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The Shock Of Going Home Again

Letter From Weigongcun


With four of us in the backseat, our taxi felt cramped during the four-hour ride from Beijing. But when we finally reached the village of Weigongcun at the edge of the mountains, the car suddenly seemed huge. The dirt streets were so narrow that our driver could barely maneuver. And they were so deeply rutted by mule carts that we had to get out and walk from time to time to lighten the load.

Mama -- my mother-in-law, Bing-wen Yang -- was returning from the U. S. to her birthplace for the first time in 55 years, as much out of a sense of obligation to her relatives as out of curiosity. Her younger brother from Beijing, my husband Paul's Fifth Uncle, had come along as a guide. But still, we got lost in Weigongcun. The village of 3,000 is so remote that a taxi must surely have been an oddity. Yet it drew scarcely a glance.

Mama got impatient with our meanderings. She stopped two villagers and asked for -- no, demanded -- directions: "I come back to my hometown after so many years, and no one will help me find my way?" Plodding and dull-eyed, the farmers directed us to Third Uncle's house. Soon, a contingent of aunts, uncles, and cousins was rushing toward us with their arms outstretched.

Mama, now 77, had last seen the family as a new bride on a short visit. She hadn't lived in the village since she was 10 years old. As the daughter of a prosperous landowner, she was seldom allowed into the village streets and spent her days in a spacious house with brick floors and stone patios -- a privileged little girl.

Third Uncle lives in a three-room stone house with packed-dirt floors and paper windows that let in little light. The beds are kangs, raised platforms heated from below by a charcoal brazier. The colors of the prints on the wall are faded. Corn dries in the courtyard, eyed by scrawny chickens. But some things have improved since Mama left. The village has gained electricity and running water. That means a single light bulb in each room, lit only in the evening, and a cold water faucet in the courtyard. The aunts and cousins fired up the wok and piled on dish after dish of beans, lotus roots, cauliflower, and mushrooms, with bits of pork, as well as millet gruel and pan-fried bread. Mama hardly touched anything as everyone else dug in with chopsticks. When I asked for a spoon to feed my four-year-old daughter, Emily, none could be found. So Emily got Granola bars, brought from Seattle. Taking her to the outhouse was an experience I hope to forget soon.

After the meal, Third Uncle's son -- Paul's cousin -- proudly showed us his new house at the edge of town. It is made of red brick, with four rooms, cement floors, a porch, and a lush green vegetable garden overflowing with leafy cauliflower, tomato plants, and raspberry bushes.

But the cousin doesn't live there. He works a factory job in Xian, more than 500 miles away, and only comes home occasionally. His wife lives in the new house with their two unemployed sons, 18 and 20. The boys finished high school, which is fortunate, since the school recently closed. But there is no work for them here, and they are not allowed to move to a city. This village, unlike ones near the cities, doesn't have a single factory. It relies solely on the surrounding fields of wheat, millet, sweet potatoes, and cotton.

"So many new houses, all made of brick!" I remarked to the relatives. "People must be getting richer."

"No," responded one uncle darkly. "A new house is built each time a son gets married. The population just keeps growing, and each house eats up good farmland."

BITTER YEARS. Back at Third Uncle's house, I noticed the old man weeping softly in a quiet corner. He was, as I suspected, moved by seeing his sister again for the first time since he was eight years old. But there was something more. As I spoke to him, he talked about the humble house we were in. Last year, he retired from his factory job in Xian so that his son could take it over. He helped pay for his son's new house, but he doesn't have the $3,000 he needs to build one for himself. He gets a pension of about $15 a month. At that rate, he'll live out his years on dirt floors.

Third Uncle cries easily. Forty years of communism have left him emotionally scarred. After the Party took over in 1949, the large, comfortable ancestral home where he and Mama grew up was razed and the family scattered to lesser houses around the village. Then, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Third Uncle was accused of being a spy, since his sister, Mama, had fled to Taiwan in 1949 with her husband, a Nationalist official. He was suspended from a tree and beaten, then locked up for months in a tiny, dark cell. He hasn't been the same since.

For the Chinese who fled the Communists, first homecomings are usually full of ambivalence. Every family has its own tale, and it's sometimes painful to look back at the reasons some left and others had to stay. Often, the recriminations are not spoken. But the feeling of guilt, from those who escaped, is always present. It's hard to miss the contrast: the unemployed 20-year-old hoping to become a truck driver and get out of his village, and his 20-year-old cousin, a junior at a fine American university taking a semester in London.

GREENER TREES. For Mama, the sharp differences between what she remembered of Weigongcun and what she had just seen proved overwhelming. After only three hours in the village, she was ready to leave. Her younger sister ran after our taxi as we left, tears streaming down her face. It turned out Mama had been aghast at the poverty -- the dirt floors, the low standards of hygiene, dung in the street, the outhouse. Her family had had horses, not mules, and back then, streets were cleaned. She had had a sheltered childhood, and, of course, all memories tend to be selective. But the impression stays with me that the Communists reduced life in the village to the lowest common denominator, then raised it only one rung.

By the time Mama got back to Seattle, she had visited more than 80 relatives in six Chinese communities in two weeks. She was uplifted to see that the majority of them, as city dwellers, were much better off than those in Weigongcun. Nonetheless, her first comment after returning to Seattle was: "The trees are greener here." Her two children and five grandchildren are all in the U. S., and her life is here now, too. Mama sees no reason to go back to China again. She has fulfilled her obligation.DORI JONES YANG; BW Seattle Bureau Chief Yang has six years of practice being a Chinese daughter-in-law.

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