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Mom and daughter break down history

Wed, Jan 25, 2012

Writing a memoir about growing up dur¬ing China’s Cultural Revolution (1966- 1976) was a healing process for Jian Ping ( Jennifer Hou Kwong), made easier by 25 years of living in the United States.

Sitting at the same table in Jian’s South Loop apartment where scenes with her daughter, Lisa Xia, were shot for the movie version of her book, the author-turned-associate movie producer reflected on her parents’ persecution at the hands of Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, on the strength she wanted to impart to her daughter and how she became a parent similar to her stoic mother after all. Lisa joined in with her thoughts on immigration and Superwoman expectations for her generation. Now 26, she works in public relations, primarily cor¬porate social responsibility and sustainability.

Jian: I watched Lisa growing up, and I felt, emotionally, she was not strong enough. I wanted her to be strong. I felt she had luxurious conditions [in school] whereas we had a little mud stove. Here you had swimming pools, computer labs. I feel if you have those things you should aim high and excel in your studies, so when I see her want to play, gab on the phone, I felt you don’t know where you come from.
I remember my older siblings never went to proper college. When colleges reopened [after being shut down for the 10-year Cultural Revolution], I took the exam, went to college, I felt I was carrying the burden for my siblings to make up for the opportunities they had lost. And I feel Lisa has no sense of that. I want her to aim high, not just have fun and immediate gratification today but have a higher goal for the future.

SW: You were 6 years old when the Cultural Revolution started. Your father was the deputy governor of your prefecture and was denounced partly because Mao Zedong was waging a power struggle, partly because he survived capture by the Japanese during the Anti-Japanese war in 1930s. What did he say about that later?

Jian: He remained as committed to the Communist Party as before, never complained. He said the government admitted the Cultural Revolution was a mistake. It was a mass movement and got out of control. “We’ve lost 10 years. Instead of dwelling on the past, we should look to the future,” he said.

However, he did tell me throughout the interview he was subjected to 70 struggle meetings in which the Red Guards beat the accused, put placards on their chests, humiliated them, and paraded them through the streets. The fact that he remembered how many times he was subjected to these meetings indicated to me how painful it must be for him, but he never complained.

SW: How did your mother feel about being locked in the furnace room of her school and forced to write self-criticisms by the Red Guards?
Jian: If you look at the film, the way she talked, it was as if the Cultural Revolution never happened. She remained as enthusi¬astic, as loyal as before. She said Mao was pretty old at the time of the Cultural Revolution. She didn’t believe he knew everything that was going on. The Gang of Four — Mao’s wife and three other top officials — they were blamed for the violence of the Cultural Revolution. My mother said it was because of those bad people. She compartmentalized a lot of things, and was able to forgive and not blame Mao for that.

She says ‘The Communist Party saved me’ because she came from a very poor peasant family, close to the Russian border. Her father died and her mother had debilitating migraine headaches, so the Communist Party in the village helped her to plow the field, take care of the family. Her family probably wouldn’t have survived. For that she remained very grateful.

SW: How do you feel about communism of the era? Did it have good effects on China or did the Cultural Revolution negate them?

Jian: I think I do not negate the Commu¬nist Party. Or to use a better word, oppose it. Not everything they did was wrong. Even today, many people in China are nostalgic. Looking at China’s history since the Opium War in 1840, a history of humiliation when China was invaded by many foreign countries, many Chinese give a lot of credit to Mao and the Communist army for getting China united as a nation and declaring that to the rest of the world in 1949.

SW: Let’s talk about the women in your family. Grandmother Nainai was illiterate and had bound feet yet she was the one who held the family together and who made the long walk with you to see your mother when she was detained. Let’s also talk about the Chinese “Tiger Mother” concept [taken from Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua’s book, recently excerpted in the Wall Street Journal, which said that Chinese parents believe they know what’s best for their chil¬dren and they will drill them until they get it right].

Jian: It’s interesting, growing up I thought of my father as the superhero. Only later did I realize how much the women in my family influenced me. My grandmother was the living example of a “virtuous woman” defined by Confucius: a woman should subject herself to her father, her husband and her son. Grandma was the most unselfish person I ever knew. She was kind to everyone even when things were going wrong. Her unconditional love was different from that of my mother who always asked us to Mao’s good children. My grandmother just wanted us to be happy, to live the life of a child.

The tension, or I should say, disconnect between my daughter Lisa and me has been there for a long time. As a child, Lisa often told me: ‘I can never live up to your expectations.’ Only during the making of the film did I realize the parallel of my relationship with her to that of my mother with me. My mother was always strict with us. That changed when she retired and became a grandmother. She was much more loving, open, caring as a grandma. The kind of affection that she never expressed to her own children she is now giving to her grandchildren.

When I was young, I thought, ‘when I have children, I will never treat them like that.’ But in many ways I did. I thought I was different because I tucked Lisa into bed at night, telling her I loved her. I was not the typical Chinese parent who requested that my child must be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. I encouraged Lisa to find her own passion in life and explore new fields. I pushed her to study harder, to excel and be better organized. But I never asked her to select a field or a future career simply to make us proud. I told Lisa if she had read the Tiger Mother’s book, she’d think me a saint.

SW: Lisa, what’s your take on the pressures you faced growing up and today?

Lisa: Mom talks about pushing and pressure. For a lot of my life I felt I was never going to be good enough. I believe in following my own path. Mom was a single mother for many years. I feel she raised me to be strong and independent and she succeeded. I can take care of myself and I don’t need your help. But you don’t want to be that cold, not let people in.

As far as the test goes, I felt it was kind of shallow to regard A+ as success. If you wanted to be popular, you had to be good at school, you had to be funny, it was not this narrow definition of success. I was bilingual by age 6 and I remember getting a 93; Mom’s response was, ‘where’s the other seven percent?’’’

Yet Lisa expresses values akin to her mother’s desire for high achievements. In the movie, she describes how she wants to sleep less than the recommended eight hours a day so that she can work 60 hours a week, party three nights and get the most out of each day. Given the experience of people who lost retirement savings in the recession, she said in the interview that she is less concerned with money than with savoring new experiences. During her travels she is conscious of all that she is learning but perfectly content with hostel accommodations.

In press material, Lisa said that until making the movie, her mother’s story had been abstract to her, “almost the way you hear about atrocities in history class.” She acknowledges that her mother’s reserved emotions stem from her experiences and her Asian upbringing.
Finally reading the book, Lisa said in the interview, made her wonder why she waited so long. “In a way, I didn’t want these people to be real, those colors to be shaded in.”

“It’s hard to think about people close to you suffering that much, bearing the humiliation more than the physical pain…. I just start crying thinking about all the suffering, when your mind goes to all those places, your heart lurches and you can’t help but get a bit emotional.

“People will say, ‘your parents left you in the care of your grandparents and doesn’t it suck.’ A ton of kids got the same treatment in China. We were called for at different ages, 4, 8, 10, or 12. We call ourselves ‘1.5s.’ We’ve got a foot in each door. It might be a door to the U.S. but half a foot in your other country. As someone who has traveled a ton, with every other country I can say I might never go back there, but China always feels like home to me. I feel toggled to a little bit of both [China and the U.S.]. I am not always sure where I fall at the end of the day.”

Written by Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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