Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Part Five

As we approach the end of my primary education– big changes were taking place for me, my family , and the entire country.

For me, the change was quite simple: I walked away from the June First school and never went back.

Here’s how it happened:

As already mentioned, I did well in sports: running , ping pong – but also in that acrobatic exercise that Chinese girls do with a long rubber band – so well that my teachers selected me to represent the 12-year old girls in the competition with other schools. I was soooo proud – because I was only 11 – and I was not only the best girl in my class (40 children) but also in my age group (60 children) and even the next age group as well (total of 120 children) and here I would compete against the best girls from all over Beijing. So I began to practice very very hard (and my grades began to slip from straight-A’s – but just a little)

One day, as I was out in the yard practicing – I noticed, through the window, that my teachers were looking at me and talking – and next day I got the bad news: I was not going to compete for our school after all ! (no reason was given -- but I’ve always felt that it was because I was practicing too much by myself and not playing with the other children)

I was heartbroken ! I felt so, so bad – and I just decided to leave that school and never come back – which I did during recess – by walking right beneath the window at the gate (I was short enough not be noticed)

But now I had a problem – getting home ! --- because June First school was outside the city gates – it was 10 miles from home – and I’d never walked home before (the school bus took us back-and-forth once a week). So I followed the route of the school bus – and after walking all afternoon, I finally made it to Tiananmen square – which on this day was filled with people at some kind of public event. I was such a small child – they just ignored me – but I was very frightened – especially because the sun had begun to set – and this time of day always makes me gloomy. I also had to get past the guards at the gate to our compound – and since I was only home on weekends – the weekday guards were different and might not recognize me.

But I made it home – sneaked into home, actually – and hid in my brother’s bedroom – while I could hear my mother in the kitchen preparing dinner.

Then the phone rang ! “We can’t find Yen Ming – have you seen her ?” Mother had no idea where I was – but I rushed in, grabbed her leg from behind, and began to wail.

Looking back at it – maybe I was just a little spoiled – because my parents agreed not to send me back to June First School – but where could I go ? It was the middle of the semester, and the neighborhood school was already filled. But fortunately for me, my father had just gotten a very big promotion – where now he would work for the Foreigners bureau – and the family would eventually have to move into a different compound. He would be in charge of security – and his promotion was signed by Zhou EnLai, and announced in the People’s Daily

The Foreigners bureau managed the lives of foreign nationals in Beijing’s Friendship hotel – so we eventually had to live next to the hotel – and for the first few months, father and I actually lived in the hotel – in an 8-Yuan room – very expensive ! very elegant ! !

( The hotel was built in 1950’s with help of Russian experts, but from the outside, it appeared to be Chinese – with glazed tiles over the roof, and decorated pillars. For many years only foreign and distinguished guests could stay there. )

I felt very lucky to have father all to myself for every evening dinner at the hotel restaurant.

I had already eaten at my new boarding school, so I just sat and watched dad eat in the cafeteria. He never bought expensive dishes, the choices ranged from 5 to 25 fens, and he usually picked either the 10 fens or the 5 fens dish. He was known for living like a common worker, and he was proud of it. (but incredibly enough, later on that was counted as a crime: he was accused of pretending to be a worker !)

Once in while, dad would buy me a 4 fens piece of corn bread. (It was not common to find baked food in China since all the breads were steamed.) I loved it: it was sweet and crusty on the outside, but soft and moist within. Most Chinese hate corn bread because it was part of the daily food ration and they had no other choice. (But I still like it – even today)

After dinner, my father and I would go for a walk.

I remember how people were so friendly to us on the street, always greeting my father with his title instead of calling him by name. (that’s how Chinese people do when they run into higher ranking officials) . And many times I was flattered with nice words as well, such as “ how beautiful your daughter is ---- and how smart she is too”

Eventually, the family was moved into a Russian designed, newly built administrators’ residence – where we were given two adjoining apartments – giving us five bedrooms, two kitchens, and two bathrooms with showers.

(before we moved in, my father had also asked to have a bath tab installed in one of them. Most Beijing residents had to use public restrooms – or if they had a private restroom, it had no hot water)

The rooms had nearly 10 foot ceilings and hardwood floors. Here, finally, after an entire childhood spent at boarding school, I could live at home and attend the local ministry school – where I quickly fit in quite well – made friends – continued my study – preparing for the big examination. In this educational system – grades meant nothing – it all depended on the examination – and the stupidest little questions could sink your ship. For example, for some reason, when my sister had to answer “how many seasons are there in the year?” – she answered ‘three’ – which was the only answer she got wrong – but was enough to knock her out of the top school.

But it was now 1966 – and big changes were coming to the country.

At home, we noticed that something was wrong with father’s job – he was coming home later and later – some nights, not at all – and when he came home, he was worried – and my parents had conversations that we were not supposed to hear.

Then the big posters started to go up on the walls and over the windows in our district – posters that named enemies of the revolution – posters that named all four directors of our ministry – posters that named my own father ! And it didn’t even use his name as I knew it – it used his Christian name – and this was the first time that I know that, as a child, my father had been baptized a Christian.

All these posters were made by the people who worked in our ministry – the support staff – including the lower ranked cadres, the drivers, hotel room cleaners, cooks etc. – and the same thing was beginning to happen all over Beijing and eventually, all over China.

The Cultural Revolution had begun !

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