We are in a bright tiled kitchen, my mother standing on the other side of the island countertop and its twenty-first century electric stove. The kitchen is one of many comfortable kitchens in one of the comfortably situated neighborhoods within a county that enjoys one of the highest median incomes in the United States. The median household income in the States is around $50,000–this county’s median value nearly doubles that. In particular neighborhoods, the median income nearly quadruples it.
I am laughing and reenacting, as best I can, my cousin’s imitation of the Hunan Chinese accent. Questions about dialects and language come up fairly regularly at home, now that I am studying Chinese. It’s a tonal language, and my cousin demonstrated the different tones of Hunan speech with the following sentence:
“When I was in second grade, I was quite good at studying math”.
In my cousin’s rendition, words where standard Mandarin tones would typically drop conversely soared upward with a nasal timbre. I never tire of learning about different dialects, because there is so much richness in language, and so much to find funny, too. So it is. My mom smiles at my Hunan impression, and says,
“Didn’t you know, Mao Zedong was also from Hunan. I remember he had the accent”.
Wide-eyed, I request more details, and my mother, to our supreme glee, and mild shock, draws out syllables, ticks her voice upwards, and warbles out a Hunan-inflected
“Today….the People’s Republic of China …is established”.
Before the turn of the twentieth century’s seventh decade, when my mom was quite young, barely able to remember, her family, alongside countless others, would go at night to pidouhui (also called “struggle sessions”)–mandatory meetings centered on self-criticism, a Cultural Revolution state method of shaping public opinion, maintaining control, and suppressing dissent. When my mother was a little older, old enough to attend the first-grade class her mother taught, the teacher who had taught art and gym was taken away. He was taken away because he had carried a portrait of Chairman Mao upside down.
Such a sign of disrespect, or lack of the proper spirit, accidental or not, was not tolerated in his case. Now, in a kitchen forty-some years later and over ten thousand kilometers away, smiling at the Chairman’s accent is a fascinating, crystallized moment–a moment full of contradictions.
Within my mother’s one lifetime, there are criticism meetings, and impressions of Chairman Mao in our kitchen. It is somehow dreamlike to hold both those ideas in your head. The distance between one time and place and another is so far, yet close in memory.
The play of incongruity and harmony I have written about are both present here. It’s two points in time, two different sets of material circumstances, two different cultural milieus. But it’s also one life.
So the different and the many are one.
The ordinary is strange, and the strange quite ordinary.