Wednesday, February 18, 2009

China Homecoming by Jean Fritz

China Homecoming by Jean Fritz amazed me with its impact. I had not realized that Fritz was the author of several books about American history on my son’s shelf. I had been familiar with her books for years and am embarrassed to admit that I paid no attention to the author’s name. I was extremely moved by this autobiographical book and I feel an affinity and connection with Jean Fritz now.

The most remarkable thing for me was her feeling of “otherness.” She worked so hard from adolescence on to feel like a “real American” (Fritz, p. 7), but always behind her was the connection with China. It is unbelievable that she waited fifty-five years to travel back to the country that had been her home. I cannot imagine going to China as a senior citizen after a lifetime in the United States. It took bravery and courage for her to fight for this trip to China, especially at a time when China was not really open to foreign visitors.

I have a similar feeling of otherness. Our household is more Chinese than American, ethnically and by choice. We eat with chopsticks. Our first choice for travel is China, not so much for vacations, but to visit family. But my son and I look white, so we don’t fit the norm that other people expect of us.

Fritz finished her first autobiographical book, Homesick: My Own Story, after the death of her father who had kept the memory of China alive for her. Her family had practiced what they remembered by speaking the language regularly. His death was a painful loss but it also meant the loss of a last connection with China and her memories. She found she could not write “The End” as usual (Ibid, p. 19). I loved the transition from her time in China being a “closed book” (Ibid, p. 13) to, “I knew now I had to go back to China . . . . to find out if at last I could call it my hometown (Ibid, p. 19).” So her trip back to China became a search for her beginnings.

China for me is a homecoming, too, but from the other end. I grew up on a farm in rural Kentucky. Now past age fifty, I have places in China that are more home to me than the places of my childhood. Reading about her homecoming brought my own homecoming into sharp focus. I wanted to call her on the phone and say, yes, I know!

Mao Zedong is a difficult and complex figure to understand. I found it fascinating that as an American in the 1980’s Fritz recognized the good in him and his good intentions toward China. John Acton first said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Mao is a perfect example of this, but Fritz is generous in acknowledging his vision for a new China and what he tried to accomplish (Ibid, p.33). She has extensive knowledge of this time and a sensitive perception of both Mao and the evils of his Cultural Revolution. This must be unique in American writers, especially from this era.

Fritz does an excellent job of sprinkling valuable information about Chinese history without sounding pedantic. Most Americans are not familiar with Chinese emperors and eras. She obviously wants her readers to understand and appreciate China. I thought it interesting that although she had sympathy and understanding for Mao, she had none for Mao’s wife and the so-called Gang of Four after Mao‘s death (Ibid, p. 35). Perhaps this was the influence of her friends who lived through this time. She sounded like a true Han who had experienced the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath.

I loved the section where one of her Chinese friends informs her that she is a Hubei-lao (Ibid, p 37) and explains the old Chinese joke about people born in Hubei Province. It is a wonderful set-up for when she later arrives in her hometown and identifies herself as a Hubei-lao to the locals (Ibid, p. 53).

Her excitement when she recognizes the Chinese characters in Hankou, her hometown, mirrored my own. My knowledge of written Chinese is very limited and I too am thrilled when I can read something without a translator. The “kou” that means mouth is one that I know, so it seemed just as wonderful to me (Ibid, p. 44).

My favorite section was when she accidentally discovers her old house after a particularly discouraging day. Meeting the people who lived there was a gift. I listened to them meeting like old friends. As she looks at her very own staircase and hiding place from her childhood, she brought tears to my eyes (Ibid, p. 98). To be given this opportunity to reclaim a lost part of her childhood and to be able to share her life with the lives of the current residents was beautiful. There was a profound feeling of completion, an unbreakable link with her own past, her parents and their past and future of her new acquaintances.

As Fritz and her husband explored the streets of China, I felt like I was waking with them. Even when she visited schools, I found myself calculating and realized that we have friends from Wuhan who might have been students in those same schools while Fritz was there (Ibid, p. 65). This only enhanced my feeling of identification with her experiences. She remembered lace antimacassars on the train seats and wanted to tell a neighbor who had wondered how she could possibly recognize anything after so long a time, “Fifty-five years and the antimacassars are still here (Ibid, p.41)!” I thought of our train trip this summer and wanted to call Jean Fritz to tell her that twenty-three more years have passed and the antimacassars are still there!

Near the close, she visits a pavilion built in the fifth century to celebrate a friendship. Next they go to a museum in Wuchang where she sees a cannon she remembers hearing in her childhood during the siege of 1926. Touching the cannon, the memory brings her to tears and she realizes, “China was not only, as it had always been, part of me. I was part of China (author’s italics) (Ibid, p. 128).“

At a banquet for her, she was given her own personal “chop,” a stone seal with her name engraved, and she was made an honorary citizen of Wuhan (Ibid, p. 132). Chinese tradition is that women retain their surname so the chop is a Chinese rendition of her maiden name, Guttery. An ink stamp from her seal ends China Homecoming “just as any Chinese would do at the end of a story (Ibid, p. 133).” China Homecoming appears on the spine but her “chop” is the only title on the cover of the book. It also decorates the end papers front and back of the book.

Before her mother passed away, Jean asked her if she had gone to China “out of a sense of duty” to her husband or did she “go for the adventure.” Her mother’s answer was, “Oh, I went for the adventure (Ibid, p. 40).” I am thankful that Jean Guttery Fritz also had the sense of adventure to return to China and the generosity to share her adventure with us. Her own daughter, Andrea, asked Jean long before the trip to China, “Do you miss the Yangtze, Mom?” She answers, “Yes, I miss the Yangtze (Ibid, p.13).”

I do, too, Jean. I miss the Yangtze, too.

24 October 2008

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