“One of those hard-to-put down-until-four in-the-morning books . . . With each new novel, Lisa See gets better and better.”—Los Angeles Times
“Once again, See’s research feels impeccable, and she has created an authentic, visually arresting world.”—The Washington Post
“A stunningly researched epic about revolutionary-era China.”—Los Angeles
“See is a gifted historical novelist. She illuminates a turning point in Chinese history when people still remembered the inequities of the feudal caste system, and in some cases embodied them. . . . See is unflinching in her willingness to describe it all.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“See’s fans will be glad to read more about Pearl, May and Joy, and See’s recurring themes of unbreakable family bonds and strong-willed women.”—The Oregonian
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Everything I thought I knew about my birth, my parents, my grandparents, and who I am has been a lie. A big fat lie. The woman I thought was my mother is my aunt. My aunt is actually my mother. The man I loved as my father was not related to me at all. My real father is an artist in Shanghai whom both my mother and aunt have loved since before I was born. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg— as Auntie May might say. But I was born in the Year of the Tiger, so before the gnawing blackness of guilt about my dad’s death and the anguish I feel about these revelations overpower me, I grip the sheets tighter, set my jaw, and try to force my emotions to cower and shrink before my Tiger ferocity. It doesn’t work.
I wish I could talk to my friend Hazel, but it’s the middle of the night. I wish even more that I could be back at the University of Chicago, because my boyfriend, Joe, would understand what I’m going through. I know he would.
It’s two in the morning by the time my aunt drifts off to sleep and the house seems quiet. I get up and go to the hall, where my clothes are kept in a linen closet. Now I can hear my mother weeping, and it’s heartbreaking. She can’t imagine what I’m about to do, but even if she did, would she stop me? I’m not her daughter.
Why should she stop me? I quickly pack a bag. I’ll need money for where I’m going, and the only place I know to get it will bring me more disgrace and shame. I hurry to the kitchen, look under the sink, and pull out the coffee can that holds my mother’s savings to put me through college. This money represents all her hopes and dreams for me, but I’m not that person anymore. She’s always been cautious, and for once I’m grateful. Her fear of banks and Americans will fund my escape.
I look for paper and a pencil, sit down at the kitchen table, and scrawl a note.
Mom, I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t understand this country anymore.
I hate that it killed Dad. I know you’ll think I’m confused and foolish. Maybe I am, but I have to find answers. Maybe China is my real home . . .
I go on to write that I mean to find my real father and that she shouldn’t worry about me. I fold the paper and take it to the porch. Auntie May doesn’t stir when I put the note on my pillow. At the front door, I hesitate. My invalid uncle is in his bedroom at the back of the house. He’s never done anything to me. I should tell him good- bye, but I know what he’ll say. “Communists are no good. They’ll kill you.”
I don’t need to hear that, and I don’t want him to alert my mother and aunt that I’m leaving.
I pick up my suitcase and step into the night. At the corner, I turn down Alpine Street, and head for Union Station. It’s August 23, 1957, and I want to memorize everything because I doubt I’ll ever see Los Angeles Chinatown again. I used to love to stroll these streets, and I know them better than anyplace else in the world. Here, I know everyone and everyone knows me. The houses— almost all of them clapboard bungalows— have been what I call Chinafied, with bamboo planted in the gardens, pots with miniature kumquat trees sitting on porches, and wooden planks laid on the ground on which to spread leftover rice for birds. I look at it all differently now. Nine months at college— and the events of tonight— will do that. I learned and did so much at the University of Chicago during my freshman year. I met Joe and joined the Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association. I learned all about the People’s Republic of China and what Chairman Mao is doing for the country, all of which contradicts everything my family believes. So when I came home in June, what did I do? I criticized my father for seeming as if he were fresh off the boat, for the greasy food he cooked in his café, and for the dumb TV shows he liked to watch.
These memories trigger a dialogue in my head that I’ve been having since his death. Why didn’t I see what my parents were going through? I didn’t know that my father was a paper son and that he’d come to this country illegally. If I’d known, I never would have begged my dad to confess to the FBI— as if he didn’t have anything to hide. My mother holds Auntie May responsible for what happened, but she’s wrong. Even Auntie May thinks it was her fault. “When the FBI agent came to Chinatown,” she confessed to me on the porch only a few hours ago, “I talked to
him about Sam.” But Agent Sanders never really cared about my dad’s legal status, because the first thing he asked about was me.
And then the loop of guilt and sorrow tightens even more. How could I have known that the FBI considered the group I joined a front for Communist activities?
We picketed stores that wouldn’t allow Negroes to work or sit at the lunch counter.
We talked about how the United States had interned American citizens of Japanese descent during the war. How could those things make me a Communist? But they did in the eyes of the FBI, which is why that awful agent told my dad he’d be cleared if he ratted out anyone he thought was a Communist or a Communist sympathizer.
If I hadn’t joined the Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association,
the FBI couldn’t have used that to push my father to name others— specifically
me. My dad never would have turned me in, leaving him only one choice. As long
as I live I will never forget the sight of my mother holding my father’s legs in a hopeless
attempt to take his weight off the rope around his neck, and I will never ever forgive
myself for my role in his suicide.
i turn down Broadway and then onto Sunset, which allows me to
continue passing places I want to remember. The Mexican tourist attraction
of Olvera Street is closed, but strings of gaily colored carnival lights
cast a golden glow over the closed souvenir stands. To my right is the
Plaza, the birthplace of the city, with its wrought- iron bandstand. Just
beyond that, I see the entrance to Sanchez Alley. When I was little, my
family lived on the second floor of the Garnier Building on Sanchez
Alley, and now my heart fills with memories of my grandmother playing
with me in the Plaza, my aunt treating me to Mexican lollipops on
Olvera Street, and my mother taking me through here every day to and
from school in Chinatown. Those were happy years, and yet they were
also filled with so many secrets that I wonder what in my life was real at
Before me, palm trees throw perfect shadows on Union Station’s
stucco walls. The clock tower reads 2:47 a.m. I was barely a year old
when the train station opened, so this place too has been a constant in my
life. There are no cars or streetcars at this hour, so I don’t bother waiting
for the light to change and dash across Alameda. A lone taxi sits at the
curb outside the terminal. Inside, the cavernous waiting room is deserted,
and my footsteps echo on the marble and tile floors. I slip into a
telephone booth and shut the door. An overhead light comes on, and I
see myself in the glass’s reflection.
My mother always discouraged me from acting like a peacock. “You
don’t want to be like your auntie,” she always chastised me if she caught
. . . 10 . . .
me looking in a mirror. Now I realize she never wanted me to look too
closely. Because now that I look, now that I really look, I see just how
much I resemble Auntie May. My eyebrows are shaped like willow
leaves, my skin is pale, my lips are full, and my hair is onyx black. My
family always insisted that I keep it long and I used to be able to sit on it,
but earlier this year I went to a salon in Chicago and asked to have it cut
short like Audrey Hepburn’s. The beautician called it a pixie cut. Now
my hair is boy- short and shines even here in the dim light of the phone
I dump the contents of my coin purse on the ledge, then dial Joe’s
number and wait for the operator to tell me how much the first three
minutes will cost. I put the coins in the slot, and Joe’s line rings. It’s close
to five a.m. in Chicago, so I’m waking him up.
“Hello?” comes his groggy voice.
“It’s me,” I say, trying to sound enthusiastic. “I’ve run away. I’m ready
to do what we talked about.”
“What time is it?”
“You need to get up. Pack. Get on a plane to San Francisco. We’re
going to China. You said we should be a part of what’s happening there.
Well, let’s do it.”
Across the telephone line, I hear him roll over and sit up.
“Yes, yes, it’s me. We’re going to China!”
“China? You mean the People’s Republic of China? Jesus, Joy, it’s the
middle of the night. Are you okay? Did something happen?”
“You took me to get my passport so we could go together.”
“Are you crazy?”
“You said that if we went to China we’d work in the fields and sing