Back when I was a child in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I would inevitably come face to face with my nemesis at the dinner table: my mother’s chicken pot pie. Although she was an excellent cook, and I enjoyed nearly all of her meals, I would balk as soon as I saw that chicken pot pie steaming on the table. It was the peas and carrots drowning in a sludgy mixture over tasteless packaged biscuits that made me screw up my face, stick out my tongue, and utter a few words of disgust. Forcing down a bite of pot pie was as onerous as swallowing a spoonful of castor oil.
My sister Shirley suffered a similar affliction: “Mother made what I called ‘sloppy chicken,’ and to this day, I don’t like food like that. It was where she cooked the chicken in the pressure cooker all day in some kind of sauce. Also, she served lima beans and canned spinach.”
Yeah, spinach was another one that I wouldn’t touch with a 39-and-a-half foot pole. The only person I knew who took joy in spinach was Popeye the Sailor Man.
So whenever my siblings and I would revolt at dinner, my mother would spout the usual: “There are poor starving kids in China who would love to eat this meal.” Our immediate response was “Then they can have it.” Little did we know . . . .
This past July, I interviewed Ying Xiong, the mother of my daughter-in-law Tingting. Ying’s English is limited, so Tingting interpreted for me as best she could, adding her own commentary from time to time.
Ying was born in China but has been living in the United States for the past sixteen years, now residing in San Jose. Sixty-three-years old and now retired, Ying loves to cook. She buys her groceries at Ranch 99, a large Asian market, and makes nearly all of her meals from scratch. No Americanized Chinese food at her dinner table; you get the real thing. If you like Chinese cuisine, you’d love her cooking.
Ying also enjoys gardening—raising flowers, fruit, and vegetables within a rather small space. You might get stir-fried veggies from the garden to the table within an hour.
But when 5:00 in the afternoon approaches, Ying abandons her household duties . . . and transforms into a shrewd and successful day trader.
Ying’s life, however, was not always so rosy. . . .
Born in 1951, Ying Xiong grew up in Chongqing, a major city in southwestern China on the upper reaches of the Yangtzee River. She was the fourth child of seven siblings—4 boys and 3 girls. Her father, Jizhou Xiong, was a purchaser for a road construction company. He had gone to school and knew how to read and write, which was uncommon in China in the 1950’s. So they lived a middle class life.
Ying’s father was a member of the Kuomingtag party, which had been the ruling party in mainland China from 1928 until its defeat in 1949 by Mao Zedong’s communist party during the Chinese Civil War. He had also been a soldier during the war. Though many of the Kuomintag retreated to Taiwan, Jizhou, as well as other low level members, were left behind. The new government labeled him as one of the “Black Five.”
Mao considered members of the “Black Five” as enemies of the Revolution. They included landlords, rich farmers, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements (those who had committed crimes), and political rightists (those advocating social stratification).
Ying explained,”When communism took over the country, they found something that you (dissidents) did wrong, and they put you in jail.” To this end, Ying’s father was accused of taking company products from his workplace. According to Tingting, “In 1960, in the whole country, there was lack of food. They didn’t produce enough; no one had food. My grandpa was in charge of the food. [Certain individuals] asked my grandpa, ‘Will you give me extra?’ He said no, and then he got in trouble. [The government said], ‘You took from the company to put it in your own pocket.'”
Falsely accused, he was arrested, and, along with other dissidents, was put on public display at a “struggle session.” He was forced to stand in front of a crowd of people, holding a poster with a big X over his name along with words such as “betrayed us.” Verbally and physically assaulted, they would have to stand for hours repeating the equivalent of “I’m bad.” Ying added, “If you say something else, they’ll kill you right away. You can only say, ‘I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m bad.'” Nine-year-old Ying was present to witness her father’s persecution.
“It was terrible,” Tingting lamented. “When I grew up [in the 1980’s], I never saw this. Never.”
Afterwards, Jizhou was imprisoned to serve a five-year sentence. While he was in jail, there was no money coming in for the family. Ying’s mother didn’t have work because she didn’t know how to read. “She only knew the [concept of] money,” Ying said. The Chinese government didn’t help at all. There were eight family members trying to survive in one room of a very old house that they had rented from the construction company.
Eventually, Ying’s mother got a temporary job at the construction company, carrying bricks and other construction materials. “She only made $8—not U.S. dollars, Chinese dollars—per month,” Ying informed me. Eight yuan renminbi (RMB, also ¥) is the equivalent of $1.20 US. Tingting chimed in, “Anything a guy would do, she did. All heavy lifting jobs.”
To make matters worse, China was in the midst of the worst famine of the twentieth century. Disease and malnutrition resulted in twenty to thirty million deaths. Not surprisingly, some of Ying’s family members were among the casualties.
One day Ying’s oldest brother went out in search of food. He unknowingly picked and ate some poison fruit and died immediately. Another brother died from a fever that went into his brain, and a sister died of severe diarrhea because they had no money for medical treatment. Ying’s younger sister was given to another family to raise.
That left only three of seven children. In Part 2, I will relate Ying’s continuing struggles to survive through childhood.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.