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A Chinese Nebraskan

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Da Chen

When I first landed in the prairies of Nebraska, I felt nervous like a fugitive. It was 1985. The Cold War was still cold, the Berlin Wall still stood, and Communist China was a gaunt giant languishing on a sickbed but it still breathed its dying fire, and coming to America, plunging yourself into the bosom of China’s enemy, was still considered a treasonous act by many.

I didn’t come here on a governmental mission or a diplomatic tour of duty. Rather I was a skinny youth coming to attend Union College, a kindly Christian school in Lincoln—a small-big city with two Chinese restaurants, one of which I would soon waiter in, several striptease clubs, and a war hero governor with a movie star girlfriend.

I kept looking over my shoulders to make sure that no one from the Chinese Embassy or the Political Commissar Office was following me. I’d heard rumors that the Chinese government planted their ears and eyes strategically on American campuses to spy on loosened citizens who felt too comfortable breathing in the air of free men and spoke unfavorably about China.

I was met at Lincoln International Airport by my Taiwanese cousin, Shi Yue, whom I had never met before. Shi Yue was the second daughter of my father’s only brother, who had fled to the Island of Taiwan in 1949 when the Communist Army was sweeping across China. The two split branches of our family had never met before; the Cold War had pitched China and Taiwan as enemies, and no direct visits or mail had been allowed between us.

My father was almost beaten to death after received a letter from my uncle via a secret intermediary in Hong Kong. My uncle, as the eldest son, was worried about the plight of his aging parents. They had been labeled as disgraced landlords and were constantly being put on public humiliation parades, and jailed in labor camps, though their health were failing and feet unsteady. Both my grandparents eventually died under the severe abuse: two scrawny, yellow corpses in black death robes. Father could not afford new fabric; he’d have to make do with an old curtain for his parent’s final wear.

I was old enough to remember my grandfather’s death. It was more than just a sad affair: it was the death of a condemned man, nothing glorious about that. It was like dust that needed to be swept quickly under the bed, or rotted fish to be tossed out to wild dogs. Though a pitiful death, it was no vain death. He lives on. Each time I look at my 10-year-old son, I see my grandpa’s smiling eyes and his spirit of life shining on the child’s face.

With little ceremony, I became the first in our family to meet my uncle’s progeny. We didn’t celebrate with tears. Instead we gazed into each other’s face, searching for signs of our blood relation—Grandma’s big nose, Grandpa’s smiling eyes and long ears. But Shi Yue could not be more different in appearance than I. For the record, she is much better looking, or at least smoother looking. She seemed to have inherited everything from her beautiful mother, her Lin bloodline, greatly improving the Chen features. But still, in that bright prairie sunlight, we could see our similarities, intuitive, hereditary, and almost indescribable. There was something kind and decent in her demeanors, reminiscent of my father’s and my grandparents’.

But after all she was a child of Taipei: fair-skinned, soft spoken, and well-mannered; very comfortable with herself, making those around her feel the same way. Whereas, I was dark and leathery-skinned, reared in and just emerging from a muddy village in southern China. All my cracks and orifices were still swampy, my nervously blinking eyes gaunt with a hunger, not just for food, but for many a thing. My fingernails were chipped and blunted from years of scavenging cow manure, digging in the mud for hairy-legged crabs and slippery eels, and other shenanigans involved in Communist farm life. My limbs were swinging everywhere, awkward at meeting my stylish cousin, who was pursuing her graduate studies with her husband at the University of Nebraska.

Nothing scared a shy village lad more than meeting a slick city stranger. Not that I didn’t want to meet a stranger: I was afraid to because I was deeply ashamed of my petty self. Afraid that the world would peek into my dark hole and find me to be a little mouse, shivering and scared of my own shadow. That was a villager’s deepest fear—being exposed to a world as a country bumpkin. By having been known, been probed at, the villager’s shame would double, tripled and blasted by wind of attention to even bigger shame, shame of being ashamed. The villager’s mindset is bottomless, a sinkhole. Once you dip your toes inward, it will suck you in, and grind you up. You will fall down, and down, till you come out of the other side, Yep. China.

Lincoln International Airport might be international in intention, but it looks the part of a major bus terminal of a minor town, with scant slow-moving passengers, and occasional flights, incoming or outgoing. Jumbo Jets need not apply here, crop dusters galore. The architectural design was pastorally farm-like, with red-roof, wall paintings of impish cows, brave cowboys and obligatory feather-wearing What-am-I-doing-inside-this-mural-with-white-boys Indian chiefs. The depot hides itself among whispering cornfields, amidst lean terrain, and sparse highways to heaven with minimum speed limit of 85 per hour. The décor was of the Cold War evocation, small war planes hung from cliff-hanging beamed the ceiling, and beat-up jeeps and motorcycles roared silently, behind paleontological glass walls.

I was feeling rather dizzy now, having been on the road for four days. I had firstly undertaken a two-hour tossing ride on the commune’s dirty tractor, vying among cows and pigs, goats and their lonesome herders, from my village to city of Putian, where I was nearly left behind, due to the overbooking of an enterprising ticket agent. Then it was a 12-hour farty bus ride—a fateful combination of roasted fava beans and jumpy roads—skirting the coast to Shen Zhen, the Commie’s last and southernmost prescient. Saw my older brother, Jin, being rudely pushed back by riffles of border guards, and him mouthing his wordless cautions—don’t come back, go as far as you can…or something to the effects; crossed gingerly the chain-linked bridge, swinging and wind-blown, over ribald waters—it all felt fictitiously so—to the initial foothold to the outer world, a stingy island named Hong Kong.

In crossing such, I recalled certain giantly inner footfalls, that of a deserter, a dissenting pariah, stomping along the sinking bridge span, in the silence of my soul, going, going, going, looking not aback but afore…going far, going quick, going forever…before that last border guard changes his mind, yanking my tail back, snatching my dream away. He looked like the ruthless type, with dead man’s eyes, judging my ill intention of betraying the Motherland by leaving, of forsaking her bosom by running away. He looked like the man who had, during the revolution, punched my grandpa’s face, making his nose bleed till he fainted; the type who had hanged my father up to a tall ceiling by his thumbs; the kind who had struck my mother’s face. Why wouldn’t he change his mind? Going away was sacrilegious enough to imprison one for an eternity under the vague law of anti something or against something else, or no law whatsoever. One has suffered more for less. The horror of Communism!

Just steps before reaching that fateful midpoint of the bridge, the invisible line between good and evil, darkness and light, past and present, there and here, a spiderly fear crept up my chest, my spine, my neck, my face, and my brain, a fear not of outer kind, but of innate inability of sudden weakness, fear of my legs getting tangled noodle-like, of my feet melting like burned candle into drips, of falling through the cracks of bridge span, in white heat of my Great Escape. Later recall had equipped this episode with accompaniment of the lofty music scores from Chariots of Fire, with me replacing those pale and bony British runners in long shorts, with gigantic lung capacities, and racing the windblown beaches, waves afoot.

Inches from that fateful crossing, with the last guard, blinking his slow motioned blink, tilting his angular head, to coincide with the raising of his loaded rifle, curling his trigger index finger, when one of four wheels afoot my heavily loaded China-made faux leather trunk broke, and ran away, crippling a perfect luggage. Then a second wheel gave. This malfunctioning might all be intentional, and minutely calculated to undermine a deserter like me at most crucial of time by its faceless inland manufacturer to foil and soil the very user like me. It could have buckled, before and surely later, in Seattle, or Denver, but no, it had to make its case there and then.

When the second wheel gave, the trunk fell, throwing open the lid, spilling its contents. My things were everywhere, boxy underwear, ugly socks and books that I thought would be needed in Nebraska—I thought wrong of course. Toothpaste oozed, squirming its fill right along the invisible line of significance. My head went oomph, not knowing what to do. Should I pick up all the discarded and thrown stuff, thusly delaying my crossing, risking the wrath of that last guard, his head cocking, or should I leave them where they were and just go without the oozed toothpaste, possibly concocted with poisonous Communistic chemical formula and those futile books, knowledge of nothing and none?

My heart urged: Go free, you freak! Go, you dimwit before the bullets of that philistine guard could spray you. Forget trunk Number One! After all, I had gotten the second trunk gripped under my left hand, filled to its brim with same useless junks of China and waste from my past. Maybe I should just lighten myself by throwing the second piece over the bridge and let the waves below swallow them all? Or even better, I could go back and throw the trunk, unopened, right at the ugly self-righteous face of that last guard and crack open his brain, and let its foul contents ooze.

But of course, being a demure village lad, my mind forcefully urged me to do just the opposite. I squatted down to frantically salvage the books, toothpaste, underwear, pants and shirts strewn everywhere. I could not bear leaving them behind. They were all bought with very hard earned money. Mother would have scolded me if I left one single thing uncollected, hurried I was. If she had her way, she would have me scoop up the smeared and oozed toothpaste back into the tiny mouth of the busted tube, and if there was still some more left on the ground that I could not feed back to the tube, I should put it in my mouth, and brush my day’s teeth there and then, saving the next day’s squeeze.

I was now crawling on my knees, my hands wildly raking in things on the ground and stuffing them back into the reluctant trunk, with a clenched lid caught on broken lock. The long queue of itinerants, equally eager to cross the borderline, were mightily unhappy, being held up by me. They spat on me and scolded me, “Such a fool! Get out of my way.” Readily they pushed me aside, so they could squeeze their way around me to run ahead.

I was panicking over my clumsiness, and foolishness, the very thing our Communist leaders did not want its citizenry to show the outsiders. Then I saw a pair of small hands coming into my view. A boy of ten or eleven was squatting by my side, helping me collect the things and putting them away. By him stood a young mother—nice shoes, creamy ankles, short skirt, and a silk blouse. She could only be a Hong Kong resident, returning from a day-long sojourn to Shen Zhen for a cheap shopping spree on her unhurried way back her cushy home on the island where electricity was supplied all night long and the lights of the modernity shone all year round.

“Thank you, thank you,” I uttered my gratitude to the boy who smiled back, running to pick up a box of pens, that was thrown to the far shoulder of the bridge. When last of my belonging was reclaimed and the roguish trunk stepped shut, the boy and his mother were gone, and I finally on my way. To this day, I don’t remember much of my one night stay in Hong Kong, but that child’s grace is always in my mind and at my heart. Whenever I aid someone in need of a helping hand, I am being urged to do so not by my own accord, but by the quiet force of that nameless boy, and his kindly mother.

Now back to my arrival, upstage the Nebraska prairie, meeting with my cousin, representing my uncle’s clan. As soon as I landed, I forgot all about the tough bridge crossing to Hong Kong, anguish of missing a flight in Seattle, misunderstanding the announcement on loudspeakers, and spending a hungry night at Denver International Airport, and next morning’s choppy flight out of Colorado into Omaha. All those icy years accumulated on the account of my father and uncle’s separation thawed the moment I shook my cousin’s hand. The gap left agape by the last generation was closed and healing was soon to begin. All that my late grandparents had yawned to know, or that my father had desired to see, was here before me. Past now flows like an unending river into present, as if no stoppage has ever intervened. Present rushes into a future as if two branches of Chen families had just survived a detour around the girth of a mountain and rejoined.

There seemed to be no commies lurching among the long weeds of the prairie and no Chinese governmental spies eavesdropping under the window of my cousin and her husband’s tiny apartment here. I felt as if I had been uplifted by the strings of a puppeteer, or by a gale of foot wind. I was lightweight, as if floating in the air, alike a carefree kite. I am in America. I can’t believe I am in America…repetition of the same thought choked my head making it dizzy. Then I crashed onto a soft mattress laid on the bare floor of my cousin’s spare bedroom; my skeletal frame heaved a mighty sigh. I didn’t remember falling asleep or wanting to sleep. But when I woke up again, it was two days later. Cousin Shi invited all of her Taiwanese friends and classmates from UNL to her home to greet me and catch first rare sight of a real-life escapee from the ghostly mainland China. Three Mongolian hotpots were boiling with slices of beef and lamb, around which they all sat to ask me this and that, getting to hear first trickle of stifled news from the forbidden Red Within. I told them what my heart wished to say, not what the Communist government would have me say. Tales of bloody revolution, of grandparents’ painful torture, and of their death, thin bones and yellow skin all poured out in between bites of slightly dipped beefs and thinly sliced lamb and between sips of Mao Tai and gulps of Budweiser.

It was the first time that I dared be frank and candid without fearing the consequence of false persecution and bogus prosecution, for this land would not allow—without a probable cause—official eavesdroppers or governmental spies. And I was comforted by that.

But that was then, and now is now. We now live in the time of the USA Patriot Act, resultant of the tragic September 11; private phone lines are being secretly wire-tapped and our conversations analyzed. Each time I pick up my phone or send out an email, I can’t help wondering whether I could ever be as fearless as before, or whether I dare speak as frankly as yesteryear.

If freedom is the sunlight that warms our earth, then liberty has to be the air that keeps us all alive.

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