By Yaxue Cao
I have been wanting to write about my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Huang, who died more than a decade ago. He was the best chemistry teacher in my school, but he was a wreck! Although extremely near-sighted, he didn’t wear glasses and had to hold things up close to his eyes to see, whether it was his book or notes or test tubes. In winter, he wore a ragged, dirty cotton-padded coat with a thick rope tied around the waist to keep warm. Outside the classroom, he hardly ever spoke to anyone. When we saw him on campus, we often didn’t know what to do. Sometimes we pretended not to see him; when we did say hello to him, he always looked surprised as though he hadn’t expected such attention at all. Then I heard from other students that, when he was young, he was very handsome and the lines of his pants were so sharp that they could cut tofu! For years I wondered: What happened to Mr. Huang? What kind of a “chemical process” had his life gone through for that kind of change to occur?
From my Chinese teacher I learned that Mr. Huang was a college senior in 1957 when he was singled out as a rightist for making suggestions to the Chemistry Department. During the Cultural Revolution, he was the first teacher to be street paraded for ridicule. For years he raised chickens for the school, and he and his family lived in a shack next to the chicken coops.
Earlier this year, I finally began to interview people for Mr. Huang’s story. First I got in touch with his eldest son who is my age. We exchanged a few emails, in which he told me about his childhood and the divorce between his parents. I was really happy. Then I tried to set up an appointment to call him, but he didn’t respond. After a long while I emailed again to inquire, but he said he was too busy now to talk to me. We still haven’t talked.
Meanwhile, I made appointments, via my Chinese teacher, with two elderly teachers who were lifelong colleagues of Mr. Huang. The day before I was to call them, my Chinese teacher told me they both declined to be interviewed, because they didn’t want to talk about “sensitive” topics. One of them said he particularly didn’t want to talk to someone from America. “We tell her things, she writes them. What if the Chinese government learns it and tracks us down? What if we are accused of conspiring with foreigners?”
Later on, I talked to a couple of Mr. Huang’s earlier students. One was a student in the early 1960s, the best few years for the school and for Mr. Huang. He told me Mr. Huang, although a tall man, was an agile gymnast often seen in the afternoons flying up and down the parallel bars at the corner of the school’s field. Then I talked to another student of his who kept giving excuses to put me off, but I had the feeling that he, like the two elderly teachers, would rather have nothing to do with it. When I talked to the third man, a laid-off railway worker, I began by telling him the difficulties I had met and why I wanted to write about Mr. Huang. I want my interviewees to understand that it is not an offense, nor against anybody, to simply remember things. To my surprise, he intercepted me before I finished, “No fear! No need to explain! I am not afraid of them even if you are anti-China and anti-Party!”
I had a good laugh. He told me how Mr. Huang and his students cultivated gibberellin, a plant growth hormone, and tested it on his vegetables; and how he started a plant to distill fulvic acid. I have yet to write Mr. Huang’s story, but I have the title ready: The Chemist.
A few years ago I asked my older brothers about their early memories. We grew up together, but because of age and gender difference, we have quite different memories. They told me about a man by the last name Cui (崔), how, during the Cultural Revolution, he visited the county government regularly from countryside to appeal his case. Each time he would drop by our house, carrying a military suitcase. This thick, shiny, dark-brown leather suitcase held great fascination for the boys, and in it, there laid nothing but a set of air force dress uniform. Later I found the man through a relative. We talked on the phone. He was in his 80s and lived in Jinan, Shandong province. He was the son of the principal of the primary school my mother had attended briefly, and joined the Communist army in his late teens. In the 1950s, he wrote a poem on a blackboard poking light fun of his superior, and, for that, he was expelled from the air force and sent to work in a mine in Shangxi, his home province. When the Cultural Revolution started, the Red Guards sent him back to his ancestral village. That set of air force uniform was at once the symbol of his honor and the proof of his service.
After Mao died, he was allowed to reunite with his family in Jinan, but he wasn’t “reinstated” simply because his case didn’t involve any past political campaigns. He told me he had just come back from Beijing where, over the years, he had gone countless times to appeal his case to no avail. One of his daughters had killed herself lying on train tracks for abuses she suffered in school, his wife had died a few years ago, and now he lived with his son. He spoke softly, with fatigue, of his Kafkaesque ordeal, family partings and deaths; and his accent reminded me of my mother. When I visit China next time, I would like to visit him, but I don’t know when I will be able to do that and whether he is, or will be, still alive.
Every time I hear a story like this, whether it’s the story of the journalist, the chemist or the officer, I would think: If I were born a few decades earlier, there was no way I could have escaped the same, if not worse, fate. If I lived at all, I would want to tell my story to posterity so that it can see where we come from, weigh it and set things right. Therefore, for me, each story is also my own story. But think about it, isn’t it also the story of every Chinese?