A Granddaughter From Hunan

IT's Saturday noon. I'm back from the office (we work six days in Beijing), and after a quick lunch I'll take off on my Flying Pigeon bicycle to meet Zhou Fan, our nine-year-old granddaughter, at the bus stop. She's coming to our house from her boarding school and has to change buses at a busy intersection. I escort her across two main streets and onto the next bus back to our home. It's a cold day; the wicked wind from the north (Siberia or Mongolia, I'm not sure which) is sending people scurrying. I get out my old black corduroy padded shoes, faded down jacket, and thick-knitted mittens. No telling how long I'll have to wait for the buses, and the ride itself can be one cold blast. I arrive early at the bus stop. So far, so good. Last week, Zhou Fan got there first - no waipo (maternal grandmother). I vowed to do better.

Bus 347 finally arrives and a small figure rushes toward me, warm jacket flying open, no mittens, or cloth sandals. I ask about mittens, and Zhou Fan shows me how her sleeves are so long she really doesn't need mittens. Like most Chinese children, she's wearing a jacket several sizes too big; sometimes one sees very small children with sleeves practically dragging on the ground. The theory is for jackets and shoes to be big enough to last several years, but I imagine they wear out long before they reach their proper fit. I put Zhou Fan's dirty-clothes bag under the clip on the back of the bike, the book bag in the basket in front, and off we set on our street crossings to the next bus stop.

Zhou Fan is chattering irrepressibly, full of week-at-school events; I catch only a scrap here and there (my Chinese still far from fluent), pushing the bike and making what I hope are appropriate responses. There's something about the harmonica the teacher was supposed to buy for her but didn't, and, oh yes, the essay she wrote last week after we went to the farmers' market together and loaded up our bikes with bargain-price fruits and vegetables. That time she rode on the back of her auntie's bike, si nce the market is just across from the Big Bell Temple, not far from our home. I thought her essay was quite good, but my admiration for anyone able to write in Chinese, especially at such a young age, is boundless.

We've successfully made it across the first big street when I hear Zhou Fan singing a familiar tune, one that takes me back to December in the United States. "We wish you a merry Christmas; we wish you a merry Christmas; we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!" Her English-language teacher is obviously keeping an eye on the calendar. We both sing lustily now, dodging bicyclists to reach the next curb, then on to the next big street, where a policeman is signaling in what appears to be in con tradiction to the traffic lights. Never having yet figured out a Chinese traffic cop's signals, I wait for the lights and a break in the steady flow of cars, trucks, buses, and bicycles to make our way safely across to the next bus stop.

Bus 323 is nowhere in sight, so Zhou Fan has time to eat the candy and bananas her waigong (maternal grandfather) tucked into my pocket for her. (Candy during the week at school is strictly forbidden.) The bus seems to be taking its time and a goodly crowd gathers at the stop. Zhou Fan suggests I go on ahead, but I like to see her safely aboard. When I'm there, I figure, the usual brutal boarding of Beijing buses may ease up a bit. I've even seen a helping hand reach out to get her up the steps of the a lways overcrowded bus.

Zhou Fan is impatient and now suggests we walk to the next stop. I'm afraid we'll miss the bus - if it ever comes - but off we go, singing "Merry Christmas" and bucking the wind, which nearly stops us in our tracks at times. Surprisingly, we make it to the next stop before the bus arrives.

I see her securely on, just scraping past the closing doors, then speed off on the Flying Pigeon. When I turn into our compound about 20 minutes later, I spot her small figure sauntering along ahead of me. The jacket we had zippered and the hood we had tied are swinging wide again. This Chinese child is not to be bound in, whatever the temperature. We sing our way home.

Softly, softly Zhou Fan opens the door, so as not to waken her waigong from his postprandial nap. But we've taken so long that he's already up. We greet him with a rendition of "Merry Christmas" and our weekend with Zhou Fan begins.

Our granddaughter comes from a small town in Hunan Province. I acquired her, her uncles, cousins, aunts, parents, grandparents, great uncles, and all the rest of an extended Chinese family (the nuclear family is nonexistent in China) when I married her waigong, a Beijing journalist from a Hunan family. An only child under China's family-planning scheme, Zhou Fan, like all the other only children in China, is doted upon and given the best of everything, so far as possible.

The best education was not to be had in her small town. Her parents, both from a generation brought up in perilous times and thus severely deprived academically, felt a good education was of the utmost importance. She came to Beijing to attend boarding school five and a half days a week. Early Monday morning her waigong takes the two-bus trip back to school with her. She has a Beijing residence permit now, but neither of her parents do, so she had to come to the city alone. Her mother was born in Beijin g, but during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) she was sent as a middle-school student to Inner Mongolia to work in a youth labor brigade and has never been able to return, since Beijing, overcrowded, is wary of granting residence permits.

HER father, Baba, took the parting with his child the hardest. Both parents

came to Beijing to see her safely installed, then Baba went back to his job. Several times we saw tears in his eyes.

Zhou Fan's school is on the outskirts of Beijing and was set up primarily for Army "brats." It's one of only two boarding schools in the city and we had to do a bit of finagling to get her in.

Since the school's in a military area (although it seems to be used only for officers' homes), foreigners cannot enter, but I went on a special excursion to the area one Sunday (actually, it's considered one of Beijing's "scenic spots"). Zhou Fan showed me her classroom (through the door's window) and dormitory building. She's quite happy there. She was most impressed the first week by how polite the children were and how friendly. In her small town, she said, the boys were always beat-ing each other up and no one was ever polite. It's a poor town - factory workers and erstwhile farmers - and the education level is not high. I found it drab and rather dismal, although the people were friendly enough.

In Beijing, we have more "cultural" activities and Zhou Fan's mother, like mothers everywhere, is anxious that Zhou Fan partake. I got tickets for everyone (her mother was still here then) to a performance of Beethoven's Ninth, and it was the first time Zhou Fan had ever been in a concert hall. She left the house with my field glasses, in case the seats were far back. They turned out to be right over the stage and everyone was delighted to be able to watch the conductor and see the instruments and singe rs up close. Zhou Fan didn't fall asleep either, which is now a problem sometimes, since she has gotten into the habit at school of going to bed at eight (and getting up at six).

That night, Zhou Fan slept on the floor of our room and the next morning was busy writing something. Not her homework, it turned out (she'd finished that the day before), but a letter to her father. It was quite long and when she'd finished, she read it to us. Really a good letter, but I found something missing: not one word about Beethoven, supposedly the highlight of her week. I asked her why. "Oh, I forgot!"

Deflated, I thought back over her letter to see what was the highlight of her week. The big, important event she wanted to tell her father about was her trip back from school on the public bus when she and several classmates, one by one, gave up their seats to elderly women as they boarded the bus. (The bus starts at their school, so they all originally had seats.) That way they were all "little Lei Fengs." Lei Feng was a somewhat legendary soldier who was always doing good deeds for others and never th ought of himself first. He became a model - China is big on models - some years ago, and after the "turmoil" in 1989, government leaders could find no better model than Lei Feng to put before the youth, so he was resurrected. For Zhou Fan and her classmates - but not for university students - the model seems to be working.

Now Zhou Fan's aunt and uncle have arrived, on their way home from work. Originally, the idea was for Zhou Fan to spend the weekend with them, but their house, not far away, is heated by only a small coal stove and the coal has been of such poor quality the last year or so that it's always cold there. Besides, they have no hot water except what they heat on the gas cooker, so baths (in a wash basin there, in a tub here), and the weekly clothes washing are better handled here. Zhou Fan, used to being wit h grownups and the center of attention, plays to the grandstand.

She's normally a bright, helpful, thoughtful child, and when she's alone with us, she's quite natural. I was noticing some Canadian children the other day, and it struck me how much more "adult" and self-assertive they were. Zhou Fan, like most Chinese children, is still a child, still protected, although I'm often amused by her adult expressions at the dinner table, in obvious imitation of her parents. I can still talk with her, however, about such things as what her favorite toy bear (brought to her f rom the United States) does at school on weekends while she's away (the bear plays with the other children's animals, Zhou Fan says). Her teacher says she listens to what she says, the Chinese way of saying she's an obedient child.

Right now I hear her voice in the other room reading aloud to her admiring family. She stops and comes to call me, leaning over my shoulder as I write. The program we've been looking forward to on TV is beginning.

Three generations line up on the bed to watch Beijing Opera stars put on a gala performance. Beijing Opera is supposedly going through hard times, unable to hold its audiences these days - the young people find it boring - but we all like it. I don't understand the words, of course, but how many Western operas does anyone understand? The way the singers' voices modulate around the syllables and musical notes always makes me think of good jazz singers - it's the same principle.

BEFORE long, aunt and uncle leave and Zhou Fan curls up on the floor next to our bed to sleep. I'm always first up, so it's some time the next morning before I hear, "I wish you a Merry Christmas" coming from behind the bedroom door. I enter singing and find her carefully folding up her quilts the way she's been taught at school. Then she and waigong eat breakfast together and, from the other room, I hear long discussions of what appear to be quite abstruse subjects. (I found out later she was asking hi m, a specialist in nature writing, where animals came from and why their paws weren't like our hands.) They're both happy as clams to have an audience.

Homework follows - reciting the English alphabet (they do it together, being at about the same level) and the phrases she's learned by rote: "How do you do? I'm fine." Then it's "Let's sing a happy song to see the new year in" and we're off once again on "Merry Christmas."

We all go to the bus stop and Zhou Fan, wearing the new padded pink-and-white sport shoes I bought her, a bit large, by order of her aunt, hops on alone. Quickly a hand reaches down to help her on. It's a young woman in Army uniform spending her Sunday being a good Lei Feng. Aunt and uncle will meet Zhou Fan at the other end of the bus ride and take her shopping and to see in-law relatives, then she'll be back for the night and the early-morning trip with waigong back to school.

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