It was a hot summer, and the words on every grown-up's lips
were Great Leap Forward. "In fifteen years", someone said, bubbling
with excitement,China will overtake Britain! Then, Baba
(Father) spun the wooden globe next to his desk and pointed
out to me where Britain was. Touching the spot with my fingertip,
I murmured, But its so small. I could not understand why
Baba and his friends were eager for China, a large splash of
green on Babas globe, to surpass another country that was only
a gray speck - smaller than some Chinese provinces. But the
glow of hope on their faces and the confidence in their voices
told me that this Great Leap Forward would be a big accomplishment -
something to be truly proud of. I trusted grownups
in those days with all my heart. This was the summer of 1958,
and I was four years old.
My family lived in Beijing with my maternal grandmother,
Lao Lao, and maternal grandfather, Lao Ye, in a traditional si-heyuan -
a large square yard surrounded by one-story houses
with sloping roofs on each side. Sharing our siheyuan were my
aunts and uncles and a few tenants: the families of a tailor, an
electrician, and a clerk.
Decades before I was born, it was Lao Ye who carefully lined
our roofs with smooth gray tiles and installed large windows
along the brick walls. Above the glass windows were wooden
zhichuang (shutters), which could be propped up by thin sticks to
let in fresh air. When thunder and lightning raged outside, I
would huddle with Lao Lao and watch it through the windowpanes
as she pampered me with sweet tea and cookies. Inside, I
felt safe and cozy.
The garden in our courtyard was my favorite place, with
flowers taking turns to blossom even into late fall. Our golden
daffodils - or water fairies, as Lao Lao called them - proudly
announced the coming of spring. In the summer, pale jasmine
opened up at night, filling our siheyuan with its fragrance. Lao
Lao encouraged the jasmines nimble vines to climb freely up
and around our bamboo fence, forming a blooming wall that
separated the garden from the rest of the yard. Hardy chrysanthemums -
in pink, yellow, and white - flowered from season to
season. It was in this garden, I was told, that I took my first
steps, surrounded by aunts and uncles, their arms reaching out
to catch me if I fell.
Next to the jasmine wall was a tall huaishu (scholar tree).
During the summer months, the sweet scent from its delicate
flowers filled our yard, while the droning songs of cicadas, sheltered
among its abundant leaves, lulled me to sleep. Under the
huaishus cooling shade, Lao Lao set up a permanent place for
two of my favorite things - a little red wooden table and a small
red armchair - gifts from my future uncle-in-law, who had lavished
his craftsmans talent on me in a skillful pursuit of my doting
During the day, the garden became the center of our family
activities, a place where the women sewed and washed, while the
men chatted. For my brother,Di Di, and me, the large open yard
next to the garden was both playground and battlefield. There,
we shared our new tricycle with our neighbors children, taking
turns racing from one end of the yard to the other. Even though
Di Di was a year younger than I, he was faster on the tricycle.
An old courtyard in Beijing
With our friend Ming, the tailors youngest son, hanging on to
the rear rack, Di Di would pedal past every door in our courtyard,
waving to anyone who cared to look. Sometimes, the two
of them would charge straight at me and the other girls until we
screamed and scattered. In this big yard, grownups watched us
from every window, but we felt totally free.
After a family dinner spread on a large square table, spiced
by my uncles jokes and my aunties laughter, each family unit
would retreat to its separate rooms. For me, however, there were
no boundaries as I happily darted in and out of my parents and
grandparents houses. Family was just family, I believed, without
doors or walls. And as the first grandchild, I felt entitled to all of
their hearts as well as their space.
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