Many times it felt like I was despised and shunned by everyone up on that miserable farm -- but the truth is , I did have several girl friends.
Two of those girls, like myself, were from the elite families of high officials or intellectuals – but my best friend was from a worker family – and often we conspired to help each other out.
One time she got very sick, and I spent 5 days in the hospital to be with her. Many of the girls had come down with the same thing: a severe rash that ran up the arms, accompanied by a very high fever, and several girls died from it. The group leaders must have understood how we felt about each other, because I was allowed to take all those days off from work.
But the big event was my first real boyfriend -- a student from my own high school ( though I didn’t know him back in
His parents had divorced (an unusual event) when he was two, and he had grown up with his mom (he really hated not having a father).
His mom was a law professor at Beijing Peoples’ University. She was short and dark and spoke with a strong accent, but she was very down to earth – so I ended up being very comfortable with her – and I think she liked me very much, too.
He had been sent to a village about 6 kilometers from mine – and he first noticed me when I was going to visit a good friend from my grammar school who was also staying there.
One day, I was stopped by a group of boys who usually bullied and harassed me – but this time they stopped to gave me a letter – his letter – and I had never read a letter written so well. It was like a novel – filled with stories and imaginative descriptions. I read it a dozen times -- no, more like a hundred times -- trying to find the real meaning behind each and every word.
I was in love ! And thus began a correspondence that would last for six years.
In the beginning, we wrote to each other every day. No matter how tired I was, every night I spent hours trying to write him a letter at least as impressive as the ones he was sending to me.
How to describe his letters ? Sometimes he wrote about the things that happened at the farm – but mostly he wrote descriptive scenes – like, for example, a white-haired old man catching fish from a small boat on a river -- beautiful imaginative scenes -- like those found in the many books that he, but not I, had read.
We only got to see each other a few times a month – when I had a day off and could walk the 6 kilometers over to his farm. Usually these meetings were secret and we tried to hide where no one could see us. But even then, we never kissed. It was all very romantic – but physical affection was strictly forbidden – and all we did was hold hands.
I was very happy to see him each and every time. He was my whole world, I enjoyed so much his company, and I truly believed that he was the smartest young man I have ever met, and that he was the man I was going to marry.
Once, when we were together, I noticed that we were wearing the same wool long scarves: the same color, the same brand. So then we exchanged them – and when I put his on my neck, I could smell him. Even though that scarf became quite dirty, I never wanted to wash that smell away ! (but don’t worry -- eventually I washed it).
One day, a villager saw us beginning to embrace – and I was so afraid that we would get into trouble. But the villager gave me a knowing look – and later invited me to have dinner with his family at the village. He and his wife were so kind – and I appreciated their efforts – but I was not comfortable sitting on their kang and eating dumplings made with such dirty hands just a few feet above their dirt floor. In gratitude, I gave one of my blouses to his daughter – and they were very pleased to have it. This was the first time anyone had invited me home for dinner. (local villagers got to know some of us very well and they often invited students into their homes - but since I was considered to have such a bad family background, no one had ever invited me before.) I was touched under this special circumstance, and neither of us mentioned this incident ever again.
Most of our relationship was by correspondence – and letter writing was important to many of the girls in the dormitory because – let’s face it – the rest of our lives were misery. .
There was that 12-16 hours/day of hard work – the cold in winter – the insects in summer – and that ever-sensitive, unavoidable issue of sanitation.
We sixty girls had one outhouse : a pit with two boards, sheltered by four walls and a roof.
During the winter, the waste would freeze (probably even before it hit bottom) – and gradually the bottom of the pit rose higher than the ground – so we would be squatting on a raised mound of frozen waste. The earth was too frozen to dig another pit – so farm supervisors had some of us (like myself) dig it out it with a pick axe. Not a pleasant job – but as the daughter of a “bad family”, a job often reserved for me.
But even when the pit was dug out again – who really wanted to walk fifty yards through the sub-zero cold of a winter night to use it ? Most of the girls found a more convenient place to squat --- so soon the outside walls of the dormitory were encircled by a ring of frozen feces.
In the summer, the job of a special someone (often myself) was to carry off buckets of liquid waste. It was quite a challenge for me, because I wasn’t very strong, but there I’d be, with a long pole straddling my shoulder, and a heavy bucket of crap on either end.
By then, my group of students had been on the farm for a couple of years, and many of them had made new friends from different parts of the country, but I was still alone. Because of my family situation, no one wanted to be my friend, except for a couple of girls who either had pity on me or needed a friend as badly as I did. But even then, our friendship was never open to the public – everything had to be shared under the table.
Perhaps this will help explain why I jumped on the first chance I had to leave the farm – even though it meant leaving my boyfriend behind. After my second summer, I was given a holiday to visit my mother – and I never returned.
Our correspondence continued another 4 years --- the entire period of my life outside of
I remember how I cried the day I got his letter announcing his departure for that trip, and I was so anxious to get his first letter after he got there. It took at least a week for that letter to reach me – and that was a very long time to wait !
Some days I would get none of his letters at all – and other days I would get five letters at once. Gradually our letters became spaced more widely apart –though I never lost faith in our future together.
But how can a long-distance relationship last forever ? I still felt committed to him – but he was taking longer – and then longer – to respond to my letters. Eventually I got a letter that seemed to darken the hope of a future together – or, at least, that’s how I interpreted it.
In the sixth year, as his mother’s only child, he had gotten special permission to move back to
Sometimes I got to visit
He lived with his mother in an old office building – their two rooms were on either side of a long hallway – and on my last visit there, he was gone when I arrived, so I had a chance to chat with his mother (who really liked me). Usually she was very upbeat about her son – but this day she was very critical – disappointed about his dead-end job at the factory etc.
This was a surprise visit – and I wanted to surprise him with the news that I had just become a college student, studying English in the Beijing Second Foreign Language Institute. I wanted to tell him that I was back and would never have to go away again.
But he had a surprise for me as well.
When he finally arrived home, he sat down and we chatted for a little while. He seemed very uptight, but he was still friendly, happy to see me and happy for me.
Then -- after a little while -- while we were still chatting, – to my complete surprise – another woman entered the room. She did not say anything to me and soon she left.
“Who is this woman? ” I asked.
“I have begun a new family for
I was stunned ! I did not know what to say. I never thought that he could get married that soon – since it was against policy, though not law, for a man and woman to marry at such an early age. (he was 23 years old—and I was 22 at the time) My whole world was turned upside down, I did not remember what I said to him, I was totally lost and very very sad. I still don’t remember how I got home that evening (and believe it or not – a big patch of hair fell off my head over the next few weeks)
Many years later, we ran into each other, and we got together at a café to talk about what had happened.
Then he told me how he had met a woman at the shoe factory and she happened to live nearby.
Before he could continue, I interrupted and said “let me finish your story”
Then I told him how what began by walking home together eventually became sleeping together. She had gotten pregnant – then had an abortion – then gotten pregnant again – at which point they finally decided to get married. (even though, at age 23, men are usually considered too young to marry)
And that was the end my first true love.
We kept in touch a little after that – his daughter would be over 30 by now -- but he left his wife after a few years. They really had very little in common.
And now I’m going to cry.