Dad Was Missing
By Yiming Li
Dad was missing.
I could hardly remember anything about it, since I was only two years old. My mom took care of me, but there is no detail of that in my memory now.
There I was in the sitting room, watching TV, which was the sole entertainment device in the house. It was a time when computers and mobile devices didn’t even exist in average families. I sat there for a while, until mom came and pushed the power button on the TV, turning it off. It was probably my bed time. Before she moved out of sight, however, I asked,
“Where, is daddy?”
“Remember. I told you that he went on a business trip?”
He went on that “business trip” for two years.
I remember visiting him, in an unfamiliar place surrounded by walls. Everybody was there. Everybody was crying. I was so tiny that all the adults around me felt like dark solid silhouettes. My grandma cried, begging him to stop practicing. I followed suit, bursting out a cry and begged my dad to listen to grandma.
The police officer behind me shouted.
“Look, your son knows better than you!”
Nothing made any sense. I had no idea what was happening, what my dad was doing, or why he was even there.
Then kindergarten started, and I forgot about him. He came back into my life at some point, but my memory of that time was mostly about my kindergarten friends. His existence was so light, or maybe I was just used to living with my mom as a family of two.
Dad was busy with his business during the rest of the time he was in China. He was a talented director and businessman. I loved having a successful father figure to look up to, except that he was in and out of meetings all the time. We almost never had dinner together. I was further disappointed when every summer, dad would tell mom and me that he would be too busy to go traveling with us.
When mom pursued her master’s degree at Ohio State University. I visited and traveled with her. Dad was not in the picture. When mom brought me to travel around Europe, I had a fight with an older kid who kept harassing me. Dad was not there. For countless nights, mom and dad argued. I would jump out of my bed and be the mediator, hoping that my intervention would hold the family together.
Things seemed to calm down as I grew older, and I started to become more aware of what exactly happened to my family. Dad was arrested for his religious belief, known as "Falun Gong". At school, it was an unspoken understanding that Falun Gong is a cult, that Falun Gong practitioners are lunatics (This is not true, of course. )
But the Communist Party spread such propaganda in order to persecute it. Check out the source I’ve listed for context). I guess I more or less thought that way too when I first learned about it. But I was sure that dad was a good man. He was the kindest person I had ever known. My dad would never do anything outrageous, nor would he ever commit any crime. But Falun Gong was a taboo topic, and everybody avoided it.
At about the same time, we started to learn about the Communist Party. We learned about how honorable it was to be a member of the Communist Young Pioneers. We learned about how the red scarfs we had to wear every day were dyed by the blood of communist martyrs. I wondered how many communists died to dye that many red scarfs for all the students in my school district.
I was even more surprised to find out that my teacher had backup ones in case someone forgot to bring theirs. We learned to sing “Red Songs” that glorified the communist cause, which were all about inheriting the honor of the party. Teachers never explained communist ideas. All those songs and ideas we learned seemed to be some sort of rituals that everyone had to go through.
In middle school, I had a math teacher who was a Christian. He was in charge of the class as a whole. So instead of the communist propaganda, we learned about unity and forgiveness. He was probably the best teacher I had during the days in China, and he was dedicated to teaching his students how to live a fulfilling life. Nevertheless, we still had a “Virtue class” that taught us how evil and dangerous cults like “Falun Gong” were. No one talked about it. No one joked about it. But everyone understood it.
Till this day, my mom still thinks that the most mentally stressful part of my childhood was when people asked where dad went in kindergarten. I honestly couldn’t care less at that time, since I understood nothing.
But by the time of middle school, when I grew more aware of the situation, it stung me deep in my heart when a boy in my class slandered me for practicing Falun Gong. As the most naughty and athletic daredevil boy in the class, he openly provoked me in front my other classmates during a school trip. I did not know how to react. Because if I refuted him and took it as a joke (which he probably intended it to be), I would appear to agree with the common belief that Falun Gong was an evil practice that no one wanted to get involved with.
However, if I remained silent, I would look “guilty” in front of the entire class. Fortunately, my teacher stood out in time and told the boy to shut up and quit slandering. This incident hurt me deeply. I felt that truths and justice were hopeless in an authoritarian society. After years and years of propaganda and brainwashing, certain things eventually become an instinct that can’t be altered by logic or reasoning.
Now living safely in the U.S., I still cannot imagine the horror and stress my parents went through during those years. They couldn’t’ tell me, literally. The national security department had sent them a “gift” – a jade toad that was to be placed in the living room. I played with it all the time actually, and I remember how the base of the toad had little doors for batteries.
However, the toad itself had no light bulb or anything on it that required electricity. My parents believed that it was a surveillance device, so they always watched their mouths when in the living room.
Of course, they never explained this to me in China. They also never explained to me how my dad was beaten and tortured in prison, and how the government forbade my dad to travel internationally, in case he might escape their control. They never revealed to me that my dad’s business was partly to deceive the government into thinking that he was done with his religion. And by sending me to study abroad, my dad would have a valid excuse to travel internationally to visit his son. Once he got here with my mom, they immediately applied for asylum, leaving the hell behind once and for all. But I never knew any of this, until fairly recently.
Whenever I think about my life in China, I would always relate to the Italian movie Life is Beautiful, in which a Jewish father lies to his son about the concentration camp they are in. Telling his son that the whole place is just a game, the father protects the son’s innocence. Similarly, my dad never discussed politics or the persecution in front me. Instead, he would often give me fatherly talks about how to be a man of manners and how to build relationships with other people. I think my parents did their best to create a safe and innocent childhood for me. They did not want me to be bothered by the cruel reality and the hidden threats. For this, I am really thankful.
Sources for Historical and Cultural Context
2 March 2018. Web. 25 March 2018.
(Jennifer's note: Yiming Li is now a university student in the United States. This is an essay he wrote in school.)