29 April 2008

Ordinary Man, Extraordinary Life (Part II)

(From Sinotaneous)

(Continued from Part I)

By 1986, Mr. Chi had indications that there might soon be a way for him to at least get in contact with the remnants of his family, if not reuniting with them. Through intermediaries, he was able to receive and send letters to his two now adult daughters. It was from the correspondence that he found out his wife had died in the 1960s, during the tumultuous times of the Cultural Revolution.

A few years went by, after a slowdown precipitated by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the opportunity to visit China finally presented itself. Not having seen his family for more than 40 years now, Mr. Chi was determined to go at the first chance he got.

With Taiwan also relaxing its restrictions on contact with China, Mr. Chi finally made the trek back to his birthplace and ancestral home in 1993, nearly 50 years since he last set foot there. It was an emotional reunion. His two daughters, now in their 40s, both have been married and have children of their own. The living conditions in Yifeng was far from ideal, and Mr. Chi took steps to make sure they improve.

With a somewhat generous pension from the KMT and years of frugal living in Taiwan, Mr. Chi freely dispensed with his cash on his children and grandchildren. He helped to fund the building of two three-story concrete and stucco buildings as single-family homes for his two kids. And with his brother also taking part, they built a kindergarten — big enough to accommodate 100 local children — in yet another adjacent building.

He and my grandfather made a triumphant return to Yifeng in 1997 to see the fruits of their labor. Now both in their 80s, the journey from Taiwan was quite an ordeal. First, a 90-minute flight to Hong Kong. Then a long overnight train ride from Hong Kong, through Guangzhou, to Nanchang. From there, it was a four-hour car trip on mostly unpaved roads.

But Mr. Chi wasn’t going back. He had decided to come back to Yifeng and stay. He bid my grandfather goodbye, with both knowing that it would be the last time they’d see each other. My grandfather had made Taiwan his home, and to this day, he would not want to have anything to do with Communist China.

Since coming home to Yifeng, Mr. Chi learned many painful details of his family’s plight. His older brother, deciding to stay in China and hoping to ride things out, was summarily executed by the communists when they entered town. His ancestral home, a modest brick and masonry building with a small courtyard, was nearly demolished for being a reactionary element before being divvyed up and distributed to various communist party apparatchiks and other locals.

His extended family scattered about China for a time before finally returning home. A couple of his nephews spent years in re-education camps for sins of being a “landed elite.” Kids a generation down could not enroll in schools or get decent jobs because they were deemed class enemies and incapable of being “reformed.” Life was hard.

Things got better in the 1980s. Communist orthodoxy lived on in name only. To get rich was glorious, even for those previously blacklisted. Money opened doors, even if it came from the KMT, the communists’ sworn enemies for much of the 20th century.

Mr. Chi lived out another decade in the Yifeng house he built. He endured yet another tragedy when in 2007, one of his daughters died of breast cancer. He had to bury his hard-luck child in the hills not far from Yifeng — in a place he had reserved for himself.

I last visited him in 2006. He was nearly blind and very hard of hearing, but he was glad to see me. He was too frail to accompany me to the kindergarten down the street, yet I sensed that it was truly his pride and joy. I shared with him some photos of my own family, and a letter from my grandfather that I had promised to deliver discreetly.

Two year later, Mr. Chi finished a journey that was full of turbulence and turmoil. He lived in a time that saw China taking a dramatic leap from a insulated feudal society to a giant economic engine. He saw democracy sprout and flourish in Taiwan and withering, yet not dying, in mainland China. He bore witness to the transformation of the Sick Man of Asia, to emerging global superpower.

Yet, at the end of the day, the most important development in his life was being reunited with his family after half a century of separation. Despite all the heartbreaks and heartaches, that’s what made it worth living. It made him whole again.

I will miss you, er gon gon. R.I.P.

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