Monday, August 27, 2007

Our Chinese Family

One of the reasons we keep going back to China is our extensive family over there. Unlike most Americans who visit China and see the various sites from a bus, but have little interaction with everyday Chinese, we spend a good deal of time with these family members, including seeing their homes and learning of their activities. (And eating! In China--as in many societies--when you get together with relatives, it centers around food, lots of it. We'll write later this week about our experiences with Chinese banquets.)

Mrs. Curmudgeon's father, who goes by the initials "S.L.," is our family connection to China.

S.L. was born and raised in the town of Zigong, right in the middle of China's Sichuan Province. In pre-revolution China, S.L.'s father was a salt merchant, Zigong having a long and distinguished heritage as one of the world's leading salt producing regions by virtue of sitting on top of a huge reservoir of salt brine tapped by ingenious Chinese drilling methods. S.L. grew up in China's privileged class, in nice homes with many servants. He was given a first rate education and even travelled a bit--locally, within the province--as a youth. But then World War II intruded with the Japanese invasion of China and S.L. joined the army to fight for his homeland.

He came to the U.S. near the end of WW II, as part of a unit of Chinese soldiers sent to train with American troops for liaison in what, at the time, was expected to be long additional fighting against the Japanese, including in China. When WW II ended and the Chinese civil war and revolution began, he stayed in the U.S., married a bright, rebellious Midwestern red-head from St. Louis, earned advanced engineering degrees, became a U.S. citizen and raised a family.

Left behind in China, however, were a number of siblings with whom S.L. had very little contact or information before Richard Nixon famously opened the door to China in 1972.

In 1973, S.L. made his first trip home--after more than 25 years away--taking his then teenage son with him. It was a tough trip--China was still quite backward and paranoid at the time. But S.L. was able to re-establish contact with his siblings (and his mother, still living at the time), who had all migrated to either Beijing or Shanghai by that time.

Over time, S.L. has established regular contacts with his siblings, all of whom have made at least one trip to the U.S., as well as S.L.'s numerous trips to China. Despite some tough times, especially during the brutal Cultural Revolution period, S.L.'s siblings have been remarkably successful, and their children and grandchildren are now reaping the benefits of China's rapidly expanding economy.

Because all of our trips have included time in China's capital, we've seen the most of S.L.'s sister from Beijing, who turned 80 during our recent trip (the occasion for an entire day of eating and banqueting). Her husband, who was one of S.L.'s best friends growing up in Zigong, long served as the chairman of the Dept. of Philosophy at prestigious Beijing University (pictured below). They live on the campus, and every time we visit they have a somewhat larger apartment with more electronics and other modern conveniences. Their three daughters are all married, with families (one lives in Boston, where her son is a budding tennis prodigy).

On our trip, we took two of S.L.'s grand-nieces from Beijing with us to Sichuan, where they'd never been, to see the old family homestead in Zigong, as well as other parts of the Province. One of the nieces is a rising junior in college, where she is studying computer animation. Our boys were instantly taken with her computer games and the fantastic images she has created on her own laptop. The other niece is entering college this fall as a freshman, where she also hopes to study computers.

The two nieces, both of whom speak a smattering of English, reminded us of young college-age girls here. Indeed, when we went to the beach this summer with the Curmudgeon's niece from Raleigh, NC, who'll be a freshman at Johns Hopkins in a matter of days, she spent most of her time hanging out with a friend, speaking in code, staying up late and generally avoiding the rest of our group. The Chinese nieces were the same--whenever we got off our tour bus, they'd quickly disappear, but always show up on time for meals and our next departure. They appeared genuinely awed at the sights they'd never seen, and like young folk everywhere wondered exactly what their connection was to the legion of more distant relatives who seemed to materialize at every stop.

In Zigong we got together with one of those more distant relatives, one we'd met on our previous trip and who exemplifies the potential for success in modern China. In this case, it was the daughter-in-law of one of S.L.'s cousins (maybe even more removed than a first cousin--it's hard to keep it all straight). She and her husband (who was out of town on a business trip) own a chain of department stores--more than 30--as well as some other businesses. Judging by the flagship store on the main drag in Zigong, these are very nice stores and doing quite well. And judging by her five-level, modernly furnished and heavily staffed apartment, we'd say they are doing quite well, too.

Liu, as we'll call the cousin-in-law, is quite a dynamo. Carefully turned out in the latest designer clothes, she made us look like a bunch of frumps. She treated us to a lovely banquent lunch in a private room at the nightclub on the top of her department store, and later that night to drinks in the "beer garden" at the hotel where she also has a part ownership interest. Liu has two children, a boy and a girl, and wants the most for them. She wants them to go to school in the U.S., at a top-30 college. They're being educated now in private schools and taking various preparatory tests. She and her husband want to start a business in the U.S.--exactly what was a bit vague (or maybe lost in translation), and to buy a home near whatever school the kids end up at. We're sure they have the resources to do so. They're also exploring an IPO for their company. They're part of China's new elite, and they're fun to be around.

Back in Beijing, at the end of our trip, we caught up with another of S.L.'s siblings, his sister from Shanghai, who was trained as a botanist and whose husband ran an electronics factory early in the Chinese capitalist revolution. They live comfortably, but not extravagantly by any stretch. Their son came to the U.S. for college and never left--he now lives in Columbia, Maryland with his new Chinese bride and does technology work for a major U.S. defense contractor.

Of course, the visit of S.L.'s other sister to Beijing served as the excuse for yet another banquet, with many toasts and a new round of strange dishes (we enjoyed one that reminded us of the pulled pork barbecue back home).

At these gatherings the Curmudgeon always wishes he could speak Chinese. Or that someone would come up with a device--they will in the future, we're certain--you could clip on your ear that would translate any language into perfect English. We could learn so much more if only we could converse freely with all these relatives. (Occasionally, we'll task S.L. with serious translation duty in these exchanges, but it's tough on him to keep up for very long.) Instead, there's a lot of smiling, nodding and pleasantries, such as "Ni-hau"--Chinese for "how are you?"

There are other relatives we didn't get to see. S.L. has two younger brothers living in Shanghai, and another brother who was in Shanghai, but who passed away a few years ago. One of the brothers has an amazing capacity for language, speaking English, German, Russian, Japanese and both major dialects of Chinese. A metallurgist by training, he's into all kinds of foreign exchange programs with Shanghai. His similarly gifted--and outgoing--daughter lives in Paris where she works for one of China's travel services (and helps us arrange these trips). The other brother is a sports coach, and his strapping sons, whom we've seen little of, are athletically gifted. Next trip, we'll have to go through Shanghai and catch up with that wing of the family!

Meanwhile, it's good to be back home, despite the sweltering heat. We're almost over the jet lag and the boys have been glad to eat food they can easily identify. Soccer season's beginning. School's a week away. Where did the summer go?

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