A Memoir of Misfortune

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Chapter One

A Black Hole

Fu Li and I, with our son Su Dan squeezed between us, were in the
back seat of a '93 Dodge rental. I was dozing, thanks to a bunch of
Chinese students in Buffalo who had kept me up the night before. It
was my own damn fault, of course, with my "elegy" of the "yellow
civilization" and all the rest of it. I had been badgered with
questions on the subject all the way from one end of the world to the
other, and in Buffalo, the night before, the discussion had lasted
into the small hours. Mind you, to bemoan the fate of the "yellow
civilization" under the night skies of North America-that in itself
was a form of self-indulgence, an exercise in words-at least until Fu
Li walked into the room.

"Su Xiaokang, you are driving tomorrow. Time to break it up."

That was Fu Li's style: no mincing of words, no room for saving face.
Her goal in life had always been clear-cut-to be a doctor. But in
China even the unenviable job of seeing a hundred patients every day
had been taken away from her as one of the side effects of my being
on the wanted list. In the United States, she had struggled through
the exams needed to qualify as a registered nurse. The exams were now
over, and I was dragging her off to see the country.

Fu Li was dressed in a loose-fitting cotton top and shorts, but she
was not relaxed. Even half asleep, I could feel the tension in her as
she sat on the other side of Su Dan. She had always lived life as if
it were filled with pitfalls, while I was perfectly relaxed. For a
period of several years I had actually let fame and fortune go to my
head, which Fu Li had found intolerable. Fu Li is the sort of person
that folks in her home province of Henan refer to as "women with
heads held high and men with downcast eyes"-that is, people who do
not conform to their prescribed roles. Fu Li always held herself
upright, the expression on her face calm and collected. My own
infantile attempts at sophistication, added to my general inability
to say no-what is called the "amiable ear"-had always roused in her a
kind of loving resentment, and she would call me a good-for-nothing.

I had taken my wife and son on this kind of aimless roving several
times before. Once, with a group of five or six people, we drove down
to Virginia to see where the early English colonists first landed.
When we stopped at a restaurant on our way, I picked up my courage
and tried to order in English. One young woman giggled, and Fu Li
exploded. "What's so funny? His English is not as good as yours? So
what? Isn't it just a matter of your being a few years younger?" She
got up and walked out, leaving the girl, Chai Ling, with a flea in
her ear.

On another occasion, we went up north to Montreal and then to Toronto
and saw Niagara Falls from the Canadian side. Now we had been to see
Niagara Falls again, but from the American side, as if there were
some strange affinity between its raging turbulence and something in

Within the Falls area, Route 90 on the U.S.-Canadian border, though
not wide, is neatly divided down the middle by grass dividers. It has
an air of tranquillity typical of the East Coast, nothing like the
superhighways of the West Coast, where, rather than driving, one
seems helplessly propelled forward by a frenzy of speed. Anyway,
there we were. It was three or four o'clock in the afternoon and
there was very little traffic on the road. The sky was a wash of blue
and I dozed off and on, oblivious to Fu Li's tenseness.

I knew Fu Li had doubts about the driver. This was one of the
differences between us. Ever since landing in this nation of cars, I
had never hesitated to entrust this hundred-plus pounds of whatever
I'm made of to whomever it might be at the wheel, driving at whatever
chosen speed. I was like one of the eight hundred million Chinese who
put themselves into the hands of Mao Zedong to be experimented with
during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, without
bothering their heads about possible disastrous consequences.

My trust had always been given cheaply: I would gladly entrust my
safety, my reputation, and my honor to my friends to do with what
they liked, as if they were honoring me and giving me "face." Fu Li
could never stand this side of me, and we had had many rows about it
after we got married. She had never stayed in the West before, but
she was by nature a very private person and always drew a line
between herself and the rest of the world. During our aimless driving
about after her arrival here, she always avoided riding in other
people's cars. She did not trust other people's driving, just as she
did not trust other people's morals or other people's consciences.
But on this occasion she had no choice. I had spent the previous
night holding forth and had driven all morning; in the afternoon I
was burnt out and had given the wheel to someone else. Fu Li probably
had been worrying about this since the night before.

Route 90 was so smooth and the traffic so light, it seemed the Dodge
had the road to itself. The Falls area was immersed in the serenity
of the summer afternoon. The world had never been so genial. On these
open roads, driving was child's play. What was there to worry about?
I finally fell sound asleep. The last thing I felt before I departed
into slumberland was eleven-year-old Su Dan's little head resting on
my shoulder. I now say "departed" because at the time I did not
realize that this interval in slumberland (I am not even sure for how
long) was a threshold, an entry into another world. Fu Li took leave
of me across this threshold, and I did not even give her a parting
glance. She had not slept and had not gotten over her tension. Later
I realized that people who can sleep through a high-speed car trip
must be people like me who are incorrigibly credulous and trusting.
So far, the world had treated me well. I do not understand why
suddenly, on a quiet highway near Niagara Falls, it changed face
without warning.

Seven days and seven nights later, I woke up to a gray misty world
similar to one I had woken up in after a raging fever during my early
childhood in the city of Hangzhou: a gray mist accompanied by the
smell of antiseptic. Shadowy human shapes flitted before me. They
said, "You were in a coma for three days, and then you were raving
for three days." Their voices seemed to come from some cavernous
depth and made a buzzing sound. Could I walk? I couldn't feel my
right leg, and my hipbone hurt excruciatingly.

What happened? Where were Fu Li and Su Dan?

The car had flipped over a short distance west of Buffalo, and all
three of us were found unconscious. Fu Li and I were taken to Lake
Erie County Hospital, while Su Dan was taken to Children's Hospital
in Buffalo. He had regained consciousness the next day and was safe
in Princeton with a friend.

Somebody came for me and put a pair of crutches in my hands, and I
hobbled after him into another room. There was a single bed in the
room, surrounded by a network of colorful tubes and gadgets. A figure
lay on the bed, hair spread untidily on the pillow, mouth covered by
a strange-looking mask. This was not an apparition. The shape under
the white cotton sheet was unmistakable. I would know it if it were
burnt to ashes: Fu Li. I had a dim memory of her all tensed up in the
car when my world was still intact. Now she was lying here, not only
totally relaxed but not knowing where her soul was hovering.

I realized that something bad had happened to my beloved. It is a
dreadful thing, this unbearable shock of realization that flashes
through the brain and drains it. The brain breathes, and it can
asphyxiate. The world had given me three such shocks during my life
thus far. First, when I was sixteen years old, Father stood with his
back against the light of the window. I could not see his face. I
only heard his voice tell me, "Your maternal grandfather has been
executed by the government." This meant I was a "damned cur" one
generation removed, not one of the five categories of "red
offspring." The second time, I was forty years old. In a darkened
room, poring over a pencil scrawl on a piece of paper, I made out the
words saying that I was fifth on the government's most-wanted list.
The third shock came when I was overseas. My cousin called and sobbed
over the phone, "Second Aunt has passed away." Her second aunt was my
mother. Always during those moments my mind would at first go blank
and then realize in a flash that my world had changed. But July 19,
1993, was different. This time my world collapsed.

I had fallen asleep and, asleep, had passed through a disaster, the
details of which I will never know. It was a dream without memory,
blacking out the most fateful moment of my life, leaving me nothing
with which to go on. I had no choice but to accept other people's
versions of what happened. The car flipped over because the driver, a
woman, was fumbling for the windshield wiper. Did it rain? How can
one be thrown off the highway for lack of a windshield wiper? The
police report stated that when the car went off the highway and
flipped over, it landed on its right side, where Fu Li was sitting.
Another version had it that both Fu Li and I were thrown out of the
car and knocked unconscious. I was sleeping and did not wake up even
when my world crashed. Yet a third version held that Fu Li, awake,
stretched over from the back seat to help the driver control the car,
which had gone insane; that she was struggling in an upright
position, and when the crash came her head hit the windshield. This
was the cruelest version, and I could not bear to hear it.

Lying in my hospital bed, I tried but could not piece together
anything that had occurred in the hours after the crash. I felt
frustrated, having my life described to me by others. I felt as if
the day of my birth as told by my mother was the only kind of
information that was trustworthy.

Come to think of it, however, isn't it true that the Chinese are
always having the "unexpected" in their lives interpreted for them by
others, and isn't this especially true of my generation, which seems
to have grown up through a series of "unexpected" events? For
instance, in 1971 Lin Biao tried to "defect" and his plane crashed in
the desert.1 At the time the whole country seemed to have gone into a
state of shock, and everyone waited for Premier Zhou Enlai and
company to offer a proper version of what had happened. At the same
time, we did not trust this official version and were always hungry
for alternate ones. Again, in 1989 in Tiananmen, there was another
crash. How many died? Who gave the orders to shoot? The world would
not accept the version offered by the Chinese leadership but could
not come up with a version of its own. Why didn't the students
retreat? one might ask. The so-called student leaders at Tiananmen
Square each have their own versions. Whom should we believe?

About the car crash of July 19, I accepted only two facts. One was
that Fu Li was in a coma. The other was that the police report stated
the driver could not drive. By then I had lost even the capacity for
anger. From that day onward, the world turned upside down and
swallowed me up.

"In a Land Far Far Away"

On August 12, 1993, Fu Li opened her eyes. From then on, she stared
silently at nothing for days on end.

Had she lost the power of speech? Was she brain-damaged? Paralyzed?
Would she become a vegetable? The moment she opened her eyes, she had
to fit into one or another of these categories. It seemed there is a
wide range of definitions for the state of existence between
non-living and non-dying.

She did not appear to notice the people who came to see her. However,
when our son was brought to the hospital from Princeton one
afternoon, the minute his loud voice was heard from the corridor, a
shiver went through her whole body and her eyes turned this way and
that, trying to locate the sound. Yet when our son entered the room
and bent over her, calling "Mummy!" she looked at him dumbly, without
uttering a word.

I marked this day as the day of her awakening and wrote in my diary,
"Fu Li has regained consciousness."

I wondered if she recognized me. My one way of checking was to hold
her tremulous right hand every day and try to register its every
squeeze, as well as each twitch of her leg. I firmly believe that it
was her way of responding to me, the only way she could.

Suddenly one day, a tear welled up in her right eye and lingered over
her cheek. I wiped her cheek and cried uncontrollably, turning to the
window to hide my tears. Suddenly I felt a tapping of her right hand
on my left. I turned around and saw her face contorted intensely. In
desperation she tried to tap me again. I suddenly understood what she
was saying: "You mustn't cry, mustn't cry."

Only when vocal communication failed did I realize the importance of
speech. I tried another kind of language and whispered a song into
her ear. I remembered a lullaby, "Little Swallow," that she used to
sing our son to sleep. Now I was singing it to wake her up.

Here is a woman with whom I shared life for more than a decade, and
now I have to see her reduced to this. Was this kind of life worth
living? I had thrust this life upon her. These days, during changing
time, when I saw her limp body being turned this way and that by the
nurse, all I could do was stand aside and weep. "I am a
good-for-nothing," I would tell her, over and over again. This was
the first time I ever saw myself in this way.

Excerpted from A Memoir of Misfortune by Su Xiaokang Copyright 2001 by Su Xiakang chapter one. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.