Goodmorning. Goodnight. I miss you. I love you. Have you eaten yet?
Ashley Yang-Thompson with Li Yu-Tang
translated by Yuyang Zhang
My grandmother and I lived together for many years and even shared a bunk bed, but I know very little about her. Due to my limited Cantonese, her limited English, and my mother’s anathema to personal conversations, all I knew was roughly assembled scraps of information, a lot of personal lore, and those weird phantom limbs of trauma that are particular to rootless children of the displaced. After my father’s death in May 2022, I was infected with an urgent sense of memento mori. Thinking of my senescent, nearly nonagenarian grandma, I often break down – How am I going to survive loving you? I had to know the story of the woman who walked me to kindergarten every day, who was so reluctant to leave me that she dozed in the corner of the classroom until the end of school.
The title of this interview is the gist of our diurnal FaceTime conversions, so I felt very lucky when I befriended the Chinese artist Yuyang Zhang. He translated this interview from Mandarin.
Ashley Yang-Thompson: What happened during and after the Chinese Cultural Revolution?
Li Yu-Tang: Before the CR, I used to be a radio broadcaster at Guangdong Broadcast Station in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. During the CR, my colleagues and I were accused of distributing rumors against the government, even though we only ever broadcast the news that came from the government. Then I was sent to the countryside to serve punishment through hard labor. I was separated from your mother, who was only two. Punishment through labor included working in the fields plus other labor intensive tasks (people who served then usually had never worked those tasks before). My punishment went on for 3 years, before I was assigned to a health bureau to keep working until the end of CR. After the CR, my former boss helped me go back to Guangzhou and work at a newspaper publisher called Guangzhou Daily. Later, after the Open Policy, I was invited to work at the newly established Guangzhou Television Station due to my experience as a broadcaster. After that, I became the chief of Guangzhou Audio and Video Publishing House. I had to work extra hard and traveled all over China so I could make enough money, which led to a severe stroke. I retired after that. One of my high school classmates stayed with me and helped me to recover. After two visits to the US (the first was when you were born), and assessing the senior living situation, I decided to stay in the US.
Ash: What was my grandpa like? How did you and grandpa meet? How did he pass away?
Li: Grandpa used to work at a court as a prosecutor. I was around 18 and had a job teaching. We were both chosen to participate in the revolution movement. After we met, we fell in love and got married. Grandpa loved studying even though he was not able to attend college. He wanted to teach himself to be an engineer so that he could leave the court. He ended up switching to work at a factory. Jumping from one profession to another was difficult and required a lot from grandpa. He would often study until 3AM and then go to work at 6AM the same morning. This schedule taxed his body heavily and caused hepatitis. Grandpa continued studying without a full recovery and became an engineer at the end. However, the hepatitis worsened into liver cancer, and grandpa passed away one month after being diagnosed, at the age of 40.
Ash: What has brought the most joy to your life?
Li: Being with you. You were a lot of fun when you were a kid.
Ash: Do you miss China?
Li: Yes but I can’t go back. I miss my siblings and I really want to show you my former home and have you meet my sisters. But your mother refuses to let me go.
Ash: What’s the relationship like between you and my mom?
Li: I pulled some strings to get your mom into college. However, she decided to drop out after just 2 years. Your mom was smart but didn’t like to study. She worked multiple jobs but didn’t really tell me much about any of them. She was never a Red Guard. She had a very rebellious personality, probably due to her separation from me when she was 2. The separation created a very distant relationship between us. She almost didn’t recognize me when I came back from the labor camp.
Ash: When did you start going to church? Do you believe in God?
Li: I started going to church when I was around 7 with my uncle. I didn’t go to Church to worship; I went for the music. After I moved to the US, I started looking for Mandarin or Cantonese speaking churches for support and to feel less lonely. I don’t fully believe in God because people like me have gone through too much to believe in God.