Toronto journalist Wong (Beijing Confidential, 2007, etc.) recounts an extended trip she took to China to seek out a fellow student she had denounced during the Cultural Revolution.
In 1972, self-described “Montreal Maoist” Wong was invited to study at Beijing University. The 19-year-old, third-generation Chinese-Canadian was the first student there from the Great White North since the start of the Cultural Revolution. As a True Believer, she was the perfect guinea pig to restart an international student exchange, even though she did not then speak Mandarin. Indeed, she was such an enthusiastic collaborator in her own brainwashing, she admits, that she denounced a Chinese student, Yin, who confided that she wanted to get to America. Yin was subsequently expelled, and the author lost all trace of her. Guilt over her plight continued to plague Wong, and she resolved to track down Yin and apologize. In August 2006, the 53-year-old author boarded a plane with her white husband (whose Chinese name she humorously translates as Fat Paycheck) and her two reluctant teenaged sons. In search of Yin, she tracked down old acquaintances at the university, bouncing among cell-phone numbers in the new Beijing, where change was the only constant. Along the way, she confronted the great void left by the Maoist era. After Chinese society’s stunning about-face from fanatically revolutionary to zealously capitalist, participants in the Cultural Revolution had opted for collective amnesia, and 28 years of university records simply didn’t exist. Wong’s memoir offers a penetrating, frequently hilarious glimpse inside this teeming culture of wily rule-breakers and bargain-hunters on the eve of the 2008 Olympics, as Beijing was transformed by cataclysmic construction. Her private journey proved fruitful, allowing the author to explore a painful, confusing past, soothe old wounds and seek clarity and catharsis.
A candid, rewarding memoir that achieves both distance and intimacy.