[China in 1941]
This assignment is biographical writing about my mother’s life. I propose that the writing will start prior to my mother’s birth to give an insight into her family’s trek through north-eastern China. The authenticity of this passage is reliant upon my mother’s memory of the stories and tales she was told about it later. Throughout this story she tells of the hardship she had to endure, and they were hardships that, I think, few people in the western world know about.
I wanted to tell her story. She is no one famous, she was just one of those who survived years of famine and hardship, she was my mother and she endured so that we, her children, could survive. This is a story of her acceptance of life. A story of the strength she displayed, and the inner strength she passed to her children.
I think above all it is a story of love and understanding: the love my mother has for her children and the love her children have for her. But ultimately it is a story of understanding, for it is only when I understood my mother’s story that I could honestly say I understood her, and through that loved her more.
She is the greatest influence in my life, and by adopting her values on kindness, trust, and strength I hope to become, as is her wish, a better person than she.
My Mother - the woman I got to know.
Sitting opposite me was the lady who raised me; she taught, scolded and cajoled me. She had even beaten me as a child when I had worn out her patience, just to ensure the message got home. She was my mother. Though there were times that my feelings may have resembled fear and loathing there was always, yes always, all the love, respect, and affection that only a child could have for her mother.
Now having aged some, I was looking across the room towards my mother and I was filled with joy. For I had fulfilled a promise made amidst all those tears of my departure to bring her here. She had travelled from a small fishing and farming village, three hundred miles from the North Korean border, to a group of small islands in the southern South Pacific called New Zealand. For the first time in her life she had left her province, flown on a plane, and had travelled to a foreign land. I felt pride in being able to help her experience all these new adventures, but mainly to have kept that promise made all those years ago.
“Cup of Cha, Ma”? I enquired. A smile and nod was the reply. Brewing tea properly took more time than simply pouring boiling water over a tea bag. The parcel of Chinese tea must be placed in a preheated pot, the boiling water allowed to stand for a minute, and then some poured over the tea. This was then allowed to sit for a few moments, stirred then poured away. The boiled water was again added and the tea allowed to stew, until ready to drink.
I placed the tea service on the low table in front of her. She patted the couch next to her and I assumed the position I had adopted ever since I could remember; that of lying down with my head on her lap while she played with my hair. It is funny how specific actions can make one relax instantly; this was one of those. My eyes closed and I thought of my mother. I was proud of her; at seventy-one years of age she still had the will and desires to try something new. I had to admit to myself when I made that promise all those years ago, that I doubted whether she would have the desire to do something new. I need not have worried; I had the same trait in me, that desire to learn and to experience. Previously I had always wondered who I got it from, for neither of my parents seemed that adventurous. My mother has provided me with the answer and I could not be happier.
My mind questioned what other things about my mother I did not know? Thinking about her, I recollected what I thought I knew; shamefully it was scant. It was not that I was uninterested, merely that the opportunity for a life history lesson never turned up. We were a poor family, living in a three-room country cottage. Life consisted of living for the day and ensuring sufficient food was being grown for the near future. Money was scarce and spent only when absolutely necessary. Time to waste recollecting past passages of one’s life was a luxury we just could not afford. I smiled as a thought dawned on me.
“Ma, tell me of your life, I want to know you, I want to know your stories, and I want to know your life.
“Your life is so much more interesting than mine,” was her reply.
“Please Ma; it really is of so much interest to me.”
“Where do you want me to start?”
“Tell me as much as you know about your family, then relate your own life story.”
My grandfather came from Shandong Province; I remember the stories he used to tell us as children. He told us that at that time there were so many people, no work and therefore sometimes they went days without food. In the end he had had enough, he had heard that there was a better life to be had in the Liaoning Province. That meant a journey of one thousand miles and all on foot. He made the decision and informed his wife and children; he described the hardships, the hunger and the pain they would endure throughout the journey. The children were aged between 3 and 10, with the youngest having to be carried in turns, by the other, older members of the family. Sometimes they found places that would hire them: the only payment being the food they could eat. Every member of the family would try to bring something into the family; they either worked or begged for food or coins in town they came across. There was no time for rest; when they were not working they would walk, slowly eating away at the mileage. He told us later that even if he had known how far it was, how difficult it would be, or how long it was going to take he would have still started the journey: such was the hardship of the life they left behind.
Finally, after 10 months, they arrived at the village of ZhuangHe. He found work and rented a house for his family. Saving every penny, they eventually brought a piece of uncultivated land. Slowly the land was cleared and a house built. They continued saving and brought still more land which they cleared. They hired other farmers to work the land, gaining extra income.
My grandfather ran the entire family. There were about forty of them. The daughters of the family would grow up, marry and then leave; the sons, however, brought their wives home; they had children and so the family grew. The house was extended to accommodate this growing family. All members of the family who worked gave their earnings to my grandfather; he would then divide it equally amongst the different family groups. Food was communally cooked and shared and my grandfather would apportion the jobs that required doing.
When I was born in 1941, we were under Japanese occupation. My father worked on the fields, my mother helped in the house. For the West the war ended in 1945; for us the fighting and hardship did not end until many years later. After the Japanese had left, further conflict arose between Mao’s Red Guard and the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai Shek. When the Communists won, changes to our society really took place. Our family were land owners, we employed other farmers to help farm our land. No matter how well we treated our employee farmers; we were classified as class enemies. Our land was taken from us; the house was ransacked, with anything of value confiscated. The family was once again penniless, and this time we were told how to live and where to work. We had to learn to be peasants.
Still it could have been worse, for during the conflict between the Communists and the national forces, my grandfather had saved and hidden some Red Guard soldiers. At his trial they stood up and vouched for my grandfather. Although this lessened any sentence, we were still classified as landowners and therefore still had to be punished.
For myself, I thought I was being punished most severely, for I had to leave the one thing I enjoyed doing most of all. My father was different to most other fathers; they would not send their daughters to school, opting instead to keep them at home, so that their mother could teach them how to be good wives and future mothers, for that was to be their sole role in life. This traditional path was followed by most of the other girls; however, my father sought permission from my grandfather to allow my sister and me to go to school. I got to live in both worlds for a while, learning from my mother about making and mending clothes and shoes, and learning from my teachers about other subjects of the wider world. I loved going to school and had real hopes of eventually becoming a teacher, but the way things eventually turned out, that dream became impossible.
With the confiscation of our land, we were once again destitute. I could no longer go to school and had to drop out. Life however still had harsher lessons in store for our family, and for that matter the other people of China. First were the three years of famine. I have never been as hungry as I was during that time. From about 1958-1961 so many people died. I saw people just give up, lie down where they were, and submit themselves to dying. The government used to give us only thirty grams of food a day during that time. To survive, I dug up grass and other plants to eat their roots; I ate tree bark simply to put something in my stomach to keep myself alive. I was so skinny back then, thin and sick. I could not go to the toilet because nothing would come out; my periods stopped and did not start again for six months. Oh Wendy, So many people died, so many.
I turned my head and looked up at my mother; tears were running down her face at the memory.
“Tell me something nice, Mum,” as I blinked back my own tears, "I am so sorry for asking you to remember, tell me of another time that was nice.”
“No! Little daughter, I will carry on because I might forget something, besides you should know everything, so it does not happen again.”
Not for the first time, my mother showed me her inner strength. I felt so much pride that I wanted to yell from the rooftops: ‘Look at this strong, beautiful lady. She is my Mother’.
She took a deep breath, mouthed a silent prayer, then continued.
You know when I look at you, Wendy, you are slim with long hair and beautiful skin. If you looked like that back then people would wonder how you stayed so fat; they would call you names and look on you as an enemy of the people. That period was one of the worst of my life. Just when the famine started to ease something else came along; Chairman Mao started his Cultural Revolution. That was not so much of a shock for us, but for other people we knew: teachers, businessmen, and even members of the local government. They were just arrested and taken away. Some we did not see again; others we did not see for many years. For about ten years we lived in fear. Anyone could come along and charge us with being class enemies. To live in such fear was extremely hard. You watched what you said, who you talked to. Trust became a very rare commodity. Finally, with Chairman Mao dying, and the arrest of all those involved, our country started to heal itself.
For me, during that time, my life began to change. At the age of 22, my elder brother, who was working in the mines in a nearby town, came home one day to announce that he had made a match for me. The man was from a peasant family, so was politically safe. We met and to tell you the truth he was not the sort of man I thought I would marry. He was a year younger than me, and not a particularly handsome man, just average. He did not have much in the way of education but he had a steady job in the mines. He had a mining company house, so my future would be secure. More importantly, because his job was paid employment in town, it meant that my status would change and I would be allowed to live in the town. I remember when I first met your father he was very quiet, did not say much, but at the end of our first meeting, he just looked at me and said that he would always treat me with respect and would look after me. It was really that that swayed my decision, as well as the thought that I would be no longer a burden to my family.
For the first few years life was good. Together with his elderly mother there were three of us in the house. Life was starting to feel good again. We were not rich: his wages were enough to live on, no more. Two years after our marriage, I gave birth to your elder sister; two years after that your brother was born; and two years after him, you were born.
You were only two months old when I was told that there had been an accident at work and your father had been taken to hospital. I grabbed you kids and went to see how your father was. When we got there I was told that he had been taken to Dalian Hospital, which as you know is 150 kilometres away. I had no money to go there and so we had to return home to await news. The mining company helped by relaying any news to me. It was at first feared that your father would lose his right leg but thankfully they were able to save it, but it was never the same again. Your father was in hospital for 8 months.
That was a hard time; we had to survive on RMB¥60.00 a month for his sickness pay. Of that RMB¥30.00 had to go to your father to pay for the medicines and food he needed, RMB ¥5.00 for rent, RMB¥10.00 went to your grandmother to help her survive, and that left RMB¥15.00 left to feed the four of us for a month. You must remember some of the stories your sister told you about that time. Every day the four of us would climb that mountain to collect grass to feed the chickens, wood to help fuel the stove and to store for the coming winter, as well as collecting what roots and eatable plants we could. You kids always seemed to be hungry.
Looking at my mother I saw tears form in her eyes. When she blinked, they overflowed and ran down her cheeks to fall on her blouse.
“What’s wrong, Ma?”
“I was just remembering.”
“What?” I asked “Tell me.”
She gave me a weak smile, nodded and continued:
One day, a particularly hard day, we had little to eat. It was starting to get cold outside so we were all on the Kang, enjoying its warmth and covered in blankets. Your brother started to talk about being hungry and I told him we had to ration our food for another week. He quietened down, then your four-year-old elder sister asked in such a small soft voice, ‘Ma, tomorrow morning could you make us three corn flour buns, not big, just this size’, she cupped her two tiny hands together, making a very small circle. The pleading look on her face just moved me to tears, so I hide my face. At that moment I didn’t want your father, I hated the fact that he was not there, that he had got himself hurt. He had promised me that he would look after me and you children, but now it felt like no one was looking after us. There was no one to look after you kids, so I could find work, no one helping us in any way. It was then I made my mind up, you kids would never suffer like this again.
“Wendy, I am sorry, I know I was tough on you kids when you were growing up, but I had to make you stronger than me, make you better than me, hopefully never to suffer again. I could handle my own pain but I could not bear to see the hunger pain in all your eyes.”
Your father eventually came out of hospital, we had survived and it was great having him home. The extra RMB¥30.00 made me feel like we were rich; your sister could have those corn buns she craved, only larger. But that feeling only lasted a moment, I knew that your father could not go back to his job as a miner; the mining company had visited him in hospital and offered him a job as a security guard. That did mean less money for the month but it was enough for us to survive on, so we just had to tighten our belts and keep to a strict budget. There was no money left for the little luxuries, clothes had to be handmade and handed down.
I do not need to tell you this; if you search back in your own memories you know how tough it was. It was so tough, it made me cry nightly. Your father felt the pain too when you children asked for things we could not supply: simple things like some new clothes. He would try to find extra work or income just to give you children those things. When the frustration was too much, tears would well up in his eyes and he would curse his life. Arguments would happen out of sheer frustration. Rules made to provide us with face, hurt us emotionally. The knowledge that you three children were in the kitchen hungry while our guests were eating their fill at our home, hurt me more than I could tell you. The fact that the food they were eating, was what we classified as special food, food only fit for the special occasion and on those occasions you children were in the kitchen, and could only have the leftovers.
On those times your father ate only sparingly, and I did not eat to ensure that the guests ate their fill. We lived in such a time that most guests appreciated the hospitality provided; they did not gorge themselves for they had guessed the situation within the house. They ate enough to give the house and family face then left. A lot of those people are still our fond friends.
I remember the time you first went to school. You were wearing one of your sister’s dresses which I had made into your size. You thought you were so pretty and grown up. You did not complain that the dress was not new; it was just new to you. For the first time in seven years I had the house to myself and I did not know what to do, so I cried. I cried for the sorrow, for the pain, for what fate had given us. I was angry at my lost youth, the missed opportunities, and the age I was born in. If only I knew then what I know now, but everyone says that life has to continue, lessons have to be taught for the sole reason of making you children better than me.
I grabbed my mother’s hand tightly, and armed with this inside knowledge, thought back upon my own history: time spent in the seemingly thankless task of cleaning - everything had to be clean, even the compact dirt floor. Everything had its place and everything must be in its place. Time spent doing my daily chores, time spent as a child on the coldest of mornings, shuffling a path through the freezing snow, to make sure the chickens were fed. We may have been poor but our mother brought us up to be proud, to be strong and always armed with the knowledge that we must do better. Throughout our childhood we were worked hard, taught that life owes us nothing, and if we wanted anything we had to get it for ourselves.
It was my mother’s infused strength that provided me with the self-confidence to take the opportunity that presented itself at the age of sixteen and move some 150 kms away to join a shoe factory, to earn a monthly pay check that help support my family. I was armed by this strength, together with fate, when I left that shoe factory and started my next career in sales. My mother’s words were always with me: don’t leave until something better comes along and always be better than me.
Until this day, I always thought that, where I am, was where I got myself too. I gave no credit to anyone else, just to myself. Now as I lay with my head in my mother’s lap, her hand clutched tightly and intertwined with mine, I realise for the first time that I, and the life I have led, is due to the strength my mother gave me. I am a product of her. I am a continuation, a link in a long chain. Some links were stronger than others but all were reliant upon those above for knowledge, kindness, support and strength. Knowledge and kindness are what binds us as a family, what makes us strong. I thought my mother must have been one of the strongest links.
Her hand was still draped over me and I hugged it dearly. For the first time in my life I could have sworn it melted into me, the two of us had become one; sharing knowledge and understanding had combined us. I became the new link in the chain and through this linkage I felt my mother’s strength, the strength I never until now, gave her credit for. I had always thought that the strength inside me, I had built myself. But now I realised that it had always been hers, and it was within me always.
I sat up and faced my mother, holding her hand tightly between mine. I took a deep breath hoping to ease the catching in my throat. Tears of love for this woman cascaded down my cheeks. I fixed her with my eyes and said the words I wish I had said every day.
“Ma, I love you. Thank you for my life.”