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Ordinary Yet Extraordinary: The Life of My Mother

On the afternoon of January 27, 2024, my mother passed away peacefully in my brother Haimin’s arms,  in Wenchang, Hainan, China. Hearing the news from Haimin, I rushed from California to Hainan. My other brother Yimin had already arrived from Guangdong. The three of us brothers, along with relatives and friends,  gathered to bid our final farewell to our mother.

Only a few days earlier, my daughter Isa and I had a video call with Mom. Although she was weak during the call, her words to me and Isa were quite clear, each one showing her love for us and her satisfaction with life. We talked about making a photobook of her with granddaughter Lina and Isa since they were babies and what else she may like for the upcoming Chinese new year . She said very clearly the photobook of Lina and Isa would be just great. Despite suffering from Alzheimer's disease in her later years, she had no other painful illnesses and received personal care from my brother Haimin, which made her passing at the age of 88 somewhat comforting. Yet, when alone, I still feel profound sadness and grief. The days I spent with my brothers in China and the blessings from friends and relatives, and looking through her photos and reminiscing about her life, have brought some peace.

Mom was born in 1936 into a diligent and well-above-average family in a village outside Changyi, Shandong. Farming was the primary occupation of most family members, though some engaged in trade and even settled as far as Qingdao. When Mom was just one year old, a Qingdao-based cousin persuaded her father and embarked on a journey beyond the confines of their village. Tragically, amidst the turbulence of the Sino-Japanese war, he mysteriously vanished, leaving no trace of his whereabouts. Mom yearned for a father like all other children had. The elders consoled her with promises of her father’s return for the New Year. Year after year, she clung to this hope. Eventually, realizing the elders' struggle for answers themselves, she stopped asking. Yet, deep down, her heart continued to harbor the desire for his return.

Mom in her youth

Changyi, not far from the Nobel Laureate writer Mo Yan's hometown of Gaomi, was war-torn by the invasion by the Japanese army. People’s suffering of the war were very similar to those described in Mo Yan’s novels. The war trauma lingered in Mom’s mind throughout her life. She recounted how an uncle of hers, who had to get into the town to do business, sewed money into her winter cotton jacket to avoid being taken away. Just a few months ago, on a day Mom’s Alzheimer's was particularly severe, she told me that in the previous day she saw six Japanese army soldiers patrolling the street but she dared not look at them.

After the founding of The People Republic of China, my mother and grandmother, living as widows and orphans, happily joined the collective "production team". My mother received a good secondary education in the early 1950’s, not common in the Chinese countryside at the time.

Mom with her friend in middle school

Upon graduating from middle school, Mom made the courageous decision to relocate to Harbin. She wanted to join a distant aunt and participate in the industrial boom of Northeast China. After months of searching, she secured a coveted position as a boiler water testing technician at the renowned Harbin Electrical Instrument, an USSR assisted state enterprise. This job offered rapid advancement, valuable training, and overtime pay due to its frequent holiday work requirement.

Mom and grandma became close friends with their next door neighbor who helped them to settle in Harbin

After securing a job in Harbin, Mom brought her mother there to live with her. She also helped a struggling cousin from Shandong to relocate to Harbin. Later, she met my capable and hardworking father. They got married in 1960, and I was born the following year during the Great Famine in China. To help the family survive the "Three Years of Natural Disaster" following Mao's "Great Leap Forward" campaign, my grandmother sold her home in Shandong. Both my parents were considered "model workers" and were well-liked and respected by their supervisors, with promising futures ahead of them.

In a surprising turn of events, the cousin Mom helped to relocate from Shandong to Harbin, informed the "organization" of a politically disloyal remark made by her father, my mother's uncle, back in Shandong. This revelation sparked an investigation, eventually leading to his arrest. The investigation further uncovered that my grandfather was "missing," raising suspicions that he might have joined the Nationalists in Taiwan. As a result, my mother's trustworthiness was questioned, and her position in water testing, a security-sensitive field, was changed to product quality inspection. My father, a key engineer, also faced restrictions in his professional status. This situation, not uncommon during that era, cast a long shadow over three generations of the family, including us children. We sensed a taboo about our family history, a subject no one dared to bring up but never forgotten.

Amid the height of the Sino-Soviet conflict in 1969, China embarked on a strategic relocation of its industrial base. To decentralize the industry and potentially mitigate risks, the Chinese government initiated the creation of the "Third Front." This involved moving portions of the industry away from regions close to Russia and establishing them in less developed western provinces. As part of this initiative, my family relocated to Tianshui in Gansu province.

In the winter of 1969, Mom and the family in Beijing en route to the western Gansu province. On the wide right margin of the photo is "Forever loyal to the great leader Chairman Mao", with "Chairman Mao" printed on the top of a new line, just like how the emperor's name is handled in dynastic times of China

Following the relocation from Harbin to Tianshui, my mother's job as a water analyst and processing technician was restored. Certain areas of daily life, such as housing space and the availability of fresh produce, were improved, while others, like winter heating, demanded a significant amount of self-sufficiency and effort. In addition to her professional responsibilities, my mother took on a substantial share of additional household chores.

In Tianshui, my parents' political distrust eased somewhat; however, occasional events continued to remind Mom of her family's "historical problem." One such event was the now-famous "Lin Biao incident" of September 13, 1971. Lin Biao, the then CCP Vice Chairman and named successor to Mao in the CCP constitution, reportedly attempted a failed coup d'état against Mao. He then defected to the Soviet Union, but his plane crashed in Mongolia. Briefings about the incident, along with a private letter from Mao Zedong to his wife Jiang Qing to prove the wise and great leader had always known about Lin’s ill0-wills, were read to everyone, including elementary school children like me. However, Mom was among the very few in the neighborhood who were not allowed to attend these important briefings. It is hard to imagine the feeling of being singled out in such situations.

Mom with brother Yimin in 1983

Mom and Dad in 1984

Following the official conclusion of the cultural revolution in 1976, the easing of the political climate in China brought a significant improvement in living standards for many families, including our own. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the importance of education was re-emphasized, our three brothers successively gained admission to universities, which was an uncommon achievement at the time and earned our family the reputation of "a family of scholars". Despite her retirement, our mother continued to work diligently to support us, even taking on an additional technician job located several kilometers away.

Mom came to visit and help when Lina was born

We went to visit them in China when Isa was a year old

Mom's five granddaughters (circa 2009)

Mom and Dad visiting us in California in 2016

With great interest, Mom watching Lina and Isa making desserts with mom Pernilla and friend Anne

During her retirement, Mom embarked on remarkable journeys across China with my father, creating unforgettable memories. She also made several and extended visits to me and my family in California, bringing immense joy to our lives. During those visits, Mom's culinary skills were enjoyed by us all but particularly by my daughters Lina and Isa. Watching and helping her granddaughters grow and develop filled her with immense pride and happiness.

Visiting Santa Cruz

Mom visiting US east coast in 2016

After my father passed away in 2018, Mom decided to live in an elderly care facility in Tianshui for a while. She was very happy to see Lina and Isa come to visit in the summer of 2019.

Brother Haimin took Mom and three of us to a road trip around Tianshui.

For the past two years, despite the confusion brought on by dementia, one thing consistently brought clarity and happiness to the grandmother: conversations with and involving her granddaughters, Lina and Isa. She said at night she drifted off to sleep happily thinking about their accomplishments: Not only did Lina and Isa excel in school and win national and international medals in artistic swimming, but they also independently prepared their own breakfasts and lunches. Lina's recent accomplishment of earning her driver's license and driving herself to school filled the grandmother with joy - “She has really grown up!” Mom said repeatedly.

After the COVID-19 pandemic that lasted for three years when we could not visit in person, in the summer of 2023, Lina and I embarked on a journey to Hainan, China where Mom moved to with Haimin and his family. This trip brought immense joy and pride to Mom. Brother Haimin took Mom, Lina, and me on a memorable road trip around Hainan, leaving us with cherished memories. It is sad to realize that this was our last trip together. May you find eternal peace, dear Mom.


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