Friday, May 27, 2011

Ashamed of Oneself - Reading Book "Never Let Me Go"

Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" is a wrenching novel about cloned children created to provide vital organs for non-clones ("originals"). I just started to read the dreamily paced narration and I was shaken by an early scene took place in an "elite" school, Hailsham, for these cloned children.

There was a patroness, the Madame, visited the school several times a year. A group of young girls, led by their audacious ringleader Ruth, tried to approach the unapproachable patroness, to prove that Madame was afraid of them.  The girls approached Madame and then the narrator, Kathy remembered years later of the experience:
I'll never forget the strange change that came over us the next instant. Until that point, this whole thing about Madame had been, if not a joke exactly, very much a private thing we'd wanted to settle among ourselves... She didn't shriek, or even let out a gasp... And I can still see it now, the shudder she seemed to be suppressing, the real dread that one of us would accidentally brush against her. And though we just kept on walking, we all felt it; it was like we'd walked from the sun right into chilly shade. Ruth had been right: Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn't been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders.

Thinking back now, I can see we were just at that age when we knew a few things about ourselves -- about who we were, how we were different from our guardians, from the people outside -- but hadn't yet understood what any of it meant.

... Maybe from as early as when you're five or six, there's been a whisper going at the back of your head, saying: "One day, maybe not so long from now, you'll get to know how it feels." So you're waiting, even if you don't quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realise that you really are different to them; that there are people out there, like Madame, who don't hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you -- of how you were brought into this world and why -- and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it's a cold moment. It's like walking past a mirror you've walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.
When I was very little, I was precocious and more mature for my age and overtly sensitive.  I don't remember that "cold moment" of self-discovery, but I do remember the moment I had to face up the mirror, the moment I had to reveal to others the hidden secret, which I believed had marked me as unworthy, as unclean, as the spider.

The burden I'd been carrying for a few years before I started my elementary school was that my "Family Origin" (a political label assigned to individuals in Communist China, designating the person's worthiness and trust-worthiness).  "Poor Peasant" was the most desirable one, which guaranteed one the trust and favorable opinion from the authorities, while the most evil one was "Landlord", and unfortunately, I knew that I bore one.  I don't remember when I learned this bitter truth but the shame of it had weighed me down ever since.  Landlords to me were not only oppressors and exploiters, they were also inevitably, as depicted in literature and movies, lazy, mean-spirited, dirty, ugly and uncouth.  I believe that I was more ashamed of carrying such identification for the latter reasons.  That might be the first time my vanity was deeply wounded. 

Then, there was a most welcome change.  "Bad" family original, such as "Landlord", or "Rich Farmer", were change into different labels, less damning.  Our family label "Landlords" became "Revolutionary Cadres".

I don't have clear memory of my reaction to this news -- either my memory failed me, or I blocked it out deliberately.  My mother told me that once our Residence Registration Book was returned to us, with the "Landlord" label crossed out, and "Revolutionary Cadre" filled in, I held the book with both hands, brimmed with joy, and couldn't stop dancing!

Finally, I was able not to link myself to landlord.  What a relief it was.  However, my happiness was shattered quickly.  Soon, it became clear to me that "Poor Peasants" remained "Poor Peasants", "Middle-Lower Peasants" remained "Middle-Lower Peasants".  Anyone had family origin of "Revolutionary Cadre" was just simple evil "Landlord" in disguise.  Everyone knew that as a fact.  A "Revolutionary Cadre" was just as untrustworthy as a "Landlord".

The shame returned.  Once again, I was convinced that I was a bad person, unclean and needed to be watched out by others.  Therefore I felt the urge to hide this information. 

But I had no way to hide it.  As a matter of fact, the very first question I was asked, when I started my elementary school, was "What is your family origin?"

That was my "cold moment", or "chilling moment".  Actually, I believe that I felt extremely hot.  I really wished either the world or I would disappear.

According to my teacher, who confided to my mother, not unsympathetically, that I, though obvious to her, knew the answer, blinking my eyes, made quick mental calculations, and mumbled something like "I don't know", which was not uncommon amongst her pupils.

She knew immediately what my answer would be and moved on to ask her next pupil.

I have experience many embarrassing and shameful moments in my life but that one was the one most traumatic.

Ironically, I just read a short memoir by my father, who stated that since his family didn't have much land, therefore, his family classification changed time to time, bounced amongst Rich Farmer, Landlord and Middle-Lower Peasant.  My father claimed that he didn't want to be caught telling a lie, hence, he always claimed that his family background was the worst kind, Landlord.

The burden I shouldered for so many years might not even a real one.  That was life.

PS: A couple years after that "cold moment", people paid less attention to "Family Origin" and I ceased to worry about it altogether, though the ungainly image of Landlord continue to make me wince and somewhat ashamed to be associated with such a group of people.

Liberation Road / 解放路 / Befreiungstraße
Liberation Road Completed in 2010

Devastating Novel "The Land of Green Plums" by Herta Müller
- Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey In Russian History by Rachel Polonsky and Some Journeys of My Own
- David Malouf's Ransom
- Review of "As Above, So Below" by Rudy Von B. Rucker
- Banned Books in Mao's China

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