by Lynn Zhao
I went to an elite high school in Beijing. From our residential compound, the commute took no more than twenty minutes by car, but on the bus, especially when the traffic was bad, it could take up to two hours. Therefore, my dad’s personal driver Mr. Wang would often be waiting at the school’s front gate to take me and my two best friends home. Mr. Wang didn’t have to drive us everyday because Xin’s and Jiajia’s fathers also had drivers of their own. Those young men were part of the military and didn’t mind taking more turns picking us up from school since “the first duty of a soldier is obedience.” I called Mr. Wang “Uncle Wang,” but we never really talked to my friends’ drivers nor call them by their names, as they were more like bodyguards, young men who’d joined the army the same year we started high school.
I learned over time that to other Beijingers, my neighborhood on Wan Shou (meaning “longevity”) Street was a place of great charm and mystery. This was in part because nearly every retired national leader had a second home in the area. Three out of five times, a taxi driver would pry, “I heard many of our leaders live there” or “Your family must really be something.” Indeed, many people in my family were employed within the system. We lived in huge compounds organized not by real-estate developers, but according to our parents’ work units. It was probably the most prestigious residential area in Beijing, before the influx of foreign capital reshaped China.
Ever since I realized how special my neighborhood was, I would sometimes test my mom by asking questions that seemed to trouble her. “We’re just commoners,” she would say. “You should never talk to anybody as if you come from a privileged background. People in our society can be very ill-spirited nowadays. You have no idea what they might do to you.” “In our society” meant the opposite of “within the system.” Those who worked for the government and state-owned companies were “within the system,” including my parents, family friends, and schoolmates who shared chauffeured rides with me. They were safe and innocent. Meanwhile, my dad, who was born in a small village near Xi’an but made his way to Beijing after graduating from a good university, had a very different temperament. “Look at your dad,” he would say about himself, “I was born the son of a humble peasant, and now I'm living the good life in Beijing. What are you going to do in the future? Will you achieve more than your dad?” “Of course Dad” I would answer, “Didn’t I already make it into the best high school in China?”
Back then, being a Beijinger was my primary if not only identity. Beijing was the best city in China. Surely everything that was the best in Beijing had to be the best in China. Growing up in the imperial capital gave you the illusion that you were part of something greater and grander, especially when you were so close to the ruling class. My classmates knew the ranking system of generals and bureaucrats inside out. We all had security guards at the gates of our compounds who would bark at passersby “in our society” who loitered too close to the entrance. “Stop peeking. Step back.”
Xin, Jiajia, and I all went to the same primary and middle school on Wan Shou Street. When we were barely teenagers, we would walk to Xin’s place on our lunch breaks to play Heartbeating Memories – a Japanese computer game in which you were a boy trying to get a girl to confess her love to you. (You could get more than one confession; twelve at most.) When school was out, we pooled our money to buy the complete manga series Sailor Moon – about schoolgirls transforming into guardians (dressed in skimpy skirts) and protecting the solar system from annihilation. We read through the collection repeatedly, and assigned each a specific character. I was always Sailor Mercury, signifying wisdom; Xin was Sailor Venus, who stood for love; Jiajia as Sailor Jupiter was a symbol of courage.
In our senior year of middle school, Jiajia was already a Communist league member and elected on the organization committee of our year. Though I’d always been class president and at the top of my class, I was told by this girl who was something of a frienemy, on the organization committee that “since you always get all the honors, we think you should yield this one spot to people who need it more and wait for next year.” Politically naive, I was not so bothered by the suggestion. I was popular anyway, so who cared about being a Communist league member? What did that even mean? It was Jiajia who got mad and stood up for me. “I’ll tell the teachers. Nobody deserves it more than you. And that reason she gave? She’s just jealous of you.” By the time I slowly realized maybe something was amiss, Jiajia, the young Communist cadre, had already solved this problem on her own. Joining the Communist league didn’t have much to do with ideology or conviction. It was about strengthening your resume and gaining upward mobility. It was about getting in and staying in the system. I didn’t understand the importance back then, but without a doubt, my parents did. They are still grateful to Jiajia and love to retell the story. To them, this incident foretold the life trajectories Jiajia and I would go on to take.
Xin didn’t care about becoming a Communist league member. Or rather, she didn’t have to. Her dad was a judge at a district-level court and her mom worked in a military hospital, one of the best in China. Xin lived in the biggest compound with two spacious swimming pools, two public baths, and several convenient stores. One time, as we were hanging out in her home, she called the convenience store to have three Cokes sent up to her floor. This was in the 2000s, long before online delivery businesses became commonplace. Xin’s grandparents had both joined the Red Army long before the Chinese Communist Party had established themselves. Surely, they deserved to be rewarded in some way. Xin lived with her parents in her late grandfather’s assigned apartment with four bedrooms and two bathrooms,a great luxury for its time.
Jiajia’s family was more similar to mine. She didn’t have Red Army soldier grandparents. Her dad was a middle-ranking officer in the army, and her mom had moved to Beijing from a small town in Hebei province. Jiajia lived in a medium-sized compound with no swimming pools, but her building was newly built, and she had the biggest bedroom out of all of us. She said her dad had gotten her mom a job operating elevators in a more privileged compound. I always found that a bit embarrassing. How could she be an elevator operator? Both Xin’s and my mom had more respectable jobs.
My parents were childhood sweethearts. They shared a two-bedroom apartment with another young couple until I was three years old, a common practice at the time. Later, they moved to a more spacious two-bedroom, where I could have my own room. In college, my parents had studied literature, and in our home, there was always stimulating talk of music, novels, and movies. The first film they ever took me to see in a theatre was The Soong Sisters – a Hong Kongese movie based on the most prestigious sisters in modern Chinese history. Soong Ai-ling, the oldest sister, married the richest man in early-twentieth century China. The second sister, Soong Ching-ling was a political leader and the wife of Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of Republic of China. The youngest sister, Soong Mei-ling, was the first lady of ROC and Chiang Kai-shek’s wife. I remember how the young women seemed to revel in their carefree days at Wesleyan College. During the nineties, those idyllic scenes seemed so dreamlike and all too distant. If only I could go far, far away and do something extraordinary myself! The dramatic voice-over in the film said, “Three sisters: One loved money, one loved power, and one loved the nation.” The logic was powerful and completely possessed my thoughts: Which one would I be?
Even though Xin, Jiajia and I were all born in Beijing and considered ourselves Beijingese, our fathers’ hometowns were elsewhere. Just as I moved later to Hong Kong and then New York and struggled with my multiple identities, my dad never truly believed he was Beijingese. The same went for my friends’ dads. Xin’s dad was from Suzhou; Jiajia’s was from Shijiazhuang; and mine, Xi’an. All of them still have dozens of relatives in their hometowns – the resting places of their their ancestors’ – not to mention their “brothers,” those who share no blood lineage but follow our dads around for yet another favor: a better job, a new road in the village, or admission to a good college for their sons. Our dads gave back over and over again so that when they returned annually to their hometowns to pay tributes to ancestors during the Spring festival, people would practically worship them instead.
These strangers in my eyes were no strangers to my dad. Junqi’s son got a job in Xi’an; Daqi got married to his classmate; Liushu needed a piece of land; they all counted on my dad. “Please put in a good word for me,” They would say, with an apologetic smile that one rarely sees in the city.. It felt shameful and shameless to me at the same time. I was taken aback by their ready admission of their own impotence and willingness to pressure my dad into action. They were so far away from the political center of Beijing, that their wild imagination would have them thinking my dad and President Xi were personally acquainted. “Rumor says your daughter goes to the same college with Xi’s daughter.” Once a relative told my mom what the villagers had said about my family. I guess it wasn't so off base. She went to Harvard and I went to Columbia, schools they had never heard of nor could ever make sense of. And if we did go to the same school, surely President Xi and my dad would talk from time to time.
I was once with my dad when he went back to visit all the villagers who share the same surname with us. That was the year when the village, with his help, had connected a new road to the national highway. The villagers came out of their houses to see us off. I was sitting next to my dad in the car and looked back. They were all waving at us as if in slow-motion. The moment was both heartwarming and haunting. They reminded me of the commoners I saw in a Chinese TV series set in the Qing dynasty, being so grateful to the righteous mayor who had punished the evil villain. In the show, they’d knelt down to show their gratitude. But they also somehow reminded me of the zombies in the show I streamed in my dorm back in New York, “The Walking Dead.”
In these moments, the contrasts between mine and my dad’s lives were stark. I was born a Beijinger with no strings attached while he was born into a town full of people who would forever be asking him for things. I wondered how my father managed to become this successful middle-aged bureaucrat. I asked him, “Dad, when you first came to Beijing, were you discriminated against?” I was hoping for a “No” because everybody knows it was a better time then: people had more or less the same lifestyle, almost everyone was poor, so there were no real grounds for discrimination. Compared to now, people could still make their way up the social ladder easily through education, especially the national college entrance examination. My dad received the second highest score in the entire county and was admitted to Peking University. “Of course they discriminated against me.” He said matter-of-factly. “The first thing I was told when I reported to my first work unit was ‘Go take a shower!’ I bet I was smelly that day. I’d just gotten off a train full of unshowered men after all.” It’s still very hard for me to imagine my dad in such a pitiful position. Actually, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen him taking orders from anyone. He is the chief executive of his work unit now. “How come you didn’t tell me any of that?” I asked. “What’s there to say?” he laughed, “Oh, and once this older leader wanted to introduce a Beijingese woman to me but she ended up turning me down. She thought I was not sophisticated enough. Look at me now!” There had always been an air of cavalier optimism about my father. Perhaps in a different time, he would’ve made a decent revolutionary. Sometimes he’ll sigh with regret that he wasn’t born in a more tumultuous period. He is a typical “technocrat,” a term I learned in my social science course in Hong Kong: an elite with expertise in his field.
I never thought I would go to Hong Kong for college, but at the time of my high school graduation, the best schools in Hong Kong were ranked higher than Peking University and Tsinghua University, a huge draw for Mainlander parents. To me, a Beijingese girl who’d never been abroad, Hong Kong’s lure was in its surface splendor. The interview was held in a gleaming skyscraper in Beijing’s newly built Central Business District (CBD). My parents and I were visiting the area for the first time; it teemed with foreign capital and privilege, the kind we were not familiar with. The Chinese university staff, if they could still be considered “Chinese-Chinese,” were performing their duties in bright, over-air-conditioned conference rooms. Donning their sleek suits (rarely seen in China at the time), they communicated with the Westerner faculty as apparent equals. No Chinglish, no awkward body language, no coyness – none of the coping techniques Chinese people resorted to around “foreigners,” owing to their lack of confidence in English and self-consciousness about their general “backwardness.” And despite their heavy Cantonese accent, I remember my mom commenting, “Hong Kong universities are so different! You never see staff talking like that in Beijing.”
Years later, when I was assigned back to the CBD of Beijing as a marketing professional for a luxury brand headquartered in Hong Kong, I became one of them. I arrived on a crisp winter day in my well-cut cashmere coat and designer high-heels. In the building where I worked I regularly heard English, Cantonese, and Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent, but rarely any Beijingese. I spoke and wrote English and Cantonese at work and sometimes caught myself referring to myself as Hong Kongese. You might imagine how furious this would make my dad. I was so full of myself; there was no shortage of things to argue about, now that I’d lived abroad and seen China from the outside: state censorship; Taiwan’s separation from China; Hong Kong’s annual memorialization of martyrs of the Tiananmen Massacre... As a child, I’d admired my dad’s wisdom in all things, and I’d grown up discussing social issues with him, but now I was busy challenging him and his all-too moderate “progressive” positions. These arguments never ended well. I would burst into tears as if he was the source of all of China’s problems, and he would call me an ungrateful know-nothing standing in the way of the will of “the Chinese people.” “I’ve lost my daughter to the ‘evil Western anti-China faction.’” He would say, only half-jokingly, and go on to wonder aloud if sending me off to Hong Kong during my most formative years had been the right choice. Not until I became older did we manage to make peace.
“You two are just too much alike, too proud,” Mom would conclude.
I didn’t often think about the fact that he’d once been a poet. He’d turned to journalism with the hopes of speaking for society’s less fortunate. I was too blinded by my passion to see that our differences were not in our opinions but lay in their expression: how certain things should be said, or if they should be said at all. He didn’t want to admit I was a big girl now who might’ve already seen more of the world than he had, in a way.
Jiajia didn’t go to college in Hong Kong. She continued to be very active and outspoken in the Communist Youth League and went on to become an outstanding member of the Party. While most of us didn’t take Communist teachings very seriously after elementary school, she stuck with it to become a party leader at a third-tier college. She participated in all sorts of party-sponsored activities and took full advantage of the connections they brought. After graduating, she became a secretary to a district mayor in Beijing and married another young party leader. I avoided reconnecting with her after I moved to Hong Kong, thinking our paths had diverged too drastically; I feared whatever opinions she had about my life would annoy me and poison any fond feelings I still had for her as a childhood friend. But a few years ago, Xin, who now goes by Cecilia and works in Ohio, convinced me to join a reunion Jiajia was hosting during a short trip when all of our vacations overlapped.
We met up in a members-only teahouse covered with pseudo-Tibetan tapestries. Jiajia asked me, with a typical cadre-style smile, “Do you have a duixiang now?” Duixiang (“object”) is a particularly socialist euphemism for boyfriend/girlfriend – used, I think, because boyfriend/girlfriend comes across as overly frivolous or sexy. Young people don’t say duixiang anymore. Even my parents don’t use it. Cecilia seemed to pick up my negative attitude and tried to lighten the vibe by saying, “She’s more of a free spirit.” I guess she was right. I was seeing a white American guy at the time and my parents were vehemently against it. The last thing I wanted was to have someone else lecturing me on their behalf. “You have to hurry up!” Jiajia said, “I happen to know this family with a great son. They’re very picky about their future daughter-in-law, but I think you’d be perfect.” Here we go again, I thought and mentally rolled my eyes. To her, my appearance, my education, my talents, and skills were all just selling points for some random Chinese bachelor to appreciate. Then she went on, “His father is an official at the minister-level so they’re really looking for someone at bureau-level. That’s your dad’s rank, isn’t it?”
Recently, when I went back to visit Beijing, Cecilia and I were still talking about that conversation and how ridiculous people can be when it comes to matters of status. Cecilia got married to a “commoner” who had no rank or property to speak of. She was considering going for a green card, but eventually her dad called her back to China. With her family’s help, the young couple bought a small apartment in Sanlitun, the hip bustling district of Beijing where the new money live and play.
Jiajia, to my surprise, moved to Hong Kong. Her rising-star of a husband had been assigned an important position in the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government. I left Hong Kong four years ago and have been living in New York since. Before moving, Jiajia called me to pick my brain about what kind of lifestyle she could expect once she moved there. I was so worried our chat would end badly, our conflicting politics and values finally coming to a head. To my surprise, it went very smoothly. Jiajia was ambivalent about moving with her husband to a new place. “I had a great job in Beijing,” she said. “I could’ve been promoted to a position that really might’ve made a difference.” She was right. “The secretary faction” wields a great deal of influence in Chinese politics.2 “But I have to go with my husband and my baby. I want a good relationship with my husband. I want a happy family. I’ll find something in Hong Kong.” It was almost the same struggle I faced when I made the decisions to stay in New York. I would’ve been way more competitive in the job market in Hong Kong after “being plated with gold.” When studying abroad became all the rage in China, people saw those with degrees from the U.S. as the gifted and blessed – the gilded – ones. (Though this isn’t so true any more). But as I struggled with my decision, I met my now husband who happens to be American and have since decided to stay put.
Wan Shou Street has changed a lot over the years. With China’s further economic development, all the residents got the property rights to their apartments from their work units. Many of them have sold their apartments to the rushing new money immigrants from other provinces so they could afford townhouses in the suburbs with names like “Imperial Abbey” or “Californian Homes.” In my parents’ building, the newcomers’ kids don’t greet adults and are not always on their best behavior – the way we used to be when we were little. They’re always running around screaming while their nannies chase after them. When my mom and I pass their parents, often she would stop chatting abruptly and only when we get home does she say I should be careful about making eye contact. She doesn’t seem to feel as secure as she used to since the boundary between “the system” and the rest of society has begun to blur.
My parents are getting older every day. These days, their Mandarin seems shaky somehow. They used to pronounce certain words with their Shaanxi accent and I would tease them, saying, “Did you forget how to speak standard Chinese?” With age, it seems, their hometown dialect has returned with a vengeance. My dad, who once hated the idea of me living in the States, says now that it’s a good thing that I live there. “If you were even a tad more considered as the leaders’ proteges. It is not uncommon that the secretaries take over the leaders’ previous positions or other crucial positions once the leaders move up. conservative,” he says, “I would’ve loved for you to stay with us. But that’s not you. You’re a crazy little monkey. It’s better for you to stay away from all the chaos here and enjoy some freedom and democracy.” They recently bought an apartment in Xi’an. When they get older, they plan to spend more time there with their siblings. My mom has already retired and often goes to Xi’an to be with her sister. They sleep together in the poorly-designed rural house, where you can hear the sound of cicadas all night. When I try to videochat with her, she says,“There’s no WiFi here. I’m hanging up if it’s not anything urgent.” Even in a place with no WiFi, she seems very happy. Both Cecilia and Jiajia’s parents bought properties in their hometowns as well. As for us – Jiajia, Cecilia, and I – we’ve long since left our homes on Wan Shou Street. There’s no going back.
Lynn Zhao was born in Beijing, immigrated to Hong Kong, lived in New York and Seoul before settling down in Boulder, Colorado (for the time being). Her Chinese-language essays have appeared in “Life Week” (Sanlian Shenghuo Zhoukan) and “Feminist Voice” (Nvquanzhisheng).