Tonight, just a lone dish on the dinner table, cucumber and scrambled egg.
Not like the scrambled eggs in the US, most scrambled egg dishes in China are mixed with vegetables. In the summertime, when cucumber is in season, this dish is on many families’ dinner table often. The cucumber’s dark green skin, tint green of its inside, mixed with the golden yellow color of eggs, preferred from cage-free chicken, are truly tempting your appetite.
To me, this dish was carved in my memory many years ago.
On May 16，1966，“Culture Revolution” started in mainland China, it lasted 10 years, brought disastrous results to the country, to the Chinese culture and to almost every family of Chinese people. I was born less than a month later.
Niangniang came to my family right before I was born. She was hired by my parents to be my nanny. None of them, my parents and Niangniang, had ever imagined then that Niangniang and her husband would become my mom and dad for a while. In Shandong province where I was born, “Niangniang” and “Dada” are dialect, Niangniang means mom and Dada means dad.
In a very short time, “Culture Revolution” showed its evil teeth. People got beaten up, some were beaten to death; homes were raided for various reasons. There was no law, no protection of anybody, except for Chairman Mao, who single-handedly started this so-called “revolution”.
My parents’ home was raided a few times, all at nights shortly after I was born. Fortunately, my parents were not hurt physically. It was then, Niangniang talked to my parents, proposing to take me to her own home. My young parents agreed immediately. They would not want me to be startled and scared in the middle of nights by violent strangers through the smashed door anymore.
Chairman Mao liked to play the “Class Struggle (阶级斗争)” card to his own power advantages. As intellectuals teaching at a university, my parents were “stinky old ninth (category)” (臭老九)，almost at the bottom of the class ladder. On the other hand, Niangniang’s husband was a factory worker, who was at the top of the class ladder. In those crazy months followed, because of Niangniang and Dada my family had a shelter to hide, a sanctuary to go.
For some reason, middle-aged Niangniang and Dada did not have any kid of their own, I was their only child then. From what my parents told me, Niangniang was a woman who kept her home very clean and tidy. Dada was a fairly big guy. June is always a very hot and humid month in Jinan (济南), the capital of Shandong province, the city where I was born. As a baby, I suffered heat rashes. To relieve me from that, Niangniang had to bath me very often, sometimes using herb water in hope of soothing me. After the bath, Dada would hold me at his big belly and wave a big cattail leaf fan to dry me up and to cool me down while he was happily chatting with their neighbors. Contrary to the quietness of Niangniang, my parents said Dada had a loud voice, his infectious laugh and easy going character made him a popular figure in the neighborhood.
Dada was an honest man with a pair of dexterous hands. My parents bought me a second-hand stroller made of bamboo. Dada asked my parents to find bigger wheels and he installed them to replace the smaller ones, making the stroller much more steady and comfortable for little me to ride in. One time, while Niangniang was cooking, Dada was in charge of taking care of me, I fell off the bed and dislocated my shoulder. Dada rushed me to an old woman’s place and she successfully put my tiny shoulder back in place very quickly. If Dada chose not to tell my parents, they would not know about this incident at all.
For months, I stayed with Niangniang and Dada while my parents were having numerous “struggle meetings” at the university where they worked. In some of the meetings, high ranked officials, famous professors, and regular teachers who were claimed to be against Chairman Mao were the targets on stage, got beaten up. Sometimes to humiliate them, their heads were shaved half bare, this was being called “Yin Yang Head” (阴阳头).
Years later, when my mom told me things like that, tears in her eyes, she said a few times if she were ever forced to be shaved like that, she would not want to live. Lots of people who could not endure the torture and humiliation did commit suicide.
Sundays were the rare moments of peace for my parents. They would come to Niangniang and Dada’s home, holding me and playing with me for a few hours before they dragged their feet heading back to our own home where anybody could break in at night.
I don’t know when Niangniang and Dada stopped taking care of me but two years later, when I was barely 3 years old, my parents were forced to relocate to a small town called Qufu (曲阜). Later, when I was around 5 years old, my mom was assigned a task to travel back to Jinan. The task was she and the students she brought with to work in a factory to receive “education” from the class of factory workers. My mom took me with her.
One Sunday morning, my mom dressed me up in a nicer cloth, took me to a food store and bought a tin of very expensive cookie. My mom told me that we were going to see my nanny, Niangniang at her home. Outside Niangniang’s home, my mom stopped, telling me again that I should not eat any of the cookies in the tin even if Niangniang offered me. My mom said:”This is for Niangniang. Don’t eat any.”
To this day, I remember that Sunday afternoon at Niangniang’s home. Dada passed away at an early age, of a heart attack. Niangniang was alone. The room was very empty, seemed very big in my eyes. Without Dada, the room was very quiet too. My mom and Niangniang chatted in soft voices, I sat there quietly holding the cookie tin. I was not a girl who could sit still for a while but magically that afternoon I was a well-behaved girl, listening to the adults talking and felt content. It might be the room that protected me earlier in my young baby life had the vibe of safety and peace. Niangniang frequently looked at me while she was talking to my mom and she did offer me cookies after I handed the tin to her following my mom’s direction. I said no to the cookie remembering what my mom had repeated but Niangniang insisted. I ended up with cookies in both my hands.
Before we left Niangniang’s home, she cooked cucumber and scrambled eggs for us for dinner, the only dish on the table. At that time, when eggs were rationed, that was a luxury meal.
When it was time to say goodbye, Niangniang saw us off outside of her home. At the end of the street, I turned back to see Niangniang, still standing there, a lonely, small figure in the distance, watching us……