I emigrated from China to America when I was 10. When we arrived in the United States, my parents and I rented a room in a group home. The three of us shared one mattress, which we found next to a dumpster.
My father, a former professor in China, worked as a busboy at a Chinese restaurant in the northeast corner of Washington, D.C. Because he didn’t speak proper English, he couldn’t get a job as a waiter.
My mother, a former physician, worked as a live-in nanny for a Chinese family. That was the highest-paying job she could find.
Due to the one-child policy, I had no siblings. I cooked and ate by myself, since my parents were away at work.
To make it as immigrants, my family emphasized the importance of maintaining a positive outlook. When things didn’t go our way, we relied on the old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Looking on the bright side was a kind of self-preservation — to actually face how hard life was would have been too painful to bear.
When I experienced a moment of sadness, my parents would brush it aside by referring to how they suffered much more in the past: “This isn’t 1960. Don’t be scared.” I was not allowed to cry.
Years later, when a friend gave me magic mushrooms, I tried them hoping to experience the heightened sense of perception that I’ve heard so much about.
About an hour in, I began to feel immense sadness. I didn’t have any hallucinations or feel any mystical connections. All I did was cry. My heart felt sore, as though it was being squeezed. Tears flowed from my eyes like they had been pent up for years.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how my family had suffered through China’s Cultural Revolution.
I’ve never had much of an interest in Chinese history. I was born well after the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and people of my generation just didn’t talk about it. Whatever abuses my own parents suffered were a mystery to me. I knew vague facts — my grandfather was killed, my parents spent 10 years of their lives in labor camps — but we never talked about it. While on magic mushrooms, however, this unspoken history was breaking my heart.
I’ve cried only a handful of times throughout my life; it’s just not what Chinese people do. And yet when I was on mushrooms, my repulsion toward sadness was gone. I experienced whatever emotions arose in me, and for those five long hours while I was high, those emotions were grief and sadness.
The grief I felt was so strong, it was as though I’d witnessed the abuses of the revolution firsthand.
The next day, I told my mother about how I’d cried for hours and hours the day before, though I didn’t mention the mushrooms.
She recounted a story from her childhood that I’d never heard. “During the Cultural Revolution, people were starved and tortured. They’d get home and take their anger out on their kids. At home, I could hear our neighbors beating their children and the kids crying helplessly. I couldn’t stand it.”
To this day, my mother panics at the sound of children crying. That’s why I was forbidden from doing it.
What I realized was that, 50 years on, the Cultural Revolution continues to cause suffering. It does for me and for my mother, for the parents who took out their anger on their kids, for the children they hurt, and for millions of other Chinese people.
I’m certain of that. And as sad as that makes me, I’d rather feel that grief than push it away. I can do that now. And I’m grateful.
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