Mengyu Dong talks to Scott Tong about A Village with My Name
Author’s Note: In the narrative of “official China,” even the worst policy mistakes turn into stories of individual triumph. Undergirding this narrative are the millions who suffered, who lived through – or not – many defeats. Scott Tong tells the stories of those left behind, by family or the state, in A Village with My Name, offering a brutally honest account of his family history: a maternal grandfather who collaborated with the Japanese; a paternal grandfather who fled to Taiwan in 1949 with his eldest son – Scott’s father – and a mistress, leaving behind a younger son and a pregnant wife on the mainland; a cousin who endured decades of punishment for having “overseas relations.” Even with twenty years in journalism, including four as Marketplace’s inaugural China bureau chief, Tong’s unearthing of his family’s past opened doors, and wounds, that never presented themselves to him as a reporter. As he puts it, “I’m digging into the past because so many in my family want to bury it.” – Mengyu Dong
Part of the challenge of writing a family history is that the people in the story, or their direct descendents, might still be alive. And they may not want the story to be told. As a journalist, you don’t let a source decide what goes into your reporting. Is it more complicated when the subjects are your family?
Yes. The part about my maternal grandfather was particularly challenging because he was a wartime collaborator and that was obviously shameful for the family. My mother didn’t remember him because they were separated when she was young. But she did remember the pain of growing up without a father. And the family never talked about him. Before I started researching for the book, all I knew was that he worked for the Wang Jingwei government in Shanghai. Then as I started to research and found more about him, things weren’t that black and white anymore. They start to enter the grey area. You know, as a father, he was trying to put food on the table for his family. He took care of his brother’s widow and his niece. I think during wartime, people face a lot of tough choices, and can end up on the wrong side of history.
During research and conversations with my family, the “professional me” and the “filial me” are sometimes at odds. But my parents are open-minded. My mom more so. I let them read my draft and they said they wanted the story told as a whole. Though understandably not everyone thinks it was a good idea. My father’s best friend in Taiwan actually called him and said, “I would never let my son write about the shameful parts of our family story.” And my dad said, “well, you’d have to talk to Scott about it.” And he did discuss it with me. It was not so much a discussion actually. He gave me a lecture. But in the end I think the story is about the people who are left behind. And it wouldn’t be fair if I don’t tell the story as a whole.
Tell me more about your cousin in Shanghai.
There are two things about my cousin that I think about a lot. One is that, I could have been him, and he could have been me. My father was the one who was chosen to be taken away in 1949, before the Communists came. It was a miracle that my father got on the boat that didn’t sink. His brother was chosen to be abandoned. I presume that was because my father was the oldest son, and the younger son was left behind. So if it were reversed, I could have been my cousin, the one who’s lived in Mainland China and he could have been the one who’s here. When I speak to him, I think about how I could have experienced the same life. On the one hand, he is part of this new “me generation” of 30-somethings in China. On the outside everything looks really fancy and shiny and impressive. He has this fancier laptop than I have. He has a bigger, more complicated camera than I have. He has this expensive Japanese bicycle that’s 4000 US dollars. On the outside, everything looks like, “this is the new China.” Of course, the rest of the story, he has a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety. People have been in China even for a little while can understand this generation’s anxiety. The principle challenge for him is that he could never afford to buy his own place. The story that breaks my heart is that his girlfriend at the time, the way he tells it, left him and started dating one of this best friends. And he told me that a big reason was that his friend owned property and he doesn’t. It sounds awfully harsh. And I think, well, that could very well have been me.
The other thing is that he’s very thoughtful about the big questions of China’s place in history and in the world. He’s very proudly Chinese. He talks about how China can be modern and respected and economically strong, how it can resume its place in the world from a long time ago, but still be Chinese at the same time. He’s conflicted. He says, why do we always want to copy the outside? Why do we always want to buy these foreign brands?
But he drives a Buick and works for General Motors.
Yes. He himself is in this sense of conflict.
How did you feel when you got to know your cousin and hear his stories?
My grandfather and my father fled to Taiwan in 1949. This little miracle happened that allowed me and my brother to have the life that we have here (in the US). And I still wonder about how I can at least help tell my cousin’s story. I guess I feel some kind of obligation, though I don’t know what the obligation is for. Is it an obligation to do something for him? To say something to him? To give something to him? I don’t know what I can do for him, but I feel compelled to think about ways I can understand his life and tell his story. There’s this thing called “survivor’s guilt,” like when you survive a disease but other people died. I guess I have a little bit of that. But I don’t exactly know what I can do. Maybe as a storyteller, the best thing I can do is to try to tell a little bit of his story, because the rest of the world doesn’t know it.
On the other hand, cousin’s story is also a “comeback story.”
It is. A redemption story. And it’s important to tell.
His father got sent down to the countryside and came back to the city because he scored well on the university entrance exams
I like to tell that story because his father deserved it. He made a great life for himself and for his son from zero. His status was so low back then. A son who has haiwai guanxi (overseas relations), got “sent down” to the countryside for the maximum ten years, who was raised by a single mother. He had all these disadvantages in life, and all of these were frowned upon in the society. And still, when the opportunity came, he took it.
But he didn’t want you to tell his story.
No, he didn’t, because some of it was shameful and embarrassing. I remember during one of the last research meetings I had with my uncle, he said, “Well, you can’t tell the whole story. Only tell the glorious parts.”
After you reassured him that the book would only be published in America, not in China, he said he has six friends in America.
Right! For him, that’s “face.” That’s preserving reputation. But for me, that whole story goes together. My uncle says, well, everybody has one of these stories. But it’s still worth telling. Even if there are these “redemption” stories like this all over China, that still means we should tell them, and we should know them.
Do you think your identity as Chinese American played any role in your conversations with officials and your relatives in China? Were the interactions different from when you were a reporter there?
When I was a reporter, especially dealing with “official China” – all these government offices, neighborhood residence offices, local police stations, archives – when I would try to get information as a reporter, typically the answer would be “no.” It was mostly an adversarial relationship. Then when I went back as a grandson of China, I would say I’m just coming back and I’m trying to learn my family’s stories, and a lot of doors start to open. Something about this unlocked the Chinese bureaucracy in many cases. The woman at the prison department, for example, she had no reason to help me. But she tried. Several people tried. My sense is that they found something worthwhile in helping this grandson of China discover a bit more about his family story.
People have good reasons to be cautious. They can get in trouble. I was surprised by how many people tried to help me. People also say “Confucian values” are dying in China and that family relationships are weaker. But my experience researching for this book shows me that they are still strong. I think a lot of people respected the questions I was asking and what I was trying to do. It was a big thing that was important to me, and also important to them. It changed my relationship broadly with China. To me as a reporter, China has a rough exterior, but every once in a while, you tap into a little bit of its soul. And I was able, for a little bit, to see its softer side. And it’s not very easy to find.
If you could start this project all over again, is there anything you would have done differently?
The historical framing ended with the opening of China. But now there’s a bit question of whether the opening is over. Has China moved in a different direction? If I had more pages, I would visit that a little bit. I think that’s an important question. And I wish I had more time to find more information about my grandfather, the prisoner. Some people suggested that I should put the word out on Chinese social media in case anybody knew anything. But I ran out of time. I found some general information at the labor camp, but I didn’t find anything specific. I asked several people about my grandfather and the history around him. They said you started this too late, because people who knew this story aren’t around anymore. That’s a big regret. So if I could do it over, I would have started earlier, and I would have had more answers. ∎