a big room with
lots of lines for passport control. When my turn comes, the man asks in
a crisp British accent, “What is your final destination?”
“Shanghai in the People’s Republic of China,” I answer.
“Stand to the side!” He gets on the phone, and in a couple of minutes
two guards come to get me. They take me to the baggage area to retrieve
my suitcase, and then I’m led down more shadowy hallways. I don’t see
any other passengers, only people in uniforms who stare at me suspiciously.
“Where are we going?”
One of the guards answers my question by roughly jerking my arm.
Finally we reach a set of double doors. We push through them and back
into the horrible heat. I’m put in the back of a windowless van and told
to keep quiet. The guards get in up front, and we start to drive. I can’t see
anything. I don’t understand what’s going on and I’m scared— petrified,
if I’m honest. All I can do is hang on as the van makes sharp turns and
goes over bumpy roads. It pulls to a stop after a half hour. The guards
come around to the back of the van. They talk for a few minutes, leaving
me inside to worry and sweat. When the doors are opened, I see that
we’re on a wharf where a big boat is taking on cargo. The boat flies the
flag of the People’s Republic of China— five gold stars on a red background.
That same mean guard yanks me out of the van and drags me to
“We don’t want you spreading communism here,” he practically yells
at me as he hands me my suitcase. “Get on the boat and don’t get off until
you reach China.”
The two guards stand at the bottom of the gangplank to make sure I
board. All this is a surprise— an intimidating and unsettling surprise. At
the top of the gangplank, I see a sailor. No, that’s not what he’d be called.
He’s a crewman, I think. He speaks rapidly to me in Mandarin, the official
language of China and a language I don’t feel confident about in its
pure form. I’ve heard my mother and aunt converse in the Wu dialect—
Shanghainese— my whole life. I believe I know it well but not nearly as
well as I do Cantonese, which was the common language in Chinatown.
When talking to my family, I’ve always used a little Cantonese, a little
Shanghainese, and a little English. I guess I’ll be giving up English entirely
from here on out.
“Can you say that again, and maybe a little slower?” I ask.
“Are you returning to the motherland?”
I nod, pretty sure I’m understanding him.
“Good, welcome! I’ll show you where to bunk. Then I’ll take you to
the captain. You’ll pay him for your ticket.”
I look back down to the two guards still watching me on the wharf. I
wave, like an idiot. And then I follow the crewman. When I was younger,
I worked as an extra with my aunt in lots of movies. I was once in a film
about Chinese orphans being evacuated by boat from China during the
war, and this is nothing like that set. There’s rust everywhere. The stairs
are narrow and steep. The corridors are dimly lit. We’re still docked, but
I can feel the sway of the water beneath my feet, which suggests that this
might not be the most seaworthy vessel. I’m told I’ll have a cabin to myself,
but when I see it, it’s hard to imagine sharing the claustrophobically
small space with anyone else. It’s hot outside and it may be even hotter
Later I’m introduced to the captain. His teeth are tobacco stained and
his uniform is grimy with food and oil. He watches closely when I open
my wallet and pay for my ticket. The whole thing is kind of creepy.
On my way back to my cabin, I remind myself this is what I wanted.
Run away. Adventure. Find my father. A joyful reunion. Although I only
just found out that Z.G. Li is my father, I’d heard about him before. He
used to paint my mom and aunt when they were models back in Shanghai.
I’ve never seen any of those posters, but I did see some of the illustrations
he did for China Reconstructs, a propaganda magazine my
grandfather used to buy from under the table at the tobacconist. It was
strange seeing my mother’s and aunt’s faces on the cover of a magazine
from Red China. Z.G. Li had painted them from memory, and he did so
many more times. By then he’d changed his name to Li Zhi- ge, probably
in keeping with the political changes in China, according to my mom.
My aunt liked to pin the magazine covers with his illustrations to the
wall above her bed, so I feel like I already know a bit about him as an
artist. I’m sure that Z.G.—or whatever he wants me to call him— will be
very surprised and happy to see me. These thoughts temporarily alleviate
my concerns about the soundness of the boat and its strange captain.
As soon as we leave Hong Kong harbor, I go to the galley for dinner.
It turns out the boat is primarily for returning Overseas Chinese. A different
boat leaves Hong Kong every day, I’m told, taking others like me
to China. Twenty passengers— all Chinese men— from Singapore, Australia,
France, and the United States, have also been brought directly to
this boat from other flights and other ships. (What does Hong Kong
think will happen if one of us stays overnight or for a week?) Halfway
through dinner, I start to feel queasy. Before dessert is served, I have to
leave the table because I feel so nauseated. I barely make it back to my
room. The smells of oil and the latrine, the heat, and the emotional and
physical exhaustion of the last few days hit me hard. I spend the next
three days trying to keep down broth and tea, sleeping, sitting on the
deck hoping to find cool air, and chatting with the other passengers, who
give me all kinds of useless advice about seasickness.
On the fourth night, I’m in my bunk when the rolling of the ship finally
eases. We must be passing into the Yangtze River estuary. I’ve been
told it will take a few more hours before we veer onto the Whangpoo River
to reach Shanghai. I get up just before dawn and put on my favorite
dress— a shift of pale blue dotted swiss over white lining. I visit the captain,
hand him an envelope to mail when he returns to Hong Kong, and ask if
he can change some of my dollars into Chinese money. I give him five
twenty- dollar bills. He pockets forty dollars and then gives me sixty dollars’
worth of Chinese yuan. I’m too shocked to argue, but his actions make
me realize I don’t know what will happen when I land. Am I going to be
treated like I was in Hong Kong? Will the people I encounter be like the
captain and take my money? Or will something entirely different happen?
My mother always said China was corrupt. I thought that sort of thing
went out with the Communist takeover, but apparently it hasn’t disappeared
completely. What would my mom do if she were here? She’d hide
her cash, as she did at home. When I get back to my cabin, I take out all
the money I stole from her can under the sink and divide it into two piles,
wrapping the larger amount in a handkerchief and pinning it to my underwear.
I take the rest—$250—and put it in my wallet with my new Chinese
money. Then I pick up my suitcase, leave the cabin, and disembark.
it’s eight a.m., and the air is as thick, heavy, and hot white as potato
soup. I’m herded with the other passengers into a stifling room filled
with cigarette smoke and pungent with the odors of food that’s spent too
long without refrigeration in this weather. The walls are painted a sickly
pea green. The humidity is so bad that the windows sweat. In America,
everything would be orderly, with people standing in lines. Here, my fellow
passengers crush forward in a throbbing mass to the single processing
kiosk. I linger on the edges because I’m nervous after my experience
with passport control in Hong Kong. The line moves very slowly, with
numerous delays for reasons I can’t see or intuit. It takes three hours for
me to reach the window.
An inspector dressed in an ill- fitting drab green uniform asks, “What
is the reason for your visit?”
He speaks Shanghainese, which is a relief, but I don’t think I should
tell him the truth— that I’ve come to find my father but I have no clue
where he is precisely or how to locate him.
“I’m here to help build the People’s Republic of China,” I answer.
He asks for my papers, and his eyes widen when he sees my U.S.
passport. He looks at me and then back at the photo. “It’s good you came
this year instead of last year. Chairman Mao says that Overseas Chinese
no longer have to apply for entry permits. All I need is something that
shows your identity, and you’ve given me that. Would you consider yourself
“It’s illegal to travel in China as a U.S. citizen,” he says. “So are you
I’m nineteen. I don’t want to seem like an uninformed and ignorant
runaway. I don’t want to confess that I don’t exactly know what stateless
“I’ve come to China in response to the call for patriotic Chinese from
the United States to serve the people,” I say, reciting things I learned in
my club in Chicago. “I want to contribute to humanity and help with national
“All right then,” the inspector says.
He drops my passport in a drawer and locks it. That alarms me.
“When will I get my passport back?”
It never occurred to me that I could be giving up my rights should I
ever want to leave China and return to the United States. I feel a door
swing shut and lock behind me. What will I do later if I want to leave and
I don’t have the key? Then my mother’s and aunt’s faces flash before me
and all the tumultuous and sad emotions of our last days together bubble
up again. I’ll never go back. Never.
“All personal luggage for Overseas Chinese must be searched,” the inspector
states, pointing to a sign that reads, customs procedure governing
preferential treatment of personal luggage accompanying overseas
chinese. “We’re seeking contraband items and clandestine remittances of
I open my bag, and he paws through the contents. He confiscates my
bras, which might be amusing if I weren’t so surprised and scared. My
passport and bras?
He gives me a stern look. “If the matron were here, she’d take the one
you’re wearing. Reactionary clothing has no place in the New China.
Please throw out the offending item as soon as possible.” He closes my
suitcase and shoves it aside. “Now, how much money have you brought
with you? You’ll be assigned to a work unit, but for now we can’t let you
enter the country unless you have a way to support yourself.”
I hand him my wallet. He takes half of my dollars and pockets them.
I’m glad I have most of my money in my underwear. Then the inspector
scrutinizes me, taking in my dotted swiss shift, which I now realize may
have been a mistake. He tells me to stay where I am. When he leaves, I
worry that this will be a repeat of what happened in Hong Kong, except
where would they send me now? Maybe Joe and my uncle were right.
Maybe something really bad is about to happen to me. Sweat begins to
trickle down the small of my back.
The inspector returns back with several more men dressed in the
same drab green uniforms. They wear enthusiastic smiles. They call me
tong chih. It means comrade but with the connotation that you are a person
of the same spirit, goals, and ambitions. Hearing the word makes me feel
much better. See, I tell myself, you had nothing to worry about. They huddle
together with me in the middle so our picture can be taken, which explains
the delays earlier. Next they show me a wall with framed photos of
what they tell me are some of the people who’ve entered China through
this office. I see mostly men, a couple of women, and a few families. And
they aren’t all Chinese. Some are Caucasians. Where they’re from, I can’t
tell, although from their dress they don’t appear to be Americans. Maybe
they’re from Poland, East Germany, or some other country in the Eastern
Bloc. Soon my photo will be on the wall too.
Then the inspectors ask where I’ll be staying. That stumps me. They
see my uncertainty and exchange worried— suspicious— looks.
“You need to tell us where you’ll be staying before we can let you
leave here,” the chief inspector says.
I tilt my head down and peer up at them, suggesting I’m innocent and
helpless. I learned this expression from my aunt on a movie set years ago.
“I’m looking for my father,” I confide, hoping they’ll feel sorry for
me. “My mother took me away from China before I was born. Now I’ve
come home to my right place.” I haven’t lied up to this point, but I need
their assistance. “I want to live with my father and help him build the
country, but my mother refused to tell me where to find him. She’s become
too American.” I crinkle my face at that last word as though it’s the
most detestable thing to be on earth.
“What kind of worker is he?” the chief inspector asks.
“He’s an artist.”
“Ah, good,” he says. “A cultural worker.” The men rapidly discuss the
possibilities. Then the chief inspector says, “Go to the All- China Art
Workers’ Association. I think they just call it the Artists’ Association now,
Shanghai branch. They supervise all cultural workers. They’ll know exactly
where to find him.”
He writes down directions, draws a simple map, and tells me that the
Artists’ Association is within walking distance. The men wish me luck,
and then I leave the processing shed and step onto the Bund and into a
sea of people who look just like me. Los Angeles Chinatown was a small
enclave, and there weren’t that many Chinese at the University of
Chicago. This is more Chinese than I’ve seen altogether in my life. A
wave of pleasure ripples through me.
I stand on a pedestrian walkway that seems almost like a park edging
the river. Before me is a street filled with masses of people on bicycles.
It’s just noon, so maybe everyone is on lunch break, but I can’t be sure.
Across the street, huge buildings— heavier, grander, and broader than
what I’m used to in Los Angeles— sweep along the Bund, following the
curve of the Whangpoo. Turning back to the river, I see Chinese naval
ships and cargo ships of every shape and size. Dozens upon dozens of
sampans bob on the river like so many water bugs. Junks float past with
their sails aloft. What seems like thousands of men— stripped to their
waists, with light cotton trousers rolled up to the knees— carry bundles
of cotton, baskets filled with produce, and huge crates on and off boats.
Everyone and everything seems to be either coming or going.
I glance at the map to get my bearings, adjust my suitcase in my hand,
make my way through the crowds to the curb, and wait for the bicycles
to stop to let me cross. They don’t stop. And there’s no streetlight. All the
while I’m being bumped and pushed by the ceaseless flow of pedestrians.
I watch others step into the herds of bicycles and daringly cross the
street. The next time someone steps off the curb, I follow close behind,
hoping I’ll be safe in his wake.
As I head up Nanking Road, I can’t help making comparisons between
Shanghai and Chinatown, where most of the people were from
Canton, in Kwangtung province in the south of China. My family’s originally
from Kwangtung too, but my mother and aunt grew up in Shanghai.
They always said the food was sweeter and the clothes were more
fashionable in Shanghai. The city was more enchanting— with clubs and
dancing, late night strolls along the Bund, and one more thing: laughter.
I rarely heard my mother laugh when I was little, but she used to tell stories
of giggling with Auntie May in their bedroom, exchanging jokes
with handsome young men, and laughing at the sheer joy of being in the
exact right place— the Paris of Asia— at the exact right moment— before
the Japanese invaded and my grandmother, mother, and aunt had to flee
for their lives.
What I’m seeing now certainly isn’t the Shanghai my mother and
aunt told me about. I don’t see glamorous women walking along the
streets, perusing department store windows for the latest fashions sent
from Paris or Rome. I don’t see foreigners who act like they own the
place, but Chinese are everywhere. They’re all in a hurry, and there’s
nothing stylish about them. The women wear cotton trousers and shortsleeved
cotton blouses or plain blue suits. Now that I’m away from the
river, the men are better dressed than the dockworkers. They wear gray
suits— what my dad derisively called Mao suits. No one looks too thin or
too fat. No one looks too rich, and I don’t see any of the beggars or rickshaw
pullers that my mother and aunt always complained about.
There’s only one problem. I can’t find the Artists’ Association.
Shanghai is a latticework of streets, and soon I’m completely twisted
around. I turn down byways and into alleys. I end up in courtyards and
dead ends. I ask for directions, but people shove past me or ogle me for
the stranger I am. They’re afraid, I think, to talk to someone who looks
so out of place. I enter a couple of shops to get help, but everyone says
they’ve never heard of the Artists’ Association. When I show them my
map, they look at it, shake their heads, and then ungraciously push me
out of their shops.
After what seems like hours of being rejected, pointedly ignored, or
jostled by crowds, I realize I’m totally lost. I’m also starved and woozy
from the heat, and I’m starting to get scared. I mean really, really scared,
because I’m in an unfamiliar city halfway around the world from anyone
who knows me and people are staring at me because I look so alien in my
stupid dotted swiss shift and white sandals. What am I doing here?
I’ve got to hold myself together. I really do. Think! I’m going to need
a hotel. I’m going to need to return to the Bund for a fresh start. First,
though, I need something to eat and drink.
I find my way back to Nanking Road and after a short walk come to a
huge park, where I see a couple of vendor carts. I buy some salty cakes
stuffed with minced pork and chopped greens wrapped in a piece of wax
paper. At another cart, I buy tea served in a thick ceramic cup, and then
sit on a nearby bench. The cake is delicious. The hot tea makes me sweat
even more than I already am, but my mom always claimed that a cup of
tea on a hot day has a cooling effect. It’s late afternoon and the temperature
hasn’t dropped at all. It’s still so humid— and without a hint of a
breeze— that I really can’t tell if the tea has a cooling effect or not. Still,
the food and the liquid revive me.
This isn’t like any park I’ve been in before. It’s flat and appears to go
on for blocks. A lot of it is paved so that it seems like it’s more for mass
meetings than for play or recreation. Even so, there are plenty of grand-
mothers minding small children. The babies are tied in slings to their
grandmothers’ backs. The toddlers paddle about in pants split at the
crotch. I see one little girl squat and pee right on the ground! Some of the
older kids— not one of them over four or five— play with sticks. One
grandmother sits on a bench across from me. Her granddaughter looks
to be about three and is really cute, with her hair tied up in ribbons so
that it sprouts from her head like little mushrooms. The child keeps
peeking at me. I must look like a clown to her. I wave. She hides her eyes
in her grandmother’s lap. She peers at me again, I wave, and she buries
her face back in her grandmother’s lap. We go through this a few times
before the little girl wiggles her fingers in my direction.
I take my ceramic cup back to the tea vendor, and when I return to the
bench to get my suitcase, the little girl leaves the safety of her grandmother
and approaches me.
“Ni hao ma?” I ask. “How are you?”
The little girl giggles and runs back to her grandmother. I really
should be going, but the child is so charming. More than that, playing
with her gives me a sense that I belong and that everything will work out.
She points at me and whispers to her grandmother. The old woman
opens a bag, fishes around, and then places something in her granddaughter’s
tiny hand. The next thing I know, the little girl is back in front
of me, her arm fully outstretched, offering me a shrimp cracker.
The girl smiles at my thank- you. Then she climbs up next to me and
starts swinging her legs and jabbering about this and that. I thought I was
pretty good at the Shanghai dialect, but I don’t understand her nearly as
well as I’d hoped. Finally, her grandmother comes over to where we’re
“You’ve met our disappointment,” she says. “Next time my husband
and I hope for a grandson.”
I’ve heard things like this my entire life. I pat the little girl’s knee, a
gesture of solidarity.
“You don’t look like you’re from Shanghai,” the old woman goes on.
“Are you from Peking?”
“I’m from far away,” I respond, not wanting to tell my whole story.
“I’m here to visit my father, but I’m lost.”
“Where do you need to go?”
I show her my map.
“I know where this is,” she says. “We could take you there, if you’d
like. It’s on our way home.”
“I’d be very grateful.”
She picks up her granddaughter, and I pick up my suitcase.
A few minutes later, we reach the Artists’ Association. I thank the old
woman. I look through my purse, find the last of a roll of Life Savers, and
give it to the little girl. She doesn’t know what to make of it.
“It’s candy,” I explain. “A sweet for a sweet.” A memory of my aunt
saying that to me gives me a sharp pang of anguish. I’ve come this far and
still my mother and aunt are with me.
After a few more thank- yous, I turn away and enter the building. I
was hoping for air- conditioning, but the lobby is just as oppressively hot
as the street. A middle- aged woman sits behind a desk in the center of
the room. She smiles and motions me to step forward.
“I’m looking for an artist named Li Zhi- ge,” I say.
The woman’s smile fades and blooms into a scowl. “You’re too late.
The meeting is almost over.”
I stand there, bewildered.
“I’m not going to let you in there,” she snaps harshly, gesturing in annoyance
to a set of double doors.
“You mean he’s in there? Right now?”
“Of course, he’s in there!”
My mother would say it’s fate that I should find my father so easily.
But maybe it’s serendipity. Whatever it is, I’m lucky, even if it’s only
dumb luck. But I still don’t understand why the receptionist won’t let
“I need to see him,” I plead.
Just then, the doors open and a group of people stream out.
“There he is now,” the receptionist says with a sneer.
She points to a tall man wearing wire- rimmed glasses. His hair is
rather long and falls in a loose mop across his forehead. He’s definitely
the right age— somewhere around forty- five— and strikingly handsome.
He’s dressed in a Mao suit, but this one is different from the ones I saw
on the street. It’s crisp and well cut, and the fabric looks richer. My father
must be very famous and powerful, because the others follow closely behind
him, practically pushing him to the street.
As they leave the building, I hurry after them. Once on the sidewalk,
the others fall away, melting into the throng of pedestrians. Z.G. stands
still for a moment, looking up through the buildings to a patch of white
sky. Then he sighs, shakes his hands as though relieving stress, and begins
to walk. I follow him, still lugging my suitcase. What will happen if
I walk up and announce I’m his daughter? I don’t know him, but I sense
this isn’t a good moment. Even if I thought it was, I’m filled with apprehension.
At one point he stops at an intersection, and I pause at his side.
Surely he has to notice me since I look so different— after all, everyone
else has noticed me— but he seems completely preoccupied. I should say
something. Hello, you’re my father. I can’t do it. He glances at me, still registering
nothing, and then crosses the street.
He turns onto a quieter lane. Official- looking buildings give way to
apartments and little neighborhood shops. He walks for a few blocks,
then swings onto a pedestrian walkway lined on both sides with pretty
Western- style, two- and three- story homes. I stay at the corner to watch
where he goes. He passes the first three houses, and then he opens a low
picket fence, enters a yard, climbs the stairs to the porch, and disappears
through the front door. I take a few steps onto the walkway. I see patches
of lawn, cymbidiums in bloom, and climbing vines. Bicycles lean against
porches and laundry hangs on poles that jut from windows. The houses
themselves are lovely— with tile roofs, nicely painted façades, and iron
grillwork in art deco patterns covering windows, as peek- throughs for
doors, and as decoration along the eaves and around mail slots.
This isn’t how Joe and my professors described Red China. I expected
utilitarian Communist quarters or even an artist’s single room.
Instead, my father lives in an elegant art deco house with a lovely garden.
What does this say about him exactly?
I take a deep breath, and then I climb the steps and ring the bell.
From the Hardcover edition.
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