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Mighty Spirit

A lafayette author first showed her mettle during China's Cultural Revolution


Courtesy of Ying Chang Compesine

Ying Chang Compestine smiles, her face aglow as she lobs a badminton birdie over the net in a Walnut Creek Gymnasium. The game is dizzying to behold, the shuttlecock whizzing through the air at 100 miles an hour, followed by a dink and a dunk, and then a tantalizingly tall, slow rainbow arc toward the vaulted ceiling. Compestine, her long black hair pulled into a ponytail, is the only woman in a game of doubles. Lunging toward the net, she whacks the birdie into her nationally ranked opponent’s chest before he can even swing. Again the smile, but more discreet. After the game, victorious, she compares the match to a battle. “It’s like fighting,” she says. “You have to kill your enemy.”

Compestine—who grew up during the worst years of China’s Cultural Revolution—knows of what she speaks, her mettle obvious even in a friendly game of badminton. Her new novel, Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party, based on her own life, describes the shaping of a young woman who learned to survive the crushing force of an authoritarian regime. Now freed from that struggle and living in the United States, Compestine has funneled that fighting spirit into a soaring career as a writer.

Courtesy of Ying Compestine

Courtesy of Ying Compestine

Courtesy of Ying Compestine

Her novel unfolds during the peak of Mao Tse-tung’s power in the early 1970s, when everyone had to carry a little red book and don a Mao suit—when normal, middle-class Chinese could suddenly, at any moment, become enemies of the state. During this time, a militia of middle school and high school students known as the Red Guard assisted in murdering millions of intellectuals and opposition leaders, and imprisoning many more.
Compestine’s classroom in those years was a literal battleground, where even the elderly teacher was banished by the students. Like the heroine, Ling, in her novel, Compestine was the daughter of two doctors in Wuhan and was bullied by her peers as bourgeoisie, in one case simply for wearing a flower-print dress. By the end of the story, however, Ling grows into a woman warrior. Her head shaven from a bout with lice, the girl adopts a wolflike shriek and wears a heavy-buckled belt for protection.

Compestine’s strength has served a remarkably prolific professional life here in the United States. Before publishing her novel in August, Compestine, who lives in Lafayette, published 13 books of recipes and children’s stories; two more are coming out next year. This is on top of writing a dozen or so articles annually, hosting a television cooking show, and serving as spokeswoman for Nestle and Celestial Seasonings. Miraculously, she finds time for her husband and 13-year-old son.

In any of these endeavors, however, good simply isn’t good enough. When she began her career as a sociology professor in Colorado, she won a national Outstanding Teacher’s Award. In her spare time playing badminton, she placed first in the women’s singles at the Rocky Mountain State Games. When she set out to write a novel, she didn’t want it to be just any old book. “I wanted to write one that would win big awards,” she says with an intensity that makes me shift uncomfortably in my chair.

Her drive springs from her relationship with her father, whom she cherished in life and glorified in her novel. A gifted surgeon, his fictional counterpart is often playful with little Ling in the story, allowing her to tie his hair in pigtails and, on a deeper level, allowing her to be herself. “My father told me I was his only hope,” Compestine says. Yet her father was often absent, forced at night by the Red Guard to clean the bathrooms of the hospital where he had worked. Later, he was detained for two years as an anti-communist.

Compestine spent much more time with her mother, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, with whom she says she had a “strained” relationship. Her mother was often sick, and Compestine had to grow up quickly, hand-washing the laundry at age nine. “The roles were switched,” she says. Adding to the tension, Compestine could never fill her mother’s ideal of a good Chinese daughter who knew how to fan dance. “I didn’t care about being a lady,” Ling says in the book. “I wanted to be a mean dragon.”

Today it’s clear that Compestine, though strong, grew up to be a gentle dragon, more interested in food and family than breathing fire. She smiles easily. Her childhood may have been brutal, but she longs for China and connects to it through cooking, a passion that pervades her life. It’s almost as if the love she feels for her native country is inextricably intertwined with the pain, eloquently illustrated through the metaphor of food.

When we chat, she names pocket eggs with soy-sesame sauce as her favorite dish. Her mother cooked this meal for her as a girl on a dark New Year’s Eve when she hadn’t tasted an egg in weeks. Yet from her novel we learn that Ling’s mother had been forced to trade her daughter’s favorite shirt for those eggs. Exotic victuals fill the book, yet an aching often underscores the sweet and savory: Ling dreams of eating her mother’s pork-cabbage dumplings with ginger-sesame sauce, forbidden under the Mao regime; after Ling fights an older boy for a bag of peanuts, her mother makes a pot of peanut and red date soup; the young girl’s mouth waters as she listens to the local party leader, the man who arrested her father, speak of the sweet garlic ribs he had for dinner.

Compestine began writing the novel after her parents died—first her father; then, within a year, her mother—both from cancer. Something welled up in her, a desire to remember her early life after years of trying to forget. The inspiration led to a journey back to Wuhan, now a blazing city of business and industry.

Courtesy of Henry Holt and Company

Now she’s showing me around her airy, newly remodeled Lafayette home. The walls are coated with environmentally friendly paints, and her refrigerator is stocked with organic vegetables. Wuhan, she says, is terribly polluted, the chief cause of her parents’ illnesses. Would she ever want to go back to live there? “Oh, in a minute,” she says with a laugh. “In a minute.”
Compestine will talk at The Storyteller in Lafayette on September 27 at 7 p.m. Her book is available at www.yingc.com.

Click here to go to an excerpt of Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party

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