Chapter 1: The Little Emperor
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
My mother used to tell me that she found me in a dumpster on a street corner while she was out on a morning walk. Whenever I misbehaved, she would jokingly threaten to get rid of me by throwing me into a nearby dumpster so that another woman in need of a child could pick me up just as she had done. Although she didn't actually find a baby in that dumpster, it was where she learned that the Chinese government officially gave her permission to have a child. Even before my parents were married, they had to apply for a birth permit from the local government because nobody was supposed to give birth to a child without one. The local government distributed a fixed quantity of birth permits to maintain control over the number of babies born each year within its jurisdiction. In my parents' neighborhood, a public notice announcing the couples who were eligible to have babies in the upcoming year was posted on a bulletin board above the dumpster on every street, a convenient location because everyone made daily trips there to dispose their garbage. The government purposely made these announcements public so that everybody on a particular street could know exactly who did and did not have permission to have babies. If the residents ever saw a pregnant neighbor whose name was not on the notice, they had an obligation as loyal citizens to report her to the authorities.
One morning, as my mother walked past her local street dumpster, she checked the board and saw that her name and my father's name were on the list. They had the green light to try to bring me into the world. If my parents were somehow unsuccessful in conceiving a baby within the time range given on their permit, they would have to apply for another one in the following year. Birth permits were by no means guaranteed, so many couples had to wait several years before the government gave them permission to conceive. In fact, if my mother had actually found me in a dumpster, she could have adopted me without nearly as much paperwork or government-imposed bureaucratic delays; but then, she would have been forbidden to conceive a child of her own.
The Chinese government has enforced a one-child family policy since the mid-1970's, selectively issuing birth permits in an attempt to slow down the nation's rapid population growth. There are harsh penalties for violators, such as heavy fines, job demotions, layoffs, and public humiliation. This policy has been fairly effective in slowing down China's rapid population growth during the past three decades. However, since boys are traditionally more valued in Chinese culture than girls, this policy has led to increased abortions, infanticides, and the abandonment of female babies as families attempt to fill their one-child quota with a prized boy to carry on the family name. As a result, the sex ratio in China's younger population has become increasingly skewed: In 2000, there were 117 males for every 100 females born. Another social effect of this policy is the prevalence of the Little Emperor Syndrome, which refers to the fact that many Chinese children in my generation (especially boys) grow up overly spoiled and self-centered because they never had to share their parents' attention and resources with siblings.
During my mother's nine-month pregnancy, nobody knew whether I was going to be a boy or a girl. In order to prevent excessive abortions of female babies, the government made it illegal for anyone to find out the gender of a fetus. Most of my relatives, including my father, thought that I would turn out to be a girl, but my mother somehow knew that I would be a boy. I was eight days overdue, and my mother was in labor for over 24 hours. Moments after my large head popped out, the nurses took a peek down under, and it was official. At 11:50 PM on XXX XX, 1983, I became the firstborn son of the Zhou and Guo families.
When I was 11 months old, my mother left China to attend graduate school in the United States. Shortly thereafter, my father went to Switzerland to pursue business opportunities for a Chinese company. Although they told me that they came back to visit and even took pictures with me, I had no memories of either my mother or my father until we reunited in Switzerland when I was five years old.
It is common in China for several generations of family members to live together under one roof; the only unique aspect of my early upbringing was that two particular members were absent. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles cared for me during my first five years of life. Thus, when I mention family throughout this chapter, I am referring to my extended family. Back then, I had no concept of a nuclear family consisting solely of my mother, father, and myself, since we were scattered across three different continents.
The extended family is the only concept of family in traditional Chinese culture, a fact that is deeply ingrained in the language. There are Chinese words to refer to specific family members with great detail: For example, the word jiu mu refers specifically to my mother's brother's wife, which is much more precise than the comparable English word aunt. There are clear distinctions for words referring to relatives on the mother's side and those on the father's side, and between relatives belonging to different generations and even those within the same generation. Most notably, words referring to members of the extended family are just as detailed as those that refer to members of the nuclear family.
My family raised me in two different cities in Southern China, which were about an hour's drive apart from one another: my mother's (and my own) birthplace of Zhongshan, where most of her relatives lived, and my father's birthplace of Guangzhou, where most of his relatives lived.
I spent the summers living with my mother's family in Zhongshan, an up-and-coming industrial city with agricultural roots. When my mother was a child, it was all farmland with a tiny commercial downtown. By the time I was born, it was starting to develop into a modern city. My grandfather played a key role in Zhongshan's development. He was the chief architect in charge of many new civil engineering and housing development projects in the city as it rapidly expanded during the 1980's. My mother's family was quite well-known locally since my grandfather was one of the big-shots in town. He was part of the elite and knew the mayor and every key political and business figure in the city. Everybody liked him since he was always willing to help people both personally and professionally.
The most noticeable benefit of my grandfather's profession was that our family had plenty of guan xi, which loosely translates to connections in English. In a socialist society where material possessions were not used as metrics for social status, political and social capital were the primary indicators of status. Since my grandfather was well-connected to powerful people in Zhongshan, whenever we went into a restaurant, someone would greet us and lead us to dine in a private room, whenever we needed a TV or other hard-to-obtain electronics items, one of our family friends would deliver it to us (at that time, not many families in China owned television sets), and whenever we needed a car to drive us somewhere, a chauffeur would pick us up. If I gave that same description in America—VIP treatment at restaurants, powerful political and business connections, and a private chauffeur—it would seem like we were multi-millionaires. However, the truth was much less glamorous. Although my grandfather was the man who helped oversee the transformation of Zhongshan from an agricultural market town into a modern industrial city with 1.25 million people, we still lived as modestly as our neighbors, albeit with many perks due to our family's connections.
In a capitalist society like modern-day America, somebody of my grandfather's status would be financially wealthy, but in the socialist China of the early 1980's, very few people had an abundance of material goods. Because the government owned and controlled most industries and commerce, there was no concept of individual entrepreneurs being able to become millionaires. Most city people, regardless of profession, lived in modest yet comfortable conditions. We always had food on the table, clothes to wear, relatively safe neighborhoods where kids could play with neighbors in the streets, and a roof over our heads, although we sometimes had to share our home with other families. We had an apartment with a private bathroom, kitchen, and even a refrigerator. What more could a family in early 1980's China want? Freedom of speech? Freedom of press?
These democratic ideals were not on the minds of a people who had lived through a tumultuous Cultural Revolution just a decade earlier. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, Chairman Mao Zedong mobilized common citizens to rebel against the authority of intellectuals and officials at various levels of government in an attempt to consolidate power under his absolute control, disrupting social order for a decade. He encouraged teenagers to root out bourgeoisie intellectuals and capitalist supporters and even to beat up their teachers and other authority figures. Men were publicly humiliated and hanged on the streets for speaking out against Mao's government (my father witnessed a public hanging). Everybody loudly chanted their love for Mother China, some out of genuine revolutionary enthusiasm, but many out of sheer fear. After Mao's death in 1976, the Chinese people simply wanted to return to leading stable, peaceful lives.
When I lived with my mother's family in Zhongshan, I had everything that I wanted. Due to the bias of traditional Chinese culture towards male children, my extended family treated me like a pampered Little Emperor since I was not only the firstborn son of my generation, but I was also the only son of my generation throughout my early childhood. They all spoiled me with special attention and preferential treatment, and my parents were not around to teach me about restraint. I enjoyed the privilege of always having plenty of toys, fancy clothes, good food to eat, people to drive me to amusement parks, and relatives always catering to my endless demands.
Due to the one-child policy, few people of my generation in China had brothers or sisters, so our cousins became our surrogate siblings. I played with my cousins like they were my little sisters, and I always assumed the role of the dominant bully since I was the eldest and the only boy. One of my earliest memories involved vague recollections of me pushing my cousins over onto a tile floor in our living room. When I was two years old, I loved to push my two cousins over, chuckling as their skulls hit the tiles. This wasn't playful wrestling; it was deliberate and mean-spirited shoving. This wasn't soft carpet or bed mattresses; it was hard, cold floor tile. Some kids liked biting, other kids found joy in yelling and screaming, but for some reason, I enjoyed rough pushing. Whenever I did that, they would immediately start crying so my aunts and uncles would all rush over to us. This did not just happen once or twice; it happened fairly frequently, from what my family told me. I was never seriously punished for my horrible behavior. If I were a parent, I would have severely scolded my kid for doing something so thoughtless and harmful to others, but my own parents were not around, and my extended family treated me like royalty.
During the school year, I attended preschool and lived with my father's family in his birthplace of Guangzhou. Unlike my mother's family, who were well-connected in Zhongshan society, my father's family held no special status in Guangzhou, so we blended in with the millions of other people in the city and lived a far more humble lifestyle. My aunts and uncles on my father's side of the family had neither the leisure time nor the resources to pamper me like my mother's family could. I lived in a minimally furnished apartment building with my grandmother (my father's mother) and my step-grandfather, a man whom she married shortly after her first husband died in 1984.
Guangzhou is one of the largest cities in China. The British used to call it Canton, hence coining the term Cantonese, an adjective referring to the people, the language, and all other things related to the city. The Cantonese dialect of the Chinese language sounds as different from the official national language, Mandarin Chinese, as French differs from Spanish. Everybody in my family knew how to speak Mandarin, but we were much more comfortable talking to each other in Cantonese. In contrast to the up-and-coming city of Zhongshan, Guangzhou is a metropolis rich in history and culture and is home to several notable universities.
My parents met while they were attending college at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. During Mao's Cultural Revolution, the government shut down most universities throughout China for over a decade. In 1977, after Mao's death, universities reopened and resumed their rigorous admissions procedures. Unlike in America, the sole determiner of college admissions in China is an annual national college entrance examination called the gaokao. Teenagers spend countless hours memorizing facts from textbooks, solving practice problems, and taking mock exams in the hopes of maximizing their scores on the one crucial exam that will determine their post-high-school fate. The competition was especially fierce in 1977 since a whole generation of youth had been denied opportunities to attend college in the preceding decade and were all competing for one year's worth of university spots. That year, 5.7 million people took the national college entrance examination and competed for 270,000 spots in universities throughout the country. My parents both excelled and earned spots in the prestigious first post-revolution class at Sun Yat-Sen University.
Thus, it's somewhat fitting that Guangzhou was where my own education began. I started attending preschool when I was two and a half years old. When I first moved to America, I was surprised that preschool here consisted of taking naps and fitting colored blocks into matching holes. In contrast, preschool in China was a serious experience in early learning, not simply an extension of daycare. During school hours, I actually remembered sitting in desks within the classroom, with everyone facing forward towards our teacher. There I learned to interact with other children, to do simple math, and to read and write in Chinese. I wasn't in some kind of special gifted education school; this curriculum was a regular part of the Chinese educational system. Preschool also served as daytime babysitting since most adults had to work. Kids as young as two or three often spent the entire day at preschool away from their parents and sometimes even overnight in boarding schools.
Although I liked learning during school hours, I enjoyed doing it more at home. My favorite teacher was my step-grandfather. He entered my life shortly before I started preschool. After my paternal grandfather passed away, my grandmother married this man not out of romantic love or for mid-life companionship, but simply out of pragmatic necessity because she thought that he could do a good job taking care of me. This man's office was much closer to my preschool than my grandmother's workplace was, so she found it more convenient to have him pick me up from school every day and watch over me at home while she was at work. Like many marriages in China at that time, this one was borne out of practical consideration for the family instead of the ideals of personal love.
The most significant contribution my step-grandfather made to my life was teaching me mathematics from age two until I left China at age five. He bought me colorful workbooks filled with math word problems. At the time, I did not know whether other children my age were learning the same things about math as I was, but I enjoyed spending time with him learning about basic arithmetic, fractions, and solving word problems. By age three, I could easily multiply a multiple-digit number by a single-digit number by successively recalling entries in the multiplication table. For example, I could do 23 X 3 by figuring that 3 X 3 equals 9, and 2 X 3 equals 6 so 23 X 3 equals 69. I still vividly remember the time when he tried to teach me how to multiply two multiple-digit numbers, a somewhat more difficult feat. I am fairly sure that the first two-digit example he gave me was 22 X 22. I stared at the paper for a while and decided that the answer must be 44, reasoning that 2 X 2 was 4, and 2 X 2 again was 4, so 22 x 22 must be 44. He listened to my explanation, gave a friendly chuckle, and proceeded to teach me how to really solve a multiple-digit multiplication problem by reducing it into several simpler problems that I already knew how to solve. He demonstrated that 22 X 22 could be broken down into (22 X 2) + (22 X 20), and I realized that I knew how to solve each of these individual sub-problems. His encouraging and easy-going style of teaching worked remarkably well to boost my self-confidence and stimulate my passion for learning math at a young age.
Before my fourth birthday, thanks to my step-grandfather, I had already memorized the multiplication table and could perform basic addition and subtraction, multiplication up to three digits, and division with remainders. Sadly, I do not remember much else about this man who provided the initial impetus that contributed to my lifelong love for learning. I never saw him again once I moved out of China. My grandmother divorced him soon after my departure (probably because his mission to take care of me had been fulfilled), and he moved to somewhere in Australia. How random.
I lived the first five years of my life in relative bliss, splitting my time between receiving an early education in Guangzhou during the school year and enjoying my summer vacations in Zhongshan. My family was not rich, but then again, we were not poor either. Unlike millions of our countrymen who lived below the poverty line on remote mountains, deserts, and rural farmlands, both of my parents' families were fortunate enough to live in cities and receive all the basic amenities required for a comfortable life. My family treated me with the utmost of care and affection, and it never crossed my mind at the time that my life would ever deviate from that status quo. I never considered it abnormal for me not to see my parents for extended periods of time; the abundance of other relatives made up for their absence.
However, despite the fact that I was the center of attention, the Little Emperor of my family, I still had an intrinsic humility about myself. Outside the confines of my family, I was never a loud kid. I never acted up in public or picked fights with other kids in school or neighborhood playgrounds since I knew that outside the shelter of my family, I was just an insignificant little boy. I knew nothing about the world outside of Zhongshan and Guangzhou, but I had no fears about the outside since I thought that my family would always be there to support me as I grew up.
In Chinese, the name for the country of China is Zhong Guo, which literally means The Central Kingdom. The ancient Chinese people regarded their empire as the center of the civilized world. At age five, I was the center of my own world, surrounded by loving family members who treated me like an emperor. I was destined to have a bright future in China—working hard in school to earn good grades, getting into a prestigious university, and then perhaps going to work for a government-owned science laboratory, following my grandfather's footsteps in city planning, or starting my own business in my hometown—all bolstered by the ever-so-important guan xi (connections/social capital) that my mother's family possessed in Zhongshan.
When I blew out my five birthday candles in October 1988, I had no clue that this would be the last birthday of my childhood that I would celebrate in China in the company of my extended family, in the shelter of the only world that I had ever known. Nobody at the time told me (or probably even knew) that five months later, my real life would begin.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo