Since We’re On The Subject of Refugees…

“The things you experience … are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you.”

-Madeleine Thien, in her cultural revolution epic, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

My dad, Beechy Hu, on Shanghai's famous Bund before he defected from China in 1966, in the early years of China's punishing Cultural Revolution.

My dad, Beechy Hu, on Shanghai’s famous Bund before he defected from China in 1966, in the early years of China’s punishing Cultural Revolution.

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately. Since nothing is divorced from the context it’s in, I can’t think about who I am (or who we are as Americans) without thinking about where I came from.

More than 15 years before I was born, my dad left the only home he’d ever known — China — on a leaky raft in the South China Sea. His dad, my grandfather, had been the United States as a student since my dad was a baby (after scoring high enough in some national exam that earned him a scholarship), and when war with the Japanese broke out he couldn’t go back. That situation was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it was a familial tie to the Western world. A curse, because Grandpa’s scholar status is exactly what Mao Zedong and his forces targeted for “re-education in the countryside” during the years of China’s oppressive Cultural Revolution.

I don’t know the details, as my dad has gone the 34 years of my life without talking about it. But in snippets I’ve heard from him, my late aunt (his sister), and my mom, and my grandmother, I have learned my father was one of the tens of thousands of young Chinese sent to labor in rural areas of China to familiarize themselves with the plight of Mao’s vaunted peasants. Dad went to a pig farm where he saw beatings, starvation and suicides. To this day he doesn’t speak of this time in his life, probably because a lot of it is unspeakable.

The pig farm was in Guangdong province, in Southeastern China, close enough to the coast to make an escape. The situation in China was getting While laboring, he secretly trained to swim long distances in a freezing river near the farm by slinking into the water every day before dawn. He told me this summer he didn’t know whom to trust, so he could tell no one in the family about his plans to defect. It was a time of secrets, since countrymen were turning on each other, and encouraged to.

On the other side of the earth, Grandpa was lobbying his senator in Missouri, Stuart Symington, to help get my father asylum should he make it to the U.S. Symington’s office reached out to the senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, for help, since if my dad survived the long odds to make it out of China, his first stop would be in a major city like New York. Kennedy’s office worked with Symington’s office, and wrote my grandpa assuring Dad would get safe passage. He made it, at 6’2″ and weighing only 135 pounds, with no papers to his name.

But for American values and its policies of that time, I wouldn’t be here.

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New Reading Resolutions

Part of the problem with being a professional reader and writer is that you spend all your time reading and writing, but often it’s not really the kind that you want to be doing. Don’t get me wrong, I consider it a great privilege that my job is to straight-up read a lot, then travel around, discover ideas and people, or history as it’s happening, ask questions of the person/idea/event, then tell the story. I mean, that is a ridiculous vocation for which to be paid.

But after reading way too many periodicals during the hellish and hateful 2016 election, I found my psyche exhausted and altogether pissy by year’s end. I decided I need to recommit to reading about “bigger” ideas, themes, connections, etc. To get my head straight, if you will. So I am resolving to read more books, recommended by the smarty pants I get to call friends. I’ll track the recommendations (and by year’s end, the progress) here. If you have thoughts or additions, please let me know in the comments or all the other ways to reach me.

The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
Recommended by work friend Scott Detrow

Scott’s take: “So basically, it’s fiction but Charles Lindbergh runs against FDR. FDR runs a really serious issues campaign and Lindbergh just flies his plane from state to state entertaining people. He wins in a landslide, and immediately appeases Hitler. It goes by especially quick once you’re gripped by the horror of it becoming reality.”

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Recommended by work spouse Matt Thompson

Matt’s take: “It’s post-apocalyptic fiction. But it’s feel good post-apocalyptic fiction that will remind you of all the things to appreciate about life and living.”

Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
Recommended by Reeve Hamilton of the now-defunct Breakfast Club

Reeve’s take: “I like it so much, I bought myself another copy. It’s about relationships and how they are complicated and affect each other. It’s really about group dynamics, which you would like. If you’re reading blurbs about how it’s about regrets, it’s about a totally different kind of regret. It also captures teen boyhood of a certain variety better than just about anything else, which I’m sure you will find to be a big selling point.”

Mao’s Last Revolution, Rod MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
Recommended by John Delury, China historian and our Seoul friend

Delury’s take: “It’s a quick read. Once you understand the dynamic of ‘working toward the Chairman’, the pages fly by as your heart sinks. Its the best treatment of the Cultural Revolution’s high politics, the Mao-eye view.”

Born a Crime
Recommended by Liz Taylor

Liz’s take: “There are parts that are super poignant, makes some great observations about race, and also parts are totally hilarious. Go with Born a Crime.”

I like that a lot of these friends know me really well and emphasize the “quickness” of the reads, because I have a pretty short attention span. But we have a lot of weeks left in this year so keep your ideas and recommendations coming …

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