April 25, 2012

Facing death shapes life in Chinese memoir

Posted in Between Us column, Books, Diversity, Relationships at 5:14 pm by dinaheng

Wenguang Huang was 10 when he started sleeping next to a coffin. The coffin, built at his grandmother’s request, would not be used by her for another 15 years, but its symbolic reminder of death and traditional Chinese customs is at the heart of a story that examines how belief shapes who we are and who we want to be.

Huang, a Chicago-based writer and translator, grew up in Xian, a city in central China, during the Mao-era, giving him a unique perspective on the generational conflicts  between those who clung to Confucian traditions of the past and those caught up in the political campaigns of the early 1970s that aimed to wipe such rituals out.

In Huang’s first book, “The Little Red Guard… A Family Memoir” ($25.95, Riverhead Books), the author shares a coming-of-age tale in Communist China that offers cultural insights into an often closed society, yet is universal in its observations about life.

“There was a lot of self-discovery in the process of writing it,” says Huang, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, Harper’s and other publications. “The book was about my father. His teachings have guided me in a lot of my decisions, but it’s only now that I’m starting to appreciate him.”

In an era where traditional Chinese burials were forbidden, Huang’s father had to hide his mother’s coffin, bribing relatives and others to keep the plans for her burial a secret. Huang, the eldest son in the family, was caught between the wishes of his grandmother, who raised him, and the resentment of his mother, who saw the family’s life revolve around her mother-in-law’s future burial plans.

As China lurched forward with economic development after the Mao era, historic sites, family homesteads, and traditional cemeteries gave way to skyscrapers, tourist attractions and lost landmarks.

“After my father’s death, I felt bitter about his plans with Grandma’s coffin, that he’d wasted so much time and money on it,” Huang says. “But when my mother died, I understood why. At my father’s funeral, I wasn’t able to speak about him. For years, I felt I owed my dad a eulogy, so I decided to write this book.”

In addition to giving a window into life in China, Huang writes about his immigration to the United States. He shares the difficulties of assimilating into a different culture, and how he came to accept both his Chinese heritage and American identity.

Through Huang’s anecdotes, we see that every family grapples with generational conflicts, personality differences, and changing values over time.

“In the old days, you’d have a family cemetery in China,” Huang says. “Now, in this era of modern development, everything’s demolished and you can’t even find your ancestors’ graves.”

He says even though the Chinese government rejects human rights and the principles of democracy, sooner or later, “it’s a trend they can’t move back. In China, long term, the trend is always going forward. I’m optimistic changes will come to China over time. At the same time, the West is becoming more Easternized.”

Last month, Huang returned to China to visit his parents’ gravesite. A sister told him that he should burn the galley of his new book at the gravesite so that their parents could read it in the other world. The author who once scoffed at such rituals decided to follow her advice.

“Our driver gave me a cigarette lighter, and the only thing that burned was the cover,” Huang says. “I saw the lighter fluid was running out, so I tried to put the book on the tombstone. A gust of wind blew, and within seconds, the book was in ashes. Before, I would have thought the wind’s appearance was just coincidence. But now, I thought, at least my dad has a chance to read it.”

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