My grandmother was born in 1920. She had liberation feet: bound feet that had been freed halfway through the process. China’s practice of foot-binding was officially banned in 1912, but centuries of tradition don’t go away overnight. My grandmother grew up in the countryside, where old habits die particularly hard. When she turned four, her parents began to bind her feet. My grandmother cried her heart out every night, eventually crippling her parents’ resolve. Plus, they’d more or less caught wind of new ideas, so they pretended not to notice when my grandmother stealthily took off her bandages in the middle of the night. Thus, my grandmother and countless other women born in the ‘20s walked on liberation feet. They were bigger than bound feet but smaller than feet that’ve grown naturally.
My grandmother was engaged to my grandfather when she was seven and he was ten, as was common back then. When Japan occupied northern China in 1937, my great-grandfather realized having a seventeen-year-old girl at home as a liability. He decided to marry his daughter off as quickly as possible. Her fiancé had gone to Beijing to study at a trade school. Maybe he’d completely forgotten about her or found himself a city girl with natural feet. As far as my great-grandfather was concerned, none of that was reason to break the contract both families had signed ten years earlier. He hired a horse-drawn cart, ordered his daughter to get in, and they hit the road without even informing the poor boy. Though shocked, the young man honored his commitment. They were married immediately, but their relationship was somewhat rocky.
My grandmother raised me. She passed away in 1997. She’d be surprised to learn I’m now a writer. She could only read and write a few hundred words. No matter the topic, she ended every conversation with the same sentence: “He doesn’t like me because I was delivered to his doorstep.” How could she nourish a young writer with her scant vocabulary? But in retrospect, Grandma was my first narrative coach. She taught me the essence of a compelling narrative: that associating two things that might seem irrelevant will give a story meaning.
My mother was born in 1941. She was able to go to college, where she met my father. I was born in 1966, just a month after the Cultural Revolution began. Mao Zedong declared that the more knowledge people have, the more reactionary they are. As college graduates, my parents fell from the top of the social order to the very bottom. My first name in Chinese is written: 芫. If you pronounce it “Yuan,” it’s the name of a poisonous flower. When pronounced “Yan,” it means fragrant grass. My father chose my name as a poetic comment. Even the most fragrant, beautiful blade of grass can turn to poison in the blink of an eye.
In the summer of 1982, I started my junior year of high school and had to choose between a sciences program or humanities. The programs were designed so that students could concentrate on classes relevant to their college entrance exams. Once a path was chosen, there was no turning back.
My father ordered me to study sciences. That year, Mao had been dead for six years, and so had the Culture Revolution ended. Still, the memories couldn’t be erased overnight. For all he knew, fragrant grass could still turn quickly into poison. The only smart thing to do was play it safe and force me to shy away from the humanities.
My daughter was born in China in 2000. My son was born in New Zealand in 2003. My family immigrated to Canada in 2006 when my daughter was six and my son was three. They grew up speaking English and can understand Chinese. In our family, the kids speak to me in English and I reply in Chinese. Once, I was determined speak only English at home, but my mouth couldn’t keep up with my thoughts. My children looked on with pity, “Please, speak in Chinese. We can understand you.” But I refused to admit I wasn’t good at speaking English. I’m just a person who can’t talk. Even in my native Chinese, I express myself better in writing. Perhaps that’s why I’m a writer in nature. When I write, I have all the time in the world to choose words. No one hurries me, and I don't have to worry about wasting other's time.
“Can you write a book in English?” my children grinned.
I wrote Inconvenient Memories to commemorate the 30thanniversary of the Tiananmen Protests. Discussing the protests is still taboo in China. There is no way my book could be published in Chinese. This book has to be in English.
However, come to think of it, I also write this book to prove to my children that I’m a writer. They really inspired me. What about my father? He didn’t want me to become a writer.He wanted me engaged in facts and logic, not expressing my feelings and opinions. But for all his talk of scientific exactitude, he was the one who left my name open to interpretation. I’m sure if he really thinks about it, I didn’t just become a writer out of blue. And my grandmother? Did she have anything to do with who I am now? When I was a teenager, I felt sorry for her for having so few sentences to describe her whole life. In my eyes, hers was a typical empty life. I solemnly promised myself that I’d live a fuller life than her. I would become hundreds of thousands of words.
Yes,everyone in my family has contributed to the making of me and my book. They either encouraged me to dream or kept me awake.
(This essay was originally published by Ms. Magazine on Sep 25, 2019.)