My mother, green tea, and the Chinese Communist Party

Upon going to college I realized a lot of habits I had taken for granted as being normal was actually only true for the bizarre family environment I grew up in. Apparently normal people do take showers and that the showerhead isn’t just for decoration and poor urban households that couldn’t afford a bathtub. Apparently normal people don’t eat the unfortunate animals that decide to winter on your front lawn. Apparently normal people don’t go eeling on the weekends. And apparently normal mothers don’t drink an average of 4 teapots of green tea a day. I didn’t drink tea or coffee growing up, so I always shrugged it off as an adult thing. But after one of our first family vacations, I realized that normal families usually lugged around a camera instead of a portable tea container complete with shoulder strap and tea leaf filter.

My parents tend not to talk about the past — well, I take that back, they can talk all day about the stupid things I did as a kid. But they tend not to talk about their past, their upbringings, etc. It comes out in spurts over the course of years and the gist of it is usually that it kinda sucked. I don’t know anything about their childhood, their teens, or their late twenties, but they do talk about their early twenties occasionally.

It was the era of Cultural Revolution and among other (pretty terrible things), universities were shut down for a period of 10 years. To a society where education had traditionally been the only means of social advancement, these were catastrophic times. All the things that happened to my parents and their families during that time really deserve their own novel but that’ll never be written, because nobody likes talking about the Cultural Revolution.

Anyways, back to my mother. It’s 1977. Deng Xiaopeng had just reinstated the meritocratic system of university admissions. 10 years of high school graduates were now eligible for a simultaneous nationwide admissions exam. They have a couple weeks to cram. But they jump at the opportunitiy — 10 years of jobs being assigned by the state had left a generation of youth wanting, needing, something, anything, better than the life they had been assigned. My mother was working in a coal factory at the time and despite years of trying to be the picture perfect worker so her supervisor might recommend her for further education and training, she still came home every night covered with soot, and spent fruitless nights crying in front of the mirror, trying to wash off the black stains on her hands, face, & all over, thinking, “there has to be more to life than this. this can’t be all there is.

But she’s 22. She hasn’t picked up a textbook in half a decade. She’s the oldest child, female, and the only expectation is that she get married. Soon. She has a little brother fresh out of high school and her family spends all of its resources in prepping him for the exams. She doesn’t even want anyone to know that she’s applying because the idea is just so ridiculous.

With a few weeks to the exam, there’s no time to be spared. She goes back to her old high school teacher, begs to borrow some old textbooks, and studies every night after getting back home from the coal factory. She needed something to keep her awake in those late hours, and if you consider that green tea has about 4-5 times less caffeine than coffee — jeezus. That’s a ridiculous volume of green tea to be consuming. And so she developed a very severe green tea addiction that has lasted to this day, 30 years later. I don’t think she’s ever tried quitting, but I would be more worried about the physiological symptoms of withdrawal than the addiction itself.

But the important thing is — she did it. She was one of the 273,000 admitted candidates out of a 5.7 million applicants that sat for the exam — and got into the 3rd highest ranked university in the country to boot.

And well, the rest. Met my dad. Got a math degree. Immigrated. Immigrated again. And even through all of Franzen‘s laments about 21st century surburban life — the house in the ‘burbs, 2 kids, 3 cars, 3 TVs, a cubicle job and not much in the way of friends… its a far cry from being that 22 year old in 1977 wondering if shoveling coal in a factory was all you had to look forward to for the rest of your life.

It’s 2008 now; I’m in my early 20s, and starting to drink green tea, as my mother did in ’77, and every cup has become something more than mere green tea. It’s a reminder that I live in an era with opportunity abound — where the only factor stopping me from reaching my fullest potential is myself. That I’m lucky. That there can be, should be, more to life than what we started with.

Cheers.

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