Thursday, March 22, 2007

Part Four

Just to fill in more details of life before the Cultural Revolution:

There were 24 levels of government service for Cadre (members of the Communist Party) – Mao was level one – Zhou Enlai level 2 – top generals level 3 etc. The upper 13 levels were considered “high officials” – and throughout these years my father was level 12 (eventually he made it up to level 11) , while my mother was level 22.

Each level had it own privileges – for example the highest levels got a red ration book that allowed them to purchase a certain amount of meat, eggs, shoes etc every month. Our family got the blue book – which was one rung lower – so we, for example, were allotted two pounds of eggs, 2 pounds of sugar, etc. every month – quantities that became very important during the three years of hardship (1958-1961) when drought and floods created such severe shortages and even starvation in the countryside. (this was also the period when Mao asked us to “tighten our belts” so China could pay its debt to USSR)

In the regular stores, you could not buy any food without the coupons distributed to residents each month by the local government, so it was impossible for people to travel to Beijing and live there.

For many years our mom wanted to buy a leg of famous ham - but that required two full years of meat coupons. Her plan was to save a few every month, but by the time she nearly had enough, the coupons rations were no longer being used.

One of our special events was to go shopping with mother. She would load all the different ration books into a large purse, and with kids in tow, we’d all go to the shopping district. It was great fun ! On one of the those trips, mother assigned us the job of carrying the purse – which was too heavy for just one of us – so we teamed up – and switched off – and shared the burden – and avoided the burden – and well, when we finally got to the market, the purse could not to be found. Nobody had it ! Ohhhhh was my mother angry ! That was an entire year’s worth of clothing ration books – there would be no new shirts or shoes until next year. She raised her voice and cuffed me on the head – and I felt very bad.

The only time my father ever hit me was the day I kept him from sleeping. I was playing out on the long front porch – while he was trying to take a nap inside. Several times he’d asked me to quiet down – but I just had to keep playing loud – so after at least an hour of sleeplessness, he came out and hit me – which provoked a terrible argument with my mother – and I, of course, again felt very bad.

Our parents hardly ever hit us – but they really pushed us to study-study-study at school .

Since mom never got a chance to go to university, she always hoped that all five children would – and she often told us “ if you are accepted into university, I will sell everything I own to support you.” But her dream was crashed by the Cultural Revolution.

I was the only one who eventually got a university education, but all of us did very well in school – especially my oldest sister and my second oldest brother who were admitted to the top middle schools in Beijing.

You have to realize what an incredible achievement that was for a 12-year old ---- because the 100 students in their classes had scored in the top 1% of all 12-year olds in the entire city. There must have been at least 20 levels of school with admission determined by test scores – with the bottom school taking everyone who couldn’t qualify for the others. That’s why we had to study so hard – and my mother was always urging my father to make my older brothers study harder.

In my first grade, I got sick and stayed in the hospital for a month, then I was released from hospital and sent straight home, I had to rest at home for a month. And in my second grade I got the same hepatitis-A again, this time even worse. I was in the same hospital for two months and stayed home another month, So basically, I did not attend school for the first and second year. My teacher was so concerned, she suggested that I repeat the second grade, but my mom told her to wait until final exams. Amazingly I passed them with a double 100 points. After that, my concerned teacher did not argue at all, - and I went on to the third grade and was always among the a few top students in my class.

My brothers studied hard – but they also liked to tinker with their radio. One day my father got very angry at them for wasting so much time – and he went into their room, took their beloved radio – that they had built from scratch – with from parts purchased by every penny they could save – and slammed it on the floor – crushing it with his foot. Needless to say, this made my brothers very, very unhappy.

Discipline at the boarding school was perhaps a bit lighter – but I do remember what happened to a big, strong girl who was a terrible bully. She would threaten –pinch – and take things from other girls – and they were all too afraid to tell the teacher. (she was not in my class) . She would torture girls by forcing making them to sit on the hot radiator – and make girls do her chores (like carrying the urine bucket out of the dormitory) – and even made some girls drink her urine. Oh – she was terrible ! But one day – finally! – the teachers got wind of this abuse– and all the children were assembled and asked to write down every bad thing this girl had ever done. The accusations were then posted up on all four classroom walls, and the long table was covered with everything she had taken from others. Her career as bully was over.

I also remember a similar event with an abusive boy – but here the teacher held the boys arms while all the students – including myself – were invited to step up – one at a time – to hit him. (I hit him, too, but not very hard, because he was already crying by the time it was my turn)

We had four classes in the morning – 45 minutes each with a 15 minute break between each class., and then a long break for lunch and nap – then three more classes in the afternoon and a study hall after dinner. Somewhere in there, we had about 2 hours to play – running, jumping, stretching – and of course, ping-pong --- at which I was very good – at least among my fellow 10-year olds. Two people would play – and the winner would than face the next person in line – so it was a question of how long one could keep on playing.

Every Thursday night we had a big dinner (with that special treat: meat-filled dumplings !) and a movie. We had plenty to eat that night – and one poor boy ate so many he couldn’t stand up ! (the teachers were very worried) Once or twice a year we were taken by bus for an outing to the “Fragrant Hills”, about 15 miles west of Beijing – where there were rocks to climb and gardens to see – and somewhere, hidden from curious eyes –the vacation home of Chairman Mao.

We went to Fragrant Hills in late October to see the red leaves. . This was a big event for us ! We were allowed to bring some pocket money, so when we were in the park, and hungry, we stopped for snacks. My mom usually gave me 20 to 50 cents. At that time, a popsical cost 3 cents, the better ones which were made of milk cost 5 cents. A sweat bread with nuts cost 15 cents. Orange juice cost 15 cents and so on. We seldom had any pocket money. However since I was the only one who went to boarding school, every time I got on the school bus, my mom put some candies or other goodies in my pocket, or else she’d give me 20 cents to buy something to take to school. I never went to school empty handed !

Sometimes, when there had been trouble with teachers (after I had been naughty or disobedient) -- I tried to find all kinds of excuses for not going back to school – and the school bus would leave without me. Then mom had to take me to school by public transportation. Since my school was in the suburbs, the city bus didn’t quite go that far – and we had to walk a certain distance through a grave yard. And every time that happened – my mother was scared to death !.

I just talked to mother about this period of my life --- and she corrected my story about the transition from pre-school to grade-school: my entire pre-school class was transferred to the newly built grade school --- and my sister would have gone too, except that she had gotten a terrible rash during a visit to the countryside with my mother – and she missed several months of school – so she ended up never going. That’s why she didn’t join me –not because of the expense, which my mother says was not that bad.

She also reminded me of when I got very sick – back when I was 12 months old – and they took me to hospital where the doctor said that I was beyond treatment. My mother said something like “please take her in and treat the dead horse like a live one” and they gave me a bed. But my mother was very worried – and she made a special ornamental frame for my 100-day-old photograph (taken for every Chinese child whose parents could afford it). Every day she went to hospital and left a huge bag of fruit for me at the gate (she wasn’t allowed in except during visiting hour) –but I’m sure that no one ate that fruit except for the door man.

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