The wail of a police siren in the distance tears through my body. Crickets whir in a never-ending chorus of blame. My aunt whimpers in her twin bed at the other end of the screened porch we share—a reminder of the misery and embarrassment from the secrets she and my mother threw at each other during their argument tonight. I try to listen for my mother in her room, but she’s too far away. That silence is painful. My hands grab the bed sheets, and I struggle to focus on an old crack in the ceiling. I’m desperately attempting to hang on, but I’ve been on a precipice since my father’s death, and now I feel as though I’ve been pushed over the edge and am falling.
Everything I thought I knew about my birth, my parents, my grandparents, and who I am has been a lie. A big fat lie. The woman I thought was my mother is my aunt. My aunt is actually my mother. The man I loved as my father was not related to me at all. My real father is an artist in Shanghai whom both my mother and aunt have loved since before I was born. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg—as Auntie May might say. But I was born in the Year of the Tiger, so before the gnawing blackness of guilt about my dad’s death and the anguish I feel about these revelations overpower me, I grip the sheets tighter, set my jaw, and try to force my emotions to cower and shrink before my Tiger ferocity. It doesn’t work.
I wish I could talk to my friend Hazel, but it’s the middle of the night. I wish even more that I could be back at the University of Chicago, because my boyfriend, Joe, would understand what I’m going through. I know he would.
It’s two in the morning by the time my aunt drifts off to sleep and the house seems quiet. I get up and go to the hall, where my clothes are kept in a linen closet. Now I can hear my mother weeping, and it’s heartbreaking. She can’t imagine what I’m about to do, but even if she did, would she stop me? I’m not her daughter. Why should she stop me? I quickly pack a bag. I’ll need money for where I’m going, and the only place I know to get it will bring me more disgrace and shame. I hurry to the kitchen, look under the sink, and pull out the coffee can that holds my mother’s savings to put me through college. This money represents all her hopes and dreams for me, but I’m not that person anymore. She’s always been cautious, and for once I’m grateful. Her fear of banks and Americans will fund my escape.
I look for paper and a pencil, sit down at the kitchen table, and scrawl a note. Mom, I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t understand this country anymore. I hate that it killed Dad. I know you’ll think I’m confused and foolish. Maybe I am, but I have to find answers. Maybe China is my real home…
I go on to write that I mean to find my real father and that she shouldn’t worry about me. I fold the paper and take it to the porch. Auntie May doesn’t stir when I put the note on my pillow. At the front door, I hesitate. My invalid uncle is in his bedroom at the back of the house. He’s never done anything to me. I should tell him good-bye, but I know what he’ll say. “Communists are no good. They’ll kill you.” I don’t need to hear that, and I don’t want him to alert my mother and aunt that I’m leaving.
I pick up my suitcase and step into the night. At the corner, I turn down Alpine Street, and head for Union Station. It’s August 23, 1957, and I want to memorize everything because I doubt I’ll ever see Los Angeles Chinatown again. I used to love to stroll these streets, and I know them better than anyplace else in the world. Here, I know everyone and everyone knows me. The houses—almost all of them clapboard bungalows—have been what I call Chinafied, with bamboo planted in the gardens, pots with miniature kumquat trees sitting on porches, and wooden planks laid on the ground on which to spread leftover rice for birds. I look at it all differently now. Nine months at college—and the events of tonight—will do that. I learned and did so much at the University of Chicago during my freshman year. I met Joe and joined the Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association. I learned all about the People’s Republic of China and what Chairman Mao is doing for the country, all of which contradicts everything my family believes. So when I came home in June, what did I do? I criticized my father for seeming as if he were fresh off the boat, for the greasy food he cooked in his café, and for the dumb TV shows he liked to watch.
These memories trigger a dialogue in my head that I’ve been having since his death. Why didn’t I see what my parents were going through? I didn’t know that my father was a paper son and that he’d come to this country illegally. If I’d known, I never would have begged my dad to confess to the FBI—as if he didn’t have anything to hide. My mother holds Auntie May responsible for what happened, but she’s wrong. Even Auntie May thinks it was her fault. “When the FBI agent came to Chinatown,” she confessed to me on the porch only a few hours ago, “I talked to him about Sam.” But Agent Sanders never really cared about my dad’s legal status, because the first thing he asked about was me.
And then the loop of guilt and sorrow tightens even more. How could I have known that the FBI considered the group I joined a front for communist activities? We picketed stores that wouldn’t allow Negroes to work or sit at the lunch counter. We talked about how the United States had interned American citizens of Japanese descent during the war. How could those things make me a communist? But they did in the eyes of the FBI, which is why that awful agent told my dad he’d be cleared if he ratted out anyone he thought was a communist or a communist sympathizer. If I hadn’t joined the Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association, the FBI couldn’t have used that to push my father to name others—specifically me. My dad never would have turned me in, leaving him only one choice. As long as I live I will never forget the sight of my mother holding my father’s legs in a hopeless attempt to take his weight off the rope around his neck, and I will never ever forgive myself for my role in his suicide.
I turn down Broadway and then onto Sunset, which allows me to continue passing places I want to remember. The Mexican tourist attraction of Olvera Street is closed, but strings of gaily colored carnival lights cast a golden glow over the closed souvenir stands. To my right is the Plaza, the birthplace of the city, with its wrought-iron bandstand. Just beyond that, I see the entrance to Sanchez Alley. When I was little, my family lived on the second floor of the Garnier Building on Sanchez Alley, and now my heart fills with memories of my grandmother playing with me in the Plaza, my aunt treating me to Mexican lollipops on Olvera Street, and my mother taking me through here every day to and from school in Chinatown. Those were happy years, and yet they were also filled with so many secrets that I wonder what in my life was real at all.
Before me, palm trees throw perfect shadows on Union Station’s stucco walls. The clock tower reads 2:47 a.m. I was barely a year old when the train station opened, so this place too has been a constant in my life. There are no cars or streetcars at this hour, so I don’t bother waiting for the light to change and dash across Alameda. A lone taxi sits at the curb outside the terminal. Inside, the cavernous waiting room is deserted, and my footsteps echo on the marble and tile floors. I slip into a telephone booth and shut the door. An overhead light comes on and I see myself in the glass’s reflection.
My mother always discouraged me from acting like a peacock. “You don’t want to be like your auntie,” she always chastised me if she caught me looking in a mirror. Now I realize she never wanted me to look too closely. Because now that I look, now that I really look, I see just how much I resemble Auntie May. My eyebrows are shaped like willow leaves, my skin is pale, my lips are full, and my hair is onyx black. My family always insisted that I keep it long and I used to be able to sit on it, but earlier this year I went to a salon in Chicago and asked to have it cut short like Audrey Hepburn’s. The beautician called it a pixie cut. Now my hair is boy-short and shines even here in the dim light of the phone booth.
I dump the contents of my coin purse on the ledge, then dial Joe’s number and wait for the operator to tell me how much the first three minutes will cost. I put the coins in the slot, and Joe’s line rings. It’s close to 5:00 a.m. in Chicago, so I’m waking him up.
“Hello?” comes his groggy voice.
“It’s me,” I say, trying to sound enthusiastic. “I’ve run away. I’m ready to do what we talked about.”
“What time is it?”
“You need to get up. Pack. Get on a plane to San Francisco. We’re going to China. You said we should be a part of what’s happening there. Well, let’s do it.”
Across the telephone line, I hear him roll over and sit up.
“Yes, yes, it’s me. We’re going to China!”
“China? You mean the People’s Republic of China? Jesus, Joy, it’s the middle of the night. Are you okay? Did something happen?”
“You took me to get my passport so we could go together.”
“Are you crazy?”
“You said that if we went to China we’d work in the fields and sing songs,” I continue. “We’d do exercises in the park. We’d help clean the neighborhood and share meals. We wouldn’t be poor and we wouldn’t be rich. We’d all be equal.”
“Being Chinese and carrying that on our shoulders and in our hearts can be a burden, but it’s also a source of pride and joy. You said that too.”
“It’s one thing to talk about all that’s happening in China, but I have a future here—dental school, joining my dad’s practice… I never planned on actually going there.”
When I hear the ridicule in his voice, I wonder what all those meetings and all his chatter were about. Was talking about equal rights, sharing the wealth, and the value of socialism over capitalism just a way to get in my pants? (Not that I let him.)
“I’d be killed and so would you,” he concludes, echoing the same propaganda that Uncle Vern has recited to me all summer.
“But it was your idea!”
“Look, it’s the middle of the night. Call me tomorrow. No, don’t do that. It costs too much. You’ll be back here in a couple of weeks. We can talk about it then.”
The line goes dead.
I refuse to allow my disappointment in Joe shake me from my plan. My mom has always tried to nurture my best characteristics. Those born in the Year of the Tiger are romantic and artistic, but she has always cautioned me that it’s also in a Tiger’s nature to be rash and impulsive, to leap away when circumstances are rough. These things my mom has tried to cage in me, but my desire to leap is overwhelming and I won’t let this setback stop me. I’m determined to find my father, even if he lives in a country of over 600 million people.
I go back outside. The taxi is still here. The driver sleeps in the front seat. I tap on the window, and he wakes with a jerk.
“Take me to the airport,” I say.
Once there, I head straight for the Western Airlines counter, because I’ve always liked their television commercials. To go to Shanghai, I’ll have to fly to Hong Kong first. To go to Hong Kong, I’ll have to depart from San Francisco. I buy a ticket for the first leg of my journey and board the day’s first flight to San Francisco. It’s still early morning when I land. I go to the Pan Am counter to ask about Flight 001, which goes all the way around the world with stops in Honolulu, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. The woman in her perky uniform looks at me strangely when I pay cash for a one-way ticket to Hong Kong, but when I hand her my passport, she gives me the ticket anyway.
I have a couple of hours to wait for my plane. I find a phone booth and call Hazel’s house. I don’t plan on telling her where I’m going. Joe already let me down, and I suspect Hazel’s reaction would be even worse. She’d warn me that Red China is a bad place and stuff like that—all the usual propaganda we’re both accustomed to hearing from our families.
The youngest Yee sister answers the phone, and she hands me over to Hazel.
“I want to say good-bye,” I say. “I’m leaving the country.”
“What are you talking about?” Hazel asks.
“I have to get away.”
“You’re leaving the country?”
I can tell Hazel doesn’t believe me—because neither of us has been anywhere other than Big Bear and San Diego for weekend excursions with the Methodist church, and college—but she will later. By then, I’ll be somewhere over the Pacific. There’ll be no turning back.
“You’ve always been a good friend,” I tell her. Tears cloud my eyes. “You’ve been my best friend. Don’t forget me.”
“I won’t forget you.” Then after a pause, she asks, “So do you want to go to Bullock’s this afternoon? I wouldn’t mind buying some things to take back to Berkeley.”
“You’re the best, Haz. Bye.”
The click of the receiver going back into the cradle sounds final.
When my flight is called, I board and take my seat. My fingers seek out the pouch I wear around my neck. Auntie May gave it to me last summer before I left for Chicago. It contains three sesame seeds, three beans, and three coppers from China. “Our mother gave these pouches to Pearl and me to protect us when we fled Shanghai,” she told me last night. “I gave mine to you on the day you were born. Your mother didn’t want you to wear it when you were a baby, but she let me give it to you when you went away to college. I’m glad you’ve worn it this past year.” My aunt… My mom… My eyes begin to well, but I fight back the tears, knowing that, if I start to cry, I may never stop.
But how could May have given me up? How could my real father have let me go? And what about my father Sam? Did he know I wasn’t his? May said no one else knew. If he had known, he wouldn’t have killed himself. He would still be alive to throw me out on the street as the disrespectful, shameful, deceitful, troublemaking bastard that I am. Well, I’m out now. My mom and aunt are probably up, and still not speaking to each other but beginning to wonder where I am. I’m glad I’m not there to choose which mother to love and be loyal to, even with all their poisonous secrets, because that’s an impossible choice. Worst, there’s going to be a moment when things calm down and my mom and aunt make peace—and they go over everything again with a fine-tooth comb, as they always do—that they put two and two together and realize that I’m the real source of what happened to my father Sam, not Auntie May. How will they react when it finally sinks in that I’m the one the FBI was interested in, that I’m the one who led Agent Sanders right to our home, causing such devastation? When that happens, they’ll be glad I’m gone. Maybe.
I let go of my pouch and wipe my sweaty hands on my skirt. I’m anxious—who wouldn’t be?—but I can’t let myself worry about how what I’m doing might affect my mom and aunt. I love them both, but I’m mad at them and afraid of what they’ll think of me too—and just like that, I know I’ll always call May my auntie and Pearl my mom. Otherwise I’ll be more confused than I already am. If Hazel were sitting next to me, she’d say, “Oh, Joy, you’re a mess.” Fortunately, she’s not here.
# # #
About a billion hours later, we land in Hong Kong. Some men roll a set of stairs to the plane, and I get off with the rest of the passengers. Waves of heat shimmy off the tarmac, and the air is stiflingly hot, with humidity that’s even worse than when I left Chicago in June. I follow the other passengers into the terminal, down a dingy hall, to a big room with lots of lines for passport control. When my turn comes, the man asks in a crisp British accent, “What is your final destination?”
“Shanghai in the People’s Republic of China,” I answer.
“Stand to the side!” He gets on the phone, and in a couple of minutes two guards come to get me. They take me to the baggage area to retrieve my suitcase, and then I’m led down more shadowy hallways. I don’t see any other passengers, only people in uniforms who stare at me suspiciously.
“Where are we going?”
One of the guards answers my question by roughly jerking my arm. Finally we reach a set of double doors. We push through them and back into the horrible heat. I’m put in the back of a windowless van and told to keep quiet. The guards get in up front, and we start to drive. I can’t see anything. I don’t understand what’s going on and I’m scared—petrified, if I’m honest. All I can do is hang on as the van makes sharp turns and goes over bumpy roads. It pulls to a stop after a half hour. The guards come around to the back of the van. They talk for a few minutes, leaving me inside to worry and sweat. When the doors are opened, I see that we’re on a wharf where a big boat is taking on cargo. The boat flies the flag of the People’s Republic of China—five gold stars on a red background. That same mean guard yanks me out of the van and drags me to the gangplank.
“We don’t want you spreading communism here,” he practically yells at me as he hands me my suitcase. “Get on the boat and don’t get off until you reach China.”
The two guards stand at the bottom of the gangplank to make sure I board. All this is a surprise—an intimidating and unsettling surprise. At the top of the gangplank, I see a sailor. No, that’s not what he’d be called. He’s a crewman, I think. He speaks rapidly to me in Mandarin, the official language of China and a language I don’t feel confident about in its pure form. I’ve heard my mother and aunt converse in the Wu dialect—Shanghainese—my whole life. I believe I know it well but not nearly as well as I do Cantonese, which was the common language in Chinatown. When talking to my family, I’ve always used a little Cantonese, a little Shanghainese, and a little English. I guess I’ll be giving up English entirely from here on out.
“Can you say that again, and maybe a little slower?” I ask.
“Are you returning to the motherland?”
I nod, pretty sure I’m understanding him.
“Good, welcome! I’ll show you where to bunk. Then I’ll take you to the captain. You’ll pay him for your ticket.”
I look back down to the two guards still watching me on the wharf. I wave, like an idiot. And then I follow the crewman. When I was younger, I worked as an extra with my aunt in lots of movies. I was once in a film about Chinese orphans being evacuated by boat from China during the war, and this is nothing like that set. There’s rust everywhere. The stairs are narrow and steep. The corridors are dimly lit. We’re still docked, but I can feel the sway of the water beneath my feet, which suggests that this might not be the most seaworthy vessel. I’m told I’ll have a cabin to myself, but when I see it, it’s hard to imagine sharing the claustrophobically small space with anyone else. It’s hot outside and it may be even hotter in here.
Later I’m introduced to the captain. His teeth are tobacco stained and his uniform is grimy with food and oil. He watches closely when I open my wallet and pay for my ticket. The whole thing is kind of creepy.
On my way back to my cabin, I remind myself this is what I wanted. Run away. Adventure. Find my father. A joyful reunion. Although I only just found out that Z.G. Li is my father, I’d heard about him before. He used to paint my mom and aunt when they were models back in Shanghai. I’ve never seen any of those posters, but I did see some of the illustrations he did for China Reconstructs, a propaganda magazine my grandfather used to buy from under the table at the tobacconist. It was strange seeing my mother’s and aunt’s faces on the cover of a magazine from Red China. Z.G. Li had painted them from memory, and he did so many more times. By then he’d changed his name to Li Zhi-ge, probably in keeping with the political changes in China, according to my mom. My aunt liked to pin the magazine covers with his illustrations to the wall above her bed, so I feel like I already know a bit about him as an artist. I’m sure that Z.G.—or whatever he wants me to call him—will be very surprised and happy to see me. These thoughts temporarily alleviate my concerns about the soundness of the boat and its strange captain.
As soon as we leave Hong Kong harbor, I go to the galley for dinner. It turns out the boat is primarily for returning Overseas Chinese. A different boat leaves Hong Kong every day, I’m told, taking others like me to China. Twenty passengers—all Chinese men—from Singapore, Australia, France, and the United States, have also been brought directly to this boat from other flights and other ships. (What does Hong Kong think will happen if one of us stays overnight or for a week?) Halfway through dinner, I start to feel queasy. Before dessert is served, I have to leave the table because I feel so nauseated. I barely make it back to my room. The smells of oil and the latrine, the heat, and the emotional and physical exhaustion of the last few days hit me hard. I spend the next three days trying to keep down broth and tea, sleeping, sitting on the deck hoping to find cool air, and chatting with the other passengers, who give me all kinds of useless advice about seasickness.
On the fourth night, I’m in my bunk when the rolling of the ship finally eases. We must be passing into the Yangtze River estuary. I’ve been told it will take a few more hours before we veer onto the Whangpoo River to reach Shanghai. I get up just before dawn and put on my favorite dress—a shift of pale blue dotted swiss over white lining. I visit the captain, hand him an envelope to mail when he returns to Hong Kong, and ask if he can change some of my dollars into Chinese money. I give him five twenty-dollar bills. He pockets forty dollars and then gives me sixty dollar’s worth of Chinese yuan. I’m too shocked to argue, but his actions make me realize I don’t know what will happen when I land. Am I going to be treated like I was in Hong Kong? Will the people I encounter be like the captain and take my money? Or will something entirely different happen?
My mother always said China was corrupt. I thought that sort of thing went out with the communist takeover, but apparently it hasn’t disappeared completely. What would my mom do if she were here? She’d hide her cash, as she did at home. When I get back to my cabin, I take out all the money I stole from her can under the sink and divide it into two piles, wrapping the larger amount in a handkerchief and pinning it to my underwear. I take the rest—$250—and put it in my wallet with my new Chinese money. Then I pick up my suitcase, leave the cabin, and disembark.
# # #
It’s 8:00 a.m., and the air is as thick, heavy, and hot white as potato soup. I’m herded with the other passengers into a stifling room filled with cigarette smoke and pungent with the odors of food that’s spent too long without refrigeration in this weather. The walls are painted a sickly pea green. The humidity is so bad that the windows sweat. In America, everything would be orderly, with people standing in lines. Here, my fellow passengers crush forward in a throbbing mass to the single processing kiosk. I linger on the edges because I’m nervous after my experience with passport control in Hong Kong. The line moves very slowly, with numerous delays for reasons I can’t see or intuit. It takes three hours for me to reach the window.
An inspector dressed in an ill-fitting drab green uniform asks, “What is the reason for your visit?”
He speaks Shanghainese, which is a relief, but I don’t think I should tell him the truth—that I’ve come to find my father but I have no clue where he is precisely or how to locate him.
“I’m here to help build the People’s Republic of China,” I answer.
He asks for my papers, and his eyes widen when he sees my U.S. passport. He looks at me and then back at the photo. “It’s good you came this year instead of last year. Chairman Mao says that Overseas Chinese no longer have to apply for entry permits. All I need is something that shows your identity, and you’ve given me that. Would you consider yourself stateless?”
“It’s illegal to travel in China as a U.S. citizen,” he says. “So are you stateless?”
I’m nineteen. I don’t want to seem like an uninformed and ignorant runaway. I don’t want to confess that I don’t exactly know what stateless means.
“I’ve come to China in response to the call for patriotic Chinese from the United States to serve the people,” I say, reciting things I learned in my club in Chicago. “I want to contribute to humanity and help with national reconstruction!”
“All right then,” the inspector says.
He drops my passport in a drawer and locks it. That alarms me.
“When will I get my passport back?”
It never occurred to me that I could be giving up my rights should I ever want to leave China and return to the United States. I feel a door swing shut and lock behind me. What will I do later if I want to leave and I don’t have the key? Then my mother’s and aunt’s faces flash before me and all the tumultuous and sad emotions of our last days together bubble up again. I’ll never go back. Never.
“All personal luggage for Overseas Chinese must be searched,” the inspector states, pointing to a sign that reads, Customs Procedure Governing Preferential Treatment of Personal Luggage Accompanying Overseas Chinese. “We’re seeking contraband items and clandestine remittances of foreign currency.”
I open my bag, and he paws through the contents. He confiscates my bras, which might be amusing if I weren’t so surprised and scared. My passport and bras?
He gives me a stern look. “If the matron were here, she’d take the one you’re wearing. Reactionary clothing has no place in the New China. Please throw out the offending item as soon as possible.” He closes my suitcase and shoves it aside. “Now, how much money have you brought with you? You’ll be assigned to a work unit, but for now we can’t let you enter the country unless you have a way to support yourself.”
I hand him my wallet. He takes half of my dollars and pockets them. I’m glad I have most of my money in my underwear. Then the inspector scrutinizes me, taking in my dotted swiss shift, which I now realize may have been a mistake. He tells me to stay where I am. When he leaves, I worry that this will be a repeat of what happened in Hong Kong, except where would they send me now? Maybe Joe and my uncle were right. Maybe something really bad is about to happen to me. Sweat begins to trickle down the small of my back.
The inspector comes back with several more men dressed in the same drab green uniforms. They wear enthusiastic smiles. They call me tong chih. It means comrade but with the connotation that you are a person of the same spirit, goals, and ambitions. Hearing the word makes me feel much better. See, I tell myself, you had nothing to worry about. They huddle together with me in the middle so our picture can be taken, which explains the delays earlier. Next they show me a wall with framed photos of what they tell me are some of the people who’ve entered China through this office. I see mostly men, a couple of women, and a few families. And they aren’t all Chinese. Some are Caucasians. Where they’re from, I can’t tell, although from their dress they don’t appear to be Americans. Maybe they’re from Poland, East Germany, or some other country in the Eastern Bloc. Soon my photo will be on the wall too. Pretty neat.
Then the inspectors ask where I’ll be staying. That stumps me. They see my uncertainty and exchange worried—suspicious—looks.
“You need to tell us where you’ll be staying before we can let you leave here,” the chief inspector says.
I tilt my head down and peer up at them, suggesting I’m innocent and helpless. I learned this expression from my aunt on a movie set years ago.
“I’m looking for my father,” I confide, hoping they’ll feel sorry for me. “My mother took me away from China before I was born. Now I’ve come home to my right place.” I haven’t lied up to this point, but I need their assistance. “I want to live with my father and help him build the country, but my mother refused to tell me where to find him. She’s become too American.” I crinkle my face at that last word as though it’s the most detestable thing to be on earth.
“What kind of worker is he?” the chief inspector asks.
“He’s an artist.”
“Ah, good,” he says. “A cultural worker.” The men rapidly discuss the possibilities. Then the chief inspector says, “Go to the All-China Art Workers’ Association. I think they just call it the Artists’ Association now, Shanghai branch. They supervise all cultural workers. They’ll know exactly where to find him.”
He writes down directions, draws a simple map, and tells me that the Artists’ Association is within walking distance. The men wish me luck, and then I leave the processing shed and step onto the Bund and into a sea of people who look just like me. Los Angeles Chinatown was a small enclave, and there weren’t that many Chinese at the University of Chicago. This is more Chinese than I’ve seen altogether in my life. A wave of pleasure ripples through me.
I stand on a pedestrian walkway that seems almost like a park edging the river. Before me is a street filled with masses of people on bicycles. It’s just noon, so maybe everyone is on lunch break, but I can’t be sure. Across the street, huge buildings—heavier, grander, and broader than what I’m used to in Los Angeles—sweep along the Bund, following the curve of the Whangpoo. Turning back to the river, I see Chinese naval ships and cargo ships of every shape and size. Dozens upon dozens of sampans bob on the river like so many water bugs. Junks float past with their sails aloft. What seems like thousands of men—stripped to their waists, with light cotton trousers rolled up to the knees—carry bundles of cotton, baskets filled with produce, and huge crates on and off boats. Everyone and everything seems to be either coming or going.
I glance at the map to get my bearings, adjust my suitcase in my hand, make my way through the crowds to the curb, and wait for the bicycles to stop to let me cross. They don’t stop. And there’s no streetlight. All the while I’m being bumped and pushed by the ceaseless flow of pedestrians. I watch others step into the herds of bicycles and daringly cross the street. The next time someone steps off the curb, I follow close behind, hoping I’ll be safe in his wake.
As I head up Nanking Road, I can’t help making comparisons between Shanghai and Chinatown, where most of the people were from Canton, in Kwangtung province in the south of China. My family’s originally from Kwangtung too, but my mother and aunt grew up in Shanghai. They always said the food was sweeter and the clothes were more fashionable in Shanghai. The city was more enchanting—with clubs and dancing, late night strolls along the Bund, and one more thing: laughter. I rarely heard my mother laugh when I was little, but she used to tell stories of giggling with Auntie May in their bedroom, exchanging jokes with handsome young men, and laughing at the sheer joy of being in the exact right place—the Paris of Asia—at the exact right moment—before the Japanese invaded and my grandmother, mother, and aunt had to flee for their lives.
What I’m seeing now certainly isn’t the Shanghai my mother and aunt told me about. I don’t see glamorous women walking along the streets, perusing department store windows for the latest fashions sent from Paris or Rome. I don’t see foreigners who act like they own the place, but Chinese are everywhere. They’re all in a hurry, and there’s nothing stylish about them. The women wear cotton trousers and short-sleeved cotton blouses or plain blue suits. Now that I’m away from the river, the men are better dressed than the dockworkers. They wear gray suits—what my dad derisively called Mao suits. No one looks too thin or too fat. No one looks too rich, and I don’t see any of the beggars or rickshaw pullers that my mother and aunt always complained about.
There’s only one problem. I can’t find the Artists’ Association. Shanghai is a latticework of streets, and soon I’m completely twisted around. I turn down byways and into alleys. I end up in courtyards and dead ends. I ask for directions, but people shove past me or ogle me for the stranger I am. They’re afraid, I think, to talk to someone who looks so out of place. I enter a couple of shops to get help, but everyone says they’ve never heard of the Artists’ Association. When I show them my map, they look at it, shake their heads, and then ungraciously push me out of their shops.
After what seems like hours of being rejected, pointedly ignored, or jostled by crowds, I realize I’m totally lost. I’m also starved and woozy from the heat, and I’m starting to get scared. I mean really, really scared, because I’m in an unfamiliar city halfway around the world from anyone who knows me and people are staring at me because I look so alien in my stupid dotted swiss shift and white sandals. What am I doing here?
I’ve got to hold myself together. I really do. Think! I’m going to need a hotel. I’m going to need to return to the Bund for a fresh start. First, though, I need something to eat and drink.
I find my way back to Nanking Road and after a short walk come to a huge park, where I see a couple of vendor carts. I buy some salty cakes stuffed with minced pork and chopped greens wrapped in a piece of wax paper. At another cart, I buy tea served in a thick ceramic cup, and then sit on a nearby bench. The cake is delicious. The hot tea makes me sweat even more than I already am, but my mom always claimed that a cup of tea on a hot day has a cooling effect. It’s late afternoon and the temperature hasn’t dropped at all. It’s still so humid—and without a hint of a breeze—that I really can’t tell if the tea has a cooling effect or not. Still, the food and the liquid revive me.
This isn’t like any park I’ve been in before. It’s flat and appears to go on for blocks. A lot of it is paved so that it seems like it’s more for mass meetings than for play or recreation. Even so, there are plenty of grandmothers minding small children. The babies are tied in slings to their grandmothers’ backs. The toddlers paddle about in pants split at the crotch. I see one little girl squat and pee right on the ground! Some of the older kids—not one of them over four or five—play with sticks. One grandmother sits on a bench across from me. Her granddaughter looks to be about three and is really cute, with her hair tied up in ribbons so that it sprouts from her head like little mushrooms. The child keeps peeking at me. I must look like a clown to her. I wave. She hides her eyes in her grandmother’s lap. She peers at me again, I wave, and she buries her face back in her grandmother’s lap. We go through this a few times before the little girl wiggles her fingers in my direction.
I take my ceramic cup back to the tea vendor, and when I return to the bench to get my suitcase, the little girl leaves the safety of her grandmother and approaches me.
“Ni hao ma?” I ask. “How are you?”
The little girl giggles and runs back to her grandmother. I really should be going, but the child is so charming. More than that, playing with her gives me a sense that I belong and that everything will work out. She points at me and whispers to her grandmother. The old woman opens a bag, fishes around, and then places something in her granddaughter’s tiny hand. The next thing I know, the little girl is back in front of me, her arm fully outstretched, offering me a shrimp cracker.
The girl smiles at my thank-you. Then she climbs up next to me and starts swinging her legs and jabbering about this and that. I thought I was pretty good at the Shanghai dialect, but I don’t understand her nearly as well as I’d hoped. Finally, her grandmother comes over to where we’re sitting.
“You’ve met our disappointment,” she says. “Next time my husband and I hope for a grandson.”
I’ve heard things like this my entire life. I pat the little girl’s knee, a gesture of solidarity.
“You don’t look like you’re from Shanghai,” the old woman goes on. “Are you from Peking?”
“I’m from far away,” I respond, not wanting to tell my whole story. “I’m here to visit my father, but I’m lost.”
“Where do you need to go?”
I show her my map.
“I know where this is,” she says. “We could take you there, if you’d like. It’s on our way home.”
“I’d be very grateful.”
She picks up her granddaughter, and I pick up my suitcase.
A few minutes later, we reach the Artists’ Association. I thank the old woman. I look through my purse, find the last of a roll of Life Savers, and give them to the little girl. She doesn’t know what to make of it.
“It’s candy,” I explain. “A sweet for a sweet.” A memory of my aunt saying that to me gives me a sharp pang of anguish. I’ve come this far and still my mother and aunt are with me.
After a few more thank-yous, I turn away and enter the building. I was hoping for air-conditioning, but the lobby is just as oppressively hot as the street. A middle-aged woman sits behind a desk in the center of the room. She smiles and motions me to step forward.
“I’m looking for an artist named Li Zhi-ge,” I say.
The woman’s smile fades and blooms into a scowl. “You’re too late. The meeting is almost over.”
I stand there, bewildered.
“I’m not going to let you in there,” she snaps harshly, gesturing in annoyance to a set of double doors.
“You mean he’s in there? Right now?”
“Of course, he’s in there!”
My mother would say it’s fate that I should find my father so easily. But maybe it’s serendipity. Whatever it is, I’m lucky, even if it’s only dumb luck. But I still don’t understand why the receptionist won’t let me in.
“I need to see him,” I plead.
Just then, the doors open and a group of people stream out.
“There he is now,” the receptionist says with a sneer.
She points to a tall man wearing wire-rimmed glasses. His hair is rather long and falls in a loose mop across his forehead. He’s definitely the right age—somewhere around forty-five—and strikingly handsome. He’s dressed in a Mao suit, but this one is different from the ones I saw on the street. It’s crisp and well cut, and the fabric looks richer. My father must be very famous and powerful, because the others follow closely behind him, practically pushing him to the street.
As they leave the building, I hurry after them. Once on the sidewalk, the others fall away, melting into the throng of pedestrians. Z.G. stands still for a moment, looking up through the buildings to a patch of white sky. Then he sighs, shakes his hands as though relieving stress, and begins to walk. I follow him, still lugging my suitcase. What will happen if I walk up and announce I’m his daughter? I don’t know him, but I sense this isn’t a good moment. Even if I thought it was, I’m filled with apprehension. At one point he stops at an intersection, and I pause at his side. Surely he has to notice me since I look so different—after all, everyone else has noticed me—but he seems completely preoccupied. I should say something. Hello, you’re my father. I can’t do it. He glances at me, still registering nothing, and then crosses the street.
He turns onto a quieter lane. Official-looking buildings give way to apartments and little neighborhood shops. He walks for a few blocks, then swings onto a pedestrian walkway lined on both sides with pretty Western-style, two- and three-story homes. I stay at the corner to watch where he goes. He passes the first three houses, and then he opens a low picket fence, enters a yard, climbs the stairs to the porch, and disappears through the front door. I take a few steps onto the walkway. I see patches of lawn, cymbidiums in bloom, and climbing vines. Bicycles lean against porches and laundry hangs on poles that jut from windows. The houses themselves are lovely—with tile roofs, nicely painted facades, and iron grillwork in art deco patterns covering windows, as peek-throughs for doors, and as decoration along the eaves and around mail slots.
This isn’t how Joe and my professors described Red China. I expected utilitarian communist quarters or even an artist’s single room. Instead, my father lives in an elegant art deco house with a lovely garden. What does this say about him exactly?
I take a deep breath, and then I climb the steps and ring the bell.