‘Unwanted, dirty’ – reading a Chinese woman’s memoir (I)
How everything is already memory. His broken hand cradled, cupped and listened to as its slow bones knit back. The wonder of watching his fingers and palm go through their re-blooming: the fingers learning again to outstretch, then bunch up like an evening blossom that closes at dawn. Over coffee in autumn by a cafe window, reading Ping Fu’s Bend, Not Break, he thinks, did my suddenly dead mother ever cradle me? What was that like?
And the fallen leaves squabbling outside, toddlers abandoned by mothers.
***Ping Fu emerges in Bend, Not Break in the way so many Chinese women do in my memory. This is because I lived and taught in mainland China for seven years. Sometimes, in college classes, students and I discussed romance and love poetry. Some of the giggly or over-solemn woman students, with petal hands cupping mouths, declared to me no man had ever, ever touched their lips. Only mother can kiss my mouth. These are twenty year olds. Theirs was the lightning of unseen sexuality, only seen in the glow in eyes, flamingos arcing through irises, darting in confusion at attractive young men.
And the same glow at dusk on fields and willows, huge hands opening their secrets, singing, we surprised you, come surprise us!
***Bend, Not Break has the vulnerability and passion many good Chinese memoirs have. (Memoirs about life in China written by Chinese seem only written by women, at least in translation. At least, I have never come across ones written by Chinese men. This seems to correlate with the fact the women bore the greater burden of suffering, being the child bearers in the post-Mao era that dealt with forced abortions and a culture that slaughtered or abandoned female babies in favour of the prized male heir.) I hesitate to say this, but you cannot truly feel the ache in Ping Fu’s words, that particular Chinese knowledge of suffering, unless you have lived for a good while in China. Without that intimacy, Bend, Not Break can almost be seen as another “rags to riches” (and from China to America) story.
Ping is raised in Shanghai before and during the Cultural Revolution by parents she was to painfully discover, as a child, were her uncle and aunt. This occurred because she was accused of being a child of ancestral wealth, not poverty, by the young Red Guards, and evicted from her home as a little girl to go alone by train to nearby Suzhou, where her biological parents lived in “politically correct” poverty, whom she knew slightly and only as uncle and aunt.
I came to know some Chinese, including students, who had similar backgrounds. They just gave me glimpses of their autobiographies, then clammed up, or deflected the painful subject with humour. For Chinese, laughter is a way of distancing themselves from uncomfortable situations. They have a gift for laughter, for the simplest things. This comes from early in the memoir, poignant because of what was soon to come, Ping’s suffering and abandonment:
“Shanghai Papa [who was soon to turn out to be Ping’s uncle] ran a factory that made thread. When he came home at night, he would enter the front gate and call out, ‘Sweetheart, I’m home!’ Shanghai Mama would come running, her footsteps quick and light. I liked to stick my head out from the second-floor balcony to spy on them in the courtyard below, hugging and kissing. Then, when they came walking up the stairs inside the house hand in hand, I would jump on them. They made a game of fighting to see who could catch me first … theirs was the happiest marriage I have ever known.”
A few pages later I shuddered as I read young Ping’s description of the Red Guards arriving to wrench her away: “Suddenly I heard a crash echoing from the courtyard below … soon I could hear shouting, then my mother’s voice, soft but broken.” Well, any compassionate person would shiver, especially parents, foster or otherwise. But I am being autobiographical here; I came to love teaching Chinese children of Ping’s age (her name means Apple) and came to know some of them quite well as I taught them for two years. Though many I taught in Suzhou were deeply happy, they came from very poor backgrounds. To give you an idea, in a quiz on teaching household names and room names, I drew a picture of a line of laundry, explained the term and asked, “In which room does this belong?” All the kids in that class insisted the laundry line was hung up in the bedroom (which the family shared) or the kitchen. They could not conceive of laundry hanging anywhere else. Apple-like faces staring up at me in innocent and firm conviction; children unnervingly ripe to join another Red Guard with their certitudes about the world.
Ping, by comparison, came from a very wealthy home and the Red Guard found her hiding in the home’s library sanctuary, never mind the laundry. The library was her favourite place, a womb filled with her parents’ cherished books. To many in the Red Guard, their home in Shanghai would have been an obscene extravagance. Education was despised, held in suspicion, and soon many of those books were burned or even used as toilet paper. Our little Apple was despised, called a “black blood” and forced to go to Suzhou, not to actually live with her real parents there, but to live in a “prison” dormitory for Mao-style “re-education”. She slept in an unfurnished room along with her newly found younger sister, Hong, who had been living with their biological parents. The utter poverty and despair in which the two girls lived makes one wonder how they survived. Ping makes it reasonably clear that having a sister even younger than her is what kept her going, someone to care for, a reason outside herself to live …
‘Unwanted, dirty’ – the 'fictitious' gang rape (II)
Bend, Not Break largely shifts between Ping’s nightmarish childhood and her adult life in the US. In America she grows, step by painful step, into a successful businesswoman in the software industry. Before this, sometime after the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government demanded she leave China. This is because of the “innocent” research she was conducting into China’s then new One Child Policy and the effects of secret abortions of female babies because parents wanted only the prized male, particularly in rural areas. China has never taken well to any research depicting her ugly side, no matter how well intended.
The constant shifting from Ping the child in China to Ping the adult in the US is striking and effective (skilfully edited by her co-writer, MeiMei Fox). The growth of the child Ping is in many respects mirrored by the growth of the adult Ping. The switches from childhood to adulthood anecdotes mimics the difficulty with which Ping deals with repressed memories, with her deep sense of unworthiness as a woman because of the horrors she endured as a child, especially her gang rape at the age of ten. She did not know at the time it was rape. Her own words are the best and I need not give away the “reason” for the gang rape, as, of course, there is no reason or excuse:
“Then, suddenly, the beating turned into something else — something I couldn’t quite grasp. ‘Take off her clothes,’ someone ordered. I fought with all my might, but I found that I could no longer move my legs … I’d been attacked by a pack of hungry wolves … I could not hear. I could not scream … all I could do was feel the boys cutting my clothes off … ”
Ping was utterly ignorant of what was done to her for many years. This vividly reminds me of some university students I’d taught who had had no sex education and were utterly “chaste” (see previous blog). And Ping definitely could not cope with the fact that she was blamed for the violence done to her. “I felt unwanted, dirty, unworthy.” These were among the repressed memories that came up during a retreat session run by Grinnell Leadership when she was CEO of her American-based company, Geomagic.
She realised that all her life she had subconsciously regarded herself as “a ruined woman”, and even rejected by her own country, China. She learned to acknowledge there were many memories she battled to name, “hidden away in that broken girl”.
The way the memoir moves back and forth from Ping’s childhood growth to her adult growth is deft and shows how memories, repressed or conscious, inform so much of what we do. She goes from waitress to CEO. Ping’s depiction of her life in the tough business world of the US, the dotcom era, the development and marketing of Geomagic’s unique 3D software applications and the massive out-of-court settlements, is superbly handled. (Among her public achievements, she received a Woman of the Year award from Business Leader magazine.) This side of the memoir is informative, caveat reading for the wannabe or seasoned entrepreneur.
But I have not focused on Ping the entrepreneur here. A terse summary of her American and an international business experience is this apt quotation Ping uses from a business colleague, Reid Hoffman: entrepreneurship is where “you jump off a cliff and you assemble an airplane on the way down”. Though Ping Fu became very “successful” in the way the American Dream deems success to be, she came within an inch of bankruptcy on more than one occasion.
My core experience of this haunting memoir is that the rape produced the woman. An admirable woman who got to know the Obamas and became a very successful employer who wanted the best for her employees. This is, of course, not to glamorise what was done to Ping. But it is easier to see how young Ping the carer of her sister became the carer of so many employees. The title of the memoir refers to plants that her Shanghai papa taught her were the friends of winter (hard times) because of their resilience, and one is bamboo.
I am aware of the scathing criticism (especially, unsurprisingly, from China) that Ping did not experience certain “atrocities” (the word rape is avoided), and that she may be withdrawing these “atrocities” as “inaccuracies” from the next edition of her memoir. No one can ultimately decide what did or didn’t happen for Ping. And does not this censorship remind one of the women (and men and children) who have kept the violation and shame done to them “a secret”? That — somehow, somehow — the public outrage vented for exposing the “secret” outweighs that which is perpetrated against the woman or child? Do deeply repressed “memories” have the risk of only being fictions? Merely the way in which things become already remembered? How can victims be healed of this when they are uncertain their experiences were genuine?
The denial of the violations done to Ping as a child in the Seventies in Suzhou (how can her critics know?) reminds me of the continued “repression” of the facts of the Nanjing Massacre, a horror, including endless rape, perpetrated by Japanese soldiers. Both Chinese and Japanese authorities alike are mostly silent about the massacre. This holocaust is documented in Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. Like Ping Fu, Iris Chang met considerable resistance and took personal risk in standing up for the dead victims; she became so obsessed with championing their cause and the plight of women in China she became deeply depressed, increasingly isolated and committed suicide. Ping Fu also often contemplated taking her life after it was essentially destroyed for her. But she lives, and offers us a brave, vulnerable, beautifully crafted memoir.