By Elizabeth Yuan
Editor’s note: Elizabeth Yuan is a producer for CNN.com International. Yuan Dunli is the cousin of her grandfather.
(CNN) — For more than three decades, two sides of Lucille Chang Lee’s childhood remained on opposite sides of the China-U.S. divide. Adopted as a toddler by her mother’s best friend and taken to the United States, Lee had to wait until Cold War hostilities thawed in the 1970s before she could meet her biological family again.
“By the time we got in touch again, my father and both of my adopted parents had passed away,” Lee, now 76, said by phone from her Portola, California, home.
Lee’s experience — of families separated in 1949, when the Communists assumed control in China — is a common one. This year marks 30 years since China and the United States established full diplomatic relations, allowing for the resumption of communications and family visits.
Lee’s two mothers were born at the turn of the 20th century in Jiaxing.
Zhao Yukun, Lee’s biological mother, was spared the fate of bound feet that her mother and older sisters shared, a common practice until it was banned in 1911. Qian Zhuanghua, Lee’s adopted mother, was the daughter of the founder of Jiaxing’s first girl’s school.
When poverty kept Zhao from school, the elder Qian visited the girl’s family to offer her a fellowship to return.
When Zhao did, she and Qian became classmates again — and lifelong friends.
Years later, when Zhao had married into the Yuan family and Qian into the Chang family, Qian — who was infertile — adopted one of Zhao’s daughters. Qian selected Lee, the middle child, because she was neither Zhao’s eldest nor her son.
The families were to share Lee in a then-common practice called guofang, or the passing of a child to another family. She would consider the Changs as her parents and the Yuans as Hao Ma Ma (“Good Mother”) and Hao Ba Ba (“Good Father”).
However, the Japanese invasion between 1931 and 1945 hampered travel between Beijing, where the Yuans lived, and Nanjing, where the Changs lived, and both families evacuated.
Not until 1946 did they meet again in Jiaxing. Lee, by then 13, was the Changs’ only child, while the Yuans had added six children — three of their own, and a niece and two nephews whose mother had died.
Shortly afterward, amid the Chinese Civil War, the Changs got a fateful opportunity to sail to the United States.
Neither they nor the Yuans foresaw that a new China in 1949 would usher in a 35-year wait until the next meeting.
The Chinese revolution, coupled with the outbreak of the Korean War, pitted China against the United States and led to a diplomatic freeze until 1979.
“My mother always thought about Lucille,” said Lee’s brother Yuan Pu, now 74.
After the Changs’ arrival in the United States in 1947, Lee enrolled in a Catholic boarding school in Kansas City, Missouri, not far from an aunt. “I was the only foreign student they’d ever had,” she said of the Loretto Academy nuns.
A year later she rejoined her parents in New York. “They were afraid I’d become a Catholic,” she quipped. Lee threw herself into English. She taught her father to drive, translated for her mother, and studied French, U.S. history and civics.
But she wasn’t interested in China, she recalled. “I never liked history or politics, so I never followed that stuff.”
Mr. Chang, a former railway official already in his 50s, found work as a night manager at the YWCA. “He was the most disappointed person … here in the U.S.,” Lee said.
Mrs. Chang landed a bank job and acquired the name “Julia.” She also was self-conscious about her English, which she always spoke in the present tense, her daughter recalled.
After high school, Lee attended Hunter College and then Harvard. There she took one of the earliest computer programming courses — “Mark V” — writing programs with punch tapes. “Because of that course, I got a job at IBM,” the start of a three-decade career there, she said.
“I didn’t think I was lucky or unlucky,” Lee recalled. “I just didn’t think about these things — until I heard what was going on in China that I realized how lucky I was. It’s only in comparison — ‘Oh my gosh, how come I get this, and they don’t?’ ”
Her two mothers communicated until 1960, with letters and pictures passed via relatives, friends, and friends of friends living in or passing through Hong Kong, then a British colony. Hao Ma Ma’s correspondence was sporadic and code-like.
“They didn’t tell us what was happening. It was more like, ‘I’m still alive’ – that kind of letter,” Lee said. “‘So-and-so went somewhere.’ You just had to guess what they meant.”
“I think my adopted mother made sure that I didn’t lose contact with any of them,” Lee added. “That was her gift to me.”
Pictures of Lee’s 1959 wedding and her firstborn reached the Yuans. Lee received a silk jacket that Hao Ma Ma sewed as her wedding present.
Few pictures remain, having been destroyed by Red Guards or the Yuans. Pictures of Lee — standing next to a car, another in traditional dress — were considered too risky to keep, lest they suggest ties with the U.S. and spying. Her younger sister, Jiu, used scissors on them. “I kept the head,” Yuan Jiu, now 72, said.
The decade-long Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, marked the end of letters. Trouble came to those who knew English or had foreign connections. Intellectuals and “bourgeois reactionaries” faced beatings and public criticism. Schools and universities were closed.
Lee’s siblings were among those who worked in the fields and dug holes.
Only later did Lee learn about her father’s death during that period. More than 30 years earlier, Yuan Dunli had served as team inspector of the Chinese delegation at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A sports educator who wanted to alter China’s image as “Sick Man of Asia,” he was among those who proposed China host the 1952 Olympics. The 1949 split between Taiwan and China helped derail such plans.
Yuan later tried to publish a book, “History of the Olympics,” with his friend, Dong Shouyi, China’s third International Olympic Committee member, to introduce the Olympic spirit to Chinese. The manuscript was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
The U.S.-educated Yuan died in 1968 at the age of 72 in a Lanzhou prison, a former president of Beijing Normal University and Gansu’s Northwest Normal University accused of being a Nationalist spy. His name was rehabilitated years later.
His daughter’s visit to China came in 1980, the year after China opened up to foreign tourists under new leader Deng Xiaoping. Hao Ma Ma, by then 80, was with her children waiting at the airport. It was their first meeting since 1946.
“For my mother, it was a wish that she didn’t think would ever happen, that is, to see me again!” Lee said, recalling the hugs, the rush for her bags, and the lack of remoteness or strangeness.
Since then, all of Lee’s living siblings had at least one child study and eventually settle in the United States.
Even Hao Ma Ma stayed with the Lees for a year, but emigration was not an option as Lee had hoped. “She wouldn’t have liked it. She wouldn’t have had the freedom — no friends, didn’t drive, didn’t speak English. There was much more of interest for her in China,” Lee said.
Hao Ma Ma died in 1990.
Today Lee, a retiree, immerses herself in The 1990 Institute, a U.S.-based think tank focusing on projects in rural China, including microfinance, girls’ education, and the environment.
Her siblings remain in China.
Yuan Jiu, whose apartment overlooks Beijing’s Olympic Village, said the Games were long awaited. Reflecting on China’s progress, she said while her sister’s life was “a lot better” than her own, so too are her children’s.
Of her four children, three live in Beijing. With their cars, name-brand clothes, lifestyles and opportunities, she said, they are not that different from their sister living in America.