Mom-350Prior to migrating to America, Zhang had lived in Shanghai, China. At the outset of the social upheaval, her father, Shuyi Zhang, was jailed due to his position as an engineer and scholar. Subsequent to his incarceration, three-year-old Ruiguang was taken to the local jail to visit him. As she recalls descending towards the dark and musky cells, her face contorts with discomfort at reliving this scarring experience. “I went downstairs and I was so scared because it was so dark. And when I saw him, I cried and he cried too.” It was not until eleven years later, when the Cultural Revolution was over, that Zhang was told by her mother that, on the day Zhang went to visit, Shuyi was prepared to commit suicide. It was not until he saw his young daughter that he changed his mind. “I saved his life that day,” Zhang chokes.

Unfortunately, the jail visit did not mark the end of her tribulations. A year later, both Zhang’s mother and father were transferred to a labor camp in the countryside where they, along with thousands of other educated individuals, were forced to farm and assimilate with the working class. This situation left Zhang and her older brother, Ruigang , at home alone to fend for themselves. She exasperatedly describes, “We were kids. We had no source of income other than the very little money the government gave us to survive.” Due to their inability to afford better food, Ruiguang and Ruigang’s daily meals consisted strictly of soy sauce and rice. Upon hearing this, I grimaced at the thought of such a salty and tangy substance being the only flavor to accompany the rice. When asked on her opinion of the meal, Zhang was very blunt. “It was not about taste, it was all about survival.”

To preface the narration of Zhang’s ensuing story, the elementary school tuition at the time in Shanghai was ten yuan . As she began to narrate, color filled her cheeks, gradually reddening her entire face as she let out a small laugh. But instead of a laugh of joy, it was the kind of laugh that escaped her because she was embarrassed. Since her parents were still at the labor camp, Zhang had to muster up enough of her money to attend school. “I did not want to be laughed [at] by the other kids because I could not pay for tuition.” The only money she had was her savings collected in a piggy bank, which she brought with her on her first day and, as the teacher counted penny by penny , Zhang recalled her dual emotion of humiliation and incredible satisfaction. She had paid for her first tuition on her own. It was at this moment that she pledged to never be poor again.

In college, Zhang married a man named Jie Wu. Together, they came to America with sixty dollars each in their pocket. She proudly proclaims, “We started from this $120. We worked hard and smart to achieve what we have now.” Since moving to America, Zhang has indeed come very far. She now earns a salary of $150K, yet still manages to remain humble and unashamed of her past. Like any good mother, she has transferred her values of hard work to her daughters, which as it turns out, is myself and my sister. I like to think of my mother as the asian Scarlett O’Hara. After her own declaration to never be poor again, my mother has built a life where money is no longer a restriction to either her or her family. She has allowed my sister and I to develop and grow without the worries of such a limitation and, it is to her, that I owe an infinite amount of gratitude.>> Back to Many Faces