My Grandfather, or a Portrait of the Victim as a Young Man
My maternal grandfather is eighty-four this year.
He’s in Beijing now, almost a thousand miles from his childhood in Hunan. When he speaks, you can still hear the south in his voice, a hint of fire beneath the slothfulness of age.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen him in person; the last time he visited the States, I was in tenth grade. I imagine that my process of growing up, to him, was probably like watching an animator’s keyframes: less of a continuous process, more a metamorphosis in discrete phases. One day I was curious and eight, the next I had pimples and angst. I graduated middle school, high school, and then college — which were, for him, I think, a series of yearbook pictures that perhaps didn’t quite seem like they would organically lead to each other.
I’m in the working adult phase now, a phase that he’d always been excited for me to get to. In my latest video call with him, he told me that he was very proud of me and all the hard work I’d put into my studies. He said I had grown up into a fine young lady, no longer the mischievous little hellion that would upset his mahjong games.
“I just wish that I could see you once more in this lifetime,” were the words he finished with.
Hearing those words, my heart sank. In that moment, a jumble of indescribable thoughts, feelings, and other sundries had welled up inside me, but the notion that had floated to the forefront of it all was that he and my grandmother were now too old to risk the trans-Pacific flight.
Which makes the possibility that I never see him before he passes a very real one.
To me, my grandfather’s life unfurled in reverse. I first knew him as a kindly middle-aged man (my mother started a family when she was pretty young), all smiles and crow’s feet and cigarette smoke.
I remember taking long walks with him in the apartment complex he lived in. He’d take me to their clubhouse’s recreation room and teach me billiards and ping pong — or, in hindsight now, attempt to. I was only four at that time, but I remember being told that I was “a natural.” My skill with billiards now as an adult proves that this was most likely not the case.
He was the one who introduced me to Chupa Chups, my favorite candy for a long time. He’d always buy them for me and my cousin when we visited him, and many of our afternoons at our grandfather’s house were spent playing pirates or reading comic books with candy in our cheeks like chipmunks: strawberries and cream for me, cola for my cousin.
But what I remember most about my grandfather was the stories he’d tell, when he’d get fully into character, with grandiose gestures and voice acting and facial expressions that made me laugh and laugh and laugh.
It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized these stories were all real ones, where he was the main character. And they were also the same ones told over and over again.
My grandmother had told me that lǎoyé used to be in the army, but not much beyond that. Granted, it’s not like she needed to; he spoke plenty about it himself.
At fifteen, he signed up for the People’s Volunteer Army when they were looking for soldiers to fight off the “evil Americans” in Korea. South Korea had deviated from North Korea and had to be brought back in to join its homeland, they were told, and China, which was recently “liberated,” needed to make sure that South Korea isn’t “enslaved” by the Americans.
One of his stories I remember most was one where his platoon was scouting out an abandoned warehouse.
He had been at one of the flanks of the group when the first shot grazed him. Instantly, everyone dropped to the ground and rolled towards cover. He leaned up against the outside of a building and stayed low. He watched as the bullets of the other side formed a neat line of holes about four feet up from the ground, and noted how the distance between each bullet hole and the next was oddly regular.
He told me it was the scariest game of limbo he had ever played, but at least he knew that he was a good limbo player after that.
There were countless other stories, some funny, some exciting, and some about suffering hardships — or, in Chinese, “eating bitterness,” about marching somewhere uphill both ways in the snow.
Of course, he never spoke about the lives he may have taken or the lives that were taken before him, if there were any. To this day, he maintains that he was “merely a bugler and nothing more.” Those memories will rest with him when he leaves us, an eternal secret to the people he loved most.
Once, my aunt had sent my mother a video of my younger cousin doing an impression of my grandfather.
“Isn’t he just like Dad?” read the caption.
In the video, my cousin puffed up his chest and ran his hand through his hair, with all the pomp, circumstance, and self-importance of addressing a council of statesmen. Modulating his pre-teen voice, he rasped out the importance of giving our all, about sacrificing our lives for the society that our great, powerful, almighty leaders had built around us.
“We must be grateful to the leadership of our great Party for bringing China into the twenty-first century!” he crowed. Whoever was holding the camera stifled a laugh.
He then proceeded to gesticulate wildly through an improvised panegyric of the power and the resilience of the state, the leaders, and how much the leaders have sacrificed for the people. To emphasize his points, he jabbed an index finger either into the air or at the audience, his eyebrows dancing up and down on his forehead. His captivated audience, including my grandfather, guffawed from off-camera.
My mother watched this intently, laughing in all the right places.
At the same time, it felt like there was some part of her that wasn’t laughing, something distant and not quite sad. And it definitely didn’t seem like something that could be evoked just by watching a caricature of an old man.
My grandfather finished his military career as a captain in the army. Though he never went to school, my mother told me that he probably could have done really well if he’d been given the opportunity.
During his tenure, he was a principled commanding officer. He never took bribes and would return any gifts that he was given by people hoping to curry his favor.
These were all things I heard from my mother only after I graduated from college. To her, getting my Bachelor’s seemed to be an arbitrary milestone for my “readiness” as an adult — before, when I was still in high school, she wouldn’t even tell me how she met my father (spoiler alert: they were introduced by my dad’s parents, nothing scandalous).
Another thing that she only told me about post-college was the picture.
It’s actually quite a small picture, not even the size of a postcard, printed in black and white. It’d fit neatly into a wallet. In it, six young Chinese soldiers are smiling at the camera, standing next to an army plane, wide grins spanning their faces.
My grandfather was among them, his elegant, stately figure belying his adolescence. However, the moxie and pure determination in his expression easily gave him away — the sixteen-and-invincible streak was decidedly present in his eyes, still untarnished by the fatigue and worldliness that would come with adulthood.
I’m sure that there were a lot of things that he didn’t know when that picture was taken that he wishes he had known. Conversely, I think there also may have been some things he’s come to know after that picture was taken that he wishes never to have learned.
Of the six men smiling in that photograph, only one returned to his family alive after the war.
My grandfather never told me about the picture or the people in it. According to my mother, he still keeps it with him, but has very little to say about each of his former comrades. I can only guess at the absolute weight of the stories that he carries, alone.
At this point, I hope that he’s given himself permission to let go of the heaviest ones.
Shortly after he married my grandmother, my grandfather started a family. They had four children — the eldest being my uncle, and then my aunt, and then my second uncle, and finally my mother.
The runt of the litter, she was a soft child with her head in the clouds and her feet barely touching the ground. And like me, she had also heard very many of my grandfather’s stories growing up. Through the lens of her childish wonder and my grandfather’s animated storytelling, the front lines of the Korean War had seemed to be a grand adventure.
So, as a child who read more than she spoke, she began to look for more stories about the war on her own. It was in these stories where she was introduced to a whole different world, a world that was less about dashing heroics and more a tale of human suffering, written in cold blood.
According to Chinese sources, roughly 180,000 soldiers from the People’s Volunteer Army had died in the Korean War; 350,000 more were wounded. The Encyclopœdia Britannica records these figures as 600,000 dead and 716,000 wounded. Regardless of which numbers you choose to believe, however, China still remains the belligerent to have lost the most soldiers in the entire conflict second only to North Korea. To put this number in perspective, the United States, being China’s counterpart on the South Korean side of the war, had around 36,000 military casualties and 103,000 military wounded.
In my mother’s words, Chinese soldiers were “quite literally cannon fodder.”
This statement applied on both a strategic and a tactical level: strategically, it was the one resource that Peng Dehuai knew he could spend more of than the Americans. In fact, he also knew on some level that the Americans were notoriously stingy about this resource, and so he spent extravagantly, as if in a hurry to turn human lives into statistics. The newly-inaugurated People’s Republic had just emerged from a long line of military conflicts, and had neither the arsenal or the deep pockets to be competitive otherwise; any gap between the communist faction and their opponents would have to be bridged with warm bodies.
A strategy like this, in a situation like this, would mean that the boots on the ground were very ill-equipped. As anyone who’s ever played a civilization builder game would know, it was cheaper and faster to turn out low-cost infantrymen to swarm technologically advanced enemies — which, if you didn’t care about how many units you lost, was a move that offered pretty decent chances of success. It was a way of delivering death by a thousand cuts, a numbers game, and the communist faction’s tactics largely followed this line of thinking, making use of many meat-shield and guerrilla maneuvers where headcount made the most impact.
For good reason too, because if military technology were fashion, the PVA would have been walking onto the frontlines in frosted tips, parachute pants, and Patagonia vests borrowed from the Soviets while the United Nations troops were dressed much like we do today.
But one arena in which this technological gap couldn’t be adequately traversed was the sky. Without seasoned pilots, it was impossible to achieve air superiority, and it was impossible to train seasoned pilots without planes. It was for this reason that the South Korean side of the war was able to maintain aerial dominance throughout the entire conflict, devastating the North Korean side’s ground forces, supply storage, and strategic chokepoints.
My grandfather had told my mother once that being close to a bomb explosion was an experience like no other. The split second right before everything fell apart, when his body knew of the impending stimulus overload but his brain hadn’t completely registered it, would be strangely calm, pregnant with an ersatz silence. What followed, of course, was sound and fire and fury like he’d never known before.
As the war went on, the sound no longer bothered him as much; his eardrums became numb to explosions. The fire of the bombs seemed to dwindle for him as well, especially at night — the infernos he’d seen at the start of the war were now little specks in the pitch-black darkness not unlike stars in the night sky. This, he added, was because his platoon had developed night blindness from Vitamin A deficiency. Their rations had consisted of hardly enough millet and not much else.
When times were hard, they’d have to forage in the wilderness to stave off hunger. Once, my grandfather told my mother that the platoon even had to attempt to catch fish in a creek because they ran out of food. He didn’t tell her if anyone ever starved.
Clothing was also in short supply — while the United Nations soldiers were given heavy coats and the Soviets and Koreans were more than used to brutal winters, this was the first real winter for many Chinese troops, my grandfather included. Hunan’s climate was rainy and subtropical, and the only winter he’d known before would be the three months of the year when it rained a little less than usual. He had never known snow until Korea, not to mention what people should wear when it snowed. He never received any new clothing from the army either and had to make the most of whatever he brought with him. To my mother, it was a miracle that he didn’t freeze to death.
To me, it felt unreal that he had seen all of this before he even turned eighteen. Back when I was in high school, my main concerns were my class rank and whether I could get a leadership position at a school club. Death was something that I knew existed in theory, but in practice, it couldn’t be further from my mind. I lived every day as if the next one was promised to me by the universe itself — sometimes, I still do.
My grandfather never talks about death, but I can’t help but wonder how his time on the battlefield must have changed him. I wonder if he ever questioned why he was fighting. I wonder if he knew what he fought for. I wonder if he ever thought to ask why the other side had airplanes, tanks, and mortars while he hardly had enough to eat. I wonder if he thought that his commanders were justified in every attack they ordered; I wonder if he thought they cared. I wonder if he perhaps felt guilty that he was the only one of his friends to survive, and I wonder if he’s ever forgiven himself for it.
I don’t think I’ll ever get an answer to any of these questions — not that I would ever ask.
But I do have reason to believe that my grandfather’s commanders held a special kind of indifference towards the value of human life, like those of many other communist belligerents throughout history. The highly expensive strategy of throwing as many soldiers at the enemy as possible is a common trait of many of their armed conflicts; in both the Vietnam War and the Korean War, the military casualties of the communist factions far outnumbered those of their opponents.
During the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II, as the Luftwaffe bombarded the city relentlessly from above and the 6th Army of the Axis flattened the city from below, Joseph Stalin (who would become Mao Zedong’s partner in the Korean War) issued Order 227, which compelled his troops to take “not one step back!”
Commanders and reports alike were punished severely for unauthorized retreats. Anyone caught doing so would face relocation to penal battalions that were intentionally sent to the most dangerous positions, or even outright execution. Sorties were tailed by units whose express purpose was to shoot any of their own comrades who attempted to turn back. These blockade detachments killed 1,000 Red Army men within the first three months of their formation.
Under this order, the 62nd Army at Stalingrad — perhaps the most dangerous of all Soviet fronts at that time — counted the most executions: 49 soldiers were put to death by their own. By the end of the six-month siege, after the Axis surrendered, the Red Army had lost an estimated 1.1 million soldiers; the Axis forces combined lost 800,000. There was never an accurate count of how many civilians died in the crossfire, but conservative estimates put the number at 40,000 deaths from a starting population of 400,000 — a literal decimation.
Of all the things I wonder about my grandfather that I’ll never ask, the one that weighs the heaviest on my mind is this:
I wonder if my grandfather ever knew that his life had value.
These days, my grandparents are on WeChat much more often. Their messages are frequent, hurried, and probing, almost as if the rest of us will cease to exist once our green online dots extinguish. In a way, that is their reality. Trapped in their homes while COVID-19 sweeps the world, their only real proof of life from any of us an ocean away is if we send back a text, or a voice message, or a funny sticker.
My mother is worried about them as well, and justifiably so. Beijing is China’s population center: New York City in density but Los Angeles in sprawl. From the infection statistics that are coming out of New York City right now, she doesn’t believe for a second that Beijing truly has no new cases of the coronavirus, nor that only 20,000 people have died from the virus in the whole country.
Neither do I. Not when the crematoria in Wuhan have mysteriously amassed over 8,000 urns over the past month, despite the official death toll for Wuhan being only around 2,000; not when people were lining up outside funeral parlors for hours, standing six feet apart, like it’s Black Friday but instead of the newest iPhone the doorbuster is what remains of their loved ones (limited edition, one of a kind!); not when all the movie theaters in China had to suddenly and inexplicably shut down even after China had “reached containment”; not when the Shanghai lab that first shared the virus’ genome with the international medical community was forced into a hiatus by the Chinese government; not when COVID-19 patients are being evicted from hospitals as soon as they test negative, before making a full recovery; not when Dr. Li Wenliang was arrested for blowing the whistle on the disease early and died for his trouble a mere seven days before the birth of his first child; not when a South China University paper speculating that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology was quietly removed as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began accusing the United States of manufacturing the virus; not when the state shooed foreign journalists out of the country in the midst of this global crisis, not when I found out that China ignores asymptomatic carriers in their count of COVID-19 cases — and not when, as much as I desperately want to believe that my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and everyone in China are perfectly fine, believing feels more like a denouncement of my own humanity and a devaluation of theirs with each passing day.
Yet, every time we bring up the pandemic with my grandfather, his reaction twists this knife further into my chest.
“Don’t worry about us! Things are great here! You have more cases than us over there now, you know! Don’t listen to the overseas media!”
God forbid we mention anything to him that goes against the government’s official line of thought. The onset of the face he makes happens in his eyebrows, where they knit together, not quite confused and not quite mad. Then it spreads to his eyes, which squint before stretching out into something half-positive, and finally to his jaw, which forms itself into an uncomfortable smile. It’s a polite challenge to us, the implied question being “Are you ready to die on this hill today? Really?”
Nobody prods him past that point. The outcome of the fight is known before the opening salvo is even fired.
You’ll be told that this isn’t a time for blame (but what of understanding the facts of the situation?), to not make everything so political (but what of the political disinformation campaign surrounding the virus?), and to not be anti-Chinese (since when does any government represent an entire cultural identity?). Then, he stops the conversation and refuses to listen any further.
It’s hard for me to read my grandfather when he gets like this. The frustration he expresses feels like a cheap simulation of what real human anger should be, but I can’t quite discern what other thoughts or emotions he might be hiding underneath it. The sad thing is, I don’t think he knows either.
“We have the best doctors here! Everything’s been completely contained so quickly,” he told my mother once late March. “It’s because everything is so much better organized here. Hardly any new cases!”
For the week of March 14, an internal dataset from the Wuhan authorities indicated that around 16,000 COVID-19 tests were administered, of which 373 came back positive. The official figure for this week counted only four new cases in the city.
But my mother doesn’t say this. She doesn’t say much to him on this topic, if at all. All of her concern and anxiety she keeps to herself, where her father can’t see it.
Instead, she’s resorted to sending him articles from overseas media. She never provides any explanation for any of them, but her hope — as she tells me — is that her father may open those links and read a little bit for himself.
He tells us to be careful a lot these days.
“Many cases out there in America now, make sure to wash your hands often, hah!”
Of course I tell him yes, that I stay six feet away from people and remember not to touch my face. I tell him that I work from home and hardly leave the house, so it’s okay. I smile, but my mouth is dry and my eyes hardly move.
I can’t shake the feeling that this kind of thinking was how my grandfather mustered up the will to march onto the battlefield to his probable death, his rifle and hand grenades against aircraft bombs, tanks, and bazookas, his malnourished body against well-fed U.N. troops, his hand-me-downs against heavy armor. Somewhere in the crossfire, I think he may have forgotten how precious life was — how precious his life was. I think he might have forgotten that he deserved life.
Later on, maybe he forgot that all humans should be treated like they have a right to live, because he never saw any better. As his friends passed on into ashes, one after the other, maybe he learned helplessness; after all, everyone dies someday, right? Maybe he stopped questioning things because he knew that it wouldn’t get him anywhere, not when the only language his higher-ups understood from him was absolute obedience.
When you wear the mask of obeisance for too long, it starts to become your reality. At that point, the mask becomes almost impossible to remove without also tearing out a part of your identity. And so, like this, to preserve his own life — my grandfather perhaps forgot how to live.
My grandfather was born in 1935, in a small village in Pingjiang County, Hunan Province. He was the third child of the family, with a brother and a sister before him and one younger brother after him.
The family was rather well-off, as far as farming families go, in a time where being well-off was more trouble than it was worth. Back then, while the world was wrestling with an economic depression, China was embroiled in her own troubles. A civil war was being fought between the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party as the Republic of China crumbled, a war that was less an all-out conflict and more of a series of piecemeal skirmishes. To make matters worse, Japan entered the fray near the end of the decade, annexing Manchuria with ambitions of usurping her longtime patron.
Which was, all things considered, a situation that wasn’t unfamiliar to the Chinese people. For thousands of years, the dissolution of each dynasty would mean the fracture of the central government, a descent into chaos across the land, an assortment of warlords, some kinder than others, who would squabble with each other for control over the land and its people, and the entry of foreign invaders. Out of this chaos one power would eventually reign supreme, and thus begins the next dynasty; wash, rinse, repeat.
So my grandfather’s family was rather blasé about receiving touring Nationalist and Communist soldiers in their home, because what else could they do? It was what the ancestors had to go through every few centuries or so, and these were just the squabbling warlords du jour.
As a child, some of my grandfather’s first memories were of these strange men, with their strange uniforms and strange guns, loitering about the house as if it were their own. Pressed into compliance by the bounds of politeness, my great-grandfather gave them what they wanted; at first out of patriotism and the naive hope that they would make things better, but eventually just to make them go away.
Neither side was the least bit hesitant about being bad house guests. On the same day, the National Revolutionary Army might invite themselves over for lunch, overstay their welcome into the late afternoon, and leave only moments before the People’s Liberation Army would roll in for dinner. They’d eat, drink, and in some cases, even spend the night, unabashedly mooching off of what the family had to offer. They weren’t opposed to receiving donations either, whether it was in money, in wearables, or in consumables.
Both sides claimed to be fighting for “the people.” But as these armies siphoned the family’s resources into their own pockets and stomachs, it was clear that at least one of two things must be true: either they weren’t here to fight for the proverbial people, or my grandfather’s family must not be considered people to them.
It turned out that the latter statement was less true for the Nationalists than it was for the Communists. During the 1930s, Mao, inspired by the Bolsheviks, sought to follow in their footsteps and seize the means of production in China. As a step in this process, capital will have to be redistributed, and the arbiter of this process would, of course, be none other than the Chinese Communist Party. And of course, for the arbiter to be any degree of effective, they would first have to have all of the nation’s capital in hand to redistribute.
Though my grandfather’s family had already been under financial strain due to hosting the men of both armies, they were classified as a “bourgeois” family in the village because they had been historically well-to-do. And to the Communists, the bourgeoisie weren’t people — they were exploiters, slaveowners, monsters that were evil beyond measure, vampires that would not be satisfied until they’ve sucked the life out of each and every hardworking proletariat.
On one fateful day, the Communists came into the house as usual; the family met them expecting them to demand their usual share of food and drink, but something was different. This time, they didn’t even bother with the veneer of civility. What they demanded was simple: Give us all you own.
There was hardly any room for negotiation. They had guns.
My great-grandparents looked on helplessly as the men ransacked their home, taking what suited their fancy and destroying what didn’t, any history or sentimentality that might be associated with an object be damned. The children clustered about their parents’ legs, my preschool-age grandfather included, and watched as these men took, and took, and took until there was nothing left.
But an entire house’s worth of capital wasn’t enough. They had to squeeze every last bit of accumulated wealth from the bourgeoisie.
On another fateful day, when my grandfather’s family was still reeling from the loss of their home and their belongings, the Communists came back. Seeing that there was nothing more to take, they took my great-grandfather.
My great-grandmother was told that her husband was their hostage indefinitely. No clear ransom amount was given; only the instruction to pay up and to hurry up if she wanted her husband back in the same condition he was taken in.
Not knowing what else to do, my great-grandmother tried to scrape together what she thought was a good amount to give to the soldiers. But after they took the money, they told her that it wasn’t enough, and to come back with more. Otherwise, who knows what could happen to her husband?
She was told to come back with more money, again and again, until the Communists thought that they had wrung the family dry. By that time, my great-grandmother had given them 600 silver dollars — around $34,000 today — to eventually bring my great-grandfather back home.
Afterwards, the family never came even close to being well-to-do again. They were one of the poorest families in the village, but were never given the highly-desired designation of proletariat or any of the government assistance that came with it. Because of this, my grandfather — despite being a precocious child — never got the opportunity to go to school. He couldn’t afford to.
And seeing no other way out of this suffering and erasing the despicable “bourgeois” label on his back, he resolved to join the army.
I had been wrestling with a question as I wrote this, and that’s the question of whether I wanted to show this to my grandfather at all. I’m definitely not hiding it from him, but it’s a question of intentionality, because if I was writing this for him, I’d have to write to him. I still don’t have an answer to this question — and to some degree, I’m not even entirely sure who I was writing to, just that I felt that this story should exist.
If I were to be completely honest, a large part of why I wrote this was to organize my own thoughts and feelings in the midst of this awful plague (selfish, I know). In my two decades of life on earth, this was the first time that I’ve seen the whole world entangled in the same crisis, the first time I’ve seen so many people of so many different nationalities lose their lives to such a terrible force. Growing up, I’ve read about the World Wars, I’ve read about the Spanish Flu, but I never thought that I’d be alive to see something like this happen. It’s a lot louder and a lot faster than I expected, and there was no way I could have known what losing potentially millions of people at once would feel like ahead of time.
It’s the first time I’ve witnessed this much anxiety, hatred, mistrust, and fear in the world’s people: fear in panic, fear in hysteria, fear in buying toilet paper, but also fear in unnatural silences at the dinner table, fear in a stiff upper lip, and perhaps most of all, fear in not knowing what kind of a face to match to the killer of our species. Does our villain wear a white coat and tinker with glassware in a secret lab somewhere? Is it someone with yellow skin that eats bats? Is it perhaps a nation’s too-cavalier leader who too often acts before he thinks? Or maybe all the corporate executives whose primary concern seems to be making a profit above all else?
And I think I understand. There’s a certain comfort in being able to put a human identity on an enemy, because we’re only human. We want to believe that our antagonist is only as good as we are, that they can be defeated because they have the same shortcomings as we do. It’s easy to point at another person and have them play the villain because it’s the easiest truth for us to accept. Nobody wants to believe that the enemy could be something that we don’t know, something that we can’t control, some eldritch force that is more powerful than we are, something eviler than we are good. That equates to believing that we’re truly helpless. That means giving up hope.
At first, I was going to follow that same line of thinking, aiming my crosshairs at the Chinese Communist Party’s top officials who were more concerned with COVID-19 whistleblowers than new COVID-19 patients. I painted a bull’s eye on the forehead of every Chinese Internet commenter that parroted the Chinese regime’s disinformation — I thought they were stupid, heartless, lazy, subhuman, and absolute wastes of the oxygen they breathe. I thought they only cared about their own vested interests; I thought they were evil.
But then, I thought of my grandfather.
My grandfather isn’t stupid. A poor farm boy with no education, he had to teach himself to read and write. With no education, no background, and no connections, he was able to make it through two years of officer training in the army. He also isn’t heartless. After he earned his officer’s rank in the army, he often used his influence and connections to help people in his home village, even though some of them hadn’t always treated him that well. He’s always been a friendly neighbor wherever he lives. Since I was little, he’s been telling me to work hard for my own happiness, like he had strived tirelessly for his own, eating bitterness all the while. And I’d never think he was subhuman; every day, I wish that there were enough breaths left in his life so that I could go see him at least one more time.
In the end, I think the real enemy in this situation is not a person after all, but an ideology: the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.
It was this ideology that robbed my grandfather of his childhood home and the future he originally wanted. It’s this ideology that made him an undesirable in his youth, and the same ideology that pushed him out onto the battlefield at fifteen. But the insidious thing is that it’s the same ideology that he internalized, which led him to believe that he had succeeded because of it when in reality, he had succeeded in spite of it. Like an abusive partner, it made him believe that its past transgressions against him weren’t important and that its current transgressions don’t exist. It lies to him about what it’s doing, it lied to him about his own self-worth, and it will continue to lie to him as long as it thinks he’ll believe it. Because of the short honeymoon phases (that were maybe how he’s only ever known happiness) and the gaslighting (that was maybe how he’s only ever known truth), he does.
I don’t think my grandfather is the only victim of this abuse. Many Chinese people today stand in the same position that he’s in, all victims of the same aggressor. Some of them are aware of the abuse, but many are not. Like many victims of abusive relationships, they still protect their abuser out of pride, out of fear, out of habit, out of internalized self-deprecation. Many have even mistakenly linked their own identity with those of their abuser so that any slight made against the abuser is a direct insult to themselves. They’ll respond to any criticism of their abuser as they would an affront to themselves, sometimes viciously attacking the very people who want to help them get out of the abusive relationship.
Because of this, I don’t know if my grandfather will ever be able to fully make the realization. For seventy-odd years, his abuser has reinforced the mental processes that keep him a victim, and for seventy-odd years, he’s grown his identity around his abuser’s framework like a vine on a trellis. Separating the vine from the trellis, at this point, might break the vine. So there he stays, his fate entangled with that of his abuser, as his abuser forges on, consuming more and more lives to fuel its treacherous reign.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if my grandfather were born in a different country. He’s managed to fly so high with his wings clipped; imagine how much higher he could have soared if he’d had their full use. I wonder what his ambitions would have looked like, what he’d dream of becoming, what he’d value in his life, and how different it would all be from how he is now. I wonder how he’d have turned out if he were actually allowed to live out his teenage years feeling immortal, the way teenagers were supposed to.
I’ll never find out the answer to those questions, but I’m fine with that. Some questions are more enlightening when they’re left unanswered, after all, and I want to believe that mine fall into that category.
Lǎoyé, if you’re ever reading this — please don’t be angry, or think that I’m looking down on you. I still think that you’re one of the kindest, most hardworking, and most extraordinary people I know. You’ve suffered so much; I can only imagine the depth of the hole you’ve had to crawl out of in order to reach where you are today. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today if you hadn’t been able to keep fighting on. I know that part of why you worked so hard is so that you could make sure that your children, and we, your grandchildren, will have the opportunity to do all the things that you wanted to, but couldn’t. For that, I am so very thankful. I always will be.
I’m not going to ask you to believe what I believe. It’s okay if you don’t. You don’t need to think I’m right; I know you might not.
But what I will ask of you is that you keep living on, and keep living out your best life, for as long as you can. You’d better stay healthy until the next time I see you, and after that too. Don’t end up in the hospital! Stay inside, get some exercise, don’t get frustrated at people — it’s not good for your blood pressure! I hope you laugh genuinely and laugh often; our world is too crazy right now for you not to get a kick out of it.
And most importantly, eat something sweet for once. You’ve been eating bitterness your entire life.