On a recent trip to Nanjing, I watch as a middle-aged woman, perhaps a little younger than I, walks down the sidewalk of Zhong Yang Boulevard with her dog, a fluffy white Bichon-like creature. The woman is swathed in layers of yellow chiffon like a bridesmaid. Judging by her age, I know she must have experienced at least part of the Cultural Revolution when everyone was forced to wear green or blue unisex pants and jackets. She must have lived through the early reform period, too, when student demonstrations echoed through the streets. If she is a local, then she must remember all the decades when there was no heat in the winter in Nanjing, despite the snow, nor air conditioning in summer, despite the heat.
When the light changes, she bends over and picks up her dog and carries it across the street in her plump arms like a baby, then sets it down carefully on the other side. The dog dances a little on its hind legs after she puts it down, does a little flip, then eagerly follows her down the sidewalk.
Sometimes a revolution looks like this: a yellow-clad middle-aged woman walking down the sidewalk with her pampered Bichon.
I remember when dogs were banned as pets, when the Communist Party referred to them as remnants of petty bourgeois elitism.
When I was a foreign student at Nanjing University in the late 1980s, the Chinese students used to tell me stories of the pets they once had. There was a tiny break in the policy in the awkward transition years between Mao’s death in 1976, signaling the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the start of the Open Door reform period under Deng Xiaoping, in December of 1978. No one knew how far the reforms would go or how fast.
When one student was in elementary school, he remembered that suddenly it was legal to have pets in the city, and, like that, farmers from the countryside started bringing in puppies and kittens for sale. His family bought him a dog, just a tiny one, but the policy changed and pets were outlawed again. Maybe they were considered spiritual pollution. Maybe it was because rabies vaccines were rare and expensive and someone in the government felt they could be a health hazard in the densely populated cities. He’d already grown to love his dog, so his family conspired to hide it from the authorities. There were many people he remembered who did this, keeping their pets indoors, and bringing cats and dogs out into the alleys to play in the sun only when they were absolutely sure there were no police in sight.
He remembered it was on one such day that he was playing with his dog, just a small dog really, and he’d forgotten to pay attention or else the police had come very quickly, or maybe the police knew full well what people were doing with their secret, illegal pets and were lying in wait. He heard the whistle and then the police were there. His grandmother came out immediately—his parents must have been at work—and she held him while he cried. The policemen took his dog, along with the other pets that they rounded up from his neighbors’ homes in the alley, and then they beat the animals to death with clubs, right there in the street.
“I’ll never forget,” he said.
“I never thought I’d drive a car,” the English professor tells me in the swank new restaurant she and her husband have invited me to try.
She says she and her husband resisted buying a car, waiting much longer than any of their family, but then one Spring Festival they were stranded in a neighboring province, waiting for a train. There was a freak accident of some sort, and they had no way to get home. People with cars could take the brand new superhighways, but they had to wait, trapped in the train station for days with thousands upon thousands of other holiday travelers.
After that, they decided to invest.
They took their driving lessons together.
Who should drive? their teacher asked them. Who does the cooking? Who does the housework? the professor remembers being asked.
“I did,” she said, and so they decided she should be the one who learned to drive first, a kind of payback for a lifetime of extra work.
To her surprise, the professor discovered that she had an aptitude for driving. She never lost her temper, not at any of the crazy antics of truck drivers who barreled down the highway because they were the biggest vehicle and expected everyone else to give way, not at the motorcyclists who darted in and out of traffic and intersections suddenly and dangerously, not at the slow country vans loaded down with passengers and cargo. She kept calm and navigated through the streets like a pro, able to find the open spot in which to merge, miraculously able to anticipate the irrational behavior of other drivers.
Now she drives to work while her husband takes the subway. She picks him up when they want to try a new restaurant in one of the new fancy shopping centers. She takes the wheel when they travel to neighboring provinces on vacation. And she figures out how to park their SUV in the maze-like lots springing up around the city.
“Ha,” she says without taking her eyes off the road as she drives me through the city, sailing easily through intersections of honking trucks and motorcycles and bands of darting pedestrians and even flocks of bicycles. “This is something I never expected for my life.
“But I still have to do all the cooking,” she adds.
When I was living in Nanjing between the years of 1988 and 1990, I would on occasion see an old woman with bound feet. She lived in one of the alleys that surrounded the campus, and she’d venture out on sunny days in the winter, a sturdy woven basket hanging on the crook of her arm.
Farmers would come into the city from the countryside and sell produce along the sidewalks, spreading mounds of cabbages and root vegetables onto plastic tarps in winter, tangerines and persimmons in spring, watermelon in summer. My roommates and I liked to shop in the alleys where all the free-market stands were popping up, sometimes just a cart selling homemade bowls of soup or baked sweet potatoes or little handicrafts. China was just beginning to experiment with private entrepreneurship again, after nearly four decades of a controlled economy.
Sometimes I’d see the old woman in the alley markets holding onto the arm of a young man whom I assumed was her grandson. He could have been in his teens or early twenties. He looked like all the male students I knew in those days, longish black hair that grazed his collar, thick black-framed glasses. I was struck by his solicitude, the conscientious way he held her arm and obeyed her wishes. She pointed at things with her cane and he’d trot back and forth to various stands for her.
By my second year in Nanjing, I didn’t see her around anymore, and I used to wonder if she’d grown too weak to walk outside, or if she’d passed away.
When I was a child, my paternal grandmother used to tell me stories about her mother and her mother’s mother.
Once Nai-nai tried to teach me to knit. She had me sit beside her on the family room couch in our house in New Jersey as she guided my hands. I wasn’t very good, and she spent a lot of time undoing my uneven rows and redoing them rapidly, too fast for me to follow the steps.
“My mother,” Nai-nai sighed, “my mother knew how to do everything. Sew, knit, crochet.”
Nai-nai’s mother, my great-grandmother, had even raised silkworms. She filled the baskets with leaves for the worms to eat, night and day. Nai-nai held up my hand and had me spread my fingers wide. “Leaves bigger than this,” she said.
I nodded, impressed. We all understood that I had enormous American hands. I was the first grandchild born in California, the first Chai in the family to have been born in the United States. Ye-ye and Nai-nai remarked upon my height, how fast I was growing, how tall, every time I saw them.
Mostly, however, Nai-nai liked to tell me how her mother had suffered. My great-grandmother’s feet had been bound when she was three years old, and then later unbound by American missionaries. My great-grandmother’s parents had grown weary of all her screaming; she’d had exceptionally strong lungs, Nai-nai said.
Because of the missionaries, her mother’s feet were unbound and she was allowed to be educated in what they called “the American way,” which meant literacy and math and science in addition to the household arts: the knitting and sewing and crocheting and raising of silkworms that were expected of all Chinese women born in the late nineteenth century. After she married, she insisted that her daughter be educated too, the same as her sons, and because of that, Nai-nai was able to attend university, one of the first eight women in China to pass the entrance exams when they were opened to women in 1920.
Sometimes Nai-nai cried, thinking about her mother. Nai-nai was sitting at the kitchen table as my mother cooked and I did my homework, and the past returned to her in a rush. “She died before I could see her,” she said. Her mother died when Nai-nai was in graduate school in America. She had rushed home to China to be at her side when she’d realized her mother was ill, but in 1932 that meant a weeks-long voyage by ocean liner. Her mother died before she made it back to Nanjing.
“I know I will go to heaven,” Nai-nai told us, “because my mother was such a good person. She suffered so much, but she is in heaven, and she will make sure I get in.”
My mother used to be shocked by this declaration. My mother was not Chinese, she was white, and she was Catholic and didn’t think it was proper for anyone but God to say who was getting into heaven or not. But my grandmother’s confidence had me convinced.
After Nai-nai died, she returned from the dead twice to visit my grandfather and middle uncle, who lived in the same apartment building as my grandparents in Manhattan. They called my father to report her visits, first my grandfather saying Nai-nai had come in the middle of the night, stood before his bed, trying to tell him something. He could see her mouth opening and closing but he couldn’t hear a word, then she disappeared.
Then my uncle called to say he’d seen Nai-nai in the hallway when he’d gone to check on Ye-ye. It wasn’t clear from his account if she’d spoken directly but he’d understood her message: she’d returned to look at the modest way they’d lived all the decades after coming to America, always saving, always scrimping, the better to be able to send money back to the relatives left behind in China. She’d come back to tell them that was wrong. They should live their lives, enjoy themselves while they could.
My uncle went out and bought my grandfather a new car, a convertible. The next day my father and Ye-ye convinced my uncle to return the expensive vehicle to the dealer and to get his money back.
I was thirteen when Nai-nai died. These reports of her return alarmed me. I wondered if she’d try to visit me next. At night, I lay awake in my bed, listening to the wind howling through the trees outside. We’d recently moved from the East Coast to a rural community in the Midwest for my father’s job. I hadn’t made any new friends. I didn’t like my new school. I was the only person of my race in my classes.
Night after night, I lay awake staring into the dark, watching the moonlight move across my room through a slit in the curtains, waiting for my grandmother to return to give me one last message, but she never did.
I was eighteen the first time I went to Nanjing in 1985. I traveled together with my father, his first time back since his family had emigrated in 1949 at the end of the Civil War.
Nai-nai hadn’t realized when she left that she’d never see her family again, her brothers or niece or nephews or cousins. She hadn’t known the US and China would have no diplomatic relations for three decades, that traveling to see family would be impossible. But she also hadn’t known if she and her husband and sons would survive the Civil War after the Communists won. She didn’t know what would happen to a family of American-educated Chinese Christians, so she left and never saw her family or Nanjing again.
Nai-nai had been dead four years by the time my father and I went together to Nanjing. In those days, the city still looked a lot like it had in 1949. We found their old house, their old neighborhood, the walls around the houses still had shards of glass embedded on top to keep out thieves, even though the house had been confiscated by the government, like all private property, and assigned to many families to live in it together.
On my recent trip, more than thirty years after that visit, I find the city transformed, almost unrecognizable, full of new shopping centers and billboards for luxury goods and giant video ads playing on the sides of skyscrapers.
However, there is a reconstruction of the old city, my grandmother’s city, in the basement of the Nanjing Museum. Young people, college students, are flocking to it, excited to see the reproductions of the “Republican-era” architecture—the familiar gray bricks and dark red trim that I remember from my grandmother’s house in 1985. Costumed clerks dress in the high-collared qipao that my grandmother always wore, even after immigrating to the US.
What would Nai-nai have thought, I wonder, to see the shops and fashions and streets of her youth turned into a museum display?
There was a time when mention of the Republican-era government, of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife-turned-diplomat Soong Mei-ling, was forbidden in mainland China. Now the flag of this era is displayed in museums. I see groups of domestic tourists snapping photos with their smart phones.
My grandfather had been a Buddhist before he converted to Christianity for my grandmother. It was one of her conditions before she’d agree to marry him. She took her religion very seriously.
At the end of the Civil War in 1949, one of the reasons Nai-nai insisted that they had to leave the country was that the Communists were atheists. She refused to give up her religion. She was afraid she’d be forced to give up her faith if she stayed, and she credited God with having protected the family, watching over them personally. How else had they survived such a brutal war when so many others had died?
My father’s family eventually emigrated from China to Taiwan then finally to New York City. Nai-nai arrived in 1955. My father had come first on a college scholarship and then found sponsors for his parents and younger brothers to come to America as well. He also found their apartment in Manhattan, on West 71st Street. It was a block from the subway—essential for commuting since they did not have a car in those days. And there was a Christian church on the corner, which my father thought his mother would like.
However, when Nai-nai first tried to attend the church, she was in for a surprise. The white pastor did not welcome her or my grandfather or my uncles. He told them they should go to church in Chinatown. My grandmother tried to explain that the Chinatown churches’ services were in Cantonese, which she did not understand, whereas she and her husband and sons were fluent in English. Still, the pastor was not welcoming.
My grandmother insisted that the family attend services on important religious holidays. My father remembered her marching down the aisle straight to the first pew to take a seat. She wanted to pay her respects to God, whom she credited with having saved the family during the war. What did she care what the racist pastor wanted her to do?
The corner church was not a friendly place for her, but she eventually found community and acceptance at the local Jewish temple’s senior center.
Nai-nai and Ye-ye happened upon it on one of their neighborhood walks after my grandfather’s second heart attack. The doctor said he was required to walk every day, so she accompanied him. On one of these outings, a group of elderly blue-haired women gathering on the sidewalk called out to my grandparents and invited them inside. There were subsidized lunches every day. Practically everyone was a refugee there, too. They understood each other, the Holocaust survivors and my grandparents, and what it was like to lose your extended family, your country, and to have to start over in this new language, in this new country that worshipped youth when you yourself were no longer young. Finally, Nai-nai found friends in America.
My grandmother’s life was not as she imagined it might be when she left China forever in 1949. She died in 1981 without ever having returned to see what had happened to the country. She never saw her family again. The reunions would come too late for her.
When I visit the city in 2018 I am invited to give a lecture at its flagship university, Nanjing University, Nai-nai’s erstwhile alma mater, and mine in China, too. I’ve been asked to speak about my books, and I meet with many young women who are dreaming of writing their own books, books about mothers and grandmothers and all the stories that won’t make it into official histories.
A young woman studying for her PhD in English literature takes me around the city. We visit the Zong Tong Fu, the seat of the government from the Qing to the end of the Republican era in 1949, we look at the stables for the Manchu bannermen, marvel at the throne room of the Qing governor, walk the halls of the legislative and judicial yuan with their modernist details, the mix of Western and traditional Chinese architecture.
We visit the museum dedicated to the Nanjing Massacre, when the invading Japanese Army occupied Nanjing from 1937 to 1945, and watch as schoolchildren leave white and yellow chrysanthemums under the wall carved with all the names of the Chinese killed during this period. We watch the video testimonies of the so-called “comfort women,” the Chinese women captured by the Japanese Army and forced to act as sex slaves in military camps during all the years of the occupation.
When we emerge again, the sunlight reflecting off the Buddhist rock garden surrounding the museum is so intense that I must cover my eyes. But I might be reacting to the images that I have seen, too. I am tearing up and for a moment I can’t walk, I can’t move. I can only stand blinking in the sun, wiping my teary eyes on the back of my hand.
On the day before I leave, I visit the most popular bookstore in Nanjing, Librairie Avant-Garde. It’s part of a chain owned by a Christian convert who renovated a 4,000-square-foot former bomb shelter and turned it into his flagship store, decorated with black-and-white photos of world celebrities, including Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, and Jean-Paul Sartre. A large wooden cross hangs from the front wall.
Throngs of university students are camping out in the comfy sofas and armchairs to chat and drink iced coffee drinks and read from the store’s amply stocked shelves. There are all the latest Chinese novels and nonfiction books, history and art books, and children’s books. A translation of the queer love story Call Me by Your Name, title in English and Chinese, with a cover taken from the American film poster, is prominently displayed by the cashier.
Some of the patrons are taking pictures. I watch a middle-aged Chinese woman pretend to be Christ, stretching out her arms before the cross on the wall while her friend kneels to snap a photo for her on her iPhone.
The women appear to be approximately the same age as the woman in yellow chiffon whom I spied cradling her trophy dog as she crossed the street, as the English professor who drove me across the city, as every Chinese woman who lived through the Cultural Revolution as a child and survived to thrive in this present moment.
Huddling over the phone to check the results, the two women bend their heads together and laugh gleefully.
A few months after I return to America, the trade war with China begins in earnest. Every week a new tariff, it seems. While I was in Nanjing, relations between the two countries were still relatively good. I had never imagined that things might change for the worse and so quickly.
Then the covid-19 pandemic hit and the President of the United States himself branded it the “Chinese virus.” Hate crimes against anyone remotely looking “Chinese” spiked; a white man slashed the throats of two Asian children in a Costco in Texas for fear they were spreading the virus. Yellow Peril has returned with a vengeance.
Now when I send WeChat texts to friends back in China, we are all holding our breath, waiting to see what will happen. Will forty years of improving relations be scuttled over the egos of tyrants? We know it’s possible because such things have happened before.
A graduate student I know from Nanjing University on a fellowship at UC Berkeley texts me that her roommate is returning to China mid-semester: She doesn’t think Americans take the virus seriously. She is afraid if she wears a mask she will be attacked. She wants to go home. The journey back will take more than two days with three transfers.
Do you want to go back too? I ask. I know she’s been worried.
No. I think she is a rather timid girl. I’m staying, she replies. Another strong Nanjing woman.
When I am feeling most anxious, I resort to my grandmother’s mantra: to have faith. Not her religious faith per se, but faith in human resilience. Faith that while only change is constant, we humans are hardwired to adapt and create anew. Haven’t I seen this first hand, as a witness to so many revolutions?
I used to wonder how Nai-nai had endured through more than a dozen years of total war in which civilians were targeted and thirty-three million Chinese died. From 1937 to 1945, my grandmother kept the family moving across the country from Nanjing to Wuhu to Changsha to Chongqing, staying ahead of the invading Japanese Army, raising a family, providing for the children. My father’s family returned to Nanjing in 1945, thinking they would at last experience peace, but then the Civil War between the Nationalists and Communists erupted in earnest. They kept moving, looking for safety, moving from Nanjing to Shanghai to Guangzhou to Taiwan and finally the United States.
In Manhattan, in exile, unable to see family left behind, she had hoped that someday they would be reunited, that the future would be better than the past. During these years, Nai-nai told me the stories of her mother’s bound feet, of her suffering, of her fears during World War II. Her faith in the future was surely not rational, but it was essential, and it was ultimately effective. She urged the family to save money, to live frugally—almost excruciatingly so—everything repurposed, hoarded, from newspapers stacked in the corners of her apartment to condiment packs taken from the corner McDonald’s. So long as she was alive, Nai-nai felt they would need their savings for the future, quite possibly in another war. They would need it, too, if the families were reunited, for opportunities to come, not yet imagined.