THE WANG FAMILY
Soon-Soon Wang was an energetic eight-year-old Chinese girl from Beijing. She was full of life. Her black eyes always seemed to be dancing. Her grandfathers and great-grandfathers had been court officials during the Qing Dynasty at the Forbidden City. Her parents had been sent to study in England. Her father became a senior scientist at the National Chinese Space Program in Beijing and her mother worked at the Beijing Children’s Hospital. When her paternal grandfather died, Soon-Soon’s father, being the oldest son, inherited his house. It had ten bedrooms and three bathrooms. It had magnificent courtyards, stupendous gardens, and two goldfish ponds. They had many people to wait on them. Every night a tremendous meal was served. The rooms were huge and spacious. Soon-Soon had never had to do much work. She only ate, slept, played, or her parents took her on outings and shopping trips.
Soon-Soon’s parents got married seven years after the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. They greatly supported the new government. They lived a happy life until 1966 when the chaotic Cultural Revolution began. They were in great danger since they lived in such a grand house. In 1963 Mrs. Wang (Wang Chun-Mei) gave birth to a little girl whom they named Soon-Soon.
Soon-Soon was extremely lucky. All around her people were thrown out of their houses and moved off to the countryside with only what they could carry by themselves. But some fortunate women managed to sew their jewelry in the hems of their clothes so they could exchange them for food in the hard times ahead. No bright colors could be seen anywhere. Soon-Soon was too young to know quite what was going on, but she knew her life would never be the same again. Her family was very lucky not to be a part of it, for the time being at least, because of her father’s important job at the Chinese space research program. In the future bad things would happen, but not for a while.
THE LITTLE COMPANION
When Soon-Soon was four, the government of Mao Zedong moved nine other families into the house. Every family got just one bedroom. Everyone had to share all the other rooms. There was always a line to use the bathroom in the morning.
Next to the Wangs’ room was the Bais’ room. Lao Bai, the grandfather, was an extreme grouch. He had arthritis in his hands and legs, and he never got over the loss of his house and his antique furniture. His son Wen-Wen and his daughter-in-law Yi-Hua were both always working late at the clothing factory, leaving little Xiao-Long behind. Xiao-Long was the same age as Soon- Soon. He always pulled pranks on Lao Bai. He often hid Lao Bai’s arthritis pills. That is exactly why Soon-Soon liked him. They soon became the best of friends.
The ten families lived together until the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. The Wangs were then given the house back. All the families left except the Bais, whom the Wangs allowed to stay.
During the Chinese New Year of 1971, when Soon-Soon and Xiao-Long were both eight, they went out for a day of fun. First they counted all their savings. They had enough to go to the Chinese opera but needed five mao more in order to go ice-skating as well. Soon-Soon and Xiao-Long pestered Lao Bai until he finally gave in and gave them the money. The two children raced each other to the bus stop. They each had bus passes so they didn’t pay for the bus ticket.
When they arrived at the opera theater, they excitedly settled down in their seats and watched eagerly as the curtains parted, revealing a table and chairs. They watched three fascinating shows. Xiao-Long’s favorite was about the monkey king playing many mischievous pranks on the Celestial Emperor. Soon-Soon’s favorite was about a poor but beautiful girl who got married to a rich man.
After it was all over, they got on another bus to go to the lake near Bei Hai. They rented skates and raced each other to a hole in the ice where people were ice-swimming. They gasped because the temperature was below zero.
“How on earth can they do that?” Soon-Soon asked, awestruck.
“How should I know?” Xiao-Long replied. “Perhaps they’ve been training in cold weather.”
They watched for a little while longer but soon got bored. They went to one of the food sellers and bought some noodles, with Lao Bai’s money. They finished eating and skated some more. Xiao-Long started doing some fancy spins and jumps, he was a show-off, but he fell down a lot and was very dirty by the time they got home.
At Lao Bai’s room they wished they had earplugs. Lao Bai yelled at them for getting dirty. When they finally got away they ran to Soon-Soon’s parents’ room. Soon-Soon’s parents were not there! There was a message for Soon- Soon on the table. It said,
We have been taken away by the government because of your grandfather’s high positions with the Qing Emperors at the Forbidden City. You go live with the Bais. You are lucky you weren’t home. Otherwise you would have been taken too. Try and contact your Uncle Kee- Yong. Ask him to take you to his house in America. His address is: 1588 Highland Glen, McLean, Virginia 22101, USA.
They grabbed the letter and ran to show it to Lao Bai. He allowed Soon- Soon to stay with his family. She was devastated and cried herself to sleep every night for two months. But the thought of America, the land of opportunity, gave her hope.
UNCLE KEE-YONG TO THE RESCUE!
“Lao Bai, can we have some paper?” Xiao-Long asked.
It was a month after Soon-Soon’s parents had been taken away. She and Xiao- Long were going to write a letter to her uncle in America. He was her mother’s brother and had left China before the Cultural Revolution. He could get Soon- Soon tickets and a passport so she could go live with him. She and Xiao-Long wrote the letter and sent it off.
A month later they received a message from Uncle Kee-Yong. He said he would go to China himself to get Soon- Soon! She began to get ready to leave. All her worldly possessions could fit in one small suitcase!
A week later Uncle Kee-Yong arrived. He immediately went to get Soon-Soon a passport. It cost him US $2000 to get approval from the authorities for her to leave the country! He stayed with the Bais while waiting for it to arrive.
One day, a special delivery came. Soon-Soon rushed to the door. It was her passport. At first she was jumping with joy. Then all of a sudden, she realized she would be leaving her best friend behind. She decided to give him something so he would never forget her. She found an old photograph of herself. On the back she wrote, “You have a hand, and I have another. Put them together and we have each other.” She also wrote her US address. She slid it under his blanket the day before her departure so that he would definitely find it the next morning. Then, now that she felt better, she lay down for her final night in China.
The next morning Soon-Soon was awake before the sun rose in the east. She put on her shoes and set off on a walk. Past the school. Past the park. Past the bird market. Past all the places she would always remember.
When she got home, a breakfast of deep-fried pastry sticks was on the table. Xiao-Long was looking at the photograph she had given him. He looked up and saw her.
“Thank you!” he said. “Thank you so much! I will always keep this!”
Soon-Soon smiled a sad smile and sat down. She ate silently, thinking about all the things she had done with the Bais. Then she thought of her parents. Where were they? Were they alive? Did they think of her? Soon-Soon started sobbing and raced to her room. No one followed her, they all knew how hard all this was for her.
Soon-Soon sat on her bed, staring at the blank wall in front of her. She stayed like that for an amazingly long time.
A timid knock came on her door. It was Xiao-Long. He pushed the door open and sat down next to Soon-Soon. They talked about old times, especially the time they went ice-skating, until Uncle Kee-Yong walked in.
“It’s time to go, Soon-Soon,” he said.
Soon-Soon gave Xiao-Long a big hug and tried to calmly say good-bye. She walked slowly down the stairs. Lao Bai was sitting on the sofa reading the newspaper. She kissed him on the cheek. He grunted but looked pleased. Uncle Kee-Yong led Soon-Soon slowly out the door. She took one last look at the big house in Beijing before stepping into the car. She didn’t say a word all the way to the airport.
Soon-Soon stepped uncertainly onto her first plane. She followed Uncle Kee-Yong to their seats. As she bit back her tears he said, “Soon-Soon, you’ll like America. I know a girl who is part Chinese. She’ll be in your fourth-grade class next year. Don’t worry, she’ll teach you English.”
Soon-Soon nodded. The seat-belt sign flashed on. The engines roared for takeoff.
AMERICA BRINGS HOPE
“Well, here we are!” Uncle Kee- Yong said cheerfully. Soon-Soon stared at the nice red-brick house with the azalea bushes in front. She walked up the path to the front door. Uncle Kee-Yong rang the doorbell. A plump motherly-looking woman came to the door. She said something Soon-Soon could not understand.
Her uncle turned to Soon-Soon and said, “Soon-Soon, this is Mrs. Taube, the housekeeper,” then, speaking in English to Mrs. Taube, “Mrs. Taube, this is Soon- Soon.”
They stepped inside. Soon-Soon was shown to her new room. She looked around slowly, amazed that she had a room all to herself. The curtains had cheerful blue jays and yellow flowers. On one side was a desk. On the other side was a cabinet full of new clothes and shoes. But best of all was the grinning Raggedy Ann doll lying in the middle of her bed. She let out a cry of joy. She ran and picked her very first doll up. Soon-Soon named it Mei-Hua, which is the Chinese name for beautiful flower.
Uncle Kee-Yong smiled fondly at her and ruffled her hair. He said, “Mei-Hua will be your companion, but you will also have another. Elise is the girl I was talking about. She is coming for lunch. She’ll play with you and give you English lessons. She’ll also help you at school.”
Elise arrived as Mrs. Taube was serving lunch. She was a skinny fair-haired girl with a shy but affectionate manner. She looked at what Soon-Soon had on her plate.
“This is called a hamburger,” Elise said, sounding out the word carefully so that Soon-Soon would always remember it. Slowly Elise taught Soon-Soon English. It was hard, but Soon-Soon was an eager student. Several days later, Soon- Soon was able to count to one hundred and say simple words.
At the end of her first month in America, Soon-Soon went down for breakfast.
“What do you want to eat?” Mrs. Taube asked slowly so Soon-Soon would understand.
“I’d like pancakes please,” Soon-Soon replied in halting but clear English. She could do it! She would start a new life, with the help of her new friends, in the land of the free!