Sunday, March 7, 2010

One Lifetime

Because I speak like a child, he treats me like a child. He holds my hand when we cross the street, he takes me to a candy store.

But he too is like a child. He needs me to take his arm as we step off the curb, he needs me to slow my pace because he can't keep up.

He doesn't say so, but I can tell he's happy I'm walking with him.

“My American son-in-law,” he'd told the doorman on our way out, putting his arm around mine.

He doesn't speak Mandarin very well, but I understand even less Shanghainese, so our conversation is limited.

We're in an appliance store, and he's teaching me the names of things. Some words I already know, some make sense and stick in my mind, others make no sense and go over my head.

“This is a water heater,” he tells me. “That's a washing machine.” When I first met him twenty years ago, he lived in a house with no hot water, no heat, no washing machine, just like everyone else in China.

I try to imagine what his life must have been like, all the things he's seen.

In his youth, he saw his country invaded by the Japanese, he endured the civil war that followed. Then there was the thrill of Liberation, the hope for a New China, the betrayal of the Hundred Flowers Movement. During the Cultural Revolution, he was branded an intellectual and sent to the countryside for re-education through labor. Later, he saw three of his five children leave China to make their lives in other lands.

Yet he's living his final years in comfort and abundance. Could he ever have imagined a future like this? What does he think of it all? There are so many questions I'd like to ask him, if only I had the words.

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