Memories of China

2015-08-24

Arkady Tzykun

I will happily share with you my childhood memories of China. I spent my childhood in China because my father served there as an officer in the Soviet Army. He has fought the Nazi forces from the first to the last days of World War Two, and in 1945 he was sent to the Far East – while a war with Imperial Japan was still raging. Once that war was over, he got offered to continue his military service in China, in a city called Port Arthur on the Yellow Sea (Huanghai). In the early 1950s, my mother and I joined him. We traveled from the USSR to China on a large boat. I remember it really well as it was so big that kids rode around its deck on tricycles! Once we had arrived, my mother, an eye doctor, started working in a Soviet – Chinese hospital and I went to school. In 1954 my father was called back to the USSR and our family left China after spending unforgettable four years there.

My family in China, 1952

It’s quite fascinating that I remember my childhood and school years in China better than I remember the following school period in the USSR. I went to the 1st grade in 1952. That school was for children of Soviet officers. All the classes were in Russian and our teacher dedicated a lot of time to lessons about Chinese history and inature. Often times she took us to field trips and taught us how to admire blooming trees in the spring. In the winter, the classroom was cold and each student got to put a hot iron under their feet with sizzling coals inside. I also very vividly remember our house and the street it was on. Traces of a recent war were very apparent everywhere – streets were still filled with cement bunkers with portholes. Sometimes, while playing on the streets with other children, we would find remnants of broken weapons... Back then, people in China wore standardized clothing: both men and women wore blue pants and jackets, but in the marketplace there was a whirlwind of colors – bright clothing, piles of fruits and other delicacies, cages with exotic birds! My favorite snack was sugarcoated cherry on a stick (how delicious was it to crunch them in my mouth!) and sweet dried tomatoes.

Chinese medal of my father

My Chinese summer

If I’m not mistaken, a cup of sunflower seeds cost 1,000 Yuan. Mom often sent me to buy dumplings. I would walk onto the street holding a large pot, would turn around the corner and walk into a room that had an enormous seaming caldron in the middle of it.  The cook would pour soup into the pot that I brought, and in it, were the most delicious dumplings that I would then bring back home.

Another thing that imprinted on my memory was the torrential rain during the spring and fall seasons. Our school would shut down because it was impossible to walk outside and get to it. Streams of rainwater that were running down the streets were so strong that they would knock you down off your feet. After such rains, all of the canals that were crisscrossing the streets of our town were filled with yellow seething waters that dragged with it many stones that came off of nearby mountains. Once the rain season subsided and the waters drained into the ocean, all the people of the town came to clear those canals out of the stones that blocked them. It was an unforgettable sight. Everyone lined up in orderly formations and walked towards the designated canals: not only men, but also women, children, and the elderly. People would descend to the deep canals using ladders, and transferred the stones from person to person till they were loaded onto large trucks that would then take them away.  Afterwards, children would float hand made paper boats in the remaining puddles. What a sight it was!

Old-Modern China by Arkady Tzykun

Another example of exceptional organization that characterized China of that time was the multitude of social campaigns. One of such campaigns was the reduction of flies: I remember how on dinner breaks, everyone would leave their work place, pour onto the streets with flyswatters and smash flies – they had to fill a certain quota and worked diligently to do so as a collective.

Confucius  and the thinker of Rodin by Arkady Tzykun

But the brightest memory of all were the celebratory parades – with fireworks, paper lanters, dances, and carnival costumes. I watched them pass by from our balcony. I could see how a giant paper dragon was wriggling, how dancers beat their drums, and how people carry whimsical lanterns and large puppets – caricatures of imperial bourgeois of that time.

I also remember how my parents and I used to go to plays at the Chinese theater – both a traditional one - with masks, and a contemporary one. In the contemporary theater there were many light and audio special effects – if a play was about war, then there were  explosions on stage, and the audience was filled with a smell of smoke.

Arkady in China, 1950

The Society of Soviet–Chineese Frienship, often organized elaborate banquets, some of which we have attended. I marveled at the variety and quantity of food there. Servers constantly changed our plates. It was a true kaleidoscope of traditional Chinese cuisine! I cherish the warmth of that Chineese hospitality to this day.

On the weekends and holidays, we would travel by bus to a nearby town called Dairen (Dalian). In a large multi – level store, one floor was completley dedicated to toys – that was my magical kingdom… I remember the ocean, and it’s pebble covered beaches, the strong surf and how other boys taught me to eat sea molluscs right on the beach.

Arkady in China, 1952

My first Chinese books were comic books – I didn’t know how to read Chinese, but there were few words there, and one could follow the story just from looking at the drawings. The main subjects of the comic books and caricatures of that time were the Guomindang ((Kuomintang) and the Japaneese militarists. I think that was the time during which I really got interestied in comics and caricature (and now, I am not only a carricaturist, but I also lecture at the National Israeli Museum of Carcature and Comics). Not too long ago, there was a large retrospective of Chineese Comics at that museum that I found particularly interesting and close to my heart.

Confucius and a student by Arkady Tzykun

After returning from China, I graduated from middle school in the USSR and then continued my university studies in a merry and sunny south city of Odessa on the Black Sea. There, I worked as an arts educator, and as a graphic designer, illustrator, and caricaturist at the main Odessa newspaper - the “Eveing Odessa” – for many years. Once Soviet Union fell apart, I imigrated with my wife and two daughters to Israel, which is where I live to this day.

I deeply admire the ancient traditions of China and it’s modern progress, and wish prosperity to your wonderful country!

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