The Camphor Suitcase

By Xujun Eberlein

In the recent Year of the Snake — I remember because it’s my daughter’s sign — the image of a maroon suitcase made of camphor wood began to follow me like a phantom. It became most vivid in the dusk as I drove home from work, when my mind was free from corporate politics and daily domestic troubles. Along the road from Newton to Wayland, the famous New England autumn painted my windshield with shifting hues of golden red, dark red, light yellow, bright yellow, eclipsing shades of green and other unnamable colors. For me, born in southwest China, New England’s icy five-month winter imposes an unjust imprisonment; spring is practically non-existent; summer plays the double role of benefactor and spoiler; only the brilliant and solemn autumn calms my soul. But it failed me that year.

Many years ago, a pregnant foreign woman named X followed her new husband to his country…

I hadn’t set eyes on the camphor suitcase for 13 years. The last time I saw it was a day or two before I left Chongqing in summer 1988, in my girlhood bedroom. I secured the suitcase with a new thumb-size lock, and pocketed the pair of small aluminum keys that came with it. Bob, my American husband, lifted the heavy suitcase up above his head and gently placed it on top of the crammed, glass-fronted book cabinet that was, until then, my only property. A brief conversation went between my mother and me:

Me: “Could you please promise to keep it well?”

Mother: “Naturally.”

“Please do not try to open it.”

You have the keys!”

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting — it seems in China everyone knew about The Unbearable Lightness of Being but none of Milan Kundera’s other works. I did not realize the dialogue with my mother was a replica of a phone conversation between Tamina and her father in a similar — yet not at all similar — situation. And I did not have Kundera’s insights into how irresistible some things — a car accident, someone else’s love letters — could be. Though all the love letters from Bob would go in my carry-on luggage to cross the ocean.

Why didn’t I bring the irreplaceable contents of the suitcase to America, and why did I take the keys, is a motivation that the brain did not preserve. I was a scientist, and it doesn’t take a scientific mind to know that keys are only useful if you also possess the matching lock. It frustrates me to no end trying to figure out my then-motive for separating them.

“Picked a sesame seed and dropped a watermelon,” an old adage admonishes against a foolish behavior as Chinese adages do. For whoever inspired those words though, I see two possible motivations: first that he might have viewed the sesame seed as larger than the watermelon; the second is obvious, he didn’t want the larger thing.

Which was a watermelon and which a sesame seed? Many years ago, when a pregnant foreign woman named X followed her new husband to his country, this didn’t seem to be a question. The day after her late-evening arrival in America, X’s first use of her husband’s US dollars was to buy an unlined notebook. Those were about the only bucks the husband could spare for nonessential things until he could find a new job. X did not have a penny — her native country’s currency was useless in the New World.

The carefully picked notebook was covered with painted fabric; the colorful splotches of arbitrary brushstrokes made it look like a piece of post-modern art. This was so different from notebooks she had had at home. Her husband inscribed on the fly page in English, “America begins with B….” And X wrote in her mother-language, occasionally studded with English words: Feels not having traveled very far. …There’s no shock. In last night’s dreams I hadn’t left. John said I am spiritual. …

Should have written the first entry yesterday, but didn’t find a notebook I’d like. Finally found it today. New life has started, can’t do without a new diary book.

As I read this, I’m not too concerned how her sense had defied the distance from the eastern hemisphere to the west, across 13 time zones. She was pregnant at the time and that could have muddled her inner ear. But I’m alarmed about her slowness in discerning cultural differences. The couple were staying with the husband’s older brother, John, and his fair-haired wife. In that typical two-family house in Watertown, everything, from language to kitchen stoves, was different from X’s old life, not in degree but in kind. Automatic rather than manual, Emptiness where there should have been crowds. Yet she did not feel the change. Her body had arrived while her mind hadn’t.

And I know for a fact that, merely days before, she was still writing in an old diary book, and it hadn’t been filled. Now that one was abandoned. Soon she would also cease using the new one she so eagerly bought. When she insisted on buying an entirely new American notebook, when she hadn’t felt anything “new” yet she penned the words “new life,” I sense a dangerous attempt, one she did not recognize.

I can’t do anything to warn her — the burden of an observer from the future.

Every once in a while, a big, usually disastrous, public event occurs, and it becomes a highlighted background that sets up personal memories with extraordinary clarity. The Year of the Snake in 2001 was such a year. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but that fall I found myself trotting through Newton Cemetery during lunch breaks, with my long-time girlfriend R, who worked in another software company nearby. R’s father had recently died of throat cancer in China, and she had built for him a handsome marble tomb on the southern mountains of our mutual hometown. It was so nice to sit in the peacefully railed platform of the tomb and think of her beloved father, R told me, and she wanted a place like that, for her American-born son and future grandchildren to think of her one day. I thought of my own American-born daughter, who was not raised in the Chinese filial tradition, who always felt creepy about cemeteries. But I went with R.

Newton Cemetery, across the street from my office building, was set in a beautiful landscape of clear lakes and green hills, tall pines and drooping willows. R and I commented on the Fengshui of this and that location. The ideal was “hills behind, water in front”, and that was what we tried to find for our own. After many visits, we selected prospective places for ourselves. We wanted double burial spots, so that we could be with our husbands forever. After all the footwork, however, we were told that every location we took a fancy to had been bought. “People buy their spots twenty or more years ahead,” one of the staff told us. I was actually relieved — we were not that weird after all.

At the time my parents — friends of R’s parents — were visiting us from China. When I chatted about this with my mother one evening, she said, “Old words say, ‘Leaves fall back to their tree root.’ You don’t want to return home?” By “you” she meant my ashes. I hadn’t thought of that. And any attempt to arrange my afterlife fizzled out entirely.

Perhaps my visits to the cemetery were an unconscious attempt to flee my impending crisis. A couple of seemingly unrelated incidents occurred as preludes before the camphor suitcase began to haunt me.

One involved my pre-teen daughter. Her baby-name is a Chinese character meaning “mulberry,” which I chose before her birth. In classical Chinese, the phrase “mulberry and catalpa” is symbolic of one’s ancestral place. “Only mulberry and catalpa / Must be venerated,” goes an ancient poem in the Chinese classic The Book of Songs. Because your parents have planted them in your hometown.

My own baby-name, given by my mother, was “Sail.” I see the irony only now: my mother wished me to go far, but when this really happened, when I had gone much farther than she could possibly have imagined, I wished my own daughter to return to the land of her maternal ancestry.

This contraposition was not intentional, nor did it stop with the baby-names. When I was three years old, my mother finally gave me my formal name, “Ruo-Li,” meaning “like Li.” That year when a chemical factory had a fire accident, a young woman and Party member named Xiang Xiu-Li hurled herself onto the sodium stock, trying to prevent an explosion. She was burned to death, her life sacrificed for the State. My mother wanted me grow up to be such a hero. I wanted an ordinary happy life for my own daughter.

Later my name would be changed again, by my big sister, but that is another story. The unsettling thing is, my mother’s wishes — expressed through my names — had both come true. In college, I got my legs severely burned trying to put out a dormitory fire, caused by some “worker-peasant-soldier” students living across the hallway, who were illegally cooking food in their room by burning gasoline in a palm-size, manual alcohol stove. The third degree burns resulting from my heroic attempt pinned me on a hospital bed for forty days. That was not what I wanted for Mulberry. And this wasn’t just for selfish reasons.

Back to her. On an early fall day in 2001 when Mulberry and her dad were watching their favorite Star Trek Enterprise, T’Pol appeared on screen eating carrots with a knife and a fork. “That is soooo cool,” Mulberry said. The next day she declared herself a vegetarian. She didn’t even like carrots. It happened so arbitrarily, but Mulberry announced it as her belief, her cause. End of discussion. From then on she refused to eat any Chinese dishes I cooked. I was caught off guard and I took it hard. It was already an unknown to me how to raise an American daughter, let alone a vegetarian one who didn’t like to eat vegetables. I worried about her nutrition and my worries went beyond that: she was running further and further away from me, from her Chinese heritage, despite the name I had given her. She did not speak Chinese and her English vocabulary grew exponentially, whereas mine grew linearly at best (except programming words such as “bitwise,” “xor,” and “#ifdef”). What I said she didn’t understand; what she said I didn’t understand. She would say, “The noodles are slimy.” I would say, “What does it mean, ‘slamy’?” “Slimy. It means slimy!” Other times she would turn ask, “Daddy, how come Mommy doesn’t know anything?” Her dad would say, “Pumpkin, d’wanna watch Star Trek?” And they would be glued in front of the Sci-Fi on TV that bored me no end. Mulberry was an American inside out like her dad. I was a minority in the country and I was a minority in the house. I was failing as a mother.

My anxiety showed at work. The company’s president, a persuasive Jewish businessman at his early fifties and father of a teenage daughter, offered to talk with Mulberry. Mulberry’s dog was the sibling of his beautiful Sheltie, and he was confident that he could talk sense into a 12-year-old in no time. I was desperate and one afternoon brought Mulberry to my office. I was writing code on my computer, trying hard not to eavesdrop on their conversation. At one point I heard the president say, “Why don’t you eat fish? Fish have a very short life span. Even if you don’t eat them, they will soon die.” And Mulberry replied, “Then why don’t you eat old people?”

Though I admired my young daughter’s wit, it did not resolve my concerns. Because I could no longer consult the book Your Baby and Child as I constantly did during her early years, I tried to figure out what was going on in Mulberry’s mind by analogy. What was I up to when I was twelve? I had to do a little calculation to realize that was the year my big sister drowned, commemorating Chairman Mao’s famous swim in the Yangtze. Now I remembered: it was immediately after my beloved sister’s death that I began to keep a diary — the weight of sorrow too heavy to share with anyone else or keep to myself. But I have no memory of what I wrote.

I tried to recall how my mother was raising me when I was Mulberry’s age, but what came to me was her in detention, or undergoing denunciation, or collapsed in bed after my sister’s death.

That was 1968, another disastrous year, and another atmospheric memory: my craving for pork dishes. We had only a tiny monthly pork ration then, but did we get a half pound per person or one pound? If only I could reread my childhood diaries. I had written about everything everyday.

Another incident involved my present diary writing. One Saturday, after 9/11, my family drove to Chinatown. Because my parents were visiting, a weekly shopping trip for Chinese groceries became mandatory. As the car left the Mass Pike for Kneeland Street, I saw a large red banner hanging on the grizzled building facing the off-ramp. The banner, which was not there before 9/11, covered the familiar “Welcome to Chinatown” cut in relief on the wall. The new words were in Chinese and English:


Unlike the English slogan, which seemed complacent, the Chinese words begged for blessing and protection. For an inexplicable moment, I felt my nose tingling and eyes moisten. I hid my reaction from the others in the car, but it baffled me long enough to enter in my diary later that day: Does this mean my feeling toward America is deeper than toward China now? It was when I about to close the notebook’s greenish-gray hard cover with a jumping fish painted on it that I noticed two years had elapsed since the last entry — August 19,1999. I flipped the pages and found only 7 entries since September 1990. Eleven years. I was shocked. This wasn’t me. From twelve to my early thirties, for two decades of my previous life in China, it seemed not a single day slipped by without a diary entry.

And those diaries were locked in the camphor suitcase.

I had to get it back.

As snowstorms were fading and forsythia buds began to hint spring, X gave birth to a beautiful baby girl during the first hour of St. Patrick’s Day in 1989. It was a long, painful labor. When the baby finally emerged, wet and squalling, X fell into the deep sleep of exhaustion with but a single glance at the new life she had created. Hours later she opened her eyes to find herself still on the delivery bed; her husband sat to the side watching her, their tiny new baby cradled in his big arms. She wanted to see whom the baby looked like, her American father or Asian mother, but her closed eyes and the little reddened face gave no clue. Only her rhythmic hiccups expounded the commonality among humans.

Early the next morning, a nurse came to X in her hospital bed asking if she had urinated. “I did, a lot,” she said, trying to be complete, but her foreign tongue, which did not distinguish “l” from “n,” twisted the sound of “lot” to “not.” “You did, or you did not?” The nurse asked again, face twisted in confusion. X repeated the answer. The nurse repeated the question. Several repetitions later, the frustrated nurse left without a sure answer. X only hoped the information was not important.

Months before, worried about her inexperience with motherhood, X had invited her own mother who, after arranging for a visa and flying from the other side of the earth, had been by her side for two weeks. But her mother could give her no practical advice on anything whatsoever, despite having given birth to four children. “Hmm…,” the 72-year-old woman would try hard to remember, “how did I do this? Maybe….”

When the baby was about four months old, X began to attend an ESL class in a local university. Each morning she left her mother with the baby, a supply of pumped breast milk, a thousand exhortations and reluctance; each afternoon she rode her bike home with fire-alarm urgency. One afternoon, approaching her rented home, X thought she heard the baby crying. She began to run, forgetting she was on a bike. The bike hit the curb and fell heavily with her on the stone sidewalk. It was July and she was wearing jean shorts; her entire left thigh was bruised dark purple. When she limped into the house, the baby was soundly sleeping in the crib. Her mother fussed over her bruises and said, “Now you know how I felt as a mother.” But to feel her mother’s feelings was like scratching an itching foot from outside of the boot. Only the baby’s cries and laughter pulled on her every nerve.

I wonder if intimate feeling in a family is a one-way street.

So, on one of the autumn days in 2001, while my parents were still visiting, I asked my mother if the camphor suitcase was still in my old bedroom. I’d heard the room had been changed into a library, but I couldn’t picture it in any other way.

“What camphor suitcase?” my mother said, as if there had been more than one handcrafted during my woodworking apprenticeship as a teenager. It took me a while to raise her memory, at which point she said she did not remember where it was, except it certainly was not in their apartment. My mother said this with such conviction it almost sounded like a wish.

It appeared that, since my absence, the interior of the apartment had been remodeled by my younger sister, Maple. Useless stuff, including my wide wooden bed and the worn desk at which I wrote my diaries, was discarded. My glass-fronted bookcase was replaced by a modern wall-unit, and there was nothing on top of it.

“Did she throw away my suitcase as well?” I asked.

My mother replied with a “No” that failed to acknowledge my frustration.

“We’ll find it,” said my usually quiet father.

“What do you know?” my mother yelled, “since when have you taken care of the house or the family?”

A few years into her American life, X forgot all about her childhood and youth — those now seemed surreal to her. She was busy building her career and seldom had time for reflection. With a doctorate from a renowned university, she joined a small but ambitious high-tech company. Only once in thirteen years had she visited her hometown, with her American husband and their five-year-old daughter. They stayed a week in the apartment of X’s parents.

Typical in a country in the throes of economic transition, the crowded neighborhood was a daily scene of construction and destruction. In the city there wasn’t much open earth left, and workers hammered dense rocks by hand when laying foundations. The hammering and the men’s loud chanting kept X awake in the night.

“Thunder couldn’t have woken you up when we first married,” her husband said, amused by her change in a few short years.

“Really,” she said.

That was in 1993, and foreigners were still exotic animals in X’s mountainside hometown. Her husband carried their child on his shoulders when going shopping, and everywhere on the streets the jostling crowd would stop for a moment to admire the little girl sitting high up like a princess. What a cute foreign child, they would exclaim. This unexpected popularity was quite satisfying to a mother’s vanity.

The cute American child, on the other hand, would tell her proud mother, “I don’t like this country! It’s too noisy and too dirty!” She pointed to the shimmering spittle covered ground around the Liberation Monument, and on the streets leading to it. Evidence that human habits change much slower than economic conditions. It was dreary winter and there were no beautiful flowers that X could redirect her child, and she lacked the words to describe to a five-year-old the city’s four thousand years of splendor.

In a hurry to rectify the image of her motherland, X told her little girl this city wasn’t equal to the big country. “It is too!” the child replied. After they returned to the States, whenever someone asked what she thought of her mother’s motherland, the child had the ready answer, “Dirty and noisy.”

For X, struggling to make her new home on the other side of the earth, one week was not even enough to correct the jetlag. But one week was what she could spare. She was at a critical point in her doctoral study. And they, she and her husband, had just bought their first house.

She barely had time to suffer the diarrhea caused by being “unaccustomed to the water and soil” of her birthplace. Five years of living in America had not gotten her used to American breakfasts, with no steam buns or rice gruel, but it had softened her stomach.

During the eight years after that first visit, there were several business trips to China. Every time, though, she managed to skip a visit to her hometown, and she kept information of her trip from her parents.

In the year the Twin Towers fell, my parents stayed until after Thanksgiving. Meanwhile I became increasingly agitated at work and at home, unable to sit or stand at ease. Once, I shouted at Bob for some trivial matter, and my mother told me to control my temper. “From whom do you think I got my temper?” I retorted.

Each day I went to work with heavier legs and a burdened heart. When my president talked about how our software won another competition, I felt apathetic to his excitement. I had loved technology all my life, ever since I stole my mother’s light bulb and convex lens to build a slide projector at age ten, and, after abandoning Communism in my early twenties, had taken science as my new religion. All of a sudden the enthusiasm was gone after 9/11. I can’t quite explain what the fact that the two largest religions were at war had to do with mine. What’s the point in advancing the already extremely advanced technology? What’s the point in struggling to ascend, or to even continue to work, in a corporation? Where’s the meaning of my life? The last question was what I constantly pondered during my twenties in China, but my move to America, pragmatic, scientific, efficient America, effectively put an end to such a useless metaphysical concern. The question’s belated come-back confounded me. “At forty, no confusion,” Confucius said more than 2500 years ago. Either he was wrong or I was.

In my mid-forties, I was lost. I don’t know if this was the so-called midlife crisis, for which Bob’s sister had long prepared a cure: a sports car. I thought about quitting my job — by “quitting” I meant to leave with a flick of my sleeve, no more jobs. But there was a mountain between me and freedom: a six-digit salary. It took me many years of hard work to get there — not exactly something easy to throw in water. I am mortal.

And if I quit? Life is doing things; doing what is the question.

At that point, all I knew was I wanted to see the camphor suitcase, as if it was the last step to salvation. How inconceivable that for thirteen years I’d never thought of it, not here, not when I visited my parents in China. Now its image resurfaced with such urgency. It contained nearly twenty years of my diaries, not a word of which could I remember. I don’t know if this longing was awakened by Dan Chaon’s story “Big Me,” which I read in a magazine that year. That story made me wonder whether my former self had also frequently admonished me in the diaries and, if so, whether the admonitions would give me pause.

My mother had forgotten all about the suitcase by the time she was home. “Oh, I’ll let you know when you call next time,” she said when I phoned. The next time, she told me she found the suitcase, sitting right by her now.

“Where did you find it?”

“In the Arts and Crafts Company’s storeroom,” she said. “Free storage.”

She was the Party Secretary at the company before her retirement in the 1990s, and the current boss had been her subordinate. I sensed that she was a bit defensive about moving my suitcase there, but I was in no mood to complain. I was happy, happy, happy, my heart felt like a stone dropped back to earth.

“I am coming back to get it,” I said.

When X was in middle school, all foreign literature was “poison weeds” and banned. She unscrupulously hunted for books, by fair means or foul, even stealing them from sealed libraries. She was caught more than once. Her thirst for reading touched a young, friendly teacher, and he secretly lent her a translation of Anna Karenina, with one proviso: If you don’t return it on time, your welcome is spent. She did not ask where he got it from, swallowed the book like a date whole, and quickly returned it, with a 15-year-old girl’s question: If Vronsky no longer loved Anna, why did he have so much sorrow after Anna threw herself under the train? The teacher, a small man with thick glasses, replied, Only when you lose something can you truly realize its preciousness.

In April 2002, I took unpaid leave back to my home city, with an eager Bob and not-at-all eager Mulberry, whose image of China had ossified as a precocious child. I wasn’t pleased with the changes wrought by the passage of time. Chongiqng has many nicknames; the most well-known one is “Mountain City.” Before I left, the mountains towered over the buildings. When I came back, the buildings blocked the view of the mountains. The Liberation Monument, so magnificent and imposing in my childhood mind, now looked as small as a piteous penis withdrawn among the surrounding high rises.

We received a ceremonious family welcome, as if Bob was king and Mulberry princess. I saw the camphor suitcase as soon as we entered my parents’ apartment. I did not go near it until I placed our luggage where my older sister had designated, and greeted every family member.

I felt my mother’s eyes follow me as I eased my way over the suitcase.

“I did not open it,” she said before my alarm registered.

“Why is it unlocked?”

“It was like this when I found it.”

I lay the suitcase down and lifted the lid. It was empty, except for a packet of battered letter-size envelopes bound by a rubber band.

“Where are my diaries?” I inquired with barely controlled composure. My mother said nothing. She even looked relaxed, now the worst had passed.

“Where are my diaries?” I asked again, my voice beginning to raise.

Maple, who had traveled from her home in a distant costal city for my visit, interposed herself like Mother’s bodyguard: “Relax, Sister. Ma doesn’t know.”

I shouted at them, “Do you know what they mean to me? Do you know?”

“If they were that important,” Maple, my beloved baby sister, said reasonably, “why didn’t you take them with you in the first place?”

Her words jammed a cloth gag in my mouth, mercilessly blocking my anger’s way out. Instead the anger gathered up inside my chest, charging to the left then punching the right, unable to break through the encirclement. I hadn’t experienced such fierce, prolonged yet nameless anger for a long time. A murderer can kill for his anger. A wife-beater can hit for his anger. For someone like me who doesn’t kill or hit, what’s left to do?

Sometimes I knock down unbreakable house ware for its sound effect. This I only did to my taciturn and tolerant husband once or twice. Thousands of years of my Chinese heritage admonishes against doing such to older generations. Other times, when taken like this, I’d stay up all night playing four-suit spider solitaire on my laptop, until my eyesight dims and head is light, and I become thoroughly ashamed of myself. That was what I did that night in our hotel room, after Mulberry fell asleep. I hid in the bathroom with my laptop, its sound muted.

Maple did not know everything. I did bring a couple of my old diaries with me to America, starting with the year I met Bob. As if my life trajectory had begun there and nothing before counted.

The rest of the week went in a swirl of activities — mostly friends and relatives visiting us, or taking Mulberry shopping or looking up my childhood haunts. We tried to find my big sister’s tomb in a western suburb, but were disoriented by the confusing changes in the landscape.

In the evenings, at the family dinner table, I brought up the topic of my diaries again and again until everyone else was bored of it and I further frustrated.

“Who would have taken them?” That was the question and no one could answer. Apparently, many people had things — things on the brink of being abandoned and kept — in that storeroom. The door was usually locked and a staff member kept the key. Anyone could ask for it. Most stuff there was furniture, and this lone suitcase — my camphor suitcase — and its lock must have excited rich imaginings. One of the patrons, Maple hypothesized, had pried open the lock and taken the notebooks. Or the one who opened the lock and the one who took the books were not the same person. The former might have been after something of value, which only the latter appreciated.

Sometimes I imagined a love-struck teenager, boy or girl, who could not bring him- or herself to consult with the parents about whatever emotions, taking on a stranger’s diaries as a psychologist. Perhaps when he or she flipped over one of my notebooks, a finger happened to stop at a page with my teenage cries.

Other times I thought the diaries had been purloined by a writer or researcher who needed raw materials for a book on the 1960s or 70s or 80s. That, at least, afforded me some comfort. But Maple declared this highly unlikely. The company’s employees were manual craft workers, not well educated.

As Maple and I made guesses at the truth, our usually vocal mother said little, as if it were not her business. But when I voiced plans to visit the storage room and interview its key keeper, she firmly objected.

A friend suggested I place an ad in the city’s newspaper and offer to pay for the return of my stolen diaries. When I brought this idea to my family, the opposition was unanimous. “How much money can you offer?” said Maple, an accountant struggling to get by. “Do you know how big people’s appetites are these days?” My mother said, “I don’t want a stream of strangers in my house.” She pictured scammers pounding at her door for the money. And anyway, even with all the trouble, nothing real would turn up in the end, she said. My older sister, divorced from her husband and raising their child alone, said, “If you have that much money for strangers, why don’t you give it to your family?”

I know I did not place the ad, but I can’t be sure I didn’t visit the storeroom. That spring week for me seemed to pass in a trance. If I did go, why can’t I remember any solid details? There seemed a misty image of an unlocked door, a messy corner, and a dusty cement floor. But that could be any old factory room. It could even have been the workshop in which my teenage self hand-crafted the camphor suitcase, under the tutelage of a master carpenter. That was the year I graduated from high school in January, and in May was sent down to the countryside, as all my peers were, to labor with poor peasants. The universities had been closed for years. The city had no jobs for us. In the months between graduation and my countryside reeducation, I was apprenticed to a wood master in the Arts and Crafts Company. I needed a suitcase for my belongings and books, and my mother thought this a way to get one free.

If I did not search the storeroom, it makes less sense. Why wouldn’t I? The Arts and Crafts Company was only a few minutes walk from my parents’ apartment.

By the end of the week, with our departure date drew near, my anger was still unspent. My mother’s nonchalance, lacking even a hint of apology, was like pouring oil on a fire. I wanted to cry. I thought it might actually make me feel better. But my tears had been dried up in unsentimental America. Instead I felt part of my vitality was fading away with the lost diaries.

“Things happen. Try to forget about it,” said Bob.

“Let the lost be lost,” my mother said. “You are not alone.”

Self-absorbed though I was in the midst of my pain, her words surprised me. It was a moment of revelation on how little I knew about her. I, like any child, had never been interested in my parents’ past when I was young. We read and read books of other people’s stories, but think our own parents boring.

It turned out that my mother had been writing diaries since the 6th grade. This was a shock: Is it coincidence that she and I began the same activity at the same age? Twelve. The blessed twelve! The disturbing twelve!

Her pseudonym was “Dawn.” Implying the dawn of New China that would soon come, I guess. She used an alias because it was December 1948, and she was a 19-year-old underground Communist in Chongqing. She taught a rural elementary school as her cover, preaching when she could revolutionary ideals among the peasants.

At the time, the major battlefield in China’s civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists was in the north. The Communists had won decisive some battles, and within months the People’s Liberation Army would cross the Yangtze and capture Nanjing, which the Nationalists had made their capital. Chongqing was to the southwest, strategically important as the largest inland port city on the Yangtze, and it became the last Nationalist stronghold. Its importance was highlighted by frequent visits from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the president of Nationalist China. Chiang’s policy on Communists was clear, “Better to kill a thousand wrongly than let a single one slip.” (We learned to call it the “white terror.”)

My mother was returning to her school after a weekly women’s literacy class in a nearby courtyard. That day she had taught the peasant women a song:

The sky is bright in the liberated place,
The people are happy in the liberated place…

She was humming this tune when a dark, skinny, short man startled her from a bamboo grove. It was Liu, whose silky-smooth face was unusual for a 20-year-old from the land. Her guarantor in joining the Party, he lived in another township, several hours walk away. Now she was under the command of someone from her village, she had little direct contact with him. The Party maintained a strict “single-thread connection” to protect its members in case any one of them was exposed. Liu’s violation of the rule signaled urgency.

Liu pulled her into the bamboo grove and told her what happened. That morning, two agents of the Nationalist secret police had come to his township to look for “a pretty young female teacher named Dawn from Chongqing.” The official who received the agents was an underground comrade. While he engaged them in time consuming formalities, dispatched Liu to warn her. She was to evacuate right away, and the next minute Liu was gone.

Safety was a thirty kilometer cross-country away, a village where a new school had been opened by the Communists as an underground liaison station. Nationalist checkpoints along the mountain roads meant risking arrests. Before she left she burned everything that hinted at her political activities. But she hesitated over her diaries, six or seven of them. They contained her “progressive” thoughts and provided ample evidence for the executioner. She couldn’t take them with her, nor could she destroy them. They were part of her, they were her organs.

She carried them to the Temple of East Sacred Mountain. It housed a large Buddha statue with a hollowed stomach, into which she pushed the books, one by one, through an opening at the back of the statue. Each landed with an echoing thump.

Decades later, after the Cultural Revolution, during which she had burned another two diaries as the new regime she once fought for was gripped by “red terror,” she returned to the mountains and found the now dilapidated Temple, but the Buddha was gone. The Red Guards had been thorough.

My mother told me this with little emotion, which struck me as odd because I had always thought of her as overly sentimental. She had confessed to being a mawkish girl before she found the Communist Party (or it found her). Her visits to our America home would last six months each time, and whenever her departure time approached, Bob and I would dread her inevitable farewell tears. How can she not feel the loss, the regret, like I felt about mine?

It took me a while to understand that her past was still part of her. She had never forgotten. Memory, unlike our being, is by choice after all.

I puzzled over the generational coincidence, despite that I entrusted my diaries to her while she entrusted hers to Buddha. I had never felt that she and I had anything in common; now I was thinking, How much more do we share?

There was a difference, though, to our common experiences. My mother had been forced to part with her diaries; nobody forced me. It was I myself who attempted to sever my past, as if it were a sixth finger. Only the sensation of the pain was delayed for 13 years. My move to America had served as both the catling and the anesthetic. When the pain caught up with me, it became unbearable.

How ironic — when I fretted about my daughter running away from me, I did not see I was running away from my mother and myself.

An old friend, who had been an editor of Chongqing’s literary magazine, Red Crag, dropped by one evening. I had not seen him for a long time, not since the early 1980s when my ambitious twenties drove me to explore both science and literature as possible destinations.

In the middle of our tea and reminiscence, my friend said, “Do you know what impressed me the most about you?” I shook my head.

“It was when you said you’d rather go to jail than write a self-criticism.”

For a moment I couldn’t recognize the young woman he was describing. It’s heartening that he could recall so clearly a statement I didn’t remember making, though it did sound like the twenty-something me. Then, with a tug on the time rope, it came back. Somehow, my ex-editor friend managed to overlap the distant image of X and myself.

In early 1982, I had a short story titled “Near Clouds” published in Sichuan Literature, a provincial monthly. Though the story is essentially about a love crisis, a character in it challenges the official notion of a single, uniform belief for all Chinese people. Well, with a writer’s indirectness the “uniform belief” is never made clear, but clever readers and government officials both got my meaning. The story caused a nationwide debate in various magazines. Then one day, a writer friend in Shanghai alerted me with inside information: my name had made it to the blacklist of “spiritually polluted writers,” created by Beijing’s Central Propaganda Department. Sure enough, I was soon summoned by the Chongqing authorities, who requested a “self-criticism” for writing a “spirit polluting” story. I refused. “You might go to jail for this,” was one threat.

My mother heard and was terrified. She urged me to write whatever the authority requested, but I wouldn’t budge. She had some influential contacts in the city government. I don’t know exactly what she did, who she saw, but after several more ineffectual summonses, this political peril eventually fizzled out.

Recalling all this, my ex-editor friend’s words awoke something in me. It made me wonder why I could write courageously when freedom of speech was not a given, but let my pen run dry when both freedom and material were in abundance.

I didn’t need a sports car to race out of my mid-age crisis. What I needed was a slow, old ox cart to go back into the bumpy past. As the ancient poet Qu Yuan sang in 300BC, “The road is long and far/I will search up and down.” As it turned out, it would take me another 19 months to overcome the lure of the six-figure salary, but I eventually did, thus began my long search for the content of the camphor suitcase. Whether I dropped a watermelon to pick a sesame seed, I’ll leave the judgment to Mulberry, to my descendants.

Meanwhile, I hope the diary taker is treating them well.

The day before we left Chongqing, my mother praised Mulberry to me. The two of them, grandmother and granddaughter, had virtually no communication because of their unshared languages.

“She’s so assiduous. Did you see? She was writing a diary.”

It was one of those rare moments for me to be glad that my daughter did not understand Chinese. “Assiduous” is the highest praise a Chinese adult can give a child, but it has nothing to do with Mulberry’s diary writing. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my mother that she was writing sci-fi for fun.

Mulberry had just turned thirteen in March, on St. Patrick’s Day. I first saw her writing in her diary months before. That is, at age twelve.

My mother was also born in the Year of the Snake. Between her birth and Mulberry’s, a complete 60-year cycle, from 1929 to 1989, had elapsed. In the numerology of ancient China, sixty is the base and it encompasses everything in life.

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About Xujun Eberlein

Xujun Eberlein's fiction and literary nonfiction works have appeared in many magazines in the Unites States, Canada, England, Kenya, and Hong Kong. Her debut story collection, Apologies Forthcoming (Livingstone Press, June 2008), won the 2007 Tartt Fiction Award. For details about the book and the author, visit Xujun's website.

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