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.

Fried Chicken, Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson dolls my parents sent me.

A rare confluence of circumstances led to an epic Wednesday night out: My friend Liz (Taylor, natch) was back on her feet after back surgery and really jonesing for fried chicken and doughnuts, my always-entertaining and ever-brilliant friend Michael Maness was in town after his recent month-long hiatus from work and was brimming with stories and rants and, I had nowhere to be besides eating fried chicken and drinking with two insanely fun people. We did some varsity level boozing and got home just before 1am. Consequently, I was in a daze all day, but it was worth it.

Then, my dad came in from Holland! He’s here for the spawn’s first birthday this weekend (god, time flies) and he brought me two gifts that encapsulate a.) how awesome my parents are b.) how well they know me and c.) how much they love me.

Mom sent a liter of 100 proof vodka (50% alcohol), and these amazing Michael Jackson Russian dolls. Because, Michael Jackson Russian dolls.

There’s a tie for the best thing I read all day: One, is a photoshopped image that my old pal Chris Chang created of Vladmir Putin riding his dog doppleganger, and two, is a New Yorker piece defending Jonathan Franzen’s recent anti-technology rant because a lot of it we can actually get behind.

Is There an ER for Mango Trees?

Healthy mango tree, circa summer 2010.

Three years ago, when my parents were still living in St. Louis and not The Hague, my dad ate a grocery store mango and planted the seed in the ground to see what would happen. Being the excellent stewards of life he is, of course my Dad’s seed sprouted a tiny tree.

In 2009, after my dad retired and moved across the Atlantic with Mom, he forced this tree upon Matty and me. We drove it in the backseat of Matty’s car, from St. Louis to Austin. Dad kept telling us to plant it in the backyard, but I’d grown so attached to Mango Tree and his story that I didn’t want to plant him for fear we’d have to leave Austin someday.

Matty has cared for and talked to Mango Tree nearly every day for the past two years, as it’s sprouted more branches and inched taller and taller. If the temperature ever dropped below unbearably hot, Matty brought him inside. Then, when we made the difficult decision to move to Washington, Mango Tree rode in a backseat again, all the way from the 512 to the 202.

Dad came to visit last month. He was stunned and amused to see mango tree had grown to be a good three feet tall, especially since he actually remembers it as a seed.

Sick mango tree, tonight.

The mango tree that could — a sapling that came to symbolize a fruitful life for Matty and me and whose health gave us some confidence that we could successfully care for a living thing — is now quite ill.

His leaves have turned yellow and spotty, his branches are turning a powdery white. We think it’s a fungal disease. Dad said we needed to get him to a nursery to diagnose the issue. Matty, who’s out of town tonight, wants me to find some sort of spray to fight the illness yesterday. If you have suggestions for what else we oughta do, let me know.

I know it’s sort of ridiculous to feel so frantic about a plant. But as it is with pets, Mango Tree’s part of our family now. If there were an overpriced emergency nursery as there are emergency animal clinics, I’d be rushing the little guy there right now.