Growing up, my sister and I often retained the same posture in our photos. She stood on the left side and nuzzled me up to her chest with her right hand. We used to spend every summer together at our grandparents’ apartment in Hefei, a wet, fragile city in southeastern China. I thought of her as I watched Sylvia and Frances – throughout their testimony, they couldn’t help leaning into each other. When Frances couldn’t continue Sylvia took over and the camera closed in on their entwined hands, because at that moment their firm grip was the force that endured the loss of speech.
In my case, she’s not really my sister. In 1980, a nationwide policy was introduced in China allowing every couple to give birth to only one child. At a population control symposium that spring, a group of rocket scientists at the Chinese University of Science and Technology used cybernetics – the science of controlling regulatory systems – to calculate China’s population statistics for the next century. Even by limiting families to one child, they projected, China’s population would continue to balloon and surpass seven hundred million, the ideal population they’d determined for the country. “Fewer births, swifter prosperity” was the saying.
The mandarin for “cousin” – biaojie – translates literally into “sister of another surname,” or perhaps, “the exterior sister.” My parents never bothered to teach me the first syllable. I’ve only ever called my cousin jie; or, when I have to beg her for something, jiejie. I don’t remember ever using biaojie when I told my friends in elementary school where I was over the summer. After all, they only have exterior siblings as well. I would show them photos of us, climbing a peach tree in identical blue dresses, my hand gripping hers. “You look so alike,” they often remarked. “How I wish I had a sister.”
For some cruelties remained deeply intimate. The rocket scientists failed to predict that their calculation would skew China’s gender ratio for the next century. Because of the one-child policy, some parents believed they only received one chance at determining their lineage. Some bribed doctors to discover the gender of the child; they would then abort if it turned out to be a girl. As of this year, China still has the world’s largest gender imbalance: 115 boys are born for every hundred girls.
In Heda Kovaly’s memoir, Under a Cruel Star, she recalled the last glimpse of her parents with restrained phantasmagoria. Upon arriving at Auschwitz, “my mother was swallowed by the thousand-headed serpent,” she wrote. The poison of the memory left her “whole world exploding in fire and smoke,” which “burned [her] brain to ashes so that only one cell was left.” This was not a metaphor – she was describing the physical sensation of reality, a dulling of her mind so that not only the memory, but the act of remembrance, had transformed.
But watching her speak of the memories in person, Heda showed us that pain and hope have material existence. “I don’t think I spoke to anyone the whole time I was in Auschwitz,” she said in The Last Time I Saw Them. “I couldn’t think of anyone but my mother, my mama… I remember sitting on the ground and holding out my hand and there was this – you know, dandelions?” As she spoke, she brought her palm to her chest. “It came to me and it landed on my hand and I said – my mother, she’s here!” Every touch of the hand preserved the soft, rare spot where language vanished.
When asked whether I have any siblings, I never take the inquiry too seriously. “I have a cousin who feels like a sister,” I could say, but then there would be no follow-up. I’d rather think of the flavor of our long summer nights – we shared a bed woven within a sensuous netting, which warded off mosquitos – and the heroic adventures we made up in endless installments. I often fell asleep on her stomach. Once, I measured her brows with my pinky after she’d fallen asleep, and found that our eyes were a similar distance apart. After all – how would I know what having a sister is supposed to feel like? What’s the difference between living with someone who shares fifty percent of your DNA, versus having someone who shares twelve-and-a-half percent, if we’re all deeply, deeply alone anyway? How could a sense of loss begin, if there was never an alternative?
The last time I saw my sister was in January. She was pregnant, and so my parents and I returned to Hefei. She developed a taste for sour foods – which was religiously believed to be a sign that she was bearing a son. My uncle had to pull connections through the hospital. When they found out that the superstition was true, everyone was elated. “Now, we have a son to carry on the family name,” my grandfather announced at the dinner table. One afternoon, it was too dry and cold and we decided to stay in. She was lying on the couch, so I placed my head on her stomach. There was a tremble beneath my ear, and the sensation of a strand of silk being torn apart.
Elaine L. Wang studied literature and ethics at Yale University, and is currently a master’s candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago. She is writing a book about learning and translating the language of authoritarianism.
Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families. (Fortunoff Video Archive).
This contribution is part of the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life.” The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’” debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?
The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research.