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My First Return Trip to China

Thomas Wolfe's admonition that “you can't go home again” notwithstanding, I returned to the land of my birth after an absence of 33 years. I was born in Nanjing and spent a good part of my childhood in Chongqing. In November 1937, Japanese forces were approaching Nanjing; the government decided to move to Sichuan, taking with it all the institutions of higher learning. My father was Dean of the College of Science (with chemical and electrical engineering departments which were useful to the national war efforts) at the University of Nanking. Therefore, as a seven year old, I travelled with my parents and siblings from Nanjing to Wuhan on a river steamer crowded with faculty, staff, families, students, library books and laboratory equipment. After a month in Wuhan, Father managed to hire enough smaller boats (with armed escorts against river pirate raids) to take the College to Chongqing further up the Yangzi.

We were refugees then, so my childhood journey up the Yangzi was not a pleasure cruise, whereas my trip down the river in 1980 certainly was. At least it was a pleasure cruise planned for the 95 international tourists who were among the first to sight-see in the People’s Republic. The tour was organized by Lindblad Travel, a company with a reputation of “elite” tours led by experts to such places as Antarctica and the Galápagos, and now China. In 1980 China was beginning to develop its tourism industry, and was courting high-profiled tourists. On this trip, the renowned ornithologist Roger Tore Petersen (1908-1996), whose guides had changed bird migratory patterns in North America, was along to look at the birds in China. Sherpa Tanzing Norgay (1914-86), who, with Edmund Hillary (1919-2008), had been the first to ascend to the top of Mount Everest in 1953, was there to help the tourists enhance their appreciation of the Chinese mountains. I was the Sinologist. Not only was I Chinese and boasted a doctorate in Chinese History, I spoke all the dialects up and down the Yangzi.

We spent the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) in Chongqing. My parents had been living in New York since 1945, where my father was at the United Nations. My siblings and I, chaperoned by an aunt, were in Nanjing before joining our parents in 1947. So I had some recollections of Chongqing and Nanjing.

I finished my secondary school in New York, went to college and graduate school and started a teaching career. I also married and became a wife and mother, but, unlike most of my generation of married women with children, I did not take on the role of a full-time housewife. With family, friends and work, we had paid scant attention to what was going on in China. In 1975, we moved to Hong Kong. My parents, who had kept up with relatives and friends in China throughout the decades, were more aware of what had been taken place—the food rationing, for instance, and the Cultural Revolution—were not enthusiastic about my living so close to China. They worried about my talking too much. “Do not express your opinion on any and all subjects,” they had admonished.

It certainly did not occur to them that I would be visiting China in person, and as a talker.

Having accepted the fact that I was going to China, my parents handed me a list of people to visit. It was fortuitous that my tour included Chongqing and Nanjing where their relatives and friends, all in their 70s and 80s, still dwelt. By the time I next visited the cities, they were all gone.

Our first stop was Shanghai. There I found Professor Tang, who was a sociologist and a widow. Except for repeating the sentiment for three hours that she missed my parents, Professor Tang was positive about the new China. When liberation took place she was in America. To return to Nanjing was definitely the right move, she said. She was touted as a patriot to have returned to serve the Revolution. Her children attended good schools and she herself was assigned to a prestigious university. She published one of the earliest scholarly studies on sexual attitudes and behavior of Chinese women.

In Chongqing the tour boarded two busses to the Friendship Hotel, the only hostel “suitable” to entertain foreigners at that time. Huge crowds of idle people, clad in blue or olive green “Sun Yat-sen (Mao) jackets” with their mouths wide open, glared at the tourists. I was troubled by the spaces inside their mouths where teeth should be. I was also more annoyed by the comments they were making on the foreigners, but I was comforted to hear the Chongqing dialect, in which I still recite my multiplication table.

Superficially, the city had not changed. Chongqing, at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangzi Rivers, is a city with almost no flat ground. The hills are so steep that it remains the only city in China where bicycle is not a common sight. When I spoke with my mother about the trip, the first question she asked was if the houses on the hillsides were still there.

I knew what was on her mind. When the family arrived at Chongqing in 1937 we lived in such a house, with no electricity, no running water, or any evidence of modern sanitation. There was already in residence, moreover, a colony of rats. Mother did not complain about the lack of facilities, but she had to do something to prevent the rats from joining her family at table and as we slept. A woman of infinite resources, she sent for a number of crude bamboo buckets. She then placed the table and chair legs as well as the bed posts in these buckets, and filled them with water, thereby preventing the rats from disturbing us by simply drowning them.

In 1980, living conditions for the Chongqing populace did not appear to have changed. Houses still dotted the hillside, except whereas the earlier houses were topped with grey tiles, the roofs of 1980 were covered cardboards or tin sheets.

A local guide accompanied me to visit where we lived after our brief sojourn in the local house. Father had “borrowed” space from the missionary Qiujing Middle School for the College of Science Chongqing campus. The college building, which had survived numerous air-raids from 1938 to 1942, provided space for classes, offices, libraries and laboratories, student dormitories as well as faculty apartments. The place looked dilapidated but still felt familiar. As I was voicing aloud whether this was the house my father had built, a shrunken, unkempt man, who had been following us with curiosity, came forward and asked me my father’s name. Before I even had a chance to respond, the man pronounced: “You must be Wei Peh T’i.” Trying to keep control of my emotions, I asked the man his name. He simply replied that he was “Lao Li” (Old Li), as if I should know who he was.

I asked my mother who said “Oh. Lao Li was the College janitor”. Then, I remembered! He was always around when my siblings and I climbed the trees to catch cicadas during the hot summer afternoons when we were supposed to be napping. We never caught any cicadas but Lao Li made sure that we did not fall out of the trees, either. Among the duties he performed for us personally was packing our household goods when we returned to Nanjing. In the carton containing old porcelain bowls. Lao Li had placed bars of sturdy laundry soap of no monetary value. What was the result? The soap bars were intact, but the rest of the box contained shards, instead of what, in time, would have become valuable antique china.

The tourist group arrived in Nanjing by river steamer on the Mid-Autumn Festival, an occasion for all Chinese to return to their native homes to celebrate the harvest. The Deputy Director of the Nanjing Tourist Bureau, a friendly woman, came to the dock to meet us. She somehow knew that I was, too, a “native coming home for the Mid-Autumn.” She handed me two moon cakes and was so effusive in welcome that I was deeply touched.

I hired a car from the hotel to visit the people on my parents’ list, the entire day for 20 yuan. I was relieved to find all of them alive, but was saddened by their living conditions. It was also taxing to have to tell each about my parents and to witness their emotional responses. Born at the turn of the 20th century, these women and men had faced wars and revolutions all their lives, while making valuable contributions to their country’s modernization. As I tried to remember every word so that I could repeat them verbatim to my parents, I conjured up a clever scheme. I presented my two moon cakes, receiving two in return. This courtesy was repeated at all the homes, so, when I finished, I only had two moon cakes, instead of more than a dozen. These I left with my aunt, who did not feel she needed to feed me more moon cakes.

I went to visit my childhood home at Number 11 Pingcang Lane, today next door to the Nanjing Center of Johns Hopkins University. The lawn, the grape arbor, the persimmon trees, and the hedges of sour cherries were no longer there. At first I did not recognize the house, but the two Christmas trees my parents planted in 1930 and 1931 were there still, taller than the house and very, very crooked. The house had been transformed into a childcare centre for university personnel. A grandfather was watching a child playing on a jungle gym.

My family’s closest relations were my father’s first cousins. In 1980 they were still living in the house where my father grew up. It was a house with courtyards built in the early years of the 20th century. Four generations of the family had lived in it comfortably. Father’s cousin, Aunt Ruth, was presiding over the houseful of residents when I visited. About a dozen members of the family were squeezed into a small corner of the courtyard as other spaces were occupied by “strangers” assigned by the neighborhood watch. The house had been turned into an urban commune! Aunt Ruth told me, “pay no attention to these people; they are not family.”

Aunt Ruth majored in Biblical Studies at Ginling College. She collected books in Chinese, English, Greek, Hebrew and Latin; and also owned an Underwood typewriter. The Red Guards came and dug up her floors. They found nothing, but they took away all her books and her typewriter. In 1980, just before my visit, all the items were returned in good condition.

Again, during the entire stay in Nanjing, we were followed by staring “natives” remarking on the “foreigners.” This time, they included me as a member of the tour. “Look, this foreigner can speak the Nanjing dialect. She is speaking the dialect of 30 years ago!”

At this point, the ditty known to all Chinese children came to mind.

I left my home as a youth, and now I return an aged person.
My accents have not changed, but my hair has turned gray.
A child sees me, but there is no recognition,
With a smile, he asks: "Oh Guest, where have you come from?"

Thomas Wolfe or not, I was glad I went home.