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Days Without Whites

by Vivian Yang

The year was 1972. I was eight. The world was as outlandish a place then as it is now. Shanghai was no exception.

Just three weeks into the New Year, in the Micronesian U.S. Territory of Guam, Japanese Imperial Army soldier Shoichi Yokoi was discovered deep in the jungle. He had been hiding in these bushes for over 28 years, pledging daily allegiance to Emperor Hirohito in the hope that the Empire of the Sun would win its Holy War and dominate the entire " Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere."

A month later, career Communist-prosecutor Tricky Dick (Nixon) landed in China to shake hands with careerist Communist leader Chairman Mao. This was no Kitchen Debate with Nikita Khrushchev reenacted. The world outside China held its breath and watched as Richard Nixon posed toothily with the drooling Great Proletariat Leader, the Great Teacher, the Great Commander-in-Chief, and the Great Helmsman Mao Tse-tung. The panda-faced, German-accented mastermind Henry Kissinger and the Europe-trained Chinese Machiavellian Zhou En-lai, whose French and German were rusty but whose charisma was deemed striking by the West, "agree to disagree" about the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan, as in "Made in." A Sino-U.S. Communiqué was executed by the Secretary of State and the Premier. The setting for such an epoch-making event was, by no accident, Shanghai, the former "whore of Asia;" the then boar of socialist Utopia. Make no mistake. Shanghai, just six years earlier in 1966, had been credited with being the glorious birthplace of the Great Property-less Class Cultural Revolution. The "Shanghai January Tempest" had been the harbinger of an advanced stage in the socialist New China.

In the remote land where part of my racial heritage could be traced, in the vast Eurasian mass collectively known as the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev had just been reelected to the stewardship of the Communist Party. Determined not to be out-staged by his Chinese archrival Mao, Brezhnev, his miens ever so conceited, was to reign until he died in office years later, amassing the ultimate power to the very end.

It was in such a year that I became a Shanghai primary school student, on September the first.

Due to what had been recorded in my dangan, I was not allowed to become a Little Red Guard. Everyone in China had this secret personal file accessible only by the individual's "leaders in charge." Mine was established by our neighborhood revolutionary committee when I arrived and now passed on to the school. The authorities knew that I was Hong Kong-born and one quarter-Russian, and therefore unfit to be admitted to the glorious ranks of the underage defenders of Chairman Mao. My classmates could see why I was excluded. They could tell that I was an adulterated Chinese. A nickname was promptly given: the wide-eyed bourgeois mutt.

Located in the pre-1949 French Concession, our school used to be run by the Jesuits and admitted children of both Western residents and wealthy locals. After Liberation, the teaching staff was sent packing and the school renamed The Shanghai 6.1. Primary School. "6.1." being June the first, the International Children's Day.

Our country was run like the military at the time, with Chairman Mao as our "Great Commander-in-Chief". Children had to gather in designated spots to form lines known as "Mao Tse-tung Thought Revolutionary Propaganda Processions," or ludui. We would pass through a rabbit warren of neighborhood alleys in a major detour to reach school. From Monday through Saturday, six Little Red Guards took turns carrying a portrait of Chairman Mao at the front of the line. That child was the day's ludui-leader, the most coveted position. The kid immediately behind would assume the post the following day. On this day, he or she was the slogan leader who shouted out inspirational phrases for the rest to follow:

" Carry the cause started by our revolutionary martyrs to the end!"

"Down with the U.S. imperialists and the Soviet revisionists!"

"Heighten our vigilance and defend our motherland against the two superpower hegemonists!"

"Curb the Soviet Revisionists' ambitions to invade our motherland!"

The last slogan had originated in 1969, when China waged a "self-defense counter-attack" battle against the Soviet Union on a Sino-Russian border island. To the Soviets, it was Damansky, but we Chinese called it Zhenbaodou, the Treasure Island .

Naturally, we had never heard of Robert Louis Stevenson's namesake, boy-coming-of-age story. None of us could have ever imagined anybody with a name like Long John Silver, or, for that matter, Long Dong Silver. I became aware of the latter only in my 20's, after moving back to Hong Kong, when the details of the U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas' hearings were being analyzed, annotated, and instant-replayed on television in 1991. I learned about the fictional characters Long John Silver and John Thomas almost concurrently, indeed during the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation proceedings for a different Thomas. Thanks to the British, a good public library system was well established in Hong Kong. Books such as Treasure Island and Lady Chatterley's Lover were easily available so I borrowed them both. It was then that I realized that John Thomas was not a male fictional character per se but an actual male organ. This was revealed to me after watching a Monty Python skit that made fun of the intercourse between John Thomas and Lady Jane.

Thinking back, the early nineties seemed to be a particularly exciting time for this newly-converted couch potato hooked on current affairs programs. I had not owned the prized commodity of a TV set in Shanghai. There was the William Kennedy Smith "… then I ejaculated" in the back bushes of the Kennedy Compound in Florida drama. There was the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill public interest, pubic hair, soft drink, hard core, he says she says soap opera. There was the juicy, "Juice" O.J. Simpson and Nicole Simpson/Ron Goldman double murder trial, where attorney extraordinaire Johnny Cochran put on a knitted ski cap that saved the life of the has-been American footballer, along with Marcia Clark's metamorphosis from an overworked and undersexed L.A. County prosecutor into a made-over Martha Stewart look-alike. And there was the severing of an appendage belonging to a man with John Wayne as his first and middle names. One could characterize the Ecuadorian immigrant Lorena Bobbitt's outburst as the incident separating the rest of John Wayne Bobbitt from his John Thomas, not to mention the subsequent reattachment of one John to the other. That John Bobbitt managed to extend his notoriety into the realm of the adult movie arena was all the more entertaining.

Yet, as schoolchildren shouting patriotic slogans, we were not told adventurous tales of some boy mingling with pirates. Nor were we taught what body parts an anatomically correct human being ought to possess. As pupils in Shanghai in the 1970's, we were never ever told fables such as Peter Pan and Never Never Land. Instead we were indoctrinated with stories like "The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains." As hard as it is perhaps for you to picture Chairman Mao playing Dr. Seuss, our Great Teacher himself had authored that one. This should not come as a complete surprise given that Mao, as a youth fresh out of Hunan province famous for its spicy food, had been a librarian at Peking University. It was there that he devoured the translated texts of Hegel, Marx, and Lenin with the same enthusiasm he appreciated his fiery native cuisine. Stories written by Chairman Mao, like his quotations, always had a revolutionary pungency. They were meant to be read, recited, and even memorized by all Chinese, not just us kids. The gist of this particular allegory by Chairman Mao was that if a revolutionary was determined and persistent enough, he could overcome all the difficulties and succeed in the end. The Foolish Old Man had managed to have two mountains blocking his front door removed by digging daily with a spade. Our Great Leader taught us that the Chinese people could overthrow the figurative three mountains of the imperialist, feudalist, and bureaucratic capitalist oppressors by fighting long and hard. Or hard and long as the case may be. Not an easy concept for a youngster to grasp, but certainly more enticing than repeating monotonous slogans.

In any case, the anti-Soviet slogan got passed down from one year's entering class to the next. And believe me, at the time, you would not want to be in any way associated with the Soviets, or by analogy the Russians. The location of the school made it impossible for our procession not to pass the site where a bronze bust statue of Alexander Pushkin had once stood. In 1937, the White Russian émigrés had built the memorial on the centenary of Pushkin's death. It was conceivable that my grandfather had helped in its erection. The engraved text had read: AU POETE RUSSE ALEXANDER PUSHKIN (1799 – 1837) , fittingly in French, the lingua franca of the then French Concession administration and of the pre-Soviet era Russian high society.

In 1966, however, the Pushkin monument was smashed. The Red Guards regarded anything with a Caucasian face and European lettering as unsuitable for the cityscape of the heroic town of Shanghai, the birthplace of both the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution itself. China did not need to be reminded of the onetime existence of dead white men like Pushkin whose life ended in a sexually motivated dual. The Red Guards prided themselves in daring to "climb the mountains heaped with knives and swim in the oceans made of fire" in defense of the proletariat cause. They recited a Mao quotation that deaths like that of Pushkin "are lighter than a feather," but sacrificing for the revolution "is heavier than Mt. Tai."

So the once well-manicured, fenced-in garden for the statue had been ransacked and urinated on by 1972. The latter had led to the growth of weeds, turning the plot into an open-air garbage dump eking odors of human and animal waste, ammonia, and other similarly offensive nasal stimulants.

Every time of every day, day after day, as our procession passed the "Pushkin graveyard," my fellow students would cover their noses and stare at me in disgust as if I had personally defecated my twenty-five percent Russian feces on this otherwise Chinese holy land.

Because let's face it. In the Shanghai of 1972, possessing even a sliver of Caucasian flesh was undesirable. To begin with, few would want to be near you physically. Years later in Hong Kong, I was to witness on television the transformation of Michael Jackson from African-American to a victim of a "rare form of skin condition", complete with dubious Caucasian features -- out of Africa into the American mainstream before taking up residency in Neverland. It would have been a genuine comfort to my soul during my childhood that such a skin affliction actually existed, that it had been available for me to catch. I might fantasize about being afflicted with the strain that could get rid of my one-quarter Russian look to appear completely Chinese. But like many other things children and adults alike were deprived of, accurate information about the West was unobtainable. So, at the very end of the procession, I dragged my feet along without confronting anybody's stares and sneers, without covering my own nose, yet simultaneously trying not to inhale. Mechanically, one foot before the other, I went through the motions, lost in daydreams and imagination...

I wondered about Pushkin's looks. Did he resemble my grandfather in Mother's only photograph of him? Would I, in fact, in any way look like Pushkin? I so asked myself amid the drowning sound of revolutionary slogans. I had what the Chinese called a guazilian-- an oval, melon seed-shaped face considered pretty. I honestly doubted that Alexander Pushkin had a guazilian. But what kind of a face did he have?

Ever since Liberation in 1949 and the subsequent ideological breakup of the Chinese Communist Party and its former "Internationalist Big Brother"-tuned "Soviet revisionists", and particularly since the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Caucasian faces had almost completely disappeared from Shanghai. It was simply not in the consciousness of a chit of a girl like me that three-dimensional beings with fair skin and light hair were capable of living, breathing, walking, and talking -- in English at that, a language this eight-year-old had never heard spoken. Although I had lived in Hong Kong as a toddler, my memories of it had all but been erased by then. Mother had forbidden me from mentioning my birthplace the moment we boarded the train to China.

White people were, therefore, more a shapeless concept than a tangible reality to me. Ironically, the few deceased ones I had seen were perpetually saluted and kowtowed to. Papier-mâché effigies these were not. They were in fact two-dimensional figures mounted on thick cardboards. There were a total of four of them collectively known as our "Great Proletarian Revolutionary Teachers." Their foreign-sounding names were: Karl Marx, Fredrick Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Josef Stalin.

To enable us to say the names of the Great Teachers so that we could become better disciples of them, we were taught to pronounce with the utmost respect the names of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin in one breath, in a Chinese-sounding fashion. Taking the first syllable from their respective last names' Chinese translations, the Great Teachers became Ma, En, Lie, and Si in our own tongue. Their huge faces were on display, in gilded wooden frames, in the most eye-catching places, their virtual presence dominating our consciousness. With ten million blue-clad people, Shanghai was no small town. If you are an American, you might have seen these gigantic advertisements mounted over the interstate highways, asking questions like "Have you driven a Ford lately?" So you get the picture. The billboard-size images of four white men satiated our sense of sight at all times. Have I seen the Caucasian Great Revolutionary Teachers lately? Absolutely yes, without a doubt! I was paying homage to their larger-than-life visages constantly, these ubiquitous four headshots known as Ma, En, Lie, and Si.

The cardboard Ma had a large beard which would have made him the perfect candidate for Santa Clause had he been a Christian and not a self-proclaimed atheist. A bright red outfit from head to toe would have matched his ideology perfectly as well. I, for one, would have chosen him out of all four white men to be my Santa Clause had I known that such concepts as Christmas or presents for good little girls existed.

To my inexperienced eyes – inexperienced at telling one Caucasian man from another – the cardboard En came across as a scholar, a researcher or a deep thinker of sorts. En in my consciousness possessed more than a passing resemblance to Sigmund Freud. As a matter of fact, when several years later someone showed me a photo of the Father of Psychoanalysis, I couldn't help but blurting out, "He looks like he could be the Great Teacher En's twin!"

It was the cardboard Lie's baldness that left the strongest impression. Lie's head appeared to be a light bulb to me, perhaps partly because of the popular saying at the time that the revolutionary leaders were "like beacons lighting up our paths to the future." I could not fully comprehend the depth behind such profound statements. All I knew was that they must be "truths universally acknowledged."

Of course I was unaware of Pride and Prejudice 's opening aphorism that "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Jane Austin was as unlikely an author's name to be heard as D. H. Lawrence, or for that matter, his euphemistic female organ Lady Jane in Lady Chatterley's Lover . I knew of the phrase "truths universally acknowledged" because that was the way children were told – that "Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Tse-tung Thought were truths universally acknowledged and applicable." A child often uncritically believes in things that she learns in school, you see.

The cardboard Si showed a man with salt and pepper handlebar moustache dressed in the rank of a marshal, with gleaming starred epaulets and all. Si had indeed been the marshal whose 2.5 million soldiers miraculously conquered Berlin in 1945 despite being mostly famished and inebriated. The Russians beat up the Germans! I remembered the captions of a yellowed Chinese newspaper photograph so declaring. Never had I seen this many honorary decorations on one individual's chest as there were on Si's, be they two-dimensional or three-dimensional beings. It was as though the man inside the cardboard could be lifted to midair through his sparkling sets of orders if a magnetic construction site crane were nearby. Si in his outfit could have tilted a scale in his favor over a Mao tunic-clad, stick-thin Chinese man on a bicycle, I reckoned to my private amusement, fully aware of the criminal nature of such a thought. At the time, such musings would be deemed "counter-revolutionary" at best.

Out of the four Great Proletarian Revolutionary Teachers, two were German -- Marx and Engels, and the other two Russian -- Lenin and Stalin. Fifty-fifty. However, The Russians beat up the Germans! How strange, I thought. So I lucked out, having in me some Russian rather than German blood. My weirdest sense of ambiguity manifested itself when I realized that despite possessing the blood of the victors of the Second World War, I was still considered the stinkiest member of our team and possibly the whole school. In fact, precisely for that reason. Sharing the same blood with the two of the four Great Proletarian Revolutionary Teachers did not in any way help me. The entire procession continued to treat me with contempt when we traversed the site of the now smashed Pushkin statue, the burial grounds of my supposed countryman.

As it turned out, being quarter-Russian would not bring me anything positive until a few years thereafter when China re-introduced market economy. Several men who fell into my personal radius perceived anatomical differences between me and a pure Chinese girl, when Asian men started to consider the impure me hot property. Over time and across space, my desirability would increase. If, in the 1990's, the heads of Ma, En, Lie, and Si could have jumped out of their portrait frames, they might even have managed a wry smile alongside my own, somewhat smug one.

Our world has changed since 1972 after all.

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Vivian Yang is a native of Shanghai, China where she taught at her undergrad alma mater before getting her MA in the US. She studied creative writing at Columbia University and the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, and was a New Jersey Arts Council literature fellow in Prose. In 1991 she was among the first to join the Asian American Writers' Workshop where she is a current member. She is the author of Shanghai Girl (2001, US; 2002, Japan), a literary novel set in Shanghai and New York. Vivian's fiction has appeared in The Asian Pacific American Journal, Aware, Dim Sum, Imprint , and In Our Own Words; her nonfiction/journalism in The Asian Wall Street Journal, Business Weekly, China Daily, Far Eastern Economic Review, The HK Magazine, The National Law Journal, The New York Times, The Sampan, and South China Morning Post, etc.

"Days without Whites" is excerpted/adapted from her second novel for which she is seeking representation.

She lives with her family in New York and Shanghai.

Contact Vivian at ShanghaiGirlUsa@gmail.com