To Be Understood

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: February 24, 2018

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Submitted: February 24, 2018



“They shot my brother three times. The first two shots crippled him. The third one took him down.” She lowered her cigarette and watched me impassively, the smoke clouding her face like a brief shadow.

I only stared back. “What?”

“That was the last I saw of him,” Ada continued. She blew out another wreath of smoke, before tossing her stub into the half-filled ashtray on the table. “I might have looked for him after ‘89, if not for that third bullet. That one went straight through his heart. I saw it.”

A warm breeze stirred the branches of the cherry tree overhead, filling the air with a sound like distant water. Beneath a shady arbor across the courtyard, someone laughed at an unheard joke. “That’s...awful, Ada,” I said, after a moment’s silence. “I’m really sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too,” said Ada. “Henry was a good kid. He shouldn't have been the one. But at least the rest of us made it.”

“Made it?” I repeated. “Made it where?”

She gave me a disbelieving look, one eyebrow lifted. “To the west. West Germany. You know what I'm talking about, right?”

It hit me then. Ada was German, and old enough to remember. “You lived in East Germany? During...”

“Yes. I was born there, a few years after the wall was built.” Ada leaned back in her chair and looked up at the clear July sky. “I didn't know what life was like before the GDR, but it was obvious my parents were unhappy. They always complained about being watched. And they always talked about how much better our relatives were doing on the other side.”

“How did you escape?” I asked, a bit timidly. I was afraid of the answer, but curious enough to listen.

“We did what everyone else only talked about doing,” she replied. “We dug a hole. Right near the border, at a point the police usually overlooked. It took months, but one day it was there—our tunnel to freedom.” Ada paused, and when she spoke again her voice was softer. “It was Christmas Eve, the night we left. My father thought the sounds were fireworks. We didn't think they would shoot.”

From the other side of the yard, one of the young men shouted to us. “Ada! Lynn! You two up for drinks by the harbor tonight?”

“What do you say?” Ada asked me.

I nodded, and Ada cupped her hands around her mouth and called across the open space, “Count us in!” She turned back to me with an apologetic expression. “Sorry for dumping on you like that. I don't normally bring up those things.”

“It’s all right,” I told her. And it was. I had never been brave enough to talk about my own roots. All of my fellow peers at the university knew that I was Chinese, but beyond that single label they were clueless as to what I was doing getting my doctorate in Sweden, when the rest of my countrymen were thousands of miles away.

In truth, I was embarrassed. It was enough that whenever I walked into a store that did not sell groceries or basic amenities, I was asked if I was Japanese, so to ensure that I had enough money in my pockets to justify my presence. I didn't need to confirm their suspicion that I came from a rural town where nobody had ever seen a washing machine before, and people counted what they had on their fingers. I didn't need them to know that my father had never taken his meals with us, but eaten our leftovers when my brother and I hadn't been looking. I didn't need them to know that my real name was Ling, like the spruce forests of Xinjiang, not Lynn.

I was, in fact, luckier than most others from my college in China. Through an exchange program hosted by the Chinese government, my father had traveled to Stockholm to obtain his doctorate in medicine, an opportunity nearly unheard of at the time.  It was due to his connections there that I was able to leave the country at all. The summer of 1994, I had boarded a train out of my little rural home and left for Sweden on the first plane ride of my life.

When I had landed, I’d been greeted with a town full of ochre façades, spotless cobblestone streets, and slender copper spires set against a glazed blue sky. It had been the most beautiful sight I'd ever laid eyes on. For the first time, the thought of my smoke-stained, dusty, lopsided hometown had filled me with shame. Somewhere deep inside I had vowed to keep my past locked away. I would earn my degree in this stranger’s land. I would frame my certificate, carefully and lovingly, pack my bags, and start a new life in America as a doctor. I would be Lynn.

The wind rose again, stronger and swifter this time. A flock of seagulls arced across the treetops and swooped toward the surrounding sea. I studied Ada’s short-cropped black hair, her Italian leather jacket, the touches of silver and navy paint around her eyes. None of it revealed that her brother was shot three times. None of me revealed that I had grown up on a farm, even though my parents were just as educated as my Swedish friends’; that the Cultural Revolution had taken away our wealth, but not our minds; that I had something in common with this German girl sitting across from me at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Maybe that was why I was here. I wasn't smarter than my Chinese schoolmates, or more capable of survival, or more determined. I had simply been the daughter of the right person at the right time. Maybe I was here not merely to obtain a ticket to America, but to speak out, to tell my own story and the story of my people, to understand and be understood.

“I don't think I've told you my real name,” I began, and Ada smiled. 

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