THIS ( CAUTIOUS) LIFE
MY mother was trembling and I was annoyed. We were waiting, hot and sweaty, in the queue winding around Mao Zedong’s mausoleum and she was mumbling, ‘‘ Oh, I was always so scared. It was frightening.’’ She was always like that, nervous and worried. My grandfathers on both sides of the family were paraded at political rallies and imprisoned as counter- revolutionaries.
But that was such a long time ago, I thought. Hot and weary, I tried to comfort her. ‘‘ Look, chairman Mao was an evil man. But he’s dead. You’ll see. There’s nothing to be scared of.’’
‘‘ Shush. You’d better be quiet. I’m worried they’ll come back again,’’ my mother insisted.
‘‘ They won’t. He’s dead. The bastard. I don’t know why all these people want to see him.’’ I almost started yelling at her in our village dialect. The young people behind us giggled.
‘‘ Oh, stop it. You don’t know what you’re talking about. When the students were on TV, our neighbours were shouting in the street, ‘ Kill the students! Kill the evil students! Get them all. Who do they think they are?’ You and your brother were students and I was scared to death. They could have come and dragged me away.’’
‘‘ Did the neighbours say that? I thought they were your friends.’’
‘‘ Oh, people change with the government. They were shouting right in front of our house.’’
I was thinking about what to say when a plump woman with a megaphone yelled that no cameras and luggage were allowed inside. We walked around the building and paid to leave our handbags and camera in the luggage room.
‘‘ See, it’s only a tourist attraction,’’ I calmed my mother as we rejoined the queue.
Plastic flowers were sold at the entrance where there was a statue of Mao. My mother whispered to herself, ‘‘ These peonies, are they fake ones?’’ The family in front of us bought two bunches and bowed three times in front of the statue, then placed the flowers at his feet.
It was chilled and solemn inside. Four armed guards were protecting Mao who, waxy looking, lay in a large glass box. We gazed but were rushed through to another room and were quite startled to find ourselves in the middle of a crowded souvenir and gift shop. My mother smiled. ‘‘ Do you still remember that when he was alive we weren’t even allowed to sell an egg from our own hens?’’ She looked around and whispered, ‘‘ Do you think they’re making money out of chairman Mao? But who’d still wear those badges nowadays?’’
Outside, the midday sun burned. ‘‘ You had better take a picture of me in front of chairman Mao’s memorial hall,’’ my mother demanded. ‘‘ The neighbours will want to see it.’’
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