Black and White, Tianqi Li

 

In my grandma’s eyes, the world is clearly divided into black and white. Life should follow one right and light trail, beyond which there are only dark, cold forests. Every day, we should follow a scientific and healthy daily schedule; for every stage of life, we should do what is supposed to be done, and do it right. Study hard, get in a good university, find a great job, work diligently, contribute to society, get married and have children, and live happily ever after. Even now, at 26 years of age, when I go back to our home in Beijing, I have to stick to her 6 p.m. curfew. Even now, married for 54 years and 81 years of age, my grandpa still has to get up before 8:30, because otherwise it’d be too late. Five minutes late, my grandma would be sitting on the sofa worried and mad at me, or starting a racket with spoons and plates in the kitchen to serve as an alarm clock. ‘Everybody else is doing it.’ That’s her reason for doing anything, in a tone declaring that the Earth is round.

In my grandma’s eyes, if something is printed in black and white, it must be true. ‘Why else would they print it? It’s the newspaper!’ she exclaims when I try to point out that the self-contradicting ‘health tips’ might as well be misleading or purely made-up. Of the seven children in her family, she was the only one that went to university and thus lived in a big and modern city, so it is only natural that she follows the religion of knowledge. Knowledge comes from printed words compiled by scholars and experts, who are as powerful as Chairman Mao in his Little Red Book.

In my grandma’s eyes, any derailing from the normal and right course is inexcusable, unreasonable, and just outright inexplicable. There was a saying in the Cultural Revolution: walk in the middle, not in front nor behind; follow the crowd, not left nor right. In the chaotic ten years that destroyed people’s trust in human goodness and brought out the darkest side of humanity, the Chinese ‘Doctrine of the Mean’ was testified to be the only way to survive, and my grandma has no doubt taken it as the motto for living. ‘I want you to be normal just like other kids,’ she told me of her parenting principle, as she was the one that brought me up. ‘I don’t want you to be different. If you were, that’d be my fault.’

And that is why I will never tell her I have a same-sex partner, not until her death.

In a lot of ways, the Cultural Revolution to China’s modern history was very similar to my dad’s divorce to my family; no one saw it coming, and no one would talk about it in the following decades. Yet they were always there, the bloody elephant in the room, silent and staring. The Cultural Revolution is never mentioned in history textbooks and is often filtered out or banned in online forums, just as the word ‘mother’ is thoroughly avoided in my presence. I have always been curious of both events, because they are so confusing and mysterious, refusing to be reconstructed and disclosed in full, as if they hold the ultimate answers to humanity and the universe.

Like any other family, our personal history is intertwined with and wrapped by the history of modern China, like a wave in the sea, a gust in a tornado, a raindrop in a storm: on the exact day of my grandpa’s fifth birthday, the Sino-Japanese war broke out on the Marco Polo Bridge west of Beijing. My dad was born in 1959, the start of the three-year Great China Famine, while the Cultural Revolution started right after my uncle’s birth. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, my dad came to Australia.

My family tree is short and concise, as my great-grandfather was an orphan, and there are only four generations to comb. If there is anything that can be said to be a family trait, that’d be the tendency to go on long journeys. My great-grandfather was a ship engineer, and he went on a seven-year-long voyage as early as 1938. My grandpa must have been deeply impressed by his father’s adventure, since he always encouraged the rest of us to dive into the outside world. And we all did.

My grandpa’s own overseas trip happened in 1981, when he went to Iraq to improve his English. He and my grandma were Russian teachers, and when China had a falling-out with the Soviet Union, the Russian department transformed into the English faculty. ‘Iraq was still peaceful then,’ my grandpa said and smiled, ‘and I ate too much chicken, since it was the cheapest.’ He never talked too much about his own experiences, as it was all ‘boring’ and ‘not worth mentioning’. No matter how hard or unbelievable it sounds – learning a new language at the age of 50, or selling ice on the street at the age of six to support the family while his dad was at sea – he sounds like it was nothing, adding even more flavour to the heroic father figure in my eyes.

In comparison, my dad feels like a distant relative. No matter how hard he tried, he was absent in the major part of my life, and it is not something that you can ever make up for. Because of the irretrievable distance, and because I don’t really care what he thinks, I didn’t hesitate in telling him about my same-sex relationship. He was calm and accepting at first, but later became more and more doubtful and opposing as he had time to reflect. ‘Fortunately you are a girl,’ he said, ‘otherwise I’d never allow this.’

I did not know him enough. I did not know that he would blame himself for my choice, or that he had such strong opinions on gender roles. Ever since my partner has come to Australia with me and lived together with my dad, I have been discovering new things about him, and he has been saying things that amaze me. ‘I wanted a wife, not a female doctor,’ he complained of my step-mum, who has a doctorate and was too busy to do house chores. He sent me links to articles titled ‘Women should look fantastic, otherwise men would leave’, to encourage me to lose weight. ‘What’s so good about her that turned you into a lesbian? Is it because she can cook?’ he asked of my partner, a little sarcastically. ‘So you’re playing the boy role,’ he concluded after seeing me consoling her. I did not bother to explain how wrong that idea was.

If there is a need to blame somebody, then I am just as guilty for his marriage breakdown as it is responsible for who I am. If I were a boy, everything would be different, at least temporarily.

The winter of Beijing in 1990 was smoky and grey, but the night sky was still dark blue filled with stars, not the foggy blanket tinted by lights as yellow as a smoker’s teeth. The temperature was still low enough to have snow thick enough to bury one’s foot, and people stored piles of cabbages for their daily dishes. It was the end of a golden era, when most people were still simple-minded and trustworthy, and the streets were still safe and quiet. Beijing was the ancient city full of cultural treasures, not the faceless metropolis buried under shining skyscrapers.

In 1990, divorce was as rare as a panda, and was seen as a huge embarrassment to the whole family. It did not help that my mum sued my dad in court, and the reason she used was that my dad masturbated while watching porn. Nobody told me this­ – of course they wouldn’t. It was in 2010 when I finally saw their divorce papers, when my dad went back to Beijing for the spring festival. He was sitting on the bed, reading a novel. I sat down at the desk, and caught a glimpse of the suspicious faded papers. Like the daily newspaper that my grandma never forgot to read, the typewriter font was black and white. My dad must have known I was reading, but he did not say anything, continuing to read the book in his hand. I did not know if it was put there intentionally for me to see, nor did I ask him if it was true.

It is not hard to imagine how shocked, betrayed and infuriated my family must have felt. My grandparents, my dad and my uncle; they all had different reasons to hate that pretty woman, the evil bitch, because she refused to breastfeed me in order to keep her body shape, because she did not want me after the divorce, because she took money and valuable things, because she cheated, because she lied. Because my dad really loved her, and nobody ever imagined the happy marriage would not last.

Therefore, in our family tree, I do not have the maternal side to track. I do not know if her family had any history of disease, what her blood type is, or how many times she remarried. Nor do I know if she loved my dad or me. But I do know that part of the reason was that I wasn’t a boy, and the Chinese government had published the one-child policy. My mum is the youngest of three sisters, who all had daughters. I was her family’s last shot at having a boy, a ‘real’ descendant to inherit the family name.

‘It’s time to find someone now,’ my grandma said in our weekly phone call, and then added, half jokingly; ‘Don’t become a ‘left-over woman’.’

I wasn’t surprised that she would bring up this topic, but I was surprised at her use of ‘left-over woman’. I was even more surprised when I found out that this phrase was actually coined by the central TV station, a representative of the Chinese government, who also said that the male/female ratio has become severely disproportioned in many cities as a result of valuing boys over girls for decades.

Another piece of news followed up a week later. In a campaign for the drama The Vagina Monologues, a group of female university students published a series of photos, in which each held a sign declaring sexual freedom and their ownership of their own body. The public’s response was outrageous, calling them cheap whores and ugly bitches. Finally, I have realised that China has not even started a real feminist movement, let alone achieved certain results. I could have so many things to say from the things I’ve learned in the feminist class, but I had no idea how to make my grandma understand. ‘Left-over woman’ was from the central TV station, the majority, the mainstream, and the authority. As always, the world in her eyes is black and white, and I do not have the courage nor the patience to tell her that’s not the case.

I could only change the topic and lie. I could only hide the truth in protection of myself and of them: I am happy. I am happy being myself, being in a same-sex relationship, and being in a grey zone without a clear identity. I am happy to be the last one in my family – Li is the biggest family name in China, so there is no danger of extinction – and I am happy to be out of the torrent of Chinese history.

After all, this is my life and my happiness, and ultimately that’s what they would wish me to be.

Tianqi Li

Having been working as an English-Chinese novel translator and conference interpreter for five years, Tianqi is currently enrolled in MRes fired with a fierce curiosity of how far a second language speaker could go in the English literature ocean. The feeling of drowning is almost as striking as the beauty of it all.

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