Hong Kong has a special place in my heart. It is a city my family likes to visit again and again. My husband goes there often on business trips. My son loves to jump on and off the beautifully built, one-of-a-kind Star Ferry shuffling people from Hong Kong’s one island to another. To me, Hong Kong is like a giant collage juxtaposed between eastern and western cultures. It is a soft landing pad enabling me to travel back and forth without feeling lost in either world. There is also a deeper level of connection for me with Hong Kong. Each year we travel there on route to see my parents. They live one hour away — about 10 years ago my parents joined China’s elderly “snow birds” splitting their time between the north and south. Once we arrive in Hong Kong, I can feel their presence and the excitement of my coming home rises up.
On December 7th, I rushed back to Hong Kong once again. But this time I could no longer feel the city’s exuberance. It was gray, dreary and damp instead. I could feel its hollow emptiness, frozen in time. Previous day I lost my mother, a pillar in my life, a woman who has a profound impact on me, molding me into who I am today. I was consumed with sadness, but mostly besieged with guilt. How come I was thousands of miles away from her? What could I have done differently to be with her before her passing? Did she suffer during the final moments of her life? Could she feel the pain? Was she thinking about me, my dad and my sister? Where would she go after this life? Was there indeed a place called heaven where she could continue to live and watch over us? These were some of the million thoughts rushing through my mind upon hearing the sad news.
As I tried to regain composure, I started to think about what losing my mother means to me. No one loves you like your mother. She knows you better than anybody else. We Chinese have this metaphor: we think growing up is like a mother’s unleashing you from under her protective wings. Bit by bit. Eventually she let go of her leash, setting you free. You are on your own. But the older you get and perhaps farther away you are from her, the stronger the grip you have onto her—the leash is invisible but you know it is there for you when you need it. You feel the ultimate closeness drawn to her. When she passes on, there is a certain sense of being adrift, unmoored without the foundational support she has provided your entire life. While I feel this huge void in my heart right now, I also feel my mother’s presence with me when I breathe in and breathe out.
I thought my mother was the most remarkable woman ever.
She was born in pre-communist China to a prominent family, on December 8th, 1930. The middle of three siblings, she had an older sister and a younger brother. Her father was a banker and her mother a housewife. He was a good provider, hardworking, progressive, and a man of vision and integrity. Unlike many Chinese parents during that era who gave all the attention and privilege to boys, my grandfather insisted that my mother receive good education. So she did. She went all the way to college, enrolled in a top all-girl college until Mao Zedong came into power in 1949. Mao’s promise of a new China had brought out unprecedented exuberance and enthusiasm among China’s idealistic youth. My mother was one of them. Barely 19 years of age, unfazed by giving up her comfortable life at home, she left her ”silver spoon” behind and joined Mao’s revolution. Unbeknown to herself at the time, her life had later turned into a rollercoaster ride.
For those of you who have read Ms. Nien Zheng’s marvelous autobiography Life and Death in Shanghai, you may have already gotten a glimpse of China’s modern history: exciting and hopeful at times but sad and heart-breaking at others–from a war-torn nation, to a communist regime under the iron fist of Mao, to the great famine and the unimaginable Cultural Revolution. Mao’s era was nothing short of misery and brutality. Any remnants of wealth were an indication of opposition to his power which would be crushed by all means. Any individuals whose opinions dared to deviate slightly from his were deemed “counter-revolutionaries” and would meet their fate by persecution. Millions died through starvation, forced labor and execution under Mao’s regime. If you think Stalin’s Soviet Union was bad enough, Mao’s China was the evil twin.
For my grandfather, Mao’s China also meant no private assets were allowed. His bank was confiscated and properties taken away. He was put in jail. His crime? Stealing money from his own bank! All attempts to make him confess to the charges of embezzlement failed; all efforts to indoctrinate him were met by a steadfast and fearless refusal to accept the terms offered by his interrogators. But in the end, perhaps in the hope of sparing him and his loved ones from further mental torture and humiliation, he committed suicide in jail. The irony was all this happened while my mother was away fighting for Mao’s revolution. Decades later, when my grandparents’ properties were symbolically returned to their family, my mother chose not to claim her share of the inheritance, leaving it all to my aunt.
During all these years I had known her, my mother had not mentioned a thing about her life before me. Each time I attempted to find some answers from her, she would simply say, “Not worth telling it again.” Years later after I had settled in America, I was able to gather bits and pieces of her story from my aunt—my uncle’s wife. I started to realize that the memories must have been too painful for my mother to revisit. This time at my parents’ home, while digging through my mother’s treasure boxes, I discovered a photo. It was taken about 8-9 years ago. She and my uncle were visiting my grandparents’ graveyard in their hometown, Chengdu, Sichuan Province. On the picture, my mother was kneeling down, holding a stack of burnt incense in front of my grandparents’ tomb–burning incense is an old Chinese tradition to pay respect to our ancestors. The anguish and sorrow were written all over her face. She was crying, and crying uncontrollably. I was deeply touched. My mother, the woman I had known for being reserved, observant, and yet capable, disciplined and confident, had rarely shown her vulnerable side in front of other people, not even her loved ones. Here she finally gave herself in, pouring all her emotions out. Looking at the photo, I couldn’t imagine how much guilt and agony she had buried in her heart for all these years! I was in immense awe of my mother.
After the Korean War, my mother joined a West Point equivalent army institute, teaching mathematics to male officers while finishing up her bachelor’s degree in Statistics. There she met my father. Their life and love stories would later unfold like a Hollywood tearjerker. Under Mao’s iron fist, China had been through unimaginable human catastrophes one after another, and the “Brand New China” Mao had propagated before 1949 had turned into a giant human tragedy brewing pot–millions died through persecution, starvation and forced labor. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution had become symbols of human suffering and ultimately, the epitome of human resilience.
During that time period, my mother’s privileged family background deemed her an “enemy of the state.” My father’s gutsy courage to speak up his mind about China’s cruel reality “earned” him forced labor in Siberia, farming in the Northeast, and studying Mao’s doctrines in re-education camps. For the next decade or so, my mother followed my father from one Gulag to another, sometimes together and other times on heels, enduring mental and physical hardships I couldn’t even start to imagine. As a result, my sister and I were brought up mostly by my paternal grandmother during our formative years.
When the Cultural Revolution ended, my parents were finally able to settle back home with us. My mother dived right into her line of work, trailblazing her way into a world of math and numbers dominated by men. She quickly became one of the most sought after statisticians at her workplace, often traveling to places to attend conferences, give talks and work on number-related projects. But because of her family background, she had been kept outside the door of “Chinese Communist Party” throughout her career. Like many people of her time, my mother’s youthful exuberance about Mao’s new China was ultimately squelched by Mao himself, perhaps the biggest tragedy of her generation.
For anyone whose life experience had a slight similarity to my mother’s, s/he may have already succumbed to the physical and mental torture, but for my mother, the suffering and anguish didn’t dampen her spirit; rather, they strengthened her character. No complaints. No regrets. No second guesses. She continued to charge on with her life like a real soldier. To me she had transcended everything I knew about human resilience.
In this time of loss and reflection, I have had so many memories about my mother come washing over me. One favorite story involved how she used clothes to subtly express her feminine side. In Mao’s China, women were not allowed to celebrate their feminine side in any shape or form. No skirts. No high heels. No make-ups. Not even waves of long hair. Women were all dressed like men: blouses and pants in color black, blue, gray, white or army green. Any deviation from that was deemed counter-revolutionary. Growing up I was always so impressed at how my mother put together each and every day. Yes, she followed the Party’s dress code, but her blouses were wrinkle free and pants crease sharp. Often she amped up her fashion by showing a hint of bright color through the collar of the shirts she wore underneath her dark-colored blouses. Refreshing and endearing. This little gesture had set her far apart from the crowd, and she had kept her fashion sense and sensibility till the last day of her life.
My mother left many gifts to me, but perhaps the most significant gift she passed on to me is her teaching of “believe in yourself” and “get up where you fall.” I call it the Girl Power. Growing up as the younger of two girls in the pre-one-child-policy China, I was keenly aware of the many brothers and sisters my neighborhood friends typically had; some even went so far as to have 4-5 sisters until a baby brother descended to the family. Suffice to say, I was part jealous and part grateful. When I grew older, I realized just how much boys were preferred in my culture and how important for a family to have one. I was curious to find out why my parents didn’t continue to produce a male heir. Were they ever regretted? I often wondered. One day I raised this question to my mother. She looked at me amused and burst out: “How silly! Boys are trouble makers!” That was that. But the story my father once told me had me love my mother all the more. After finding out another girl had joined the Zhao family, my paternal grandmother lobbied many times in vain for a grandson, but every time my mother would tell her: “Why do we need a boy when we already have two beautiful girls?”
My mother truly believed in the Girl Power. She was not a person of many words, but every time she spoke, her words were authentic and carried tremendous weight. She often said to me: “So long as you set your mind on things you like, you will succeed.” Growing up I had never heard her label such and such “are for boys only,” or such and such “are not good for girls.” Rather, she encouraged me to play with boys, even if that meant to be rough and tumble. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I spent 6 months with her in her re-education camp—my happiest childhood memory. All day long I ran around with the local kids, chasing dogs, catching flies, playing hide and seek in the corn mazes. In the evening I would come back to our small cottage with cuts and bruises all over my body, sometimes in tears. My mother would check on them, wash off the dirt, pat on the injured spot and say something like “You are fine. Go have some fun tomorrow.” Perhaps because of her support on my back, I never felt subpar to boys, and always happy to take on challenges, mental or physical. Years later, these characters had served me well when I was thousands of miles away from home, on my own feet, reaching for the star. After her passing, while organizing her treasures, I found an army medal of honor she had received decades ago. Along with it was a certificate issued by China’s most respected and all-time military leader: General Zhu De. Her achievement? “Dedication to her teaching.” She was only 22 at the time. I was in immense awe of her.
My mother was the biggest fan to my sister and me. She had been there for us every step of the way even when I had my share of the terrible teenage rebellion. I loved that she encouraged me to follow my heart’s desire, but I also liked that she was not shy of giving me her input to my opinions. In my culture, science and engineering were considered superior to social science and liberal arts. They were core skills that would likely to grow with age, people say. They were also safe haven from political persecution as far as you stayed away from critical and independent thinking. A famous Chinese saying goes like this: “Mastering of math, physics and chemistry will take you to the top of the world!” Not surprisingly, all China’s leaders have engineering background. But I loved storytelling, and I was a thinker. So when I decided to apply for colleges, I wanted to study social science, like journalism. My mother cheered on my decision, but at the same time pointed out the pros and cons as a journalist, namely, lack of independent journalism in China. And she was right—journalism in China was merely a lip reading of the official Party line. So in the end I didn’t apply for journalism schools, but was admitted into a top university in Beijing known for its training ground for China’s future diplomats. The best decision for me!
When someone you love dies, it makes you wonder what happens in death. We Chinese believe in after life. We send our loved ones to heaven and their souls stay with us. For the first few months after their passing, we visit their graveyards every few weeks, burning incense to pay respect to them, bringing food to them, talking to them, checking on their life on the other side. These moments are sacred through which we are forever connected, and they are part of us who live on. I have brought my mother’s spirit with me back home and it will stay with me forever.
Upon my return from China, I soaked myself in a Yoga class. It was taught by a friend of mine, that younger, fun-loving quintessential Yogi girl. Her class is typically upbeat, reflective. This time, at start of the class, she read a short essay to us, a touching, beautiful essay, bringing many tears to my eyes. I am sharing it here:
“Life is so ephemeral. Here one day and gone the next. You never know when your life is going to change in an instant. Cherish each blessing in your life. Life is so delicate and tender. Take nothing for granted because you may wake up one day to find everything is changed forever. No matter how much you want it back, you’ll never turn back the clock to a time gone by. Take the time now to appreciate the gifts that you have in life. Your body, your breath, your family, your friends. All the love that surrounds you, all the love you heart. It’s all that matters.”
I can feel you inside me, Mom, your love and support! I know you would love to see us continue to embark on what life bestows on us.
I love you Mom!