The Life Unknown

(A Shandong Village in China, 1973)

            The damp, cement walls surrounded the cramped rooms in the apartment that was home to three generations of a family. The TV was outdated and small, the curtains were drab, the couch was worn, and there was no air conditioning or heating. The family consisted of two grandparents, both around seventy years in age, their three now grown children and in-laws, and their five grandchildren. The youngest grandchild was only six, while the eldest was almost twenty. They all gathered on the couch, the only light from the glow of the moon and the glare of the landline’s light.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

            Staring solemnly outside the dust coated window, eleven-year old A-ne Zhang observed the chaotic disarray of cars beeping, infuriated shouting, and people shuffling between each other in the crowded streets of the city. Mama was wiping the dilapidated wooden table, while Baba (father) took Gege (eldest brother) on a walk through the streets to speak about immigrating to America for college. Seventeen-year old Jin was devoted to his dreams of going to Stanford and becoming a scientist. A-ne had no dreams whatsoever. Unless particularly talented, college was rare for the Meimei (younger sister) of Chinese households. While the modern western world had women becoming doctors, lawyers, and even politicians, most women in China were still doomed to a mundane life of cooking, cleaning, and nurturing the children. A-ne knew she would never surpass the overbearing shadow of Jin, and no matter how many times she tried to explain her aggravation to her parents, they could not relate. Her Mama was the eldest of three girls and was evidently treated as superior. Her Baba lived alone with his open minded Taiyeye (father’s grandfather), and was never disregarded.

*  *  *

(A Shandong Village in China, 1973)

            The adults whispered while the two eldest children helped the two youngest children prepare for bedtime. The middle child, an unwanted girl of twelve, wandered to the corner of the room and pulled out the three cots reserved for the five children. The three girls, a twenty-year old, a twelve-year old, and a six-year old, slept on one cot, while each of the other cots were reserved for the boys. Then, she tugged out the pull-out bed in the couch and started spreading sheets on it. This was for her Mama and Baba. Mama was the middle one of her siblings as well, while Baba was the eldest boy in his family. He was placed into an arranged marriage but refused to follow through with it. He then married her Mama, who he truly loved. From then on, Yeye (father’s father) disowned his son and later died of heart disease. Nainai (father’s mother) took care of her Baba’s younger sister instead.

Returning from the trance of her own thoughts, she began to pump two air mattresses; one for her Dayi (eldest aunt) and her husband to sleep on, and the other for her Jiujiu (youngest uncle) and his wife to sleep on. Her Laoye (mother’s father) and Laolao (mother’s mother) would sleep on the bed in a separate room. The separate room was for the eldest couple of the eldest generation. The bed was quilted with the most extravagant sheets, bedding, blankets, and pillows they could afford. There was also a chest for their possessions and a wooden shrine to honor the generations before them.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

            Frustrated with boredom, A-ne glanced at her Mama, preoccupied with the dishes, and then dawdled off to the tiny closet in their room. She began to dig around, tossing aside shoes, jackets, and books before stumbling upon a light blue shoe box labeled “重要” (important). Disregarding her parents’ rules not to touch the belongings of others without their permission, she flung open the lid and began to study the documents inside. She was intrigued to discover a wrinkled paper with the heading “出生证明” (birth certificate) at the top. Scanning through it, she smiled at the sight of her name, birthdate, and size. She continued skimming the document, and then paused abruptly. A-ne immediately became alarmed at the name listed as her mother. It read, “Hua Fu Huang”. Her mother’s name was Lei Zhang; she was sure of it. Nearly certain it was a mistake, she read the name written as hers, more cautiously this time. It said, “A-ne Huang”.  A million questions began to vividly swirl through her mind as the potential of this information collapsed down on her. A-ne sat paralyzed in disbelief. Was her entire life a lie? Was Jin even her real brother? How long has this been going on? But most of all, how come she was never told?

*  *  *

(A Shandong Village in China, 1973)

            The house settled down as she laid awake in between the other two girls. Her grandparents were snoring soundly, and her other relatives all breathed heavily. She thought about her future, and what would become of her. She was always the one that was ignored or used as a chore girl. Her parents didn’t bother to spend any time ensuring that her hair was neat or that her shoes still fit. Her Didi (younger brother) was always out with their Gege. They received lavish apparel and new haircuts. They were sent to school with new, fresh supplies and were greatly praised with every proper mark. Her Jiejie (elder sister) was also sent to school, but it was a school for failed girls who were supposed to be taught manners and learn how to be proper. Jiejie was already arranged for marriage with a middle-class boy who was the son of a rice farmer. She would be sent away in a year and then would return to live with the family again in order for her husband to support the large household. Since her schooling was minimal, there was little chance of her attending college. She would simply care for and nurture her future children.

            Thinking about her own future, the middle child also thought about her schooling. She was only sent to school twice a week for math and girls’ manners classes. The other days, she took care of her Meimei, who was sent to school once a week for her manners classes. All of her uncles worked and so did her grandfather. Her Mama stayed home with Laolao to cook and clean, and the two uncles helped Laoye at his school for boys. Every night, the men returned weary and grumpy. They demanded that they were served supper and a drink right away. She was usually the one to get the food. If the men did not like the way she was standing, what she was wearing, or if she was a little late, they would spank her and berate her, cursing viciously. She dreaded them coming home every night. She promised herself that one day, if she had a child, she would make sure her child was far away from this family.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

            Her daze of shock was interrupted by a thunderous shout for dinnertime. A-ne snatched the birth certificate and sprinted to the living room couch that she slept on each night. Rapidly, she stuffed the document under the cushions for safe-keeping, and dashed to the dining room. Baba, Mama, and Gege all stared at her in disapproval.

            “A-ne,” Baba lectured, “don’t run like that, you are giving me a headache.”

            “Come sit down,” Mama added, gesturing to the stool next to Jin.

            A-ne nodded, and walked over with her head down. She stared at her bowl. Inside, there were three scoops of rice and five green beans. Baba and Jin’s bowls were filled with what seemed like a mountain of rice, an abundant handful of green beans on one side of the bowl, and chunks of fish on the other. Sighing, she took her chopsticks and picked around at her food.

            “A-ne, don’t play with your food. Just eat it,” Mama scolded sharply.

             “Sorry,” A-ne muttered. Her appetite was dwindling as she thought more of that birth certificate. Finally, she mustered up the courage to say something, anything to break the eerie silence, “Can I ask you something, Baba?”

“What?” Baba replied coldly.

            “I was wondering if I could go to college like Jin.”

            It was like she had detonated a lethal bomb as Baba stood up, his eyes widening and his nostrils flaring. “You,” he responded slowly, “go to college?” A few moments passed of petrifying silence, before Baba began a very condescending laughter. The kind of laugh that an evil villain in a movie would make; the kind that would send shivers down your spine. “Please,” he roared, in between snickers, “a girl like you could never go to college! You’re absolutely worthless!”

*  *  *

(A Shandong Village in China, 1974)

            Waking up, the middle one rejoiced. The middle child rejected by all of her family would not be rejected today. Her Jiejie would be named and she would be donned in beautiful silk clothing along with the rest of her family. She would take her husband’s last name, using her family last name as her middle name, and receiving a fitting first name. Her grandfather wanted to call her “星福阳”. Her first name would mean star, representing the eldest girl’s starry eyes. The middle child hoped her name would mean flower, moon, or something pretty. As her mother fussed with her hair and qipao, a traditional Chinese dress made of silk, the middle child braided her Meimei’s hair. She grinned with excitement, as she had been looking forward to this day for weeks.

            During the ceremony, she began to fidget, as her sister’s name would be announced, and she would be officially married. The family had only four men to sustain a family of thirteen, so they couldn’t afford to put on a grand, elegant wedding and had to settle with a much simpler service. Laoye announced the new husband of Jiejie, 天阳, (Tian Yang) and then her sister’s new name, 星福阳 (Xin Fu Yang). Everyone attending cheered, and Jiejie beamed. Now, her Jiefu (eldest sister’s husband) would take Jiejie away, have a child, make some money, and come back to support everyone else. Jiejie would bring her entire family; her children, husband, and her husband’s parents home. The house would be more crowded, so the men would have to work harder to bring more income to extend the house. The men would come back with an even shorter fuse, but it was worth it. The despised middle child, would become a beloved Yima (sister of mother) to the new children.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

                        A-ne, Jin, and Mama all sat shaking as Baba continued to screech in fury. “You foolish, futile girl. You will never amount to anything! You are simply a burden, and I bet if you disappeared nobody would miss, or even notice you were gone!”

            Tears welled up in her eyes, but her heartache escalated into rage. Mama glanced over at her, and calmly ordered, “A-ne, apologize to your Baba.” Baba stared at A-ne, waiting impatiently for an apology. A-ne’s anger amplified and her hands turned into fists. She was fuming. Finally, she stood up suddenly, glowering at her Baba. But to her, he wasn’t her Baba, it was someone else, pretending to be her Baba.


            “What do you mean no?”

            “I said, no,” A-ne reiterated, “my Baba isn’t here, so I am not apologizing to anyone.”

            The adults froze as if they were just shot in the chest. Jin stood up. “Very mature A-ne,” He said calmly, “just grow up and apologize.”

            A-ne scowled at him, “I told you, my Baba is not here! I don’t know where he is! Because those two, are not my parents! They’re strangers!”

            Mama stuttered, “W-what do you mean we’re strangers?”

            “You know exactly what I mean! And guess what? I’m going to find my real parents and we’re going to live happily ever after without the likes of you!”

            Baba banged his fists against the table, “Enough with this nonsense! Sit down right now and finish your dinner!”

            A-ne sat back down, gritting her teeth with anger. She knew she had to leave as soon as possible, and when nightfall came, she would pack up the little things she owned, and head off into the night, searching for someone she’s never met.

*  *  *

(A Shandong Village in China, 1981)

            She was proud, she would be the fourth child to be named, and the second girl in the family to receive a fitting name. Her Laoye had picked a name that meant flower. She would only have two components of a name though, since she was not to be married. She had informed her Laolao that she wanted to go to Shanghai and start her own life. Laolao had agreed and told her that she was proud of her for being courageous enough to tell her.

            “Hua Fu,” her Laoye said. That was her name. She loved it. Nothing in the world was better, and nothing would stop her from loving it. She stepped inside an old automobile, and started the long drive to Shanghai. There, she would settle down, perhaps create a family, and never go back to the village where she was a nothing.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

            A-ne refused to bawl her eyes out, determined to show her parents that they did not have the power to cause her such anguish. They had the power to treat Jin like a prince and kick their little peasant girl to the side. They had the power to bestow the entire kingdom upon their treasured son and pretend there was nobody else to consider. They had all that power, but they did not have the power to make her cry.

            As her parents completed putting the dishes back into the cabinets, Mama looked at A-ne. “We will speak about your shameful outburst in the morning. Now get some sleep.”

            A-ne watched as they trudged over to their bedrooms and shut the door. Waiting a few moments, she thought about her journey ahead. Would she finally find the mysterious “Hua Fu Huang”? Still pondering how her adventure would go, A-ne took two changes of clothes, a gourd full of water, a map of Shanghai, a bag of uncooked rice, a box of matches, and the birth certificate, stuffing them into her leather satchel she’s had since she was born. Slinging it over her shoulder, A-ne slipped on her rubbers (rain boots), and walked along the streets of her neighborhood, careful to dodge the frenzy of cars zooming back and forth.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 1981)

            Hua Fu brought with her a leather satchel, a gourd, and some copper coins. Her village’s paper money had no value in the urban city of Shanghai. Her godmother lived in Shanghai, and owned a bank, The Bank of China. She would live with her until she could make her own living. Pulling into the spacious parking lot, she knocked quietly on the door. Her godmother stepped out, laid her eyes on her face, and smiled a warm beam of joy. It had been seven years since she had last saw her. Tears welled up in both their eyes as they embraced. Hua Fu was finally where she was loved.

            In the morning, Hua Fu woke up to the smell of fresh Youtiao (Chinese fried dough). As she wandered downstairs, she lay her eyes on a man she had never seen. He introduced himself as Lin Huang. They stared at each other awkwardly, and then suddenly burst out in laughter. It felt good to laugh, for Hua Fu had not laughed warmly in her lifetime. She realized that this was true happiness and freedom. Her godmother drove both Hua and Lin to the bank, and explained that for now, they were both to be bankers in her bank. They would work together as partners, and she would pay them. Little did she know, that leaving these two alone, a true relationship was about to blossom.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 2000)

Even with the sky pitch black and the winding streets ahead reeking of danger, A-ne sought comfort in the headlights of cars passing through and bikes riding amok. Her birth certificate indicated the hospital as “市民廣場站” (Guangzhou Women and Children’s Medical Center), approximately 1500 kilometers away. Regardless, she continued walking through the city, unsure of where to seek shelter. A-ne was fearful and reluctant to keep going, but her boundless spirit pushed through, guiding her through the narrow alleyways. For the first time, she felt free, like there was no King and Queen holding her back from achieving all of her dreams. Turning her pout of anxiety into an enthusiastic grin, A-ne began to skip through the neighborhoods as the break of dawn approached.

The sky transformed from the abyss of black to a burst of yellow and dusty pink. A-ne’s muscles ached from fatigue, and she decided it was time for a brief nap. She plodded to a wooden bench outside a seafood shop, and laid across it, clutching her leather satchel close to her chest.

*  *  *

(Shanghai, China, 1988)

            Hua Fu and Lin Huang had gotten married. The wedding was a grand ceremony of love and joy. Seven years before, Hua Fu had been the one to say that she would never get married. Now she was glad she could spend her life with a man. Hua Fu had gotten to know this man very well, and after working for a year together, they had started going on dates, secretly taking breaks from their long shifts at the bank. Hua Fu was also now pregnant with their first child. She was due in March of 1989. She daydreamed about the child. She didn’t care whether it was a girl or boy, for she, as an unwanted girl, didn’t want her child to feel that way. She would love her no matter what.

            A few months passed, and now it was February 1989. Hua Fu’s baby bump grew. A girl was going to be delivered. Her distant cousin, Lei Zhang, would be there for the birth. Hua Fu wanted a family member to be there, but her Laolao and godmother had both passed the year before. No one else had supported her or even tried to get in touch with her since she left. Lei Zhang didn’t live that far, and she wasn’t cruel to her, so Hua Fu begged Lei Zhang to come. They didn’t know each other that well, and were like strangers, but family was family, and Hua Fu was going to start one.

*  *  *

(Hangzhou, China 2000)

Day after day, A-ne would walk nonstop, sipping from her gourd, begging pedestrians for money, and eating the little food she could purchase from the few coins sitting at the bottom of her satchel. As she got closer to the hospital, she began to ask people if they ever heard of someone named Hua Fu. She would either be ignored or told no. It began to feel hopeless, and that boundless spirit seemed to have bounds.

It had been a couple of weeks, and A-ne’s energetic skipping had become an exhausted walk. She approached a homeless man sitting in an enormous box. “Hi sir,” A-ne greeted, “I was wondering if I could join you.” He sat with a ripped shirt, jacket, and pair of jeans, all covered in debris. He grunted and gestured to the smaller box next to him. A-ne, grateful she wasn’t actually invisible, sat on top of the box, and heaved a big sigh of disappointment.

But even though her life was a blur of hunger and lethargy, it still proved to be better than being in the shadows, concealed by the dominance of Jin. She’d rather die from starvation in an effort to find her mother, than die a poor old woman, who cleaned and cooked all her life.

*  *  *

(Guangzhou Women and Children’s Medical Center, March, 1989)

            Hua Fu was limp, she had just delivered a healthy baby. She immediately named her, for the old tradition was no longer a practice. Her name would be Anne in English, but her Chinese name would be A-ne. She was a beautiful child, but for some reason, Hua Fu could not lift her arms to hold her. She lay there, and then, her skin turned cold, and her muscled relaxed. She was gone. Lin Huang was devastated, and vowed to take the child under his care. As if he wasn’t distraught enough, his entire life came shattering down on him. The bank  shut down, and Lin Huang no longer had money. He had to give his child to Lei Zhang, making her promise to take good care of her, and then saying he would be back to fetch her when he got back on his feet. Without another word, he left, leaving the crying baby in Lei Zhang’s arms.

*  *  *

(Hangzhou, China 2000)

            The draining weeks continued to inch slowly by, as A-ne and the man sat in utter silence, never even looking each other in the eye. A-ne would obtain as much food as she could at the markets once a day and bring them back, splitting them with the man. He would nod as a form of gratitude, still not speaking a single word to her. They would both look forward to rain, where they could collect the pollutant-free water in the gourds. This was her life now. A-ne could no longer concern herself with who received the best clothes, or who was given more attention out of her and Jin. But for once, she had her future planned out. She would find her mother, and they would move to America, just like Baba said Jin was to do. She would finish schooling there, and go to one of the prestigious universities there. While she still didn’t know what she aspired to do for the rest of the life, her mother would help her figure that out.

            After contemplating her future again and again, A-ne grew frustrated and decided to attempt to begin a conversation with the homeless man. “What’s your name? My name is A-ne,” she asked hastily, looking over at the man huddled in his jacket.

            He stared at her for a moment, his eyes widened, as if he couldn’t believe what she was saying. “Your name is A-ne?” he replied, flustered.

*  *  *

            Lin Huang looked at the little girl he had meet a just few weeks earlier. He couldn’t believe his ears. He stared at her in awkward silence, and then embraced his child, that he had thought was gone. He lived on the streets, looking fondly at every family, wishing he still had his. Now, his daughter that he had given up, had come here. They had sat together for the longest time, but he didn’t say a word to her. He embraced her fragile body in his tired arms. A-ne looked at him in bewilderment, and raised her eyebrows, confused. The more Lin Huang looked at her, the more she resembled Hua. She had her deep eyes, highlighted hair, bulb nose, full lips, her petite figure, and clumsy build. Right there, tears streamed down his face, as he smiled at his child. He was glad that he had finally seen her again, but confused why she would have left Lei Zhang.

            “What did Lei Zhang do?” was the only thing that came out of his mouth.

*  *  *

            A-ne scooted backwards, uncomfortable, “Who are you?”

            “I-I’m you father A-ne,” he replied, “Now, what did Lei Zhang do?”

            A-ne fidgeted with her shoes awkwardly, “She didn’t do anything. I found the birth certificate and wanted to find my Mama.” It felt strange, talking to her father. She wondered if it was worth it to leave. Her Baba was stricken with poverty, and that wasn’t the life she wanted. She wanted her family to have enough wealth to get to America, but those dreams seemed to have faded away. Those dreams of growing up in a large suburban home in the one of the many towns in America. Those dreams of going to school and exploring the different passions she could have. Those dreams of dancing at prom with the boy of her dreams. All those dreams could not be accomplished if they didn’t have enough money to get to America in the first place. She tried to hide her disappointment as she looked back up at the man. “Where is she?”

            As he spoke to her, telling her the story of what happened in the hospital, A-ne’s face went pale. All that time to search for her mother, and she turned out to be dead. Guilt began to build up in her gut, and it felt like it was all her fault. She was the one who killed her mother. The blood was on her hands. “I’m sorry I killed her,” she mumbled in a monotone voice.

*  *  *

            Lin Huang stared at the ground, and felt the bundle of American dollars in his pocket. He had taken them from the bank he and his deceased wife had worked at. There was about 10,000 USD in hundred dollar bills. He glanced at his daughter, and whispered, “Do you want to go to America?”

            Her face had brightened and she looked at him with the endless eyes that her mother had. She did not speak, just looked at him wide eyed. Lin Huang hung his head, disappointed that he could not make her smile. Oh how he missed Hua Fu. He stood up on shaking legs, grabbed A-ne’s hand, and started walking.

*  *  *

(China Air Airport, Beijing, 2000)

            After taking the bullet train from the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station to the Beijing South Railway Station, they had finally reached the China Air Airport. The two were eager to finally escape the tangle of hardship that was Shanghai. America was a land of opportunity; a place where a girl could be just as successful, or even more successful than a boy. A land, where nobody would stare at you with judgmental smirks when you received an insufficient mark. A-ne’s Baba could finally get a job, A-ne would receive an excellent education, and everything would be perfect. The absence of Hua left a damaging hole in both of their hearts, but with the immigration to America, their family can be whole again.

            A-ne held tightly onto her mother’s leather satchel, as she and Lin walked onto the plane, and sat down. They were headed to Richmond, Virginia for a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of the city. For the first time since leaving the Zhang household, A-ne beamed with delight, and looked up at her father. Their life would soon be complete.

Katie Lu is a quiet seventh grader who loves writing, art, and music. She lives in a suburban neighborhood outside of Philadelphia. She is an only child, with no aunts or uncles, but has always been interested in her other relatives’ lives in Shanghai, China. She doesn’t know much about the Chinese language or lifestyle, but befriending Allie expanded her knowledge on her heritage.

Allie Jiang is a thirteen-year-old who sees herself as a dancer and bunny enthusiast (many people would describe her as having a VERY large personality). She lives within walking distance of her close friend Katie, and loves to spend time laughing and producing creative art pieces with her. She is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has a large family in the Shandong province of China.

This story tells two tales of the common life of girls in China.