“You never know what life will hand you. No one could have predicted that in May of 1949, toward the end of the Chinese Civil War, I would become part of the largest exodus of Mainland Chinese in modern history. As part of my college coursework to fulfill a graduation requirement, my journey began during a routine trip while training on an oceangoing vessel named the Tian Ping-Lun. After a harrowing voyage filled with close calls and narrow escapes, I finally made it to Taiwan, only to learn that an ocean strait that would come to divide the Nationalists and the Communists would also separate me from my parents and offer little hope of ever seeing them again. The only child of a family torn asunder, I would come to regret this trip for my entire life.
My first 10 years were a struggle in Taiwan, while the next 13 were spent forging a new life in the United States. Almost imperceptibly, some 23 years would slip by before I would have a chance to reunite with my mother in 1972. After President Richard M. Nixon visited China and opened it up to the world, I would stay up all night, too excited to fall asleep, having made up my mind to return to the Mainland. Although this would be a short trip of only a few days, it had shades of the Qing play Silang Visits His Mother, in which a son separated by war from his family reunites with his mother for one evening after 15 years. Traveling under a shroud of secrecy and using my overseas Chinese identity, I departed for China at the end of 1972, traversing the same route taken by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — New York to Paris, followed by Cairo, Athens, Karachi, Yangon and Shanghai. The days felt like years as I waited anxiously for my journey to end.
As a Tang poet named He Zhi Zhang once wrote, “If a young man who leaves home returns when he is older, he finds that its essence remains unchanged, even if its appearance has aged some.” As soon as I set foot back in my native town, I was flooded with myriad emotions following 23 years of separation. To facilitate our reunion, my mother was brought by the authorities from Jiading Malu Zhongxing, a village outside Shanghai, to the city itself, where she stayed temporarily with relatives. When I arrived, I imagined my mother would be waiting with excitement outside the front door to greet me, that I would embrace her tightly and apologize for the last 23 years. I never imagined, though, that she would be gravely ill and confined to a bed, unable to get up on her own. Seeing her emaciated face shocked me. My mother was only in her 60s at the time, but a serious case of diabetes had led to heart disease and a near loss of vision in both eyes. My father, who became an object of political persecution, experienced bouts of anxiety and passed away in 1959. After that, my mother’s identity came to be defined by my father’s perceived guilt. Lonely and helpless, my poor mother suffered both in body and in mind the full extent of life’s bitterness.
As I carefully studied my mother, I noticed that she had the same expression of kindness in her eyes as before. Her aging face was not sunken in at all, which meant her dentures had been repaired. “Since your father passed away, your mother has taken the money you have sent home and deposited it in the bank,” one of my mother’s neighbors told me. “She wanted to wait until her son came home to withdraw it together.”
“Even toward the end of his life, when it came to spending money on clothing and food, your father was as frugal as ever,” the neighbor continued. “But to fulfill your wishes, he had your mother fitted for dentures, in hopes that when you returned, she would have a complete set of sturdy teeth to fill out her face.”
“Please excuse me for a moment,” I said, looking for an excuse to leave. “I need to go wash my hands.”
As I hid inside a small restroom, a wave of emotion that was hard to subdue gripped my chest, as a collective feeling of grief and shame coursed through my entire body. I then burst out in tears. The love my parents shared with each other was authentic, eternal, transcendent — indeed, it was a love that knew no boundaries.
Mother came from a prominent family, but women of that era rarely received an education. Mother was no exception. Virtuous and intelligent, hard-working and frugal, mother evinced a thirst for learning in her daily life. While my family did not have to worry where its next meal was coming from, my father still devoted his entire life to the education and betterment of others, serving as a principal in a countryside elementary school. Consequently, when mother married into the Chao family, she assumed all the responsibilities of managing the household. In former times, brothers, sisters and their spouses would all live under the same roof, just like a small community, which sometimes made things complicated. Particularly for my family, everyone had received some education and thus saw themselves as more socially upward than others.”