Searching for the China of her childhood.

By Betty Rugh Elder | Our train from Canton to Changsha rocks and clacks its way through the night. The girls are asleep on the upper bunks in our compartment and Dave slumbers on the lower one across from me. I lie awake and think about coming home.

The time is 1974, when the Cultural Revolution is in full-sway. After many years, I bring out my memories of Changsha and look through them. Here’s one of the road that went past the hospital where I was born. The road was called the Ma Lou (pronounced ma low,in the Hunan dialect), meaning “the Great Horse Road,” but there were no horses. It served as a major thoroughfare for foot traffic, rickshaws, and carts moving in and out through the north gate of the city. 

Elder (in light dress, seated on a toy rickshaw) with her playmates in Changsha.

When I was very young, I rode on my mother’s lap in a rickshaw or on the back of my parents’ bicycles in a wicker seat made especially for me. In my early teens, I navigated the Ma Lou on my own bicycle. Vendors called out their wares—handmade straw sandals, mats of woven bamboo, stacks of “ghost money” to be burned at funerals, ensuring wealth for departed relatives in the afterlife. I always stopped to watch one particular man who sold miniature animals perched on bamboo wands—tiny exuberant dragons and delicate phoenixes with plumage of many colors, blown from hot melted sugar as if fashioned from molten glass. 

Elder’s house in Changsha in 1943.

The compound where we lived was a sanctuary for birds. My mother often pointed out the iridescent flash of a flycatcher through the trees. And there was the oriole who came each year to nest in the camphor tree outside my bedroom window. I was never able to spot him or any member of his family, but we located his nest, a bag of twigs hanging up in the shadows of the tree. My father could whistle the notes of his song so perfectly that it fooled the oriole into answering him. I learned to approximate the oriole’s notes, but I could not reproduce the sweet and fluid trills my father achieved. Throughout our days in China, the oriole’s song was the signal my father used to let us know he was approaching home at the end of the day. Whenever I heard it, I knew the three of us would be together again and everything was all right.

Under the syncopated rhythm of the train’s progress I whisper-whistle the oriole’s song to myself, and I am engulfed by an unexpected wave of longing. 

The darkness outside now is lighter. A black backdrop of ancient hills moves slowly past against the pre-dawn sky. As the light increases, it reveals the rose-colored soil of Hunan. Yes, I say to myself with a thrill of recognition. Yes. I am here. This is where I have always been.

The train pulls in at precisely 7:59 a.m. I take one last look out the window, searching for something familiar. The old railway station used to be a noisy, dirty, smelly, smoky, colorful, crowded place with people running here and there through clouds of steam and shouting to each other in earthy Hunan tones, last-minute passengers pushing onto already crowded cars, and vendors reaching up with a final snack to people who leaned out the windows to pay with banknotes so worn that they could have been mistaken for scraps of old rags.

But this station seems quite new. The walls are painted a light blue and white. The platform is a gray expanse of cement crowded with quiet and soft-spoken people who look neither happy nor unhappy, neither hurried nor idle. There are no vendors here. The only splashes of color I notice are the bright hair ribbons on a little girl holding her father’s hand and a quotation from Chairman Mao on a wall, painted in gold on a red background.

A man dressed in a well-cut Mao suit steps forward and introduces himself in faintly Oxbridge English as Mr. Zhang, our guide and interpreter. 

In the brief time we have in Changsha, Dave and I try to learn as much as we can about this “new China” and how it works. We visit Chairman Mao’s birthplace, communes, factories, schools, a department store, clinics and pharmacies, and day-care centers. 

The day comes when we have arranged to meet old friends—old friends, that is, of my parents. Mr. Zhang had asked if there was anyone I would like to see, and so it seemed all right to give him my list.

The person I have been particularly anxious to see is Mr. Ying, who had been dean of the school where my father taught. I remember him coming to our house almost every day to discuss school affairs with my father. I remember hearing my father and him through the open door of my father’s study, their voices rising and falling, punctuated sometimes with laughter and sometimes with dry sniffs from Mr. Ying, who had the habit of briefly flaring his nostrils and breathing in through his nose when he was about to make a suggestion. 

After a couple of days, Mr. Zhang says he has found everyone on the list—yes, even Mr. Ying. 

All six of our guests are waiting for us in the lobby when we come downstairs. Mr. Ying is standing apart from the rest, dressed in a dull blue Mao suit that hangs loosely from his shoulders. He looks a little bewildered but otherwise much the same, a little older perhaps—after all, he is in his seventies, a little stooped; and thinner, the skin pulled even more tightly over his cheekbones than I remember. I go up to him and take his hand in both of mine. 

We walk into a private dining room where there is one large round table laden with wineglasses and plates of appetizers. 

“Well, qing, qing, qing!” I invite enthusiastically. “Please!” Dave and I begin putting food on their plates. From then on, dish after delicious dish is brought in, but our guests eat mostly what we serve them—token amounts only. 

Tonight the conversation is measured and low-key, marked by periods of silence. Our guests, even Mr. Ying, ask nothing beyond inquiring about our health, and initiate no conversation with us or with each other. 

As time drags on, my joy at seeing them freezes to a numb charade of careful courtesy while I search for innocuous topics of conversation that I hope will carry us safely to the end of the meal. I cannot ask them about the one event they all have shared and which must be occupying all our thoughts during this interminable meal, the last event that connected us: the mass meeting or rally held to denounce my father 23 years before, in 1951. The unacknowledged occurrence of this event lies over us like a blanket, muting all discourse and deadening all emotion. In this muffled atmosphere I cannot bring myself to commit the hypocrisy of proposing the obligatory toast to “friendship between the people of the United States and the People’s Republic.” Nor can I salute our past friendship or “the good old days,” because that would suggest nostalgia for all the Communists have fought against. So the wine remains untasted.

On our last day in Changsha, we visit the old boys-school compound where I grew up, now the campus of the Hunan Medical University. I recognized my childhood home as one recognizes a dear friend in a body now shriveled with age and twisted by paralysis. Dwarfed by the grim buildings around it, the house stands alone with shabby dignity in a bare dirt yard that looks recently swept. Someone explains that the house now accommodates several families and single professors. Our hosts lead us around to the side and up a flight of steps into a hall where our bathroom used to be. We turn toward the front of the house to my parents’ bedroom.

They have gone to so much trouble for this moment, I know I must not disappoint them. The cold gray light of winter pours through the room’s bay window. I feel the surface of my face stretch in a delighted smile. 

Dreamlike, I hear myself move into happy commentary: “Here’s where my parents’ bed was,” I say, “and my mother’s desk!” At last our hosts are smiling, sharing my moment of joyful rediscovery. I hear my voice chatter on.

But inwardly I am silent, for this room is really empty. The room that I remember is not here. That room was in another time, another place, another life.

It is 1982, six years after the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death and the arrests of other hard-line Communist leaders. Earlier in the year, Dave and I received an invitation from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing to visit some of the hospitals that were given large supplies of up-to-date pacemakers as a result of Dave’s work in humanitarian aid. 

Once we were in China, I realized I had to see Mr. Ying. My father had died the previous year, at the age of 81. Mr. Ying was also in his eighties. I would never forgive myself if I left without seeing him. So, giving our hosts short notice, I forsook Beijing for Changsha.

Now, in his modest apartment, we talk long past nightfall at the supper table lit by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Eight years ago, he says, he was living in a shed outside the city; his job was to ladle sewage out of latrines into wooden buckets, which he then pulled in a cart to the fields, where it was dispensed as fertilizer. Mrs. Ying, who lived in the city, brought him his food.

Mr. Ying goes on. One day, he says, a cadre—a Communist party worker—appeared at his shed and told him he must come to a dinner the next night at a hotel with Dwight Rugh’s daughter and her family. “What?” Mr. Ying asked, bewildered. For decades he had been punished for his friendship with us and his loyalty to my father. Now, out of the blue, he was to associate with us again? It sounded like entrapment. “I can’t do it. I have no clothes,” Mr. Ying said, looking down at his rags. But the cadre said he must be ready when a van came to pick him up the next evening.

The next day Mrs. Ying went around to her neighbors and borrowed enough clothes for Mr. Ying to come to our dinner decently dressed.

Now my eyes sting with tears. What fear, what embarrassment, what great trouble had we caused with our naive notions of hospitality and reunion?

I had not known that Mr. Ying refused to testify against my father at the “trial” in the gymnasium. From then on he was made the target for all the anti-American feeling, paranoia, and propaganda that would have been directed at my father had he been there—only worse, because Mr. Ying was Chinese, one of their own, who ostensibly had betrayed them

Some other extraordinary men whose life work, like Mr. Ying’s, had been with Western institutions, were so harassed and humiliated that they killed themselves. But not Mr. Ying. A devout Christian, he promised God two things: one, he says, leaning forward and holding up a gnarled finger, that he would never kill himself, and two, raising another finger, that he would never speak against my father. “I kept my promise,” he says, and leans back deliberately in his chair. “I am still here.”

We sit some moments in silence. With those four words, Mr. Ying has bridged the separation between the past and the present.

Finally I say, “I’m very glad you are.”

Betty Rugh Elder GNu’77 spent most of her first 16 years (in the 1930s and ’40s) living in China. Her father served there as an educator and representative from Yale-in-China until 1951, when he was publicly denounced and expelled. Two decades later, during the Cultural Revolution, Elder returned to her childhood home for the first time. This column is excerpted from her book, The Oriole’s Song: An American Girlhood in Wartime China (EastBridge). A retired nurse practitioner, she lives in Philadelphia.

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