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Home | Episode #22
Summer Nights Under the Oak Tree
April 5, 2019 | Student Producer:

Noah Pallmeyer
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Summer Nights Under the Oak Tree
Dr. Yi Sun recalls pleasant memories from her childhood in a Chinese courtyard community. (7 minutes)

Thank you all so much for coming, especially in such a rainy day. And I'm just delighted to have this opportunity to share with you some little stories in my life. A life that was lived in the seemingly remote past in Tianjin, China. So in northern part of the country. When Professor Keeling approached me and asking which panel that might be interested in and immediately I was drawn to the theme of "Heart" because to me it brings back a lot of memories and triggers a lot of nostalgia. And so I immediately started thinking about what I wanted to talk about and what came to my mind was this image of the oak tree in a big, huge Chinese courtyard and sitting under the tree were a bunch of little kids on summer nights. And that was a daily occurrence. So that's why I titled my presentation today; Summer Nights Under the Oak Tree: The Beating Heart of a Chinese Courtyard. 

Let me explain it a little bit about what a courtyard looks like. In the old days, so courtyard is really, sort of like, a little compound with rooms on all four sides with usually a red gate at the high entrance. And the courtyards can be big, can be small. Ours happened to be quite large. So my family shared the courtyard living with nine other families. So the whole, the 10 families really essentially functioned like a big family. And what uh really sort of the memories came back, uh, included things like my five year old little brother was running around at dinner time, just going from table to table, sampling all the food from all the families. What happened in those days was, we're talking about pre-refrigeration, pre-air conditioning. So on summer nights all the families would set up their little tables in front of their rooms and a different variety of dishes were on the tables and all the little kids would literally run around and get, you know, they get a taste, all the different foods. And then by the time my brother came back to our dinner table, he would be full. So my mother was constantly annoyed and saying "You're taking food away from the other families!", but all the other little kids who are doing the same. 

It was so sweet and warm and intimate a setting. And um, simultaneously, like I said, every summer we'd all sit together in a big circle. We have, really, 15-16 kids, maybe more sometimes because the older ones would kind of leave the group as they got older and then they'd be replaced by the younger ones. So usually the children would be, their ages would range between typically from 5 to 12. So they were obviously able to comprehend a lot of things. 

What happened was sitting in the center, there would be one adult from, the adults would take turns from each family and every single summer night one adult we would call Uncle or Aunt, everybody was an uncle and aunt in Chinese culture. You don't have to be blood related. So one adult would be sitting in the center and telling us stories and the kids, of course, would be captivated and they would be sharing their lives, tears and laughter and joy and sadness and, and, triumphs and how they overcame adversity. And I'm still feeling at this moment very sort of inspired by a lot of the stories. And there were also lots of ghost stories, which at the moment felt really scary. And now I can't help cracking up. 

When I was first year in college, my father passed away unexpectedly of heart complications and the whole family, my younger siblings were still very young and my dad's parents, my grandparents, were living with us and my mother was working in a factory as a welder and she could only take two days off any more additional days would have resulted in reduced pay. The whole family couldn't afford to do that financially. So, but then the whole courtyard of fam, you know, all the neighbors, the whole big family, I would say rushing to help, they cooked for us. They comforted my siblings and my mother and me. And my grandparents, everybody really, they made all the funeral arrangements. So it was a, it was a sad event, obviously, to say the least, but they made the memory, the whole occasion, a memorable experience. And now come to think of it, I'm just thinking, I mean, regardless of what we think about modernity and modernization and high rises and all the modern conveniences. To me that was the beating heart of not only a community, but human existence. And those are the kind of stories, the memories that are difficult to forget and impossible to erase. So that's my story that I wanted to share. And that's sort of the essence of heart.