Books

History's hostage

A Chinese defector’s life in Canada is bittersweet

DIANE TURBIDE June 9 1997
Books

History's hostage

A Chinese defector’s life in Canada is bittersweet

DIANE TURBIDE June 9 1997

History's hostage

Books

A Chinese defector’s life in Canada is bittersweet

There is a cryptic Chinese proverb that says, “Brick breaks down door, jade will follow.” Its meaning, according to Ting-Xing Ye, author of the compelling new memoir A Leaf in the Bitter Wind, (Doubleday $32.95), is that a strong force is needed to make a change, to open up a better way for others. It is as good a metaphor as any to describe the turbulent life of 45-year-old Ye, once a highranking interpreter with China’s foreign ministry, who left her native Shanghai 10 years ago. Ye, with her slight frame and soft-spoken manner, belies the hardships she has endured: her parents’ early deaths, poverty, six years of hard labor on a prison farm and other brutalities of the Cultural Revolution. The most difficult trial of all has been the 10-year separation from her daughter, Qi-meng, now 16. When Ye did not return to China after her studies at Toronto’s York University ended in 1989, her husband cut off all contact with their child. He sent back Ye’s letters to her daughter in shreds, and did not allow any of her relatives to visit the little girl. On a trip back to Shanghai in 1994, Ye caught sight of her daughter from a distance, but was unable to talk to her. Since then, Qi-meng and her father have disappeared. “I started this book as a record for my daughter,” says Ye. “I want her to know what happened—from me, not other people.”

The story that Ye tells is marked by loss, sorrow and suffering. But it is also laced with irony and surprising twists of fate. Not least is the account of how she ended up in Orillia, Ont., 130 km north of Toronto. She now lives with William Bell, a high-school teacher and young-adult novelist whom she first encountered at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing in 1986, where Bell taught English. Ye—then married to Qi-meng’s father, whom she had met on the prison farm— was studying to advance her career as an official interpreter. One of the class exercises was to keep a journal, and Ye, accustomed to guarding her innermost thoughts, opened up. “I felt safe with Bill,” says Ye, explaining that in China, people rarely ex-

pressed their true opinions for fear of being attacked as ideologically unsound. “Part of it was that he would be going back to Canada. But I really did feel that I could write or say anything to him.”

The pair’s friendship and eventual romance was hampered by the fact that both were still married and, for Ye, by a strict Chinese ban on personal relationships with foreigners. Nonetheless, just before Bell returned to Canada he declared his feelings to Ye, and the two began a clandestine correspondence. Back home, Bell separated from his wife (they have three children) and began working to help Ye earn a place as a visiting scholar at York University. He saved the $6,500 required by the Canadian government for her to study in Canada. Then, to get around byzantine Chinese rules limiting the sources of funding for students abroad, he invented a fake scholarship that was per-

fectly tailored to Ye’s skills and educational background. Ye knew nothing of the plan, believing that the scholarship she had won was the real thing. ‘When Bill picked me up at the airport, I said I wanted to see the scholarship people soon, to thank them. He told me that he had a lot of explaining to do.” Ye began a new life at York, supporting herself with odd jobs—everything from babysitter to bank clerk to editor at a business publication. Her decision not to return to China in 1989 was the hardest she had ever made, she says. Ye knew that her marriage was over: after years of dutifully handing over her paycheque to her husband and enduring the almost constant presence of one of his male friends—who, against her protests, cleaned and cooked and often looked after her child—Ye had had enough. (“He was homosexual,” Ye says, “but to this day I don’t know the true nature of his relationship with my husband.”) And she could no longer face the constant surveillance at work and the general oppressiveness of Chinese society. But she still agonizes over her decision. “Sometimes I look at my mother’s picture and ask her to forgive me for seeking happiness here,” Ye says, weeping. “Even now, I question whether I was too selfish. My fear is that people will read my book and think that I sought my own freedom at the expense of my daughter.”

Writing A Leaf in the Bitter Wind was therapeutic, she says. “Many times I asked myself why did I want to relive all that terrible stuff. But it did help.” Most of the book focuses on her childhood and the terrible years on the prison farm. Born in 1952, she was the fourth of five children of a village woman and her factory owner husband. Because her father had been a cap’Q. italist, Ye was politically suspect § from an early age. In 1956, her fa! ther’s business was nationalized I and he was demoted to a menial i position with low pay. The family 1 was further impoverished when I he failed to recover from a botched 5 operation. He died when Ye was 9, her child and Ye’s mother succumbed to stomach cancer three years later. Ye and her siblings were cared for by their great-aunt, existing on meagre welfare handed out by a neighborhood committee. But the children were still subject to excessive scrutiny because of their once-privileged position. Ye recalls the humiliation she felt under the constant watchfulness of those neighbors: ‘They would barge into your apartment and lift up the pot lids to make sure you weren’t eating anything too rich,” she says, her voice full of indignation. In 1966, Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a violent upheaval in which millions of people were dislocated, persecuted and executed for lack of revolutionary fervor. Hunger was widespread as peasants virtually ignored crops to concentrate on political sloganeering, and the normal school curriculum was replaced by political indoctrination. Two years later, 16-year-old Ye was exiled to the countryside, part of a national government policy ostensibly designed to alleviate the pressure on urban populations. On a desolate work farm, which also housed criminals, Ye helped transform barren land into rice paddies. Aside from the backbreaking labor, the bad food and lack of privacy, one of her worst experiences was being beaten and deprived of sleep for weeks, until she agreed to sign a false statement accusing four friends of anti-state activities. Later, she realized they had been pawns in one of the country’s endemic factional fights.

While Ye spent much longer on the farm than most of her peers, her intelligence and largely self-taught ability to speak English earned her a place at Beijing University and, eventually, a job with the Chinese Secret Service, one of the highest placements an interpreter could hope for. Ye was horrified. “It was terribly ironic; I hated the Party.” Instead, she asked for a transfer back to Shanghai, where she could look after her beloved great-aunt, Chen Feng-mei. Ye became a translator for Shanghai’s municipal government, dealing with the delegations of Queen Elizabeth, Imelda Marcos and then-president Ronald Reagan. After six years, Ye decided to further her studies in Beijing, where she met Bell.

It was Bell who encouraged her first attempts to write a memoir—as well as the children’s story she began working on as an antidote to dredging up painful memories. That tale, called Three Monks, No Water after an expression her mother had always used, is scheduled for release in September by Annick Press. It is the first of three books she has completed for the Toronto-based publisher. “Writing about her life seems to have unleashed a great flood of creativity in her,” observes 51-year-old Bell, who says he is still amazed at how things have turned out.

The contrast with Ye’s former life could not be greater: in totalitarian China, writing itself could be a dangerous occupation. “There’s a saying in Chinese, White page, black characters haunt you forever,’ ” she notes. But Ye has clearly overcome that inhibition. And while she continues her efforts to reunite with her daughter, she says she has found a measure of peace with her past. “I could never have imagined even sitting here talking openly about such intimate things. It’s a miracle.”

DIANE TURBIDE