All families have lies. They are created, corroborated, and sustained generation after generation to, supposedly, protect our loved ones.
I had to learn this hard truth all over again when I attended a relative’s funeral in the city of Tianjin in northern China, where my family is originally from. Despite being one of the four provincial-level metropolitans in China, Tianjin had somehow lost its economic prowess, cultural glamour and political clout to Beijing and Shanghai. But when I was growing up, Tianjin was a massively sophisticated city, with old streets mixed with the new, a colonial past and snobbish residents who speak their very isolated yet humorous dialect. Now it is merely a city I hadn’t visited in nearly 20 years, dusty, plain and dry from environment degradation and poor city planning.
Our arrival was welcomed with big banquets. The funeral was more of a relief than a sad, sobbing ceremony, since my granduncle had been on life support for the last 3 years. His family was physically and mentally drained from around-the-clock care. Then came the inevitable question, directed towards me, so, where is your husband? Is he still in the States?
Mom gave me a quick look and I did not even blink when I made up this lie. Yes, he is still in the States, living in New York.
Oh, that must be very hard for you, my relatives speculated.
Yes, but I’m used to it. I subconsciously gave out a wink, a gesture most Chinese people wouldn’t do. I doubt they even noticed it.
The effort my immediate family puts in to cover up the fact that I am a single parent is both astonishing and amusing at the same time. This 5-year-old piece of fact is torn up like a piece of paper, then burnt into ashes, then tossed in strong wind until you find no trace of it. Mom would never want to use a paper shredder. That would still leave pieces that might be put together later on, wouldn’t it?
Then I turned around and realized I had matured from being protected from lies other people created to orchestrating my own lies. Under pressure, nonetheless.
Mom is and acts all just like the oldest child in her family. She not only raised my bother and me, but also my second aunt’s daughter, whose parents divorced in her early teen years. Not to mention my other cousins whom my aunts and uncle send to my mom for discipline and advice frequently. Long before my grandmother turned into a mellow, mahjong-loving and grandkids-watching lady, mom already took over the matriarch. Yet it turns out that mom was not grandmother’s first-born child. She had given birth to a boy, who later died. But when I asked grandma about his existence and life, she was evasive and later silent. Was his death an accident? Was he the child from a previous marriage? What was he like? Even mother doesn’t know for certain. I guess it was all too painful for grandmother to talk about it. Even in the time of poverty, grandparents managed to raise four good and responsible children. Yet nobody knows the truth of this deceased child who could’ve changed the family dynamics, for better or worse.
My brother did not officially exist for the first 6 years of his life. He did not have an official household registration, a Hukou, until the moment he had to enroll in primary school. He was born in the high time of one-child policy, after me. My parents successfully kept him under the radar of government by bribing local officials and grassroots neighborhood watch folks. Otherwise they would’ve faced a hefty fine that could bankrupt the whole family. I guess it was all a nervous-racking period of time when our parents had to finally face the music and tell whoever they needed to tell that they actually had a second child. What I did know was that they were fined way less than average. How they got around it and get away with their lie remains a mystery, yet common practice for most Chinese. There are millions of other unregistered children, who are called the “black kids”. Even now, I still tease my brother for being the “black boy”, the illegitimate child who was never supposed to be born in the first place, of course, by Chinese government’s wish.
I met my great-grand-uncle, my grandfather’s uncle, when I was 6 or 7 years old and he was in his 80s, with a straight back and mellow demeanors. Even as a little girl, I was taken by his charismatic ways, his gorgeous Chinese calligraphy and meticulous table manner. He was, to me, a man from the good old time, who grew up in the most lavish fashion. Little did I know, at the time, that he was a tall handsome, chivalrous, free-spending black sheep of the family. Being the younger brother to my great-grandfather, the over-achiever, the rags-to-prominence intellectual-turned-politician, great-grand-uncle must have felt inferior all his life. Yet from all family tales, he was the heartbreakingly charming devil, dining with and dating all the pretty socialites of his time, early 1900s, in Tianjin. Possibly because his tale is so far from our time and has little impact on our lives today, I have later discovered, through hush-hush talks and giggled discussions, that he was an opium addict who openly frequented high-end brothels and gambled away most of the family fortune. Great-grandfather nearly kicked him out of the house several times.
Now I wonder if he was childless as he appeared to be. If his numerous lovers had born any equally good-looking kids, who never got to know their father.
We Chinese seem to like lying to our family, our neighbors and our government. Even when I generally regard Americans as quite honest people (who would only lie about their income, drinking history and “the dog ate my homework”), I tend to think tendencies to lie about family, love, work is universal and cross-cultural. The cushions of lies get us through rough patches of life and strained relationships. They carry us over until they get so big and burst into disaster.
And lies are a learnt behavior too. When my child’s father left, my first reaction was to hide the news from my parents, for as long as I could. Until one day my mother grew smart enough and figured it out herself. Then she established a coalition with me, distributing the truth only to the very small circle of my father and my brother. The clear line was drawn with extended family who doesn’t live in the same city.
For how long my pretty big lie will go on, I have no idea. I am not saying it because I have given up on being honest with people. I have retro-fitted back to my own culture, after living the most formative years of my life in the States. Absolute truth, if it hurts your most loved ones, tips over family dynamics, and destroys social balance, could be meaningless. Again, I am not preaching and advocating for lies. I see it as about time the vast grey area where we often operate on be justified and applauded.
So for now, let the white lies roll.