THIS ( CAU­TIOUS) LIFE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - MEI LEE

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.’’

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au

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