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Hung Huang: “When parents sneeze, it’s the children who catch the cold”

In Hung Huang’s latest column for the Nandu Zhoukan (Southern Metropolis Weekly) she recounts a harrowing memory from her childhood and wonders what might be in store for Bo Guagua.  

When parents sneeze, it’s the children who catch the cold.

So many years have passed and I haven’t thought about these things in a long time.  Even when people talk about it, it always felt like they were telling some other person’s story.  I don’t feel anything anymore.  But I know clearly that this was one of the most important moments in my life, one which profoundly influenced who I am.

The events of the past few days have been dazzling, and make me think about what happened back then.  In October of 1976, Qiao Guanhua took part in his last meeting at the United Nations.  Before he returned to Beijing, he called me to his room and told me, “Your mother and I might have a problem, and we need to “inoculate” you, you need to be mentally prepared.

I kind of knew about their political problem, but at the time I was only 15 years old, I had been in the United States for three years and I really didn’t know much about what was going on back in China.  I didn’t know what I would do if something happened to them politically. I didn’t even know how I should “prepare.” All I felt was this enormous, invisible hammer being held over my head which at any time could fall and crush me.

Several weeks later, my American host father Tony gave me a copy of the New York Times, the top article said that Qiao Guanhua had been sacked.

Tony asked, “What does this mean for you?”

All I could say in reply was, “I don’t know.”

A few months later, the Chinese UN Delegation phoned me, and told me that all children must return the delegation for “study.”

“You only need to go back every two weeks right?” asked Tony. “Why are they calling you in on a Thursday?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. I had the same question.

Tony couldn’t accept this. He was thinking about this more than I was, and immediately called the Chinese delegation, demanding to talk to the person in charge of managing the students.

I sat there dumbfounded watching him call, knowing my life was about to dramatically change.

After Tony hung up the phone he told me that all the children studying in America were to return to China, not just me.  But Tony still took time off on Thursday afternoon and we went together to see the delegation.  I remember the person who was in charge of me telling Tony that in just a few days I would be returning to China.

Tony became furious.  He banged the table saying, “Who do you think we are? Who do you think these children are? You say come they just come, you say go and they just go? Huang is part of our family; she can’t go just because you say she’s going.”

At this point, the person in charge of me left the room, telling me to talk to Tony.

“Do you wish to stay?” Tony asked me in a low whisper.

“Stay here?” I asked, although I knew perfectly well what he had said.

“Stay in America, I can raise you,” Tony whispered.

“No, I want to go back,” I said firmly.

“Why? Do you know what they will do to you when you go back?” He replied.

“I don’t know. But if I don’t go back my mother will be in a lot of trouble.”

At the time I only felt I must not “betray my country.”  If in addition to being lackeys of the Gang of Four, Qiao Guanhua and Zhang Hanzhi also had a traitor for a child they’d never be able to defend themselves.

After the meeting, a member of the delegation accompanied me back for my last trip to Tony’s house. I packed my belongings and said goodbye to the whole family.

I and three other exchange students, who like me had to leave school in the middle of the term, boarded a plane and returned to Beijing via Paris.

Once back in Shijia Hutong,[1] I lived in a little room near the garage. At the time, I felt I was treated much better than the children of the “Black Fifth Category.”[2]  I saw my mom once when my mom had been locked in the attic at the Foreign Ministry building.  At that time it wasn’t called “shuanggui” (detain and investigate) it was “quarantined for investigation.”  I also saw Qiao Guanghua once. He still lived in the back of our courtyard, supervised by a 12-person working group.  When he saw me, he just patted my head and didn’t say anything.  Later I learned that not long after he broke his glasses and tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists.

The next time I saw Qiao Guanhua and my mom was at the Worker’s Stadium during the the “Session to Struggle Against Qiao and Zhang of the Foreign Ministry.”   I was given a very good seat where I could be sure to see everything clearly.  The struggle session was held in the afternoon, with a circus being performed in the same space later that evening.  They had already set up the round wooden stage used for the bears and I saw Qiao Guanhua and my mother being pushed into the ring just like bears.  Then all the people in the stadium started screaming, “Down with Qiao Guanhua! Lackey of the Gang of Four! Down with Zhang Hanzhi!”

My teacher stared at me, a slight smile forming on his mouth.  I was stunned.  Even if I had been “inoculated” a hundred times, I could never have mentally prepared myself for what I was seeing unfold in front of me.

So many years have passed and I haven’t thought about these things in a long time.  Even when people talk about it, it always felt like they were telling some other person’s story.  I don’t feel anything anymore.  But I know clearly that this was one of the most important moments in my life, one which profoundly influenced who I am.

Last week, I couldn’t help but think about Bo Guagua. Did his father inoculate him? Did he know what was about to happen? Did his American friends try to convince him to stay in the United States? Will he stay?

At least there won’t be any struggle sessions.  I guess we can call that progress.


[1] Where Hung Huang’s mother and step-father lived at the time.

[2] Reactionaries.

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