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"The Little Red Guard": inside a Chinese family

Wenguang Huang's memoir about his childhood in Mao's China tells a universal story of the bonds of love – and the pangs of regret – which can shape a family.

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Q. Your grandmother was also a huge figure in your life. If you could talk to her now, what would you want her to know?

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I would like her to understand that I am doing a lot for the family. In the old days my grandmother always saw me as somebody who never cared family. I was going out and doing stuff. [Then] when I went back to China I visited her family. I started to know more about our family history and to recognize who I am and to accept who I am and where I come from. When she told us her family stories we always rolled our eyes. We never accepted what she said. When I started to go back I really started to appreciate her devotion and what she did for the family. I think that I’m following her example in a way. I’m starting to be more devoted to my family and to my siblings.

Q. Maoism and the teaching of Confucius were oddly intertwined in your youth. Then you moved to America. Who are you today?

It’s a fusion. If I used percentage points I’d say 60 percent Chinese, 40 percent American. For the first 10 years I was here I was so Americanized. But then in the past 10 years the past started to come back more and more. And the way I act and the way I think is more and more Chinese. The Confucian thinking in me is still very strong. Even the Maoist thinking is still there. I think it’s true with every Chinese. We’ve been taught Communism for years and years. The Communist education seems to have pointed us in the opposite direction. But still, the way we think about things, our childhood memories for example, the movies, the way we look at things, I have to say that the Mao era has a big influence on us.

Q. In China today, are there still people who share your grandmother’s mindset about funerals?

[Today's Chinese] tend to play up the funeral. There are these very huge funerals and people want to be buried in a certain way. It’s part of the new economic power of wealth. Funerals are becoming more and more of a way to show off their wealth. [But they] no longer do the coffin thing. [Because the countryside is being developed so extensively] my grandmother’s [remains] has already been relocated twice and probably will have to be moved again.

Q. In some ways your story is so uniquely Chinese. But on another level – especially when it comes to your feelings about your father – it seems so universal.

I thought that maybe sometime I could write a book about my father. But for years and years I was wondering, "If I tell this story to a Western audience, will they be able to understand?" But I’ve been here for 20 years now. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that many things, many of the feelings are universal. For example, how we deal with our parents. When we’re young we may have a tense relationship with our parents but as we get older we start to understand them more. This story might have happened to happen in China. And sleeping with the coffin would not be very common in the US here. But there is that common theme as to how we deal with our parents. I tried out an excerpt in the Paris Review and I got a lot of e-mail from readers saying, “That reminds me of my childhood.” That encouraged me.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Books editor.

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