My father’s stories about the Cultural Revolution were mostly about food. Stories about being sent as a student to work as a farm laborer in the countryside: how the peasant farmers used so much vinegar that the students couldn’t choke down their noodles, and how during the watermelon harvest everyone sat in the fields and ate watermelons until they couldn’t stand up. My mother’s stories about the Cultural Revolution were almost nonexistent.
My parents grew up during the Cultural Revolution, but I didn’t know what that meant. As a kid, I thought the Cultural Revolution was a time period, that my dad would say, “during the Cultural Revolution,” like my friends’ parents would say “during the Kennedy Administration,” or “during the 70s.” It wasn’t until I was older that I understood that being “sent down to the villages” wasn’t a normal thing that every Chinese student did as part of their education, that saying “during the Cultural Revolution” was actually more like “during the war.”
Years later, my mother finally told me the story about how she watched her classmates tie up and beat her favorite teacher. She alluded to how my grandfather was accused of being, if not an outright counterrevolutionary, problematic enough to be criticized and their family forced to move across the country. Swept up in the patriotic fervor of the times, she changed her name from “white flower” to “for the Chinese.”
When I was 20, my mother found an old copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, and some Communist Youth League badges that she had worn in school. She burned the book and smashed the badges, efficiently and emotionlessly.