Grateful Reminiscences

by on Friday, 22 November 2013 Comments

There are moments in life when we feel backed into a corner and at the end of our rope. It seems only by near-miracle that we somehow managed to find our way. As important as we knew they were, we could not have immediately grasped their full impact. It is only over the years, as we revisit those moments through our grateful reminiscences, that we come to realize they have crystallized into points of no return and gradually transformed how we live the rest of our life.

I spent my last day in China frantically running up and down, round and round. It was early September 1989. I had a scholarship from Boston College to pursue my graduate studies. Already two week late for the semester because passport application had been halted for months due to the June Fourth movement, I had finally received my visa the day before. There was only one last task left to do: I needed to cancel my resident registration (hukou) and my food quota in order to receive the exit permit. The process was supposed to be straightforward for people with all the required documents.

When I went to the neighborhood police substation to cancel my resident registration, a grumpy women behind the front desk told me to cancel my food quota first; when I arrived at the local food station, a bunch of chatty staff asked me all sorts of nosy questions (WHO in their right mind would give up a Beijing hukou? Why would the Americans offer YOU a scholarship?) before announcing that I should cancel my resident registration first. After spending hours running between the two places and getting the same response no matter how pitifully I pleaded, it finally dawned on me that the employees from the food station made more sense: as long as I was a resident, I should be entitled to my food quota, which can only be cancelled when I ceased to be a resident.

I paced and paced desperately in front of the police station, where an inexplicably hostile woman seemed to hold the key to my future. Going anywhere else would be as pointless as getting inside once more to face her. My flight was to depart the next day, I needed to return the key to my apartment early in the morning, and I had even sold my bed. Even worse, as a required step, I had quitted my job, because unlike those who were officially sponsored by the government with state scholarships, I applied to study abroad with "private" funding... I looked at the sun in the sky, bright and scarlet, wishing it would never set. Tomorrow would be a terrible day.

A solid-built man walked towards the police station and asked me what was wrong.
- You look distressed, he said.

I explained why and he told me to follow him inside where he asked the woman to process my paperwork, right away, before walking into his office. I only knew his last name was Wang; he was the head of the station.

You need to know how things work, or don't, in China, in order to appreciate how unbelievably lucky I was on that day, and how much hardship would await me otherwise. The event changed my life in the most obvious way as I left for Boston the next day, but slowly and imperceptibly, it also altered my outlook on life. In my naïvely rationalist mind, I used to believe we reap what we sow and I worked hard to deserve things I wanted, but I could not have possibly "deserved" Mr. Wang's timely intervention, a pure gift. Deus ex machina: I would not have written a play this way, but that was how it happened. Looking back on that day and recognizing we do not necessarily deserve what happens to us remind me to be more grateful, more forgiving and more compassionate.

Years later, my daughter was born when I was a beginning assistant professor in a small Midwestern town. My husband, who still worked in Boston, took a leave to care for us and was driving back to Boston on the day Lydia turned one month old. She would have to go to a baby-sitter we barely knew during weekdays.

- Don't go downstairs to see me off. You would have to climb back upstairs with the baby, he said.

I stood in the middle of my second floor apartment, now so big, so empty, with Lydia in my arm, terrified by the realization that if I ever messed up my life, it would hurt her as well. I felt twice as vulnerable, yet at the same time, filled up by a tremendous love for this little life I brought into the world and for whom I would be irrevocably responsible.

Then, with amazement, I saw Lydia smiling, a smile of quiet contentment and calm assurance. As she smiled for what appeared to me a long time, I became less scared and more determined. I vowed that I would do my best not to hurt anyone or let anyone hurt me. Together we would prepare the background colors for the canvas of her life, so that whatever landscape she would decide to paint, the time she would have spent with me leave no stain of bitterness. Through complex situations and imperfect decisions, I have steered my heart to remain true to the silent promise I made to her on that day. I used to associate parental love with toil and sacrifice, but alone, literally a thousand miles from the nearest family support, during the nine months that I took care of her by myself while juggling a demanding career, I experienced it as a pure joy, and its intensity took me by surprise.

What is the chance that a baby would smile when her mother feels panic and helpless? Lydia was a sensitive baby who cried no less than most others. Some people think little children can sense how their mothers feel, perhaps that is not always true, or somehow, through an unfathomable connection, she was the one to anchor me.

What if Mr. Wang had not appeared at the moment when I was hopelessly stranded in front of the Police station? What if, instead of smiling, Lydia had cried, as babies often do? I probably would have coped, but I am grateful things happened as they did, without rhyme or reason, when I did not even know what to hope for and likely did nothing to deserve them. Those moments of grace are not something we can expect, or even wish for, but only to receive with utmost surprise and gratitude. They make mere happiness dull and uninspiring, as we ponder on the incredible mystery which is life.

Drawing by Bendu

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

Help us!

Help us keep the content of eRenlai free: take five minutes to make a donation

AMOUNT: 

Join our FB Group

Browse by Date

« February 2019 »
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28      

We have 4156 guests and no members online