Tall Houses

One time I accidentally sat in Chairman Mao’s chair. The feeling that flowed through my body then was like the unsettling eeriness of an unresolved tension. Worse, the knowledge that I had to stay sitting in that chair and was not allowed to move, made my stomach turn.

In the summer of 2012 my mother and I went to China. In the few years leading up to that our relationship had been pretty rocky. When I came out in my senior year of high school, she had a stereotypically bad reaction. Starting silent, then attacking me, accusing me and finally going into a long spiral of denial. I moved interstate to Canberra for university after finishing high school, as I just couldn’t live like that with a giant rainbow elephant in the room. All through my first year, every time we spoke on the phone she would ask me if I had a boyfriend yet. I got into the habit of just hanging up on her.

During my second year of university, I don’t think I spoke to her once. I also decided sometime in that year, in a spur of independence, that if she wanted to know me at all, she would have to learn to love me for who I was. In my third year, maybe sensing my internal ultimatum, something changed and she stopped pushing the heterosexual button. My dad and my sister were doing much better with my identity revelation and I think they might have softened her resolve. So at the end of that year, I’m not really sure whose idea it was, but apparently I needed a holiday. My dad offered to co-fund a trip to China if I went with my mother. I think I decided it was worth it because it would be nice to visit the place I had been studying so contentiously; my mother decide that it would be a good chance to restock her wardrobe. So off we went – I left my bubble in Canberra and mum returned to the homeland.

We stayed with some relatives in an ex-village-cum-town of GuangZhou, not far from and similar to where my mother had grown up. The bone chilling cold of my relatives’ tall and empty house would stick you to the spot. Taut and perched on an aching butt on cold wooden chairs, sipping tea. This stiff sitting compounded my feeling of entrapment on the wrong side of the world. I had found so much independence and personal growth at university, yet once again I found myself being suffocated, in the closet, with the Chinese family.

It was a tall and empty house, built on top of their old single room shack. Now it had four storeys, with tall barred windows, a gated entrance with cold tile floors and elegant, uncomfortable, unpadded wooden furniture. In the villages it was extremely inexpensive for middle class families to build up. Two, three, four floors cost them little more than the original single storey. Practically unnecessary but it tells the neighbours a show-offy story of their loftier wealth. However these houses are often empty past the second floor, and on the fourth there was still plastic on the furniture. They had jumped up a class since Deng Xiao Ping’s Great Leap Forward, but it was telling of the newfound Chinese wealth. China had changed and its people were still working out how to change with it.

To be totally honest I had a shitty time in rural China. I couldn’t go outside alone, it was not safe for a lone white girl to walk these streets. I didn’t want to go out with my mother anymore who treated me like a bell-boy. My family treated me like an oddity and the people on the streets gawked at my short hair, androgynous looks and facial piercings. When my mother would take me out to meet her friends she seemed infinitely embarrassed by my boyish look, every time explaining ‘no, this is my daughter’. On one of these trips one of her friends who was an acclaimed physiognomist – Chinese face reader, told her that my face shape predicted great luck. So he told that – in the future I wouldn’t not be rich but, I would find great love. I was destined to make my husband very happy one day. My mother almost died with joy; she collected this prediction with such enthusiasm, it was like he had given her a handful of expensive jewels. I just smiled.

Rural China admittedly was more interesting during lectures and tutorials under the periscope of political science. I thought I would love the experience and soak in the scenes of the ethnographies that I had spent so much time studying. However, bored and disappointed, I kicked up dust on the third floor, squeaking in my slippers. Wistfully leaning against a frosty window looking out, down at dirt and watching the kids play down the street. I thought about how my problems were worlds away from theirs: poverty, corruption, totalitarianism. Dwarfing my self-involved predicament around how I would ever get along with my mother. Yet here we were in their world, trying to deal with our problems. I spent days sitting on the hard bed, brooding, mulling.I felt like this place had nothing to give, I wanted nothing from it. The tension I had packed with me couldn’t dissipate amongst the empty rooms – it just reverberated.

Trying to lift my spirits and draw my attention, my mother talked incessantly. As we were preparing to leave GuangZhou, she told me about this neighbour she had when she was a little. This neighbour was older and one day she left the village for many years. When she came back to visit, to my mother’s awe, she had height and swagger, slim dresses and an urban twang in her accent. She was the most glamorous and worldly person my mum had ever seen. This woman had gone to the big city of Shanghai. On that day, at that moment mum decided that one-day, she too would go to Shanghai. She would see that place where elegance was born and perspective-changing things happened, and I’m reading between the lines here, but she figured on her return she too would return an admirable dignified woman.

I imagined that like others trapped in communist rural China, the idea of the far away place was a secret luxury that you allowed yourself. You own your dreams, tax free, they are the framework for a life yet to be lived. When she was a teenager my mother’s family managed to flee China, slipping past the long arm of the Cultural Revolution. However she never did visit Shanghai.

In a stroke of irony, the tour of Shanghai we booked was a special package only for expatriates and their families. Sponsored by a Chinese government initiative to bring people back and show them how far China had come. For this tour we paid only $99 per person and stayed in 5 star accommodation, with great food, a huge tour-bus, the whole nine yards. It was garishly extravagant and uncomfortable to drive through cheap streets in our huge bus. The gaze of privilege floated with us – a streaked cloud of pride and arrogance for some; pity or shame for others.

As we visited famous sites of Chinese history, it became clear that the tour was tailored to focus only on the Ancient Chinese period and the post-Mao era. The years between, its landmarks and stories, its loss and struggle were excised out. Each place we went I found myself quizzing mum. What was it like growing up like that? What was it like for my grandparents? What about their parents? I wanted to know more about why they left China, what happened, how did they do it? She would snap shut, and shush me, ‘don’t ask that things’ and ‘not time for talking that now’.

As we travelled with the other expats, the group became close. We travelled with families from California, Vancouver, San Francisco, even a family just like ours from Sydney – I swear their kids could have been my cousins. Bonding over shared stories of newfound lives where we had built layer upon layer of new life, wealth, sport, and business, for others to admire. It was the extra stories on their tall houses. But they never reflected on why they left, how they got out – this was not a story to share. That space in the conversation was left vacant.

My mother’s contribution to these conversations came in the form of bragging. I guess they all had a lot to be proud of, or at least a sense of need to justify what they had gained since they had left. She loved to show people photos of my sister who is as tall and pretty as a model. I often wondered what she said about me, when I wasn’t there. Maybe she would talk about how I was at university, maybe she would lie and say I was studying law. Anyway, I could tell it was a great gift, the little anecdote about my lucky face. A face that would find great love, love that would make a man very happy. Over and over she would tell it, chuffed and proud. ‘Oh yes, my daughter, her face mean she have very good love, make her husband very happy’. I would cringe every time. Once she did it and I snapped at her, saying ‘I think everyone has heard that story enough’. Another night in the hotel I told her, ‘You know mum it’s not a true story.’ She looked quizzical, ‘Oh how you know, it no happen yet.’ I sighed, ‘you know I will never have a husband.’ She said nothing, and I didn’t fill the silence.

You know that feeling you get when there is something on the bottom of your to-do list that you have been putting off. When you think about it last thing before you go to bed, know you have to get it done but know you are not going to do it. You carry it around in the back of your mind and it quietly tortures you during your day. That stressful tension which procrastinators and workaholics and people with too many commitments know so well. That’s what the giant chasm between me and my mother felt like. It seemed to me that she wouldn’t understand me while she still denied my truth, I didn’t think I would ever know her while she denied her past. How could we face it together, when it was active ignorance to each other’s lives that kept us tense? They were empty rooms, in tall houses, where we housed our undisclosed lives and untold stories.

Sitting in front of a giant bowl of German artisanal ice cream in Shanghai Tourist District Hagen Daas. I jumped in the deep end. ‘Mum did you notice that the tour ignores all the Cultural Revolution stuff?’ ‘Mum do you think this is on purpose?’ ‘Mum why doesn’t anyone ask about it?’ She stabbed an ice cream ball with the tiny dessert fork. ‘Ma, don’t you think that I should know what happened?’ ‘Don’t you think that it’s people like me who have the obligation to hear the story?’ She hissed at me, ‘Stop, shh, why you talk this?’ I replied, ‘Mum I just don’t know why it feels like we can’t talk about these things. You must have feelings about all this stuff, it’s been 50 years!’ Snap, mum stopped, ‘don’t talk about this, you don’t know who is listen here.’ She spied around the room filled with middle class tourists and fashionable Shanghai ladies. Her face screwed up and her eyes narrowed, like she had said too much already and now we were being watched. I had gone too far, the sticky ears of the Central government still listened, the long eyes from the past still watched over her. I sipped my soy hot chocolate.

It was a cruel trick. The tour guide must enjoy playing this game. Leading us into the room, inviting us to sit on the grouped chairs. We innocently twiddled our thumbs and waited for our next a-symmetrical history lesson. Excitedly he announced, yes, believe it – Mao Zhedong, had once sat in this very room, yes in fact here’s a picture. Oh yes count ten chairs from one side and seven from the other. Yes, that’s where he sat, yes, in the middle, that would make it that chair. He pointed at me.

‘Yes you chair, the one that that man, umm that woman, um the.. that um chair you sit in’. Pointing at me. Like the faded old photo of Mao, the colour drained from my face. Other chairs creaked as everyone leant over for a look, some with a look of jealousy.

The bottom of the chair had fallen out, the frame wheezed when I squirmed uncomfortably in it. Must have been from too many tourists pushing themselves on to it. Excitedly plonking their bums onto a 50-year old piece of furniture that was never aware of the burden it would carry.

I had to sit there for an unknown amount of time while the tour guide told a long-winded story about the glory of Mao, his rise to the top of the party, his influence on China. In my own mind, I dwelled on all the tortured feelings of distaste for the truth, his barbarism, the suffering, my family’s long struggle to escape.

Then finally, he finished, we could move. I stood up, tense and a line formed at the chair.

My mum did not line up to sit in the chair. With a dignified stride she left the room.

When we left Shanghai and returned to the village, I sensed something had changed about my mother. I don’t know if Shanghai had been all that she expected. Long ago, she found a new life in a very far away place when the family immigrated to Australia. Maybe she didn’t need the transformative power of the Shanghai glamour dream. Perhaps my pushing her to realise the past had started forming cracks in the veil of forgotten truth. The memory was leaking out. Back at the village we would be sitting at dinner, everyone talking about the day, or crops, the fatty pork and she would overstep. She would remark on the old days, until my relatives’ quick retort or dry response would remind her to step back.

Once to try and cut the tension with my relatives, my mother launched into the story again. ‘Oh you know, my daughter she got face reading other day, my friend who very talent in the art, say shape face mean she have great love. One day she will make a person very happy.’ She looked at me and smiled, and I looked at her with admiration. She didn’t have to do that, she kept it neutral. On one hand it was probably because she didn’t want to out me to the family, but on the other hand, it was a generous act of kindness. She didn’t have to do that.

Image Credit: Ray Devlin

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