Wednesday, June 6, 2007
My life at the farm ended as soon as I got a chance to leave.
Every student was eventually given the chance to go home for a visit – but we had to take turns – and my turn didn’t arrive until two full years after I had arrived.
Of course, we students were also expected to return after that visit was over ( usually about 2- 4 weeks) – but I had suffered there enough – and I became something of an illegal immigrant to the rural village where my mother and younger sister had been sent a year earlier– about 600 miles south of Beijing in Henan province. (Many cadres from Beijing were sent there to be educated by the farmers. It was called the “May 7 Cadre School”)
As I traveled south to her village, I passed through Beijing, and that’s where I joined my older sister who had traveled from her village to purchase supplies for mother (since so little, like toiletries for example, was available in her remote area). Both of us stayed with our aunt (mother’s cousin) for several days as we made our purchases from a list mother had sent -- and I should mention that I had lots of money then (200 – 300 Yuan) – which I had scrupulously saved. (wages at the farm had been good, 32 Yuan/month -- and meals only cost 10 Yuan/month)
Mother’s shopping list ended with a warning not to show it to her cousin – since it contained certain items – like fancy baked goods – that our aunt might consider rather luxurious – but much to our embarrassment, auntie managed to read that letter over our shoulder. Very embarrassing !
Mother still had a taste for urban luxuries – but she certainly lived a Spartan lifestyle out in the countryside.
Her home was a sheep barn, 12’ on each side, and you can imagine the dirt and the smell – especially until she dug out the sheep-dirt floor and replaced it with fresh soil from the fields. She covered the walls with newspaper, doing her best to make it comfortable. The room was very dark - with only one small window - and the smell was so bad, that eventually she dug a window out from the opposite wall so that air could circulate.
And mice were a big problem for mom. They not only chewed everything they could get, they also carried disease, and when I first got there, I noticed that there were all kinds baskets or buckets hanging in the middle of the room. Later that evening I discovered that they contained food - trying, with little success, to keep it away from the rats and mice (who managed to scamper across the ropes anyway)
This was the space that mother, myself, and my younger sister had to share for two years – and during the Summer holiday, it was also home to my two brothers and older sister. That’s six people in a 12’ X 12’ room !
We had a double bed for mom and the three sisters, and my two brothers shared a single small bed (they added a piece of wood so they could both fit) The sewing machine also served as a dinning table and desk – and there was no room for anything else. It was crowded, but we were happy to be together and happy to be alive.
And for a while, our tiny, crowded room also had a cat.
My younger sister was an animal lover, and back in Beijing, nobody was allowed to keep cats or dogs.(that was government regulation) . But here, she finally she had her chance, and she adopted a black and white kitten. The little kitten helped somewhat with the mice problem, but when all my brothers and sisters were visiting, the little kitten was always being stepped on. Eventually we convinced my younger sister to give the kitten up, and she did so in tears.
When my second-oldest brother visited, we were shocked by his appearance – so thin, so yellow – he had come down with hepatitis A – and healthcare in this remote area was minimal – especially for us, the family of a known criminal. But as luck would have it – there was a “barefoot doctor” in the village who had once worked as a door guard at our compound in Beijing. He recognized mom – he liked us --- and primitive though his medicine was – my brother’s condition began to improve.
He may also have been helped by our healthy diet of carrots – which were more easily obtained than the grain that required food coupons for purchase (and Mom was only receiving enough coupons to feed two people)
Mother purchased a bushel of carrots – and carrots were in every meal eaten that winter.
I had become a permanent resident there, but my older siblings only visited temporarily – whenever they had a few weeks off – and then they had to return to their own remote villages in other parts of China.
My oldest brother had it worst – since the people in his village didn’t even have houses – they lived in caves – so when my brother arrived, he had to dig his own cave out from a hillside. His life was cold, damp, lonely, and depressing. Many days he refused to work –so he was also hungry – and thirsty – since water had to be hauled up in buckets from the valley below. He wasn’t taking good care of himself – and failing to brush his teeth – his gums became infected and he lost several front teeth. He was 22 years old.
I remember the first time he visited us – because he missed his train (and, of course, there was no telephone to advise us of that fact.) He missed it because he had tried to carry too much grain to the station – 30 miles from where he lived – and he could not bear to abandon any of it along the way – so he had to walk all the way back to his cave with the excess that he could not carry.
When the train arrived without him, my sister and I had then had to walk the 5 miles back to our village without him – and since it was late at night – we were very scared to be walking alone through the field rows – having heard stories of girls our size being recently attacked by a mountain lion. I know it sounds crazy –but these two, small teenage girls were very frightened --- and our worried mother was out looking for us. After we finally got home, I came down with a bad fever that lasted for several days.
Most of the two years I spent in my mother’s village – I spent doing practically nothing
My mother and sister worked the fields in the morning – and my sister also attended half-day classes at the rural school – but I wasn’t supposed to be there –and I just did nothing – except for some knitting. Mother had brought several of father’s books with her from Beijing – but they were the old-style Chinese literature, and I couldn’t read them.
Maybe you could call these my lost years – all I really did was stay alive.
My second oldest brother wasn’t quite so isolated – but as the months passed – most of the city students assigned to his village were retrieved by their parents who found new ways to work the system and get them back. But my brother’s father was still in prison (if he were even alive) – and he was left in his village with only one other student, a girl from the top high school in Beijing.
He got to know that student very well – maybe too well. They had bought some food and liquor to celebrate Chinese New Year together, and both of them drank a little too much. Eventually she became pregnant – which became – of course – a serious problem.
The girl had grown up with her grandparents, and the grandfather (an army general) was opposed to her marriage into a family like ours. He had already chosen a husband for her: one of his bodyguards ( but she never loved him.)
She told my mother that she loved my brother, and a few months later, when mother had gotten permission to move back to Beijing, this girl stayed in her apartment while they arranged for an abortion at a local hospital. The fetus – aborted at 5 months – would have been my mother’s first grandchild..