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Goodbye feels different this time

Times Staff Writer

I was born in a Beijing that has vanished.

The way my mother tells it, I forced my way into the world a month early so my birthday would forever be associated with the biggest political festival of the year.

It was the early autumn of 1968, and as revelers shouted “Long live Chairman Mao,” my parents raced to a hospital during a massive parade commemorating the birth of communist China. As my mother screamed in pain, fireworks lighted the sky over Tiananmen Square.

Forty years later, in the transformed capital of a transformed country, the only thing that seems constant is Tiananmen Square itself, with its giant portrait of Mao looming over the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

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Like a ghost, I had returned to the land of my birth after 20 years in America, not as a comrade but as a correspondent for an American newspaper. Officially, I was a foreigner dispatched here to tell the story of a changing China. In my heart, it was also a homecoming, a time to recapture memories of my childhood in a lost world -- and a time to start a family of my own.

It could have been easy to forget that I grew up in Beijing. So much has gone the way of the wrecking ball. No trace left of the Soviet-style apartment where I lived, the classroom where I unknowingly snitched on my mother, the sports school where I trained as a diver but failed miserably to serve my country.

As I come to the end of my eight-year tour here and watch the country gear up for the first Olympic Games on Chinese soil, my mind swims with the tales of people I have met and what they tell me about China as a nation. But rarely have I paused to consider my own story as part of the tapestry of change.

My memories of Beijing feel ancient. But I am writing this story now so I won’t forget, so my children won’t forget, that I had a past here and it is part of who we are.

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The first time I left Beijing I thought I’d never go back.

Not that I didn’t want to, but because it seemed impossible.

Chinese people rarely traveled in the 1970s. Going abroad was like flying to the moon. Even if it could happen, you had to be prepared to be gone forever, leaving behind the people you loved.

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My father couldn’t join us on the journey to America. My mother had been granted a student visa to study music in California. I was later told that someone in the U.S. Embassy took pity on her and allowed me and my sister, 11 and 6, to go along as family.

For me, it felt like we were fleeing a sinking ship and my father had given us the only life raft, with room enough for just three.

My parents had married out of political convenience. It made no sense to my grandparents that their daughter, a concert pianist trained at the finest conservatory in China, should be interested in a soldier from the People’s Liberation Army marching band, the son of an illiterate widowed peasant so poor she sent him off to be a child soldier. But my mother considered herself marrying up because his proletariat background could help elevate her from the counterrevolutionary upbringing of her U.S.-educated parents.

On their wedding day there were no rings, no white gown, no walking down the aisle. My mother and father bowed three times in front of a portrait of Chairman Mao and passed out hard candies to their guests.

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Their marriage seemed doomed from the start. Soon after the wedding, my mother was sent to a labor camp along with her entire school of elite musicians. Luck would have it that she became pregnant with me during the first annual conjugal visit. She was forced to go back to the countryside three months after giving birth, and my father and I visited her only once or twice in four years.

The rest of their marriage was defined by long physical separations as well as emotional distance that grew with time. So it probably was no surprise that my mother jumped at the chance to start her life over in America knowing it could not include her husband.

As a child, I blamed the family breakup on President Nixon. His historic 1972 trip to the Middle Kingdom set the stage for the normalization of relations in 1978 between Washington and Beijing. With that came the opening of China to the outside world, and we were among the very first to bolt.

It was the winter of 1979, and few Americans had ever met someone from communist China. My mother made sure we didn’t look like we were fresh off the boat from Beijing. She dressed us in homemade bell-bottoms and down jackets that she bought at a state-owned “friendship store,” which welcomed foreigners but not Chinese, unless they had passports to travel (which most ordinary people did not). In a sea of drab Mao suits and shapeless padded coats, we stood out as walking symbols of fortune and freedom.

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But it didn’t take long for the country bumpkins in us to be exposed. We might have been the only local Chinese on board the flight from Beijing to San Francisco. None of us spoke English or had ever flown before -- our most familiar mode of transportation was the bicycle. We threw up during the entire flight and didn’t know what an air-sickness bag was until a Chinese speaker came to our aid.

For a long time, I resented being sent off to a foreign land to live the life of struggling immigrants. My father was able to live a blessed life of normality, remarrying and having a coveted son who is the pride of his new family.

We managed to see each other several times in the two decades we were apart.

My mother raised us by herself in Northern California, where she gave piano lessons in our living room and drove her beat-up Pinto at night to play Chopin and “Send in the Clowns” at restaurants and hotel lobbies to supplement our meager income. A trip to China once every four years for her two kids was all she could afford. But she wouldn’t come along -- she refused to set foot in China again until the 1990s.

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One day after I had gone off to college, my mother packed up and moved to Europe in search of the land of Mozart and the man of her dreams. My sister, who inherited my parents’ musical genes, also went to study music in Europe and later returned to Asia as a pop music star.

In 2000, I came back to China as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. The country had changed beyond recognition.

While I was gone, China had morphed from a closed communist society with few material comforts into a market-driven economy in which anything seems possible, and purchasable. A new generation of wealthy Chinese jet-sets around the globe, drives its own cars to work and owns apartments or villas with names like Palm Springs and Orange County. They shop at Hermes, sip coffee at Starbucks, play golf on the weekends with former Red Guards-turned-millionaires. Their children drink imported infant formula, play at pricey Gymborees, listen to music on iPods and blog on the Web.

Of course, lurking beneath China’s amazing growth is a world of contradictions: poverty and inequality, political repression, environmental degradation and, sometimes, moral bankruptcy. As China gets ready to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, the world will see the country in all its glory, with as much of the dark side tucked away as possible.

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When i was in first grade, scouts from the communist sports machinery came to our school to hunt for future champions. The event was diving. Never mind that I couldn’t swim and had no desire to be an athlete, I was told I had the right physical proportions and good feet. Chosen from a field of thousands to train at a state sports school, I was supposed to be thrilled to serve my country.

What I hated the most about our training was the repetition. One drill was to jump from the edge of the pool, feet first. One hundred times facing the pool. One hundred times facing away. And another 100 times head first. Like piano scales, these were the basics of diving. We called them Popsicles, bing guer, because they required a tight, streamlined entry.

I managed these robotic leaps from the sides of the pool, fudging the numbers as I went. But when the coach ordered us to do the same jumps from the 3-meter platform, I showed my true colors.

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I was terrified of heights.

I stood for what felt like an eternity on the diving board. The coaches were yelling. I couldn’t do it. With the shame of the world upon me I closed my eyes and saw the end of my suffering. Instead of taking a leap of faith I literally stood my ground and crawled down the stairs.

Coming back to China after all these years, I was glad to see that my old sports school and the hallowed pools had all been demolished into history and replaced by luxury real estate developments.

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My late grandparents would be surprised to see that, like my mother, I have married a Chinese man from humble beginnings (even though, unlike my mother, I had more options). I think even my own parents are surprised to see me following in their footsteps, knowing the broken outcome of their union.

Maybe I wanted to show them that it doesn’t have to be that way. Chinese men are worth loving, just like China is worth coming home to.

If only they could see that times have changed, that women today don’t need to bank on marriages to move up in the world. I want to tell them that the man I love is so much more sophisticated and full of surprises than the stereotypes suggest.

When we visited Paris while I was eight months pregnant and had difficulty walking, my husband pushed me around the Louvre in a wheelchair. While the other tourists flocked to the tiny painting of Mona Lisa, he gave me a leisurely tour of magnificent Mesopotamian sculptures, opening my eyes to a new world of art.

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In return, I wanted to show my husband, who was born and raised in a small town in eastern Shandong province, something of China that he hadn’t seen before -- the China of my childhood. But my old walk-up apartment is gone, replaced by a residential complex that bears no resemblance to the neighborhood I knew.

My children would have to imagine where Mommy was a youngster not much older than they are now, begging with all the other neighborhood kids for a chunk of ice from the industrial fridge kept by the local bus mechanic. Those were days long before the invasions of the Haagen-Dazs cafes and Cold Stone Creameries. It was even before the arrival of refrigerators, air conditioners and running hot water. All summer long you could hear children pleading, “Tong zhi, gei wo men diar bing!” Comrade, give us some ice!

In the early ‘70s, after we had moved into that sturdy four-story apartment, life was on the upswing for my family. My grandparents had just returned from doing manual labor in the countryside and my mother had gotten a new job playing the piano at the Central Ballet Company. My grandfather, a Caltech-educated hydroelectric engineer who helped build some of the largest dams in China, had begun collecting a fat paycheck after his “rehabilitation” -- the equivalent of $50 a month. Compared with most of our neighbors, we lived like real bourgeoisie.

My grandmother, who had married my grandfather in New York City, still had a soft spot for Western indulgences. She loved butter. And once in a while she would manage to snag some from a store for foreigners. Making do without an icebox, she would put it in a plastic bag and drop it into the water tank of our toilet to keep it from melting too soon.

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Thanks to my grandfather’s salary, we were the first in our building to get a TV -- a black-and-white set. Even though it was well into the ‘70s, television was such a new phenomenon that the state broadcast lasted only a few hours a night, and half of it was propaganda. Still, we treated the magic box like a shrine. By day we covered it with an embroidered cloth and by night we opened our small living room to neighbors who brought stools and sat three or four rows deep.

Class struggle permeated every aspect of our supposedly egalitarian society. Even as a child I was branded a capitalist because of my grandparents’ education abroad. I envied my classmate who lived a floor above me. She was the daughter of factory workers and had also been chosen to train as a diver. But she was always better than I because she worked harder and never complained or tried to quit. I thought she was a true patriot. Instead, she told me later she stayed so she could make it to the next level and win a new jumpsuit.

That was a great motivator: Children got new clothes only once a year. Sports offered a step up for those who were really poor and didn’t find poverty fashionable, even if it was politically correct.

I wish I knew what became of her. Or her brother, a popular neighborhood pingpong player who lost four fingers in a factory accident when he was a teenager.

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I wish I could show my husband where my parents slept and where I heard them whisper in the night about how I might have inadvertently sold my mother down the river.

I was in first grade when the teacher asked us one day to tell the class the names of people we knew who had visited Tiananmen Square during a counterrevolutionary gathering. It was a spontaneous people’s movement to commemorate the death of Premier Chou En-lai and considered a precursor to the 1989 pro-democracy protests that led to the bloody crackdown. I was only 8 and I had no idea that my teachers were trying to trick me. So I raised my hand and volunteered my mother’s name.

When I told my parents, they panicked. My mother went into hiding and I had to live with the guilt of betraying her.

As these stories come back to me, I realize what a great thing it is that China has changed as much as it has.

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Now that this born-again Beijinger prepares to take off again, I want to tell my children to take a good look around. At 4 and 1 1/2 , they are too young to understand why I can’t promise them that what is here today will still be here tomorrow. The only thing I can tell them for sure is that we are not leaving Daddy behind and we will not be gone forever. We are not going to the moon. They can come back whenever they want, so they can collect their own memories of life in Beijing.

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chingching.ni@latimes.com

This month, Ni will enter the Nieman fellowship program for journalists at Harvard University.

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